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Vancouver researcher Phebe Ferrer articulates nuances of Filipino identity through language diversity

Phebe Ferrer
Phebe Ferrer wants to introduce Pinxy/a/o folks to languages from the Philippines other than Tagalog.

By Carlito Pablo

Phebe Ferrer’s forebears came from all over the Philippines, which means they speak languages other than and in addition to Tagalog.

Tagalog is of course the foundation of the Asian country’s national language, which is officially called Filipino.

As the Vancouver-based researcher relates, her grandmother on the father’s side hails from the province of Ilocos Norte, where Ilocano is spoken. Her grandfather on the same side of the family comes from the southern Philippine city of Cagayan de Oro, where people speak Bisaya.

Meanwhile, Ferrer’s grandmother on her mother’s side is a native of the province of Nueva Ecija, where Ilocano and Tagalog are mostly spoken.

“I love little moments when I see my grandparents making tsismis [literally translated to ‘gossip’, but in this context, it means ‘small talk’] in Ilocano or Bisaya,” Ferrer recalls in a written interview.

“Or when I watch my lolo’s [grandfather’s] face light up when he starts speaking in Bisaya when we’re visiting Davao City [in southern Philippines] or running into someone in Manila.”

There are more than 150 languages in the Philippines, and Ferrer holds that it is necessary to honour this rich linguistic diversity.

“I believe that to celebrate the many languages in the Philippines is also to celebrate our families, kin, and ancestors, and the cultures they knew or grew up in,” she states.

For Ferrer, this is particularly true in the context of the Filipino diaspora.

“I think it’s important to celebrate the diversity of languages, cultures, and experiences of people in our community to avoid homogenizing ourselves and being too rigid with our definitions of identity, especially when living in Canada or places outside of the Philippines,” she explains.

Ferrer co-organizes event on languages

This imperative is the driving force behind a Vancouver event being organized by Ferrer and colleague Justinne Ramirez, and presented by the National Pilipino Canadian Cultural Centre (NPC3).

The show is titled Halina! Kadto kamo! Sung na! – Celebrating Our Languages, and it will be held at the Massy Arts (23 East Pender Street) on September 21, starting at 6 p.m.

As one may perhaps guess, the title of the gathering comes in three Philippine languages. Halina is short version for halika na, which is Tagalog for “let’s go” or “come”; kadto kamo is in Hiligaynon or Ilonggo; and sung na is in Sinug, the language of the Tausug people in southwestern Philippines.

The presentation will feature storytelling, poetry, and songs in different tongues.

“We expect folks to share pieces in a wide range of languages, including Tagalog, Pangasinan, Cebuano, and Kapampangan,” Ferrer notes.

Ferrer recalls that she and Ramirez originally started planning for the event in time for the observance of National Language Month in the Philippines, which falls in August.

However, the two collaborators noticed how the celebration in the Philippines mostly focuses on Filipino or Tagalog.

And so while they agree that it’s important to celebrate the Philippine national language, they also wanted to “move away from the sole focus on Filipino and celebrate the many languages that exist and are widely spoken in the Philippines”.

“We believe that is crucial to honour the diversity of languages that continue to be alive and spoken despite and in spite of our history of colonization, which attempted to erase our peoples and cultures,” Ferrer states.

Justinne Ramirez
Communications specialist Justinne Ramirez is co-organizing Halina! Kadto kamo! Sung na! – Celebrating Our Languages.

Creating a space to speak, sing, and celebrate

“We reflect on and mourn the loss of many languages and their communicators, as Indigenous and other ethnic groups continue to be displaced, targeted for defending their lands, and neglected in the Philippines,” Ferrer adds. “Staying connected to the languages of our families, kin, and ancestors is a big privilege, and is also a vital part of our varied identities as people from the Philippines.”

In hosting “Halina! Kadto kamo! Sung na!”, Ferrer says organizers want to “create a space to speak, sing, and celebrate in our many different languages, and highlight the linguistic diversity of peoples from the Philippines”.

“We also want to introduce fellow Pinxy/a/o folks to languages they may not have heard before from the Philippines and move away from the singular focus on Filipino or Tagalog in defining our identities as Pinxy/a/o.”

The UBC-trained Ferrer currently works as a senior research specialist with the Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Her ability to communicate in Tagalog or Filipino is crucial to her identity as a new Canadian.

Ferrer was born in the Philippines and was raised in different countries throughout her childhood as the family moved around the world because of her parents’ work.

“I arrived in Canada when I was 15 years old, in my junior year of high school; I started my high school years in the Philippines and then finished in Canada, and later went on to university and started my career.

“I have now been in Canada for over 10 years now, and it is the longest amount of time that I have spent in one place. My experience of growing up in various places has really made me reflect on how speaking Tagalog and being Pinay are foundational to my sense of self,” Ferrer says.

An act of solidarity

For Ferrer, celebrating the diversity of languages in the Philippines is also an act of kinship with the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

“As settlers on Indigenous lands, we are in solidarity with Indigenous communities in their journey towards decolonization. Language played a significant role in colonization, which is why we communicate in English.

“As Pinxy/ay/oy, we share this journey with Indigenous folks here in reclaiming our languages and cultures, decolonizing, and straying away from white supremacy,” Ferrer declares.

Halina! Kadto kamo! Sung na! – Celebrating Our Languages will take place at Massy Arts (23 East Pender Street, Vancouver) on September 21, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Follow Carlito Pablo on Twitter @carlitopablo. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Carlito Pablo

Carlito Pablo has worked as a journalist in Manila and Vancouver.

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