40 Years of History and History-Making:
The UH Manoa Ilokano Program
The Fil-Am Observer Staff
Part of the diasporic narrative of the people of the Philippines in the United States is the accounting of programs that have served their various communities in exile.
Of landmark achievement, for instance, is the Operation Manong that paved the way for a respectful recognition of the contributions of the many hardworking people of Philippine descent, such as the Visayans and the Ilokanos.
The two groups have come to Hawaii to eke out a life far better than they had in the homeland.
And they have found a better one over here, thanks to their industry and perseverance, and their untold, at times unnamable, sacrifices
It was a catchall phrase—this search for the good life as a reason for leaving the familiar landmarks of the land of one’s birth.
But this grand reason has the ability to capture the mixed motivations of those who had come here more than one hundred years ago—and these mixed motivations can still be encapsulated by that phrase.
But history was not always on the side of these people of the Philippines.
The tragic histories of execution, and other forms of oppression, in the fields and outside the fields, are now ingredients of the larger story of the presence of the various peoples of the Philippines in the State of Hawaii.
But the accounts of their resistance and persistence are everywhere to give instruction to the next generations of people of the Philippines, immigrants and local-born alike.
One of the institutions that have survived all through the years is the Ilokano Language and Literature Program of the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Established in 1972, it began to offer Ilokano courses to children of immigrants who came to the university to further their studies.
Many of these students have now become professionals, and are now leaders of the community in their own right.
The forty years of service to the students and the community—the forty years of bearing witness to what language and culture resources can do to enrich the larger community of Hawaii—are years of struggle and surprise.
Tapped to lead in designing the Ilokano Program that in later years was called the UH Manoa Ilokano, Philippine Drama and Film Program, was Professor Precy Espiritu.
For more than thirty years until her retirement from teaching in 2006, Professor Espiritu expanded the program until it became a degree-granting program in 2002.
The fact that Ilokano is being taught with academic rigor is something that the various universities in the Philippines have missed for the last forty years that the UH Ilokano Program has consistently been offering Ilokano courses each semester.
As a direct result of the institution of a national language, Ilokano has since been practically banned in the Philippine basic education infrastructure.
In the name of unqualified nationalism, and in the name of the sacrosanct national language, all Philippine languages—the mother languages of the children who are going to the schools—have been practically banned.
Empirical studies document the prohibition, directly and tacitly, by the fine-system being imposed upon students caught speaking a word in the Ilokano language, his very own language.
The going rate is at five pesos per word, according to some educators who are in the know.
The State of Hawaii, in 1972, adopted a different tack to the whole story.
After years of denial and deprivation as a result of many factors, including the cultural denigration of Ilokanos themselves, the Ilokano language finally gained a public space in the halls of academia as an academic and foreign language course, one that could take its place side by side with the other major languages of the world, including the majors languages of Asia, languages that have strong connections to the economy, politics, and culture of Hawaii.
The one-course program became two courses, and the two-course, one-year program became two years, until it became a full-blown bachelor’s degree program under the rubric of Philippine language and literature.
All through the years, students have come and gone—and those who passed its portals went out to the world and brought with them a renewed appreciation of what the Ilokano language can offer, of what the Ilokano culture can share, and of what the university program can do to students who are interested to reclaim their heritage, or students who want to learn more about the language and culture of their parents.
Part, therefore, of the Filipino-American History Month Celebration is the institution of the Ilokano language at the university.
Prior to 1972, the Ilokano people had to wait for seventy-four years before their language could take its own place in the academic discourse of the university.
Coming in 1906, with the centennial of their coming to Hawaii celebrated in 2006, the absence of the language of the plantation workers in the intellectual discourse of the state is something that begs explanation.
The children born of these plantation workers did not have access to the intellectual resources of their ancestors.
Some did not even have access to the language of their parents, by reason of the systemic denial by the educational institution—the schools—of the children of these workers of their own heritage language, a repeat, or duplication, of what was happening in the homeland.
The Tagalog Program of the University, instituted in 1971 through the leadership of Dr. Teresita Ramos, antedated the Ilokano Program for a year.
It was also Professor Ramos, cognizant of the need for the intellectual space for Ilokano discourse and practice, that made it sure that the Ilokano Program would have a good start, and hence, giving the free rein to Professor Espiritu to develop the Ilokano Program and push for its growth and development through all the years.
Many students of the Ilokano Program speak fondly of their own experiences as students of this program.
Three of these students, Julius Soria, Abe Flores, and Jeffrey Acido have joined the instructional faculty.
Other graduates of the program are either working as interpreters, youth development workers, teachers of Ilokano language in Waipahu High School and Farrington High School, both on Oahu, or government workers.
In partnership with other civic and culture organizations, the UH Ilokano Program has been in the forefront in mother language advocacy, in heritage language education, in cultural nationalism, and in cultural pluralism and diversity.
In 2006, the Ilokano Program began the Nakem Conferences, a movement that aims to pursue the very aims of diversity and the need to celebrate—and cerebrate—it.
Today, Nakem Conferences movement has grown, and has spread all over the Philippines.
In the summer of 2012, it will hold its 7th International Conference on “Pag-angkon: Our Right to Our Language, Our Right to Education That Emancipates,” in Tacloban City, Philippines.
More needs to be done, and one of them is to continue erasing totally the acquired—even learned—cultural denigration of the Ilokanos, their hatred of their language and culture, a hatred that makes them conveniently deny they are Ilokanos, a hatred that makes them bury any sign that they have anything to do with the Ilokano language and culture.
Even at the 105th year of the presence of the Ilokanos in Hawaii, we continue to experience this denigration everyday.
For it is not easy becoming the doormat of history.
It is not easy becoming the subject matter of an immigrant history that does not even want to remember itself.
It is for this reason that during this Fililipino-American History Month—a commitment to memory and to memory making, a commitment to resist forgetting—becomes urgent.
In May 2012, the UH Ilokano Language and Literature Program will hit its 40th year.
In the years to come, another good 40 years would assure us of Hawaii’s commitment to diversity and heritage, and another 40 years afterwards would make the UH Ilokano Program a commitment for all time.
Six or seven instructional faculty now run the university’s Ilokano Program at any given time.
These are the new breed of leaders who inherited the wisdom and vision of the first leaders who have since retired.
From a faculty of one and a handful of students, the Ilokano Program has grown and hopefully, it will continue to grow even as it assists, and partners with, other llokano Programs in schools and colleges, in Hawaii, and outside Hawaii.