We are Igorots; The case for identity

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - June 1, 2020 - 12:00am

We are all Igorots – a definition of identity. L. A. Piluden is a young talented writer and teacher who graduated from U.P. Baguio. She has written short stories, critical essays and recently posted on Facebook her views on identity, the fact that almost all of us Filipinos had headhunting ancestors (The French guillotine beheaded hundreds). Her passionate comment brought to mind what Nick Joaquin said, that if the Spaniards didn’t come, I’ll be Igorot. And I told him; perhaps it would have been better. Nick was the most decent writer I’ve known, and I feel very privileged to have had him as a friend. He was never really anti-Igorot, anti-Muslim or even anti-American, although it was easy to regard him as such. He was against injustice, and as a Filipino, he resented anyone who demeaned us or threatened our sovereignty. He was stating a fact – if, the Spaniards did not come, we could be Muslims, Buddhists, and if our paganism developed, who knows what would have happened to us? But there are no ifs in history. Nick also attempted to universalize what he observed. His heritage of smallness – how we celebrate what is tiny, tingi. I told him in the developing countries, people don’t buy the whole pack of cigarettes; they buy by the stick; not the whole loaf of bread – by the slice. This until incomes improve.

There is a lot that L. A. Piluden can do as a writer; her being Igorot is an asset – not a liability. I bring to mind an old writer friend, Sinai Hamada, who wrote about his people; no Igorot has surfaced to replace him. L. A. Piluden can dredge Igorot mythology, epics, poetry, and elevate these to a higher level thereby ennobling Igorot culture and endowing it with the habiliments of art which all Filipinos will realize, which the whole world, as a matter of fact, will understand and appreciate. Way back in the 1950s, I had a discussion with Professor Leopoldo Yabes, the literary historian. I had read the Ilokano epic by Pedro Bukaneg, “The Life of Lam-ang.” 

By then, I had read Homer in college. I also read the Ilokano original. Ilokano, if I may remind the reader is my mother tongue. Professor Yabes was Ilokano, too. I found the epic slapstick and crude. Professor Yabes said it was folk literature. I had thought I’d redo it, make it longer in the Homeric tradition. Professor Yabes asked me if I thought it was worth the effort. I decided to work on the Rosales saga instead.

Frankly, I never really bothered with the problem of identity; it simply amuses me when people – particularly artists hoist it. For one, I always knew who I was and who I am. Ilokano – if ethnicity is to be identified with peasant ancestry. The Joses are scattered all over the country. The Manila Joses are mestizos, the Joses of Cavite and Central Luzon are middle class, and the Joses of the Ilokos are peasants.

I don’t know if L. A. Piluden writes in her mother tongue or in Ilokano which has become the lingua franca of the Cordilleras and Northern Luzon. But I know her English is superb, and as I always tell young writers, they should use the language they know best. This doesn’t cancel their ethnic identity because it is this identity which gives their work its uniqueness and often its very soul.

There is hardly any nation that has not been colonized in the continuing expansion and contraction of the national imperative.

Spain’s Christianization of the Philippines in 1521 is a major factor in the shaping of the Filipino identity; it connected us to the western tradition firmly. In 1967, I was invited to visit the United Kingdom for a month. A major highlight of that visit for me was a trip to that venerable university, Oxford. There, at its Bodleian Library, was the largest collection of literary texts. Our literature was in the English section.

In my conscious effort to return to my roots, I’ve tried recently to address an Ilokano audience in Ilokano but could no longer do it although I understood everything that was said in Ilokano. I understand only too well why Rizal gave up writing his 3rd novel in Tagalog; he was no longer adequate in his mother tongue.

Indeed, I envy the Filipino writers who are bilingual, or even trilingual. In a sense their roots in our native soil are deeper than mine.

To keep those roots alive, I often go to the Ilokos, to my hometown to speak Ilokano, to keep it alive in the mind. After all, I continue to think in it.

The Igorot country is beautiful. Larry Stifel, the Fulbright scholar and I are going to Banaue. We boarded the Dangwa bus in Baguio long before day break, and I promptly went to sleep. I woke up as the sun rose; we were on a summit road flanked by huge pines bearded with moss and draped by mist – shafts of sunlight slicing through them – sunflowers bloom on the mountainsides – a memorable landscape that has endured in the mind. It is very cold. We stopped at a roadside inn for breakfast, fried meat, fried rice, fried eggs and strong Benguet coffee. Afterwards, on the highway to Banaue, I ask Larry how he liked the fried meat, he said it’s the memorable breakfast he ever had. I tell him it was dogmeat.

In the 1950s when my bones were firmer, I used to roam the Cordilleras, often on foot. The only region I haven’t visited is Apayao for there was no road that led to it then; Apayao can be reached by following the river. A good road leads to Apayao, now and I hope to see it yet. I hope their social institutions have survived; the ulog where young singles can meet, and the ato for the village old men. One result of my fondness for those mountains and their people is my most anthologized story, “The God Stealer.” I hope you’ll get to read it. The environment, the land shapes, the character of its people. The Igorots, like the Ilokanos are a sturdy and industrious people. Courage, industry and steadfastness are required to make those hillsides fecund and fruitful. Those who have elected to cling to those mountains, perhaps, have more resources, and less ambition to leave. But even if they do strike out, I am sure those mountains are enshrined in their hearts for they are home. L. A. Piluden is fortunate because she knows where her heart is. That identity which she recognizes, whose roots lie deep in the earth – she must now nurture it, and with creative imagination create a jewel that all of us can behold, appreciate and appropriate as an important stone in this edifice, this nation we are building. The Igorot has become Filipino then.

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