Ilocano Balikbayan reading postcolonial archive of Vigan

10 08 2011

This summer, I went back home to the place where my parents and grandparents are from. Ilocos Sur. As my 2 grandmas passed to the otherside, they pulled me to return to where they once walked.

Good bye apo, we love you. Santa Lucia Cathedral, Narvacan.

There are different kinds of industries in Narvacan. Farmers sell their vegetables in the palenque and in the market.

Ili ti (town of) Sta. Lucia, Narvacan.

Others work for the government. In the town, there are various electronic and cell phone vendors, and also an Internet Cafe. The latter was helpful in getting some work done. In Narvacan, going online is not as accessible because wifi isn’t ubiquitous as it is like in other cities in the U.S. Although, some people have Internet on their phones if they can afford it.  In the Internet Cafes, I saw a lot of youth gamers, especially in Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur.  It seems that its mostly young folks use the Internet Cafes. Young adults are also managers of those cafes. They use Microsoft XP systems. I wonder how the introduction of technology is changing the cultures of the generations.

A common saying among some of my mestizo family members is that “farming is never fun.” But, I found that a sad comment as it meant a disconnection from the way that Ilocanos are connected to the land.  Ilocanos plant rice.  It is wet-soil agriculture. It is what connects Ilocanos to the Southeast Asian and Pacific people’s land based agricultural practices.  There is a science to wet soil agriculture. My uncle mentioned how in Sagada, the people plant rice and also grow fish in the waters. The fish eat the bugs that would otherwise be a pest to the rice. When the fish grow, they are also a secondary form of food to complement the rice when harvested and cooked.

The Bigaa plant that was common on the banks of Vigan when Spanish came. It is the plant that Vigan is named after. The leaves look like a taro plant.

I kept thinking about the disavowal of farming among certain Ilocano classes. Half of me comes from a line of people who still farm, and another half of me comes from a line that disavows farming. These contradictory ideologies is a microcosm of the Philippines at large. There are the structural inequities that produce huge gaps between the privileged and the poor.  But, there’s also this drive of economic development and technological modernization that serve as a hope for the privileged and the poor.  The mestizo side of the family that lived in the ili have almost all gone abroad, expect for one of my maternal side’s sibling and his family.  They have landed jobs in the U.S., and their money has power when they come to the PI, reinforcing their classed position when they were here before. But, this is of course a temporary power, as they will once again leave their family house empty again in the care of a fisher folk woman and her family.  The farmer side of the family are in the barrios, and only a few have been able to go abroad. My paternal grandpa was among those in the barrios who was able to trailbraze my grandma, my dad and uncles, to have a chance abroad, to achieve a material advantage of the U.S. currency, to produce me, where my immediate family is today, and thus, in a privileged position here in the PI.  Now, more of the women of my paternal side of the family are trying to go abroad.

My dad at his old high school. This was also my mom's too.

Its so easy to fall into those black and white assumptions that going abroad is a reproduction of colonization, and staying in the Philippines is a resistance to it.  Although, it is true that the phenomenon of the brain drain is symptom of colonization, and people who choose to stay to use their knowledge to build the Philippines helps to counter the brain drain.  But at the same time, going abroad doesn’t have to be all problematic. Just like engaging in economy, technology and modernization doesn’t have to be all problematic.  Sometimes engagement with the flows of power is needed in order to use it, to understand it, and infuse it with memories of what one feels is important, of what one values.

For example, the city of Vigan has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The discourses of historical monuments and urban design of the city builds upon the Spanish contact as the moment of progressive development. The Spanish-Native Filipino-Chinese cultural mixtures in architecture, historical characters, religion, business, food become what is praised. Never mind the fact that native Filipinos were brutalized by the Spanish, especially during the Basi Revolt, when the Spanish prohibited native Ilocanos from brewing their own basi (sugar cane wine) so that the colonial government could monopolize it.  Nevermind the abuses of high ranking Spanish military men, soldiers and friars on native Ilocanos. Nevermind the executions of Ilocano freedom fighters Diego and Gabriela Silang and their crew.  It seems that the UNESCO touch has monumentalized the history of Ilocano resistance, mixing it within a narrative of western favortism, in which time has since improved the primitivity of the Ilocanos, toward a more progressive, mestizo, western, modern, possibility.

Evolution of State Apparatuses in Plaza Salcedo, Vigan. We were eating at Micky Ds across from Vigan Cathedral.

But at the same time, the modernization process in the Philippines has not been all foreign controlled. Local peoples, natives, to mestizos with native values, have also built that city.  Prior to the Spanish, Ilocanos were already trading with Chinese, Japanese, Malays, and others. The Pagburnayan (place to create jars) is evidence of pre-colonial trade in the Ilocos region.  These jars were used by early Ilocano and Asian traders to transport goods between countries.  Pagburnayan continues to exist, but not at the commercial peak it used to enjoy before.  When we visited and spoke to the owner of the Pagburnayan says that many youth are more interested in jueteng than learning this native Ilocano craft of making clay jars.  Although, he has been able to pass down this knowledge to just a few people in order to continue this trade to satisfy the local heritage market.

Some examples of vases they make at the Pagburnayan. They have bigger ones with covers.

Ah, the local heritage market. If the land was the archive, the UNESCO sponsored monuments are records of a postcolonial history. Problematic narratives that praise the hispanicization of the Ilocos region, which mirrors internalized Eurocentrism in certain Ilocanos with access to, or glimpses to pastures of, privilege. But, also in those monuments, there are evidences of Ilocano resistance through literature,

Leona Florentino, Ilocana poet during Spanish era

Record inscription on Leona Florentino monument.

religion,

Padre Burgos statue at Plaza Burgos, Vigan. He was one of the Filipino priest martyrs (Gomez-Burgos-Zamora) that sought equity for brown Filipnos during the racism of Spanish times. He was accused of inciting rebellion during the Cavite Mutiny of 1872 and was arrested along with the 2 other priests.

survival through repression,

This vase is one among 4 that surround a monumental obelisk that records information on Juan de Salcedo, the Spaniard who was responsible for the Spanish military occupation of Vigan. His efforts founded the Spanish colonization of the Ilocos region. The vase depicts people carrying various burdens, and walking somewhere. The people look tired. Do they represent the experiences of Ilocanos during times of occupation? Plaza Salcedo, where these vases are located, is the very place where Gabriela Silang was executed by Spanish officials.

technological innovation,

Original ilocano raincoat and bag. Native threads. This was at the Burgos museum in Vigan. There's museums that dot the Ilocos region. They say many of the locals don't go. But, these cater to the local heritage market, especially for those who want introductory information on the history of the place and culture.

Hanging fridge. That's where you keep left overs. In the air, it is kept cool and away from ants.

Basi maker requires a carabao to be connected to the long lever that portrudes horizontally so that it can turn the two cylinders which would squeeze out the juice of the sugar cane stalks placed between them. The mortar and pestle is used to crush and grind things.

Original Ilocano stove. Just put the hot coals in the long pan underneath, and the pot and wok above will boil.

through engineering development.

Early Spanish cathedrals in Ilocos were supervised by friars, but built by native Ilocanos.  This was also true for the cathedrals in California, such as San Francisco de Asis, or Mission Dolores church, in SF.  Many architects did not want to go to far flung colonies during the Spanish colonial era. So the missionaries would employ the labor of native people to build the cathedrals.


Santa Maria is a Spanish catedral used for evangelizing the indigenous folks in Abra, as well as in the lowlands. This picture is a part of the handrail going up lots of steps. The steps and height of the church’s location was supposed to incite the power and glory of that building, as part of the evangelizing effect on the native people. In the background of this picture is a classic Vigan house with capiz windows.

Ceiling of Cathedral.

Doesn't this look like Tenochtitlan or Mesoamerican pyramdic architecture? There was exchange between Philippines (Cebu, Manila and Vigan) and Mexico through Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. This architectural design could be evidence of Mexican cultural exchange with the Philippines which was inscribed in this Santa Maria church in Ilocos Sur.

Vigan Heritage River Cruise of the Mestizo river, with narration on history of Ilocos from pre-colonial to colonial times. Practicing the idea of a "living museum." There were also local folks fishing for food as we were going down the river.

Little statue tucked amongst the gardens at Hidden Gardens. This place is a nursery that tastefully arranges plants for sale, as well as has a cafe to buy poqui-poqui tempura longanisa and fresh juice shakes, among other things. There's also a small resort/inn being built in the area. I thought it was an example of ecological tourism, and income generating business. Even the toilets were tastefully designed, but cost 10 pesos to use it.

Bonsai trees at Hidden Gardens, Vigan. Another cool place to check out if you're in town.

The Vigan postcolonial archive was woven together through the calesa. The calesa service is also regulated by the Vigan touristic services because they take patrons to the various historic and cultural sites of the city, such as the ones I mentioned above. People can go to Salcedo Plaza, in front of Vigan Cathedral, to catch a ride with the calesa for 150 pesos. This method of expressing history and culture, through experience, seeing cultural sites, which also provide some form of income for local people, reveal Vigan as a postcolonial city. The contradictions of each record, which are the buildings, the places, the businesses, the people, the cultures, the histories we encountered, are inter-related to each other through the calesa ride that weaves them together.  The whole city becomes the archive.  The structures, the government that made it be, the people.  It cannot be denied that there’s an issue of commercial exploitation of culture. Ilocano culture and history being commercialized through tourism. But at the same time, Vigan has been able to create jobs for locals, as well as communicate information about the place.  Is it possible to self-determine Ilocano history through the records that were made accessible in the landscape?

There was a deep saying by an old Chinese guy we met on a jeepney today: “Filipinos grab the dagger by the blade for a chance to survive.”

Isdaa is a restaurant we visited in Tarlac as we left Ilocos going to Manila. It is a floating restaurant with a native, water park theme.

Native Filipinos, among other Austronesians, did not have iron nails to build. But, they did build infrastructures through techniques of weaving together wood. Here's a picture of a bridge in the Isdaa restaurant where each wood was woven to the next, as well as the rails. I think it was plastic threads that was used to weave. But, its an interesting example of native Pacific/Southeast Asian islander engineering that builds with non-metallic, organic materials. Native Filipinos built civilizations that were made of natural materials. Eurocentric histories used to say only those with metals were "civilized." But, since native Filipino buildings could biodegrade, they did not last as long as metallic buildings. But, this kind of natural building is more in tune with the Philippine environment which constantly rains and has earthquakes. Things are meant to biodegrade, and people are meant to build and rebuild. The architecture also could reflect native Filipino philosophy on life.

Ilocanos, among other native Filipinos, have encountered colonization, and are still embedded within infrastructures left behind by imperial powers. But, at the same time, Ilocanos, among other Filipinos, need to engage with what is available to them, in order to survive. It means learning to create and use technology and business, within a commercializing and technologically modernizing society.  Vigan is a place that has the opportunity to include culture and history into the mix of contemporary development.  My experience in Vigan has inspired me to imagine possibilities of what the Philippines can be, if the history and culture is taken to heart and honored, if the values can be read in a way sensitive to issues of social and economic justice, and infuse this way of thinking into using the tools we use to build today and the future.

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