January 30, 2023

As a 16-year-old girl trying to find herself in a blank canvas-like world where everyone has to be different to stand out, nothing makes me feel incomplete and struggle in establishing my cultural identity than not knowing how to speak my native tongue. I am fortunate to live in an epoch and society where culture is celebrated and I am in no means restricted to speak in a certain language or forced to hide a defining piece of me, yet I have never been able to string up a cohesive sentence in Ibaloy and communicate and engage with those who share the same dialect. My last name is a Kankana-ey taken from my paternal grandfather who hails from Kapangan, Benguet. Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother is an Ibaloy from Baguio City. My maternal grandparents trace their roots to Bokod, Kabayan, Tuba, and La Trinidad. This makes me 75 percent Ibaloy and 25 percent Kankana-ey, a proud full-blooded Igorot, just one who does not know simple Ibaloy words such as kannigid or jasjas. Just admitting it on paper, I think I may have made my ancestors squirming in their graves.
I can speak and understand Iloko. However, several experiences and factors have always made me go beyond that, to speak Ibaloy. Not only has it always been the dialect that surrounded me, from the house, to family reunions, or even conversations while walking down a street or even riding the jeepney; there have been a handful of times I genuinely felt like a lost girl in my own province. I cannot even count the times I was spoken to by a relative in Ibaloy and I laughed uneasily as I explain that I did not understand a word they said. This has happened more than once, and with different people. Their response would always be similar: “Apay ngay? Ibaloy ka ket haan mo ammo nga ag-Ibaloy?” I just laugh or smile, but their words leave a lasting mark on me and have evoked eye-opening thoughts. The language I am most fluent and proficient at is not that of the Cordilleran blood that runs through my veins. I even know more words and can speak basic sentences in Mandarin than in Ibaloy.
It took a sad moment in my life to realize that I had to learn to speak Ibaloy. In July last year, when the world was battling against the Covid-19, I was informed my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with Hepatocellular Carcinoma, a type of primary liver cancer. He was given a month to live. Of course, I was devastated. Of all the uncertainties brought by the time, I did not need more bad news. Anyway, my grandpa stayed at home, took his medicines, and promised he would do his best to get better. One day, I wanted to talk to him in Ibaloy. I went to the kitchen to ask my mom for the phrase and I went to the side of the bed, and told him, “Grandpa, mapteng ja agsafa!” No words can paint how elated I was when he smiled and repeated the same greeting to me.
My grandpa peacefully took his last breath on Aug. 31, 2020. My family is grateful to this day that travel restrictions were loosened that time as relatives from different parts of the province or even some outside came for the wake. I remember walking around the house and feeling the warm push against the sadness lurking inside of me as I took in the sight of men butchering a pig on top of a pile of apay, women gathered around a table chopping onions, peeling garlic, and slicing some pising. I remember a girl speaking in Ibaloy to her mom. The four days of the wake made me grasp and understand what it really meant to be part of a family or a greater community. However, a part of me believes that the only way that I can proudly and undoubtedly consider myself part of such group is by being able to speak the dialect. Establishing myself as an individual would be fulfilling. But, a part of me would always want to be a part of something greater than myself. I would not be able to find myself in this world if I can’t find myself in my own group first. I guess it boils down to human nature – the need to belong. Physically, I am part of the Ibaloy ethnic group. However, not being able to speak Ibaloy makes me feel emotionally disconnected, even from my family. I may wear devit proudly and join in a Bendian dance, but the dialect that puts a name to those pieces of me is something I do not know. This is where I really struggle the most in establishing my cultural identity – not feeling part of a family. Regardless, I unequivocally take pride in the Ibaloy culture and a big part of a group’s culture is the language or dialect. It’s the force that binds the members together. It’s what brings life to all the beliefs and traditions. Without Ibaloy, there would be no devit, adivay, solibao, or kayabang. These would just be nameless objects.
I have tried to study words in the dialect just so I can know what is so funny when the aunties who visit laugh or to just know what is going on when I am with my relatives. After my grandpa’s passing, I took it upon myself to continue his legacy and to keep him alive by speaking the dialect he spoke most of his life. I tried to learn Ibaloy from an Ibaloy-English dictionary, but to no avail. The only sentence that has stuck to me is “Epokit e kasiljas”. I even convinced my mom to teach me one Ibaloy conversational sentence a day, but from that experience, I learned that the dialect is not something that must come from memory. After memorizing the sentence for the day, not being able to practice it by communicating makes me forget it the next day.
At the end of the day, I know that my family will consider me not a part of them just because I do not speak Ibaloy. I know that I have my place among my aunts, uncles, grandpas, grandmas, cousins, nieces, and nephews. However, my thoughts and feelings will always compel me to do something to deserve the place that I have. I’ll never feel complete and accomplished without acknowledging I’m part of a beautiful and culturally rich community by being able to communicate in their dialect. So while other young people like me have “travel to Japan” or skydiving in their bucket lists, my top item is an unconventional one – to learn a dialect that I should have known since birth. I know I still have a long way to go, but I know that since taking my own great leap on the moon by writing about these things I hold so dear in this paper, I’m on the right path. If this were a scene in a cop television show, I would be the distraught lady filing a report about a missing person. But in this case, the missing person is a piece of me and the only person responsible for finding that piece before it gets lost forever is not a detective or a cop, but myself. (JUDENNE SELMO DONGLAWEN)