Thoughts on the Word ‘Tradition’

Woo, I know I have been very quiet lately. A quick update – I have not posted for a while because 1) I had to, ya know, finish my thesis, and 2) I conferred my degree! Finally, I have been able to take some time to decompress. Now that my brain has recovered, I’m happy to get back in the habit. I figured I’d start with an interesting correspondence I had.

Recently, a friend I met at the 2013 International Babaylan Conference sent me a message and asked my thoughts and opinions on the words ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’. When is it okay to use, if at all? I was both surprised and unsurprised, because of course, this is a highly problematic term; however, it is a term that cannot be avoided using. Below is my (edited) response:
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There have been many essays and dialogues written up about the problem of the term and use of ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional.’ Historical anthropology and ethnology brought about the temporal notion of ‘traditional’ versus ‘modern’, and with it, other sticky, Western-based dichotomies:

savage vs. civil
barbaric vs. refined
pagan vs. christian
Other/Oriental vs. Western
inferior vs. superior
insider vs. outsider

Academic fields have since addressed this topic, which has produced a sort of apologetic discourse. (like: “hey, sorry the country I’m from colonized yours and then applied their own meanings to your culture – we know this is bad and here’s what we wrote about it!” type of thing). It continues to be problematized, and the terms are always written with qualifying statements when used.  Now that colonized/formerly (continually?) oppressed countries have started to speak out about their own conditions and histories, have set movements of cultural rebirth in motion, or have incorporated indigenous research within their own academic approaches, the term ‘tradition’ remains a hot topic. It is both embraced and shunned, but should be used appropriately. The tricky thing is that most people have a sliding scale of what is appropriate and what is not. It differs with each culture, and then differs culturally versus academically (yes, complex and confusing – especially difficult for those who are both culturally and academically inclined).

Here are my thoughts on ‘tradition’ as a practice and ‘traditional’ as an adjective:

My personal take on the word ‘tradition’ is that it is totally okay to use.  In fact, I can’t imagine NOT using it. Indeed, tradition is all around us – it evolves, it changes, it adapts just as each generation does. Older traditions are modernized. Other traditions have been born just recently, in contemporary contexts.  Traditions, even when modern, continue to invoke ancestral acknowledgement.  I personally believe that traditions must innovate – it is the way that they survive and stay relevant to us.  Others think that when we add a new twist to traditions, we are bastardizing it or disrespecting the ancestors somehow.  Certainly, it all depends on how these innovations are handled.  I know of contemporary cloak weavers who painstakingly gather and prepare the raw materials, fibers and feathers for traditional and ceremonial use.  I know of other cloak weavers who spend as much time and energy on their craft but use materials like glass and wire – not for use as wear, but as art.  Both parties have used the word ‘traditional’ (among others) to describe themselves.  It all depends.  Is tradition decided by materials, or intended use?  Or aesthetics?  Even then, there are more nuances that can be brought to consideration.

But, to go back to the original question of when/how the terms ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ is used, here are my general rules of thumb when used in writing or presentations:

  1. Know who your audience is
  2. Express in some way that you are aware it is a problematic term (normally found in an introduction to a body of work)
  3. Contextualize it within its time period
  4. Take care to mention which part of the ‘tradition’ you are referring to (cultural/temporal specificity)

For example:

  1. This is a traditional carving that repeats our ancestral patterns and indicates a sacred house, although we used contemporary architectural designs.
  2. This is a traditional dance that uses age-old moves/narratives/music, but is no longer performed to indicate ceremony.
  3. This is a traditional weaving, but I’m wearing it a contemporary garment.
  4. Exchange of [x] was a tradition popular in the 19th century but was discontinued in 20th century, although the production of [x] continues today.

Again, these qualifying statements are essential.  They can be confusing, as traditions are constantly morphing and expanding.  But, spending time and attention to detail will pay off.  Otherwise, you can end up being the target for a lot of criticism.

Some other thoughts:

I have been involved with, and listened to, other culture bearer artists whom I’ve witnessed get uncomfortable when scholars use the word ‘traditional’, but then describe themselves or their work as ‘traditional’ with every fiber of their being.  Again, I think this goes back to that temporal notion.  Many of the cultural producers feel as though they are being frozen in time or historicized, flattened and encapsulated in a sterile, academic discourse.  However, when they describe their work as traditional, what they really mean is that traditions are alive and breathing, changing just the same way we as humans do.  They are still honoring the ancestors, even if the tradition in question has experienced new changes.  As long as there is a mutual understanding that tradition is not static, then the term as a label really shouldn’t be a big issue.

I had a conversation with a friend and scholar, Ping-Ann Addo, who once told me that the survival of a cultural tradition is dependent upon the community.  They might decide, if it no longer makes sense for them, that they might not choose to continue a traditional practice.  This doesn’t mean that their culture or identity changes, but rather the way they express it.  In this light, tradition is something we must allow for some flexibility, just like our identity.  Tradition is not something that is linear, unlike time – traditions are repeated then discontinued, they circle back, they modernize, they recur, they are forgotten, they are brought back, and so on.

What we do with our traditions and how we relate to them should always be full of respect, but must also be present in our lives only if it continues to serve us.  If a certain tradition no longer applies to our lives or contemporary situations, do we continue it out of obligation?  Do we force it to fit our lives?  Or do we change it and keep certain elements so it remains present?  Do we constrain it?  Or let it grow?  It’s never easy to make these decisions, but they are made just the same.  There will always be a spectrum of reactions and criticisms, and we deal with it in our own ways.

I think I’ll leave it here for now.
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Readers, hit me with your thoughts! I would love to hear them.

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Watsonville is in the Heart

Watsonville is in the Heart

A couple weekends ago, I facilitated a Pop Up Museum in Watsonville about migrant farm worker history.  I work as an intern in community programs and outreach at the Santa Cruz MAH (museum of art and history), and I would consider myself a seasoned veteran at hosting pop ups.

As a Filipino American, I already knew what was in store for this event.  Normally our pop up museum themes are a so open that you never know what you’re going to get.  Lately, we have been running a series of pop up museums with local historian Geoff Dunn, so instead of being arts-based, our themes have been entrenched in local history and culture.  Watsonville is known to most conscious Filipino and Filipino Americans as being one of the main loci for rampant racism and oppression of Filipinos in America.  The Watsonville Riots in 1930 caused Filipinos in the Philippines to stand in solidarity and protested the ‘opportunity’ to send their men–sons, fathers and husbands–to such a fate.

As the intern and writer of the MAH’s Pop Up Museum Blog, it was difficult for me to represent the face of the museum while having the inside knowledge of how the manongs (or Filipinos in America in general) were treated.  This history is a part of my family history; my uncle Raymond lived through it.  We knew other men who died here with absolutely no family.  Men who worked all day, laboring in the fields for just one dollar a day.  And when they passed away, they had nothing.

When it came to write this post for the museum, it ate at me, knowing that even as harshly I could write of racism, oppression and ignorance, readers still might not grasp how much it still hurts.  The families that showed up to this event, first of all, were family.  They were the sons and daughters of manongs who were lucky enough to marry outside their race.  They were sons and daughters who lived with a sense of fear just for being mestizo/a.  This history continues; when you think of the word ‘history’ you think it is over, and that it is  a distant, far-off past removed from our own lives.  This pop up museum proved that history stays with us; this history is alive and we are still dealing with it.

As a part of the FilAm community, I have high expectations of myself to advocate our heritage, identity and position within society.  I consider myself accountable to reassert the way we have been viewed or continue to be viewed.  That said, this pop up museum hit extremely close to home, and I struggled editing my personal voice from my professional voice.  My only hope is that I’ve made people seriously consider how marginalized and invisible Filipinos are made to be in America.  Please read my original post and share what you think.

Postcolonialism on CNN: Think Above

Sometimes, people mean well.  Sometimes, people passively (or submissively) accept definitions the West prescribes to ‘Other’ people.  Sometimes, those people are your own family members.

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Earlier today, I checked with my mom to see if all of our relatives were okay in the motherland.  Typhoon Haiyan is documented as the strongest to date, and it has traveled right through the Philippines.  She reassured me everyone is okay, and then with the best intentions, emailed me this photo from CNN.  When I opened it, I felt that sensation similar to a stone dropping through your brain and down to the pit of your stomach.  There’s so much going on here that I won’t even go through and dissect the wording.  I am glad for those who can read with a critical eye and extract the message behind the words.

The problem is that people read this in a positive light.  We have so much work to do.  The idea of Filipinos as happy, noble savages is one that sadly perpetuates in this quote.  If that isn’t enough, it illustrates us as obedient and yielding – and totally capable of putting up with HUNDREDS of years of colonialism, missionization and Western imperialism.  But hey, that’s okay, because we’re resilient and we just shake it off and smile.  What an amazing ‘privilege‘.  Lucky that the typhoon devastates their homes and love one’s lives.  This message is pretty despicable, but what’s equally disappointing is that people unquestioningly welcome this image created of Filipinos.

I won’t blame ignorance, but I sure hope to help educate it.  When I brought this up to my mom, she got really defensive and scoffed at me, ‘with a chip on [my] shoulder’.  I juxtaposed the CNN quote with this American political cartoon from about half a century ago:

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To me, the parallel is clear.  Here is historic colonialism: the entire race of the Philippines embodied in this puny character who is depicted as beat down, uncoordinated, undignified.  This image gives off a very strong ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ attitude, and doesn’t give the Filipino character a voice.  Enter: postcolonialism – the quote from CNN is written in a us/we format, speaking for and not from the perspective of Filipino people.  (If it is, in fact, authored by a Pin@y, then a paradigm shift is in order).

I can’t make it any more obvious that the CNN quote builds upon residual colonialist ideologies, therefore continuing contemporary postcolonialism.  The thing is, we are aware.  We are conscious.  Many of us were once programmed with a colonial mindset, and now more than ever I have encountered a push to DEcolonize.  This has been ongoing amongst generations, I’m sure, but now that I’ve started this process, I keep encountering more and more on the same journey.  As far as decolonization goes, complete rejection of our upbringings or reversion to complete indigeneity is unrealistic, as we (I) are (am) living in contemporary, urban conditions. But perhaps we can incorporate the indigenous mindset and use it to inform our guiding principles.  Striking this balance is where I think a lot of power/dynamism rests.  Let’s harness this energy and help lead others to critically confront postcolonialism, shall we?  Future generations will need it.  As for my mom, hopefully she comes to enlightenment as well.

Think above, y’all.

Dreamweaving

Dreamweaving* = Nic and I both had dreams about tattooing, on consecutive nights from one another’s. There is some potent energy at work here; it only gets stronger as we all get closer. The threads of our generation, we are all woven closer to each other and closer to our ancestors – intertwined by our dreams, blood and ink.

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Yesterday, I went to my friend Mike’s house for his birthday.  Another of our friends, Nicanor, was up from LA to visit and tattoo some folks.  For Mike’s birthday, Nic gave him a tattoo.  A few of us gathered to hang out and be present during the tatok ceremony.  Prior to Nicanor’s arrival, I had a vivid, beautiful dream about tattooing.  It may have been my subconscious reflecting my intuitive energy back to me in a visual way; it might also be a message from the ancestors.  The scene was as such –

I remember rushing with urgency to be somewhere.  In my dream I was running – actually running quickly – not the slow motion, sluggish-leg, dream state running.  I was charging down a rolling, grassy hill until, finally, I reached a meadow.  When the hill leveled out, it was as if I broke through a barrier – some permeable bubble, that once I stepped through it, all senses came to life.  The soft, baby-grass-green underfoot; the electrified blue of the sky overhead.  The whisper of wind through the trees; the kiss of sun on my skin. When I arrived, a group of friends were sitting in a circle on woven mats in the grass.  I was the last to take my place, completing the circle.  As I sat upon the mat, the voices and laughter of the circle rang like a melody – there were no words; everything was communicated through song, smiles and eyes.  As I looked around, we all had markings on our bodies as if to gather as one family.  Off in the corner was Nicanor tattooing and working away with several people around him.  There was a hint at a ceremony or ritual from what I could tell in my periphery.  As I turned my focus back to the group, in my dream, I closed my eyes.  It was then that I woke up.

When I left my room, now in my waking state, I went to facebook and found Nicanor’s post about beginning his journey up to the Bay Area and manifesting growth through tattooing.  I wrote that I had dreamt about it, and he immediately messaged me to ask what it was.  It was then that I gave him the story of my dream.

The next night, Nicanor had a dream about carrying the responsibility of his tattooing practice.  I cannot speak for his dream, but as he described it to me with such spirit, there was a very strong, very profound message for him.  When he woke, his friend who tattoos in the traditional manner (hand-tap) in the Philippines reached out to him through Facebook, similar to the way Nic reached out to me the day previous.  The day after Nic’s dream, he tattooed Mike and they gave a ritual food offering to the ancestors.  And wouldn’t you know it, I was the last to arrive.  Mike’s tattoo includes two words written in baybayin: “infinite” and “mystery.”  …There are too many parallels between our experiences to be coincidence.

Please learn more about Nicanor Evans’ tattooing journey by visiting his Facebook and Etsy.

Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Exchange

Earlier this morning, I came across an article  written by Jarune Uwujaren that discusses the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.  I have been following a lot of websites and blogs that have attacked those who misappropriate cultural/native/indigenous forms for quite some time.  As someone who knows the histories of colonialism, missionization and imperialism upon ones country and cultural heritage, I clearly position myself on one side of the line.  Western expansion from the 18-20th centuries has obviously effected cultural mixing, hybridity and certain appropriated traditions.  To say that I only live, eat, speak, dress and think in a Filipino mindset wouldn’t be true.  I was born and raised in the diaspora, was brought up monolingual, and thus have a very American upbringing.  Sure.  But I know that we all get a knee-jerk reaction when hipster kids don their Native American feather head dresses, or when you see a bindhis on the forehead of a really trashed, scantily clad somebody out at a club.  “Do they know what they’re doing??” is really the only thing I can allow myself to think without getting infuriated.

Now sometimes even I get really insecure about my own interests.  I respect all native/indigenous traditions, and I come from a place of understanding.  I have dedicated the past almost 8 years of my life studying material/immaterial cultural heritage, and the majority of it hasn’t even encompassed my own heritage.  And I’m not talking from just my interaction with books and scholars, but I have gotten to know artists who were integral in causing cultural awareness and social change, as pillars for a cultural renaissance and art activism for their communities.  But just because I know it and understand it does not give me agency to adopt their materials, their designs, or don their ancestry by wearing their textiles.  That would be in direct contradiction to what I stand for, not to mention complete disrespect.  Just because I am in the know, does not make it okay.

But of course, there are those who have no clue.  And sometimes this is completely innocent.  And sometimes, they are brought up thinking that just because America is a huge melting pot (I like the word potluck) of cultures, food, expression, that all of these outwardly forms of self-representation is there for the taking.  Personalizing one’s style and world view is or should be a good thing.  But it’s really not that easy.  When someone who has taken a visual design that is directly linked to the spirit of my ancestry, all I want to do is acquaint that person’s face with my vicious backhand.  When something I consider sacred, that I would have to go through rite of passage for, that I have to gain the honor and respect first before gaining knowledge of its meaning, it is nothing short of blood boiling that someone thinks they can easily wear it around because it looks ‘cool.’  This is offensive, and I know we need to be patient with those who aren’t aware.  As Uwujaren puts it,

“True cultural exchange is not the process of ‘Here’s my culture, I’ll have some of yours’ that we sometimes think it is.  It’s something that should be mutual.”

Preach, sis, preach.  The line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange is a fruitful intersection for dialogue.

A Tale of Two Trees

When speaking of cultural heritage and knowing your roots, I often smile to myself because I have an actual tree for that.  Yes, we all have a family tree, but my family came from a mango tree.

During WWII when my grandma on my mother’s side was a child, they abandoned their home and their town to go into hiding.  They sought refuge under wild mango trees in the forest, and there they lived.  There they made themselves a home.  My grandma of course told me this story in snippets, when I was a child.

She used to tell me when they were being mischievous and ‘snuck out’ to go play and run around.  They used to pull pranks on each other and pretend to be aswang and scare each other.  Their innocent shouts for help would alert the parents, and when met by giggles, heavy reprimanding was still in order.

When I was little, I thought we were pretty similar, my grandma and I.  We just wanted to play outside all the time and have fun.  We wanted to be loud and feel free.  As my grandma gets older, she speaks less and less of those days under the canopy in the forest.  As I, myself, get older, I understand why.

The innocence of playing was a privilege for her.  During Japanese raids, it was safe only at certain hours of the day to leave the shelter of the tree.  Playtime itself was scarce – what precious time you did have, was used to hunt or gather any food or supplies you would need.  At nightfall, my great grandparents, whom I never had the pleasure of meeting, would take turns keeping watch.  And it wasn’t just their nuclear family, it was a community of several families.  If there were any noises that raised suspicion, a chain of alarm or warnings would travel through the area.  Children at play who spooked one another was not taken very lightly.

I remember my grandma telling me as if they were fun adventures.  I thought it would be so cool to live the way she did, only to learn later that it was not by choice but by extremely unfortunate circumstance.  The reality of my grandmother’s childhood story – a story told when I myself was a child – is harsh and saddening, so much so that I have been graced with it’s telling only twice in my lifetime.  My grandmother might be frail and unable to move on her own now, but through her stories, she has remained a icon of resilience, strength, and courage.

I now proudly weave my own tree story into my grandma’s.  I describe my tree as a quiet provider for my family.  Ever since I can remember, we have had a lemon tree in the corner of my backyard.  This tree is certainly older than I am, and it sports some nasty inch-long thorns.  Of course, I learned this at a young age when I thought I would be brave and try to climb to the top to get the biggest, ripest of fruits.  It never worked out too well.  I used to think it was a ‘mean’ tree for pricking its caretaker (me) but I realized as I got older it was giving me a lesson in patience.

Instead of lumbering about and haphazardly launching myself into the tree, I had to learn how to carefully maneuver around its branches and delicately pluck the lemons lest I tear open my skin from its vicious nature.  In this way, my tree also taught me respect.  I also learned coexistence.  One year, the tree experienced a terrible frost and we expected it to die off.  Within one year, it recovered and started producing fruit once again.  The qualities of strength and resilience around a tree becoming present once again.

A week ago today, I was given the honor of receiving my first batok.  *(I will give the story of my batok it’s own dedicated post at another time).  When it came time for Lane to fill in some details, he used a citrus (pomelo) thorn to tap ink into my skin.  As I lay on the woven mat, I thought about the physical and spiritual space around me – all the intersections between my immediate environment as well as different points in my life colliding at that very moment.  The strength and spirit of my ancestors, their eyes, their voice, their wisdom coming together to be present through my body.  So many things whirled through my head, but as I told Lane about my lemon tree’s thorns being very similar to the ones he used to tattoo my arm, it finally hit me that our story of family trees – lemon and mango – were eclipsed by time and ancestry, and being forever present in my skin.  Things have finally worked themselves into a balance.  When I got home from the Babaylan conference, I showed Lane a couple pictures of my lemon thorns to see if they could be used at all.  There’s a chance we will use them to my arm later in a few months time, bringing it all full circle.

Note: Relevant to my lifetime, I constantly hear from 1st , 2nd, 3rd and so on generation Filipino Americans – or any other culturally displaced youths, for that matter – the statement: know your roots.  Or: know your history.  The idea of ‘roots’ and ‘trees’ are constantly brought up and worshiped.  Sometimes its hard for me to envision people in my and future generations that they truly know what it means to come from such humble beginnings.  In the age of modern technology and instant gratification, it’s easy to lose sight of who and what brought you here.  However, the more people I encounter, the more beautiful and equally as heart filling stories I have heard.  Please feel free to share yours with me.  I would love to re-post them.

TribeFoot History

In my previous blog post, I said I would share the story of how I came to the alias, TribeFoot.  I understand this name ‘TribeFoot’ might insinuate a lot.  Well, in short, it is actually a nickname given to me by a friend.  He and I have a mutual affinity for kicking off our shoes and wandering barefoot in natural environments – on a hike in the woods, near the ocean, playing ball in the grass in a field.  But here’s the story:

I told him about my grandmother on my mom’s side living in/under wild mango trees on Palawan during WWII.  You can read a more in-depth story in another post I titled ‘A Tale of Two Trees‘.  As relates to my writing alias, I’ll keep the story here short.  My grandma was only allowed to wander away from the canopy at certain hours to hunt or fish to make food; otherwise, she stayed near the tree.  I remember when I was a kid and she would tell me these stories as if they were fun adventures–I thought it would be so cool to live the way she did, only to learn later that it was not by choice but by extremely unfortunate circumstance.

Anyway, I was joking with him about my grandma running around and scaling trees barefoot and that someday, I will be able to achieve feats like that.  I guess the idea of going back to my cultural roots reminded him of a tight-knit community – a tribe.  We applaud the native and indigenous knowledge of working with the land for sustainable life styles, and having an overall deeper connection to your surroundings.  My bud noted my enthusiasm, and thus gave me: TribeFoot.  The cultural roots and the grounded nature I’ve always felt is well summarized by this name, and I hope with this back-story you can come to appreciate and respect it as well.