Family is big in the Philippines and it’s not a cliché. Not only are the families big but the value ‘family’ is big. It’s a specific cultural condition widely understood by Filipinos. That doesn’t mean they all get along but they certainly know where everybody lives.
Carmen’s family is extensive. And her extended family is even more extensive. Families in the Philippines are somewhat bigger than Canadian families, but that’s not the significant factor. Most Canadians barely know who their first cousins are, maybe haven’t even met some aunts or uncles. But in Philippines they know all their aunts and uncles, on both sides, and all their cousins, and second cousins, and third and fourth cousins as well, some of them once or twice removed.
I had a hell of a time trying to sort all these connections and intertwinings when I first came to Philippines to ‘meet the family’ but soon gave up in frustration; I’d just have to leave it to osmosis. Carmen has no real interest in genealogy; to her it’s just family and who is derived from whom is not of much interest to her; or maybe it is of interest it’s just she gets annoyed at all my questions when she can’t quite explain all the connections. One of her cousins, (second or third I think), the very helpful Noël, tried to produce a genealogy chart for me one time but he ran out of paper in his little notebook, and as well he didn’t know the Balibalita side of the family as well as the Espino side, his mother’s side. Apparently his mother has done a genealogy chart and I hope to interview her one day, but even so, there are many parts of Carmen’s family she would not know much about. And besides it would take a massive spread sheet to capture it all. I’m interested as an intellectual exercise but there are limits. And I doubt my readers’ limits extend that far. So I will spare you the genealogy table here. But let’s do a general accounting, shall we? just to give you some reference point for the names I had mentioned in this story. It also may help you to appreciate how overwhelming it has been for me to keep track of who’s who in the zoo; this may even be more complicated because all of them have more than one name and title. Rather like a Russian novel.
The story of Carmen’s family is probably the story of every family in the Philippines, even the wealthy ones, or maybe especially the wealthy ones, family and politics so intertwined in this country. The Espino clan begins in Santa Rita Samarwith General Balbino Espino at the turn of the last century. Well of course the Espinos didn’t begin in Samar; it’s an old Spanish name and the name had been in the Philippines long before General Espino began adding to their number. No one seems to know much back beyond the General, if that. He had twelve sons, so already you know there are going to be a lot of cousins. Many of those sons dispersed to other parts of Philippines, many to pursue political careers – they couldn’t all be mayor of Santa Rita – but Carmen’s grandfather, Basilio, stayed. Basilio had two sons, Segundino, Carmen’s father, and Gaudincio Sr., who was mayor of Santa Rita, and four daughters, one of whom, Alita, is cousin Noël’s mother. Segundino married Gregoria Balibalita of Santa Rita, Anibongan barangay.
Gregoria had had six children with Secundino until he died in 1962, leaving her a widow but a decent military pension. Carmen was one of five girls, the only son, Arsenio, was number four in the chain, Carmen was fifth and the baby, Mila, was born with nucal chord resulting in her having mental disabilities for her 42 years. When her brother and younger sister died Carmen became the youngest, but she had already been marked as a beauty, and everyone assumed her life was set, perhaps as a movie star. Despite her looks and Spanish aristocratic air, she had few dates. Her grandmother was very strict and Carmen was always chaperoned; in Santa Rita, her uncle, the mayor, scared off all the boys.
Carmen’s grandmother, Segundino’s mother, Vita, was a business woman after her husband, General Basilio had died in WWII; she lived in Manila and greatly influenced Carmen’s life as Carmen lived with Vita most school recesses from the age of five. She would travel by boat from Tacloban to Manila, a two day journey. There was no other public transport and the road was barely passable in the 1960s. The Espinos may have been a prominent family in Santa Rita Samar but it was wealthy Vita who gave Carmen the taste of the big city, and the chance to learn Tagalog, the official language of The Philippines.
Carmen’s life took a major turn, not as dancer but as the wife of a wealthy industrialist in Manila. But as a wealthy wife she had certain advantages – jewelry and servants, she learned how to speak English and dance the waltz and swing, hold a knife and fork in fancy restaurants. This arranged and loveless marriage produced five children: Julio, who lives now in Laguna as a fish merchant, has had two wives and two daughters that we know of; Ronnie lives in Manila and has one child but Carmen has not seen this family for many years, confirming that Filipino families have their discords too; GR (named after his father), lives in Trece Martires with his wife Mylene and son Luis; daughter Celca also lives Trece a few blocks away, just down the street from Carmen’s house in Capital Hills, with her two kids, Andrea and Charles, and Denise, husband Rickie’s daughter from an earlier relationship; and finally Olice and her two kids, Jasmine and Raine, who live with Celca when Olice is not in Manila with her husband.
Why Trece Martires you might be wondering? Carmen left her marriage and escaped Manila to Trece to be protected by her eldest sister who had already moved there decades prior. Carmen’s husband died two years later but Carmen had already ceased all contact with that family.
Got it? But wait, there’s more, much more. Two of Carmen’s older sisters, ate Lita and ate Herminia, stayed in Anibongan, Santa Rita Samar, and together have six kids. And they have kids. I met many of them on my trips to Samar. But I also met people from Tito Gaudincio’s side of the family and by now my program had completely lost its way. There are many other cousins on the Balibalita side but Carmen is not close with them, even though many of them live in Anibongan too, putting the lie to the myth of the close-knit Filipino family, I suppose.
Carmen’s eldest sister, by 14 years, married Rogilio Blanco and moved to Manila and later to Tres Martires in Cavite Province, south of Manila. Trefila had seven children – four girls and three sons – and you’ve heard some of these names before: Victoria, the eldest, who encouraged Carmen to meet me in Manila; Genevieve, now of Japan, Carmen’s favourite pamangkin who as a child spent many terms living with Carmen in Manila, a case of history repeating itself; June, who is father to young Kaycee; Miehl (called Mildred) lives at home with Trefila, caring for her aging parents, another Filipino cliché; Sandy, a teacher in Imos; Eric, a seaman on an oil tanker and his wife Angel and two kids; and Czarina, the youngest who is a nightclub singer in Hong Kong. All these offspring send money home to support the parents. Whew.
I have only two other characters to tell you about, even though there are many more I know of but can’t keep straight. Ammy is Carmen’s widowed sister-in-law from brother Arsenio, who sought Carmen’s protection in Trece when Arsenio died. Carmen could barely support her own young family but that is what Filipino families do. To this day Ammy is devoted to Carmen. And last there is Belinda, whose husband recently died of stroke at age 45, and whose funeral I recounted in an article in The Tagaytay Tribune. Belinda is a more distant family member from Santa Rita, Mayor Manodini’s niece, but became another of Carmen’s favourite pamangkins, living with Tita Carmen in Manila just as Genevieve did.
I tell you all this as it is almost certainly typical of Filipino families, and so different from families in Canada, or at least most of the ones I know. I am the eldest of three boys, but I’ve only seen my youngest brother twice in the last 40 years, at our father’s and mother’s funerals. My mother was from a family of five children, but a stranger family I don’t know; she was the only daughter and middle child of five, and unloved by her own mother, farmed off to a family friend for much of her life. I knew her as Auntie Freda, but she wasn’t my aunt. Mom had two older brothers, being 12 and 10 years older than her, and two younger brothers, the youngest being ten years younger still. The five siblings produced only ten children but I only know three cousins from all that. My father had four siblings and a number of nieces and nephews and while I knew some of those cousins as a youngster I have no idea where they all are now. Carmen, by contrast, has cousins in Australia, Chicago, London and Paris and she keeps in regular contact with them.
So now you can see how and why meeting Carmen’s family was a little overwhelming for me. Maybe it would have been for you too.
One of my intended future projects is to tell the story of Carmen’s amazing life, common, typical of many Filipina, yet unique, heroic. That’s the place to build a more complete picture of all the relevant family members.
Samar is a substantial but rural island in the Vasayas sector of the Philippines, a set of about a dozen substantial islands of which Cebu is the major centre, but a long way from backward Samar. Santa Rita is a tiny village on the shore of San Jaunico Straight which separates Leyte from Samar.
I used to become irritated with Carmen for not knowing much about her grandfather, Basilio, and her great grandfather Balbino, but after all she was only six when her father died and she never knew her grandfather. I began to relent when I realized I never knew my own grandfather Jordan and knew nothing of great grandfather Jordan.
There are at least 24 major and distinct languages in Philippines. Tagalog became the ‘national’ language because it was the predominant language in the area around Manila. Waray is the language of Samar and Leyte; Cebuanese is the language of Cebu. Ilongo comes mostly from Negros Occidental. There are still deep Spanish roots in the Philippines language especially names, place names, and numbers. English took hold with the American occupation and is still the most prominent second language, taught in schools from Grade 1.