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April 8, 2009

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Assimilation to larger American society: Language and the oft-cited Filipino colonial mentality

February 21, 2009


I have been in Honolulu for almost 8 years now for a graduate program that has taken longer than I expected. It’s probably because I enjoy the sun and beaches of Waikiki or because of a PhD program that normally goes between 7 to 10 years. Anyhow, I am not writing about my gripes of the system – I am actually taking pleasure in it! I write about the perceived “colonial mentality” of Filipinos, especially when it comes to speaking Filipino (or Tagalog, as some would call the language).

I believe that if you’re reading this, you’ve had had an experience with someone (a Filipino or someone whose ethnicity is other than “American”) who wanted to pass him/herself as an American or to hide the strong Filipino accent. In Hawaii, where over 15% of the population is considered of Filipino descent, you would bump a kababayan in every corner of the islands. I am a regular bus rider and I encounter a kababayan as if I am taking a bus ride along EDSA. These encounters, for some us who are far away from “home”, should be considered a good thing. As the famous line goes, a home away from home. I, however, had several unforgettable experiences (that I am sure, you had too) with some of our kababayan. I would try to start a conversation in Filipino, but would be receiving a response in English, as though, the person does not understand Filipino. At first, I dismissed this as something that has to do with Ilokano speakers in Hawaii – if you ask an Ilokano in Hawaii if they are Filipino, some of them would respond that no, they are not Filipino, but Ilokano (the majority of Filipinos in Hawaii are of Ilocano-descent). However, as time went by, this experience happens again and again, even with non-Ilokano speakers. When my son was born, my wife and I decided that we will speak to him exclusively in Filipino. I guess, this was unsettling to others. A lot of times, we would hear comments like, “Why are you talking to him in Filipino, he wouldn’t learn English that way”. We would just respond with a smile, we’ve decided not to argue about it (not because of condescension but more because of our perceived futility in the argument).

In language acquisition studies, we’ve learned that children below the age of twelve can learn two or more languages. Toddlers exposed to two or more languages would take longer to learn speaking. That probably explains why single-language households will have a babbling two-year old, while a multi-language household will wait for a few more months for a toddler to chunk out 3-4-word combination. In addition, we also learn from these studies that an individual who has not learned a language by age twelve, that person would not acquire a language at all.

Anyhow, back to my encounters with Filipinos who refuse to talk in Filipino, it seemed like these kababayans were ashamed of being stared upon and asked whether they are Filipino. As a Filipino, this bothered me. Why couldn’t we have a conversation in Filipino? Why would they try to hide an accent when you could actually hear the three vowels that make up the vowels of central Philippine languages? I told myself that I will not respond in English if I know that I am talking to a Filipino.

As an anthropologist, discussions on colonial mentality came up as an explanation for this apparent distaste for one’s own ethnicity. After all, everything western is thought to be better; that being under colonial rule for more than 300 years is enough to diminish our self-esteem. As Raul Manglapus stated, “No wonder, after three centuries in chains… the tao… should lose the erect and fearless posture of the freeman, and become the bent, misshapen, indolent, vicious, pitiful thing that he is!” For most of us, this explains everything, we have somebody to blame for what shaped our perspectives, but are we doing anything to change this? Do we review our basic education curriculum to make the next generation prouder of their heritage? Do we reflect on our own perspectives whether we are also mired in this colonial mentality thinking?

I have to admit that blaming colonial mentality is the easy way out to justify my kababayans’ behavior. However, I do understand that our perspectives are shaped by our respective experiences. If Filipinos overseas choose to speak English, then, it’s their decision (for whatever reasons, which I think are valid). Language is only one aspect of our culture, and speaking in English (and trying to perfect the twang) would make Filipinos understandable to native English speakers, thus, would facilitate one’s assimilation to a wider American culture.

My assertion above was supported by papers written by my students with Filipino descent. Most of these students don’t speak their parents’ first language. They explain that they were encouraged to learn English instead of Filipino. Most of them however, are now reclaiming their heritage and learning Filipino or Ilocano at the University of Hawaii System.

As an exercise for introducing culture (I teach Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology to supplement my meager PhD fellowship), I asked my students to come up with a paper on food preference. As it turned out, all of these Filipino students eat Filipino dishes in their households. They wrote about dinuguan, balot, dog meat (not in Hawaii but when they went to the Philippines), kare-kare (which is probably of Mexican or Spanish origin because peanut is not native to the Philippines), and of course adobo (I was surprised that there was no mention of sinigang). They also wrote about how they were reared by their parents (in terms of food eating habits), which were easily recognizable as part of Filipino value system. After reading all the papers, I came to a realization that the Filipinos I encounter daily on the bus were not ashamed of being Filipinos, they wanted to fit in into the larger American society. They still practice Filipino values at home; they still instill “good” habits of eating; they still feed their children adobo.

Although there is still a lot of truth on blaming colonial mentality, I believe that it is not the only reason on the apparent degradation of Filipino-ness. As mentioned above, language is only one aspect of culture (though it’s more immediate than other aspects – you don’t usually see a Filipino father or mother cooking at home), and it is the main avenue in assimilating to a larger American society. Yes, we still need to revamp our basic education curriculum, yes, we still need to instill the importance of heritage to the next generation of Filipinos, but we have to stop blaming colonial mentality – that is the easy way out.

The Streets of One’s Reminiscence

February 18, 2009

There is something about familiar places that makes one wistful for things past. Simply watching the length of a street in one’s hometown can induce a diarrhea of memories. Catching a glimpse of a run-down gate in the old neighborhood or the sun sinking at the edge of a field is sure to put one in a nostalgic mode. Finding oneself back in the streets of one’s childhood is certainly no exception.

Mayao Road, barangay Mayao’s main thoroughfare, is a straight and narrow path that starts where the modest home of the Barcelons – whose sons were tall and played good basketball – used to stand and ends where the Busac Road begins in the middle of the farmlands. That road has two streets branching both ways. The path that turns left has remained unpaved for many generations. It turns muddy in the rainy months and dusty in the dry season. It goes past the barangay kiosk, skirts a brief stretch of the earth dike, and curves right and then left into Mayao’s innermost districts.

It was somewhere at a bend down this street, not far from the kiosk, on a warm and lazy evening in the 1980s that Mayao’s barangay captain was arrested by a group of NPA cadres for his involvement in the murder of a fellow barangay captain. This incident took place a few months after the town mayor’s brother, an Army colonel who was then on vacation in Oas, was gunned down by suspected rebels on the street near his house near the town’s commercial area, also known as the centro, in broad daylight. The colonel, a handsome and charming man who was well-liked in his neighborhood, was on his way to a nearby store for his daily dose of cigarettes. He had apparently been on the NPA’s hit list for having allegedly sent Army troops to run repeatedly after the rebels in the town’s mountainous regions during his brother’s extended tenure as mayor of Oas under Marcos’s martial rule.

Rumor had it that the colonel’s assassins had been seen at least once emerging from the house of the barangay captain of Obaliw, a village parallel to Mayao on the other side of the river. The colonel’s death reportedly sent the mayor, a man known to have a short fuse, on a rampage. Mayao’s barangay captain had often announced to anyone who cared to listen that he was a relative of the mayor, and went to great lengths to prove his loyalty to the latter. On the day Obaliw’s barangay captain disappeared, Mayao’s barangay captain came to fetch the former at a meeting of local officials in one of the town’s three central elementary schools, reportedly upon the invitation of the mayor. That night, the barangay chairman of Obaliw, who was in the twilight of his years, failed to return home. His lifeless body was found the next day dumped in a ditch by a rice field two or three towns into Camarines Sur. He was identified through the wedding band on his finger. His death was to be the first of a series of suspected vendetta killings in Oas that lasted several years. Mayao’s barangay captain, taken many weeks since that last killing, was never seen again. His family ultimately resigned themselves to his fate. Several others met a similar fate, causing a public outcry. But no one was ever haled to court to answer for these killings and, over time, they gradually faded from memory.

An earth dike runs parallel to the Mayao Road, on its southern or left side, toward Libon. It has kept at bay the town’s old river – which flows from Mayon Volcano, snakes through several towns before reaching Oas and then Libon, and branches out into numerous tributaries across the territories it runs through. Decades ago, only a few families lived along the riverbank. But as the local population grew, more houses were erected on the dike on both sides of the waterway. Children who had the audacity to swim in the river sometimes ended up being claimed by it. On several occasions in the last four decades, the river broke through the dike on Mayao’s side, inundating wide areas of the barangay’s residential and farm land.

The path that turns right several meters past the street that branches to the left connects the Mayao Road to the Bangkusay Road, which is parallel to the main road. From the national highway, the Bangkusay Road leads straight to the town’s Roman Catholic cemetery. It runs past the rice fields that give an unimpeded view of Mount Mayon in the northeast and the distant farmlands of neighboring Polangui to the north. The connecting road, which stops right at the entrance of the old cemetery, spans an entire block. The whole area adjoining the old public cemetery along this path has now been converted into a memorial park by its private owners.

The side of the street facing both cemeteries belongs to two clans, more than half of which is owned by the family that runs the oldest rice mill in the barangay. It is that part of the block occupying the corner of Mayao Road and the route that turns right toward the cemeteries. To this family belonged Lola Miti, a tall good-looking woman whose hair was white as an ogis (a white-feathered rooster). Those who grew up in the neighborhood remember her with fondness, for she always gave children more than their money’s worth whenever they came to her daughter’s sari-sari store. To them she was an angel in light-colored dusters, the female and trim version of Santa Claus, who gave them two or three extra pieces of the ear-shaped tango crackers, colored dilemon candies, or those chewy belekoy that stained one’s teeth with a brownish juice – to her daughter’s consternation. She called every one of them babâ, or dear one. When she died in her 90s, the entire barangay poured out into the streets to mourn her passing and join her funeral procession.

The rest of that block belongs to a family of highly skilled carpenters and gold miners, some of whom left many years ago to join the gold rush somewhere in Mindanao. Their houses occupy the corner of the connecting street nearest to the old cemetery and the Bangkusay Road. A creek that runs between a portion of the Mayao and Bangkusay roads cuts through the two lots and divides the old cemetery from the new one. Back in the 70s when only the old cemetery was in place, the vacant lot next to it was planted to anahaw, coconut trees, and all manner of vegetation. It was also the graveyard for our fallen kites that were fashioned from the pages of old Free Press magazines. We would run there whenever our kites took an irreversible nosedive or whenever the thread – which we called, rightly or wrongly, irudibila – snapped and the kite which sometimes bore the face of Sergio Osmeña Jr., a rather chubby Ninoy Aquino, or Ferdinand Marcos would end up in that area. On certain afternoons we tried to catch dragonflies of all colors there, but our older playmates constantly warned us against disturbing and offending the unseen ones, so we desisted.

In the late 60s up to the 70s, drunkards occasionally challenged each other to a fistfight on Mayao Road. But theirs was more of a duel of words – specifically incomprehensible taunts and dares – than anything else, for the protagonists were too drunk to be able to raise their fists at all or go for each other’s jugular. They usually just fell where they stood, wobbling like fools in their drunkenness. At one time, one of them tried to wave a sundang, used mostly for cutting and chopping wood for fuel, but ended up crying on the street for no apparent reason, sending everyone laughing. On another occasion, one rolled right down into the canal on the right side of the road and landed face down, almost drowning in water that was only three inches deep.

Children played turubigan, better known as patintero, on that road on full-moon nights. On one such night, our neighbor Tô Inggo – who, like a good number of males in the neighborhood, had a drinking habit – was walking home from a drinking session. Upon hearing the sound of the kikik (a bird with a distinctly shrill sound that was believed to be the harbinger of the asuwang), he made a dash for his house, slipped on the bamboo bridge connecting his house to the street, and fell into the creek below that flowed between the two cemeteries about half a kilometer away. He was the same person who, fed up with his wife’s nagging, once tried to hang himself with a rope used as a leash for his carabao. Drunk as usual, he tied one end of the rope to a beam right above the second-floor window, put the noose around his neck, stepped onto the window sill, and bid the world goodbye before jumping to the ground. But the rope was so lengthy that he ended up spraining a leg when he landed in the dust. It effectively put a stop to his wife’s nagging, though.

The Mayao and Bangkusay roads, and the route connecting them, are always jammed with people headed for their loved ones’ graves on the first two days of November. Friends in school used to tease me about our “fiesta nin mga tulang” or “feast of bones,” and I simply shrugged it off with a smile.

Funeral processions ply those roads throughout the year. In my youth, these processions were often accompanied by a funeral band led by Tô Titot, whose major occupation was that of a barber. As the band’s major, he wielded a baton, and put on a crisp white uniform, white gloves, and his deadly weapons – a pair of pointed leather shoes, topped with a shiny black cap that resembled that of a policeman. His drummers and those who played wind instruments wore the same uniform, but for the cap. It was always a pleasure to watch them do their slow march. We used to drop whatever we were doing at the sound of the band’s drums, rush toward the cemetery to watch the band execute their slow movements and the mourners display their grief, and try to peer into coffins for a glimpse of the deceased. One time, I was hoisted by the cemetery caretaker onto an elevated wooden plank for a good view of the casket, and was jarred at the sight of a very old woman whose cheeks were so pallid and sunken, her nostrils clogged with cotton, and her jaws held together with a kerchief tied around her face to keep her mouth closed. It made me sick to my stomach, and never again did i join my playmates on such little adventures.

Once I came upon rain falling on one side of the Mayao Road, right in front of Lola Miti’s house, while the other half of the street was hot and dry. It was a sight that got all of us kids jumping like crazy, which in turn got the dogs in the area all excited and barking at us, at the rain, and at the dry part of the street that hissed whenever raindrops strayed there.

Indeed, it always gives one a pang of nostalgia to remember those years when the trees on both sides of Mayao Road glowed with fireflies, when boys whose hair was plastered with Three Flowers pomade perpetually chewed gum at brightly lit public dances, when kids got stung by wasps in a game of hide-and-seek and took a dip in the creek’s clear waters and raided the fruit trees ahead of the birds throughout the morning of their lives.

by barbara barquez ricafrente

Of Savages, History, and Archaeology: Re-Writing the History of Tinambac, Camarines Sur

February 16, 2009


Bikol, as in other parts of the Philippines, rely on Spanish accounts (which we anthropologists call, ethnohistory) for information about our early history and culture. These accounts, usually unpleasant, constitute our only concrete (written) link to the past. Although archaeology provides us with another, more neutral, avenue, almost nothing has been done on Bikol preHispanic dynamics.

I was encouraged to write this short narrative when I read a short description of the history of my birthplace, Tinambac, Camarines Sur. Almost all of the historical information regarding this place is based on Spanish accounts and as an anthropological archaeologist, I feel mortified by the use of the terms savage and civilized, not because the former refers to the people I claim kinship with, but because these terms should not be part of our present-day vocabulary.

While skimming through the description of Tinambac’s history in a website created for Tinambaqueños, I was held off when my eye caught the term “savages” to refer to the Aeta groups that constantly attacked Christian towns in the late 1700s. I know that this term is a product of its time (classical and social evolutionists in the 18th and 19th centuries classified societies in a ladder-like development — savagery, barbarism, and civilization, where the civilized world is, of course, European colonialists). Since all non-Christians were classified as “savages”, they used these categories to justify colonization, thus the term “white man’s burden”, “manifest destiny”, etc. They thought that since they were in the apex of this evolutionary development, it was their responsibility to tow “savages” and “barbarians” to an inevitable progress. Anyhow, these terms has grown out of use — since the early 1900s! Today, the use of savagery and barbarism is ethnocentric and racist.

I used the above narration as a take off point to a probable thriving preHispanic interaction/trade between coastal and interior groups in present-day Tinambac – With Lupi River as the major transport route. I should have done this right after finishing college and contribute to local history-writing. If I did, I would have the right to criticize how my culture’s history was written.

I know that Tinambac had pre-Hispanic interaction/trade with other groups. In one of my treks the trail from Sogod to Union (through a river crossing) in my high school days, I noticed a lot of Chinese ceramic sherds that might date during the Ming (AD 1644-1368) and Yuan (AD 1279-1368) dynasties — blue and white wares (Brgy. Sogod is located near the estuary of Lupi River while the trail to Brgy. Union is on the other bank of the estuary – less populated today). We might even have some Sung dynasty (AD 960-1279) ceramics — celadon — though these might have been traded later. And of course, a lot of earthenware ceramics, which suggests significant population density.

Geologically, Poblacion, including Sogod, was probably formed by Himoragat and Lupi Rivers (though a geologist should correct me if I am wrong). If you look through Google Earth, yes Tinambac has a high-resolution aerial image, probably 2.5-meter resolution, the Poblacion is sort of an island between the two rivers.

Anyhow, Tinambac should be a rich source of preHispanic information for Camarines Sur. Its “discovery” and subsequent occupation (by Europeans) was late (according to the “history” – ca. mid-1700s). The amount of Chinese ceramics on that trail that leads to Union suggests that there was a trading post in the vicinity of Lupi River — and I expect that precontact settlements were scattered along the banks of Lupi River and its headwaters.

Hopefully, I would be able to carry out studies in Tinambac later in my career. I have to admit that I have limited knowledge on the history of Bikol. It’s a shame that I know more about northern Philippines than the place I call home.

for a dog named bullfrog

February 13, 2009

your earflaps droop
as the skies weep down
the very roots of trees
that breathe the lament of cicadas.
i ponder at the grass
its cool ecstatic green
a reprieve from vaguenesses
the sight of you infects me with.
i wonder if you ever find yourself
dreaming of absent suns,
or if that gloom in your eyes
is yours indeed
or mine.

(1987)

barbara barquez ricafrente, monologues and other poems

The St. Luke’s Maneuver

February 12, 2009

by barbara barquez ricafrente

By now, it has become a pattern. Influential or well-connected rouges who are trying to evade arrest or congressional summons to a hearing to answer corruption charges are using St. Luke’s Medical Center – a hospital in Quezon City that only the well-heeled can afford – as a place of refuge, a means to bide their time while contemplating their next move.

The infamous Joc-Joc Bolante started it, and now Jimmy Paule has also opted to do the same. No less than Senator Biazon has pointed this out. Faced with an arrest order issued by the Senate for his alleged involvement in the 2004 fertilizer scam which has cost the government at least 700 million pesos, Bolante had himself delivered straight to St. Luke’s from the airport upon his arrival from about two years of detention in the United States. His supposed cardiovascular problems were used to justify his stay of about two weeks at the hospital. In the end, it turned out that his blood pressure was normal after all, his cardiovascular health apparently better than those of us with less body fat and no fertilizers to account for. When he finally appeared at the Senate, his performance was flawless. He simply denied most allegations and contracted amnesia in regard to other matters.

Now the beleaguered Paule, facing the prospect of incarceration at the heavily congested Pasay City Jail for lying under oath at the Senate, is claiming to have a blocked carotid that needs immediate medical attention at St. Luke’s. Paule, of course, is the suspected link between the women who supplied the fertilizers and Department of Agriculture officials, and has been described as a fixer of government contracts. During the Senate hearing he attended, he consistently denied knowing the women who all named him as the one who informed them about and made the arrangements for their involvement in the agriculture department’s fertilizer project. Shown a photograph that included him, his wife and child, and these very same women, Paule stood pat on his claim that he did not know them personally. He even went as far as to suggest the photograph might have been tampered with the use of computer technology. His claims and denials were simply too incredulous that the senators eventually came to the conclusion that Paule had lied. To evade arrest, thus, the man has sought sanctuary at St. Luke’s while his lawyer questions before the courts the Senate order for his incarceration.

It seems, thus, that whenever they are running out of options, those implicated in anomalous government contracts suddenly become health-conscious and have themselves confined at St. Luke’s. Certainly, this gives them enough time to rehearse the answers they will give to Senate investigators and at the same time file petitions before the courts. As such, St. Luke’s is turning out to be a temporary haven for men who apparently fear they might slip up and point a finger at someone who literally casts a large shadow in Malacañang. Incidentally, that hospital is also the First Couple’s favorite medical institution, the place where the First Gentleman (FG) himself goes to for his regular check-ups since surviving a delicate aneurysmectomy and a triple bypass operation there last April. Of course, this could simply mean that FG, Bolante, and Paule share similar tastes when it comes to hospitals.

All this can be likened to a game of chess where the accusers employ an aggressive opening game. To avoid a possible check-mate situation, the ones accused then resort to the “St. Luke’s Maneuver,” alongside the denial-to-death strategy and the “Amnesia Attack.” The accusers follow through with a vigorous middle game that keeps the accused on the defensive. In the end, however, those accused of robbing this country blind ultimately win the match in either of two ways: employing a superior end game that one might call “Power Play,” or simply allowing their opponents to lose by default for failure to finish the game.

This has evolved into a national farce that gets played over and over again with the same outcomes right before our eyes, leaving us desensitized and convinced that we are powerless to change the situation. The end result? A government that is convinced it can do as it pleases with impunity, a bureaucracy that is weighed down by incompetence and demoralization, and a people grown accustomed to the unmitigated poverty, social injustice, and despair in our midst that we seem to have mistaken for our shared fate. This is our tragedy, and may yet prove to be our collective undoing.

Manuel

January 20, 2009


by barbara barquez ricafrente

He was always Awil to those who knew him since he was a boy who ran around in his birthday suit, his face often caked with mûrit from dirt, dried-up tears, and a breakfast diet of rice coffee that his mother did not bother to wipe off his cheeks. The eldest of ten children, he only went as far as the second grade, and this is the reason he has always had a hard time with math, could not read, and could hardly write – save for his name.

His father Domingo was the local bully in his younger years. Despite his muscular physique, Domingo had a certain disdain for manual labor. Instead, he would position himself at a corner of the main street in his barangay and demand peso coins from passersby. For this, he earned the alias Ibŭg, which in the local dialect meant thick-faced or shameless. As he began to grow white hair and acquire a stoop, however, Domingo somehow got hold of an old violin which he trained himself to play. He eventually formed a string quartet of self-taught musicians, with him playing the violin, two others playing the guitar, and the fourth member playing the base guitar. He composed his own music and had his own repertoire of songs for a group of young girls he organized into a dance troupe that became known as his pastoras. These girls, his neighbors’ daughters, were usually clad in a screaming red dress with raffles and a matching red hat and sash. The girls, whose thickly made-up faces made them look like they had fallen right smack into a mound of rice flour, performed at selected homes in town and were given “cash donations” by pleased homeowners during the Christmas season. They even joined competitions among similar groups in other parts of Bicol.

Awil’s mother was a laundrywoman who, even in the ‘60s, already skipped meals trying to feed her large brood. Thus, Awil learned early on that he needed to develop some skills in order to get by in this world. By the time he reached his teens, he had become a highly skilled pickpocket. He was a keen reader of body language, and knew right away when someone had money on him. He also polished the art of distraction to perfection. Sometimes he went with a partner, usually one of his younger brothers whom many likened to Jesus Christ for his long flowing hair and gentle face, but operated mostly on his own. His victims never noticed their missing purse, wallet, or bundle of cash tucked in the front pockets of their trousers or jeans until they had to take it out to pay for something. He was always on target and never missed a beat, something that earned him the grudging respect of the town’s older and less-talented thieves.

To spare his family from potentially embarrassing situations, however, he deemed it prudent to change venues by picking other people’s pockets in the more prosperous neighboring towns of Polangui and Ligao. Sometimes he went further south to Legazpi City, or went the other way to the bustling town of Nabua in Camarines Sur and the latter’s cities of Iriga and Naga. However, this got him into trouble with the other fellows of the local underworld in those areas and they took turns beating him up. Awil somehow survived these episodes and, owing to his pleasant manners and harmless stance, he was eventually able to befriend the gang leaders. Although he was never caught red-handed, he earned quite a reputation in these places that got him thrown in jail a number of times. These stints sometimes lasted months, his family not having the slightest idea where he had gone off to. He got out of jail only when one of his friends from the underworld bailed him out, or when his jailors had become too friendly with him, or when the jail warden was running out of funds for the detainees’ meals.

At the age of twenty, Awil fell for the charms of a woman who worked as a housemaid in one of the bigger houses in his barangay. She bore him eight children whose names he sometimes forgot or interchanged. When the going was good, Awil was very generous with his earnings. He gave almost all of it to his woman and told her to buy whatever she needed. This, however, was the exception rather than the rule. More often than not, he could hardly scrape together enough money to buy even his own meal.

Despite his poverty, Awil had a happy disposition. He had neither expectations nor goals. He did not bother to get employment anywhere, join his peasant neighbors reap palay for local landowners during the harvest season, weave weed baskets for local middlemen in the lean months like his neighbors did, or sell rice biscuits or puto in nearby cities for extra income. He simply lived each day as it came. He drank some to please his peers, but had very low tolerance for alcohol. Neither did he smoke, unlike his father who reeked of tobacco. His children grew up on their own, like wild plants that shoot up any which way toward the sunlight. He hardly noticed them, did not know what their preferences were, and had no idea what went through their minds. By the time his third child, a boy, hit sixteen, the kid came into the company of armed rebels who frequented the more remote fringes of the barangay. It did not take long before the boy joined them in the mountains. Awil never saw him again.

Fed up with being poor, his wife landed a job as a domestic help in one of those South Pacific islands. She wrote to Awil one day, several years since she had left her family for that far-flung country, to tell him she wasn’t coming back and that she had found another man, a local, with whom she wanted to spend the rest of her life. Awil, of course, did not know what to make of the letter. Making excuses about the state of his eyesight, he asked a neighbor to read the letter for him instead and apprise him of its contents. Upon learning of his wife’s decision, Awil felt sad and went home to sleep.

It only took a week before he decided it was time to move on. As he did have a thing for housemaids, Awil flirted openly with some of the younger ones employed in his neighborhood. He brought them on dates either at the old Bichara Theater in Ligao or the newer one in Polangui, where they watched back-to-back Tagalog action films usually featuring FPJ, Lito Lapid, and Rudy Fernandez, and had lunch or merienda at nearby eateries. Sometimes when Awil did not have enough cash for a movie and a meal for two, he and his date just listened to a movie broadcast by way of loudspeakers over an adjoining wet-and-dry market in Polangui as they sat on grimy benches at a halo-halo stall that was teeming with fat flies and crawling with stray cats and dogs. The girls always seemed quite taken by him, as Awil gifted them with cheap little things such as a pink comb or a gaudy purse and always made them feel like a princess.

He also developed an interest in cockfighting. He tagged along with cockfighting enthusiasts or the para-bulang among his neighbors and enthusiastically placed bets on their cocks. He even bought his own roosters and tried to train them into becoming prize fighters, but his attempts were all in vain for Awil had no understanding of the scientific approach. His cocks always ended up on someone else’s dining table. After some time, he decided to give up this distraction.

Mid-life crisis hit him at age fifty. Awil did not know what to do with his life, and sought the advice of a neighbor whom he considered a friend. But he was not making himself clear by mumbling, sighing, and giving only bits of what was on his mind. Pressed for an explanation, he finally blurted out that he felt so useless after his peers in the underworld had teased him about why he was still a pickpocket when the rest of them had elevated their game to pushing marijuana and shabu, the so-called poor man’s cocaine. The neighbor warned him of the dangers of drug pushing, telling him it could land him in jail for the rest of his life or get him killed. Awil gave it a lot of thought and, after sometime, decided he would only deal in marijuana just to show his peers he was no wimp.

His modest earnings from this trade allowed him to buy his own pedal-powered tricycle, known locally as the padyak. After some years, Awil deemed it best to clean up his act altogether by becoming a full-time padyak driver. But as he had never done manual labor in his life, he soon grew tired of the physical exertion the job required and went off to Bulacan to stay with the family of one of his daughters. Today, he seems happier trying his hand at playing grandfather to his children’s children, and flirting with housemaids whenever the opportunity presents itself. He has no expectations that life has anything better to offer, and is perfectly at ease with where he is. That is, until his peers come out of the woodwork once again to tease him about his lack of progress.

* * *

please, sun

January 16, 2009

bring me your light
that shimmered on the wings
of yellow moths
i scurried after as a child
and cast shadows that carried no forebodings
and saw me traipsing reckless on a footbridge
at midstream
my smile up to my ears
like a slice of watermelon
as the floodwaters raged below me
tailing a hurricane.
dissolve this iceberg moored in my soul
that breathes a deadly chill
into the core of my bones
and makes me shiver like an old dog
caught in an out-of-season rain.
please, sun, touch me with your luster,
irradiate me with your glow,
electrify me with your hell-fire,
turn up your heat
set me aflame
for i’m a lightless creature prowling the land
and leaving bits and shreds of my self
across an endless route
that strays into abandoned buildings,
digresses into alleyways,
rushes toward lighted fields,
confusing you with floodlights,
and stumbles into places
warmed by a quiet drone of voices –
trying to find you.

(1996)

barbara barquez ricafrente, monologues and other poems

January 9, 2009

THE ROAD TO LINAO by barbara barquez ricafrente

I was only around five when I made my first visit to Linao, a barangay tucked in the backwoods of Libon town in Albay province. My father’s older sister had settled there with her husband in the early ‘60s, their house just right across the road from the barangay’s lone public elementary school where the couple, then young school teachers, had asked to be reassigned. They had wanted a fresh start for their growing family.

It was a long trip on rough roads that were interrupted in some parts by several small waterways and a winding river, the Bacolòd as I heard my grandfather Cornelio call it. We were accompanied by Jib, a Libon-based American peace corps volunteer of Irish descent whom we were told to call Uncle, even as we were completely unrelated, because he had become a close family friend. I remember riding on someone’s shoulders when we reached the river – where a collapsed wooden bridge had been in a state of disrepair for years – and being deposited at the bottom of a wooden canoe along with my grandmother Constancia who was always nervous about boat rides, my mother and two brothers, Uncle Jib, and the boatman. The rest of our entourage, which included my father and his gleaming red-and-black motorbike, crossed the river in the same manner.

Huge trees, like brooding giants, flanked both sides of the road as we entered Linao. All I could hear then were the sound of cicadas, the occasional chirping of birds, and a soft wind rustling through countless leaves. The cool air and enveloping silence of those woods were most impressive to a child accustomed to the constant noise of radios, neighborhood loudspeakers blaring Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Eddie Peregrina songs, and live combos that played rock-and-roll in my neighborhood all day long in the swinging Sixties.

Across the road from my aunt’s house was the Linao Public Elementary School, which sat on sprawling grounds that ran uphill toward more trees. At the center of its wide lawn stood a huge acacia tree, its long branches and wide canopy of leaves a refuge for wild birds and other creatures in the area. When my uncle’s father – also an educator and a man with a taste for women, fine tobacco, and good food – had founded the school in 1947, that acacia tree was already standing there. It was a key feature in the school’s winning in a nationwide competition on several occasions as one of the country’s cleanest and most beautiful rural campuses during my uncle’s term as school principal.

The rest of that trip is a blur, but for the crossing of the river on our way back and the labored asthmatic breathing of my grandmother, who was bent on making certain she could drag all of herself into the boat without tilting it too far on one side and causing it to capsize.

Less than two decades later, Army trucks plied the Mayao road ferrying soldiers either dead or wounded from Linao, then the scene of battle between the New People’s Army and government troops. The military never admitted to it, but our cousins said the woods at the back of the elementary school which overlooked the school grounds had been a crucial vantage point for rebel fighters, who were able to beat back pursuing Army troops. This incident prompted my older brother to call Linao “Little Nicaragua,” for it was in the same decade the Sandinistas had overtaken the troubled South American nation. This battle lasted days and, after the last gunshots had been fired, was eventually forgotten.

Several dry seasons hence, my younger brother and I decided to go see the back roads again on his motorcycle, and ended up going all the way to Linao. The road was still unpaved and now riddled with potholes along the Mayao-to-Busac stretch of Oas town – especially that area which opens wide into the farmlands where visiting white herons were constantly stabbing the mud with their beaks in search of food. It was a hot and dusty trip on a day in April, and we had to slow down somewhere in Saban, the last barangay of Oas leading to Libon, because a flock of brown ducks was crossing the road. As if on cue, they turned their heads in our direction all at the same time, reminding one of synchronized swimmers, and wagged their exposed bottoms at us as we went by.

The trees of Linao remained silent and imposing, a thin mist caught in their thick canopies even on an April day. At our aunt’s house, we were served fresh and luscious papayas from their backyard garden. The house was now fenced in on all sides by a row of Chinese bamboos, where venomous green snakes thrived whenever the groves had grown too thick. As my uncle preferred to keep his windows and doors wide open to the cool air, unfettered by aluminum screens to keep out mosquitoes at night and flies at daytime, his house became part of the natural landscape. It was visited freely by pythons and other snakes that were sometimes curled up in my cousin’s closet, resting under the couple’s matrimonial bed, or pausing under the dining table before they were picked up with a long stick and flicked over the bamboo fence to disappear into the trees.

Returning to the place just recently to see my aunt – now all of 80 years old and having outlived all her siblings despite her diabetes – only took some thirteen minutes by car. The entire stretch of the road is now paved with concrete, a telltale sign of progress. The once-collapsed wooden bridge over the river in Bacolòd has been replaced by a sturdy concrete structure, while the thick avenue of trees that once greeted the visitor upon arriving there has thinned significantly, with more houses now lining both sides of the road. Even the fireflies that once lighted up those trees at night are said to have markedly declined in number. The woods behind the school have thinned out as well, even as the huge acacia tree still stands like an old sentinel over the school grounds, which have seen better days.

But back in my aunt’s garden, the twin chico trees right by her backdoor are taller than they have ever been, and the cacao plants are once again heavy with fruit which my uncle will soon harvest. He will squash the fruits open with his bare hands to expose the seeds, let them dry in the sun, roast the seeds on a pan, reduce them to granules in a hand-driven grinder, sweeten them with some sugar, and shape them into balls of chocolate. Then he will plop these chocolate balls into a small pot of boiling water for his own homemade chocolate drink, and whip up a serving of sticky rice or pinakŭrŭ and dried fish or tuyô for good measure. This, to him, is pure heaven. Despite his blurring eyesight, he continues to fill the pages of his journal with every little thing that goes on around him and anything that piques his interest. His home, now frayed in many places, will remain his sanctuary until the end of his days and a half-way house for creatures on their way to everywhere.

January 8, 2009

things that move me ______________________________________________________

the thought of things that move me
now pulls back
to one small hand that waves
from across a field
to children perched on iron tanks
their imagined supermen pushing trains
that drag forever on the tracks
to strings of houselights
that bruise eyes
and force out one small blob of water
from old eyes.

(1982)

barbara barquez ricafrente, monologues and other poems