By C. Horatius Mosquera
A few years back, I became the proud owner of an old house that belonged to my mother’s family in Iloilo. Since the responsibilities of owning a house include its upkeep, I had to make regular visits to the province. But each visit turned out to be more than just the occasional escapade, for it renewed my interest in my family origins, and curiosity set me on a personal quest to dig up my past.
It did not start immediately, of course. Like everything else in the genteel South, it came upon me gently and slowly. It started with social calls by people who introduced themselves as relatives I never knew I had. What amazed me was that these relatives knew exactly how we were related. An old lady, for example, was introduced as an aunt, being the daughter of the first cousin of my grandmother on her mother’s side.
You see, I grew up in Manila. The Big City, ever-changing and always in flux, was—and still is—not an ideal place to grow roots. I hardly knew my neighbors. They never seemed to slow down enough to stay at home. Home, it seemed, was a mere stopover to their next appointment. In the Big City, where a cherished landmark could be erased within one generation, there was also no respect for the past.
My mother’s own brothers and sisters and their families were scattered around the country and abroad, so I seldom saw my uncles, aunts, and immediate cousins. Because I rarely visited my mother’s old hometown, I barely knew my other relatives. I was detached from any sense of heritage, caught up, as it were, in the rat race of a decidedly middle class existence. So it was a novel experience for me to discover a sense of constancy, familiarity, and history rooted in the fabric of provincial life.
Since my mother’s family’s homes were located around the town plaza, the local church was an obvious stop in my search to discover my family roots. I befriended the town’s parish priest. He knew my grandmother, and was quite familiar with our family’s history. My mother’s family had donated statues of Our Lady of Fatima to the church, and these could still be found in front of the building, and within, right beside the entrance. My great-grandmother’s remains lay in the ossuary within church grounds. The good priest provided me with many stories about my grandmother and our family.
Naturally, there were some things I already knew about my mother’s family. After all, every family has anecdotes about relatives that are passed down through the years, serving as invaluable primary sources of information for each new generation. But to have access to reference materials, like old church souvenir programs, was like discovering a gold mine.
An American novelist once said, “If you don’t know your [family’s] history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” So imagine how I felt upon discovering that in my tree were kinsmen that included town mayors, provincial governors, delegates to the 1935 Constitutional Convention, even a Premio Zobel awardee for poetry in Spanish!
Knowing my mother’s side of the family also made me want to know my father’s side of the family better. They were from the neighboring province of Antique, so the exercise gave me an excuse to visit with uncles, aunts, and cousins, some of whom I had not met in decades! My relatives on my father’s side also had a keen sense of heritage and origin, which they happily shared with me. Again, I was amazed by how they kept track of themselves, and their forbears, considering that they did not keep a formal genealogy. I later learned from talking to my father’s relatives and reading locally published material that my father’s clan had been involved in public service for more than a century, producing a gobernadorcillo in the late 19th century, and then governors, vice-governors, and a number of provincial board members, town mayors, and town councilors in the 20th! I began to appreciate the importance of how family relationships provided a social and economic support system in the countryside, especially during election time, where a large clan in one town could carry the vote.
With a few native exceptions, most surnames in the Philippines are Hispanic, or Hispanicized. To rationalize tax collection and provide a systematic identification system in the islands, Governor-General Narciso Claveria issued in 1849 his landmark Catalogo Alfabetico de Apellidos, which provided a listing of surnames for natives to choose from and make their own. Thus it comes as no surprise that Filipinos are generally unaware of the meaning and significance of their surnames. Yet even those of actual Spanish descent are just as ignorant! In contrast, the Chinese seem to have a handle on their surname histories, right down to identifying the specific town in mainland China where a surname originated.
Digging up my past gave me a whole new perspective of myself, and my family. It allowed me to refresh existing family ties and forge new ones with long-lost relatives. I even made new friends. I found the whole experience exciting, fulfilling, and, yes, addicting.
Some would no doubt point out that one advantage of knowing one’s family history, especially if it happened to be a remarkable one, may be the bragging rights to make pretentious social climbers insecure. In fact, a catty social chronicler once noted that if one had no history, it would be necessary to invent one. While it makes for a most amusing thought, it is, however, also an attitude that trivializes the past. Searching for one’s roots should not be considered as an exercise in elitist snobbery on ancestry and bloodlines.
In the province, I have seen up close how family, ancestry, and kinship were a tangible reality that provided an informal cohesion to everyday life. Family brought people together in personal relationships where everyone knew each other. Ancestry made one aware of his or her place in the scheme of things. And kinship, with its treasure trove of shared stories and experiences, confirmed values collectively held dear in one big extended family, values like belief in one’s self, perseverance in the face of challenges, success in hard work, unity in family, pride in heritage, and most of all, faith in God.
I also understood what it meant to come from somewhere. It was a special feeling to know that, even in a small way, one was part of a place and its history, and to realize that one belonged, and would never be alone. This sense of belonging, a “rooted-ness,” as it were, should be part of who we are. But the rush of modern living and media-driven lifestyles have increasingly made our link to the past more and more distant, keeping many young Filipinos ignorant of their heritage. Without any sense of self and family, this could ultimately make them feel detached from their own cultural and national identity.
Good or bad, rich or poor, grand or ordinary, we should fully embrace our past. For our ancestors and kinfolk are inspirational figures and noteworthy examples from whom we can learn much. Family, after all, still remains the basic unit of society upon which our future lies.