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Quiet • Loyal • Optomistic

Her Story

Carmela Valles

Immigration Consultant - Carmela Valles Immigration Consulting

Carmela's Story :

“I didn’t speak English today”.

This was the bold print on the wooden bamboo pendant of a necklace that I would have to wear if I was caught speaking my dialect at school. Either wear this around school in humiliation or pay up the class treasurer and miss your recess snacks. This was at first year high school. My sister and I were in a Catholic school for girls which had the penchant for shaming as a form of
punishment. While I tried my best to either speak only in English or just stay quiet, my sister was in a different course. Every day, I would see my sister wear this necklace. Not because she was caught but because she did not want to pay up nor did she want to spend her time at school in fear of being caught. So, first thing every morning, she would go up to the class treasurer and ask for the necklace. She would wear this necklace bravely in and around school, day in and day out, speaking the vernacular freely. She was in revolt!

My life story is one that cannot be told without mentioning my sister, Dindin Villarino. If you’re reading this, I invite you to identify that one person in your life. It may be that it won’t take a second for you to name that person or it may need a little bit more reflection. Either way, our lives are what they are because of them.

My sister and I were inseparable. We grew up in our family’s little farm in Leyte, Philippines. Our playmates were the children of the farmers that live on our farm. We studied with them, danced and sang with them. Growing up, we didn’t have the modern-day gadgets in our home. We didn’t have TV, phones, a fridge or any of this electrical equipment. If we were hungry and needed a snack, we climbed up the guava, star apple or mango trees. Depending on what fruit was in season, that’s what we’d get. If you wanted chicken for dinner, you’d have to go catch one of the free roaming chickens on the farm.

In high school. our parents decided that we should go to the “big city” and study there to get ready for College or University days. This was a different life. At age 12 or 13 my sister and I learned to commute every day to school from our rented lodgings in a city of at least 2 million people. Living away from our parents, we were accompanied by our “Yaya” who in effect was our guardian. Our parents would come visit us once in a while or at most we would see them when we went home for school breaks.

As young teen-aged girls, navigating our ways in this densely populated city must have been scary. Looking back at it now, I feel in awe of our teen selves who were basically thrown into this fast and strange place from our more laid back, “everyone knowing everybody” farming community. Our parents of course made sure that we were safe. We were admonished not to do a lot of things. We were good at following the rules. However, there was also peer pressure and the need to fit in with our city friends.

Living in the big city, our accommodations were very basic. As teenagers, we didn’t have the means to keep up with popular culture which was mostly by way of television. While we did not notice this gap when we were in our hometown given that our friends did not have access to modern appliances either; this was not the case when we were in high school living in the city. Our classmates and friends then would talk about shows they had seen on TV, gossip about popular celebrities or any other pop culture craze happening at that time. We did not know what they were talking about. We needed to catch up with what our city friends were up to, but we knew that asking our parents for a TV set was out of the question. We had to find other means to learn what our friends were talking about so we could join in the conversation.

Reading is one activity that my sister and I loved the most. This was also one of the primary causes of our fights. Our family had a weekly subscription to a local magazine called “Ang Bisaya” which is a weekly magazine in our Visayan dialect, thus the name. My sister and I would always fight who gets to read the new issue first. In this magazine were serialized comic stories and featured stories of fiction. I would not have so much minded reading the magazine after she was done with it except that she would always spoil the stories for me. She would tell me what happened before I had the chance to read them.

Keeping up with what is today the equivalent to what is trending on social media was difficult for us. With no television, and newspapers being expensive and inaccessible even at the school library, this was a serious issue for us, so we thought. One day, my sister and I were passing by a newspaper/magazine stand and we were just browsing the headlines and looking at the beautiful magazine covers. Of course, we did not have enough money to buy so we were technically just speed reading what we could see. I cannot remember if it was I or my sister who asked the lady selling the newspapers, what they did with the ones that did not get sold in the day. She told us that a bookstore of second-hand books and day-old newspapers, magazines bought these from her, and they sold them at much cheaper price. The lady told us the name and location of this bookstore. From then on, this bookstore was like a second home to my sister and I. It sold old newspapers, Time Magazines, celebrity magazines, song books called “songhits”, pre- read books (fiction and textbooks), our beloved “Ang Bisaya” and Reader’s Digest, and cassette tapes and even old vinyl records. This was our piece of heaven. It was called “The Music House”.

As young students go, every morning before the bell, we would gather around in groups talking about homework, tv shows, or celebrity gossip. One year, a movie was serialized on TV and it became very popular. It was called The Thorn Birds. Every week, the morning after that show was aired on TV, everybody will be talking about it. My sister and I were never a part of this conversation on the simple fact that we did not see it. This was until my sister and I found the book of which the movie was based on. After a brief scuffle as to who gets to read it first, we spent a weekend just reading the book. While I was just happy to know what my friends are talking about, my sister basically “held court” before the school bell rings, among whoever wanted to know in advance what happened in the story before the next episode was actually aired. She would not tell them the full story either. She did her weekly episodes as well.

The only time that my sister and I were separated were the few years that she was in Canada and I was in the Philippines or when I was in Canada and she was in the Middle East. Despite the distance, the connection remained intact. The stories we shared with each other, of lives spent apart, became richer. Stories about work, new friends, books read and news events. Our favourite topic was always my children, Katrina and Ben whom she adores. She called them her favourite little people. Their favourite “Auntie story” to this day is the story of the “I didn’t speak English today” necklace (especially because she became an English teacher and went back to that school to interview them for her PhD dissertation for the University of Toronto).

My sister passed away in 2017. She was never sick until she was diagnosed with Leukaemia and after 8 months she was gone. She was 47. The expressions “punched in the gut”, “took my breath away”, “heart breaking into pieces”, “it only hurts when you breath”, were English phrases that she and I had a hard time explaining at grammar school, but all seemed to suddenly take a very real form and needed to be felt to understand their meaning.

When Dindin was sick, I prayed and asked that her suffering wouldn’t be long or too much for her to bear. I specifically asked that she be healed. At an early age, I made a decision that I should be specific with my prayer, especially when I am asking for things. I imagined God is a busy Being and vague prayers won’t be answered. I also knew I could talk to God in my dialect (for some reason my God was not colonial enough). So, I prayed for healing. My sister did not recover from her illness. I was confused. Was my prayer not answered? Was I not specific enough? Just recently, I realize that my request was granted. My sister was spared from more sickness and suffering. In her passing, I continue life without her but always in memoriam of her.

# (On Sisters, Stories and Sisterhood by Carmela Valles 10May2020)