Gave Thanks to the Ancestors & Elders

Because I am still grappling with how certain cultural practices and spiritual systems are being misappropriated and/or further colonized, for Dia de Los Muertos this year, I decided to leave an atang offering instead. In the Filipino tradition, an atang is a food offering to the ancestors to ward off evil by keeping their spirits cared for and happy. This post is backdated. 


I visited the ancestors today.

Lemons for my Loleng/Jimenez lolo’t lola sa tuhod because of the calamansi tree that sprouted in my grandmas front yard, after she saved money to bring her parents over. (I didn’t have any calamansi, so I improvised with lemons from my own yard).
     A rose for my Benetua lolo’t lola, because I remember stories of how fragrant and alive my Lolo’s rose bushes were. And Lola used rose twigs to keep her ears gauged. (This single rose was the last we had in our garden for the season. Yes it is
thorny, and yes it’s rose scent is strong).
          A donut for my dad because he always took us for donuts, and now it’s my own tradition to bring him one when I visit. I also brought him a lemon from our backyard.
               Extra citrus for everyone, because it’s in season, and
                    A sprig of bay leaves – from the fallen branch I found – to remind them of adobo, the best comfort food there is.

I am thankful for their strength and struggles, and for providing me with the lessons necessary to be who and where I am today.

To the ancestors:

it is my hope we remember your stories and pass them to the generations to come so that they might know more than just your/our chronology, but your personalities as well. Y’all were wise, warm, maybe batshit cray because of the war… And loved and missed. I hope I’m making you proud. 

Your lil’ descendent.

This Thanksgiving (Thanks-taking / Thangs-taken) I will be spending time with friends and family. I am thankful to have parents and elders who had strength when they immigrated to this country, and I’m thankful that I haven’t had to face much struggle because of them.

I just want to take a moment to recognize that we are all settlers in this country unless you are indigenous. However many generations, whatever number, I don’t care – I just ask on this holiday at least admit to the fact that this day celebrates and perpetuates colonization, genocide, and continued oppression of the native people of this land. 


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.

Where I’m At

*If anyone happens to have a copy of Paul Gilroy’s “It ain’t where you’re from, It’s where you’re At,” please holler atcha girl.  My blog title is more or less inspired by all the things I’ve read about his influential paper, although I haven never read it.

Now that that is out of the way, here’s a little more about me.  I grew up in California to Filipino immigrant parents.  That makes me second-generation Filipino American, I suppose.  When I was a kid, I would live for family gatherings and yearned for the moment we all sat around exchanging family history stories.  Attentive to a different way of life both temporally and culturally, I always wondered what that world looked like.

Well, I grew up – and am still growing up – and went into learning history through material culture, visual studies, and art history.  Being exposed to history through my heritage and family lineage has had the most profound impact on me, so much so that I became extremely passionate about identity politics and cultural interventions/intersections.  During my college career, I encountered two influential professors whose focuses I blended together.  My adviser, Stacy Kamehiro, opened up a beautiful world of Native Pacific cultural studies, and more importantly set me in the direction of researching native/indigenous societies and their transformations through the actions and reactions of colonialism to post-colonialism and contemporary struggles.

You can probably tell where this is going–eventually she encouraged me to explore my own heritage.  She shoved research scholarship applications under my nose and I came out with around $2000 from the UC to research and write a paper about the Philippines.  I love her.  My other huge influence was a UCSC grad-student turned professor, who is now the Contemporary Art History and Theory Chair at SFAI, Nicole Archer.  She became a sort of role model to me in various art history classes.  While studying for her Ph.D. in History of Consciousness, she dissected textiles and fashion and how it functions in a given society, culture, or subculture.  I love her also.  Taking my cues from both Stacy and Nicole, I created my senior thesis topic around changes from native, colonial, and post-colonial identities through textiles, clothing, and fashion.  Seeing these stark contrasts–from bark cloths, woven materials and natural elements adorning the body, to pressed white, bleached and starched linens–highlights a dynamic shift in how a society defines themselves as ‘insiders’, and how ‘outsiders’ may define them as well.  So, I’m all about native textile and clothing forms, colonialist photography, and cultural revival/activism/awareness.

I hit a two-year period where I tried making it in the mundane work force but eventually admitted I was just dicking around.  I had to motivate myself somehow, so I went back to school for a MA in Museum Studies.  I am currently finishing my thesis to defend in December.  In the year it took to finish my coursework, I have presented papers at a two international conferences, and networked myself with artists, curators, scholars, culture-bearers and healers at others.  I have been invited to guest-lecture at University-level undergraduate courses in Anthropology and History of Art/Visual Culture departments – in Italy and California.  I have a forthcoming publication for review (fingers crossed).  I suppose you can say my growth has been explosive in just a year, but I know this is just the start.  This is a very pivotal time for me, as I believe we are on the brink of a Fil/FilAm artistic and cultural revolution.  After having felt sidelined at all of the Pacific arts goings-on that I have followed for the past several years, I can finally say I belong on the Filipino wave that’s starting to break.  So from the storytelling during my childhood, to inspiring my reach for higher education, to now learning and unlearning my identity, this is where I’m at.