Growing up, I thought I was just like everybody else. Uniquely enough, the town that I grew up in happened to contain the highest demographic of Filipinos in the United States - a comforting fact for an American-born Filipino. Daly City, California is the suburban town just south of San Francisco and it equally reaches each part of the Bay Area, connecting me to my “aunts,” “uncles,” and “cousins.” As far as I can remember, my family drove to San Jose and the East Bay to go to many family parties to celebrate engagements, graduations, and birthdays. To be honest, I think we all just wanted any excuse to get together. Us cousins hid in the treehouses, hiked in the East Bay hills, and ran our youth away. Then, our teenage years were spent in the garage watching movies because we were too cool to play outside. Yet, my aunts and uncles always seemed to be in circles retelling stories of “home.” However, after having these many gatherings, just sitting around eventually got boring for us teens and adults.
So, music and dance broke the stagnant times at these family parties. My uncles rang brass gongs with a piece of an old broomstick. My aunts spread their eagle arms, dancing in circles around them with feet thumping in unison. Younger kids ran around trying to fly just like the adults and us teenagers watched in awe. And once night fell, the blazing fire kept our circles warm as the uncles strummed their guitars to John Denver and we all sang, “Take me home, country roads.”
The car rides back home to Daly City made me dream about where my aunts, uncles, and parents came from. My feet ran on uncolonized dirt roads with no street lights from “ghosts” in the mountains. I heard different gong beats and chants to honor the living and the dead. To me, this is what it means to be Filipino.
I learned though these parties that myself and my relatives identify as Igorots in the Philippines just because of where we live regionally. I learned that Igorots were headhunters getting bounty from other Igorots that did them wrong and from the Spanish that tried and failed to colonize us. I learned that the gongs and dances represented courtship or successful wars and/or headhunts. I learned to embody the poise and toughness of an eagle but stomp my feet low to the ground to pay homage to the abundant rice terraces that were farmed. I learned to tie the “costumes” of the men’s woven loincloths and the women’s woven skirt that were held by a belt that had strings that hung on their tailbone like a horse’s tail. I learned that pinikpikan is made by holding the chicken upside down, beating its neck until it dies, plucking its feathers, and scorching it over an open fire before putting it into a broth. And yet, this one of my favorite chicken soups that never fails to warm me up. I learned to be proud of being an Igorot.
My relatives dancing and playing gongs.
Still young and naive, it took me a while to realize that my relatives were not actually my blood. They became my “aunts,” “uncles,” and “cousins” because they came from the same small, rural, mountainous regions as my parents. Each family gathering celebrated the fact that my parents had kailiyan here in the States and it allowed a space for us kids to experience our native culture.
Throughout elementary school, some of my best friends were Filipino. It was just so easy to bond with them because they looked like me and we had parents that came from the Philippines. But it wasn’t until I came back from my first time going “home” in the second grade and presented a recount of my trip to my classmates that something had changed.
I told stories of my Igorot people and my Filipino friends did not relate. All they knew - if their parents did let them know about their roots - was the “lowland” of Manila that was colonized by the Spanish and America, giving them norms of the imperialists’ culture. One of my best friends who just immigrated from the Philippines called me on the landline for our daily talks the day after my in-class presentation, but his tone was different this time. He sounded like he was gawking his head as he asked, “Wait, so you’re an Igorot? Do you wear those G-strings? Is the headhunting real? Well, my parents say that Igorots are really smart, and you really are.”
What I thought was normal caused a rise of curiosity in my friend. He marvelled at the realization that he’s best friends with a real Igorot - like he thought we were a fictional group of people. It’s customary to ask other Filipinos where they, or their parents, are from. So when my sister told her best friend’s mom we were Igorots, her face went blank and she was speechless for a second.
These accounts did not deter me from my familial, Igorot ties. I continued - and still continue - to learn more and more about my culture and celebrate being an Igorot through performances presented by us, showcasing our presence.
In my freshman year at Davis, I found the Filipino-American community on campus and it was a taste of my hometown. They celebrate our “roots” in an annual Pilipino Culture Night that showcases dances from the different regions of the Philippines. I did not get involved my first year here. But I wish I had.
I remember watching this show, anxious to see what they came up with to represent my Igorots. The lights dimmed and came back on to reveal what looks like Filipino American students wearing the Igorot costumes but there were no men playing gongs. Instead they flopped like chickens raising their arms and leg as if they were doing kung fu. And the women just held baskets and pranced around. They danced to a made up dance and to a tracked, random gong beat. I couldn’t help but just laugh in such ridicule! But once the lights dimmed again, I sat in anguish.
Set of brass gongs.
The next year I applied to be the dance coordinator and they took me right away. I directed a real dance that was built on the music from the gongs. I taught my friends with no experience or real exposure of my people, how to play these round brass gongs. Though they seem simple with only having 2 essential beat sounds, they can be very intricate. I instilled what I learned from my childhood in practices that happened throughout the school year, continually telling my friends that though we are doing this as a performance, it is first and foremost a real ritual.
So when the first show came, I stood at the wings feeling like my stomach was about to drop when the lights dimmed. But once I heard my friends beat those gongs, my feet thumped with ease, my arms spread open, and my posture was proud. The unison of the gongs and dancing on that stage created a radiance as we circled each other. It felt as if the warmth of the stage lights came from my ancestors. Each step and gong rang in triumph for how far us Igorots have come and will continue to go.