Carter G. Woodson went to the Philippines in 1903 to help establish a new school system there (The first group to do this traveled aboard the U.S.S. Thomas and were therefore known as Thomasites.) Woodson, a Black educator, saw how the books and subjects that Filipino kids were being taught were completely outside of their own circumstances, their own story. The Filipinos’ lives and landscapes were excluded from the books and curriculum written and designed by white Americans.
Ilokano is the second language in my ear, but really the third or fourth on my tongue. English is first. At home, our parents didn’t speak to us in Tagalog or their native Ilokano. I picked up a few phrases from them and more from my cousins when they arrived from Hawaii and Laoag. And my Ilokano is still stunted, but even the failures–all the busted up grammar and wrong vocabulary–are expressions (I hope) of love. I can say just enough in Ilokano to get around Ilokos or one of the smaller barrios on the outskirts of the region’s cities. I can tell secrets to the women who were among the first to show me to dance freely (Emy and Rose). I can listen a bit.
So I’m proud to have published a poem in my parents’ language in this incredible historical anthology, Dandaniw Ilokano: mga tulang Ilokano, 1621-2014, edited by Frank Cimatu. This is for my mom and dad, my brothers (who learned the language of art in the space where they would have learned Ilokano), and all my cousins in Jersey, Chicago, Cali, Hawaii, Vigan, Laoag.
Lara Stapleton posted to Facebook a trailer for a movie about Madagascar playing at BAM this weekend and it reminded me that years ago, before the internet was as sophisticated as it is, I stumbled across words in Malagasy, the (a?) principle language of Madgascar. Some of the words had a remarkable resemblance to my parents’ language, Ilokano, the numbers in particular. They’re both Austronesian languages, so linguists, I guess, have identified some relationship, but I certainly haven’t been taught the specific histories (trade routes, etc.) that connect Madagascar and the Philippines.
Here are the languages (and English) counting to ten:
one (english), ray (malagasy, maysa (ilokano)
two, roa, dua
three, telo, tallo
four, efatra, uppat
five, dimy, lima
six, enina, innem
seven, fito, pito
eight, valo, walo
nine, sivy, siam
ten, folo, sangapulo
Day 1: So there’s a new place, Mang Rudy’s, down the block, a turo-turo/ihawan joint. I order a squid and a bangus and a couple san mig lights.
The college kids are singing along to the pinoy pop on the PA. The woman asking me to sign the receipt can’t make out a word of my Tagalog. I’m reading Hikmet.
I point to the exact fish I want and she pulls them away to take them to the griller. I house the pusit and start on the head of the bangus (stuffed w onions, peppers and garlic). Fresh calamansi and sili in my tuyo.
The college kids swell into laughter every fifteen minutes.
The young lady in the coral spaghetti strap is rapping outside to the boy who owns the scooter and black helmet.
She comes back, pulls her ankle under butt and shows the room how easy Manila soot sticks to you.
When I’m done, I walk out to find some bottled water for the flat. And where on the planet, you might ask, do they sell bottled water, toothbrushes, siopao and rum? 7-11, Makati (and lots of other places in the Philippines). I pass on the rum, but grab a toothbrush and some Bulalo Cup-O-Noodles (many restaurants are closed starting tomorrow for Holy Week). Hopefully this, leftovers and four bananas will get me to Sunday.
Of course, I’m welcomed back by the condo guards, clean, pressed white shirts, a nine and baton hanging on each of their belts. They’re sharing a cigarette and singing along to a little radio blasting Luther Vandross.