Finding My Inner Ilocano

Gabriela Silang's monument stands at the entrance of Abra province. (Photo courtesy of Paulynn and Gloria Sicam)

My bloodline is as Ilocano as can be. I am a Paredes from Bangued, Abra, where my grandparents were born and where my father spent a lot of time in his youth. Ilocano was spoken in my grandmother’s house, and at home all the help were from Bangued. My mother, who was born in Zamboanga, said she learned to speak Ilocano as a matter of survival, being married to the favorite son of an all-Ilocano household.

My grandparents’ house in Manila was a favored stop of Abra relatives with things to do in the big city. That was where I first heard names such as Tata Memoy, Nana Anang, Tata Quintin, Don Getulio and others. But I was a Manila girl, and Abra might as well have been the moon. It was, to me, distant, alien and uninteresting. As far as I was concerned, my ancestral home was my grandparents’ place on Alfredo Street in Sampaloc. 

The author (right), her sister Lory Tangonan and brother Jesse Paredes pose beside the historical marker at their ancestral home in Bangued, Abra. (Photo courtesy of Paulynn and Gloria Sicam)

My father, Jess Paredes, died early in the plane crash that took the life of President Magsaysay, and I grew up alienated from my Ilocano roots. Abra was a faraway place that the help went home to during the summer. Our beloved housekeeper, Fausta Baje, whom we called Inay, told us that how difficult life was in Abra and what she brought back from her annual vacation was proof of it: small pieces of local root crops like kamote (sweet potato) and tugue, dried up eggplants, tiny bananas in a milk box. Piman (pitiful) was an Ilocano word I learned early in life. 

Abra might as well have been the moon. It was, to me, distant, alien and uninteresting.

And there were scary stories about Abra that my cousins liked to tell. In the Paredes house, we were told, were many ghosts. According to my mom, on her wedding night, after a long day trip from Manila to Bangued, as she and my dad entered the house, a monkey, which was a house pet, grabbed her leg. The incident made her want to run back to Manila. The honeymooners were on the early bus to Baguio the following day.  My relatives who visited the Paredes house in Bangued swore that a well-dressed gentleman appeared to visitors, tickled their feet or tugged at their blankets when they were asleep. A niece swore that a portrait of an ancestor hanging in the living room followed her with its eyes. 

And there was, of course, the violence that has marked Abra politics for decades.

The grave of Don Juan Paredes Felix in Bangued (Photo courtesy of Paulynn and Gloria Sicam)

Shortly after the victory of people power in EDSA in 1986, I was approached by a well-meaning reformist group that asked me to consider running for governor of Abra. It was such a bizarre proposition since I had never set foot on the province and didn’t speak the language. I laughed them out of their delusion. Abra was never even in my itinerary as a holiday place. As a journalist, I did fly to Bangued once on a helicopter, covering President Cory Aquino who had gone there to meet with Fr. Conrado Balweg. What I saw depressed me: an arid, rocky, denuded landscape, which confirmed my early impression of Abra being dirt-poor. 

My brother Jesse, who has maintained ties with the home province, tried to interest his siblings in joining an association of Ilocano relatives called “Timpuyog dagiti anak ni Don Juan.”  After one meeting, I called it quits. I could not relate to the totally Ilocano gathering. 

But in February 2013, Jesse asked his siblings to attend the inauguration by the National Historical Commission of the Paredes House, also known as the Green House, where Senator Quintin Paredes was born in 1884, as a historical site. Feeling duty-bound to represent our branch of the family tree and having no expectations, I went with my sister and my daughter. I had  imagined the Green House to be grandly gothic, but it was just an ordinary big house, warm and welcoming, spruced up for its grand debut, with the stone historical marker by its entrance waiting to be uncovered. 

The bridge that spans the Abra River (Photo courtesy of Paulynn and Gloria Sicam)

There were relatives (kabagyan) galore, most of whom were strangers to me. But they readily embraced us although we were meeting for the first time. And though the program, which included an endless parade (that must have included all of Bangued) and many speeches, was long, and it was a hot Abra morning, it felt good being there, at an ancient ancestral home that, being a Paredes, I realized I could call my own. 

It was a discovery weekend. Bangued had its awesome features: the peaks on the Cordillera mountain range that they call “Sleeping Beauty”; the mighty Abra River with its brand new bridge built to weather the strong currents that develop in the rainy season; the clear azure Abra sky with its interesting cloud formations.  The Abra I saw was beautiful. 

We had a breakfast picnic by the picturesque Abra River (the natives call it their “beach”) that was almost swept away by a wild windstorm. It was a great bonding experience.  We were served amazing food, some of it strange, like a dish of ants’ eggs. 

The "Sleeping Beauty" of the Cordillera mountain range keeps watch over Bangued. (Photo courtesy of Paulynn and Gloria Sicam)

We visited an ancient cemetery where our ancestors–Paredes-Valera-Babila-Purugganan-etc – are buried. One small grave merely read “D. Juan Paredes Felix” with no birth date, only the date of his death, 29 January 1905. Don Juan, we were told, was the “father lode,” the trunk of the Paredes-Valera family tree that sired the 13 offspring (from two marriages and then some) from whence we all came.  Suddenly, the names of the Tatas and Nanas that I heard in my childhood fell into place. In my heart, I joined the timpuyog of the heirs of Don Juan.

I learned that there were other reasons to be proud to be Ilocano. Quintin Paredes had quite a lot of accomplishments as senator. An entire colony of Jews who settled in the Philippines in the late Thirties owes their freedom to him who worked on the Philippine government to open its doors to those who were persecuted by Adolf Hitler. My grandfather, Jesus Paredes Sr., was the first signatory of the 1936 Constitution. One elder, a Royal Air Force pilot, was a war hero. My great grandfather, Lucas, wrote zarzuelas. And Gabriela Silang is an ancestor of a cousin by marriage. Close enough. In Vigan is a monument to Leona Florentino, a poet, satirist and playwright, who was the most outstanding Filipino woman writer during the Spanish period. 

It took me only a weekend to get in touch with my inner Ilocano. But I know there is much more I need to discover before I can claim to be a child of Bangued.

Paulynn Paredes Sicam

Paulynn Paredes Sicam

A retired journalist, Paulynn Paredes Sicam is a freelance editor and writer.