Learning & Returning

Rerun of an April 2011 post:

The process of gathering information about Filipina/o writers from the early 20th century is subject to the variables of any life. Authors get sick, die; family members object to releasing information, or can’t be found; collectors hoard their materials like gold until they die, and their documents get tossed into the garbage; some people make up stories that are questionable; valuable papers get lost in the shuffle of life.

Still, the archival research process can be incredibly uplifting and pleasurable, even enlightening. Recently I connected with the daughter of a Filipina writer (actually, it’s a bit limiting to call her a “writer” since she was multi-talented in a number of directions) who had been published by the Philippines Mail during the darkest period of the Great Depression, also a very dark period for Filipinos in the U.S. This writer, Helen Rillera, had experienced numerous daunting setbacks to her ambitions, and I suspect that her experience as a Filipina writer was more or less representative of the struggles of many Filipinas who had writerly, intellectual, or scholarly ambitions at that time. Still, she carried on with grace until her death in 1995.

In the meantime, her daughter, Lala Llacuna, had become the family historian, not just for her immediate family, but for her very large extended family. She had amassed hundreds (possibly thousands?) of old photographs ranging from the late 19th century to the present, and had created a number of detailed family trees that were meticulously dated and detailed, and highlighted with photographs. For the annual family reunions, she began to write histories of notable family members, which were included in the thick volumes that became the family reunion yearbooks. She also created two extensive digital archives for the photographs, available only to family members, which became a site where these histories could be discussed and added to.

I drove about 90 miles to meet with Lala. When I first entered her house, the first thing I noticed was the large kulintang array (a series of gongs used to play indigenous Filipino music); the second thing I notice were her fishing poles — she is a serious fisher. Photos of family members were hung on the walls. We sat down at a large table, and she offered me some bico, the sweet rice dish that I rarely eat nowadays, since my mother passed away — what a treat!

As we talked-story, she spread out on the dining room table her newspaper clippings, discs, photos, and photocopied pages, not only of her mother’s writing, but also of the writings of others about her mother: memorial poems, letters, essays—even a Excel sheet listing dates of articles/essays/poems and their titles, juxtaposed with a timeline. As she talked of her parents and grandparents, I thought of my parents, and the grandparents I never met, and of the many letters I still have, that passed between the United States and the Philippines over the years. Her mother as a child arrived in the U.S. in the same year that my father arrived, 1929; both of them suffered a journey in steerage across the Pacific ocean by steamship.

Later, we had some homemade nilaga (meat/vegetable soup) with abalone that her son had brought back from a dive. She spoke of what got her interested in the family history; meeting and talking to relatives who visited her grandmother and mother; listening to them talk and tell stories. While her interest was spurred by an abundance of stories and exposure to family members, my own interest was spurred by a prescient silence in my family: stories that my father hinted at, but never told in full; grandparents that I never met. While her research focuses primarily on her family circle, in fact, it also connects and speaks to a much larger history of migrations, wars, technology, eras of relative peace, prosperity and economic decline; it’s all there, in the family and community.

The amount of research Lala had done—talking to relatives, digging through archives, contacting genealogy sources, letter-writing, transferring to charts, categorizing and dating, scanning and digitizing of photos, etc.—was really significant. Her detailed family trees look like biology charts for genus and species. I was a little overwhelmed, but also very appreciative of all the knowledge that she has gained, and most importantly, passed on to her huge family, and even to me—a relative outsider.

Of course, no matter how small your family circle seems to be, in reality, its roots spread out and intermingle with countless other relations. It’s not unlikely that even I am related in some distant way to Lala’s family. What’s really wonderful, though, about her family research, is the care she has taken to acknowledge and value all of its members in some small way—at least those members that she knows about. It really says something about the power of her generosity and openness of heart.

It also reminds me that such “research” need never be dry, dull, or selfishly competitive, and the documents and photos we study are always part of a living community. I try to approach my own research with a similar curiosity, openness, generosity, and care.