Bong Dies Alone Away From Home

From a call this early morning, June 29, 2011, a migrant dies alone of heart attack at his rented place somewhere in the West Coast. He was a spouse's classmate years back, and he will come home, in a coffin or in an urn, either way, as the law and money permit. This is a poem to honor his life, and to honor his sacrifice. Rest in peace, co-pilgrim in the United States of America, and in life. Go in peace.

Your death is familiar.

It is every person of this homeland
Trying to make sense of what exile
Can bring to those wishing
To make amends with what
We all can change. We make

Vagabonds of ourselves,
Our deep and dark desires to
To witness what can be seen
From other places, like
Winter giving in to spring

With the all-color flowers,
Wild and in technicolor abandon
Carpeting the hills and mountains
Of our dreams to climb life's peaks
To reach the pinnacle we have not

Been too and seeing from there
What can be seen from the heights
What is deprived of us from below.
We walk through the same path,
Peregrine people that we are

Making sense of this non-sense
That we do to eke out a life
Or what passes for one, in places
We do not know but we dare go.
You died alone with your dream

And this makes us grieve for you
Even as we grieve for ourselves.
We inherited a land that pushes us
To other shores, driving us crazy
To go find the stump of the rainbow,

Like this tree that grows dollars
On twigs, stems, and trunks
As if all we do is pick the monies
Dump these into our knapsack and send
Them all to our home and country.

What could have been the last hours
Of your mortal life? Did you cry for
Help one last time? Did you remember
The names of your children and the sad
Smile of your awaiting wife?

You are a memory now, and if you were
Ilokano, you could have become
An atang, the food offering we give
To all the dead we still remember
To all the dead we have begun to forget.

What were the streets of exile looked like
The lonely paths you walked on and on
To look for that one fat chance of a job
You could never get? To hide, and hide,
And hide, in a land you are not from

Is one story without any beginning.
But is a story that does not last,
As it ends in dying by your lonesome
Like you did to us, dying on us,
And dying without telling us

What is it to live alone and away
And from the far reaches of where you have gone,
Tell us what is it to have a holiday with your
Blankets covering your body to forget
The meaning of laughter and fun.

Go now, go in the peace of life.
Go where dreams come into fruition
Where life is complete, and the hiding
Becomes temporary as in our fight to run,
Run where salvation finally is ours.

June 29, 2011

Panic Sets In

Panic sets in,
panic sets out
to look for you.

You welcome
the meaning of the oath you take,
this new one you rehearsed before
the cold morning wakes up Waikiki.

It is death staring you in the face.

The guns, deadly and
coming from the States,
are turned against life,
and the scene is somber,
like the dark taking its place
as you walk down Farrington
to build your road.

It is the deadly dollars
that free you, the mantra is all over,
like a piped-in announcement
for every journeyman everywhere.

It is our dollars that in all time
will screw you. Bullets, and more,
this is one language
they know. Rulers and emperors,
they are brothers,
and together they plan
how to commando
the best means to murder
our desire to dream
our dream
of food and freedom,
this last one breaking
our back.

You look for these dreams
in their gossamer form.

You see them in paid banquets,
at fifty dollars a night the equivalent
of a day of backbreaking labor,
the Dionysian dinner
you go to out of ritual and rite.

You have prosperity laid out
on your long tables.
The accents are there:
a centerpiece of
a white orchid, living and blooming,
springs forth from a mantelpiece
of Hawaiian hibiscus and plumeria,
the colors coming alive from death,
and the concerted moves
of uniformed servers
giving you black coffee
or hot tea, green or jasmine,
the taste you have acquired
to inaugurate your new self.

You live in a new world
now you have wanted
to come into. Here
democracy has been defined,
and will always be, between
those who can and
those who cannot
come to celebrate
what life, abundant and filled
with promises, can offer you.

The contradictions, countless
as your immigrant blunders,
are there, the same ones
you knew, the same ones
you do not know.

It is everywhere,
like Waipahu wind, traitor
and friend, that,
in the loneliness of exile
you can never come into.

To be here and not here,
to be there and not there:
this is one question you will
have to respond to all
through your days.

In the meantime, you count
the years of longing
to be somewhere
between life and living.

It is panic setting in,
and you will have to swear
you will need to be patient
like the morning sun making a
peek-a-boo from
the Diamond Head
each wintry morning.

May 15, 2011

FAO Editorial


In consideration today at the United States Legislature is the DREAM Act, an initiative that is almost ten years old.

Its name suggests the clarity of its purpose: Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.

It is meant to give a path to students—or former students—to become conditional permanent residents, later on to become legal permanent residents, and eventually, to become citizens of the United States.

First introduced on August 1, 2001 and reintroduced on May 11, 2011, the bill provides conditional permanent residency for “certain illegal and deportable alien students who graduate from US high schools, who are of good moral character, arrived in the U. S. legally or illegally as minors, and have been in the country continuously for at least five years prior the bill’s enactment.”

Accounts from various sources speak of about 825,000 to 2.1 “illegal and deportable alien students” who could benefit from this initiative as soon as it is enacted.

Of this number, we do not know how many of them are students of Philippine descent, students who have come to live here, stayed in our classrooms, and learned the rudiments of American citizenship and the responsibilities of becoming one.

But we are certain of one thing: that a good number of them are students of Philippine descent who came with their parents or relatives to the United States in pursuit of a better life not found in the home country.

For such is the route of a number of people of the Philippines in their pursuit of one living hope: that the United States will give them a better opportunity, that given the chance, they will make it here despite the setbacks, the adjustments, the culture shock, and the numerous sacrifices that gain some credence, shape, and form only when told again and again in their rawness.

We have the story in Antonio Vargas’ narrative, a powerful testimonial to the greatness of what we can do to this potential human resource.

Vargas is the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who came forward with his story of being an undocumented student—and being an undocumented writer—published at New York Times.

Vargas came into the country assuming a different identity, with a fake passport.

He was barely in his teens when he came, and did not know anything about what he was getting into.

As soon as he got into the country, he assumed his old identity, became known as himself, but with a fake Social Security number and a fake permanent residency card that he could not use when he tried to get his California driver license.

He was devastated when he found out about the limits of what he could do as an undocumented student with so much ambition, with the dream to make it here, and live a life better than what he had known at a young age in his home province in Zambales.

Vargas maybe an extraordinarily gifted “illegal and deportable alien” who went through high school and college in the United States, and learned all the ways to becoming American, even winning the much-coveted journalism award.

But his case represents the estimated 825,000 to 2.1 million students and young career professionals who will benefit from the Dream Act.

Arne Duncan, currently the Secretary of Education, says it aptly about our need for these “potential beneficiaries”: “We just need this human potential, the tremendous capacity, to contribute to society, to contribute to our economy.”

At the core of the Dream Act is our offer to provide a path to citizenship to those who have come to our shores and to share with us the blessings of American life.

It is recognizing—and admitting—that our country needs all the young people who have so much promise, so much potential, so much faith in our way of life.

Rahm Emmanuel, mayor of Chicago, says that this path to citizenship is what the dream of becoming American is all about.

It is taking part of that dream—of participating in it.

It is pursuing a dream—and realizing it—the way the first immigrants pursued, and realized, their dream of becoming a new people.

Doing the right thing for our students who have come to share our American life is the right thing to do.

It is dreaming of an act—it is pursuing the dream to become American.

And it is the right thing to do.

FAO Editorial, July 2011

Preserving the Ilokano Language, Part IV


Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, PhD

Kur-itan, now seen only in tattoos and other ‘exotic’ or nostalgic representations, kept a record of what we wanted remembered and expressed in a more lasting way. Except for some vague traces of that palimpsest based on the accounts of the frailes of what they intended to do in turning us all into rote memorizers of “Amami” (the Pater Noster) and “Abe Mariya” (the Ave Maria) and other formula prayers, we have really inaugurated the death of our being, the death of our being-more-so, so that what we have at this time is a bad prognosis: the commencement of our being-less-so. And we seem to enjoy this, masochistic people that we are.

Response to Erasures in the Diaspora

Let me provide the context of our struggle in Hawaii and connect this to the struggle that we have in the Philippines.

Each year, about 5000 people get into the state as immigrants. Ninety percent of these new immigrants come from the Ilocos and Ilokanized areas of Northern Philippines.

The number translates to 4500 Ilokanos in Hawaii each year. With three the average number of children per family, we have half of these coming in as children, easily translatable to more than 2000 Ilokanos. Now where do these children go? How do they get settled in the public schools?

Here comes the power of the state to turn these Ilokano children into Americans by having them get into the English as a Second Language or English with Limited Proficiency classes and there remind them that unless they shed off their skin as Ilokanos, like the snake shedding off its skin, they can never become Americans. So your guess is as good as mine: the trauma resulting from this is both personal and social, and the traumatized vows to become American as fast as he could.

First off the bat: Speak English.

Second, Speak English the way the locals do.

Third, Pick up the Pidgin to completely erase your Ilokanoness.

Do not claim that you were ever born in the Ilocos but say that you are local even if the Ilokano accent—the accent you are denying—sometimes comes back to haunt you.

But while this is true in Hawaii, it is true here in the Philippines as well. Those who have come to Metropolitan Manila, when they go back to the Ilocos, bring with them this dominant posturing. Back in their homes, they refuse to speak Ilokano, preferring to speak in the dominant language, as this, for the dominant group, is the mark of having arrived at the pedestal of a ‘cosmopolitan’ culture that is unlike theirs. We have comic stories about them, all intended to bring them down and make them realize that they have no business becoming reactionary and adopting the dominant group’s posture.

We have other tragic stories in Hawaii—and in our work with the federal government that involves other states in many ways.

Our Ilokano Language and Literature Program at the University of Hawaii is the only degree-granting program of its kind in the world, with a full program for a major in Ilokano, a minor, and a certificate.

There is not a single university in the Ilocos, in Cagayan Valley, and in the Cordilleras—all within the rubric of what is called Amianan—that offers any semblance of what we do at the UH.

Pretty soon, we are expanding the offering of Ilokano language and culture in another college within the UH System, the Maui College, side by side with an expansion of a pilot program, under a different grant, for Ilokano for high school students in two huge public high schools. We have started the Ilokano Plus Program, also at Maui College, and we hope to expand programs of this kind as soon as we have prepared our teachers.

Even as I say these things, we are aware that our initiatives in Hawaii, first formalized with the offering of the first-ever Ilokano class in 1972, are not of the same kind of an initiative that you need here in the Philippines particularly those institutions of basic and higher education in the three regions of Amianan, or Northern Philippine (Region I, Region II, and CAR).

The University of the Philippines at Diliman, for instance, is even better off in giving opportunities to students specializing in Philippine Studies to study a full year of Ilokano and some undergraduate and graduate courses in Ilokano literature. Some universities and colleges in the Ilocos do not seem to know what the Ilokano language and Ilokano literature are all about, because, as some teachers and instructors would say, Why do they still need to learn what they already know?

There is thus a whole scale working up of consciousness of self and community here—with so many of our people unable to use the lens provided by their language and culture and instead use, however handicapped they are, other lenses.

Why, indeed, do we have to insist on the need to educate our young in the language that they already know?

Why don’t we educate the Cagayanon in French and Italian and English so that they will be gainfully employed in France, Italy, and England?

If the Cagayanon only knows Bisaya, where would he go? We don’t even care to venture beyond whichever lens we fancy to wear to ask why the Americans or the English who are born with English as their language from their homes, in school and in their communities—why they still have to be taught English at various levels in school, why the Japanese or the Chinese or the Koreans all of whom learn to speak their own mother tongues at birth still have to study their own mother tongues in their schools.

Published in FAO, July 2011

Preserving the Ilokano Language, Part III

Preserving the Ilokano Language and Other Philippine Languages, Social Justice, and Cultural Democracy

Third of a Series

Aurelio Solver Agcaoili

But these teachers have their own army of supporters, apart from the official sanctions of administrators.

We have a big number of these among our students, among our parents, among our community leaders.

And some of these have so much power they have demonized the few advocates of the Ilokano language in the school system.

They have turned them into opponents of nationalism, into violators of the Philippine Constitution, and worse, into ‘miseducators’ for prohibiting us from exploring what our languages can offer us to mediate our act of reading the word and our act of reading the world with our students.

This leads us to another group that tries as much as it can to hold onto what is left of the vague traces of Ilokano language that, in the near future, if something drastic and revolutionary is not done, will end up like our kur-itan, our way of writing.

This group is a bundle of contradictions too: they espouse cultural democracy when what is needed is remitting the dollar and the dinar to prop up the flailing Philippine economy.

Its members talk about cultural heritage rights when our uninformed political leaders tell us to speak English the way English-speaking peoples in foreign lands do so that we can have our service contracted to English-speaking new lords and new masters—and there, in these foreign lands, we can start to dream about the good life away from all the country that has given us so much sorrow.

They talk about writing the literature of our people when the more current literature is about the exploits of Jake in Na’vi-land in that techno-fireworks but empty movie called Avatar.

Among the Ilokanos, many of them go gung-ho on the latest but do not care a whit about the latest poem in Ilokano even if this poem is about their history of capitulation and cooptation with the dark forces of Martial Law and the dictatorship that came after.

And these people are not afraid to write in the Ilokano language and lend their names to spearhead a renaissance of Ilokano writing.

We have not seen this happening in a long while—about half a century—when those who had the courage to write in Ilokano were also university teachers and college instructors and school administrators and students and ordinary people who knew what kind of a magnificent and luminous and true world is being opened up by their Ilokano language.

Nowhere is the recognition of this ‘courage to create’ by writers of this kind demonstrated than the analysis of a state university president in Ilocos Norte who knew all the problems we are going through and offered her university to be the first headquarters of Nakem Conferences Philippines. Dr Miriam Pascua writes in her introduction to the book, Sukimat: Researches on Ilokano and Amianan Studies:

“…in the act of resisting our homogenization in the interest of an abstract project of Philippine nationhood, we ought not to lose our names, we ought not to lose our sense of self, we ought not to lose our nation in an ethnolinguistic sense, as it were. We know that cultural diversity and the political agendum towards cultural pluralism are terms that cannot be used for selfish ends but are to be pursued to ascertain that the ends of cultural and social justice are being served. Indeed, we are a nation among nations, as some scholars on Ilokano and Amianan life have asserted. We must make a vow to make it happen that the ‘nations’ in the equation in the bigger notion of the ‘nation’ are not to be left out but are included as terms in that equation. In failing to do that, we shall have failed our people, we shall have failed our communities, we shall have failed the Ilokano and Amianan nation, we shall have failed the Philippine nation as well.”

Published in FAO, June 2011

Exile, 3

We do not have to leave to live,
The son, in his insolence, says,
His words a knife lodged in my heart.

I have come back to run away seven thousand miles
More from my shadow, each sunset I see
A promise of morning the colors of which
I do not know.

I have become blind to all
The colors of misery.

I have become
Unhearing to all the sounds of pain
In my country.

Never mind the people
Who stretch their hands in each
Corner of earth they know, the dirt
Of the streets in their smiles, perfunctory
And rehearsed as tears are natural
To their sunken eyes.

I can live here, and stay afloat,
Says the insolent son who had come
From the Mendiola with his banners
In times past when a woman housesat there
To count what mysteries she could find
Her prayer beads gleaming in the candle light
Even as she repaired her broken heart.

He fought her, this insolent son,
And now he gives me the same stance,
Arguing from the falsity of his youth
That to stay put in one's homeland
Is the glorious sacrifice of his kind.

He taught college one time,
Led young people like him dream
Of reason and of the world.

Now he commands calls, gets the beating
From somewhere with their English tongue,
He with his acquired Texas drawl, them with their
Arrogance devoid of wit and grammar.

What shall I do there? he asks,
And I look at the sun after the deluge
These two days past.

What shall I do there?

What shall we do here?

June 26/11

Exile, 2

For Jeffrey Acido, in response to his accusation that I do not write poems anymore

Yours is a question I have asked myself
again and again. I do not write poems anymore.
Not the kind that kills the wasp stinging
what conscience is left in my grieving heart.
I have come to the end of the road,
And my identification card has been replaced
With something else I could not have wanted
If given one fat chance to choose between
Being a traitor and a holy man. Even words
are not true to us, you see, even as we
Are not true to our words. The lie is somewhere
Between desire and intent, and the need to watch
The spectacle of what we all have become.
We ran away, and we keep on with the running
Only to come back in the full circle of our
Exilic lives, stories, narrations, depositions
Of bounded covenants we keep to insure
Us of the corner we have got.
In the strange country, our language
Gives us away: it is the Ilokano of our soul,
And the accent, however much we try,
Will reveal the loyalties we have, not a lot,
But include the case of our people,
The case for food and freedom,
And the case to speak of our failures and dream
In the syllables that can only come from our hearts.
There is no abbreviation here, no contraction,
No slang, but the blood of each letter we sound off,
Each combination of vision and want
As concrete as the Ilocos sun rising fast
Streaking through the dense forests
Of our unforgiving mountains that hide
The souls we keep to save our bodies
From becoming an exhibit of terror
One more time. We cannot be history
as yet. We must make history with this exile
That is us. I do not write poems anymore,
Not the kinds that lead to a hundred lies.

June 26/11

Exile, 1

You cannot take it back,
This betrayal. It is your
Story now as you queue up
Fall in line with the rest of 'em,
Presenting yourself as someone
Else you are not. The document
In your hand is something new
You have become.
It comes from your years of exile,
Wintery nights of wanting to fly back
To where you should spend
The dark hours of tembling and dread
Until you get to confront your lonely god.
Visitors here, says the immigration
Man who has forgotten to smile,
Who wears sorrow on his face,
A regret you have of your birthland.
You are back into your home country,
The harsh realities of living reminding you
You are home to where you are a stranger.
Visitors here in this line, says he,
This man with the badge of a drunk,
His little power the equivalent of a mound
Where dwarves dwell to recite about
Lost loves, like those part-time Ilokano
Poets who have learned to lie a thousand times
And sleep with whores who write to deceive
Them who cannot figure where symbols
Begin to cheat you of your sense of truth.
Visitors here, he repeats, and you fall in line,
Right where the others you are not are.
You swallow what grief is left
In your heart. You summon the saliva
In your dried mouth, the fluid now sour
To make the swallowing easier,
To make the betrayal complete,
Perhaps on its way to the eternal.
You recite in silence the mantra
You can make out of fuzzy words,
Welcome, welcome home,
Fake foreigner, sweet stranger,
Homing exile.

June 25/11

A Poem Without a Reader

For Ie, for asking that question

The son says, why write poems
No one reads? We are in the middle
Of a storm, its eye some kilometers
Away, unto the eastern part
Of our dreams where we will take root.
One raging wind and the stalk
Of a tree the poet planted years back
Comes to earth, away from the spaces
That do not know borders and land.
I write for myself, he says,
For healing and for naming
My wrath, virulent as virulent
Can be until healing comes.
My homeland has wounded
Me so, and life too, the lacerations
In the mind refusing to let go
Of memories of blood and gore
The roads filled with the tears
Of my people, bodies too,
Lying cold on pavements
Or what passes for home
In shanties animals do not dare go.
Tell me if there is a poem
In all these, the images
Haunting me so.
He has his son's silence,
And the storm comes one more time,
Secretly preying on their words,
Ripping apart what conversation they can have.

June 25, 2011/

Night Wakes Up

Night wakes up after the storm.
It is the Falcon, this wind
Coming in to rip what hope
We have in this wretched land
The priest's bible talks about.
Having nine children, like
The nine lives of a cat is all right,
Alright. We have people to send
To shores away, send in the dollars
Back to us, like tornados
Whirling back to define what
Lives in flooded streets we
Can have. We go with the life
Of a promise, political or otherwise.
In the meantime is the threat
Of pandesal rising, in truth
And in fact. The former president
Appears to us in the apparition
Of her lies, and we begin to believe
One more time that prayer is all
We have got. The revolution is none
On the breakfast table even if
After the fact, after the hunger,
This is all we have got.
The night wakes up.
It is morning here, the morning
After the day that unleashed
The wrath of drunken gods,
They in their habit of punishments,
Us in our delight for spectacle
And sacrifice. Lives have been lost
As rivers swell, and we begin
To rebuild dreams demolished
By the long night.

June 25/11

Night Sleeps

Night sleeps in his corner of the world.
The hours go by, as the verses in his head
Take turns in looking for their own corners
Of his world. Tonight is not the same
As the other nights of terror and truth.
Some days, just some days, the minutes
Speed up to catch up on him, and in
The betweenness of sleep and song
Is the long wait for home.
At last, home to where the hours
Get tired as the bodies that live
In the entrances of temples he will never own
Like that one church where the Black Christ
Dies to watch him from post-mortem stillness
Like the sirens that have found the way
To stop making warnings to riverbank
Dwellers from his sleepless city where lives
Are subsidized by the people's prayers to absent gods.

June 23/11

Nalabaga a Bulan iti Kaltaang

Isu daytoy ti nalabaga a bulan iti kaltaang.
Ti tagainep ket ti ipupusay tapno agbiag nga awan ressat.
Nalabaga, kas iti revolusion iti panagmayana
Kas iti ayup a tinaraken
Biniag manipud kadagiti bagitayo
Kadagiti linabag dagiti daniwtayo
Uray ti tured iti kinaagtutubo.
Agleppasen ti panawen ti kalgaw ditoy
Kas kadagiti rikna iti ili
A dati ket pasetnatayo a kas pul-oy
Ken angin ken lawag. Kasta met kadagiti bagiw.
Ken ti pakasaritaan dagiti eklipse
No kasta a ti pulitika ket tinapaytayo
Ket addatayo ditoy tapno lalo a mabisin
Tapno lalo a mawaw iti laksid
Panangpakalma kadagiti nerviostayo iti kaltaang
Ti nalabaga a bulan nga agsublinto
Kadatayo, ti obituario ti leddaangtayo
Ti resesion dagiti ayat.

Junio 24, 2011/

Red Moon at Midnight

It is this red moon at midnight.
The dream is dying to live on and on.
It is red, as is revolution in heat
Like this animal we have reared
Brought to life from our bodies
The lines of our poems too
Even the courage of our youth.
It is past summertime here
With our feelings for a land
We used to be part of as wind
And air and light. Storms too.
And then the story of eclipses
When politics becomes our bread
And we are here to hunger for more
To thirst for more even as we
Calm our nerves at this midnight
Of the red moon that will come back
To us, its obituary of our grief
The recession of our loves.

June 24, 2011/