The inner circle of GUMIL Hawai'i associates--the circle is 'inner' in the sense that these are the constants in almost all of the association's gatherings--went to offer fellowship to the family of an associate, a couple in fact, who are key members of our writers group.
A brother based in Virginia suffered a major stroke and they went to that state to bury him a few days ago.
But last night's was the Ilocos Norte way of doing the umras, the ceremony of invoking God's mercy and forgiveness and of summoning the welcoming spirit of place called Eternity as promised to all those who believe. And the brother and his brothers--they are five brothers in that family, all immigrants, the three in Hawai'i, the two in Virginia, but now there is only one brother there, with the demise of the youngest, at 50--thought of putting in their share of remembering the youngest and giving their blessings so he would finally find rest.
In my gallivanting life as an immigrant in this country, I have had the chance to visit various Ilokano communities, exilic as ever, with the pinakbet almost a reminder of the hodge-podge Ilokanoness that we are, with our okra coming from the Africans, and our lima beans coming from South America, possibly up there in Lima, Peru, hence the name for that gentle 'patani' that climbed our fences made of bamboos and some sturdy main branches of the madre de cacao whose blooms of purple dot the landscape of sloping hills and mountain foothills in the summer, the scene a riot of bloom in the relentless Philippine tropical heat and that steady brown-red colors of the Ilokano earth.
But this communing with the family of a beloved deceased whose life was remembered and celebrated in the umras was what seduced me into joining the throng of friends yesterday evening after spending some time tinkering with the computer to write something about the nature of serendipitous truths from the many moments of our lives that we did not plan, least of all did not expect.
And the umras incident was one of them.
I wanted to experience what umras was in the diaspora, and right here in Honolulu where nine of every ten Filipinos are veritably Ilokano or Ilokano-descended, and where ethnic pride is on the sway, some flaunting their Ilokanoness, some despising it, that umras ceremony, indeed, could be a clue to variety and difference.
Oh well, about that reality of ambivalent Ilokanoness, you cannot have it all.
In the smorgasbord of our cultural lives in exile, and in the buffet kind of ways by which we perform our everyday lives in estrangement and alienation, you can expect everything including those Ilokanos who have the capacity to fake their accent and pass themselves off as everything except being Ilokano, with claims that run the gamut from "Marigatanak nga agilokano, sika!" to "Apay nga agad-adalka iti Ilokano ket Ilokanoka la ngaruden?"
The cultural and ethnolinguistic morons are everywhere, and the communities of Ilokanos are not spared of their just share of the harvest of moronic lives lived in culturally moronic ways.
So there, at Kalihi, not from from the Catholic Church of Kalihi that, last year, was the venue for my first-ever recitation of a poem for a domestic violence victim, Erlinda Adviento, that sparked some interests from various communities, cause-oriented and profit-oriented. The same poem would lead me to other places, including a generous exposure from The Honolulu Advertiser, both newspaper and online video. But that is not the point: St John the Baptist church evoked first-time memories when I did not know anyone except those who were involved with DV causes and works to empower Filipino-American nurses, the works Adviento, I was told, was a beneficiary when she passed the state licensure examination and began to work as a registered nurse, only to end up a battered wife, a suffering wife, and dead. The husband, in jail, had many things to do with those and that church, in these two evenings that I was there, served as the vessel of all the currents of tears that could not well down my cheeks, suppressing and suppressing more and more the choke on my throat as I read the lines of the poem I wrote for the nurse whose face I saw only for the first time when she was lying in state and lying stiff, her remains awaiting shipping back to the homeland, in the Pangasinan of her youthful dreams.
We got to the house of the other brother of the deceased, the brother a former schoolroom teacher back in the Philippines but decided to embark on another profession as soon as he got to Honolulu in the 70's in the name of the mighty dollar, this currency that sends your shrivers in order to transition you into its easy and ritual worship that puts those memorized words on your lips: "O dollar, dollar, our might dollar, come, come to save us!"
His story of not going back to the classroom is classic, and each time you meet former school teachers in the Philippines doing other works other than teaching, you hear the same plot simplified for that self-defense: "Agpada met a kuarta ti birbiroken!"
His place is by the hillside of Kalihi, on the mountainside, and on one shoulder of the hill, a huge car plant looms large like a capitalist phantom that reminds you of sellers of cars most of which you do not need while close by is the freeway that does not sleep but keeps on humming and sleepwalking, the speeding cars on its listless lanes onrushing to beat time and temper and the tender mercies of sleepless evenings.
We got to the site of the umras, and there were the people oneing with the family, the old women kneeling before the umras table of an atang that was to remain there, in the altar, and guarded by members of the family until four o'clock the following morning. That would be the time when the atang could go through the akas ritual--removed from the atang table--with the food permitted to be eaten if not yet spoiled.
Outside where we waited for the prayers for the dead to end, we remembered our performed Ilokanoness in the Philippines, a country soon to be renamed with something else in an effort to right the linguistic and social injustices that had befallen our peoples. We remembered as well our performed Ilokanoness in our diasporic communities, the performance a variety, indeed.
In moments like this, I go on an ethnographer's mode, listening and listening intently, marking off the cultural signs and symbols and trying to commit everything to memory. At some other times, I would scramble for a pen and tear sheet and write what I can, the words a jumble of a mumbo-jumbo reminder of what I should do to make out what I have learned from the field.
I sat in my corner transfixed by all the rich exchange of cultures and cultural experiences, and planned a tactic about how I would turn these experiences into something written when an old man, in light checkered cotton shirt with the geometric designs of some cultures from the Pacific came around, looked at all of us, and looked at me more intently, and looked at me some more.
And then, with outstretched right hand, he addressed me, "I am your tatang, Mr. Television Man!"
Instantly, I did not know how to respond. Taken aback could be an appropriate English term, and it was so, the immediate feeling giving you chicken skin, per the term used in Hawai'i pidgin English.
Since I started a television talkshow, 'Talkback', on public TV, I have received calls on my work phone, the calls almost always a generous hectoring on for me to continue the program so that the Ilokano people would be educated of who they are.
But that was it, a phone platitude of how much one is doing, and how much some segment of a community is appreciative of what one is doing, until yesterday evening, when one man past his prime but sensitive to how Ilokanoness is performed over here, recognized me instantly and offered his hand to me in fellowship.
"I watch your show," he told me.
"Dios ti agngina, tatang," I told him, the moment teaching me what humility is, not allowing the recognition to give me those misplaced feelings of self-importance, feelings I pray hard I would not have to battle with in the years to come.
Kalihi, Honolulu, Hawai'i