My parents are Bicolanos. We lived in Manila, though, until we moved to Bicol when I was 11. Every summer my dad drove us to rural Bicol to visit our relatives and stay in touch with our roots. My aunties in Nabua seemed ancient to me. I called them “the Golden Girls.” Each time, as soon as we crossed the border into Bicol, my brother and I switched to speaking Bicolano. “Mom, Dad, yaon na kita sa Bicol?” (“Mom, Dad, are we in Bicol yet?)
The ancestral house of my mom’s family in Naga City is one of the town’s oldest homes. As a child, I would put a bunot on my foot and zigzag across the wooden floor. I was fascinated by my grandfather’s collection of Buddhist figurines and Igorot implements from Baguio. He did not say much to me. His presence was constantly felt inside the home, however, despite his being away much of the time for work. He has passed on, but his presence is still there, keeping my grandmother, Mommy R, a retired school principal, company in a house that is already older than anyone I might ever know — except maybe my dad’s aunt, Mamay Tuying, a former schoolteacher who is still making tableya in Nabua.
My father’s mother, Bienvenida, was a maternal figure in Magarao and herself a former schoolteacher. Mommy B was welcoming to all, feeding the hungry and helping neighborhood girls find work. I would hang out in her garden as she tended her masitas and help her sell maligaya in her bakery. I learned English and life lessons. She always saw the brighter side of things. “Dawa pobre, basta noble,” she would say.
As a teenager, I saw a beggar being kicked on the streets of the Centro. I told the bully that I would take him to the police station and “Ipapa blotter taka!” He fled. My mom proudly reminds me: you are never afraid when you know that you are right.
During high school lunch time, I would go to the ancestral home in Bagumbayan Sur and eat with Mommy R: sinigang, estofado, kinunot… After school, I liked to get street food: ice scramble, okoy, sampaloc… Then my friends and I would chat about our crushes while window shopping in the Centro before eating at Bigg’s and heading home.
Now I am married to an American and live in Los Angeles. My husband and I traveled to Bicol last year. We ate street food in the Centro, admiring the Plaza Quince Martires. Two of the Bicolano martyrs, the Prieto brothers, are relatives of mine. I heard this often as I was growing up, but it means more to me now. We visited Mommy R in our ancestral home. My dad drove us once again to see “the golden girls.” We all sucked cacao seeds.
Words by Jaja Bolivar. Originally published in the online magazine Agora Magazine, 2016