A Gateway to My Indigenous Soul

LilyBy S. Lily Mendoza (right), from Paula Miranda’s Pinay Protrait Project

I am a native of San Fernando, Pampanga in Central Luzon, Philippines. I grew up in the small barrio of Teopaco next door to calesa drivers with their handsome horses and their backyard stables. I shared with my five siblings duties feeding pigs and raising chickens and collecting horse manure for fertilizing our small family garden. Although I grew up colonized (tutored by American missionaries and Peace Corps Volunteers and Filipino teachers who taught strictly in English), I retain memories of sitting at my Apu Sinang’s feet listening to her tell stories as I strung fragrant sampaguita leis or as I watched with fascination as she prepared her betel nut chew, breaking open the nut and sprinkling shell lime on the meat, then rolling the concoction in betel pepper leaf before putting the bite-size pouch into her mouth for chewing. Then there were the home deliveries of fresh milk in unbranded glass bottles that you handed back when the milkman came back around, and the early morning toot-toot announcing the arrival of Apay Tinapay on his bike, the hot pandesal vendor, who magically kept the fresh-baked buns steaming hot in his big newspaper-insulated basket hanging by the side of his bike.

It is these and many more fond memories of my barrio childhood that now serve as a gateway to my indigenous soul. Memories that in my colonized socialization I regarded with disdain, if not shame, as markers of poverty, rural backwardness, and the primitivism of small town existence (our small nipa home then never even having seen the flickering shadows of a modern television set, or our barrio, the benefit of a giant grocery store that would have had milk and bread sold in “proper” industrial packaging). Now I recognize that how I was raised—knowing where life’s sustenance comes from and nurtured by an intimate connection to soil, living story, and community—is what our indigenous peoples meant by ginhawa or well-being.

That shift in awareness took a long time to irrupt in my life. As a decolonizing scholar and academic, what for me began as a nationalist commitment in my identity reclamation as a Filipina soon led to a deep questioning of the nationalist project itself. To the extent that the nationalist vision was primarily about civilizational progress, measured in terms of technological advancement and commodity consumption, my barrio life could not but remain anomalous—curious at best, but in the end, a backwardness that must be left behind in favor of a more modern, preferred cosmopolitan subjectivity. Within this vision, tribal communities that have survived into the 21st century, insistent on their difference and unassimilable alterity, became nothing more than relics of the past, useful only as objects for tourism, and for invoking a romanticist nostalgia of a unique cultural identity as part of national pride—never as bearers of a long memory that might teach us once more how to live well (and beautifully!) on the planet.

Coming to the U.S. in 1995 for graduate study made me understand more clearly the end-logic of the West’s project of civilization—the poverty of spirit that accompanies so much affluence and commodity excess, the lack of community from individualism gone awry, the neurosis of an unfounded sense of entitlement and supremacy. I asked, is this what my country is aspiring for? This sad, sad, empty way of life?

So now I sit on the front row of history’s unfolding, my commissioned task that of bearing witness to the unraveling of Empire and its failed project of conquest and supremacy. Aided by indigenous memory and the still living witness of our land peoples, the Aytas, the Tedurays, the Bajaos, the Bontoks, the Manobos, the Talaandigs, the Tausugs, and many others, I long for the birthing of new visions and desires, rooted no longer in linear narratives of progress and material development but in a healing return to the womb of Earth Mother and all her beings.

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S. Lily Mendoza is a professor, researcher, and scholar who has received numerous awards for her work in critical intercultural communication studies. She serves as the current Chair of the International and Intercultural Communication Division at at Oakland University and sits on the editorial board of the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication. Her research and teaching interests include critical intercultural communication, questions of identity and subjectivity, cultural politics in national, post- and trans- national contexts, discourses of indigenization, race, and ethnicity, culture and ecology, and bridge-building across traditions of scholarship.

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