Tales from a far away place

These tales from a far away place and from long ago start with my great-grandmother.

Her name was Bonifacia and she was called Lola Paciang. The Philippines having been a colony of Spain for three hundred years have retained some of that Spanish presence with the shortened uses of abuelo/a, the Spanish words for grandfather/grandmother by using the abbreviated forms of Lolo and Lola.

In Philippine society, a man is addressed with Lolo if he is two generations ahead, Tatay/ Papa/Tito – one generation ahead or Manong – same generation but older. The English equivalents are grandfather, father/ Uncle, or Older Brother and the same goes for the feminine versions – so they are Lola, Nanay/Mama/ Tita or Manang.

All grandchildren address their grandparents and all generations older as Lolo and Lola. Bloodline is not necessary and it is very common to hear Filipinos address someone first
with Lolo or Tatay or Tito or Manong before his or her name be they actual descendants or the child of the cook.

Bonifacia, my great- grandmother was the mother of my maternal grandfather Bonifacio, who called her
Nanay, the local dialect for mother.

Bonifacio was called Lolo Paciong by me and my siblings and all cousins to the nth degree of consanguinity, non-relatives, mere acquaintances, even passersby who recognized his senior years.

I was told Lola Paciang had a distinct facial feature – she had a very flat nose, kurapa ang ilong in the dialect and it was only Lolo Paciong, one of her sons, who inherited this genetic trait of hers.

When Lolo was born, the midwife told my great- grandmother, “Paciang, this one looks like you – kurapa man ang ilong – his nose is also flat like yours, so you should name him Bonifacio.” It follows naturally that Paciong will be his nickname as Paciang is for Bonifacia.

Lola Paciang had four othersons and a daughter and they all had aquiline noses that belie their Spanish heritage. Their father, Filomin was a handsome and learned man, a stranger who arrived in the fishing town of Pilar as a municipal arbiter and was known as Jues or Judge Minoy. He was tall and guapo (handsome), one of the many remnant Spanish words that got woven into the local dialect. How he was attracted to Bonifacia – a vulgar, unattractive, crude, loved to gamble woman had remained a mystery to the family. Simply stated, my great-grandmother was not guapa! She was not beautiful in terms of facial attributes, a given as she had a very flat nose!

Lola Paciang was also known to be ma-i-sug. The i is pronounced as a hard ee. The word can be loosely translated as brave or courageous but with Paciang, fierce closely matches her temperament.

This is another salient feature of her genetic make- up that runs through her descendants, some who had met untimely violent deaths on account of being ma-i-sug. My mother’s cousin proudly claims that is what Paciang’s side of the family are: ma-i-sug, wa- ay kami nahad-luk kay sin-o. Fierce and we fear no one.

This particular fierceness of Paciang did serve her well and attained legendary status in the family lore. My mother loves to tell the story and I, in turn, take delight in retelling it to my American husband; even more so after we just watched war documentaries on the NHK- World Japan channel.

During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines (1943-45), Filipinos fled and went into hiding as the Japs were all too eager to bayonet any Filipino who crossed their path. An uncle was found with 22 stab wounds and had no chance.

My grandfather Paciong was then the Resistance mayor of Pilar, so named because he was leading the resistance against the loathsome Japanese. It was then expected that a certain Bonifacio of Pilar was exceptionally wanted by the Japanese authorities and even had a bounty on his head. To spare his own family the very possible threat of witnessing his brutal torture and death if he gets caught, Lolo Paciong ordered my grandmother to go into hiding separately from him.

So, my grandmother, my mother and her brother (aged three and two respectively), together with some trusted servants stayed inland, hiding in the mountains while my grandfather and his retinue of men would board a boat, sail out in the middle of the sea at night and return to land at daybreak to get provisions, assess their chances of outpacing the Japs and reconnoiter with resistance fighters in the area.

The Japanese arrived in Pilar and found its houses abandoned, the town eerily silent with only stray dogs loitering around. However, in a little fishing hamlet, a few kilometers away from the town center, a small woman went about her business, oblivious to the war that had erupted in the Asian continent. She knew nothing about the Japanese intent in dominating the eastern Pacific side of the world and even if she did, she was not fazed by it.

That woman was Lola Paciang. She refused to leave. Repeated pleas from my grandfather to evacuate and flee to the mountains together with my grandmother were ignored. Lolo Paciong pleading Nanay, you must go! Lola Paciang responding – No. I am not going! And to end it all, Paciang finished her own resistance with —Wa-ay ako nahad-luk sa Hapon! I am not afraid of the Japanese! She said it with all the confidence of a war general flanked by his battalion of men.

So, Lolo Paciong ordered one of the men, perhaps his own bodyguard to physically lift and carry her. “Let’s go Lola,” said the man, as he tried to take her in his arms.

Well, then Lola Paciang immediately scratched his face, bit his arms and pulled his hair. Two more men were ordered to carry her and she attempted to gouge their eyes out after she kicked, scratched and bit them too. All failed to even lift her off the ground.

Finally, the men pleaded to Lolo that they could no longer bear her assaults so Lolo Paciong made the painful decision to leave his mother behind. He was probably resigned that he too, will find the body of his mother with multiple stab wounds like my uncle. As a final plea, Lolo Paciong implored his mother to refrain from cooking rice during the day as the smoke from the fire would instantly alert the roving Japanese soldiers who know only to kill Filipinos when they see one. Although she was a woman, Lola Paciang was well beyond her prime so the Japanese men would not had considered committing that heinous act of using her as a comfort woman’ that they were notorious for as well.

For several months, my great-grandmother lived on her own. She was left with a sack of rice and for other food sources, she would scour the tidal fl at for clams, crablets or little fishes. She foraged for edible greens, gathered whatever fruits in season she could reach and in defiance of her son’s orders, she cooked rice in broad daylight.

As children, my siblings and I, plus countless cousins played on that same tidal flat, little knowing that years and years before, our great- grandmother had counted on those little crabs we chased, the clams we dug up , the little fishes left behind as food to eat so she can survive and make it through another day. That thought evoked a sense of sadness in me and I could picture her… a tiny silhouette in the gathering gloom, back bent as she picked up a fish, maybe a crab in the vast tidal flat…alone, so alone and very alone.

And then the inevitable happened. Lola Paciang encountered the Japanese!

She was unperturbed, unbothered, unruffled… definitely unafraid! Wa-ay ako nahad-luk sa Hapon. This was not a mantra or a motto for Paciang. She truly was not afraid of the Japs.

Upon seeing the Japanese soldiers, Lola Paciang stood her ground. She raised her stick and said in a loud voice – A-ri na kamo, mga a-mu nga madamo, mga i-bud nga naga si-bud. Be- -t—mo kamo! To any reader who does not know the dialect, I apologize but there is no direct translation for her words.

Try Goggle translate and let me know.

What I do know is that Lola Paciang, my fierce and feisty great-grandmother had called them – the Japanese soldiers – monkeys! Yes, a- mu means monkey and pronounce that second syllable with a hard uh. Then she added slyly…’and several of them have arrived here and are roaming around.’ Then she hurled words at them that were so vulgar that the familiar f—ck y—u does not come close!

The soldiers stopped in their tracks, their mouths agape, mesmerized by this tiny woman, brandishing her stick, spewing words they could not understand but from the look on her face and her gestures she was telling them to scram, go away and leave her alone. Recovering from their amazement, one soldier smiled, put his arm around her and gave her a little bow.

Lola Paciang was very, very fortunate. The soldiers she encountered were not the inhuman brutes that the Japanese got renowned for during the war. Maybe, she reminded thesoldiers of their own mothers.

My grandfather could barely believe his eyes and ears upon seeing her alive after all that time. But there she was – recounting how she stood up to the Japanese, insulted them and lived to tell her tale. Lolo Paciong could only utter, “Is that so, Nanay? Is that so?” I could imagine his delight and his face beaming after hearing that the enemy had bowed at his mother.

Writing this now, I was filled with an even bigger awe for her courage, maybe stubbornness, that particular fierceness that made her survive day after day all by herself, amongst the enemy.

She died of dysentery a few years after the war ended. But in life, she was a winner, a spectacular winner who bet her life against the Japanese and single-handedly won!*