Cartography of the Heart–a letter
July 12, 2010, 4:03 pm
Filed under: essay, history, memoir | Tags: , , , , , ,

all that remains of Bacarra tower that used to 'hold up the sky'. Photo which has been passed on to me was taken by kapidua Raymond Ramos

Dear Lito,

Is the past descending on us like a sudden storm? Recollections, memoirs, archives, monuments and biographies seem to have multiplied by degrees these past years as if people were scrambling to hoard memories. Is it merely a perception or perhaps, indeed, the world is spinning too fast we’re afraid we might just lose our histories soon?

Some are lucky, like you, in that you still can tell your stories as juxtapositions of the past and the present. Or am I luckier because I’m telling my story from a vivid past discounting the changes I’ve noted in my few visits back home in Bacarra, Ilocos Norte? For instance, it was quite painful to see how that imposing fractured tower which loomed like a petrified giant all our lives has been reduced to a stump. But instead of groveling, which I first felt like doing, I wrote and I am still writing about my memories, even asking others to join in for a collective memoir.

In history, Bacarra is apparently one of the most powerful towns in Ilocos as the Spaniards found it and early on in colonial times. Neighboring towns like Vintar and Pasuquin, in fact, were part of it. (I know this for a fact, having read it in frayed documents.) Apparently, there was gold somewhere, as well, and its rivers were teeming.

I once stumbled on a picture of our tower, in a blog and it unleashed images of childhood spent under its shadow. That tower loomed overwhlemingly in our lives in both reality and legend. No Bacarreno is without a treasure box.

This is my favorite: Legend has it that its people reflected their pride in their town by constructing a tower so high it ‘could hold up the heavens’. It is said that a Spanish soldier on horseback, holding a pennant up could ascend the steps in the tower and wave the pennant from the second window. And when the bells were rung, it could be heard as far the edges of Pasuquin and Vintar. That the first earthquake sometime in the 1930s happened on the feast of St. Joseph, the humble patron of all churches, could have been a bold and loud message.

I grew up toward the end of the first half of this century, going on to adulthood when the world began to slowly change. In my childhood, Bacarra was still an idyll—wildwoods still fringed a lot of places, darkness and moonlight still came as they should, not half-lit or half-black. We studied in the gas light, we played under full moons.

My walk to school had since turned into something like a, ‘cartography of the heart’. I had not realized since I began charting my past how each detail, each small turn on the road, each tree and vine that climbed walls, events that were routines, that first love letter and first dance were so vivid it felt like looking at myself in a snow globe.

In your recollection, I feel like I’ve known you though we may never meet: you could very well be one of my playmates who watched out for summer bees—those abal-abal and aruaros whose wings we used to tie with a thin thread like a leash and let fly, listening to the roar of their wings, cruelly without knowing it, tracing how they circle around searching for their freedom.

Childhood, the past—aren’t we rich with a clear globe of innocence and glee? If there was some still-unfound-wind to wash out some of the gray sometimes black cloud hanging over our much-too-troubled days, your recollections and mine as well as a growing mass of others might yet be the magic wind.

All the best,

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My first Glorious Fourth
July 4, 2010, 5:09 pm
Filed under: essay, memoir, travel | Tags: , , , ,

The heat of the merciless Manhattan sun: this is the first thing I remember of that morning eleven years ago at a July 4th celebration, my first, in New York. The earnestness in the rush on the streets leading to Penn Station is the second thing which struck me as I huffed breathlessly through that mile and a half from downtown where I was staying with a Filipino friend.

Where was everybody going?

Inside the cavernous station, I felt even more lost as moving walls of people seemed to heave, instead of step, into their trains. Like hundreds of New Yorkers on a holiday, my friend and I boarded one of those coaches to Long Island’s north shore. I learned that Independence Day in most of America is celebrated in homes – among families.

Right off Westbury Station, our stop, I gleaned the Stars and Stripes planted on yards and home fronts. But didn’t I notice them flapping on Manhattan building facades? Maybe my focus was fuzzy in between the towers that slice the sky in the city, but sharper on the Long Island landscape of pretty houses with peaked roofs and latticed balconies.

On dappled sidewalks, passing through trimmed lawns, I felt the air enriched with holiday sounds such as shrieks of children, parents’ firm voices, and music from parties in progress. The air too, was textured with the scent of food – most sharply of meat being barbecued in backyards, some by the swimming pool and others under terraces, or shades of conifers.

My friend’s niece decked her terrace with Stars and Stripes buntings; even the table cover and napkins bore the colors. But the laid-out feast revealed the history of the household’s family, a narrative so common in families of America. There was pancit canton guisado cooked by the niece’s Filipino mom, pasta from the Italian mother-in-law, hipon and alimasag from a Filipino aunt, sausage and peppers the Italian husband laid out on platters, rice and, of course, barbecued hotdogs and burgers.

Talk among family members were to me, slivers of life I had only imagined. An uncle of the host, a recent senior citizen ID carrier, spoke of his age with a new tune – it puts him first in any line like a boarding queue on a plane or in Disneyland; and it gives him 50 percent off bus fares and hotel rates, allows him time for more tennis and carpentry and Social Security perks.

The Italian grandmother in a motorized wheelchair showed off a cap with matching belt bag she got at a discount store that carries production overruns and sells everything for 99 cents. She had shopped on 6th Avenue from 24th to 32nd a week before, rolling up and down the sidewalks where there are defined ramps at every curb. She had taken the bus too, that ‘kneels’ as the door opens and the motorized steps flatten out turned into a ramp, and then raised to the level of the bus floor where on a designated row, the wheelchair locks into place.

There was talk about a Chinese in-law wrapping up work in Connecticut before she moves to Texas to a job with a fatter paycheck. A nephew who got his Med Tech degree at UST but who finished grade and middle school in New York had just returned, landing a job as a night lab technician. He didn’t mind the hours, and has taken a day job that gives a higher pay. He is in the Hall of Fame at his Long Island high school where he played tennis and won awards. Some nights, he puts this skill to good use, training petulant daughters of the privileged in an exclusive New York club.

Mere family banter but which, for me, unraveled the heart of democracy – equal rights and equal opportunities. As I listened, my awe dimmed when I thought of home in the Philippines. Isn’t my country ruled by the same principles? I thought, a bit sad.

Lunch over, we rolled up the table cover, crunched the napkins, and tossed these in the trash. As I crossed the lawn to sit on the swing, keeping to the edge fenced by the uniformly growing pines, I glimpsed through adjacent yards where barbecue lunches were winding down, too. Except for sheer markers like trees – a pear serves as a “cornerstone” – no walls topped with barbwire set off properties here.

I thought it was the end of the celebration when we said our goodbyes to catch the train back to Manhattan. The summer sun was yet mid-way its fall on the horizon as we boarded the 7 p.m. train.

We came back to a city jammed to the seams. The morning exodus at Penn Station had reversed; everybody had trained in, headed toward the East River for the fireworks. Blindly moving with the horde, we finally came to one of those parks opened to the public by private owners. This was at Kips Bay behind one of the many branches of New York University Hospital. Standing on the plant boxes, we scanned the sky. The fireworks were launched that year from four barges afloat the East River. This year, according to my friend, these were set on seven barges, a double whammy from South Street Seaport and the East River.

At 9:30, as in past years, the night sky started to breathe a quiet fire, exploding minute blossoms, and then raining splinters of the rainbow, swarming with shards of moonbeams or pompoms that heaved into giant chandeliers later falling on our faces. The display held us in what seemed a beatific moment. Around me, I saw faces lit by the shower of stars. With each variation – and not one seemed alike – our “ohs” and “ahs” swelled and ebbed.

That was all the sound I heard because we were too far to catch the symphony to which the pyrotechnics danced. No ear-splitting bawang or gunpowder smoke choked the air. Again, I thought of home and wished for a New Year’s Eve like the Fourth of July, and its promises I woke up to in New York.

Copyright © by Alegria Imperial as published in the Times Journal, 7/11/99, Manila

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