How I lost my Ilocano and Bicolano, the Star-Spangled Banner in Pilipino

03:30 PM September 07, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO—Of all the comments and criticisms my column on language received, one stood out for me: That the whole debate over James Soriano’s essay and on the roles of English and Pilipino in the world of Filipinos has been too focused on Tagalog.

I agree.


As my friend Rupert Aparri wrote on my Facebook page, “I’m Waray and very fluent in Tagalog, Cebuano and English. The Tagalogs also have a lesson to learn here. Dili ra isa ang sinulti-an sa mga Pilipino” – “Filipinos don’t just use one language.”

So true.


In fact, many Filipinos don’t even speak just two languages.

Remember what I said about young Filipino Americans who were disappointed that their parents never exposed them to Pilipino?

Well, I have my own frustration. My father didn’t expose me to Bicolano. My mother didn’t teach me Ilocano.

My parents are both trilingual. So is my wife, who is competent in Waray. I’m just plain old bilingual.

So the headline isn’t even accurate. I never lost my Ilocano and Bicolano. I never had them!

And it would have been great to have them in my writer-journalist toolbox. In fact, I think young Filipinos should be encouraged to learn at least one Philippine language that they don’t already speak. Tagalogs should learn Cebuano. Cebuanos should learn Ilocano…etc.

If I were still in college, I’d take on Bicolano and Ilocano so I could dig deeper into my family’s roots. I think I’d also be inclined to study Ilonggo, because I think it’s the most musical of our languages.


But for practical and professional reasons, I’d probably go with Cebuano.

For that would truly widen my range as a journalist, allowing me to cover more of the archipelago, from business and cultural centers in Cebu and the rest of the Visayas to the remotest parts of Mindanao.

That’s what several of my friends are capable of doing. And they have names such as Ratcliff, Gershman, Goertzen and Waite. No, they’re not Filipinos. They’re white Americans, who, as missionaries and academics, became fluent in Cebuano.

Compared to me, they probably have a better chance of navigating and surviving the streets of Davao and General Santos. How crazy is that!

I’m exaggerating, of course.

As my friend Rupert also said: “In situations where Filipinos do not understand each other’s regional languages, they shift to Tagalog.”

“Our national language is still ‘emergent’ with Tagalog as its foundation,” he continued.  “Only those not easily reached by mass media do not have — at least — a passive comprehension of Tagalog. It is the language of Eat Bulaga, of ‘Filipino’ movies, of radio dramas, of TV soap operas with millions of Filipino fans all throughout the archipelago.”

One way or the other, Pilipino has caught on. In fact, it has grown stronger by drawing on the strengths and influences of other languages and cultures, from Cebuano to Ilocano to Kapampangan, to street slang, gayspeak, showbiz talk, and even texting.

Pilipino is alive!

And it has even been enriched by the Filipino experience in America.

After all, the word “Pinoy” first referred to working class Filipinos who migrated to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century.

It wasn’t exactly a name every Filipino readily embraced.

In fact, as San Francisco State University Prof. Dawn Mabalon told me, Filipino immigrants who came later, mostly middle class professionals who moved to the U.S. in the 60s and 70s, disdained the term, thinking it was low-brow, bakya, demeaning.

But the name stuck. Largely because young FilAms in the 1960s and 1970s claimed it, owned it, celebrated it. And now we all use it.

Today, ‘Pinoy’ is one of the ways we call ourselves.

In fact, we can learn a lot from the FilAms on how to wield language as a powerful tool, as a way to assert our story as a people, to claim and celebrate our identity.

When I moved to California, I came across student organizations with such names ‘Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor’ and ‘Pilipino American Student Association.’

At UC Berkeley where I went to grad school in the early 90s, there was even a group called ‘Pilipino American Network of Graduate Insurgents’ — or Pangit for short. (I guess they were having trouble recruiting new members — the group was later renamed Pag-Asa, for ‘Pilipino American Graduate Student Association.’)

Why do all these groups use ‘Pilipino,’ not ‘Filipino?’

Because FilAms longs ago decided that that’s the way it should be spelled. The immediate reason was because there is no “F” in the Tagalog alphabet. It’s their way of being true to Pilipino, the Tagalog-based national language of their parents and grandparents.

A bigger reason was political.

In the 1970s, as part of the U.S. civil rights movement, young FilAms, joining other Asians, Latinos and African Americans, fought for the right to explore on college campuses the history of their respective communities.

The FilAms proclaimed themselves Pinoys. They called themselves Pilipino. And young FilAms still refer to themselves that way.

Every year, thousands of them on campuses across the U.S. West Coast and beyond hold the PCN — short for ‘Pilipino Cultural Night.’

Think of it as a combination of ASAP and a PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association) play, a heavily produced variety show featuring hip-hop songs, folk dances, including the tinikling, as well as serious dramatic skits and presentations on social and political issues in the U.S. and the Philippines.

Folk singer Joey Ayala, who lived briefly in the Bay Area, was, in fact, impressed with the love of Filipino Americans — many of whom still adore him and his music — for Filipino culture.

“I was touched,” he told me five years ago. “Maraming marunong mag-kulintang. Maraming marunong mag-arnis (Many played the kulintang. Many knew arnis).”

Joey may have even caught the FilAm subversive spirit — the drive to claim key cultural elements of the American experience and use these to explore the Filipino experience in America.

In a creative act that caused quite a bit of a stir among some Filipinos in the U.S., Joey recorded his own version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ the U.S. national anthem – in Pilipino.

The lyrics spoke of the Filipino American journey, from the Philippine-American War to the ongoing struggles of Filipinos as a major immigrant community. The final verse goes:

“Sa tulay ng digmaan, tayo’y tumawid

Nagsumikap mabuhay at umibig

Tayo ngayon ay naririto

Mga dayong katutubo

At sa lupang bagong hirang

Kasaysaya’y pinapanday.”

(“Over the bridge of war we crossed

Endured, lived and loved

Here we now stand, migrant natives all

In this newly-chosen land, we forge our history.”)

Dennis Normandy, a respected Filipino American community leader in San Francisco, was so offended by the song when I played it to him that he told me, “It’s terrible. It is not true to the original anthem. … This is unconscionable.”
Joey meant no disrespect. In fact, he said, he wrote the song because he fell in love with the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” “Ang ganda ganda ng tono. It’s a beautiful melody.”

FilAm poet Oscar Penaranda praised the song, and the way Joey made it relevant to Filipino Americans.

“He made it a personal song,” Oscar said. “He made it part of his journey,” an exploration of  “what a Filipino means in the Philippines, and what a Filipino means in the Diaspora.”

You  can listen to the song here. http://cdn.sfgate.com/blogs/sounds/sfgate/chroncast/2006/05/22/bagong_hinirang.mp3.

And you’d probably agree with Joey that it is a beautiful tune. And that he made it even more meaningful with lyrics in Pilipino.

On Twitter @KuwentoPimentel. On Facebook at www.facebook.com/benjamin.pimentel

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TAGS: American, Bicolano, Cebuano, Filipino, Ilocano, immigrant, James Soriano, Language, Philippines, Pilipino, Pinoy, US
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