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‘Igorotak latta’ (I remain an Igorot)

I am an Igorot. My mother is of Ibaloy descent, along with my maternal grandparents and their parents, and all my ancestors. I have an idea of what being an Igorot means — that is, being part of a unique yet discriminated culture.

But I have never experienced discrimination because of my being an Igorot, not because I have denied my ethnicity, but because I am an Igorot in diaspora.

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To be in diaspora means to have moved away from one’s homeland. I spent my childhood in the provinces of Bulacan and Nueva Vizcaya, and not in Benguet where the Ibaloy have their ancestral lands.

I didn’t grow up in the ili, or the community. I know close to nothing about our culture, but I have always wanted to know more, to learn more.

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That’s why when the opportunity to study in Baguio came to me, having passed the UP College Admission Test, I immediately decided to push on and entered the University of the Philippines.

I hoped to be exposed to Igorot culture, and I thought Baguio was the place to start. And yes, I learned some things.

I discovered that tourists pay money to have their pictures taken with “genuine” Igorot in the Botanical Garden and Mines View Park.

I understood the marketability of the Igorot handmade wooden craft and woven cloth sold in souvenir shops. I realized how the traditional bahag worn by men is deemed a “costume” and not “traditional attire.”

No sarcasm intended, I saw a culture that has been bastardized and appreciated for its unfamiliarity instead of its uniqueness.

Baguio is not a place to learn Igorot culture, I realized. It is a place where the Igorot must find ways to live and are forced to exhibit their ethnicity like museum displays.

Another opportunity to learn came to me in April last year. I joined the Peoples’ Cordillera Day celebration in Kalinga with a jeepload of schoolmates.

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It took half a day to travel from Baguio to Balbalan in Kalinga, where we stayed for four days. The community warmly welcomed us along with the 3,000 visitors who attended the celebration.

My visit to Kalinga and the Peoples’ Cordillera Day celebration were inspired by the story of Macli-ing Dulag, a Kalinga pangat (chief elder) who lived during the martial-law era.

In those turbulent years, the government wanted to build a hydroelectric dam in the Chico River. Apo Macli-ing was against the government plan, and united the Igorot tribes to firmly stand in opposition.

It was a bold move for an “ordinary” man to oppose the government, especially the project’s proponent — none other than then President Ferdinand Marcos. But the Igorot’s unity against the proposed dam, with Apo Macli-ing’s leadership, triumphed in ending the project.

Had the planned Chico Dam been built, the farmers would have lost their lands to floods. Families who lived near the river would have also been displaced.

The Chico Dam project would have resulted in another diaspora — a diaspora where the Kalinga peoples lose their ancestral lands that have been passed down through centuries and generations.

These lands provide livelihood to the indigenous peoples. When Apo Macli-ing said, “Land is life,” he meant exactly that.

I have always seen Igorot culture as unique. If one is in Baguio, it is an indigenous culture that has been lost, in the way that in Kalinga and in many other parts of the Cordillera, lands are lost.

Like Igorot ancestral lands, our culture has been passed down through centuries and generations. The movement against the planned Chico Dam may have prevented the project from materializing, but in other parts of the Cordillera, corporate mining, hydroelectric dams, and development aggression projects continue to threaten the indigenous ancestral lands.

Still, my participation in the Cordillera Day celebration taught me that indigenous culture survives as part of the Igorot’s long history of protecting ancestral lands.

Back then, I wasn’t exactly proud of being Igorot, but I didn’t deny it either. With all that I have learned, I came to embrace my ethnicity.

I realized that I must be proud of my ancestry, not only of our culture but also of the historical fact that the Igorot people were able to collectively resist Spain’s colonial influence during its 300-year rule.

Apo Macli-ing did not waver in the face of the Marcos dictatorship, and neither do the Igorot of today as we face an unreasonable ruler who pretends to run the country with love and nationalism.

This year, with the Peoples’ Cordillera Day celebration again held in Baguio on April 23-25, I looked forward to joining the activities with higher militancy, in the spirit of Apo Macli-ing’s martyrdom and of the other banwar (heroes) of the Cordillera.

Now, more than ever, I look forward to stories that will keep the flame of the Igorot’s collective strength burning. I look forward to once again witness stories of resistance and bravery that will satisfy my eagerness to learn because, in the end, Igorotak latta (I remain an Igorot).

* * *

John Rey Dave Aquino, 19, is a third year language and literature student at the University of the Philippines Baguio.

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TAGS: ethnicity, Igorot history, John Rey Dave Aquino, Young Blood
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