Move to Manila

I’ve been reading my grandfather’s stories more closely, looking up place names on Google Maps and searching for images to give me a sense of the spaces and distances involved during his family’s numerous moves during the war years. All I can say is that it couldn’t have been easy for my great-grandparents, travelling with small children, avoiding heaven-knows-what dangers, staying with relatives and trying to make your home with them, only to pull up roots yet again. Perhaps this is why my grandfather and his siblings were so close-knit — and still are.

(Click on each image to enlarge)



It was also here that my sister Chita and I returned to school, elementary grades at Balagtas Elementary1  in Santa Cruz.

But soon after, my Father decided that Pagsanjan, in Laguna, would be a better place to live out the war.

Next: Pagsanjan, a.k.a. Little Las Vegas

1This school exists today, and has a website.


From the sea to the mountains

The water dam, Daet | Photo by Romelyn Sansolis via flickr creative commons

I was blessed to have grown up in a house with a large yard, with lots of space for kids and pets to run around. We had two big dogs, and a chicken coop that housed my pet rooster, Charlie, and his tiny harem: a little white hen and a little black hen. We also had many fruit trees, including a guava tree under which I used to love spending many hours reading in a hammock.

My grandfather’s wartime childhood was not quite so serene, but he did get to roam the great outdoors with relative freedom, and with the security and companionship of an extended family, there were even some moments of fun and hilarity.

Life up in the mountains of Mampurog, Camarines Norte was rather peaceful when the enemy soldiers were not in the neighborhood. Not having any lawyering to do, my Father kept us fed and clothed by getting into activities even he didn’t know he could engage in, during happier days before the war. I remember he invested in a cartful of bananas and, carabao-powered, we went to Daet (quite some distance from our mountain home) one early morning, arriving in Daet almost noon and sold our bananas to vendors in the public market.

I also remember one such trip when, after selling our bananas, my Father met up with friends and they had a drinking binge. My Father and his pals were so drunk they literally were running around the house where they were having their party and jumping out of the windows. He was stone drunk on our trip back to the mountains. My Mother and I had to carry him up from the cart to his room. I guess it was one way he could distract himself and forget for the moment there was a war going on.

Also, we raised our own chickens, even tried sorting out from the chicks possible fighting cocks. My Grandfather bred a pair he believed were champion fighting cocks and promptly bet on them. I remember eating our fallen cock champions for dinner many times. (Now you know why I like Church’s fried chicken so much, eh?)

But our mountain sojourn had to end. When we heard that it was relatively safe to return, we left our mountain digs and resettled back in Daet. It was back to normal for a while, but it did not last. The guerillas decided to take on the Japanese contingency occupying Daet, and attacked the town mid-morning. I recall being with my Mom in the kitchen of our house, when all hell broke loose! We heard shots, and a bullet actually missed my Mom by the tiniest margin. She was frying something and a bullet hit the front of the stove, about a meter from where she was standing.

We were then living in a house right beside the town cinehan [movie theatre]. My Father bundled us all into the cinehan where he thought it would be safer. We stayed there all huddled up together until we saw a band of guerillas enter the place, and guess who was at the lead? My Grandfather with a bolo unsheathed in his right hand up in the air. If it weren’t for the tension, we would all have burst out laughing!

When the guerillas left, and a bit of calm followed, my Father decided that it was better to leave Daet and go to Manila.

Thus ended my stay in Daet, where I was born. The next time I returned was after the war, long after, with my own family.

Next: Move to Manila

Personal geography

Screen shot from Google Maps

This month’s National Geographic features an essay by Garrison Keillor about his personal geography. It begins,“When a man lives in one place for most of his life, he doesn’t need GPS.”

I’m fascinated with people who have lived most of their life in one place, because this is not the way of my own family—a trend started long ago, by my grandfather, and perhaps even by his father before him. Back then, for them, moving was not a matter of choice, but of sheer survival: if they stayed put, they could die. Now, reading my grandfather’s stories, it seems to me that his life has been a long succession of moves that affected not only his life but his descendants’ as well. Take me, for example. It’s because of my grandfather that I am here, in Canada, staring out at snow-laden trees instead of at coconut palms waving on an island beach. (No, I’m not bitter. Really.)

I will probably always need a GPS—except perhaps in Vancouver. Which makes me think that a good definition of home might be “the place where you don’t get lost.” But needing navigational instruments to find your bearings is not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you are exploring, expanding the map of your world.

This excerpt from my grandfather’s memoirs takes place in Daet, Camarines Norte. I’ve never been there, but at least now I can add a pin to the map of my personal geography wish list. It’s south of Manila, by the sea—between it and North America, there is nothing but the blue expanse of the North Pacific. I would like to go there someday. In the meantime, here’s the story.

The week that war was declared, and the American and Filipino armed forces were preparing for the expected Japanese invasion of the Philippines, my Father had to go to Manila, where my sister, Chita, was studying in St. Paul’s College then at Herran Street in Paco. I recall his arrival with my sister and two nuns.

From then on it was a flurry of activities that led to our having to leave Daet and go up the mountains to flee the coming Japanese occupation forces. I remember that while crossing a river, I dropped my pair of Keds rubber shoes and couldn’t retrieve it from the rapids. That was the last time I wore shoes. Not until we left the mountains some months after for the safety and comfort of Manila did I again got to wear a pair.

My brother Ricky was born up in the mountains while we weathered the initial shock of having to be uprooted from our Daet home. It was up there, though, that I metamorphosed from a pampered niño-bonito to a rather dependable aide to my Father. I remember chores like walking about 5 kilometres back and forth every morning to get fresh carabao milk for breakfast.

Coming home from one of these trips I recall having to stay away and hide at the back of our hut because I saw a military truck parked in front of our house. They were on routine patrol. Things like these helped keep our senses keen and sharp, and ever alert for the unexpected.

In the beginning the enemy soldiers were not scary, but later on [when] we began hearing of some atrocious actions on their part, especially towards the women, our neighborhood thought of a plan on how to put our area on alert when Japanese soldiers were coming. Tomtoms were used, and whenever we heard them, our women, young and old, left their houses to hide. Can you imagine this happening at night?

Next: From the sea to the mountains

Meet my grandpa

My grandfather, my sister, and myself

My maternal grandparents immigrated to Canada when I was about six or seven years old. Those were the days before the internet made such things as email and FaceTime possible. Happily, my grandfather was an excellent correspondent. How I looked forward to getting a fat letter in the mail, addressed to me, with several sheets my grandfather had tapped out with two fingers on his electric typewriter, his penned signature and perhaps a few handwritten lines from my grandmother at the end.

Now he is eighty-one and—save for the occasional malapropism—still playing with a full deck, as they say. I got to thinking lately about how much of his life I don’t really know. He may have done the writing, but my grandmother did all the talking, and I knew all the stories from her childhood, especially the harrowing ones about the occupation of Manila during World War II. Still, when she died twelve years ago, I deeply regretted not having recorded those stories, fleshing out the details with her, and perhaps getting them into some organized, written form.

But now I have the chance to learn more about my grandfather and write his stories down—or, even better, to get him to write them down. Despite his protests to the contrary, he is a writer, and his letters (emailed, now) are still a pleasure to receive and read.

I thought at first that I would collect his stories and then wait for just the right moment, sometime in the future, to sit down at my leisure and see what I could do with them: a memoir, perhaps, or a history. But I’ve begun to realize—the way life goes, that perfect moment may never come. So I decided to stop being such a procrastinating perfectionist and start sharing his stories with you, in large part just as he has written them, in his own voice.

Tell me about the first home you remember living in as a child, I asked him, just to get things going.

I remember living with my [maternal] grandparents. It was while with them that I  was attending elementary school. My most memorable experience, in fact, happened here. I remember playing hooky one schoolday, and, boy, did I get it from my Father. I think you may have heard me tell the story already…

Was that when Lolo Judge put you in a sack…? (My great-grandfather was a lawyer and eventually, a judge. He and my grandfather shared the same name, Amador. But to us younger generations, Amador Sr. was Lolo Judge. I remember him as a tall, thin man, with a shock of white hair. He never said much and I was rather in awe of him, partly because I knew that once long ago, he had put my own tall grandfather in a sack.)

The principal of the school I was then attending was a poker playmate of my Father. The evening of that fateful day I was truant they had a poker session, and the principal then casually asked my Father why I was not at school that day.

The following day was judgment day! I was sentenced, just as he was once when he was a boy…to be put in a sack, tied from a branch of a baling-bing tree for about an hour, then whipped by a belt as I was still in the sack, kept in the bathroom the whole afternoon, and finally released early evening when my Father came home from work.

My adoring grandmother didn’t talk to my Father for more than a month after that! That taught me a lesson I never forgot. Future truancies were better planned, but I think the reason I was never caught again was that my Father had already passed the sword, so to speak. I suppose I was meant to inflict the same punishment to my future son, only I never got to have one, and it was never intended to be inflicted on daughters, I guess. So, your Mom and Aunts never experienced it, however much they all deserved it later, I can assure you!

This took place in Daet, Camarines Norte, where I was born and raised until World War II broke out.

As they say at the end of Filipino serials: Abangan ang susunod na kabanata! (Stay tuned for the next episode!)

Ten thousand birds

“As long as you’re working, juggling the demands of career and personal life will probably be an ongoing challenge.”
~ The Mayo Clinic

In today’s hectic world, who hasn’t felt like a juggler trying to keep all the balls in play, or worse, like a tightrope walker struggling to stay on the wire? For many people, this circus act is a way of life.

Wouldn’t you much rather be lying under a tree somewhere, with soft grass cushioning your back and lazy white clouds floating overhead in the clear blue sky? Ever wonder just why it’s so relaxing to be near a tree? Even closing my eyes and picturing myself under my favourite tree has an instant soothing effect.

It turns out that this image can do a lot more to help us than provide a momentary escape from reality.

Recently I chatted with Susana Christiansen, a philosopher and mentor who tries to help women achieve balance in their lives—using a fresh new perspective.

“Women in the 21st century want to be mothers, wives, professionals, citizens … all at the same time,” Christiansen observes. “Nowadays, when you think about balance, a common image that comes to mind is that of a circus performer: a juggler or a tightrope walker. Maintaining balance in life often becomes nothing more than a difficult exercise in equilibrium.”

highwire act
Photo by Laura Bittner

Imagine Nik Wallenda crossing Niagara Falls. Pretty harrowing, right? Now, imagine a tree with strong roots and healthy branches. Both the tree and the tightrope walker manage to stay upright, but they achieve this in very different ways.

Christiansen says this is due to an important distinction between balance and equilibrium.

She explains: a system in equilibrium is based on the tension between its elements. It is a closed system, because it depends on a set number of elements that have achieved stability by adjusting to each other. Change one of the elements or introduce a new one—toss the juggler another ball, blow a gust of wind at the tightrope walker—and, tension building, the elements must start adjusting all over again in order to avoid collapse.

Building on principles from Spanish philosopher Leonardo Polo, Christiansen says that a tree, on the other hand, is an open system: organic, dynamic, open to growth, and capable of supporting other elements that are introduced to it. A bird resting on a tree’s branch does not cause the tree to topple over. If the tree is strong enough, it can even accommodate a person clambering up its trunk, hold a tree-house securely in its branches.

CypressI come from British Columbia, land of ancient, towering cypresses. In one park, visitors can walk on bridges suspended between five of the tallest trees. A sign advises that the added weight does not hurt the trees at all; in fact, it only makes them stronger.

We are easily impressed by the height of giant trees, but imagine what the root systems of such trees must be like. How far down they must go, to be able to nourish the tree and support it, even through the worst storms. “A tree’s stability,” observes Christiansen, “depends not on tension between elements but on the richness at its source.”

As the Burmese proverb says, “Ten thousand birds can perch on one good tree.”

To maintain life balance, then, it is much more useful to employ the model of the tree than that of the tightrope walker, because human beings also are open systems, with the capacity to support many other systems and to make many choices in the course of each day.

“Trees know what is good for their growing,” says Christiansen. “We need to be more like that.” There are many practical conclusions that can be drawn from this comparison, but what it means, essentially, is an awareness that I am the one living my life. The things I do in the course of the day must be out of my free, conscious decisions, not just in reaction to whatever gets thrown at me by way of my professional and personal obligations. Above all, I must make my decisions without fear of risk.

“People want guarantees that they are making the right decisions,” says Christiansen. But in life, she points out, there are no guarantees—no such thing, really, as “right” decisions. I can only make sound decisions—choosing what I consider to be the the best thing from a series of objectively good things. So sound decision-making requires both will and wisdom: the ability to set priorities, to sort the bad choices from the good ones, to say no to the bad choices and put the good ones in action.

It’s a paradigm shift that brings with it an enormous sense of responsibility, but at the same time an exhilarating freedom—like getting behind the wheel of the car for the first time after you get your driver’s license. This comes as no surprise to Christiansen, who maintains, “Stress is a great enemy of freedom.”

“Human beings are made to be balanced, but not the way a tightrope walker is balanced,” she concludes. “That way is simply too stressful. It’s not natural, and it’s not healthy.”

Passing on the brush: Bert Monterona

Training the Trainer: photo gallery


A resident of Canada since 2002, award-winning visual artist and educator Bert Monterona is looking forward to a well-deserved retirement in the Philippines. But before he makes the move back home, he’s preparing a second generation of artists to take up his cause of community mural painting.

“I am an artist and, at the same time, a social realist,” Monterona explains as we sit together in the East Vancouver garage that has been transformed into a studio for this project. Before us, on easels, stand the six 4×4 panels that make up the mural currently being painted by the youth of Migrante BC, a community-based non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of the rights of Filipino immigrants, permanent residents and temporary workers in British Columbia.

This is Migrante’s second such project in less than a year. The first artwork was finished in November 2011: the product of a workshop for young, new Filipino immigrants, which aimed to create awareness about Filipino migration issues. Participants researched statistics for a fact sheet on Filipino youth in Canada to provide information on the long delays in family reunification for Filipino families. Then, under the guidance of Monterona, they painted a portable tapestry that captures the presence of Filipino immigrant youth in Canada, their issues and their journey. It has since been displayed at various events both local and abroad.

The current project is partially funded by the City of Vancouver’s Community and Neighbourhood Arts Development Program. Each of the three parts of the mural tell a story that will surely resonate with immigrants from all over the world, not just Filipino-Canadians: scenes of working, of saying goodbye to loved ones and leaving a country that’s systematically being stripped of its resources and rendered unable to sustain its own people.

Monterona and the founders of Migrante BC are strong proponents of the notion that arts and culture can serve as a catalyst to provoke discussion about social justice and environmental issues. The young mural painters share this conviction. From different parts of the Philippines and a range of professional backgrounds, with varying dates of arrival in Canada, they share one thing in common: the immigrant experience. When they paint, they tell their own stories.

So it’s fitting that many of the figures in the mural are modeled on the artists themselves. During the conceptualization stage of the mural process, coached by Janice Valdez, one of the painters who has a background in theater arts, they arranged themselves in tableaux, which were photographed and projected right onto the canvas, providing a guide for the artists to start painting.

Now, as the temperature rises in the studio, the artists’ focus only grows more intense. This is the last weekend scheduled for work on the mural, and they must finish by tomorrow. Landscapes, faces, and objects blossom on the canvas. The main figure in one panel is given a different hair colour, the parade of work tools grows longer, and the ravaged landscape in the mining scene takes shape under the expert brush of Monterona himself. Over the bulldozed hillsides flies an eagle, searching in vain for a treetop on which to rest.

A  ghostly figure hovers in the background of one of the tableaux. Cracks stretch across her wispy body and featureless face, and her silhouette is outlined by a dotted white line similar to those drawn around murder victims on TV police shows.

“That’s the identity of this woman,” explains Marjorie Eda, pausing in her brushwork to point out a figure facing sideways with her arm outstretched. Overhead, an airplane soars. “She’s leaving her old self behind. So not only does she have to build a new life, but a new self.”

“The mural is more than just a work of art,” says Josefa Sapelino. “To me, it’s a reminder that I can be more, that I can do more. In the same way, Migrante opens up new opportunities and horizons for us. Working on projects like this, there’s no room for self-pity. You meet many different kinds of people. You find out that you can help change the way others think, and that boosts your self-confidence.”

As the afternoon winds down, Jane Oridinario, the owner of the house, comes in to tell everyone to stop working and have some pancit. Around the kitchen table, the group discusses another project proposed by Valdez: a cultural arts program to be run in a space provided by the Vancouver Park Board’s Fieldhouse Studio Residency Program.

The program provides studio space for artists and artist collectives at no charge in exchange for community arts based engagement. Proposals are due the day after tomorrow.

“First of all, we need a name,” says Valdez. Several ideas are tossed around, but it turns out that inspiration is right under their noses. The group decides to name their newly founded arts collective PANCIT. Whether or not they’re granted a space by the Fieldhouse Program is still undetermined, but one thing is sure: Bert Monterona can rest easy knowing that young Filipinos are keeping community arts and social dialogue alive in Vancouver.


Filipino dance is thriving in Vancouver

Singkil.jpgPhotos by Leah Villalobos

Vancouver-based performing arts group Kababayang Pilipino (KP) gave its 19th season concert on Sunday June 24, 2012 at the Shadbolt Centre’s James Cowan Theatre in Burnaby.

Aptly entitled Balik Tanaw (A Look Back), the show offered both a retrospective of KP’s repertoire of folk dance and music, and a nostalgic glimpse of the rich diversity of Filipino culture.

Arranged in two acts, the suites were ordered like the petals of a flower, bringing together dances from seemingly disparate regions of the Philippines, but which progressively revealed unifying motifs and themes.

Act I, “Kasikatan” (Fame) opened with the lively yet solemn rhythms of KP’s Percussion Ensemble. Two mountain dances from Northern Luzon set the tone for this act, which was a celebration of harvest, courtship, and the cycle of life. In the Ragragsakan, women with baskets of fruit gracefully balanced on their heads portray the Kalinga tradition of gathering and preparing for a budong (peace pact). The next dance, the Salip, depicts another Kalinga tradition—that of a warrior presenting his prospective bride with a matrimonial blanket, and simulating the movements of a rooster to attract her.

A shift to the south brought the audience to the island of Mindanao, where the dances are marked by the influence of Arabian and Indo-Malaysian cultures. The Kadal Tahaw, a dance of the T’boli, mimics the hopping and flying of the Tahaw bird to celebrate a good harvest. In the Binaylan-Banog dance of the Higaonon, Misamis Oriental, a mother hen protects her baby chicks from a hawk, which the hunters eventually kill with spears.

A rendition of a wistful Visayan love song, Usahay, performed by KP’s Rondalla Ensemble, provided a musical interlude before the next suite, which opened with the Pitik Mangao, a courtship dance. The Pitik (from the Visayan word for “Miss”) was rendered as a pas de deux featuring KP’s Pamela Villarama and Wil Laxa, and incorporated the sweetly flirtatious use of the classic dropped handkerchief.

Exuberant whoops and leaps ushered in the barrio suite, perhaps the most well-known and best-loved of all Filipino dances because of their fiesta spirit. Men, women and children in camisa chinos and colourful balintawaks performed the Itik-Itik, the Pandanggo sa Ilaw, the Gawa-Gaway, and the Tinikling, to the delight of the audience, who clapped along to the rousing music and beats.

Act I ended with a return to Mindanao. The Maranao dance, Malong-Malong, demonstrates the many ways of wearing the malong, a woven piece of cloth sewn into a wide tube which serves as a skirt, similar to a sarong. It can also be used as a dress, a blanket, a sunshade, a bed sheet, a “dressing room”, a hammock, a prayer mat, a baby carrier, and a shroud. Although traditionally performed by women, the Malong-Malong now includes parts for men, who also use the cloth as a sash, waist-band, shorts, and turban.

The Magigal-Paunjalay is a pre-nuptial dance of the Yakan of Basilan, a seafaring tribe that mimics fish movements in their dances. The elaborate, heavily ornamented costumes and the interplay between man and maiden segued into the more well-known Singkil, which takes its name from the bells worn on the ankles of Muslim princesses. Another dance of the Maranao, the Sinkgil is a truly royal dance. It tells the story of Princess Gandingan, who was caught in the middle of a forest during an earthquake. The rhythmic clapping of criss-crossed bamboo poles represent the falling trees which she gracefully avoids, all the while accompanied by the asik, her loyal slave who holds a decorated parasol over the princess’ head. Finally, the prince arrives to save the princess. KP’s Michelle Correa along with Theresa Sanchez Bazelli, who danced the part of the asik, can join the ranks of royal ladies in the Sulu Archipelago who to this day are required to learn this most difficult and noble dance.

Act II (“Kakaiba”/ Different) opened with the striking absence of musical accompaniment during the performance of the Sublian, a dance from Batangas province traditionally performed to venerate the Holy Cross of Alitagtag.  The word subli is derived from two Tagalog words, subsub (stooped) and bali (broken). So the dancers assume stooped postures throughout the dance and appear to be lame and crooked. According to Randy Romero, KP’s artistic director, “I was especially intrigued by the juxtaposition of the women’s feet and hand movements, combined with the look of a simple white balintawak costume, so I stripped the music down to nothing to create a solemn effect.”

The solemnity gave way to a lighter mood with the return of the KP children in Lanceros de Negros, one of the Spanish-influenced Maria Clara dances that customarily opened a big ball. This was followed by another Maria Clara, Paypay de Manila, which featured gracefully swirling skirts and fans.

Another innovation which illustrates KP’s trademark of marrying tradition with contemporary flair was the Jota Nuevo. Romero says that it combined an original composition of the Rondalla Ensemble with the Jota Sevillana, and featured new choreography as an homage to his favourite Castilian movements.

The show ended with a series of dances from Mindanao and Palawan: the Pangsat-Pinadulas, the wedding dance of the Yakan of Basilan; the Katsudoratan, a dance of the royal court of the Maranao; the Indarapatra from Maguindanao, which tells the story of a rajah who fights a mythical bird that brings destruction to the kingdom. Pagdiwata, the finale, was a distilled version of a seven-day rite of the Tagbanua tribe of Palawan. The ceremony is based on the belief that on the occasion of a thirteenth moon, three goddesses descend from the heavens, become priestesses and join villagers in celebration, blessing the planting of the rice fields.

The audience, Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, were enthralled by the near-flawless performances, the stirring live music, and the painstakingly researched, authentically detailed costumes. Once again, through the language of dance, music and art, the youth of Kababayang Pilipino have paved the way to a deeper understanding of the Philippines’ cultural heritage and of the universal ties and traditions that bind us all. We look forward to next year’s 20th anniversary show.

KP welcomes participants to their dance workshops! Visit for more info.