The 2000 census of the Philippines places the number of Ilokanos at close to eight million people, close to twice the number of people of New Zealand. The New Zealanders the whole world knows; the Ilokanos the world barely recognizes. We must understand here that the Ilokano language is also a lingua franca in Northern Philippines so that the census number, at best, does not recognize the spread of this language in other places. In effect, we are more than what this census number tells us. Put in a record that about 90 percent of the Philippine population of Hawaii are Ilokano and Ilokano-descended and the historical language of the Philippine diaspora is Ilokano, we clearly have here a case of linguicide perpetrated by a force we call systemic miseducation. There is no culturally fair and linguistically just presence of Ilokano-mediated education for the Ilokanos and we know that that this is happening everywhere for all the other Philippine languages.
Complicities and Struggles
The Ilokano people in recent history have had an uneasy relationship with the homogenizing language and pro-dominant culture policies of the Philippine state. The history of our language struggle is replete with small victories and huge betrayals. All these have been grounded in the contradictions of our own narrative as a people and the grandiose contradictions of the narrative of our educational system and philosophy. It is the age-old dichotomy premised on fission, we are a nuclear particle ever willing to go the way of a social bomb. We are ready to explode anytime.
But do not worry: we are a bundle of contradictions too—and this is also our problem.
One group of Ilokanos, sadly, wants to declare an end to their Ilokanoness by simply forgetting, in theory and practice, their Ilokano language. We have lots of these among teachers, perhaps most of them. Just recently, we still practiced fining our Ilokano students for not speaking English or Tagalog. In our schools, the language that we know best is not—is never—allowed. It is illegitimate, as it is not honored, not respected, not recognized, and not dignified as it is a mere language of our homes. To think that our language is our way of being-more-so, this is one end of the contradiction that we have to go through each day.
But these teachers have their own army of supporters, apart from the official sanctions of administrators. We have a big number of these among our students, among our parents, among our community leaders. And some of these have so much power they have demonized the few advocates of the Ilokano language in the school system. They have turned them into opponents of nationalism, into violators of the Philippine Constitution, and worse, into ‘miseducators’ for prohibiting us from exploring what our languages can offer us to mediate our act of reading the word and our act of reading the world with our students.
This leads us to another group that tries as much as it can to hold onto what is left of the vague traces of Ilokano language that, in the near future, if something drastic and revolutionary is not done, will end up like our kur-itan, our way of writing.
This group is a bundle of contradictions too: they espouse cultural democracy when what is needed is remitting the dollar and the dinar to prop up the flailing Philippine economy.
Its members talk about cultural heritage rights when our uninformed political leaders tell us to speak English the way English-speaking peoples in foreign lands do so that we can have our service contracted to English-speaking new lords and new masters—and there, in these foreign lands, we can start to dream about the good life away from all the country that has given us so much sorrow.
They talk about writing the literature of our people when the more current literature is about the exploits of Jake in Na’vi-land in that techno-fireworks but empty movie called Avatar. Among the Ilokanos, many of them go gung-ho on the latest but do not care a whit about the latest poem in Ilokano even if this poem is about their history of capitulation and cooptation with the dark forces of Martial Law and the dictatorship that came after.
And these people are not afraid to write in the Ilokano language and lend their names to spearhead a renaissance of Ilokano writing.
(To be continued)