A young Filipino-Canadian travels back to the Philippines and reclaims a piece of her family’s history.
Text and photos by MARIYAH GONZALES
“It is the end of the family–when they begin to sell the land,” he said brokenly. “Out of the land we came and into it we must go–and if you will hold your land you can live–no one can rob you of land.”
The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
The property is not grand. It is a modest corner lot at the end of the street in a guarded suburb in Cavite, a province just Southwest of the capital, Manila. A little fewer than three hundred square meters but it is ours. The heart of the Revolution, read the welcome sign. For it was in Cavite that the Philippines declared independence from Spanish colonial rule after more than three centuries. I was told Emilio Aguinaldo, the first President of the Philippines, and I shared birthdays so I pull this heart of revolution close to my own.
My parents signed the papers the year I was born, for this property and another in Las Piñas next to my aunts’ and uncles’ property. They were living in Riyadh at the time, as Dad had found work at the Saudi British Bank. The Cavite lot was purchased as an investment, while the Las Piñas site was always meant to be home. Their plan was to leave, work and then return; but of course, a mind stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old self.
We never did end up living in Las Piñas. Mom was working at the Canadian Embassy at the time and everything lined up and led to Toronto. No one had ever left home and not come back. Many thought there was no good reason not to return. Then Mom and Dad had us and did not need any other reason. They sold the lot in the hope of building something that could belong to us all, collectively and individually. They kept Cavite, though, as if it were a slice of home they could keep in the fridge.
Up until our visit last January, Dad had not been back to Manila since 1995. No one knows why he waited so long and even he seems to have forgotten. I always expect to find the missing time in some secret pocket somewhere, as if our days were torn out pages, folded thin and packed away. Sometimes I wish I could pull out the years and lay them flat, mapping our route backwards with hopes of recalling why we thought life could wait.
Then, I learned my family is the patient kind.
In Manila, I found most had been quick to forget the space and time we had wedged in between them. I made a series of intentional decisions to be earnest in the questions I asked and to listen deeply to the answers. I wanted to fit as much as I could into my heart and my memory to bring back, dusting off as many pieces as I could find to build a bridge back to the Philippines, one that my sister and brother could cross when they, too, begin to long for deeper roots.
Some bonds were easy to pick up from where we’d left off. Though worlds apart, we all seemed to hold our values up to the same light. In our remembering, we ate when there were no words left to say and drank when we needed help to say them. But even in our silence, there was ease.
When I finally saw the plot in Cavite, I knew it was mine to keep. It would be the place where the bridge would start, even though the empty space revealed no sign of commitment, no hint of return—nothing about the land that said it was ours or that we belonged to it. I grew anxious, my mind flooded with all the things we had waited too long to do.
We should have planted fruit trees, a few mango but not the green ones. We should have put up a fence. Something thin, deep and sharp, like the lines across my grandmother’s face. We should have laid a foundation, drafted outlines that resolved whose room would have the windows facing the garden in the back. We should already have our floor tiles and farm sinks picked out, and the dinner table built with all the holidays in mind. We should have made a place of rest, a place for growth and a place to do this all together.
Since we have come back, by grace I found that sneaky little pocket. Instead of unpacking it and turning it inside out, I peeked in and saw that it still had room. We still have Cavite, the heart of the Revolution. It may not be much, but it is ours. The fruit trees will grow if we plant them today, and there will always be room for another seat at the table.
Click here for a video of our trip.
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