Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Prisoners of Memory by Ala Paredes

Let me share with you an honest & immersive essay by Ala Paredes.
Ala is one of my models for Under A Different Light currently on exhibition at
the Yuchengco Museum.

Can't help but feel for most overseas Filipinos who are in a similar cultural dilemma; where inner, traditional Past halts you halfway toward an external and personal development seduced by a clean-slated Future. I agree with Ala, no matter the root, the dream is to branch out and bloom as an individual.

Real courage I believe is to venture into the unknown and not to give up (despite the number of Ala's ship that sunk) the dream.

One main reason not to be adventurous is the fear of Death...thus one misses Life.  Isn't it that Death or the End of the World is one and the same?..and it's about one's own world and not anyone else's? Perhaps the Mayan wheel carved out of human sacrifices ominously turns because of wounding emotions of the Past such as pain, hatred and bitterness. Maybe letting go of the wheel and letting it roll down the hill towards the bottom of the ocean is part and requisite of the dream. - edd

Prisoners of Memory


I begin writing this just a few weeks after ending a long-term relationship, and with that, I sever my very last ties with tradition. This relationship was the vessel that carried the cargo of many of my hopes and plans for the future, plans that involved a house in the suburbs that we would renovate ourselves, children, and a life-partner to grow old and cynical with. And with the end of our relationship, that vessel has sunk to the bottom of the sea, along with all my other failed attempts to adhere to tradition.

I’ve tried to acquire for myself all the things my parents had, and make all the choices that they did. But it seems all those voyages have been unsuccessful or diverted, and that ship was the last on my fleet.

Tradition… being Filipino, tradition is a huge deal, and I find that most Pinoys are more traditional than not. Tradition pervades most big decisions in life: marriage, sex, courtship, what kind of God to believe in and, in some families, what politics to subscribe to.

Tradition is like your lola, golden, warm, beautiful, and wise, a soft, comforting presence. But she is also the grand matriarch who just won’t die, who has had an unnaturally prolonged life, greedily clinging to her power. Her voice spans centuries, commanding us from the past, an iron hand sheathed in a velvet glove. So strong is her influence, that disobeying her can fill one with a massive sense of guilt, dread, or anxiety.

Illustration by Ala Paredes

And despite my supposed unconventional, “bohemian” upbringing, I’ve spent my youth unconsciously trying to paint my life as a tribute to my history, a diptych of my mother’s and father’s life. In short, I’ve been as traditional as they come.

I know I’m not the only one who feels the desire to replicate the main themes in the lives of their ancestors. Maybe we feel that it honours and respects them, or maybe it is because we fear the unknown. However, there is a romance to following in our parent’s footsteps, a certain sense of nobility. How often are we told approvingly by others that we are just like our fathers and mothers, as if being given a pat on the back for being such a chip off the old block?

Every family has their own code of tradition. On my mom’s side of the family, I feel it has exercised its power most strongly on the choices I’ve made as a woman.

Despite it being perfectly normal for women to prioritize careers nowadays, I harboured a secret fear of marrying too late, of being the last apple in the fruit stand. My fear stemmed from economic reasons, I suppose. There is a very old-fashioned side to me that always just assumed a man would always be there to provide because my two strongest female role models never felt the urgent need to be the breadwinner or to forge a career.

My mother and grandmother both had a devoutly Catholic upbringing, and were married around their early twenties to husbands who fortunately were able to provide very comfortable lives for them.

Both women had a strong artistic streak and at one point in both their lives had a paintbrush permanently stuck to their fingers as they went through prolific creative phases.

And thus, I grew up surrounded by these two ladies of leisure who, after caring for the children and turning the house into a home, had time free time to pursue an artistic hobby. They certainly made an income selling or teaching art, but they did so because it was worth their while, and not because they had to work to survive.

Being securely married, in both a romantic and economical sense, my female ancestors painted for recreation. And here I am being past my use-date for being a young mother and wife, painting for survival.

I didn’t prepare myself for being unmarried in my late 20s. A few years ago, I believed so much that my life would turn like my mother’s that in my early 20s, I got engaged to be married. While that venture also ended up at the bottom of the sea, I look back and realize that I did it because that’s what my mother did, and I needed to resolve the predicament of being unmarried.

And with the dissolution of my latest romantic relationship in my late 20s, I find that I have missed my last chance to marry at a relatively traditional age. I wish I could say that I didn’t feel slightly mournful about it. I am attached to tradition even though she is a relentless dictator and I suppose there is a certain security in having your destiny decided for you.

But I now know that my life will not be like my mothers, and I no longer expect it to be so. I am free from the hold of tradition. I now have to re-write my destiny, and that means starting over. But now I find that I feel braver, more daring, more courageous about the prospect of really straying from the original script.

If tradition commandeered the arena of love and career on my mom’s side of the family, it took hold in the form of deeply instilled nationalism on my dad’s side of the family. Activism runs in the blood, not the sort of armchair activists that consists of “liking” a social cause on Facebook. These were men and women who risked life and limb, left their safe and sheltered lives behind to fight for a cause, and spent time in jail.

My lola’s name is inscribed on a monument, the Bantayog ng mga Bayani, along with a throng of martial law heroes and martyrs. My grandfather was the speechmaker for Former President Ramon Magsaysay and perished in the same fatal plane crash as the good leader. Then of course, there’s my father and his two friends who together are responsible for a bevy of nationalistic and patriotic musical contributions to Philippine popular culture. It was my dad who took me to my first protest rallies, who roused me in the middle of the night and made me go out on the street in my pyjamas to participate in the noise barrage that marked the beginning of EDSA Dos.

Ah, the generation who invented The Bloodless Revolution, and we, their children, who were told we had the blood of heroes in our veins.

To be a Paredes is to be patriotic, to participate in heated political discussions, to wear your nationalism on your sleeve. So much so that my father has given up the chance to live in the First World at least twice in his life because he could not extinguish the patriotic fire that burned within him.

When I moved to Australia, for years I refused to set down roots here, because I did not want to be “disloyal” to the Philippines, my mother country, and declared that I would one day return.

But over the years, I have allowed my foreign environment to change me, because one must either change or begin to slowly die. Being far away, I feel tradition’s iron grip weakening, and I have had a moment to ask myself what exactly I was being loyal to when I made such impassioned declarations. A country… a landmass? A bunch of people? A bunch of ideas I was told to believe in?

Somebody once said that passion is actually a cocktail of anger and love. And anger is something we have in abundance in the Philippines. Everyone there is pissed off.

We’re taught to be angry at the Spaniards, the Americans, the Japanese, the dictator, our corrupt officials, the greedy rich, and the occasional foreigner who dares make some insulting remark about our country and its people. We are a highly sensitive race after all, and if there’s one thing we can’t take, it’s criticism from white people.

Righteous anger is the ever-present thread in our history, the weft in the fabric of our collective consciousness, so meticulously woven into the tapestry that we do not notice how we continue to inherit it.

Over the years, I feel I have relinquished the anger that I used to subscribe to. I simply do not have the energy for it. I don’t like bickering. My anger has subsided and my patriotism has morphed into a gentle mocktail of love and nostalgia.

It’s not that I don’t care. I just want to see things with different eyes. I feel our history has been written in such a way that makes us believe we are an oppressed people. I feel that as a race, we’re terribly insecure and feel the need to prove ourselves all the time, as if there is something inherently wrong with being Filipino. I am not minimising the plight of people in the Philippines who really do continue to be oppressed. But I don’t want my history telling me I am damaged goods because of what happened in the past. I am not a prisoner of memory.

What if it’s not my life’s mission to prove to the world that the Filipino is great? What if just being Filipino is good enough for me? And if I’m going to be great, I want to be a great human being, nationality being incidental.

I guess it no longer matters to me if I am the perfect poster girl for Pinoy Pride. In fact, I want travel to change me as much as it can and take me far away from my origins. I want my convictions to be challenged. My roots will always be a part of me, but I want to be more than my roots. I want to flower into my own mutated, freakish, unique species of plant

Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People once said that we should live out of our imaginations and not out of our histories. This is precisely where I am going, away from traditions that have enslaved my ways of thinking. I don’t want to be afraid for life to change me this way and that as it pleases, even if I may come out unrecognisable on the other end. I pay my respects to the past, but the future is ultimately more important.


Ala Paredes was born in a town in California, USA, and since her first days of life, has never returned to her birthplace. Showing that she is destined to always leave her origins behind, she migrated from her hometown of Manila to Sydney, Australia and celebrates her 5th Migration Anniversary this year. She is still deciding where she wants to live next.