If I cup my hands just right, I can hold every fading memory of being a toddler in the Philippines. I don’t remember which store my mother and I meandered through, but this much I do: the way I raked my hands through the clothing racks, how harsh the industrial lights felt as they rained down, and how my mother was on the hunt for a parasol. At my nursery school, there was a cultural parade where each of us was given a country to represent. I was given England.
Aside from the parasol, my mother had me dress in the only Filipiniana I have to this day. Looking back on this, I applaud her resourcefulness. The classic puffed sleeves of my camisa were the closest match to the Edwardian look she was apparently committing me to.
But I threw a tantrum anyway because I didn’t want the Filipino puff sleeves. I wanted the “right ones.” I cringe at that now, and at this:
The last time I wore my traje de mestiza, I was dressed for a third-grade field trip to Black Creek Pioneer Village. I was so smug as my classmates complimented me for the way I could pass as a villager (which I’m sure was not the case in any adult’s mind, but colonialism and childhood can convince you of so much fiction).
It seems it has always been important to me to be seen, but not always for who I was or where I came from.
At that same nursery school, I received one of my first academic awards, which I still have on my bookcase today: “Best in English.” Here’s a tattered, familiar story: even before we moved to Canada, my parents hardly spoke in Tagalog to me. Like many immigrant parents, they wanted to ensure I had a better shot at success by being fluent in English.
And I do love English, as ridiculous it sometimes sounds, how the stolen syllables slosh around in your mouth.
But when you’re a hyphen, you get used to the nature of simultaneity. I love English. Simultaneously, I miss Tagalog. I come from Canada. Simultaneously, I come from the Philippines. I delight in winter’s first snowfall. Simultaneously, I delight in the first splash of saltwater.
I’m thankful I can still understand Tagalog. When my parents or grandparents or strangers falter and grasp at “what that word is in English,” I want to stop them. “It’s okay,” I want to say. “I can understand.” Or try to. I don’t say that, though.
Most of the time, I don’t say anything at all. I just wait for them to find the words.
Last month, when I retold the story of my Black Creek Pioneer Village outfit, my mother lit up and pulled it out of her dresser drawer. I had no idea she kept it.
I can’t fit into it anymore. It’s simply too small, designed for the child I was and miss.
As that child, I would sneak into my parents’ room and rummage through my mother’s jewelry box, feeling like a thief.
Still, my mother’s pearls fit me perfectly, passed down from my grandmother. The shell earrings I bought for myself last summer feel like a shield. But I don’t hide behind them. They gleam and protect the core of me.
Without needing words, they tell a story and when I wear them, I suspend the handiwork of their artisans, the history of their craftsmanship, and my own heritage.
One summer, I spent my Sunday afternoons learning singkil, a Filipino folk dance, for a church cultural festival. My movements were always too jittery or stilted. Thankfully, I wasn’t very key to the performance. Maybe this is just my anxiety speaking but I imagine even if I tried, really tried, nobody could be deceived: I was just there to fill the space. So I hovered in the back, unsure of every flip of my fan. But as the fateful evening approached, my tita had us dress appropriately. I have never been too fond of orange but the malong that hung around my waist was an exception. Its patterns were sunburnt and distinct. It didn’t magically make me better at dancing, but it did make me feel surer, and that in itself was spell-binding.
Sifting through my memories, it’s hard to think of a time when I came across Filipino fashion outside of such grand cultural events. Why do we feel pride swell when cultural dress sways across a stage but feel the need to duck our heads if someone comes down the hall, ground-level, in a barong?
In the last two years, I’ve come to be more mindful of not just the work that goes into handmade fashion, but the heart. Many of us pass down our recipes. But some of these legacies are woven. If what we wear signals who we are to the world, then we don’t have to wait for a spotlight to celebrate our heritage.
I can never truly pretend my way out of being who I am. Even when I was dressing up as someone else, the silhouette of my camisa gave me away.
I used to think that the best stories I could tell were because of that rusting medal: “Best in English.” I’m learning that every story I tell is steeped in where I’m from, and I don’t even need to find the words to tell them. There is a history in the shells or fabric that cling to and drape themselves across my body, and when I move, with doubt or confidence, that history moves with me.
As I fumble my way through rediscovering the language and culture I tried to hide, I will try to carve out space for more of the story. Reclamation takes so many different shapes, after all.
Mikaela Lucido is a Filipina-Canadian poet, writer, and podcaster. She is the in-house writer for Cambio & Co. and poetry editor for Savant-Garde Literary Magazine. Her work has been featured in Savant-Garde Literary Magazine, Augur
Magazine, and Living Hyphen. She graduated from Sheridan College with a BA in Creative Writing & Publishing. If you dare, find her on Twitter (@LucidoMikaela) where she is often live-tweeting about Taylor Swift, superheroes, or mental health.