Uyayi for Pinang
Fanny A. Garcia
Translated by: John Andrew Del Prado
Artwork by Patrick Cruz
I grew up on a farm, Pinang. So did your Tiyo Kaloy, my only brother. Kuya Kaloy and I were orphaned when we were still young, so our lolo and lola took care of us. Our lolo was a tenant, meaning he didn’t own the land he was farming.
Our life in the field was simple. We ate three times a day, but we didn’t have money. So lolo and lola couldn’t send us to school. Kuya Kaloy and I only finished elementary and learned how to work in the field at an early age. Our feet became callous. The sun burned our skin.
But even then, we didn’t lose our childhood. When we were done helping our lolo and lola, we were like animals escaping from a pen. We’d look for bait so we could catch fish with our pet dog, Puti, Pinang. Or perhaps, Kuya Kaloy and I would compete against each other in getting fruits or birds using our slingshots. We’d look for quail eggs or maybe swim in the creek. Or if we were exhausted, we’d lie down on the grass and look at the sky to count birds, dragonflies and butterflies, or maybe watch the white, white clouds chasing each other. Until the sky grew dark and we’d see the first stars flickering in the heavens. Until we’d hear the first chirps of crickets. Until we were greeted by the trembling lights of fireflies.
Lolo would often invite us into the woods, too. He had memorized the way there, and even if you’d cover his eyes, he wouldn’t get lost. In those woods, our lolo taught us how to ensnare snipes. In the afternoon, we’d come home really sweaty and dirty, but happy. And though we were still far from our hut, our lola knew we were coming, because Puti already went ahead (I can still hear his barks even now, Pinang). We’d see lola at the foot of the stairs, waiting for us. She’d cheerfully welcome us home and immediately cook our game, because she knew we were famished.
What I remember the most about our lola, Pinang, is her stories. She’d often tell me and Kuya Kaloy stories, before sleeping. Ah, she had a lot of stories about kings and queens, princes and princesses. Lolo once said that it was a pity that our lola didn’t become a fictionist!
But our life there wasn’t always happy, anak. We also experienced poverty and hunger, especially when pests, flood, or storms ravaged our crops. Those were the times when I’d see our lolo and lola sad. Especially if we had sweet potato, not rice, on our table.
That’s the difficulty we would experience every year, even though our lolo and lola were hardworking and thrifty. Kuya Kaloy and I wondered. Our lolo said that it was because the landowner, who was living in Manila, increased his part of the harvest. Our lolo, he said, couldn’t say no or protest, because, the owner reasoned, the land tax he paid also increased.
Kuya Kaloy and I both loved our lolo and lola, so even when we were little, we already thought of helping them, so that they could rise from poverty. So when Kuya Kaloy got an offer to join a group of Filipinos to work in Amerika, he didn’t think twice. “Maybe my fate’s in Amerika,” he told lolo and lola. He promised us that he would not forget us once he was there. That he would send dollars—that’s the money in Amerika, anak.
When he left with our other barrio folks going to Manila where they’d ride aboard a ship to Amerika, lola wept, while our lolo had tears in the corner of his eyes. I didn’t understand them then. Why, lolo? Why, lola? Shouldn’t we be happy, because we would finally live a comfortable life? Lolo’s answer, I still remember, was “I don’t know, amang. I fear that your kuya might not come home anymore.”
Kuya Kaloy entered various jobs in Amerika. He washed dishes at a restaurant and, eventually, picked fruits in a vast plantation. He did send us dollars, but I knew he could only do so when he denied himself his needs. I knew, though he didn’t tell me. Because that’s what I saw in the photos he sent us. Though everything around him was beautiful, the truth shown by his thinness, by the sadness in his eyes, was clearer. It wasn’t because he missed his family or the country he left. When I told him about this, he strictly ordered me to keep it a secret from lolo and lola. It’s not because he was ashamed that the two seniors would know it, but because he didn’t want to be part of their worries.
“How are they?” Kuya Kaloy would always ask me. Whenever I read his letters to lolo and lola, those letters asking how they were and his worries about them, could make them teary-eyed. If only we didn’t really need money, lolo and lola wouldn’t have the dollars he sent us exchanged to peso. They were reminders of Kuya Kaloy, they said.
When I became a teenager, I also left. Why did I need to go away, my lolo and lola asked me. Who would be there with them now that I was also leaving? I told them, it’s my turn to test my fate, lolo, lola. I’d like to see life outside farming. Any work in Manila will do. Jobs that give salary every Saturday or maybe every fifteenth and thirtieth of the month. Not like here. You keep on farming. After that, you have to wait long for the harvest. Once you’ve harvested them, there’s nothing left in your palms but air.
And like Kuya Kaloy, I entered different jobs. I became a peon, bus conductor, labourer in various factories, until I landed here where your nanay lives.
Kuya Kaloy and I still wrote letters to each other, talking about our experiences, even after I arrived in Manila. Back then, when I experienced extreme poverty and hunger, during the times I had no job, I wanted to pity myself, I wanted to surrender. But I stopped myself from doing so. I felt ashamed, especially whenever I compared myself to Kuya Kaloy. His experiences were much worse than mine. There, in the stories he wrote in his letters, they looked at Filipinos and coloured people differently. Despised, they earned lower salaries than the white Amerikanos. So what Kuya Kaloy and the other Filipinos, Negroes, Mexicans, and other workers of the plantation did was they formed a union—that’s an organization for workers, Pinang—and your Tiyo Kaloy became the union’s leader. But one night, when Kuya Kaloy was on his way home, a group of white Amerikanos blocked his way. They beat him, threatened to kill him next time if he wouldn’t stop organizing a group for workers. That’s not the only thing that happened. Even the small school built by the labourers for themselves, because they wanted to learn so that they could defend their rights, was burned down. And the white teacher who was their friend and who volunteered to teach the labourers was told to leave the place.
That was why your Tiyo Kaloy took several months before writing to me again, Pinang. He was hospitalized after that beating. His hands were broken, and so were his ribs. His lungs weakened, and he vomited blood. He couldn’t leave that hospital. I only knew all of these through one of the barrio folks he was with. Kuya Kaloy told him to tell me that once he was well, he’d like to come home to the Philippines, to lolo and lola. Our barrio fellow who was writing for him told me that Kuya Kaloy saved little money, and his friends and co-workers would handle the money he’d use to pay for the air travel. If it were about money, he said, we, lolo, lola and I, shouldn’t worry.
But Kuya Kaloy died in the hospital, Pinang. He was also buried in Amerika. I wrote to lolo and lola about everything. I didn’t see how they accepted Kuya Kaloy’s death, but my lolo told me, in the letter he asked a neighbour to write, about the death of Kuya Kaloy, “Life, amang, is a struggle.”
I seldom went back to the province. It was too far, so the travel fare was too high, and the deductions from my already-small salary would be wasted if I left even for just a few days. So what I would do, I sent money and wrote to lolo and lola so that they would not feel too bad. I also thought, if we save enough money we can visit them soon. Oh, you still haven’t met your forebears up to now, Pinang. My last visit there was when I went there with your nanay, when we were already husband and wife. When I introduced her to lolo and lola.
I’m excited for the field, the prairie, the woods of our childhood. In the city, the trees were buildings where people nested. Mechanical birds flew, and not warblers or sparrows. Not a single dried grass, and your feet couldn’t even feel the cement. Swimming in a creek was simply wallowing in the flood.
Our roots in our barrio were deep, Pinang, and maybe that was the reason why even in the stories of Kuya Kaloy about the beautiful surroundings he saw in Amerika, he wouldn’t forget to add, other than asking about the people he loved, “How’s our barrio? Tell me about it.”
I wrote and narrated everything about my last visit in the barrio, that time when I was with your nanay. I said, it seemed like lolo and lola grew older, Kuya. Perhaps, it’s because only the two of them worked in the field. And maybe because of the fear of the land owner revoking his farm, since he could no longer give the part of the harvest required by the owner, even if he took parts from his already. Though ashamed, lolo told me honestly that he used the money sent by Kuya Kaloy, as well as the small cash I’d send them sometimes, in paying the owner, just so he wouldn’t revoke his land. I urged lolo and lola to come along with me, but they didn’t want to, telling me that their lives would end faster if they moved to a different place. When I secretly asked her to convince lolo to come with me, my lola even told me, “Your lolo leaving the land he tilled, the land tilled by his father, and by the ancestors of your lolo, and many other members of his clan, is equal to his death. The foundations of his clan were born here; they lived and died here. It’s here where he wants to die. And I need to be here with him.”
I felt her resentment (which, perhaps, might have been lolo’s, as well) when my lola lamented, “I haven’t seen you and my grandchildren for a very long time. Are you really staying away from us?”
And perhaps, that was also in the hearts of the other old barrio folks. Because many of their kids, my childhood friends, went far away from them. “Where are you all going?” they asked, as if I, Kuya Kaloy, and those who followed had gone hiding in a cave. Or wherever.
Did we really move far away from the barrio that witnessed the time of our innocence?
I was born here, Pinang, and here, at the factory near our home, was where I met your tatay. But did you know that the place where the factory stands was where our house used to stand, as well as our neighbours’?
We called our place Looban. It’s shaped like this, anak, a triangle. There were fourteen houses. At the entrance, on the right, was the land owner with a store. On the left was an old and big acacia tree, and underneath it was a well. We used to play under that acacia, Pinang. Under its shade, we played hopscotch, chased each other, told stories, pranked one another. One time, while Depot and Narsing were chasing each other, Narsing fell into the well. It was a good thing that Ingkong Garyo was there. He threw Narsing a rope so that she could get out.
But at night, we were afraid of the acacia. It was because of Ingkong Garyo. He told us many scary stories. Ingkong Garyo said that there, on top of the acacia, lived a tikbalang, which, he said, he could see every night. And there in the well, he said, he saw several duwende come out. We really believed Ingkong Garyo, since his house was near the acacia and the well.
So at night, we were frightened. We kids couldn’t be told to buy something from the store, because we would surely pass by the acacia and the well. I, if I couldn’t say no to your lolo and lola’s orders, would run fast in front of those.
Eventually, we no longer believed Ingkong Garyo. Because of Tikboy, the bravest among us. One night, he said, Tikboy tried to guard the acacia and the well. He said he wanted to see if there really was a tikbalang at the acacia, and if there were any duwende in the well. But for the whole night of looking up to see even just the tikbalang’s cigar, his neck became stiff, and he only saw the moon and stars between the branches and leaves. He looked into the well, and only saw catfishes and dalag swimming.
Tikboy laughed hard and boasted to us the next day. Tikboy even said that he only got sleeplessness and mosquito bites there. He also said, “Ingkong Garyo only told us scary stories for us to sleep early in the afternoon. So that we wouldn’t be outside at night.”
But how could you sleep in the afternoon? With so many things to do and play, the afternoon was not enough. We girls would play piko and pretend to be store owners and consumers (our goods were leaves and flowers, Pinang), while the boys would play hide and seek, tumbang preso, and patintero. When we grew tired of catching dragonflies, we’d go to the end of Looban, there beside the river, to catch shore crabs and kokomo. Our bait, Pinang, was a stick with the end having a trap made of a strand from a net made of hemp. We’d poke the kokomo with the end of the stick, and because it would get irritated, it would raise its claws and tentacles to stop the stick, and then we’d put the trap around one of its claws. We’d pull the stick up, so the trap would be tighter, and the kokomo would surely be caught.
We also caught lukan. It’s like a tulya, Pinang, but bigger. To get one, we used a knife or a stick to poke the mud. If we saw bubbles from the mud, we were sure there were lukan at the bottom, breathing. We roast lukan, and it tastes good when hot.
But Looban was much happier, anak, during vacation, especially in May, because we played pretend santakrusan. What we celebrated was a small, wooden cross that we had your lolo make. Our game was like the real santakrusan. The cross was passed among me and my playmates for ten nights. Our candles for the procession were made from papaya branches with ends plugged with pieces of cloth wet with gas, so they would burn. The procession was only in Looban, going around and around. Afterwards, we’d eat crackers and drink pineapple juice we asked our mothers and fathers for. We also had pabitin with candies we bought using the five and ten pesos each of us contributed. On the last night of our santakrusan we were also the sagala and konsorte, whoever had the beautiful clothes that they could wear.
But eventually, we could no longer play santakrusan. Several manang of Looban got mad because we treated the cross as a toy, they said. Even your lolo was scolded, was my father a heretic? they said. So since then, several manang of Looban were the ones who held our cross. They solicited in the neighbourhood of Looban, and bought wood, plywood and galvanized iron that they used to make a small bisita, with the help of our tatay. That’s the bisita used every year, fixed, painted, and ornamented by our mothers every May. So the candles we lit every time we followed the procession became real candles. The sagala and konsorte became female and male teenagers of Looban. They also brought the procession out of Looban, and many manang were the ones who followed from behind from then on, when in fact, before, in our pretend processions, only we, the kids, sang the Dios te salve…
But did you know, Pinang, that our santakrusan did not end with that? Eventually, even those from Labasan joined. The rich wanted to be the Hermana Mayor, or the overseer of the santakrusan. They boasted their riches through food, rented music, invited celebrities to be the sagala and konsorte in a stage show performance.
That’s why your lolo, Pinang, laughed hard at them. How weird it was that the toy cross that he made became the source of trouble, centre of prayers and expenses of many people! He felt, he said, he also became a saint!
Up to now, I still dream of our old house, Pinang. We were at the other end of the Looban, near its middle, so from our window, we could see the street. Our house was small—made of wood, palm roof, and bamboo enclosure. On every window, there’s a pot of plant, from the door of the yard to the stairs. There’s a small garden of roses in front. At the back of our house was the pen for our pigs, chickens and ducks. And beyond it were mangrove and kalapinay trees, and also the river. If those who worked in farms like your father could climb mango and guava trees, we here loved climbing mangroves and kalapinay. And did you know, anak, that we seemed as if we were walking on the ground whenever we jumped from one raised root of a mangrove to another? We climbed kalapinay to pick its pusu-pusuan fruits (because they’re indeed shaped like hearts), and to pick the small, fragrant, dalandan-coloured flowers that we would skew to make into necklaces.
We could also see from our house the oyster farm of Tude and Delfin, whose livelihood was selling oysters When I was little, I helped them hang the shells of the oysters on the long bamboo sticks using wires. We jabbed the wires into the river and the skins of the oysters would have meat again, anak.
The river used to be very green, Pinang. Long ago, we could catch fish, shrimps, eels, flower crabs and other creatures. There were also mud crabs lurking on the dykes.
Back then, the viands of those who lived here, if not asked from the neighbours, could be bought for a cheap price. That was only if you didn’t want to fish in the river. Long ago, parents never worried about food, anak.
So our most-awaited months were July and August, months of the river’s swelling, anak. Those were the months for taking a bath in the river as well. We kids were allowed to swim in the shallow parts, and the teenagers would ride a boat and swim in the deeper parts. Some of them only courted one another while swimming. Like your Tiyo Pedring and Tiya Tilde. Your Tiya Tilde almost drowned, and your Tiyo Pedring saved her. Since then, they became close to each other, and in the end, got married.
And because this place is near the river, many men here were fishermen, boatmakers, and galapatero. Many of the women were sellers of fish and whatever their husbands caught from the river.
When we received the news about the owner of Looban selling the place, about the new owner planning to build a factory here, though the neighbourhood was sad at first, we became happy eventually. We thought, it’s fine to be kicked out of Looban, because maybe the success of our fate would depend on the factory that’s going to be built there. Each one of us dreamed of working in the non-existing factory in Looban.
The neighbourhood was scattered. Others found new lands to rent and build, of course, a house made from their demolished houses in Looban. But many, including me and your lolo and lola, could not find any land to live on, so we rented a room.
But did you know, anak, that when they cut down the acacia, when they filled the well with soil, the whole neighbourhood, all of my playmates, were there? I even cried then. Because I knew, we all knew, that we’d never see the acacia tree ever again. The well. Looban. We can only return to everything in our minds.
Now, Pinang, even I wonder if this is still the place where I grew up. The whole place has been changed. The houses are too close to each other. No land to run on. Not a single root of mangrove or kalapinay, and instead, factories surround the river, which became muddy and oily. The fish were gone, the lukan, oysters, snails, shore crabs and kokomo, the eels, shrimps, flower crabs, mud crabs. The fishermen are gone. The mothers who sold fish are gone.
I do wish to think that these changes mean progress. I don’t know, anak, but it seems like life was simpler and lighter before.
Because now, anak, your tatay and I can never ensure even the meals for you—the meals that used to be certain for our parents…
The night is deep, anak. Go ahead and sleep, Pinang.
How pitiful tatay is, and also nanay. They both work in the factory and come home exhausted. And they’re hardworking. But how come? They always tell me, they don’t have money. When I ask them to add more for my allowance, Nanay will say, “Pinang, we can’t. We’re poor.”
Maybe that’s what’s it’s like to be poor. You have little allowance for school. And live in a small room. And few meals. And more old clothes than new. You buy clothes when it’s your birthday, and Christmas. You eat delicious food, like chocolate and cheese and meat on Christmas and also New Year.
But to the rich people I saw on Aling Mery’s TV, cheese was a snack. The kid also said, “Uhhmm, namnam!” Also, how come the rich have big houses, and also cars, TVs, and refrigerators? And they’re fat. They look beautiful.
So you’ll gain weight, teacher said, you must eat vegetables, fruits, also eggs, also drink milk every day. Teacher said I should eat those. But Nanay said, we can’t buy them. Because they’re expensive. But if we’ll buy them, Nanay and Tatay should eat too. Because they’re also thin. Also, they must be strong. Because they have work, eh. Me, I just study and sleep.
Me, I wanna be a doctor when I grow up. So I can cure Nanay and Tatay for free. I pity them when they’re sick. They can’t call a doctor, because the charge’s too high. When they have toothache, they just endure it. So their teeth are broken. Maybe, dentists ask for money too much, as well. Ah, when I become a doctor, I’ll cure even my playmates. Also their nanay and tatay. Also their brothers and sisters. Everyone like my lolo and lola on my Tatay’s side and also my lolo and lola on my Nanay’s side, and those who are like Tiyo Kaloy, and those like the friends and workmates of Tiyo Kaloy in ‘Merika. People like them.
Also I hope I won’t work for the rich. Because, if they’re really nice, they should help the hardworking. But how come? The poor remain poor. And also the poor still help the poor. Like Tatay and Tiyo Kaloy, they help lolo and lola. Like those who work with Tiyo Kaloy. Like Nanay and Tatay. Like our neighbours.
And I hope work should always be about working only, no fooling poor people, those who have houses, clothes, food, money. Also doctors and dentists. If you work and you work hard, you should have food, you should be taken care of, even if you are sick. Or old.
I hope it’s like that. So that Tatay and Nanay won’t be poor, also lolo and lola in the field, our neighbours, my playmates, and all of the poor people in the world.
Why do we have poor and rich?
Ho-hum, I’m sleepy. I’ll sleep. But tomorrow, I’ll ask Tatay and Nanay, ‘Tay, ‘Nay, why are there poor? Why are there rich? Also, why are there more poor than rich? Why, ‘Tay? Why, ‘Nay? Why, ha? Why? Why?
- Ama –
Father; also, “tatay” or “itay”
- Anak –
gender-neutral word for “son” or “daughter”
- Apo –
– a chapel
- Dalag –
(Ophicephalus striatus) a freshwater fish with grey or black colour
and with snake-like shape
– (Citrus aurantium) a citrus with a round fruit and a sour or
– a Filipino mythical creature, similar to a dwarf or a goblin, often
believed to live in an anthill. When their homes are destroyed by
trespassers, they curse them with sickness. Many Filipinos often say
“tabi-tabi po” (literally, “please move aside,” and equivalent to “Excuse
me”) when passing unknown fields to avoid getting cursed. They are also
believed to play with and kidnap children.
– repairers of barge vessels; the word is from “gala-gala,” a cement used
for their jobs.
- Ina –
Mother; also “nanay” or “inay”
– (Dodonaea viscosa) a tree with yellow flowers
– a sea creature, similar to a crab, but it does not grow big; its shell has
a square shape; its claws are short yet meaty; it lives in holes
- Kuya –
a term used for older brother; “ate” is the female equivalent
- Lola –
grandmother; also, “impo”
- Lolo –
grandfather; also “ingkong”
- Lukan –
(genus Anodonta) a type of mollusc
– an old lady actively involved in church activities; its root word
is, Spanish “hermana,” meaning sister. A manang is a lay sister of the
church. Its male equivalent is “manong.”
– a traditional children’s parlour game often played at feasts and birthday
parties; children wait beneath a suspended lattice made of bamboo sticks.
The said lattice, on which plastic bags filled with candies, fruits and
toys hang, is lowered and raised quickly by an adult as the kids try to
grab one of the bags.
– a popular street game often played at night when the moon is full. The
ground is marked with a rectangular shape using a chalk and divided into
equal parts. The players are divided into two teams: the runners and the
guards or “taggers.” The gameplay is the runners must try to run from one
side of the rectangle to the other side without being tagged. The guards
stand on their respective lines and must never leave it, so they can only
move along their lines. If a runner gets tagged, the roles are reversed.
– also “santacruzan,” is a religious beauty pageant and parade had near
the end of Flores de Mayo (lit. “Flowers of May”). It showcases muses
(“sagala”) and their escorts (“konsorte”), as well as figurines of the
Baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and several saints. A sagala represents Queen
Elena, mother of Constantine, looking for the Holy Cross. The people also
chant “Dios Te Salve” (“Hail Mary”) during the procession in honour of the
– a Filipino mythical creature with the head of a horse and the body of a
man. It is believed to be the soul of an aborted foetus that has fallen
from limbo to earth. Tikbalangs often lead travellers astray and curse
them by making them walk on an endless path where they keep going back to
the same place. The only counter is to shout out, asking for permission to
pass by or to wear one’s shirt inside out.
- Tulya –
(Corbicula manilensis) a small mollusc with a smooth and
chocolate-coloured shell and white, round meat
preso – a traditional children’s game involving hitting an empty can with
the players’ slippers. One player, who is “it,” guards the can and tries
to tag the other players. The player who gets tagged becomes the new “it.”
- Uyayi – songs sung to put children to sleep; also, “oyayi” or “hele;” though equivalent to the English “lullaby,” “uyayi” has been part of Philippine literature since before its Spanish period (16th century) and is considered a folk song.
 The word denotes that the fruit is shaped like a heart. From rootword “puso,” which means “heart.”
John Andrew "J.A." Del Prado earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature, cum laude, from the University of Santo Tomas, where he is also taking his Master of Arts degree in Literature. His works have been published in various international and Philippine journals. He currently teaches literature and humanities at UST.