Auntie Eppie has returned from California, which she found too cold. Auntie Joven, who carved herself a new lifeline, has returned from the mountains of Bukidnon where she has been searching yet again for Yamashita’s treasure. Uncle Johnny’s widow, Linda, has returned full of contrition from familial banishment because she received a sign from the husband she probably killed through neglect (three drops of blood that rained from nowhere and fell in front of her face). Uncle Boy’s wife sits at the table of my mother-in-law, hours before the festivities begin, because she wants a free lunch. Only Evil Auntie Neneng won’t attend because she has not been invited, because she is Baby Burgos’ mortal enemy. Baby’s close friend Mrs. Hamdan, a Muslim, prepares the dishes for the party, including various pork dishes. “She can cook it,” Baby, my mother-in-law, tells Margie, my wife. “She just can’t eat it.”
I say nothing. I saw the pigs taken away yesterday, and I have lost my appetite for meat in general, pig in particular. “As of this moment, I’m a vegetarian,” I told Margie. I’m a Jew, but I would still eat pork prepared by a Muslim cook. Normally.
The two pigs were calm until the men came for them by the fence and then they started screaming as though they knew they would not see the sun set. We all went to the porch as two men threw them to the ground and trussed them to the back of a motorcycle-trike. The first pig stopped its screaming once it was trussed and lay in the trike, hopeless. The goats went without much of fuss at all. My sister-in-law Malou burst into tears, but she’ll cry over anything and the rest of the family laughed at her. Even I was a little surprised. She grew up here in Mindanao. This is not a place for squeamish people.
The first time I visited Margie’s family in Kidapawan was in an army truck, though not because we needed it. We were just hitching a ride. Traveling by bus in advance of a nationwide transportation strike, the strike caught up with us one stop away from Margie’s hometown, in Makilala, a hotbed of communist insurgency. No matter. An army truck was there to meet us when the bust stopped, we piled in, and Margie advised me to keep my head down (I did) and blend in (I didn’t).
The pigs’ heads hang on nails, their expressions docile again, presiding over the cooking of their bodies. Eventually, the heads will find their way into one dish or another. Uncle Boy’s wife Linda sits at the table with her family eating pork, though the party won’t begin for another six hours. Uncle Boy won’t show his face because he’s a drunk, and even the day my father-in-law died he was shouting insults from the adjacent yard. But my mother-in-law is generous and forgiving and won’t turn away his family. Still, I turn to Malou. “I thought Filipinos are supposed to be late,” I say.
“That’s true,” she says." They came early because they didn’t want to cook. They wanted to eat our food."
After lunch, we pile into the van to visit the grave of Baby’s late husband, my father-in-law, Joemarie Burgos. Throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and much of the 90’s, he eluded bombs and guns as a national police officer in the wild, wild South of Mindanao where he battled communist and Muslim insurgents. Margie likes to tell of the time her father was supposed to go on patrol, but was asked to stay behind by his commanding officer to take the V150 armored vehicle he was in charge of in for maintenance, and so escaping an ambush. Every member of his team was killed, their bodies dismembered. What caught up with him was his own matigas ang ulo (strong-headed) nature. He suffered a stroke, wouldn’t give up smoking, suffered another stroke, finishing what the rebels couldn’t.
You might imagine that such a man would have children of a similar nature, and you’d be right. Was there any question that I’d be attending his third death anniversary in bomb-laden Mindanao? There was none.
Mention that you’re traveling to Mindanao to most Filipinos (especially those in Manila), and they act as though you’ll never be heard from again. Perhaps my attitude towards terrorism and mayhem is a bit too laissez-faire—but I view all of this, and by “this,” I mean, life in general, as a matter of timing. A year after we visited a high-end resort called Dos Palmas off the coast of the island of Palawan, the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf made a daring raid on the same resort and took several Americans hostage, one of whom they beheaded almost immediately, and the other, missionary Martin Burnham, who died, caught in the crossfire, as he was being rescued.
My mother-in-law’s house was built on the Japanese garrison from World War II. Her father was nearly executed by the Japanese but was saved when allied planes flew overhead and the Japanese guards fled in terror. That’s the way it is with this place. It’s no place for the squeamish.
At the family plot, a gated enclosure with a metal fence and about ten well-tended graves made of tile and stone, Baby steps out of the van and says, “Hello” in the general direction of her departed family. She takes my youngest daughter, one-year-old Naomi from her seat and carries her to the gravesite, followed by the rest of the immediate family, as well as the driver and a helper who carry a large bucket of water, much of which has sloshed out during the five-minute trip, and soap. The driver and helper wash the grave of my father-in-law, a blue tiled slab near the front of the small cemetery. The other graves tell the fortunes and misfortunes of Baby’s family—front and center are her illustrious parents. Her mother was queen of the Manobo tribe and most of the land around the graves used to belong to the family, but now it has been lost to squatters and Evil Auntie Neneng. Baby’s brother, Datu (chief) Joseph Sibug likewise rests here—a Marcos-era Congressman, he married Neneng, who since his death nearly two decades ago, has steadily sold off the family lands, forging documents and signatures to do so. She regularly puts curses on Baby’s family—Baby’s sister, Auntie Joven, the treasure hunter who once carved herself a new lifeline, was one of those cursed, and would have died if not for the intervention of a “quack doctor.” I’ve never met Evil Auntie Neneng, but in the cosmos of the Burgos family, Neneng looms as large as say Voldemort: “I’ll see you in hell,” she told Baby last time they met.
On the way home, we take the “Gone with the Wind Tour,” surveying the lands that used to be Baby’s, but which Neneng sold.
“Did they have the title?” I ask.
“I don’t know. When Daddy died they took all the papers with them.”
“And all Mommy and her sisters do is to go ‘ninininininini’ instead of doing anything,” says my sister-in-law, Tricia, her hands imitating yakking mouths.
“That’s because we were putting all the kids through school. We didn’t have the funds to fight.” She point to the shacks of her remaining tenant farmers and one lone banana tree standing in a field. “My tenants are very lazy. That’s my banana plantation.”
We need a few more things from the market and so we head to the center of Kidapawan City. Like most provincial Philippine towns of any size, Kidapawan is congested, smoky, and noisy, especially around the market area where scores of motorized pedicabs ply the main thoroughfare with their mosquito engines. Last time I was here, a bomb went off right after our visit in front of the travel agent where we bought our return tickets. Another time, we toured a bomb crater left near the bus station. Another time, a bomb went off at the “waiting shed” of the Davao airport not long after we left that same airport.
“Have there been any… incidents lately?” I ask, trying to code my language so that our six-year-old daughter Shoshie won’t be alarmed.
Margie shakes her head. “No new incidents,” she says, pointing out the new pedestrian bridge near the market.
Baby turns around from the front seat. “Oh, there was a bombing right here last week,” and points to the bridge we’re passing.
“Ancient history,” I say to Margie.
At the house, we gather to pay our respects to Joemarie, the living room packed with relatives and friends of Baby and many others who just want food. The remains of pigs and goats in many forms line the table along with rice and cakes and vegetables. Among the guests are some of my brother-in-law, Joe’s old classmates from grade school, his barkada. They’re mostly policeman, one on duty shouldering an Armalite because the area is on high alert.
Baby took in Auntie Joven’s children when Joven’s husband, a Muslim policeman, turned renegade and was shot and killed by his former colleagues. Joven went off to the mountains in search of lost gold but now has returned to fight Auntie Neneng for their lost lands. She doesn’t look like much of a fighter, as now in her sixties she wears a fluffy dress and dyed blonde hair that makes her look like the bride of the Cowardly Lion, but none of them do really.
With karaoke microphone in hand she makes a long speech about the love between her sister and Joemarie. “Love conquers all,” she concludes, and while I don’t necessarily buy that because I’m not the sentimental type, my adopted family has convinced me at least that love is a cease fire, a lull in hostilities. Still, a Kevlar vest isn’t a bad investment.
After the many speeches, we eat because as my mother-in-law says, “In the Philippines, we always remember our dead with food.”
And so we do. We remember Joemarie until our stomachs are so full we can eat no more. In other ways, too, we remember. My sister-in-law Malou remembers by scolding a group of teenage boys who left their plates of food on the table and had their feet up disrespectfully on the furniture. Margie remembers by denouncing Uncle Boy’s wife who is back in the kitchen packing up more food to bring home to her husband and as we will later learn, to evil Auntie Neneng. “Hey,” she yells towards the kitchen, “Those people who pack up food once shouldn’t pack it up again!” Even Margie’s sisters are a little scandalized by my wife’s boldness. I tear off a little pig skin and head outside to join the drunken police.