Tuesday, April 13, 2004

reconnecting and resurrection

The Pabasa is done in the Tagalog region of the Philippines. It's a reading of the Pasyon (pronounced pa-shYON) which is way different from your normal Passion. My friend's family is from a Tagalog town and they do the Pabasa every year. This is our second time going. They sing the Pasyon for 12-14 hrs straight. It starts at 1pm and this year it ended at 5am.

In the Philippines, you'll find older women in their 60s, 70s, sometimes 80s chanting, praying and singing the entire time from start to finish. Here too, the table was mostly elderly women with 2-3 men. We didn't stay the whole time, only for a few hours. Our young bodies aren't patient enough to endure what seems to be a lifetime that to many of these women is only a moment.

They sit at tables positioned in a square so participants can look across to the others. In the front of the room is a makeshift altar of 4-5 Santo Nino and Mother Mary saint statues with a wooden cross in the center lined with red and white flowers. The statues are dressed in black, in mourning.

The book they read from was first printed in 1949 and has been reprinted since then. It's all in Tagalog, except when Jesus speaks, which is in Latin. It's a fairly deep Tagalog, no getting by on Taglish here. You might want to bring a dictionary. The basic song stays fairly upbeat, then will switch to some kind of minor key of lament, often when Jesus is present. At others, the song becomes super upbeat. The music is not written in the books. These people know what to sing when simply by experience and memory. In between there are prayers of the Hail Mary and Our Father.

Because it is a long drawn out event, people come in and out to get food, rest, have a drink of salabat (ginger tea). The hardest part is keeping the beat from slowing down. Usually my friend's dad is good as the time keeper injecting the song with some extra energy with his guitar, but he's in the Philippines this year. His presence is missed.

There is an extensive support staff. People who keep the food hot and the salabat brewing. They serve the chanters/singers sliced oranges, water and tea. The food was incredibly delicious! Catfish, banana hearts with coconut milk, ukoy, pinakbet and other dishes. You couldn't leave the ukoy in the vinegar too long or else it's delicate batter disintegrated. For dessert, there was puto bong bong that simply melted in your mouth and kutsinta that the SO said tasted like his childhood.

My friend and the SO are watching how much food they eat, so I ended eating the most. Luckily for my friend she could divert her mother's food offering instincts to me.

The Filipino Town Club, the Tanay Club, has been around for 80 years. In fact they will be celebrating their 80th anniversary this fall. The town itself will be celebrating 400 years of existence in 2006. WOW! 1606, the founding of the town. Well before Pilgrims thought about colonizing the U.S.

The club purchased a house and hall in the Fruitvale district of Oakland to hold their events. Standing in the driveway, you hear the mix of Pasyon and mah jong tiles. Religion and gambling, and somehow you feel like you're home.

Though everyone is singing the same song, there are opportunities of interaction and teasing between participants. It's quite subtle. During areas were the song is call and response, usually the male voices and female voices. Often the men might pick on one of the women reading, perhaps in a delicate way teasing them for being a bad singer. Filipinos are so good at this, communicating something else while explicitly saying something different. These secret messages over song and music. We're thinking of documenting it on video one year to study these subtleties.

Sitting there, I came to realize how much Tagalog culture influences the idea of what Filipino is. People ask first if you speak Tagalog. They don't ask about other languages. How much of the history is told from the Manila view. Most of my friends are not Tagalog so we look at things like Pabasa as interesting but not something ingrained. My friend asked me how that makes me feel as someone from Pangasinan. Whether it's similar to being Filipino in the American culture. I said I don't really mind, but it does make me concerned when there are those that want to force it upon me. In my experience, it's Tagalogs who seem to be the most zealous about being true and pure Tagalogs. Though Illocanos and Cebuanos can be just as proud, I have found Tagalogs to be the most zealous in proclaiming and at times imposing it on others.

As a Fil-Am, I tend to accept just about any of these cultural/regional traditions from T'boli to Tagalog to Pangasinan to Ifugao to Kampangpangan. I'm not so rigid in proclaiming a region, though I am proud to be from Pangasinan, I know it's not the only way to be Filipino.

We discussed perhaps as the main capital, Manila and its outlying regions tend to be the first place of ownership and struggle, the Spanish, the Americans, the Japanese laying siege on that area the first if not the hardest. And it's this bombardment that makes Tagalogs feel like they have to fight for what is theirs. Hard to say.

In any case, the youngest person doing the Pabasa was probably the SO and he wasn't from Tanay. Club pictures line the left side of the wall. Pictures from galas held from the 1920s onward. But the children of these people, their children's children no longer participate in the club. The club is sustained from new people from Tanay immigrating and joining the club which is probably why they welcome us. We're young people who voluntarily came by our own free will and not dragged here by our parents.

But when does a town association stop being a town association? As its members gray, I wonder how long the Tanay club will last. But, that's the life cycle of these clubs. When the thing that connects these people is gone or if there are not enough people to hold the connection then, it will end. But for the moment it serves its purpose for widows who need prayer, for gamblers who like mah jong and take bus trips to Reno, for people like the SO looking for childhood memories, and for people like me always looking for another way people are Filipino.

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