I never knew much about my father’s family, I was never told, and I never asked. And so my father’s side of my family has been a mystery to me. I barely knew my grandparents, I, with humility, recall not even knowing or ever asking what their names were, even when I last visited them before their death when I was 13 years old. As a child I was free to not know, I was relieved of the responsibility to even care, they were far away in Ilocos Sur and back then I did not long for the land like I do now. We visited them one time that I could remember, and all I can recall is my grandfather telling me that wearing shorts and showing my skin was “not good, it was bad.” I recall even feeling an aversion from them, my father and mother urged me to pay respect, but respect did not mean connection. As a child what I cared about was my immediate, the past that was tied to me in the Philippine was not tugging for me to turn around and bare witness to it yet, the colonial impacts of the US were pushing me far away from the motherland. Out of sight, out of mind. My grandparents and all of my father’s relatives included in this forgetting.
And now as I grow into my wom*nhood, I unpack my lost parts of self connected to my ancestors deeper and deeper ever day I wake. In college I began with the unpacking of my Pilipino-American dual identity and understanding the Histories of my people in connection to other people of color in the US and learned primarily militant histories and the revolutionary heart of Pilipinos in the midst of struggle- continuing to fight for true liberation on American soil and also in the motherland. As I grew into myself I examined deeper the colonial oppressions of my people and how it has created self oppression and disconnection from our ancestry, from religion, to superficiality, to disconnect from the land. And I focused continuously on the oppression of our wom*n and the returning to our inherent power and healing nature in rediscovering the Babaylan. And now as I near my 30s, I look back and see how deeply I have dug and realize the intimate stories are what have been missing. This is where I needed to land in order for me to find new pathways to connect with ancestry, beginning with my most immediate ancestors, my parents, my grandparents. My relationship with my maternal grandmother has been my core connection to ancestral knowledge, from the language to ritual, and I have shifted my conversations with her in the past 5 years to make sense of what she passed down to us, searching for intention and meaning behind her everyday rituals and the healing she provided for us growing up. She has more recently shared me stories of my grandfather who I never knew as he was killed far before I could know him, but my grandmother often left altar food offerings (atang) for him as I was growing, to invite him to our table for nourishment and honoring.
I give gratitude to her for continuously opening her memories to me, and as I sit with her, I recognize the disconnect not having my grandfather, her husband to ask questions to, and then I also think on my father’s parents and how much I denied myself connection to them.
I have seen my self find regret in this as I look to my father who is slowly aging and I see how much he sacrificed for our family, including the sacrifice of our connection to his own family, in maintaining his status in the United States. My mother’s family raised me, and every year we spent holidays and gatherings with them, and my father was separated from his own family oceans and lands away. I never recognized how that severing may have affected him. I wonder to myself as I look to him, what he may have reasoned for himself to be away from his parents and all his family in this way. I think about how much I miss my mom and dad, but still see them at least 3 times a year. And I ask if that is enough for me?
I have in the past two years, been prying into the treasure chests of self knowledge that are my parents and my only living grandparent, my maternal grandmother. In them I have searched to understand my ethnobiography and lay it out so I can allow it to live and breathe with me on my journeys. It is difficult to get my parents to talk, more particularly my father, but what I have realized is that I have not asked the right questions to get him to unpack his experiences. I have not been sensitive to how much he has never talked about his past, how many days passed in my growing that I did not ask him about his family, my family.
The other day on the phone with my father, I asked him “Dad, can you tell me about your life in the Philippines?” his answer was “Oh Jana, that was a long time ago already, I don’t know those memories so much, I don’t remember them too well. It was too long ago.” I urged him “Come on dad, what was it like when you were younger, what was it like to grow up there?” He said simply “I was very small, I was the smallest.”
I needed to ask better questions, I needed to help him dig up the stories he buried deep in his mind. I said “Dad, what were my grandparents like? What did they do for work?” My father took pause almost reluctant to begin, but with a breath of what sounded like annoyance he started to tell me stories of my grandfather, a farm worker and my grandmother a house wife. He told me how hard his father worked and how he was taught to do the same, how they planted rice. And he spoke to me of the hard work of planting the rice fields, “You had to do the planting in the mud, in rainy season. You had to go in there, in the mud and plant with your hands. And it took a long time, and it was 10 people for one hectare. And you bend over all day so that’s why many of the old people in our family they have hunched backs, because of the planting of rice…. You know your grandpa he worked hard so that me and your auntie could go to school, come to the states. It was hard work, but he had to do we could go to school.” He stopped himself from continuing his storytelling. Silent.
And I took this moment to give thanks “Dad, I want you to know I don’t take all you have done for us for granted. I am so thankful dad, I am so thankful for everything and I know that I am not successful the way you wanted me to be, but I am working hard too dad, I know I don’t have to labor the way you all did, I can be an artist because you did, and grandpa did and I’m just, so thankful.” He responded a little emotional, the both of us- he said “Okay Jana, I know that.”
My maternal grandmother’s stories have been important to me,she has been willing to share and I have continuously asked, but it is the stories my father have slowly revealed to me that have uncovered a connection to my ancestors on ancestral land I have been looking for. His father a farmer, connected to the land, tilling crops and creating nourishment. His mother a house wife and a healer creating home and heart of family. Letting go of their two children to see them grow into their adulthood far from them. For years we never visited them, disconnected from their grandchildren, but proud of their children. I think about how far away I have gone from my own parents, and as I think of my own future children, I long for home, I long for them knowing those that sacrificed for me and in turn sacrificed for my children and their children and theirs. And I can’t explain how much it shakes my soul to really imagine how much my father left his life behind- so he could build a life for my mother, for my sister and for me. I think about my maternal grandfather amd paternal grandparents and I pay homage.
We forget to miss ancestors who’ve gone just because we never met them. Today I miss them. Today I remember and honor them. Take time to remember those you never knew, trust me, it feels like you’re remembering yourself.