Friday, December 17, 2010

The Igorot-ness of Christmas Past

I don’t have to tell any of you how bad commercialism has taken over Christmas and how it is considered politically incorrect it is to say the words, “Merry Christmas.”   The social climate in America encourages people to replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”  With so much emphasis on the removal of “Christmas” and the materialism of the holidays, I wonder how many people are truly happy this time of the year.
Our economy hasn’t gotten better.  It still continues beating down on American families, and more people are financially strapped this year than years prior.  Unemployment is still very high, foreclosures continue, “stay-cations “remain the sensible alternative to vacations, and so on.  Yet, people continue digging themselves deeper in debt to keep up with the materialistic expectations that society has engrained into their kids, family and friends.   I don’t think this is what the real Santa Claus intended. 
Despite all the materialism and false notions that plague this time of year, Christmas still ranks number one in my list of favorite times of the year.  Yes, number one, and not because of the gift giving or materialism associated with it.  I love it because it’s that time of the year when I always recall the simple reason for so many years of joy and happiness: my Igorot parents.
Since I arrived in America at the age of four, Christmas in my immediate family was always about the simple meaning of Christ and mass.  I never knew it to be truly about anything else.  Television and society always tried making it into the American notion that centered on Santa Claus, Christmas trees, gift giving and the typical Norman Rockwell scenes of Christmas, but my Igorot parents, like our Igorot ancestors of the past, refused to be “colonized” by these things that bombarded my childhood years.

My Igorot Mother - Dolores Lengua Delson

Both my parents were Christians.  My mother was the first in her family to convert to Christianity.  Her father, my lolo, was actually an Igorot pagan priest who worshiped and believed in the Igorot god, Lumawig, before my mother convinced him to convert shortly before his death.   So you can see, there has been many more years of paganism in my family than Christianity. 
Because of her though, there was never a Christmas that went by without Christ and Mass as the center of everything that happened every Christmas.  My parent’s “Simple”, yet “Meaningful”, Igorot upbringing influenced the way we went about the holiday each year.  There was always an unmistakable contrast in the way we celebrated Christmas compared to the world I lived in. 
While all my friends were gearing up for the day they got gifts (the only thing on their minds), I rarely got my hopes up about the kind of gift I would get because gifts like socks, underwear and basic necessities were usually to be expected.  We never went through all the trouble of lighting up the outdoors, except for Christmas Eve when we lined our sidewalk with luminaries (small paper bags with a candle inside).  Decorations were limited to a small manger and advent candles.  Our long lasting aluminum Christmas tree with sparse ornaments seemed always dwarfed by the large fancy real trees of my friends and neighbors.
On the other hand, time seemed filled with more substance and quality.  Our meals that we shared each night usually lasted longer because it seemed as if we enjoyed conversing and laughing more because Christmas was approaching.  We watched more television together as a family; something that my parents really limited on a normal basis.  I used to love watching the old Mutual Life of Omaha broadcasts and my parents enjoyed them as well.  Overall, the house was a happier place because everyone knew it was that time of year to love one another more than usual. 
On Christmas Eve, we attended the midnight Mass.  It didn’t matter if we were celebrating with our close family friends.  I remember on two rare occasions when we went to a Christmas party at my auntie Toring’s house and dropped everything we were doing at the party to leave for Mass, and then return to the party afterwards.  On normal occasions, my parents made it a point for us to try napping that afternoon so that we could stay awake during Mass.  It usually worked, but I could remember many Masses when I was barely able to stay awake because I pretended to nap that afternoon. 
After Mass, we went home to open presents.  For us, presents were always handed out one by one so that we were able to have a sense of appreciation.  Even though the gifts were usually very simple, I don’t recall any instances of pouting from any of my four sisters or myself for that matter.  Maybe it was because we knew it wasn’t “about” the gifts or maybe we were just happy to see my mother and father happy.
Once, my parents tried the whole Santa thing.  I don’t know why, but I guess they wanted us to experience what our friends also experienced every year.  Maybe, one of the neighborhood mom’s convinced her to go along with the Santa story in attempts to “Americanize” us.  Well, whatever the reason, I will never forget how good of a job they did in making us believe in Santa.
While we were a midnight Mass, my father went to use the bathroom, so we thought.  Since we lived only three blocks from Church, my father had enough time to slip back to our house and put the gifts under the tree.   When we arrived back to our house after Mass, my parents pretended not to know anything.  As I entered our house and looked into the sala, I couldn’t believe my eyes!  There was a bicycle and wrapped gifts under and surrounding the tree.  I swear, we all thought Santa visited us that night! 
That was the last time they did that.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t bother me.  Maybe we were at that age when all our friends stopped believing or maybe they just saw beyond its temporal meaning. 
After going back to sleep and waking up later on Christmas day, I would usually run to my best friend’s house across the street to see what he got for Christmas.  It was usually something cool like a Shutes and Ladders game or GI Joe figures.  We would play with it all morning, but on more than one occasion, I remember him getting tired of it after only playing with it a short while.  I think I understood then about the limitations of how much happiness toys really bring a child.  I think this is why my parents never took stock in Santa Claus.
After Christmas, my sisters and I always looked forward to New Year’s Eve.  I think I had more fun on New Year’s Eve than I did on Christmas because my parents had us line up side by side at the end of our block with pots and pans in our hands fifteen or twenty minutes before midnight.  What made it more fun was the fact that our neighborhood friends joined us.  We counted down the seconds just before midnight, and then at midnight, we started banging the pots and pans as hard as we can while we all screamed at the top of our lungs, “Happy New Year!”  We did this from one end of the block to the other.  Oh, was that fun!
Each year I reminisce about these things and wonder about how much more happier people could be if they had some of that “Igorotness “ in their lives during Christmas.  Simple and meaningful: two words that go a long way, but are so hard to achieve in the kind of society we live in.  Having been raised in America, I really see the value in my experiences as a child, but I also see the value of the traditions of an American Christmas. 

There's a part of me that has adapted to the materialism and Santa traditions of Christmas.  In fact, I tried pulling off the same type of trickery that my father so successfully accomplished that night he snuck back home during midnight Mass on several occasions.  The most memorable one happened during Christmas eve of 2004.  After Mass that evening, the kids went to sleep relatively early.  I waited a couple hours until I knew they were sound asleep.  Then I snuck out my upstairs bedroom window and climbed down a ladder that I pre-positioned earlier.  It was lightly snowing and about 5 degrees outside.  The ladder had accumulated some ice and was somewhat dangerous to climb.  Once outside, I opened the hidden bag of gifts that I placed outside earlier that day.  With the gifts positioned immediately outside the kitchen sliding doors, I literally inched into the house on all fours without making a sound.  One by one, I carefully placed the gifts by the tree.  What would have taken me five minutes under no secrecy actually took me almost an hour since I had to move so slow and cover my tracks.

After the gifts were placed, I plugged my Ipod into the computer speakers, turned up the volume and set the alarm sound to the sleigh bells sounds that I downloaded earlier.  The alarm was set to go off at 2 o'clock in the morning.  Afterwards, I ate all the cookies and drank the egg nog that my kids placed on the table for Santa.  Back up the ladder I went and into my bed. 

An hour or so later, the sounds of sleigh bells filled the house for about fifteen seconds.  I heard the kid's doors open and their little footsteps in the hallway as they cautiously investigated.  "Santa came!" cried my youngest.  Then the other two joined in and began telling each other how they heard him and the reindeers.  I think my son even added to it by saying he thought he saw shadows.  I laid in bed with a huge smile on my face knowing that I more than accomplished what my father accomplished way back when.
So yes, I think the whole Santa story is a great one, but there’s a bigger part of me that knows how much more important it is to teach my children the real meaning of Christmas: the birth of Christ.  Fortunately, we have a very strong and active Simbang Gabi movement where I live, and I am also fortunate my wife started the tradition of attending them each year.
My Children as Candlebearers - Simbang Gabi 2005
It started when my son was three years old.  My wife volunteered to help the Simbang Gabi organizers at our church by helping organizing and supervising the kids who brought up the gifts to the altar.  Since then, all my children still participate in Simbang Gabi by performing Filipino dances, reading scripture and whatever else they could do.  Oh, and after thirteen years, my wife still helps coordinate the children’s roles each year.   I’m glad she started this tradition in our family because it really helps keep the real meaning of Christmas in perspective.  
I hope everyone reading this can experience the real meaning of Christmas as I have.   To all my fellow Igorots, I would love to hear some of your Christmas experiences as well so please share.  Have a MERRY CHRISTMAS and a happy New Year!  Naimbag a Pascua!  Gawis ay Paskua ya Nalagsak ay Balo ay Tu-en!

My kids performing after Simbang Gabi Mass  in 2009 with other kids.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ti Kosinero Within

Thanksgiving Day just passed and the Christmas and New Year holidays are fast approaching, which means more food in the oncoming weeks.  It is one thing to enjoy eating food, but it is definitely something else to enjoy cooking it. More than often for me; I enjoy cooking it more than I do eating it. 
Since I was about ten years old, I have always enjoyed cooking.  As early as the age of ten, I woke up before any of my five sisters and parents.  I didn’t need an alarm clock because I must have had it in my mind to wake up early just so I could cook breakfast for everyone. 
Immediately after waking up at around five thirty or six o’clock, I wasted no time brushing my teeth or changing the clothes I slept in.  Instead, I quickly wiped the dry crusty mukot from the corner of my eyes and silently swept through the hallway, down the stairs and to the kitchen.  Once in the kitchen, I placed the round stainless steel bowl on the table and gathered flour, eggs, milk, salt, baking powder, butter and the desired fruit of the day, which usually turned out to be bananas.
After mixing the ingredients together and achieving the desired smoothness and thickness of the batter, I dipped the ladle into the bowl making sure there was an even proportion of fruit and carefully poured it into the center of a hot frying pan.  Once the right number of bubbles appeared, I quickly flipped the pancake over with a goal of not splattering any of the batter beyond the perimeter of the pancake.  The smell usually woke everyone up by the time I got to my final few pancakes to cook.  When they came downstairs and gathered around the table, it always made me happy to see them enjoying my cooking.    
Back then, I used to dream about having my own restaurant some day.  My mother would often say, “You should start your own restaurant when you get older.”  Then my sisters would reply, “Yeah.”  I would agree and say, “Yeah, and when I do, it’s gonna be on a boat so I could catch my own fish and cook it for people.”  Well, I never did go into the restaurant business for myself, but if anyone were to ask any of my five sisters today who the cook in our family is, they would always mention me.  In fact, I still do most of the cooking in my house now.
I always thought it to be normal for a guy to cook until sometime in high school when a group of guys made fun of an underclassman for always cooking.  They made it seem like men who liked cooking were sissies or feminine.  Needless to say, when around my peers, I kept my desire to cook to myself for most of my high school years.
After graduating from high school, I became re-acquainted with an old family friend whom I call “Uncle Sam.”  Uncle Sam Molitas is an Igorot who isn’t really my uncle, but since he was very close to my parents and called my dad “Manong,” I prefer to look at him like an uncle.  At the time, he was still enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a cook.
I noticed how he too did a lot, if not most, of the cooking in his family.  Every time I ate his food, I enjoyed it so much that I wondered what his recipe was.  One day, I was fortunate to have him teach me how to make a fish dish with patis, onions, tomatoes and lemon.   Knowing he was in the military and loved to cook shattered any reservation I developed about expressing my love for cooking. 
Since then, I continued cooking and experimenting with all sorts of recipes.  Rarely did I refer to a cook book.  Most of what I cooked started with a desired taste in my head.  Sometimes it wasn’t about taste.  Sometimes it was about a special occasion, such as when my son was born.  He was such a sweet baby that I concocted a chicken recipe using mangoes & mandarin organges and named it after him by calling it “Chicken Joshua.”

Ide-san Sensei (far left)
Later in my thirties, an opportunity came my way to work part-time in a Japanese restaurant as an assistant chef.  I became an apprentice of a Japanese sushi chef whom I call “Ide-san.”  This guy is the real deal; not like what so many so-called Japanese restaurants have today.  Ide-san learned his skills the old fashion way in Japan where he spent the first five years just cleaning fish.  Most sushi chefs I encounter these days don't come close to his knowledge, skill and passion for sushi.  Fortunately for me, even though I was his student or “deshe,” he taught me a lot from the very beginning.   

Making Sushi for Friends

I have always wondered where I got my knack for cooking.  I used to think it was from my mother, who constantly cooked for us and kept me away from the restaurant dining experience for most of our lives.  Now I wonder if there is a little bit of that “Igorot within” that is responsible for many happy tastes buds as well as hand burns.  I don’t consider myself a believer of one’s actions being the result of one’s “nature,” because I believe that we are nurtured or taught to become who we are and that “who” we are is a matter of choice.  However, I can’t help but play with the thought that I am picking up from generations and generations of Igorot men before me.
For an unknown number of years or centuries, the Igorot man was never a stranger to the task of cooking.  In fact, Albert Ernest Jenks once mentioned the role of the Bontoc Igorot man in preparing meals in his letter of transmittal to the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1904 by saying,

“The man of the family arises about 3.30 or 4 o'clock in the morning. He builds the fires and prepares to cook the family breakfast and the food for the pigs. A labor generally performed each morning is the paring of camotes. In about half an hour after the man arises the camotes and rice are put over to cook. The daughters come home from the olag, and the boys from their sleeping quarters shortly before breakfast. Breakfast, called “mang-an,” meaning simply “to eat,” is taken by all members of the family together, usually between 5 and 6 o'clock. For this meal all the family, sitting on their haunches, gather around three or four wooden dishes filled with steaming hot food setting on the earth.”

I am sure not all Igorot men like or know how to cook, but I myself have not met an Igorot man who couldn’t cook a tasty meal.  I was reminded of this last Christmas when visiting my aunt in Atlanta.  Her son, who is of a younger generation, surprised me by cooking a wonderful Igorot dinner for our family and his one night.  I also suspect he is the kosinero in his family as well.  Maybe there is some truth in having some of that “Igorot within” us after all.  Hmmm.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

Every fourth Thursday of November, we Americans celebrate a holiday called Thanksgiving Day.  Since as far back as I could remember, the Thanksgiving Day story was about how the American Indians and Pilgrims once celebrated the bounty of their harvest together.  My memories of all the Thanksgiving day school plays, television shows and movies drove home the meaning for this day – a day to celebrate and give thanks.  However, like Christmas, its original religious meaning has been under attack and more and more people are calling it “Turkey Day.”  What a shame. 
I have experienced forty Thanksgiving Days while living in America, and I don’t recall the details of most of them, but I do know they all involved food and family.  Though most are fuzzy or forgotten, there are three particular Thanksgiving Day occasions that still remains clear as day to me.
The first took place when I was about six or seven years old.  It must have been the first time my mother cooked turkey for us because I remember how big of a deal it was to eat a whole turkey for the first time.  After morning Mass, she spent many hours cooking while we kids cleaned the house for what I thought was a celebration with family friends at our house.
When it came time to eat dinner, it was just our immediate family.  We all sat down at the table with eyes wide open.  It was our first time to see such a large cooked bird on our table.  The drumsticks alone was the equivalent of one whole chicken.  Eventually, my mother had us bow our heads in prayer.  Less than a second after our prayer, our little eyes shot back up at the huge turkey.

My mother's eyes opened wide as she looked at my dad with bewilderment before looking at my sisters and I.  It was clear that she didn’t know how to cut it or serve it.  The anticipation and hunger in our eyes were too much for her to keep us waiting longer, so after taking a deep breath she loudly said, “Attaaaack!” 
Armed with only our little bare hands (our normal way of eating then) we kids attacked the huge soy and garlic basted bird.  Chicken drumsticks have always been my favorite so I grabbed a drum stick and yanked it from the big ball of flesh.  The skin tasted so good, but the meat was not what I expected.  It was tougher than chicken and had several thin tendons that got in the way.  I was curious how the rest tasted so I impaled two of my fingers into the turkey’s side and ripped out a chunk of breast meat.  This too was disappointing because of its dryness, but fortunately a bowl of siwsiwan was right in front of me.  I drowned the dry meat in it and the rest was history.  Needless to say, turkeys have rarely found their way back on our kitchen table.  Dinardaran, pinikpikan, rotisserie chicken, steak, kambing, pancit, kilawen, pasta, and mostly anything else were and still are preferred over turkey.
Another Thanksgiving occasion that comes to the top of my head was when I spent it with my Filipino high school friend and his family while living with them for a year when my parents were in Illinois on business.  We drove to his cousin’s house for the day where I encountered my second Thanksgiving turkey.  This time it was placed in the center of the food table surrounded by an assortment of Filipino food for people to serve themselves and eat buffet style.
I was amazed when many people gathered around the table to watch his uncle carve the turkey.  He brought out an electric knife and proceeded to display his turkey carving technique to everyone watching.  As I watched, I thought about how silly it seemed to get all caught up on the technique when people could just grab a knife and cut off whatever piece they wanted. 

Thoughts of that day my sisters and I “attacked” the turkey brought a big smile within me.  I quickly realized how much I took our family celebrations for granted when I noticed the lack of "thanksgiving" and close family interaction.  It was a fun party, but it just didn't have that meaningfulness that I was accustomed with. 
The last Thanksgiving I shared with my family before my parents and sister died was in 1990.  With my sisters living out of state, Thanksgiving Days have almost always been spent with friends and my wife’s family, and almost always eating the meal in a buffet-like manner. 
This brings me to the third Thanksgiving that I’ll always remember.  This took place in 2003 just after I was laid off from my job in Florida and moved back to Illinois.  My wife’s parents were so gracious to have us live with them until we found our own place.  When Thanksgiving came around that year, I was so happy to hear that all my sisters and their families were coming to spend Thanksgiving dinner together with me. 
It was the first time we all got together since my parents and sister’s funeral.  At first, we weren’t sure where we would have dinner that night since I was technically homeless.  Fortunately, my in-laws were so kind to allow us to use their house that evening.
It turned out to be an unforgettable reunion.  Even though we barely managed to cram around the table, we were able to share an evening of thanks, love and laughter.  That feeling of sitting around a table together as a family again along with my own family was so surreal that I had to stop and appreciate the moment on several occasions that night.

More Thanksgiving Days have passed since then, but they all seem to become more diluted in meaning as more people gravitate toward the festive side of the day.  I was lucky several years back to sit around the dining room table of my friend, James,  to share their Thanksgiving dinner with his family and other mutual friends.  Nothing beats a Thanksgiving around the dining room table, except for two dining room tables connected to each other, as was the case at James' house.
As we continue to progress in this ever progressing world of technology and social networking, I hope some of us can find a way to “regress” and experience what it’s like when “family” and “thanksgiving” meet around the dining room table.  HAPPY THANKSGIVING EVERYONE!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Pause for Veterans

Today I was greeted by a fellow co-worker in a way that triggered my writing juices again.  In passing, he smiled and said, “Thank you for your service to our country.”  I was caught off guard and quickly realized today is Veterans Day.
My immediate thoughts were of the thousands of modern day Veterans still living today and how we as a country are so indebted to them for making it possible to live in this wonderful country I call home.  As the day unfolded, I started thinking of all the Filipinos who militarily served this country.  The idea of Filipino-American Veterans rang a bell of irony that continues to resonate on this important American holiday.

The Battle of Manila 1899
 After the Philippines went to war against America at the turn of the century, who would have thought that the Filipinos would be fighting alongside their former enemy only thirty seven years after surrendering to them in 1902.  Certainly, Filipino historian E. San Juan Jr.,who alleged that the death of 1.4 million Filipinos during that war constituted an act of genocide on the part of the United States; wouldn’t have believed it himself.  Our alliance with America during World War II is proof that the hatred toward the Japanese at the time was undoubtedly greater than the hatred that Filipinos once had for Americans. 
Image if a similar scenario happened here in America.  What if, in 1973, a foreign nation invaded America and killed 1.4 million Americans in a span of 3 years.  Would we be so willing to fight alongside them today if war broke out?  Better yet, imagine enlisting in that country’s military to fight the war.
Nevertheless, many Filipinos did just that, and today we still have many who are still living to tell their stories.  Out of all the living Filipino Veterans who fought as an American soldier in WWII, I wonder how many of them are Igorot.  If any of you reading this know of any, I would love to write them and express my appreciation.
In many cases, the involvement by small minorities during large scale war are often overlooked and/or forgotten.  This is not the case for my Igorot predecessors of WWII.  Even though they made up the smallest percentage Filipinos who served in the American military, their bravery and courage was so great that it caught the attention of American General MacArthur at the time. 
Igorot Scouts wearing their wanes (g-string) with their American uniform
An article in the Time Magazine edition of March 2, 1942 captured the General’s appreciation for Igorots when it wrote:
"This War Department communique last week, like so many of its predecessors, was 100% terse pessimism. Douglas Mac-Arthur and his battle-weary, outnumbered troops were still holding Bataan Peninsula and Manila Bay's five defensive forts. But their collapse under ever-increasing enemy weight and ferocity seemed imminent as never before. . . .  There were bright spots in the picture, however. In his weekend communique Douglas MacArthur included the dramatic story of non-Christian Igorot native tribesmen who, in an offensive over rough, matted terrain, mounted U.S. tanks like so many half-nude jockeys to direct American drivers inside. "When the attack was over," said the General, "the remnants of the tanks and of the Igorots were still there, but the 20th Japanese Infantry Regiment was completely annihilated. . . . When you tell that story, stand in tribute to those gallant Igorots."
While I wish to express my thanks and appreciation to ALL veterans today; I really want to give a “shout out” to my fellow Igorots who are American veterans and those who continue to serve this wonderful country.  By the way, I wonder how many Igorots were or are Marines.  I haven’t met any Igorot Marines to this day so if anyone knows one, please let me know.  Happy Veterans Day everyone!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

An Ethnic Migration of Purpose

Staying on the subject of purpose; I think back again at my family’s immigration to America.  I don’t recall my father’s reasoning for becoming a civil engineer nor my mother’s reason for becoming a nurse, but I would suspect it had something to do with their social and economic climate when they were young adults.  Both were probably intertwined, but the latter was probably the bigger of the two motivating factors.
After graduating from nursing school and starting our family in the Philippines, my mother joined the many other nurses who at the time were the only professions America was accepting at the time.  On her own, she came to Chicago and began laying the ground work for our family to follow.  For this reason, she was extremely glad to have chosen the nursing profession as hers.
Nearly forty years after she left the Cordillera Mountains to plant new roots here in America, the same two factors behind Igorots’ choices of “careers” are probably still the same.  The American dream still spans the oceans with its burning allure to many Igorots.  Nursing, for example, is still the most popular of choices today.
In one of the worst economic times of America, nursing is one of the few professions that are still in demand throughout the country.  Yes, there are many nurses who have lost their jobs due to the economy, but compared to all the other professions; they are still in need.  Another thing I have noticed is the number of male nurses there are today.  Twenty years ago, I never heard of a male nurse; but times have certainly changed.
As long as the American dream continues to burn in the hearts of Igorots back home and professions such as nursing continue to provide the means to pursue greener pastures in other countries; Igorots will continue choosing careers like my parents did.  Also like my parents, they will quickly come to the stark realization that the greener pastures aren’t necessarily as simple to maintain as once thought.  Thus, many like my parents find themselves in a “rut” of working to keep up with maintaining the green pasture.
Every now and then, some question their life, what they are doing with it, what they want out of it and so on.  As I said earlier, I don’t know exactly what led to my parent’s initial choices of professional careers, but I am certain of their reasons for leaving them to pursue other avenues of work that I identify as their purpose in life.
My mother used to tell me stories of how happy she was that my dad left the Philippines because in his line of work were constant influences to overly indulge in alcohol and palutan.  I found it funny that my dad had to lay next to the fire on many occasions while she rubbed coconut oil on his belly because of how drunk he was after a night out with fellow co-workers.  That must have been the “Vicks” cure for drunkenness then. 
My father was happy to have left his engineering profession in America because he always felt limited in what he could achieve and provide for the family.  He used to tell me how he looked at fellow engineers who have been in his company for twenty or more years, and didn’t like what he saw.  Five hungry mouths to feed, a Catholic education and maintaining a roof over our heads were his biggest of concerns.  I sometimes think the real “ancestral” Igorot in him kept him from being pinned down by corporate America.  After all, America has a way of “colonizing” our inner Igorot. 
My mother liked her job as a nurse, but loved spending more time with the family and helping my dad with his endeavors more than her nursing profession.  The one thing about nursing that stayed with her, which molded her purpose in life, was her desire to help people in any way she could.  Physically, she steepened herself in alternative & preventive medicine and constantly shared what she could to help better the health of others.  Spiritually, she was a constant advocate of many religious organizations.  In addition, she made several missionary trips to Puerto Rico and other places to volunteer her time in various missions that helped the poor.
For both my parents, it was all about their purpose as parents and how they could use their God given strengths to help others.  They were simple Igorots to the core.  When my father started making a noticeable amount more of money in financial services, material things and status quo were the furthest from his mind.  Unlike many who would buy fancy cars and get themselves in a heap of debt for appearance purposes; they sacrificed those things for us kids.  I still remember how my dad drove an old silver Ford LTD that was so outdated and embarrassing (for me) when he could have driven something else.  I even recall when my father received an award in front of thousands packed in the New Orleans Superdome and telling me how happier he was to have my sister, her husband, my fiance (now my wife) and I with him there than receiving any award. 
A handful of adults have helped me realize the importance of having a purpose-filled life, but none were more influential than my parents.  Their purpose of family and helping others are even clearer to me now that I am faced with my own discernment in life.  They are the reason why I admire people who use their God given talents and gifts for the betterment of others, and why high achievers in education, business and sports no longer impress me unless they are applying their gifts in a purpose-filled way that focuses more on others than themselves.
In September, I introduced you to Tim Tebow and wrote about how he personifies a purpose-filled person – a Warrior amidst our self centered society.   Last month, I had the privilege of meeting a wonderful person through this new world called Facebook.  She was introduced to me through Charity Bagatsing when I was writing Charity’s “Igorot of Character” blog.
Her name is Perla Paredes Daly.  She is a Filipina who is fed up with the poor sexist image Filipina women have around the world.  Charity told me of how Filipina women still have the terrible connotation of being mail brides and sex objects.  When I heard how Pearl’s friend bought out the website domain,, to “save it from the wolves of the internet” who would use it to sell their womanizing and degrading ideas or much worse – pornography; I immediately became impressed with this person.   She currently uses and other websites on the internet to battle the tainted image of Filipina women around the world. 
When I asked Perla’s permission to feature her as an “honorary Igorot of Character” (knowing she isn’t Igorot), she humbly replied, “I don't want to take the place of a well-deserving Igorot waiting for you to find them . . .  for me, it is the work and its effects that are most important to be highlighted... not for me being named for it. Lifting up my fellow pinays/pinoys is a calling I live for and can do from the sidelines very happily.”  Her reply reminded me of my parents and spoke volumes to me.
I hope that as more and more Igorots migrate across the oceans to plant their new roots; more will live purpose-filled lives, whether it be through their profession that enabled them to immigrate to their new homeland or a newly discovered one.
Perla Daly's websites:

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Blindsided with Purpose

Analiza Gobaton & Family

Every now and then life hits you with devastating news; the kind of news that comes out of nowhere and hits you on your blindside and sends even the strongest of men to their knees; as was the case when I received that dreaded phone call in 1995 informing me of my baby sister and parent’s fatal car accident in Georgia, or when I got the text from my sister yesterday that her best friend and dear friend of ours, Liza Gobaton, was shot in the head by a stray bullet while driving to her kid’s school (read about it here).   I write this just after receiving a text that Liza was declared brain dead since 10am this morning and that the life support, her earthly plug, will be pulled after her loved ones finish saying their goodbyes. 
I wasn’t as close to Liza as my sister, Anne, who considered her a sister and best friend, but my heart still aches with sadness because of how wonderful of a friend she was to my sister and us each time we visited Anne in Florida.  After going through Liza’s Facebook notes and pictures of her husband and three young kids one last time, I am reminded yet again about the certainty of our death and the uncertainties of life.  Since the deaths of my sister and parents, I have searched for answers to why God allows such things to happen to good people.  I’d like to say I found the answers, but I haven’t.  Instead, I am left with only the “faith” that I will come to that complete understanding when it is my time to leave this earth.
Meanwhile I (we) are left in this place we call life trying to make sense of all the uncertainties that life constantly throws at us.  The biggest of these, at least in my mind, is our purpose in life.  Unquestionably, this is the biggest question that mankind asks every day.  For me, it took getting pummeled on my blindside by the deaths of my sister and parents to take this into serious consideration. 
I am already in my forties and am convinced that life doesn’t have to be as uncertain as it is if only the certainty of its end were clearer to me at a younger age, say since age one.  Thanks to my parents though, I have learned that I will be accountable to only one question in the end: “Did I love.”  To me, that is the goal, end zone or purpose in life. 
Unfortunately, society creates all sorts of different goals that blur and takes us off course from who we truly are and what we truly should be doing.  The media of today makes it especially harder for people with its creation of “Idols,” reality shows, and “self” focused messages.  Even without the media, our society feeds us with notions of what the world wants us to become instead of making the best out of “who we are.”
Take my father, Crisanto T. Delson, for example.  In a nutshell, he followed the worldly advice of society by doing what he was told to do.  He went to school like everyone else and became the pride of many Igorots by achieving academic accolades such as valedictorian and high honors.  His academic achievements spoke volumes about the intelligence of Igorots amongst the overwhelming majority of Tagalog Filipinos in his school and university, thus "momentarily" dowsing the kindling belief that Igorots were stupid then. 
After working as an engineer in the Philippines for several years, he brought our family to America where he quickly realized how expensive it is to raise a family of five (and later six) kids.  It didn’t take him very long before he “threw out” the notion that education is everything and left his engineering “career” to take on a “vocation” in America’s entrepreneurial world by going into real estate, and later; financial services.  “If only I knew then,” were his words to me on many occasions.
Now, when people hear the word “vocation,” they think it has to do with becoming a priest, minister, nun or something like that, but that’s not always the case.  Vocation comes from the Latin “Vocare,” which means “To call.”  It is a calling in life.  A goal.  The purpose.
When we are asked, “Did you love?” we could look back and see whether we lived a “career” life or a life of loving vocation.  For my mother, she quit her nursing profession to become a loving stay-at-home mother, which I feel is one of the greatest vocations there is.  In my dad’s case, I could say his vocation and work were essentially the same since he provided for us while sincerely helping others.  He taught me that work "should" be a vocation since we spend so much time doing it, and that it doesn't have to be a separate entitity.  In fact, much of his decision to leave the corporate world was because he wanted to spend more time with his family, his primary vocation.  Some people have asked me and wonder why I didn’t continue with my father’s business, especially since the financial rewards are great.
My answer is simple: because he told me not to.  My father never told me this in those words.  Instead, he asked me on several occasions, “Why are you doing this? (working with him at the time)  You’re too creative.  Maybe you should think about applying it (creativity) towards something that will benefit others.”  In essence, he identified a God given gift or characteristic I had and told me to use it to help others.
Did I listen?  No, because I was sold on society’s image of success and happiness.  Even my father’s own words, which I deeply respected, were muffled by the world around.  I wish this wasn't the case, but it was.  "Life is too short," were also words I often heard from him.  I should have listened; it would have saved me alot of wasted time. 
So, now that life has blindsided me again with Liza’s tragedy, I find myself pausing to regain my bearing again only to reflect on the two things that makes sense to me: 1) We will ultimately be asked if we loved, and 2) it is up to us to either apply our gifts toward a worthy vocation or not.    I am confident that Liza's answer these two things is “Yes.”  Her family will continue on in testament to her love.  Please join me in praying for her husband and three children, who I pray will also love as much as Liza did and does. 

A purpose-filled life is a much richer life than one filled with worldly achievements, yet lacks selfless purpose.
I dedicate these written thoughts to our dear friend, Liza Gobaton and her family.  Rest in peace. 
If you would like to share your condolences to her family, you can send her husband, Jon Gobaton, a message on Facebook.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

My Siwsiwan Fabric

Most people have at least one or two things about their cultural heritage that remind them of their roots.  For me, two things always come to mind: handwoven fabrics and dipping sauce.

The fabrics are anything but ordinary. Mainly red with black, white, yellow, and green accents; these pieces of cloth represent my indigenous Igorot heritage. During my elementary school years in Oak Park, Illinois, they were used to decorate the top of our dining room credenza and other pieces of furniture.  In Palm Coast, Florida, they covered the same furniture moved there from Oak Park and my parent’s bed.  The same was true in Forest Park, Illinois.

As a child, I did not know the significance of our fabric.  I thought they were just normal Filipino fabrics every Filipino family owned.  I remember stories of how they were hand woven by my aunties in the Mountain Province back home, but I was too consumed with becoming “American” to appreciate it.

It wasn’t until my early thirties that I went home to the Mountain Province to see how they woven.  I watched as one of my aunties sat on the ground and demonstrated the process that went behind the creation of our fabrics and gained an instant appreciation for it.  I learned how each Igorot tribe had their own distinct colors and patterns, and how they were used for clothing as well.   

Since the fabric was always used for decoration at my house; I didn’t realize how it played more of an integral part of our ancestral attire.  The fabrics are used for the men’s “wanes” (bahag or g-string) and the women’s “lufid or getup” (tapis or wrap-around skirt).  Unlike the fabric of other Igorot tribes, our Bontoc tribe fabrics are unique in that they have symbols woven into the patterns.

The typical symbols are images of a human, star, eye, shield, spear, snake, and lizard.  Each one has its own meaning, which makes the Bontoc fabric even more meaningful. For instance, the eye represents guidance and the human figure represents the Igorot warrior, who is the epitome of bravery.

The second thing is the small bowl of dipping sauce that accompanied almost every meal called “Siwsiwan.”  My parents always made theirs with sabaw (soup stock), salt, and sili (hot pepper). I always found this to be a perfect pair with meat, but when it comes to fish and seafood; I use a mix of soy sauce, sili, and calamansi. Another favorite is a concoction of vinegar, garlic, sili, salt and red pepper.  There were always different variations, but these were the most common.

My parents made it a point to always eat together as a family.  Our meals were almost always homemade and filled with memories.  Conversation and laughter often made its way to the table.  I still remember my mother sneaking a tape recorder into the kitchen to record our babbling jokes, laughter and conversations.   So much took place around the kitchen table.

Both fabric and siwsiwan are two of the many sinulid (threads) that are woven into my “inner Igorot” fabric in life.  Some say that one cannot identify themselves as Igorot just by bloodline.  Others say one must be part of an Igorot community in the Cordilleras to be Igorot.  The whole topic of how one identifies oneself as an Igorot can get very diverse depending on one’s point of view.  The same can be said with many of the other ethnicities in America and abroad.

I may not intimately “know” the land my parents once spent their entire childhood and much of their adulthood, but it is part of me.  Every time I look at my family blanket on the wall or dip the pinch-full of fish into my siswiwan; I am reminded of my parents, who were Igorot.

Thus, how can we first and second generation Igorots in America and elsewhere outside the Philippines keep our heritage alive in a world that often makes it difficult? Maybe it’s as simple as keeping the siwsiwan at the kitchen table with the family gathered around and the fabrics nearby.

Figures in the Lubid (from left to right): eye, man, lizard, star, star variation, snake, butterfly, shield, spear and flower.
All the figures, except for the flower, are woven into the garment.  The flower is embroidered.
photo by: Christina Nguslab courtesy of: Maria Luz Delson Fang-asan

Igorot Gump

A recent sound byte from the movie, “Forrest Gump,” that led to my earlier “Balut Meets Chocolate,” resurfaced again when I watched the movie with my family last night.  Prior to watching the movie, my daughter asked me to help her understand the instructions of one of her homework assignments.  The assignment asked her to list and write about the attributes of a novel she read. 
After explaining what an attribute is, we sat down in our living room and watched the movie.  As we watched, I began noticing particular attributes of the character, Forrest Gump.  These were things I overlooked the first time(s) I watched the movie fifteen years ago.
First, was his ability to know what a real friend is.  It struck me that out of all those hundreds (maybe thousands) of people who cheered him on, followed him, put him on a pedestal and presumably called him their friend; only three turned out to be his real friends: Bubba, Lieutenant Dan and Jenny.   It got me thinking about my kids, their generation and today’s dilution of the meaning of a friend.
With Facebook and all the social networking going on, it seems more and more people are either subconsciously or consciously measuring themselves by the number of friends they have.  Just look at how many Facebook profiles have thousands of friends and how so many people are “spamming” others to become their friends just to get their numbers up.
I became concerned about my children’s ability to discern for themselves the true meaning of a friend, and later addressed this with them.  I basically told them that real friendships require real “actual” personal involvement and urged them not to get caught up in society’s web of lies.   This led to thoughts about the BIBAK organization in Chicago that I recently was elected President.
At last Sunday’s gathering and jam session with Igorot friends, someone asked me what my plans for BIBAK are, and I replied with some ideas, but I was really thinking of something else.  I was thinking about the need to get together more often as families (like what we were doing then). 
I always noticed how Filipinos here in America are generally not as close to each other as other ethnic groups.  The Chinese have their China towns; the Koreans have their Korea towns; the Mexicans and other ethnic groups have much closer knits with each other than what I have observed with Filipinos.  However, I must say that I have experienced much better knit groups amongst Igorots.
It seems so far that we tend to be closer to each other (generally speaking) than other Filipinos.  There is less of the competition and “keeping up with” that I have observed with Filipinos in the forty some years living in America.  I suspect it has to do with our culture and social structure in the Cordilleras.
This leads me to Forrest’s second striking attribute: his ability to not worry about what society and the world around him was thinking and doing.  The Vietnam era was a very confusing and difficult time for many, yet Forrest just did what Forrest did.  He was himself.  Not swayed by the political and social currents of the time, Forrest had no need to build himself up to be accepted or keep up with others.
My other blog, “Igorots of Character,” is being interpreted by some as just that: a way of getting Igorots to be as equals as the rest of the world; a way to overcome the discrimination or so-called oppression Igorots back home have had to endure and continue to endure.  If so, these people are wrong.
The last thing I want to advocate is the need to achieve stature, accolades, notoriety and such for the sake of telling the world we Igorots are equal and/or better at something.  I have met many people (Filipino and American) who have achieved fancy letters at the end of their names, high positions in companies & politics, PH D's and Doctorates.  However, many of these people have the character and moral fiber of a Sponge Bob.  Their big achievements were motivated for selfish reasons.  To clarify, "Igorots of Character" is about featuring the good hearted Igorots who chose to do good for others for the sake of doing good.  

Why do we need to even feel the need to keep up with anyone?  Why can’t we just be like Forrest Gump and be content with being the person we are created to become?  Forrest was given certain gifts, of which, he used to directly and indirectly help others.  Shouldn't we also identify our own individual gifts and apply them to the best of our ability for the betterment of others?
Close your eyes and try imagining Forrest wearing nothing but his wanes (bahag or g-string).  Now picture him sitting down on that same bus stop bench with his box of chocolates.  The first lady he encounters, the black lady, immediately drops her magazine and can’t keep her eyes off his almost naked splendor.  Now picture him on a bus with discriminating Filipino kids on the bus.  Instead of the boys saying, “Seat taken,” they say, “No tails allowed.”  Then, he befriends a beautiful girl from Bontoc.  Later he becomes the only football player with helmet, shoulder pads, jersey and nothing but his wanes flapping in the wind as he blows by his opponents on the football field.  His opponents freeze and don’t know whether to be amazed by his speed or his sneering butt cheeks.  Oh, can’t forget his military experience.  Picture him on the American tanks leading the U.S. Army through the thicket of jungle to defeat the Japanese as General MacArthur looks on with awe.  Later, President Johnson awards him the Medal of Honor and asks where Forrest was shot, and of course, Forrest turns and flips his wanes up to expose his baataaacks.   Shrimp boat?  Well, let’s just say Bubba forgot to mention, "Shrimp bagoong."    
Yeah, you know where I’m going with this. . . Igorot pride?  How about just being an “Igorot Gump.”