What keeps you away from home, Tia?

The three-storey house has risen on soil she once called home. I’ve climbed it to the roof top where I scooped in volumes of sweetish tropical breeze, gazing at a perforated sky—I once read that the Philippines’ latitude crowns it with a concentrated view of the constellations.

Unlike the old bungalow, as if furious for the absolute, my uncle had poured his dreams into this new house: Marble floors and wide ledges, windows from across each other for counter-flow, bathrooms adjacent to the bedroom outfitted with splatter-safe floors, and elevated to bar prying eyes from the street, a free-flowing living-dining kitchen furnished ala America on the first floor.

The old house also sprawls in light-splashed spaces from high ceilings and wide windows that siphon light, but its fewer bedrooms did pose a quandry over a sister’s long-talked about retirement place. And then, horrible Andoy inundated this house almost to the roof top, washed off most of life he had stacked in books and memorabilia, and stayed as trauma dregs, which is why, in the new house, a climb begins at an elevation of tall six steps up the front door. The push for its construction came during his sister’s yet another homecoming; this time, an architect and contractor had been called.

Still, two homecomings later, the sister kept dipping her toes and withdrawing them, like testing the pool for safety even comfort, as she silently pined for half her heart in Honolulu, her home of 30 years. Apparently, without her meaning to, her veins have rooted among undulating roads around Waikiki; how could Manila’s roads in constant Gordian knot compare? At 80 years old, sustained by youthful spurts of wanting to check out a good deal at Ala Moana Mall or attend a bishop’s noonday holy mass at the downtown cathedral, she had often felt stymied by warnings of black diesel smoke that could choke her and bad wolves prowling sunset streets of Manila in the few months of her stay.

Balikbayan boxes of her own appliances bundled and humped in a kitchen corner of the old house, notwithstanding, my aunt has not ceased refining her purchases to furnish the dream house—of late, a Kuerig coffee maker to replace a yet unpacked programmable-brewing-time Black and Decker. The Kuerig, she later worried, could conk out in one of those power surges or undetected fluctuations so common in Manila.
Stacks of food also trail her as if she had not known long ago how Philippine grain tastes, insisting that the 20 pound bag of brown rice from California tastes cleaner and nuttier. She had once brought 10 pounds of steak round, claiming local beef tastes ma-anggo. Concerned whether or not papaya or what other fibrous local fruit could be available as soon as she arrives, she would stock up on Costco’s dried fruit bags and prunes to bring, not to mention, of course, those aromatic macadamia blends of Kona coffee. Several trips on buses that kneel would keep her occupied, finding more stuff to fill the dream home.

But unease have persisted each time she flew in. That first morning she and I had visited Manila, her creased forehead on waking warned me of a terrible day unfolding: she felt a blister inside her left cheek. Which dentist would see her promptly? Given her health concerns that her dentist in Honolulu would not have to review, would she get proper care? We had hang our heads on the breakfast table, despairing over seeming improbables like if no one could bring her, she would have to ride a tricycle to the gate first, flag an FX express and risk being suffocated by the redolence of bold fragrances, which office-goers wear, or worse, seated beside a svelte friendly lady whose deft wrists could magnetize valuables.

Visiting my sister and me at our hotel during a short trip to Honolulu, my aunt had complained of dizziness from sleeplessness, perhaps from the soda pop she had sipped in a children’s party though she had just received a glowing reading of her last check-up, all paid for by health insurance, of course. Again, we had hang our heads, shivering as we confronted the day when her ailments might progress, God forbid, and who would then, take care of her?

You really have to go back home to Manila, Tia, I had gently proposed. She agreed as she picked up a bagful of alamang, dried dangit and espada, pusit, too, she had brought back from Manila she had promised to share with us. And three bags of Kona coffee, of which I first demured, but she insisted, saying she had more from another Balikabayan box about ready for pick up. I hugged her, rueful with gratitude.

Against my aunt’s two lives and those of friends to which I’ve been privy, I realized what rends them apart when threatened by uprooting: As the landscape of security and comfort pushes forward, details as in forest trees, cloud the choice. Would hearth, which had birthed her, win out in the end? Among quite a number I’ve known, holding out too long turned out too late for a decision. Yet, I believe, the play of both lives sustained them, as it does my aunt.

Homecoming, Peregrine Notes by Alegria Imperial, Business Mirror, Philippines, November 3, 2013, Manila

‘City of my affections’






A city is

not a

landscape I now realize; it is a heart’s structure recalled blindly within its chambers. But it has taken time for me to sense that I prowl Vancouver’s streets in search of Manila, ‘city of my affections’, an endearment borrowed from my idol, Nick Joaquin.

Disbelief over this thought would strike anyone who has lived in it. Indeed, what do I miss in Manila? How could I not remember chaos in its streets, the high decibels of groaning engines, grating brakes of buses and jeepneys, music from stores and snack nooks vying for ears from across each other in streets? What about the grime, the rawness that has become its nature? Could these be what have heightened my senses?

In contrast, Vancouver is calm, rarely frazzled. Even during rush hours, only staccato steps, light laughter and snatches of conversation counter the deep breathing of pneumatic brakes plying their routes on main streets—no honking except when extreme danger of an accident pops up; only an ambulance and fire truck tandem is allowed to rent the air.

Buskers, as street performers with permits are called here, sometimes crochet music in the breeze. I once stood with a small crowd, letting pass a few buses I had walked on a stop to board, for a concert violinist stage an engaging performance of a few Beethoven concertos. With all my senses Manila has sharpened, none such moment passes without me plunging in it.

And because buses run on electric and no diesel in gas pumps, skies always tend to be iridescent except on foggy days in the fall and hazy ones in the spring, and especially when frozen in the winter. Perhaps it is under such clarity that has made Vancouverites commit to a clean city. I can’t say how it is achieved because I hardly catch cleaning dirt monsters with circular brushes in between wheels creeping through streets as in those mornings I did in Manhattan, and from a deep mist, Imelda’s orange clad sweeping brigade.

Once in a while when on my way to a meeting, I’d have to skirt around from getting sprayed by a power hose, dislodging dirt on the just-poured-with-disinfectant sidewalk. I had met waste pickers, too, donned in neon-striped, yes, orange vests, combing the streets and picking up bits sweepers missed. Discreet CCTV cameras notwithstanding, I’ve learned as a Vancouverite to keep my garbage or toss it away where I must.

And yet when drawn within to write, what creeps in are more of what I don’t see like Manila’s mangy dogs prowling and sniffing at the air like ghosts under a day moon or starved cats meowing their hunger at shadows. But more heart rending, who wouldn’t agree, are children on Roxas Blvd. who dart by your car window, a sniffling runny-nosed baby strapped to their fragile bodies, joints protruding, right hand up with eyes begging for sympathy or alms—and you later find out, the baby is no kin and whatever is given goes to whoever hired them.

Vancouver, too, has a few dark spots like a stretch of Hastings St. by Chinatown. Once in a while, I’d stumble on a homeless man in a corner. A couple of them have taken a permanent post by the granite steps of the cathedral. I had talked to youngish woman I caught sniffling as she counted the coins thrown into a hanky she knotted in the corners as in a box, learning of an abusive husband she just left but tearing her heart out was a daughter too, she hoped to go back for once she recovered from the horror of that day. Didn’t I listen to a similar story of a woman who cradled the asthmatic child she fanned as it labored to breath through an uneasy slumber by the entrance of Harrison Plaza? Could poverty of hearts possibly incarnated into ghosts possibly haunting me, I had wondered then.

Ahhh..but there’s Manila Bay that overpowers with its irony of vastness, fullness even grandeur at its incomparable blaze at sunset. And for true-blue Manilenos, the romance of pocket corners in stonewalls and intimate streets scented by champaca, veiled in shivering shadows of ilang-ilang trees like those in Malate. I merely close my eyes to find my late husband sketching on his favorite dappled stone bench at Paco Cemetery, as he waited for me to finish up at the then Inquirer offices.

Like carrying a hidden side of the day moon, I stroll on Vancouver’s West End relishing shades of giant chestnut leaves, often pausing in a pergola by a formal English garden once a private estate, then promptly getting on to the end of the street on English Bay. Most times silky smooth unlike swollen Manila Bay, this bay unfurls at the feet as if cajoling in tiny wave rolls. Even its late summer sunsets are sweet peach orange, bouncing against slopes of mountains framing it as if it were a stage for dreams. Now, do I sound like I’m switching my affections? I think I’m two-timing! 

Published at Business Mirror Philippines in my weekly column,

“Peregrine Notes”, August 5, 2012

Homecoming (Peregrine Notes, my column at Business Mirror)


The word makes me wonder if most of us, like me, were born to leave home and later pine to return. Are we somehow reflections of homing birds, like the swallows of Capistrano, or the terns and geese of North America? Or closer to what I know, do we return where we come from like the salmon of British Columbia that swims back when matured to the river where it was spawned?

But unlike birds and fishes, home, for me, is no longer a place. I suppose it has ceased being one as I changed from one whom I recall even as recently as a year ago. This sense of being alien, which in a way is a reality, could have started to deepen like a whorl in my heart since six years ago when I hurriedly unloaded six decades of my life to live in Canada. At first, I couldn’t imagine going back home.

Where is home? Not that last apartment I emptied not only of accumulated debris but also of mementos and tags of moments lived, which my mother moved from house to house. Or an architect’s house that stood in an ancestral lot owned by five generations I was married into, which I had to sell. Where my sister and I lived with our parents for twenty years close to her high school is now a meaningless shell along smoggy Ramon Magsaysay Boulevard.

Not even where I was born already a vacant space shaded by an ageing pomelo by the time I learned how to read, the borrowed hut lent by an uncle of my father for my mother’s family driven into homelessness by WWII. Or where I grew up with my father’s mother said to be another temporary home built after their stone house from across was burnt. When my mother had to move back to her mother’s for care on the birth of my sister and my other grandmother debilitated with arthritis had to be hauled to a daughter in Manila, I watched it painfully torn down piece by piece and hoisted on to a carabao cart, with my childhood in it.

Massive convent walls where I was sent after high school and the dormitory run by nuns from across UST where I lived for six years sort of healed the gnawing loss I nursed from seeing those fragile walls just gone but I couldn’t call them home. Where then lies home? In my recent homecoming to Manila, I realized that home is both not a place and a structure but something “visible only to the heart” as The Little Prince of Antoine de Saint Exupery told the fox.

My homecoming last month was both ideal and deeply sad. Like a tide surge, my cousin’s death, Ceferino ‘Nonoy’ M. Acosta III, left no space for me to waver about a flight and waffle about gifts to bring. I was so wrapped up in my emotions that the smog, which swarmed the path of United Airlines on its descent to NAIA, failed to daunt me. Nor did the snarl in Baclaran, being a Wednesday, through Roxas Blvd. unnerve me. The landscape though felt shrunken and tighter with buildings now unfamiliar to me, and a crowd thrice multiplied; yet as the SUV that fetched me coughed through clogged streets, it had seemed normal.

I couldn’t guess how I would feel arriving at Paz Memorial Homes; it would be my first as a balikbayan. But with my first step into the chapel where Nonoy lay in state, I felt like I’ve been in it the day before—how many times have I bristled in the arctic air conditioning during a wake of relatives and friends? My uncle and aunt soon swept me in their grieving arms and we wept, sobbing words for the smiling Nonoy, a scene I have watched with other relatives countless of times.

When I turned to the faces riveted on us, there were my other uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, relatives, and former neighbors sniveling with us. While most like me bore marks of time’s subtle scratches, each was whom I knew through the eyes—that invisible space impermeable to time, where I met theirs and my unchanged self.

We laughed, relishing not what was said but simply from the thrill of retrieving lost moments of being together. In the few days that followed, as we exchanged more of such moments–some with Nonoy in our midst–we kept flinging open the closed doors that had been shut by years. And as the burial crowd thinned out, when our clan gathered for what for me was yet another last time together, I had ceased to wonder if I have a home to go back to.

So like a homing bird and the salmon I had managed, indeed, with a tracker so precise scientists remain baffled, to land in or swim back to the same exact spot called, home. Yet unlike them, it’s not a spot I arrived at but a roof with walls I carry around unseen.

Published on January 6, 2013 Peregrine Notes, Opinion Page, Business Mirror Philippines

Photo: waders roosting at high tide in Roebuck Bay, Australia courtesy of wikipedia

Iliw (The Trudge: A memoir on my growing up in Bacarra)

the South China Sea in Natba beach, Bacarra, Ilocos Norte: sand dunes and silver sand, a rough roiling sea photo borrowed from Raymond Ramos

Iliw, Iluko for longing or nostalgia

Where I was born, a town the shape of a mallet in the Ilocos provinces that hug the northernmost edge of the Philippine archipelago, sky, landscape and things that breathe appeared lush, wild and poignant all at once. Wedged between a ferocious river, which ate up chunks of earth when it swelled, and a pastoral spread, which yielded rice, garlic, onions and tobacco, Bacarra—after a fish—that is its uncanny name, seemed charmed.

Or so I remember as I trace my childhood in roads laid out in a grid, marking out memories, making landmarks out of them. The horrendous WWII had just ended and the Philippines just gained independence from the US: we were dubbed ‘Liberation Babies’.

Life wove in and around our families, neighbors and schools, in rituals, routines and events set against rambling landscapes. Wildwoods fringed our playgrounds and schools. Nights and moonlights came as they should. We studied in the gas light; we played under full moons.

Such moments have not ceased to haunt me. Fifty years after my family left town, their spell still grips me especially those last years, my high school years. I had just stepped off childhood and in to transitory teenage-hood, those rainbow-bright years. My story is about those years.

The Move West

A kilometer stretch from our house to school posed quite an ordeal for me during my freshman year in Bacarra High, the public secondary school. We had just moved west to live with my maternal grandmother in a house close to the rice fields, leaving my paternal grandfather’s estate central east along the camino real within sight of the school’s eastern boundary.

That summer of 1957, life for me took on a sudden turn. After ten years of my being her only child, my mother had become pregnant; who but her own mother could best take care of her and the baby? My paternal grandmother, had so weakened with age she had to be sent off to a daughter in Manila

Emptied, our house had to be torn down; I watched it as our tenant-farmers took it apart, plank by plank and beam by beam. Mama had to send my grandfather’s tinted crystals to a cousin for safekeeping. The rag dolls I sewed button eyes on I had to box and give up for space.

Rafael Albano, my grandfather

Across our gate under the shadow of her father-in-law’s ruined stone house, my grandmother rocked softly in her wicker chair, waiting for the only bus trip to Manila. Her butterfly sleeves sagged on her white shoulders; her peppered chignon left wisps on her nape that flailed in the breeze. Uprooted from everything she had ever known, Capitana Canra looked forlorn— capitana being a sobriquet she gained, like all others did as wife of the presidente municipal, called capitan, during the Philippine Commonwealth Government of Governor General Leonard Wood’s time.

As Mama and I walked toward the sunset, I too, felt like dying especially when we reached the house of the Aligas—children of a doctor and a nurse, who met at the American-established University of the Philippines. Here, I spent most of my growing up years tussling at play and even eating meals with seven of them, swapping school anecdotes on the dining table.

At times, we went ‘back-riding’ in the doctor’s Oldsmobile when he drove to Laoag (the capital town) ten minutes away to play tennis or made house calls in the barrios. Once, we slipped through the car windows and dipped in a shallow stream, dripping from hair strands to clothes hem when Dr. Aliga rounded us back to the car. We had endless rounds on the Chickering piano or on the swing, and turns tearing off pages from their mom’s Home and Garden, Good Housekeeping and Saturday Evening Post issues. I, too, teetered as a patient in the ground floor clinic where either doctor or his wife treated my bruises, relieved me of allergies, or gave me anti-rabies shots; I was often dog-bitten, picking gardenias.

When I wasn’t with the Aligas, I would have walked to or been fetched by a maid of the Albano-Pilars; their father was town judge, their mother my elderly cousin on my father’s side. We played games of make-believe and staged our own version of Ziegfried Follies on the bed to their mother’s horror: what if we tumbled off throwing a leg, and broke a bone? Some evenings, as if we sat in a music hall, we listened to impromptu Chopin concerts by another cousin when her family came down from Baguio, the American-built summer city in the Cordilleras.

What Could Have Been

If we didn’t move west, going to school would be for me a breezy walk past homes and grounds I knew blindfolded. Right off our creaky gate, I would sashay to the corner looking across Lola Nena’s house. It sprawled amid a fruit yard of mango, star apple, and chico trees—so old they had branches splayed close to the ground; I used to haunt them like a leprechaun. A few paces on and I would be peeking into a granary curious about treasures hidden only to find sacks of un-husked rice that brooded like petulant giants.

Close to the granary would be the house of their grandfather on a lot the Aligas and their other cousins shared. Both houses opened through a driveway that the ‘sour-drop’ tree (karmay) shaded—it bore fruit we coveted like birds, tiny coronet-like clusters with yellow crunchy flesh—and tucked to a corner, a wooden swing over which we tangled for turns.

Once on the other side of the street, I would be peering at the mansanitas (golden lemon minute apples) we hardly let ripen. We would pick them, imagining callow suns in our palms; this wild tree grew sweetly close to the kitchen window of the Vers—yet another playground.

After this first block, I would stride past the Philippine Independent Church, and then come to the imposing two-story house of the chief of police, also an Albano relative. There often sat an old uncle by its wide capiz (shell of the gloria maris) windows—a retired priest who often raised a right hand to bless me. Across from it stood the Protestant Church which a weathered picket fence set off and clumps of bird-of-paradise curtained. I would take the gravel road bounding its western side, passing by a bakery, eye scrunched and nose pinched so I could resist the lure of sugar-topped, margarine-heaped ensaymada buns.

This unpaved stretch ran alongside the fenced-in wild woods at the ruined rear end of the centuries-old Catholic Church. If I could but scramble through a wire fence visible from the windows of the classroom building, I would be seated sooner in class.

Bacarra parish church, St. Andrew's today as repaired, another photo by Raymond

The Kilometer Trudge

But as it happened with our move west, I had to trudge a kilometer span of asphalt road and some gravel four times a day, including going home for lunch, then back again. First, I had to shamble through the dirt road from our house, passing by homes of Mama’s kin. This short span ended in between shades of giant breadfruit and acacia trees and the artesian well in front of the house of Lola Sepa, nurse-midwife, who seemed to cause babies to get born on her routes.

From here, the asphalted main road began: a singed black ribbon that unfurled on my steps. Soon, it would wind past the walls of Lola Loren’s house. I often paused right off its gate by a stream, which was really an irrigation canal, to breathe in some fresh wind or listen to bamboo trees hiss and groan. If she sensed me prowling, Lola Loren would bring me a glass of fresh sugar cane juice or a bowl of peeled pomelo slices.

In a few yards, I would be gaping at Lolo Pidel’s gabled attic, looming over giant fronds of China beetle nut palm trees. Once, I spotted two boys picking from a bunch of ripe nuts: I liked those sweetish nuts. Creeping by the fence, I yelled and sent them scrambling down and out through the back fence, leaving only unripe green nuts on the tree. Lolo Pidel could have been napping; he was by then, retired from teaching the long division and addition.

He had allowed the use of fingers to count to the thrill of the numbers-handicapped like me. (Lolo is from the Spanish term for grandfather, abuelo.)

The house of the mayor would be visible shortly and across from it diagonally, Silver Theater (named after the chemical symbol from his initials, AG, Antonio Guillermo)—the town’s movie house. In its fragile darkness, I watched ‘Silver’ of those early Westerns gallop as if coming off screen, trampling on me. Faces turned grotesque at times, when a wind escaped through seams on the walls and caused the screen to heave.

The main road forked a yard later and where it widened, spilled to the public market, going straight again by the town’s only tailoring shop and one of two general stores. I would be walking by now under windows that stayed wide open to the street—those of an uncle, Tata Gil’s house. (Tata, father in the Ilocano dialect, is also used for an elderly male kin. Tata Gil was another second degree cousin of my father.)

Serafin Albano, my father taken when he was in the seminary in Vigan

During most of Papa’s home visits from Manila where he worked, he would be Tata Gil’s frequent guest; sometimes we dined with his family and feasted on a special dish—sliced medium rare beef dressed with minced ginger and onions, ground pepper, and digestive juices, strained and blended with Ilocano black vinegar. About the same time, the Laxamanas from San Fernando, La Union would also be visiting—Tata Irineo was married to an aunt, a cousin of Tata Gil.

A few steps ahead to my left behind hibiscus shrubs and horseradish trees, was Tata Milio’s house, still another Albano uncle and later, my English literature teacher. On the next block would be Dr. Bonifacia Albano’s Bacarra Clinic. I used to be shuffled here quaking from high fevers for quinine shots or some other bronchial infections she had treated me that, as stories about me unraveled, began some days after my birth which she assisted.

And then, the landscape spanned out —a square composed of the plaza, public theater, municipal hall, and the Gabaldon Elementary School, which the fractured tower and baroque church clinched. The tower, once the tallest in the country, fell to its knees by degrees from earthquakes. I always shrank into a dwarf once I slipped into this broad embrace.

Bacarra tower, once the tallest in the Philippine archipelago humbled and battered by earthquakes, its head and two windows crumbled as it looks today from a photo also by Raymond Ramos

By the Tower’s Shadow

School was far from near. I had yet to go past the East Central School, the Puericulture Center and on a clearing under the tower’s shadow, the tienda where three spoonfuls of seeded-plantain or green papaya pickled in black vinegar can be had in a banana-leaf cone for a nickel. The pickles in clear glass tubs lined on a ledge so tempted me always I had to wheeze past.

I had to speed through the shade of what seemed a commonplace tree, holding hard my breath to avoid the stench of its blossoms. This bangar tree between the crumbling walls and base of the tower had a crown said to look like witches’ wings at night, when spirits it harbored were also known to transmogrify. With my back to it, I would be passing by the church gate.
Across the street, banana trees crackled in the heat, their hearts peeling prematurely. Next to them sat the only photo studio in town, which I hardly glanced at, or I would rather dash in and scan old portraits than track the rest of the distance along the vine-humped church wall that ended where the road slid into Bacarra High grounds.

Waylaid by a Prince’s Lamentation

One humid noon on my way back from lunch, I darted for some shade under the acacia tree fronting the public theater. Usually deserted at this time, a small crowd milled about while on stage, figures shuffled reciting lines; I had walked into a comedya rehearsal (a medieval mock battle wherein costumed characters said their lines in sing-song and danced their fights). I stayed through a scene where a listless prince detained in some mysterious kingdom by his rival for the hand of the princess begged his jailer for water, a ruse to escape. Naturally, I lost track of time.

When I came to my senses, I jerked and half-walked half-ran to school, sliding into a hush—class periods had long begun. Up the Home Economics building stairs, I bounded to our classroom just when Lolo Valentin, another cousin of my grandmother, was erasing a quiz in long addition on the blackboard. As I crept to my desk, invoking a veil from the clouds of chalk he had stirred, he turned to me wordless at first, and then, simply asked, easing my trembling, “Naggapgapuamon, apoc?” (Where have you been, child?)

It never got better for me in that class, even after Mama had me noon-board with the Aligas so I could get to this first period on time and more so, to absorb their diligence—all siblings finished top of the class. But nothing it seemed helped; I had to face the inevitable—a final grade of 78.

A President’s Handshake

A twin event to my sister’s birth was the visit of then President Carlos P. Garcia to our town—both happened on October 10, 1957. (He was vice president on the death of President Ramon Magsaysay in a plane crash.)

I wakened to a confused household that morning: the hens cackled so because Inay (Tagalog for mother which is what I called my maternal grandmother), who failed to feed them first was ironing my Girl Scouts uniform; routines had to stop about the time Mama started having labor pains. Inay had squatted on the floor, plunging the iron she packed with live coals on my uniform, which she laid over the lid of a wooden box layers of blankets padded. Where breakfast of rice fried in garlic oil would have been served with fried egg, she told me to eat my egg with pan de sal (salted buns). Inay reminded me to take a peek at my sister before I skipped off.

We, Girl Scouts, assembled in school at the softball field before we marched to the main road. The whole town had almost filled up both sides of the road by the time we took positions. I spotted a fringe of shade from a mango tree by Lola Nena’s gate, my old neighborhood, where I hustled my troop.

Two hours later, our necks already stiff from gazing east, we still could not make out any sign of the president. We had started soaking in our sweat and our temple flower garlands had turned limp in our hands, when the motorcade rolled in. Mr. Garcia stood on an open jeep as he floated through the throng the sun to his back—a small burnt-skinned man like an Ilocano. I supposed he had noticed my garland because he held out his hand to shake mine.

The Big Event: My Baby Sister

Mama gave birth to my sister at 3 o’clock that morning. After the euphoria of shaking the president’s hand, I should have gone to Bacarra Clinic to see them both. But I passed by it concerned about how I reeked in my uniform. Next morning afraid of being late, I walked past the clinic again merely glancing through lacy clusters of banaba flowers at the second-floor windows.

At our HE class Nana Idad, a sister of Dr. Albano and Senior Class adviser, came to see me as I gathered the apron I was sewing turned rag from a dozen re-dos in my clumsy hands. (Nana, mother in Ilocano, is also used to address elderly women kin.) She told me that my mother had been expecting me; everyone in the family—Doctora Pacing included—had thought that I felt jealous of the baby.

I proved them wrong when on the afternoon of the next day after school I asked to be excused from our cleaning group. I turned over to our leader five red candles, a gin bottle of petroleum gas, and the tin can in which we melted the candles on a stove—three stones we planted on the ground under the main building. Once liquefied and poured over with petroleum gas, the candles became our floor wax.

As I approached the clinic near the yellow bells climbing the walls across the clinic, I broke away from my friends, ran up the stairs my hands cold with anxiety and huffed toward the bed by the window. Mama was sitting up a bundle to her breast. My sister stopped sucking when I stood over her as if she knew who had come. How she met me was a sight I have not forgotten—marble eyes on a robust angel face a full head of fat curls framed.

my sister at 5 mos, her first ever picture a snap shot by an uncle who happened to drop by one morning

Her effect on me surprised my mother the most: one day I came home with a composition about it, which our English teacher gave a grade of 96.

While my piece remained posted for a week on the bulletin board, its worth lightened beside an incident that had started to preoccupy me: someone inserted a love letter signed Lonely Heart in my assignment notebook. Disturbed by its declarations, I vowed to unmask the coward who wrote it and turned into a spy, picking suspects in class everyday. And then one day, someone spotted a comics-like cover among notebooks left on the steps of the HE building. We fussed over the thin volume of love letters—five of us reading the letters we got from five cowards, or was it from the same coward? We never knew.

my sister with Mama

A Magical Moment

Then came the extremely cold year—the Siberian cold front that swept the Ilocos during our sophomore year, and which had sent us to school wrapped in knit sweaters and woolen coats, some too big for our size. It was also the year my seatmate and I witnessed with bare eyes how grass grows—a slight miracle at the softball field during the Monday flag-raising ceremony.

I had quivered in the wind, a light punishment for disobeying Mama who told me not to use the tangerine sweater that looked good on me. She had told me to wear instead the coat of brown plaids which hang a little past my wrists (a hand-me-down from a cousin in Hawaii). It didn’t help that Elena and I, being the tiniest in Section One, stood at the head of the line, facing the morning sun; the administration building would have blocked
its rays by the time we sang the National Anthem.

Everyone seemed sluggish those cold mornings, including me. Still, I kept turning my head for someone to talk to or laugh with. That week’s emcee had just called one of the guys for a declamation piece when I noticed Elena smiling—she always had a serious mien. What puzzled me more was that her eyes were transfixed on the grass.

Inching closer, I asked in a whisper, “Why the smile?”

Without turning her head, she whispered back, “Look at the grass.”

Imitating her, I suddenly saw it! A blade moved: first, a quiver, and then an abrupt flick like the kick of a newborn.

For the next two years, Elena and I those Monday mornings waited for the magical moment, half-minding the class trio’s growing repertoire of songs—a fixture in those morning’s programs—the last of which were “Volare” and “Fools Rush In”. We were seniors by then.

A Silver Medal

Before we graduated, I won reluctantly a Silver Medal in an oratorical contest. Papa had come home for a long vacation shortly after I topped the school-wide competition to represent Bacarra High in the province-wide contest. Tata Milio talked him into writing an original piece for me—something on Jose Rizal’s (our national hero) thoughts on the youth, the contest theme. He did and he also coached me on delivery: I felt like I had been dipped into a crucible. I woke up nauseous from an acidic and nervous stomach everyday.

I also had to give up my afternoon forays in the bushy northern edge of town to Lola Annit’s house—where I could pick as many purple star apple fruits as I wanted—to get home early for supper. After an hour or so, I would stand atop the stairs on our porch, a Coleman lamp flood-lighting our yard or the full moon washing my face to deliver my oration. My voice rang through a neighborhood of maternal cousins, aunts and uncles, grandaunts and granduncles who must have suffered through those evenings that lasted for three months.

Two days before the contest, I practiced before an afternoon assembly in school, receiving a cymbal-applause that only upped my nervousness. Afraid I would disappoint Papa, I threw a tantrum and threatened to quit if he did not leave for Manila the day before the contest.

Inay, who did not understand a word of English, accompanied me to the contest in Laoag because Mama could not leave my sister for the night. Toward the middle of my delivery, a commotion broke out in one corner of the Ilocos Norte High School quadrangle but I finished without a stammer. Was I ecstatic over my medal? I felt simply relieved the pressure on me had been lifted. (Emmanuel Bonoan of Ilocos Norte High won the gold.)

First and Last Dance

Within three months, we faced the final exams but we were more excited about the Seniors Prom. Two rooms of the Main Building, its walls knocked down, became our dance hall. A generator that whirred by the stairs kept the hall lit and the music going. Most of the girls either giggled or sat frozen out of nervousness. I sailed on a cloud as pink as my empress cut dress, silver dust outlining the roses. No one came for me until the third piece.

Just then, the first strings of “Fascination” floated, easing up the stifling air. I did not see him but before I knew it, he stood before me holding out a hand. His hands were clammy, and he held me rather loosely; it felt strange. I realized only then that it was the first time we touched even if we had known each other as children. That dance was to be our first and last.

Last Visits

I went home only once during my college years on my first semester’s break; I had enrolled at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila for journalism. I returned just twice years later—first in 1974, to interview homecoming Hawayanos (town mates who sailed to Hawaii in the 1900s as sugar cane gatherers and pineapple pickers) for a magazine article; and in 1982, to attend the installation of my maternal grandfather’s monument—Ceferino Acosta—for his heroic deeds during WW II.

My sister and I went back in 2002 for what perhaps could be the last time to turn over my paternal grandfather’s lot to the buyers; the family had decided to sell it.

As the new owners and I talked, I would glance at the wild growth where once was a tomato patch I used to stray into, Lola’s hoarse cries stopping me, to pick red globules off the low-lying vines. The sun that morning swept through crowns of mango trees now slouched from age and neglect; I had often watched Ka Iban, who also grew the vegetables, trim its branches before the rains. Across the street where I used to lurk waif-like, nothing but a gaping space remained of my great grandfather’s stone house, the moat surrounding it and the stables he bred horses now mere tales—Don Benito Cab-caballo who traded his horses they say from Vigan to Pangasinan.

The town I knew had so changed by then: most of our kin had died; the Aligas, the Pilars and the Albanos with their complex web of cousins had left for Manila and the Americas and Europe. My sister and I long orphaned, had since migrated to Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Summer in Mission, BC, my sister at right

Copyright © by Alegria ‘Guia’ Albano-Imperial and Kannawidan Foundation, 2007
Published as a slightly edited and expanded version in Ili a Nasudi, The Kannawidan Foundation, Inc., 2007
Published in part in Timeless Spirit Magazine

Light-entranced: A New Face of Spain in Manila

Published in Philippine Asian News Today, Vancouver
Posted in

 Vancouver, BC, CanadaIn a number of meetings and conferences I have been invited to or signed in, I am always engaged in a dance of memories I had not thought I lugged around. The most potent of these is culture. A month ago, at a conference on Environmental Justice at the SFU Harbour Centre, each of us, participants, were made to draw our thoughts on the environment using Pentel pens on a piece of white bond paper. Mine was a textured web of the Philippines layered by centuries of colonization. My words in the presentation burst out like a dirge for beauty I had not expected. It could have risen partly from longing for home. After the session, Gil, the Mexican panelist latched on to me. He called me, “prima”; I called him, “primo”. There is nothing new to this. Each time I meet Latinos, they catch me by my name, hugging me con “abrazos fuertes”. At such moments, I always come flying home to Manila, remembering. Like the first time I visited the new building of Instituto Cervantes a week after it was inaugurated. Here is what I recall. 


I had since stepped off the cab, ignoring the driver’s probing why I was going to a “casino” on T.M. Kalaw at midday, and why the new building I said I was really going to—Instituto Cervantes (Manila) he repeated, tongue-twisting—did not have the arko and barandilla he usually sees in Spanish-sounding places. As he sped away, I began looking for the same details he did.


I realized I had gotten off before the entrance, midway through the horizontal span that begins where Casino Espanol’s stucco wall ends. As I singled along a beige stone-clad wall, I also walked under the slightly jutting walls of an upper story, a dark protrusion covered with oxidized metal sheets that holds up a sheer half of white steel-framed glass picture windows. An image flashed: possibly remote, I had shrugged off; but I remembered as a girl during one of those visits to the seminary in old Vigan far north, ruined since, peeking on tiptoes from one of those huge windows flung wide on feast days to watch right under my feet people in a holy procession. I later learned from the architect that the memory had not crept in by accident.


At the end of the span, I drew a few paces back awed by the contrasting lines and surfaces of the facade. Seemingly not both but only the lower portion of the horizontal span flows into the rise of a medium-high tower I faced; both are clad with those beige stones. Together, they form a right triangle. But in my mind, I transformed the geometric lines into an enormous human form seated on the ground, balancing on its stretched legs a transparent box pulsing with light. The architect would probably think this incredulous but I knew from talking with other architects that a building must take on life and if it does it would take on many guises also. Under the broad tower, I slipped into the entrance—automatic glass doors embossed with the institute’s (ICM) logo—and found myself really wondering if indeed I were inside a Spanish structure.


Shedding off Colonial Stereotypes


Almost embarrassed, I shed off the baggage I had carried—stereotype images of stone churches and houses that are not even Spanish but Filipino colonial buildings. A stranger to the Spain of today, I did recall that high noon reading in the New York Times an article about an exhibit on Spanish architecture at the Museum of Modern Art. Featured with the story were photos of the new terminal at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport and the Museo Contemporaneo de Castilla y Leon. The article dubbed Spain as “showcase of some of the most exciting architecture in the world today” and “a center for architectural marvels.” The Instituto’s architect, (and former director) Javier Galvan Guijo, a graduate of Escuela Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid where he also earned his masters and doctorate degrees, must have trained with Spain’s new breed of architects.


Gaping at the structure I had stepped into, I realized it was time for me to snip anything Spanish off relics of the Philippines’ colonial past or those churches and fortifications friars and military engineers built as well as the bahay na bato (stone house) they improvised to withstand earthquakes and keep off the endless summer heat. Even while Galvan claims his design synthesizes such structures that he has studied and documented in his travels to almost all islands of the archipelago – he goes way back to 1993 lending a hand in Vigan’s restoration – his European modernist sensibilities obviously overcame his love for everything Filipino in this building.


Easier to agree with is his declaration that light is the “protagonist” in his design. He could not have escaped its omnipresence in my country. Light floods any nook, seeps into any cranny, it even creeps into nights in the archipelago—a priceless element that to his dismay local designers tend to ward or totally close off. A Madrileno and thus no stranger to the sun, Galvan set his building up as a stage for a play on light.


Light as Protagonist: Capiz in Modern Design Sensibility 


 In the lobby, I felt like a dwarf in an enormous cube that opens to the sky. I scaled soaring dark Indian sandstone walls, breathless at the height, the same feeling when I walk into a cathedral or a gothic church—my experience with structures of this proportion being limited to the ecclesiastical. I pushed the comparison further: square incisions in a grid midway up the wall, the architect’s version of capiz (mother-of-pearl shell) windows—a theme he uses throughout—also reminded me not of the checkered pattern but of how light breaks on a wall of the Santuario de Nuestra Senora del Camino in Leon I got fascinated with on a postcard. Too, a soft aura like a haze that followed a few students milling in the lobby had added to the other-worldliness light refracted from the top has lent. But light playing magic on my senses soon dissipated this haloed perception. 


Right in the lobby, light in its many guises inundates the visitor: fluid as it pours on the walls, solid as in spears piercing the three-sided slits that edge Interior 3the dropped ceiling, vaporous in slants from the square windows, and mist-like as all that light settles on the blue-gray slate floor. Quality and hue also shift according to time of day, changing as light turns with the sun’s inexorable motion. I had imagined as it rose and hit the facade sideways it daubed the lobby a purplish pink, a hue that faded into yellowish white as noon approached and on to a powdery white as the sun paused in its zenith. When light slanted from the west, the light wavered to a soft aluminum gray as it did right then. But wait! It had brightened up as if from a sudden lift. I turned and indeed, met a splash coming in from the patio, hitting a glass wall tangentially across the entrance; the sun had slid ever so imperceptibly in its downward arc.


 Two things had happened in the splash of light: it poured on to the transition area right above where I stood then spilled down the slate-clad stairs on the wall opposite the entrance to my right, and flooded a rectangular space to my left where the lobby expands. This space boxed in by end-walls painted white is a changing exhibit area. But that afternoon in my light-altered state, it had looked more like a waterway drenched with light whooshing in from clerestory windows atop the length of one wall, and bouncing on the outer walls of the theater, the Salon de Actos.


Easily a seeming favorite among students, I found a group squatted in a circle near the far end of the box washed in the light, their heads huddled like some yet unnamed species of birds in complicity. When another group swung in from the patio through the glass door, meeting the first, both soon lifted off on flapping arms, dripping sparks of fluid light, winging out to the arcade outside. I was left trying to decide whether to climb the stairs or follow the flight of students. I took the second choice.


I followed in their trail, squinting at the stark brilliance of a bare sun. Where I had paused outside the door, I viewed the enclosed Casino Espanol property through the patio and the swimming pool, given elements Galvan worked in to his design. Two contrasting sides of Spain look on each other from here: one, a nostalgic colonial past in the arched terraces and inner garden of the brick-roofed Casino restaurant, and the other, a boldPatio 1 straightforward present in the looming white concrete and glass walls, exposed posts and beams of ICM—two sides the patio sets apart yet blends.


I walked on to the arcade that the beams and posts create, keeping close to a series of glass doors embossed with the same square grid pattern—those of the suite of classrooms called aula (cage)—tucked under it. I had peeked into each of these entranced by the light like two streams pooling on the floor. One stream comes from the patio, or light that breaks on the marble tiles then spills in, the other like a fluid curtain comes through glass blocks on the back wall.


Spanish Today among Filipinos


Through one of the doors, I glimpsed the students in the changing exhibit area. (So they flew back in to their cages.) Here, along with the 3,600 other students, they have come to learn Spanish, the language half of the world speaks, a language Filipinos once knew. It takes 30 hours to step up to each of the 25 levels or three years of mastery a certificate testifies.  


Two weeks after this visit during a yearly event of non-stop reading a work written in Spanish, I would sit in the Salon de Actos listening to some of the students read two pages each of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere”, his novel that ignited a revolution and led to his martyrdom that made him a national hero. Galvan’s dramatic design that alternates dark concrete and light veneer oak on the wall and ceiling and echoed on the capiz pattern on backs of seats could have intensified emotions the text carried. But the 250 readers, among them mostly students, would focus on the words falling from their tongues, flipping like the foreign objects they still are—though a few would be Spaniards living in Manila and a handful of Filipinos who have lived for years in Spain—thus, pushing emotions in Rizal’s novel a hundred years back where they belong.


Who takes up Spanish these days? I wondered. Jose Maria Fons, then ICM’s information officer, counted among them young scholars simply interested in the language and Spanish culture, would-be teachers—and job seekers who get an edge with Spanish. I had glimpsed some schoolboys among those enrolled in the children’s program, as Fons would later explain, in the last aula as I climbed the stairs at the end of the arcade.


A spindly crown of pili tree shades the terrace above the arcade. Pairs and trios of students had each taken a spot here, leaning toward the patio, reflecting on the static gleam of the pool, chatting in Spanish; no one here is allowed to speak in another tongue. A row of smaller classrooms that includes a media room — also front and backlit — ends at the library backdoor. A sign forbade me to enter; I was not authorized. But I had pushed because no one was looking and found myself engulfed in a giant triangular box brimming with light.  Biblioteca 1


The splashes and spears of light at the ground floor and the streams in the classrooms interplay in the library perhaps ten times magnified. Light here roars in cascades from a skylight—a broad band of framed glass multi-axle steel beams support—then it drops to a light well, skimming a white firewall and streaming halfway down to a wall of glass blocks, the same translucent back walls of the classrooms. Its unhampered flow ends on a recessed white-pebbled ground. More light slide obliquely where the ceiling slopes down in veneer oak, slipping through framed vertical glass windows that look out to the patio. I stood by the side of one of the reading desks still facing upward—as if it were the first time I saw clouds scudding by, leaving a stretch of blue. (One rainy day a week later, I would come back here to watch rain wash the skylight gray, then leave patterns of leaves and seashells, and some tiny animal footprints.)  


I wove in and out of the shelves, basking in the luminescence, starting to feel my dormant Spanish waking up—I did understand the titles on the spines of books, even an issue of Geografica on Cristobal Colon. When I got to the last page of the journal, I sensed a coral hue brushing my arm; the sun had begun its descent. I slung my bag on my shoulders and pushed the door toward the transition area. This open space that overlooks the changing exhibit area and the lobby also leads to the offices. Movement is transparent through the glass doors and walls, light-soaked as in every space in the building. The bustle in the offices had reminded me why I was there.


Manila: Gateway to a Double Triangle-Spain to Asia and Spain to Latin America 


Senor Galvan had noticed me. He had just flown in from a two-day visit to Hanoi where Instituto Cervantes through Manila runs small suites of aula; it also does in Singapore and Malaysia. I learned from him that Manila servesexhibit hall-clerestory windows as regional center for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Nothing new in this role,” said Galvan. Four hundred years ago, Manila opened Asia to the West and the West to Asia; today Manila plays the same role in a double triangle between Spain and Asia in one, and Spain and Latin America in the other.


He then led me to the top of the stairs; light had turned a hazy ash though streaked with coral. Where we leaned against the railing overlooking the lobby, I felt like standing on the ledge of some ancient cave. Senor Galvan laughed off my impression. “That only means this building is alive,” he had said. I had added, “And not blood but light is its force.”  


The building has just been picked as one of TOP100 buildings designed by Madrilenian architects.

Senor Galvan had since left Manila and has just been named director of IC in Oran, Algeria. I had migrated to Vancouver, Canada.