Dear Jack and Charlie,

In my previous letter, I told you that I grew up in Malaybalay, in the province of Bukidnon, where my father, your Lolo, came from.  Let me tell you now what I know so far about my Bukidnon origin, my ginikanan.


(A map of the Philippines for reference)

According to my Tito Ben, your Lolo’s older brother, our oldest known Bukidnon ancestor was a warrior named Apoong.  Warrior Apoong was said to be fierce and heedless, violent like a sudden surge of floodwater, as his name suggested.

In the 1850s, the Spaniards, who had been colonizing the Filipino islands since Miguel Lopez de Legazpi’s expedition in 1565, finally reached the southern parts of the country.  In Bukidnon, Warrior Apoong, along with other members of the indigenous tribes, rose numerous times against the Spanish incursions.  In the last uprising between the Spaniards and the indigenous tribe who lived in Malaybalay (this tribe was/is also called Bukidnon), the Spaniards killed every warrior they captured.  Warrior Apoong, however, managed to escape.

No one in my family now knows what Warrior Apoong did after his escape. My guess is that he continued to fight against the Spaniards until he no longer could.  In 1877, he attended a river ceremony during which the tribes formally “accepted” the “protection” offered to them by the Spaniards. His presence was noted in the official Spanish records as Apang (because the Spaniards didn’t know how to deal with words that contained successive vowels).

Warrior Apoong, I am told, was my great great great Lolo.  (Give or take one “great” as I’m not really sure how many generations separate me from him.  Sorry!)

My Lola Felipa (aka Lola Epang), Warrior Apoong’s granddaughter, was born in 1909. Lola Epang did not suffer the misfortunes of living under the Spanish rule.  Instead, Lola Epang reaped the benefits of having Americans in the country.  She was educated, from primary school all way to graduate school, according to the much lauded western/American tradition.  Lola Epang, descendant of the fierce and heedless Warrior Apoong who refused for so long to give up his culture to the Spaniards, spoke proper English grammar, became the first student from Malaybalay to be sent to Manila on a scholarship, taught university classes on the Philosophy of Education and The Problems of Philippine Education, and perfected the art of making chicken fricassee and baking upside down pineapple cake.

Lola Epang met and later married my Lolo Felimon (aka Lolo Imon).  Lolo Imon was one of the many Bisaya migrants who flocked to the southern parts of the country during that time. (Bisaya is the catch-all identity of people who hail from the Visayas islands in the central parts of the country).  Lolo Imon heard of the bountiful land in the south supposedly free to those willing to farm.  He stowed himself away on a boat from Cebu and eventually made it to Bukidnon.  There he met many Bisaya migrants like him who were from Cebu and who were settling well and making Bukidnon their new home. Somehow, I’m told, he became part of a pioneering class at a fledgling national university and when he graduated he was given hectares of land to till.

mygrandparentslolofilemonlolaepangLola Epang’s marriage to Lolo Imon in 1937 was not out of the ordinary.  All around them, other members of indigenous tribes married Bisaya migrants.  The Bukidnon culture, once dominant, slowly faded.  Those who felt that the migrants threatened their way of life, retreated farther into the mountains. Many felt their land was stolen from them.

Although Lola Epang was pure Bukidnon and spoke fluent Binukid, none of her Bukidnon culture was known or passed on to me.  Aside from learning English, she also learned to speak the dominant Bisaya language, Cebuano, the one spoken by Lolo Imon and the many migrants who inhabited Malaybalay and the other towns in Bukidnon.  Eventually it became her primary language.  I do not remember every hearing her speak Binukid.  I never learned, from her or from any other sources, about the Bukidnon myths and legends, history, way of life, rituals, or stories.  I only knew of one datu who came down from the mountains every month to trade his harvest with Lolo Imon’s rum.   At one point this datu brought his daughter to serve as Lola Epang’s helper.  The netibos sounded strange—they didn’t speak English, Tagalog, or any Bisayan dialect like Cebuano—so they were immediately considered inferior by the rest of us who learned perfect English and Tagalog grammar in school. Additionally, their skin was dry and very dark, their hair brittle, their noses flat, even flatter than mine.

That I grew up clueless about my Lola Epang’s Bukidnon history and culture, all the while living in Bukidnon, I take to be proof of how subordinate the indigenous people had become to the migrants in their own land, as well as to the influence of the American culture that pervaded the whole country.  Of course, I can think of many other reasons for my ignorance: I was merely a kid, paid no attention, and didn’t know any better; I did not know what culture and identity meant, let alone the need to preserve them; I was a product of that generation that didn’t take pride in one’s own culture and instead idolized and mimicked American and other foreign cultures;  I had internalized the colonial mentality.

From where I stand now, however, all these reasons do not matter. What matters is that now I feel this need to delve into this part of me.

Many times in the past, when asked what I identified as, I always answered, without much thought, “I’m Bisaya.”  And this is true.  My Lolo Imon was Bisaya from Cebu.  Like most people who live(d) in Malaybalay, my first language is Cebuano.  I don’t deny all these.

But now I have a more accurate answer.  From now on I am going to say, “I am Bukidnon.”  Albeit a Bisaya speaking Bukidnon.

I am Bukidnon.  I sang the Bukidnon anthem every morning for over a decade, from when I was in kindergarten all the way through high school.  Countless times I have crossed, bathed in, washed clothes in the Sawaga River, daring the okoy and sirena and golden karpas that lurked in the murky waters to show themselves up.  I have trekked up hills, lost my way in the fog, hoped the encantos and the dili ingon nato would not take me back to their salt-less underworld.  I have hitchhiked on logging trucks roaring down Sayre Highway, from one barrio to the next, oblivious to the proof of the denudation of our forests being transported out of our home right under our unwatchful eyes.  Even now I dream of the emerald-turquoise fresh water pools of Nasuli, the deafening cascades of the Impalutao Falls, and the serene beauty of Mt. Kitanglad stark against the wide expanse of the clear blue sky.

You, my dear Jack and Charlie, you, too, are Bukidnon, even though you live thousands of miles away from the mountains of Bukidnon.  You are Bukidnon even though your primary language is English, you have fair skin and light brown hair, and are genetically part Irish, Italian, Chinese.

We are Bukidnon because Warrior Apoong’s blood, fierce and heedless, swirl in us.

So let’s go. Let’s learn about my Lola, your great Lola, and her people. Let’s learn about the Bukidnon history and culture. Let’s make it so we can call the mountains of Bukidnon also our home wherever we may roam.