PLURAL ISSUE ONE COVER: Kevin Roque
TITA, I'm Home
On the award-winning actress, Hilda Koronel
Melissa R. Sipin
I was born of two countries—one with a heavy, tormenting sun and dry weather that cracked my skin, claimed that I was of the other, which questioned my brownness and the accent in my voice. One where I called “small” repeatedly, critically, and where I attended school with a sea of other brown faces who spoke languages beyond English, a mix of Spanish, Tagalog, and Samoan, and we learned only about the American civil war and white-wigged presidents, memorizing and singing their names. A country where I perfected my English with Hooked-On-Phonics as my father stood above me—hands on hips, eyebrows furrowed—practicing the strange words I couldn’t sound out, words that didn’t even fit his own mouth. It was here where my father, worried of his daughter’s failures, silenced his Tagalog and stopped speaking to me in his mother tongue because I was taken aside in the first grade and placed in an ESL class—despite the fact I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, or even Tagalog. It was here where the slur and silences that imbued my speech were deemed “problematic;” they embodied my loss of language, and in turn, my loss of culture. The loss of self.
In this one country where I was born, I was taught to forget.
Whether it was about my mother, who left my family when I was two, or about the hills in a faraway land she had once roamed when she was a child, I was taught not to remember. I was taught silence. My father and lola, who both raised me with iron fists, rarely mentioned their homeland, their fractured memories of Marcos or addictions to gambling. There were no stories about their broken childhoods or the land they still loved—only the want, the need, to return. They would still speak of the Philippines like it were “home.” They would fill balikbayan boxes with cans of packaged meats, snacks, sweets, or my outgrown clothes, and “Send it home.”
Growing up, this loss of “home” spilled into my lola’s or father’s anger. Whenever they were angry with me—whether I was home late, talked back, or acted like a know-it-all “Americana”—they would switch to Tagalog, and I knew the level of their rage from the shrill or twitch of their eyebrows. A cascading wall of sound. I had to distill meaning from the movement in their mouths, the crooked smiles, or the narrowed eyes.
Tagalog, to me, has always been emotive, like images replaying on a screen. It was the one tangible thing I could hold onto in my head and mouth, the vehicle I used to imagine that land my family had once walked.
It is that land, my other country, which I also belong. It is a land I had not seen until I reached the age of twelve and flew across the Pacific to the tarmac where, five years before my birth, a man, whom I had not known or recalled or remembered, was shot and assassinated. This history, this memory of a dictator and his ruthlessness, this nightmare that forced my family to flee from the country of my ancestors’ birth, never left my body. And when I returned to Manila at that tender age, that age of awakening, a torrent of change lapped through my body. It was the moment I first felt the wet heat, heard the incessant honking and spitfire Tagalog on the streets, entered a cemented church in a colonial square, and pressed my feet on the land that obsesses me today with no end.
It was the first time I marched in a funeral parade for my father’s dead sister. It was the first time I ate pancit palabok on a banana leaf and nibbled on fresh pan de sal in the twilight of morning.
This was a strange moment of my life. It somehow trajected everything that made me into the dalaga I am today—it perpetuated this in-betweenness, this constant walking between two countries, this rampant desire to discover, reveal, who I am.
In 2000, I flew to the Philippines for the death of a family member. It was at this funeral procession, where I walked over the hills my ancestors walked, when I first met my Auntie Susan.
To the rest of the world, she was known as Hilda Koronel: great actress of the Philippines.
I remember this moment distinctly: she was tall, unlike the rest of us, she was pale skinned, had long, dark hair, and large sunglasses that covered her face. She wore a billowing hat. I walked behind her as we trailed the limousine that carried my father’s dead sister. I wore a white barong dress; she wore black. The heat was relentless; both our backs were drenched. The crowd moaned, treaded the dirt path, and the banyan trees swayed. My father’s cousin held onto her arm like they were blurring into one in the heat. A few weeks later, in a chapel in Las Vegas, where a drier heat still draped our backs, I watched my father’s cousin and Auntie Susan get married. I sat in the pews in that same barong dress. Later, as she walked down the aisle, I stood up and hugged her, congratulated her on entering our big, Filipino family. She smiled at me, her lips perfectly red: “No, salamat, dear dalaga. Thank you for letting me become family, too.”
It wasn’t until seven years later, when I grew into the body of a young woman, a dalaga on the brink of an awakening, that I realized whom my aunt was, and what she meant to me as a Filipina in the diaspora. But it took time. It took years of schooling in an overcrowded public system where I fell between the cracks, entered a low-ranked community college after graduation despite my shame, and after years of hard work and sweat, I transferred to a prestigious private university where I discovered the books and films that told me everything about my homeland that my family did not. It took years of anger—anger at my mother for leaving, at my father and lola for policing my body—which later morphed into a relentlessness to become a writer, an artist.
This contention, this obsession of motherhood, land, and belonging brought me to Lino Brocka and his lead actress, Hilda Koronel. My Auntie Susan. Growing up, I heard through the grapevine that she was once a famous actress in the Philippines. But to me, she had always been Auntie.
To the world, and to my homeland, she was the beautiful, graceful Hilda.
A fact I didn’t discover until I was nineteen, alone in my university library searching for films that resembled anything that mirrored my other country, that reflected, desperately, myself.
When I first discovered Insiang, I was blown away by the first scene: the screeching of the pigs and the gutting of flesh. It was my first Filipino film that spoke, without averting its eyes, about the devastation and desperation I knew so well—in my family and my own bones.
Insiang was also the first movie I watched by Lino Brocka. I found him by happenstance. I was in USC's large, grand Doheny Memorial Library, sitting in the film section and flipping through a collection movies for my philosophy of film class. My hand landed on the cover of Insiang—a woman’s face frozen with eyes that looked much like mine: black, almond-shaped, Filipina, and not white. Then I realized it: it was my Aunt Susan. This discovery was a shock, my knees buckled, and I immediately put the movie into one of the library’s video players.
It was then I became obsessed with Lino Brocka. It was then I learned that Insiang was the first Filipino film screened at the Cannes Festival in 1978. That Lino was nominated for the Palme d’Or twice, in 1980 and 1984. His films exposed me, once again, to another land that is a part of me and not. In a strange, ironic moment, alone in a film library and surrounded by the hushed of white faces glued to other video players, I sat alone, numbed and in awe that I did not know my own aunt was essential to a history I was starved of, something I was hungrily trying to figure out, understand, and make part of me. Lino’s films on Manila and the slums, poverty and sardonic despair, and that land that is mine and not, encircled me back to my own blood, who had married into my large Filipino family when I was 12, who later let me interview her and ask her questions of her childhood—something unprecedented in my tight-lipped family.
She was surprised and honored when I asked to interview her. She was bashful. She let me in her house and accepted me with opened arms. It was as if her life story was something nobody, at least in our large family, had asked her before.
This is her story. In a way, it is also my story, my family’s story, and in another, it is every dalaga’s story: a story of in-betweens, of mothers and daughters, of father figures and that search of belonging, that contention between living in two worlds, two countries, and existing in neither. It is that story of home, that declaration: Tita, I’m home.
My Tita Susan was born as Hilda, the daughter of a Filipina and American G.I. once stationed at Clark Air Base. She was an American Occupation, post-World War II baby, born in Angeles City, Pampanga, and grew up impoverished in Pasay City, as a mestiza child in the slums with no father. She stood out with her fair skin and long black hair, and everyone in the barrio told her: “You could you be an actress one day. Especially with that face.” But her mother: she was indifferent, passive, silent, and only reclaimed her when Hilda became famous.
She was raised by her aunt, her mother’s older sister, until she was 12, when she was discovered by LEA Productions. Her aunt tirelessly took Hilda to different studios for extra casting calls, and when she signed her contract, her mother took over.
But, it was as if the stars aligned that year in 1969. A year before that, Lino Brocka had just returned to Manila as a failed Mormon missionary, escaping the sugar cane fields of Hawaii and his job as a busboy in San Francisco.
Lino was born poor, too. Of his sojourn to Hawaii, Mario Hernando said: “[Lino] had gone from being a prize-winning high school graduate with the world ahead of him, to a university dropout whose mother compared him unflatteringly to his former classmates, and his search for meaning in life through the Mormon faith was unfulfilled.” In 1970, Lino casted Hilda as the supporting actress in his award-winning film, 'Santiago!’ At just 13 years old, Hilda won Best Supporting Actress from the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS), a prestigious title and record that no one has beaten to this day.
This was the start of a beautiful mentorship, of a relationship that has never left Hilda, of a family built outside the bounds of blood and genetics. Lino, as a gay man in a Catholic country, was like a father to Hilda. They loved each other dearly. Like Lino, whose classmates used to laugh at him for pronouncing “bathing suit” wrong, Hilda fought her way into the University of the Philippines (UP) for a master’s degree, the best school in the country. Growing up, she had to teach herself English from a dictionary. She finished her bachelor’s at Maryknoll College but couldn’t finish her master’s thesis at UP. Married life impeded onto her studies and she left her second husband, forcing her to return to work and provide for her children. But it was that connection, two university dropouts desperate for survival, which brought Lino and Hilda together—that understanding of in-betweenness, desperation, and resilience that made their love thicker than blood.
He trained her despite her youth, directing the 1971 televised drama, “The Hilda Show,” a corroborative effort during the Marcos era dedicated to cultivating Hilda’s craft. She was just 14. He promised Hilda that before she turned 18, he would make a film that showcased her talent, and the award-winning, the first Filipino film ever to enter the Cannes, was it: Insiang.
Parts of Lino’s films, like Insiang and Hello, Solider were taken from Hilda’s own life. And it was painful for me to watch them. The mothers in these two films were polarities reflecting off of each other: in Hello, Solider, the mother mirrored Hilda’s very own mother, except she was full of life and love and rage and bitterness. She let herself feel her emotions. The mother was another dalaga impregnated by an American G.I. during World War II, and the daughter was a fictitious young Hilda, hell-bent on leaving the slums, moving to the States with her American father, and erasing everything that has ever made her poor and utterly herself. I will never forget the scene when the white man and his wife stepped into the shantytown, in search of his mestiza daughter. The movie played out Hilda’s tragic life. As the neighboring kids guide the retired G.I. to his daughter’s nipa hut, a crowd grows from the heavy heat, the crowds becomes larger and larger, grabs onto the white man and his wife, and women ask them, assault them with photographs of other G.I.s who left the Philippines: “Have you seen my soldier? Look, this is my daughter. This is his daughter!” The contrasting realities in Hilda’s life and her imaginary role is like that ending scene: the mother rushing through the slums in tears, in search for her daughter, deathly afraid that she has abandoned her. In real life, Hilda’s father never returned to her. He never came back to fetch her, to offer her an American dream, an American ticket to the States. She had to fight her own way to America, and it was through countless of failed marriages, countless of cruel lovers, and it wasn’t until she married my uncle, my father’s cousin, did she find someone she could trust, marry, and let go. The mother’s words, when she finally meets her old American lover again, haunt me, and they reflect the ostensible shame that imbues Hilda’s dreams, my own nightmares, and the collective Filipino psyche: “I was so happy when you came with your tanks and guns. I trusted you. I let my own savior fool me.”
In Insiang, the mother is fierce and ruthless, her Tagalog spitfire, as if they were my own lola’s tirades. I saw every mistake and sin impressed upon the mother’s lips as she blamed her daughter, Insiang (played by Hilda) for every thing that is wrong with her life: the father’s absence, for living as a squatter in the Tondo slums, for Insiang even existing. The silences and the emotive Tagalog gripped me, reminding me of my own childhood in Los Angeles, of the expressive lines that came across my father’s crossed face or my lola’s tirades, when I couldn’t understand their angry, Tagalog tongues but knew, in my body, every ounce of rage and emotion they spoke of. Whenever the mother screamed, whenever Insiang pleaded, “Tama na, tama na,” I broke down: to me, the film was a cascading wall of sound, a remembrance of something my body knew, this brokenness of home and language.
The mother pays to sleep with a younger man, Dado, a pig butcher that owns the slums like the back of his hand. He eventually moves into their bamboo hut, and in turn, he cons Insiang’s boyfriend to stay away from her, claiming he owns both daughter and mother like a Shakespearian tragedy. He rapes Insiang late at night. Repeatedly. And the moment her boyfriend, her last chance at escaping her lot, leaves her in an abandoned Manila hotel room, Insiang shifts, becomes ruthless, just like those before her. She enacts her revenge, grabbing and twisting both Dado’s and her mother’s emotions and lusts with her bare fingers, and Lino captures that moment in focused single-shots: the mother stabbing Dado’s back, repeatedly, with a pair of scissors; Dado falling to his knees, his eyes swelling, blood dripping; and Insiang standing before them, chin lifted to the ceiling and her eyes dead and cold. It was as if this were a scene from Hitchcock’s very own Psycho, but comparably better, more bitter.
Hilda was his Kim Novak, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, and Lino was her Alfred Hitchcock, except he lusted after men. He taught her the art of seduction, from how to move her body, lift her eyebrows, smile, and allure the camera: “Lino taught me everything about acting, how to be and look seductive, through mere eye movement.”
Their relationship only grew stronger through the years, and Lino would doll up his protégé, fixing her hair, applying her make-up, and dressing her in colorful ternos made by his couturier friends whenever there was an awards ceremony. He even dressed her for her appearance at the Cannes in 1978. She remembers the red carpet like it were yesterday, but even then, when people asked her where she was from, she faced the same prejudices she experienced at UP. She answered them proudly: “The Philippines.” But they responded: “Where?” and “But your English is really good.” Years later, after Maynila screened at the Cannes, Hilda said in an interview with the Inquirer: “When Insiang went to Cannes, Lino and I secured a place in Philippine cinema history. No one can take that away from me.”
She learned to stand her ground from Lino, a regular protestor during the anti-Marcos rallies. He was her idol, her model, her father figure. When he died in a stupid, easily avoidable car accident on a humid day in 1991, his words never left her:
“Life will never put me down; I shall prove stronger than life.”
She was there to dress him in the morgue, the eve before his funeral. She couldn’t even look at him, but in her tears, in the presence of a man who loved her more than her mother or father ever did, she remembered what he taught her: life. That is was hers to live. Hers to make her own. Hers to laugh, cry, and fight for. Hers to never forget.
That strength Lino bestowed to her morphed into relentlessness and never-ending hope. With over 100 films under her belt, three awards, 11 nominations, and five children from four different partners, she raised her children single-handedly, with her own grit, resilience, and intelligence. She is as giving and as funny as Lino, reminding me that my contention between my two countries, my in-betweenness, my dalaga-ness, is just a part of life, something that makes me into me, that gives me strength, that makes me mine. That the mothers in Brocka’s two films who broke me, who reminded me of how my own mother left—with her silences and indifference—is just the fabric that has made me into an artist. She says, with gusto, taking my hand: “No matter where we are in life, no matter who we are, we work harder, better, and with every bit of passion within us. Kayang kaya natin yan. World-class talent tayo. Let’s never forget that.”
I will always remember this moment: the way my aunt holds her body, sits straight in her chair, smiling and laughing, recounting her life story to me with all its hopes, failures, silences, tears, happiness, and laughter. She looks at me with those seducing eyes Lino had taught her years ago: “You are a survivor like us, sweetheart. And you will make a difference in this world.”
Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA. She won First Place in the 2013 Glimmer Train Fiction Open and her writing has been published in Guernica, Glimmer Train Stories, PANK Magazine, 580 Split, and Kweli Journal, among others. She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on new Philippine myths, and cofounded TAYO Literary Magazine in 2009. As a Kundiman Fiction Fellow, VONA/Voices Fellow, and U.S. Navy wife, she teaches at ODU. She blogs at www.msipin.com and is currently working on a novel.