Being an Ilokano Scholar in Filipino North America

Community Opinion & Analysis Sep 8, 2017 at 2:36 pm
By Adrian De Leon

By Adrian De Leon

When I first considered working in Filipino American Studies (as a Canadian at that, though that’s a story for another time), I dreaded the prospect of having to recover my Tagalog.

My family arrived in Scarborough when I was five years old. Upon arrival, a thoroughly bilingual childhood education of Tagalog and English (and, of course, Taglish) had configured my mouth’s countless muscles to work seamlessly between the two, with the innocent fluency that only a toddler could master. Years of being surrounded by loving family at the Baranggay of Bagong Tanyag had imprinted a tenderness for the rhythmic syllables of Tagalog.

However, after crossing the Pacific Ocean, that tenderness became intolerable shame. Words like “fob” bombed the sounds of the salitang kalye (street language) that came out of my mouth, accompanied with the missile trajectories of “what the hell are you saying?” with every deviant lilt of my Filipino speech inflections. The slight dip of “’di ba?” or the glissandos of “oo nga”–they proved intolerable to the Canadian educational syllabary (and syllabus).

The home-front of this language war was especially violent. In the benign efforts of my parents to acculturate me as a Canadian, they encouraged my English-language education. So sounded the death knell of my effortless bilingualism, when my Lola flew in from the Philippines to live with us. I was to teach her (and my new baby brother) English. I “lost” my Tagalog.

Not until (true story) my twentieth birthday did I realize how palimpsestic that early language education really was in my subconscious. A night of inebriation in a rented-out hotel suite led to a morning of pounding headaches, crispy brunches, and astounding revelations:

“Fam, you was straight speaking in Tagalog last night.”

“Nah, homie, you ain’t for real. Seriously?”

“Not only that. You were freestyle rapping. In Tagalog. Hell, I couldn’t even keep up with you.”

At the encouragement of a beloved mentor, I took up a diasporic Filipino project, and with the generous support of my undergraduate department (English Literature), I found myself travelling to Manila and Honolulu. Immersed in the chaos of election-season Manila, and the poly-cultural politics of Honolulu, I took the secondary literature of Philippine histories to the fields from which they were derived.

But as I soon discovered, ang aming wika at kultura was not for all of us. In Hawai‘i, where I researched the Filipino experience in the neighborhood of Kalihi, I soon learned that calling myself “Filipino” could not be as axiomatic as I had made it out to be. “Are you Tagalog or Ilokano?” my interviewees asked me. Every single one of them.

“…both.” But what did this mean, really?

At the University of Toronto Scarborough, I wrote my honors thesis broadly on Filipino American literature in Hawai‘i. While learning two other languages (Spanish and French), I continued to recover my Tagalog skills through self-study and language immersion in my hometown of Scarborough. Working as a food ethnographer and historian (through which I first began my graduate program) has only strengthened my connections with my ancestral and living community. I came to love my local restaurants, diasporic artists, Pin@y scholar-activists, and consuls, who have equally educated me in what it means to be Filipino in Toronto.

I could not get rid of that nagging question, though. “Are you Tagalog or Ilokano?” I recalled the rare times that my Lola was allowed to lead grace before meals–and not once did she recite the prayers in English, nor in Tagalog. The rapid velar consonants and rhotic flaps that glided over our pinakbet, pinapaitan, and adobo occupied a different world from the Tagalog, English, Spanish, and French ones that I had known or learned. Agyamanak kaniayo, Diyos, para dagiti kanenmi ditoy

Ni Lelangko (my Lola) had always mentioned, in the passing moments I bothered to tune into her ramblings while growing up, her life sa probinsya. Or, sometimes, idiay probinsya. It wasn’t a simple life, from what I gathered, but it was one that existed in many languages at once. Sometimes, it was the strained recollections of broken English. At other times, ang probinsya existed in the nostalgic musings of Tagalog. And other times, iti probinsya ni Lelangko peeked out from a more tender, more vulnerable place.

By the grace of the wonderful support I’ve received at the University of Toronto and other grants, my research has taken me all over the place: Manila, New York City, Ann Arbor in Michigan, Chicago, Ithaca in Upstate New York, the Pacific Northwest, and Hawai‘i, where I now live. And again, just as the last time I was here, the experiences of folks I’ve met have clarified all the more what it means to be Filipino in Toronto. Their heightened attention to land and labor, their attention to linguistic and cultural difference, and our shared consciousness of settler colonialism (in Hawai‘i as well as in Tkaronto), shapes where my work and my reflections move.

And, most importantly, that education takes place in that vibrant language of Ilokano. As I make the efforts to learn my maternal native tongue, my Nanay helps me by texting mostly in Ilokano, or cross-referencing grammar and colloquial notes with her mother, ni Lelangko. The Ilokano classmates and professors at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa inspire my growing passion for our language and our diverse (but collective) migrant histories. And my new friends and allies here, especially Cordillerans, Pacific Islanders, and Kanaka Maoli, remind me everyday what my kuleana (sense of responsibility) as a historian is.

Through this language and history, ang aking wika at ang kultura’ng Tagalog is also sharpened as well. It pushes forward questions of language and translation wars (as one Philippine historian might say), but also of the unique histories that the diverse Filipino community of Toronto carry with them. My kababayan sa Toronto hail from so many places: Surigao, the Visayas, Northern Luzon (both Amianan and Abagatan), as well as from the Tagalog and Bikolano regions. Together, we all add to a richer history of our communities, at an international moment when so much of those histories and lives are at risk.


Adrian De Leon is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, and the University of Washington—Seattle. His research, teaching, and community work involves Filipinos all over the Pacific and North America.