Excerpted from the book, "Kallautang--Poetics of Diversity, Displacement, and Diaspora: Ilokanos in the Americas Writing" (TMI Global Press, 2009). Publication made possible in par through a competitive grant from the UH SEED. Edited, translated, and with a critical introduction by Aurelio Solver Agcaoili.
A Critical Introduction
Kallautang as Ilokano Poetics of Diversity, Displacement, and Diaspora
Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
The history of the Ilokano people going into this rite and ritual of displacement and diaspora as a result of wandering is a difficult narrative. In the Americas—used here as the United States and Canada—that difficult Ilokano narrative is woven of stories of courage and commitment to causes grander than the self, of struggle against discrimination and despair, and of dedication to life and denial of self so other selves could have some kind of a bright future.
In the popular notion of why the Ilokano people left the homeland—like many ethnolinguistic groups of the Philippines who have sailed to places strange and unfamiliar—to eke out a life somewhere, there is that constant reference to the search for a better life rendered into a metaphor as “lung-aw.”
Lung-aw, in the old Ilokano mind and consciousness, is the god-goddess of prosperity and progress. Connected to this notion of the lung-aw is a reference to breathing with ease, as in the experience of taking in all the air to fill the lungs and then experience the free expelling of hot air and relief that comes after.
Kallautang is a metaphor. It invokes that aimless wandering common to peoples who are on the lookout for something that is grander than their bland dreams.
Used as a critical frame of reference to read the poetic texts of Ilokanos writing from the diaspora, ‘kallautang’ issues out three interconnected ways of looking at this specific aesthetic experience of Ilokanos writing with the competence and sensitivity provided by their own Ilokano language: cosmological, epistemological, and ontological.
The cosmological deals with how the Ilokanos come to terms with the world as natura naturata, the created world, the physical world, their surroundings; in particular, it deals with that connection between their old Ilokano world and the new world they have come into.
The epistemological deals with the Ilokanos’ understanding of what they know, and how this knowledge of self and others and the world leads them to creative ways of dealing with their present circumstances. The ontological, on the other hand, makes them see the value of their existence, their being-as-becoming, and their becoming-as-being in that productive circle of endless and yet hopeful search for life’s gifts, meaning, blessing, and grace.
Of the writers included in this book, all speak from the heart, their voices invariably tinged with the pain of remembering what had happened and allowing that remembrance to come alive and sometimes jolt them from their unproductive nostalgia and impotent reverie of a world lost, a world in the past and of the past, and a world that needs replacing soon and fast only to end up crying over that world that is no longer there.
Of the poets, three of them have gone on to another life: Melchor Agag Jr., Mario Abinsay Albalos, and Jeremias Calixto and yet their poetic voices about the Ilokano people in the diaspora still ring true with vibrancy and life. Agag I have met once, in one of the regular gatherings of Gunglo Dagiti Mannurat nga Ilokano iti Hawai’i of which he was one of the founding members. Calixto, on the other hand, I have had the chance to have a brief encounter with him when I was still a student in college. I never had the chance to meet Albalos even if I have had the good fortune of reading his works in the Bannawag and other sources.
The poets that I have had the rare opportunity of relating and plumbing into their aesthetic consciousness in a more personal, more intimate way, would be the following: Pacita Cabulera Saludes, Amado Ilar Yoro, Prodie Gar. Padios, Abril P. Varilla, George Pagulayan, Perlita Tapec Sadorra, Cristino Inay, Francis T. Ponce, Corazon Quiamas, and Herman G. Tabin. I have not had the chance to meet Cresencio Quilpa who is based in Virginia, a retired serviceman. Of special note here is Pagulayan: he was my student in several courses, including a course on creative writing, at a college seminary in the Philippines where he took up his degree in philosophy.
The choice of writers included in this anthology was guided by several factors, one of which is the discursive possibilities of the poetic texts. Of the fifteen poets whose works have been selected, all of them have sustained their questioning of diasporic and exilic lives, couching their questions with allegories, metaphors and other literary devices to capture the nuances of this kind of an experience that is not common to all Ilokanos and thus, would serve as a mine of information on how is it to live diasporic lives.
By no means, these are not the only Ilokano poets who have been writing about these issues raised in what I term, generally, as ‘poetics of displacement and diaspora’. There are other writers out there who were—and are—writing about the complex issues related to the diasporic experiences of the people of the Philippines. I hope that I will be able to expand this anthology and prepare another volume to include those who have not been included here.
The task of translating poetic texts is extremely difficult. A translator—essentially a traitor to the original text—must be able to bravely acknowledge that a particular language opens up a world of possibilities which another language might not be able to capture. In saying this, I am recognizing that the ‘sayable’ in Ilokano is not necessarily the same thing that is ‘sayable’ in English. The act of saying, the hermeneut reminds us, is always an act conditioned by issues that relate to culture and tradition, two things that ground the world in the word, the world opened up by language. In like manner, the translator must be able to acknowledge that the word is situated in the world.
In coming to terms with the difficulties of the texts—which are a lot—I have been guided by the notion that as a translator, my first duty is to communicate to the reader the meaning I have found in my own encounter with these texts.
My take on communication, thus, is not only a question of sender-and-receiver with the text in between but also a question of motivation: why do I communicate, after all? What am I communicating in my translation into English these Ilokano texts? With the exception of the Agag poem, which was originally in English, with a presumed Ilokano version because the poet was with the GUMIL Hawai’i, an organization of writers that fiercely fights for the rights of Ilokanos to produce Ilokano literature in Ilokano and other languages, the poems, uneven in the language as they are, were written in Ilokano, many of them published in anthologies, websites or an Ilokano magazine published in Manila but also circulated in Hawai’i. They were thus essentially for the Ilokano reading public, if at all there are still critical readers around. Because of the diasporic nature of these texts, the tendency is for these to become ‘exoticized’, really a part of the minority because also, minoritized, texts. Even with Ilokanos as a dominant Philippine population in the almost twenty-five percent of the total Philippine population in the State of Hawai’i, the issue of the invisibility of Ilokanos is a difficult issue, with the political identity taking precedence over the more authentic because lived, experiences, of the Ilokanos: their being Ilokanos first before they are subsumed under the cover term Filipinos.
In other countries such as Canada, where the concentration of the Ilokano population is difficult to determine because of the urgency of assimilation and because of the difficulty sometimes of dealing with stereotypes and profiling, the writing practices of Ilokanos, even as the works they produce are critically reflective of what we need to understand as exiles and as a people of the diaspora, are reduced to cyberspace publication, e-zine, or the occasional spot it gains in Bannawag, the commercial Ilokano magazine published in Manila or in some other regional magazines and newspapers.
A scholar of the Ilokano language has estimated that including the second and third-language speakers of Ilokano all over the world, the total number of speakers of this language can reach up to 20 million. This demographic fact could have been sufficient to sustain the production and reception of the literature written in this language. But the sad reality is that this number has not been able to guarantee just even the promotion of this literature in the public sphere of the Ilokano nation, much less, the Philippine nation. The latter’s skewed literary, linguistic, and cultural policies that favored and entitled English and the language of the center, a Tagalog-based language being passed off as the national language, has given rise to cultural denigration that symbolically penalizes those who speak Ilokano even in the public school system that should have espoused cultural democracy and linguistic justice as virtues of public life.
In a way, the effort to sustain the Ilokano language and literature has not been a concerted one, what with the competing interests of Ilokano cultural workers themselves, including teachers, researchers, and academics who do not know how to create a public space for their own language and literature and how to open up an avenue for a national conversation on the effective and systemic marginalization of Ilokano and various Philippine languages.
The ‘linguicide’ that has resulted from the iniquitous educational policy of the Philippine government has given rise to citizens who are ignorant of themselves by way of the systematic denial of them of their own first or native or mother languages; these citizens, likewise, pretend to know about the Philippine nation by way of the language of the center of commerce, power, and culture, the language in Manila and the mass media. This volume thus, is an attempt to give notice to the cultural workers both in the Philippines and abroad, that the denial of people of their right to their language and culture is a denial of their basic human right to live fulfilling lives.
Ilokanos in the State of Hawai’i are a bit blessed: laws on diversity and language access provide protection for Ilokanos to keep holding on to their language even in their performance of their civic duties and lives as citizens of the United States. The same can be said of Canada, where two of the poets in this anthology come from: Prodie Gar. Padios and Abril P. Varilla. But this blessing is not sufficient, as Ilokanos, even in a place where the presence of Ilokanos is a matter of number and history, still need to fight—and sustain that fight—for their right to have access to their Ilokano language.
The Philippine public school system, for instance, is only now beginning to understand that the mother language of school children is one sure way for them to learn the cognitive skills they need to transition to other languages and other forms of knowledge—that the mother language that has long been relegated to the margins, is by far, the best and superior medium through which a child gets to understand the unfamiliar, the strange, the foreign.
This does not hold only for children. The principle of moving from the known to the unknown is fundamental in learning and human understanding. This partly explains why the Ilokano, even when he has gone away from the familiar world of the Ilocos or the Ilokanized places where he comes from, continues to stick to his language at whatever cost, continues to speak in that language, to write in it, and to produce reflections on human life using it as his medium of expression.
The Ilokano, thus, that goes into a ‘kallautang’ mode inevitably loses sight of the everyday power of his language even as he tries to take root in another land, another language, and another culture. But we must understand here that his language is also a world, a terra firma, a geography, a land, a clearing. It is in this light that he cannot just simply shake off his language or drop it as if it were a garment that has gone out of fashion because of the change of the season or because pop cultural taste dictates upon him to do so. He sticks to his language because he knows for certain that his language is the dwelling place of his own soul, the temple of his self-knowledge, the shrine of his most intimate truths born of his own intimate reflection about who he is and the meaning of his life. These are existential realities, true, but they are what make up what language is and its intricate, inextricable connection to human life, human culture, and human understanding.
The works of Yoro, Padios, Varilla, Inay, and Tabin, for instance, specifically hit us at the core with their plaintive rendering of the human emotion and confusion that issue from being an exile. In Yoro, for instance, is the hopeful intimation of what could possibly happen to the worker who remains unperturbed with the daily challenges of wage labor in plantations even at the cost of one’s dignity and self-respect, a documented fact of labor conditions in sugarcane and pineapple fields in the early days of Hawai’i’s entry into the commerce of sugar and pineapple at the cost of displacing the indigenous Hawaiian population by depriving them of their indigenous rights to their ancestral and monarchic lands.
Yoro invites us into the fields, and in the morning, at sunset, or during a short midday respite from the vast fields of tedious work, with the noontime hour speaking of the sun at its hottest and with its most punishing rays, he tells us of hope and inspiration, of freedom in the future, of the need to be stronger so the younger ones would have somebody to emulate.
The virtue in Yoro’s poems is their characteristic sadness that we can imagine the daily lot of workers who are only valued for their hands, which was why in the language of agricultural labor, they are aptly—but unfairly—called ‘farmhands’. It is not the sadness that ends up in despair, but the sadness that gives way to a hope for a happy future.
In the “Agkabannuag/Youth”, he speaks of the red earth heaving its life, the red earth of Hawai’i that welcomed the first fifteen Ilokanos, not with open arms, initially, but with the promise to offer them a chance at life, a chance that is something better than the promise of a nation they left behind, a promise, indeed, whose fulfillment seemed to be not within its definition: “The chest of the red earth/Heaved its life/”. The poem segues into a committed valuing of the language of the newcomer, the Ilokano who had come to these shores of this side of the Pacific: “And then the greening comes again/Of a culture thriving/And this value of language/You are born into/You drew from grandmother and grandfather/Because you were never a stranger/To this house-home…”
Here we see a reference to the Ilokano language, and quite clearly, Yoro understands without conditions, that his language is a house, his language is a home, and the one who understands that connection between his house-home and his language becomes, in the end, a corner post of his community and countrymen. He becomes a leader: a leader in the time of struggle, in the time of crisis, in the time of survival—indeed, a leader of the highest caliber. For leadership is best tested in critical times.
The everyday scene, for him, becomes an occasion for meditation as in “Pussuak/Fountain”. Before the power of that fountain is the power of a mind in pursuit of the beautiful as well, despite, and because of, the flimsy character of human experience itself: “I could not help but allow/ the flow of words: I write about this/ before it is lost/ like smoke or dew falling from a leaf.” The passing of time goes in concert with the rising of the fountain’s waters and their falling, finally, into the bottom: “a moment goes on a march/ the clock moves/ in the quickening/ that gets into a slope of dreams…” Here we see the human emotions intersecting with the facts of nature as seen and experienced by man and woman—by the poet himself. The observing and observant eye sees all: the partaking of the noontime meal at the hour past mealtime is the same as the droplets of water falling flat on the bosom of the lake, while not far away, “on the branches the birds chant/ and a dream journeys with the waves/ in this spectacle of time/ in the thought going wild/ for the laborer who is tired:/ the fountain, its waters/ gush forth, spring forth/ and then fall on the open palm.”
In “Ti Ramutko/ My Roots”, Yoro, through the poem’s persona, affirms his duty as disciple of word, of language, of truth mediated by poetry, declaring, in a Kantian categorical imperative temper and tone, this: “I know I came/ from the blind Pedro/ and that I have a duty/ to preserve/ the seed from which I grew roots.” There is no contradiction, finally, between a poet leaving the familiar home in the Ilocos and the one facing squarely with the ethical challenges of surviving in a new land, on the condition that this poet does not forget where he comes from: “I unravel the value/ glory and beauty/ the core of my culture/ and my history/ the hidden wisdom/ residing in the mind/ there is a mine of riches…” The synthesis in this push-pull experience of the poet is in the reaffirming of the power of hoping, with the “mine of riches” not in the affirming of decay “but in the hope of renewing/ in this pursuit of the peak/ in this land ready for the sowing/ so that in the end/ the roots would find/ their way in firmly.” The ‘roots’ allusion, of course, is that of the Ilokano, the Ilokano poet included, finding his home however tentative, in the land of exile, in the diaspora.
We see a repeat of this poetics of displacement and diaspora in “Sakada idi 1946: Maysa a Lagip/ The Sakada of 1946: A Remembrance”. While he talks about him, this sakada that came in last in a series of arrivals in Hawai’i that began in 1906, he talks about himself as well, with that reference to his modest home in Tapao, his birthplace or at least the place where he realized he has the vocation to become a poet of his people using their language. In the end, here is the sugarcane/pineapple plantation worker succeeding, blazing a trail, however narrow, for the next generations of immigrants, exiles, and peoples of the diaspora: “the seed you have sown/ and the many departures/ are your arrivals/ that put together/ the yesterday of your sacrifice/ and the present of today’s generation.”
We read Mario A. Albalos’ and we see a reechoing of the same theme, and with insights from the history of Ilokano—and by extension, Filipino—migration to Hawai’i, we have revolutionaries no longer just taking in unfair treatments and bossy orders but resisting the oppressor’s excess and abuse. Albalos, a serviceman before his death, knew his ground and knew it well, his declarations the manifesto for freedom against injustice, un-freedom, unfair practices.
The revolutionary learns from his daily life, and the everyday contours of suffering. And with his conscience wounded, he cannot turn his back and run away from the opportunity for freedom: “The wounded conscience does not shed a tear/ In the streets I will continue to cry out/ And I am not going to be afraid of gunfires/ As these will only be swallowed up/ By the seed of pain and sobbing/ Sown on the chest on fire.”
In this struggle for freedom even in the land that is yet to be tamed, as it is unfamiliar and strange in the beginning, the revolutionary is not to be sold in gold, not to be bribed with thirty pieces of silver. There is one thing that moves him, and keeps him going on with the fight: the continuing pain. And for as long as this pain continues, he will continue to fight: “The pain of flesh opened/ Is not relieved by the glitter/ And enchantment of bank bills/ Instead the throbbing pain goes stronger/ In the partaking of leeches of dust.”
In “Ti Maika-75 nga Aniversario Dagiti Filipino/ The 75th Anniversary of the Filipino”, Albalos tells in sum the coming of the first fifteen Ilokanos to Hawai’i to work in the plantations.
But these Ilokanos were not people: they were “shadows”, gauzy characters that with the light, they vanish, their existence gone, and they become nothing. The sight and scene is not kind, it has no mercy, but the raw truths of oppression are always this way in the first place. Here we can say—perhaps argue—that these fifteen Ilokanos were not forced to come to Hawai’i more than a hundred years ago. That can be true. But the bigger project in understanding human injustice is to factor as well the reasons why people, like these fifteen shadows, would travel the seas, leave home thousands of miles away, to find life or scratch one, in plantations with the bosses and masters that do understand that their poor and wretched workers are people too. He writes: “Fifteen shadows/ Set foot on the red earth/ Barefooted before the bosses/ And in their hearts we still hear/ The lordly shouts of godlings.”
We see the shadows again in the next stanza, and their blighted lives, personal and collective, remain as wretched as when they first came: “The sobbing and the sacrifice/ Had to be hidden on the chest/ And the soul cowered in fear/ In the navel of pineapple and sugarcane fields…”
But like the hopeful virtue of Yoro’s poetics of exile and diaspora, Albalos raises the flag of freedom and instills hope in those forgotten by fate, with the recognition of the redemptive possibilities of self-empowerment, that disposition and that mental attitude that hold the oppressed responsible for the sustaining of his own struggle for freedom: “But slowly the tears dried up/ With the arrival of those who knew how to fight/ Those who resisted against lies and discrimination/ They let the voice and learning took root/ And on the pedestal they have come into/ That went with the squeezing of sweat and blood/ In the face of challenges and obstacles/ For seventy-five years.”
The poem, written on the 75th anniversary of the coming of the fifteen Ilokanos, is a testament to the enduring spirit of the Ilokano even as he keeps looking back to where he comes from, compares his life in the diaspora with his life in the homeland, gets through nostalgia’s hell, and reaffirms his hope for a better, brighter life in his adoptive land. There is a fulcrum of emotions in the Albalos poem, as in the other texts written by the other poets in this anthology, and the one who has gone through the difficult stages of life in the diaspora will surely understand the to-and-fro of feelings that is characteristic of the exile. In Melchor Agag Jr.’s “Sakada” poem, we see a celebration after coming to terms with the memory of the harsh life the plantation workers went through. There can be a sense of the triumphal here, but the victor must be given a day to experience the glory of his success without losing sight of the struggles ahead of him.
In Perlita Tapec Sadorra’ “Biag Ditoy Hawai’i/Life Here in Hawai’i”, she paints a landscape of the daily struggle of the Ilokano in the diaspora, particularly in Hawai’i. She tells us, with no fanfare, of the social drama, a tragic-comic one, that each Ilokano parent has to have a role to play, with children, gradually becoming Ilokano-Americans, at the background. She invites us to take part in her world—which is the same world of every Ilokano mother who has children to take care of: “In the dark hours/ Of mornings/ In the long and wide/ Stretches of roads/ Cars race with the speed/ Of early hours.” Then she tells us of parents leaving their children under the care of other people, these children who will lose their parents’ language, and culture, and world-view: “In this ordinary history/ Of our lives/ On the other hand/ Are parents/ In this other land/ We have come to:/ They bear the weight/ Such as those of their children/ Them wrapped in pity/ Like their thick clothing/ Against the cold/ Like their whole day/ Of absence.”
Cristino Inay, now based in New Jersey after his long years of records administration work at the University of the Philippines at Diliman, recoups the loses of the exile when he reaffirms his commitment to his homeland, to his town, to his birth-land. One idea that can tie the poems of Inay together is his clarity of perception about the connection between the exile and his land: the exile ought to keep on loving that land even if that land does not love him back or is not able to demonstrate that love. In one of the poems in this collection, he spells out what is in his mind about being a kallautang and about the moral duty of that kallautang to his own people, to his own culture, and to his own language: “Countryman: I am also a Fil-Am./ But I am still a Filipino/ In the heart. / In thought. / In the body. / In the soul.”
In another poem, this ethical commitment can take on the form of rendering into a poem of the longing that lives in his heart: “truly I am not done/ with the poem/ I am also making permanent/ on the page of time. / I know, verily, that this chance/ will not come again/ this chance shared with me/ while the moments/ with no parents/ keep on with their laments/ while the world keeps/ on with its dirge”.
Two other poets have the same sensibility to the wretched lives lived by exiles and the golden tales that might come out of their resilience, perseverance, patience, and optimism: Prodie Gar. Padios and Herman G. Tabin.
Padios, a staff writer of an Ilokano magazine for many years prior to his immigrating to Canada, captures effectively the litany of woes of the people of the diaspora, whether they are Ilokanos or other people. The people who come into the new place invariably end up as servants, and in the totem pole of authority and power, they are always at the bottom, never mind their gifts, talents, and competence.
In the winning collection, “Dagiti Annak ti Ulimek/ The Children of Silence,” submitted for the Republic of the Philippines’ Commission on the Filipino Language Literary Contest for Ilokano Poetry, Padios articulates the raging power of silence—the silence of the oppressed—that can be turned into the sound of the “whacking of the bolo”, an allusion to how silence is not the absence of language but a fullness of the language of rage, a conditio sine qua non to the defining of the problem of lack of justice and fairness in the diaspora.
He tell us in clear imagery the articulating power of a poetics that is conscious of its commitment to human freedom: “they would just whack off the bolo of rage/ in the flesh and bone of decaying hope:/ they let the one in; the other they let it out in the other ear/ the screams of bosses that batter the heart and person/ them whose noses are aquiline and whose eyes are blue--/ there is/ the equivalent grace and progress in each drop/ of sweat and tear and even blood:/ they own all of the strength/ and brilliance and sometimes, even the honor and soul…”
There is a long list of woes here—and the lingering loneliness of the exile become a mark, perhaps, a form of Calvary, perhaps a cross to carry, perhaps a baptism of fire that inaugurates the exile into a real life in the diaspora, a life lived outside the security blankets of dollar remittances, a life lived in mercy and misery, in magic and mental torture.
We see this clearly in the lament of Tabin, who, prior to his moving to the United States to join his family, worked for an international financial institution based in Manila as a project analyst. In his “Tawataw/Wanderer”, he paints a picture of the hurried life in the big cities where the exile finds himself, tries to live a full and productive life, goes through the travails of scratching out a life, sometimes succeeding, but most of the time not, especially so when he does not have the legal document to show so he can land a job better than what he does as a wage earner for shopping centers, convenient stores, hotels, restaurants, all those service industry-related establishments that are manned by indocumentados, those émigrés without the legal right to work in the United States.
Tabin talks to the person who just came in as a person of the diaspora, and addresses him with the horror of a diasporic life lived in the margins: “you are forced to compete/ to scratch out a life/ to lengthen the thrust of breathing:/ there you work as a busser--/ in the early morning hours you prepare/ breakfast in one hotel/ serve food/ fill up dried cups for coffee, milk, juice/ gather the dishes, wash, do the vacuuming:/” and so on, with the list that includes the “you” being a hotel worker, a receiving associate at Wal-Mart, a cashier at 7-Eleven, a caregiver of old people, a hotel housekeeper.
Then the veiled mocking as a result of the confrontation with the “you”, that in an apostrophe, doubles as the persona in the poem, and extends the logic of the personal and professional experiences of the poet in his route to emigration. As in the Albalos poem, Tabin makes references to the émigré as having a shadow, that other side of him that was not he when he was in his right senses in the homeland. This is the context of the mocking that ensues: “you? you who were a professional, / you who were sitting back in the comfort/ of an air-conditioned office of a big bank…”
He continues: “a writer? with a college degree? / you feel like you want to wake up! /but you have been put in an abyss:/ you bite the blade/ in your hiding away from it all: you cannot act freely/ when you have no documents/ and then you take it all/ your becoming a slave of Uncle Sam!”
Whether this mocking by Tabin is directed to himself or to some Ilokano writers who are undergoing the same experiences as a people of the diaspora, this is beside the point now. The point in this is that there is so much waste in mental and intellectual resources that could have otherwise been used for some other pursuits had the destination country were more willing to try the capabilities of the émigré than what his passport or his I-94, the arrival card, tells.
Towards the end, the lens we use to see through the images in the Tabin poem shows us the way to going back to oneself and there discover self-redemption: “your deepest recesses now cry out--/you have me returned to the Philippines!” But the question that hits the émigré harder than a border wall with its chain links, police checkpoints, barbed wires, barking sniffing dogs, and/or miles and miles of endless radar picking on anything that resembles a person: “you have me returned to the Philippines! / but when?”
This recourse to a return to the homeland is both a reality and a wistful thinking. Of the many Ilokanos in Hawai’i, we hear this phrase often, as a matter of knee-jerk reaction to the condition of exile, to the challenging life of Ilokanos in the diaspora. As is the case of Ilokanos in the homeland, there are of two kinds of Ilokanos in the diaspora: the ordinary people, the ‘gagangay’, and the wealthy, ‘the babaknang’. Of those who wish to return to the homeland, we see the ranks of the frustrated, the disappointed. Frustration and disappointment, however, does not rest on socio-economic status but on one’s ability to adjust, adapt, and assimilate. But all told, those who have lesser reasons to go back—those who have nothing in the homeland—are those who are more resilient and persevering. The expression “you have me returned to the Philippines” becomes just that: an expression of exasperation in the face of the endless struggles to survive in a new land.
George Pagulayan, one time university instructor in philosophy before leaving for the United States to study, and then to stay and work, and Abril Varilla, one-time pastor of a mainline protestant church in the Philippines before emigrating to Canada with his family, provide a staccato beat to the sorrow that is so deep in the heart of an exile. To leave one’s own country, as one writer has said, is not simply a matter of changing geographies but is also a game of the mind, a game one needs to play well as the émigré moves and transits from a comfortable and convenient because familiar physical geography to a psychological one that is yet to be explored, even tamed. The physical geography refers to the birth land of the émigré, and the second one, to the need for him to unlearn his familiar sense of loyalty to the homeland so he can open up to the possibility of compromise. In this compromise, the émigré must learn how to deal with a homeland whose DNA is in the very structure of his memory and remembrance, of his nostalgia and patriotism, and of his ability to measure up to the demands of immigrant life.
Pagulayan, like Varilla, is sensitive to the issue of ‘placement’, of belonging to a particular place, in opposition to the harsh reality of displacement, that sense of having lost your foothold and footing in a familiar terrain, with its support system.
Varilla’s poignant landscape of an old woman in a nursing home provides a contrast to the ‘romanticization’ of immigrant life. In the North Americas—in the United States and Canada, the countries represented in this anthology—the life style here does not support the idea of an extended family that can make use of extra help to attend to the needs of the older family members or those family members with disabilities.
Unlike in the Philippines where there is still a way to have the extended family provide support to those old and unable, the United States and Canada have the “nursing home” as a compromise solution to take care of one’s parents. But the nursing home culture—a part of a larger health care culture that is heavily oriented towards professionalization, privatization, and profit—is one laden with deep sorrow and sadness as the parents, now economically non-productive, are left in the care of other people, professional caregivers, and institutionalized organizations that are run like corporations, as many of them are, indeed, private corporations particularly those in the United States. In the State of Hawai’i, there are the care homes, and these provide the atmosphere and ambience of a home, however facile these are. But nonetheless, other people provide the personal care for the old people now unable to care for themselves.
This is the situation where we can locate the poem of Varilla, “Estranghero/Stranger”. Starting off from the wish of an old woman in a nursing home—“I want to go home!”—Varilla now turns to the voice of the old woman, and lets that voice ring out a painful truth that the nursing home is by definition not a home but a halfway house to one’s mortal end, minus the quality of life one deserves before he dies. He writes: “A voice calls/ It comes from the deepest recesses of you/ It is the voice of the feet/ Oneing once more with the body and the soul/ With your own home/ In this ritual/ Where this truth is tranquility/ That one must return/ To the land you left behind.”
The poet Varilla then alludes to the narrative of the salmon going back to the place of its birth in an effort to spawn. This image, powerful in its reproductive ability to make us see our immigrant lives that must end up in a return to the birth land—the soul land—ethicizes the nature of returning. This is the context why in the many poems included in this anthology, there is that constant reference to the homeland as a place where the placenta, the afterbirth, has been left behind, and that the place of the placenta keeps calling out to the person that went away, that wandered into other places. In the Ilokano language, the placenta is not simply “placenta” but “kadkadua”, the constant companion, not just plain companion. Close to this Ilokano concept, perhaps, is the notion of “guardian angel” in medieval and Catholic Europe. The placenta as kadkadua, thus, must have the body-soul of the kallautang, the wanderer back, back to the physical space where that placenta has been buried, left to dry or left to hung on top of a tall tree. In the Jeremias Calixto’s “Dua a Daniw/Two Poems”, a question-and-answer for the balikbayan (or the one returning to the homeland), the reference to the kallautang’s logical end is quite clear: he has to return to the place where his placenta has been kept.
Varilla gathers his courage, musters his emotions, and gives this riposte to the old woman, who, for him, is a “mother”: “Mother, let me tell you this:/ Like you I am also/ A stranger and this desire/ To go back/ Rises in me/ To kiss and let my soul one/ With the place where/ My placenta was kept.” And like Yoro, like Francis T. Ponce, like Arnold Baxa, like Cresencio Quilpa, and like Cristino Inay, we see the power of re-imagining a past that has been almost fossilized that its “archeologization” can only bring about the ruins of memories: “But I am here with all my doubts/ Imprisoned by all these indecisions:/ My humble abode, I left it with its holes/ And decay, now almost giving way/ Is now owned by mice/ Their kingdom, and those bedbugs/ Cobra and cockroaches?”
Varilla has reasons to doubt if the road back home is the reasonable road to take when, in another poem, “Wasay/Ax”, the leaders of the homeland are relentlessly cutting down the narra tree that is nest to his dream and to all others who have decided to go on a kallautang mode. He tells us: “We quiver in each aim/ Our heart thumps in each cut;/ We panic in the day/ And throughout the night-long hours/ Because here, here, they chop off/ The stump of our hope/ To keep on living.” And thus, the result: “And then we wander away/ Like the bannatiran that is driven away/ In the heavens we write/ This exodus of our going away.”
In Pagulayan, the sense of helplessness becomes more pointed, and he critiques with gusto. In “Ti Uni ti Langit/The Sound of Heaven”, he tells of what he sees in the adoptive land: “In the United States/ The sound of heaven is steel./ It speeds fast, past/ The ears this coarse sound/ Of life in a hurry.”
He sees all the troubles of exile but resolves them as well, realizing that there are many things that we cannot change and that the only thing we can do is accept them with grace. In “Tali/Rope”, he alludes to the pull of hopes and aspirations and relationships, including the pull and force of distances and recollection, if only to come to terms with the punishing absence of the exile in gatherings and re-gatherings that give the Ilokano and the Amianan person (Pagulayan is part Ilokano, part Itawes) authentic membership of his own community. The rope stretching images the distance between the exile and his birth land, the exile and his family, the exile and his memory-as-present: “There is the end of the rope:/ We are around./You stay there, I stay here./ The edges are the boundaries.”
While roped, the poet says, he does not fall into the trap of un-freedom as a result of the recognition of being roped. “Even if the rope/ Is for those who leave the trunk/ The sign of roots is around/ One you cannot lose/ One you cannot run away from/ This end of the rope.”
This leads us to the Pacita Cabulera Saludes metaphor about the “ti guyod dagiti ramut—the pull of the roots” in the poem of the same title: “To remember is to be lost in revelry/ because their leaving/ was as if it was only yesterday/ with their zest of moving/ their footprints were on top of another/ as if the thorny road/ were so easy to clear/ stones removed to pursue/ their numerous dreams”.
In many other poems of Saludes, we have a glimpse of the ways of Ilokanos to “rise up from the challenge” of being a people of the diaspora. She believes that the Ilokanos—and all other immigrant people of the Philippines—have triumphed because of “good work/ mixed with diligence and industry.” And now, the kallautang can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor: “The past that is empty seldom comes now/ but would we be able to parry off/ the coming of the mornings/ that are cold with the chill/ and the nightmare that makes them feel/ the pull of the roots that care for them?”
The ‘sexualization’—its rendering into a form of a ‘beloved’—of the unforgettable love of the place of origin, the birth land, is nowhere more powerfully rendered than in Inay, Ponce, Baxa, and Quiamas. If we are not going to re-read their texts, if we fail to re-connect these text to their other texts that speak of the societal condition of the exile trying to remember what he has left behind and trying to remember as well the present-as-future that he has to carve for himself, we certainly miss out on the second level of meaning of these poems. This tendency to sexualize the homeland and regard it as “the beloved” takes its roots in the early days of the struggle of the people of the Philippines against the colonizers. While the Philippines was a ‘fatherland’, it was also—and more so—a ‘motherland’. While it was a beloved, it was also a female beloved: to be offered love, to be won from the oppressor, to be delivered from the incarcerator.
Baxa, Quiamas, and Ponce draw from the magnetic power of love, of romance, of caring, and loving in perpetuity. Possession of the beloved can become an unruly emotion, with its ownership connotation and consequences. But the history of human love is replete with narratives as powerful as these ones that we read through from their work. Baxa and Ponce speak of a delicate love; Quiamas tells us with a love consummated, at least, in the memory and in the mind.
Baxa’s poetic technique is its investment on sentiment that sometimes overflows into a touch of the sentimental. But that sentimentalism is tempered with the calculated use of culturally specific references to Ilokano experience such as, for instance, the anglem—the cloth incense—in his “Adda Anglem iti Angin ti Maui/There Is Anglem in the Air of Maui”. In this poem, Maui becomes a place, becomes a person, and becomes the beloved the persona is about to lose. Maui is his adoptive hometown, the new place of his wandering heart and soul and yet, he interrogates that place, asking a question that borders on a verdict: “When was it, Maui/ when was it when you said/ there is nothing more valuable/ in the world than you and I?”
And then in another poem, “Diak Kayaten ti Agdaniw, Maui/ I Do Not Want to Write Poems Any Longer, Maui”, Baxa reminds us of the humanity of each poem’s persona by elaborating on the sulking of the lover spurned or a lover whose faithful love for the beloved remains unrequited or a lover whose beloved is about to go away: “I do not want to write/ Poems any longer, Maui:/ In the giving off of my branches you changed! There is sobbing bitterer/ Than that which I can carry;/ There is a dream/ That is better entombed/ Than making it grow/ And then in the end/ You nip it…”
Ponce invites us to his poetic world, and with the power of an apostrophe, he blurts out the reason for his return to the beloved in “Agsubliakto Manen/I Shall Return Again”: “Yes, I shall return once again/ For I cannot fully express/ My missing the whole of you.” He tells us of his wandering, his success in finding the beauty of the new place, his destination country; but he tells us as well of a lack: of joy and peace and quiet and fulfillment. “The place where I found myself anchored/ Is such a beauty, the imposing structures/ Reach up to the skies, hitting the clouds/ The sprouts of life/ Are abundant and fresh/ But there is joy and peace/ I can’t find over here/ That I can find/ In this remote place.” The remote place, of course, is the place of the Gusing Sangbay, the fountain that gives off cold-water spring that refreshes the tired body and soul.
Here in this remote place, the resting place of the wandering soul, the dwelling place of the body and mind that wandered far away, and the persona vows to go back to this place, his birth-land: “Because over here is that other part/ Of my own world/ That I will keep on returning to/ And take a retreat/ To express the feeling of missing them/ To have them express their missing me/ Them the caring fogs/ That touch the dawns/ In December and January/ The handshake and glory of the sun/ That welcomes the mornings/ The invitation of the cool water/ Of the Naguilian River/ The quietude of the nights/ Filled with the multitude of stars/ In the skies.”
Quiamas’ approach takes on a sensitive detour, with the beloved almost fetishistic, in the way an icon for a homeland takes on fetishistic form in the context of patriotic fervor. There is almost a consummation here, but there is distance as well, with the wish turning into a reality before the dreamer but the reality remains far from his reach. In “Agkak Koma ‘Ta Siding/ I Wish To Kiss Your Mole”, he says of that love awaiting fulfillment: “But the fingers of the night/ Are selfish for they hesitate/ To open the door of sleep/ Where the orchard bloomed/ With flowers.” He does not give up, of course, as every ardent loves is supposed to be persistent, his love persisting: “My pregnant dream/ That you and I shall be satiated/ By the lullaby of the entwined throbbing/ Of chests in an embrace in the room/ Of an endless sleep”.
Cresencio A. Quilpa and Cristino I. Inay, both from the East Coast, are a picture of searchers on the lookout for peace and quiet, and yet have been able to find tranquility in the new land as well. Inay—or the persona in his poems—admits to being an American, with the document to prove, and yet insists that he is at the same time a Filipino; by logical extension, he insists his being an Ilokano to account what could be a new layered identity we call Ilokano American. This is the same tenor and temper that we see in Quilpa, announcing his presence in America in “Ditoy America, Adtoyak/ In America, Here I Am”, sitting back and enjoying, and reaping the fruits of his sacrifices as an immigrant: “here in America/ I am here/ seated/ waiting/ for the good time/ listening/ eyes open/ seeing all around me/ thinking…” And then as an afterthought, he says he sits down to relax and write his poem: “waiting for the hour and time/ to come to pass/ waiting for the good time/ for the writing of my poem”.
In another poem, “Biag Ditoy America/Life Here in America”, he describes what life in America is all about, admitting that there are problems and issues, but at the end of the day, it is a land imbued with a sense of justice and fairness, a sense of order and lawfulness, a sense of freedom and dignity. At the back of all these idealized values and realities in America, though, is the need to keep on working—and the work includes the work for democracy and justice and social equity: “Yes, this is our life in America/ Life is easy and there is freedom/ But it is good and difficult/ Because there is no day,/ Afternoon and night”.
In all this almost romanticized view of America is that other sense of struggle that the Ilokano immigrant has to go through with courage and committed engagement. The poem, “Diak Mailibak, Kayumanggiak/ I Cannot Deny, I Am Brown”, exemplifies the kind of daring an Ilokano must have to demonstrate in an effort to affirm and assert his being a colored person: “I am a stranger in America/ Truly so, this I cannot deny/ And I came from the Pearl of the Orient/ So I am brown, this I cannot deny.” And then in another poem, “Ni Ilokano Ditoy Hampton Roads, Virginia/ The Ilokano Here in Hampton Roads, Virginia he makes specific the social position of the Ilokano in a predominantly white state: they are in the thousands, they are concentrated in some cities and counties, they are industrious, and many of them have the chance to practice their professions as doctors, nurses, and military people, among other occupations, and thus leading him to say that “no one equals that of the true Ilokano/ For his attitude is good news wherever he goes/ And his name with power, he will always be first/ Even when time has come, he will always last.”
The ‘poeticization’—the rendering into a poetic expression—of the diasporic experiences of the Ilokanos in the United States and Canada is one frame through which a reading of the complexity of the Ilokano experience can be had. From these texts, we see a description of these experiences, with each poet meditating ceaselessly on the implications of his arriving in a new land, his encounter with other people, the ‘othering’ of other groups even as he himself experiences this ‘othering’, the terrible consequences of losing a sense of place in order to begin discovering how to grow roots in another country, the malady of being an alien and of alienation that ensues when the familiar has been lost, and the evils of losing reference points in the effort to gain some others in another setting.
In this poetics of displacement and diaspora, we see the scattering of thought and emotion and sense of personhood even as the physical bodies of Ilokanos are also scattered everywhere, many times losing their tongue, speech, language, discourse. There is that conscious re-gathering of these scattered members of the Ilokano nation as an attempt to respond to the terrible consequences of ‘dis-membering’ in order to ‘re-member’ once again, in order to become a member once more.
The fact that these poems are Ilokano poems, the fact they bear that unique Ilokano sensitivity and sensibility, the fact they contain the world-view unique to the Ilokanos, the fact that the mentality of the Ilokano is herein ever-present in these texts—these are enough reasons for us to celebrate. While we understand that Ilokano literature and its maintenance is one of the ways to make it certain that the Ilokano language will not yet go the route of extinction in the days ahead, we understand as well that their publication and dissemination to Ilokanos first and foremost is an added guarantee that somewhere along the way, some other Ilokanos will be able to pick up the challenge of making Ilokano literature not only survive but thrive, and thrive forever.
In reading this bilingual anthology, the reader will be able to discern the many technical compromises I have to do given the various demands of translation, including a linguistic requirement of the idiomatic expressions that required cultural equivalence. In a number of these instances, I had to resort to my prejudiced way of transferring the artistic information from the original language to the translation language. By prejudice, I mean here its hermeneutic reference: a form of foreknowledge, ‘knowledge before knowledge’, and fore-judgment. When that prejudice leads me to a productive encounter with that text, I take that prejudice with seriousness and make it as my guide in pushing the text to be said again in another language.
Where the ideas seem to be fuzzy in the original, I took the liberty of cutting up the expression, of adjusting lines and stanzas, and even deleting unnecessary or redundant information in the interest of what I call ‘poetic fluidity’. The Ilokanos have a term for this in the Ilokano language: ‘annayas’. It is the free flow of ideas. It is making the ideas run into each other like the current of a free flowing, un-dammed river.
Lastly, it has been a privilege editing and translating these works. It has been a privilege getting to know these poets through their works. Indeed, to enter into the world of Ilokano poets through their word has been a sacrament.
This sacrament is the superior antidote to the poison of becoming a kallautang.