Highlighting Experiences of Second Generation Igorots in Europe

Written by Averil Pooten-Watan on .

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Highlighting Experiences of Second Generation Igorots in Europe

By Averil Pooten-Watan


I can only speak of my experience, as a second generation Igorot born in the United Kingdom (UK). I will not try to generalise my experience because I recognise we all have our own story to tell, but some second generation Igorots, particularly those born in the UK – perhaps, even Europe or internationally, outside of the Philippines could relate.

I trace my roots to the Igorots that hail from Besao and Sagada, Mountain Province. I am very proud to be Igorot.

My first recollection of being different from other Filipinos was when I was a teenager. I remember I shared very similar experience with my Filipino friends – who weren’t my cousins – in that we were Filipinos -- in London. But I also knew we were different because our parents were from different parts of the Philippines.

The first time I experienced discrimination for being Igorot was when the grandmother of a Filipino friend asked me, “From where in the Philppines are your parents from?” When I replied, “Besao and Sagada” she responded, “But where is that?” I tried to explain to her that the towns are north of Baguio. She continued with her line of enquiry, “But where is Baguio? Is that a province?” I later found, out from my friend, that her grandmother had warned my friend not to “trust” me because, according to her grandmother, I was “Igorot.”

In or around the same time, in 1995, I was very lucky to have attended the first Igorot International Consultation (IIC) that was organised by the great late, Rex Botengan, in Los Angeles, California. The first IIC was also where I was blessed to have met my future husband, also a second generation Igorot, from the United States of America (USA). Later that same year, a group of Igorots gathered in London to form Igorot UK and I became heavily active in Igorot UK’s youth chapter -- Igorot Youth UK.

Even before the formation of Igorot Youth UK, I recognise that I was involved in my Igorot culture from a very young age. I attribute the pride I have towards my Igorot culture to my parents. They were intentional and focused in raising my sister and I so that we knew our Igorot identity.

In fact, one of my earliest memories is that of a family trip we took back to the Philippines in 1988. We were just little girls at the time. I must have been seven years old and my sister three years old. As my mother’s parents lived in Baguio City and my father’s parents lived in Sagada, we had to split our holiday time between Baguio and Sagada.

The memory of travelling to Sagada was the Halsema Highway. Back in 1988 the “highway” was pretty much a gravel road, which for the majority of the road didn’t have any cement. This meant 144km didn’t take 4 and half hours, like it does now, but took double the time and more i.e., 10 hours! It wasn’t particularly the time that was so challenging, but the unrelenting dust and constant motion sickness from swaying up and down to the rhythm of the rocky road. 

Once we were in my grandparents’ houses (whether in Baguio or Sagada) we heard the sound of butchering pigs. My parents would explain the butchering of the pigs meant we would have a big party! It was only during further visits, later in my life, when I understood the significance of the rituals. That many Igorot rituals incorporated the sacrifice of animals as a way to appease Kabunyan and our ancestors. The sacrifice meant we would gain further blessings because we could share our blessings with others.

Why does my experience of knowing my Igorot culture matter? I think it matters a great deal when you are child of immigrant parents growing up in a country that your parents were not born. If you add puberty and adolescence into the mix it can be even tougher! BUT if you have an “identity” or if you “know your roots – where you came from” you can never truly go wrong. It may sound cliché, but for me it is certainly true. I can honestly say that knowing I have a link to a rich proud culture means I have a responsibility to ensure I continue representing that culture, in a positive way, in everything I do. I do this also so my children – who I know will be the third generation – can have a model to follow. So that they will move forward with pride and if they ever “lose their way”, they can always know they are loved by family and community that is vibrant in culture.

So, in summary, my experience as a second generation Igorot is one that has evolved. It has changed because I have changed.

I am no longer “the youth”. I would like to say I’m a “young adult”. I am 36 years old, just a little younger than what my parents were when they -- together with my aunts and uncles -- formed Igorot UK.

I’m an Igorot that doesn’t speak any Igorot or Filipino language. I can’t continue to put blame on the fact that we were denied the language because our parents were raising us in the UK, in the 1980s, during a racially oppressive time. When I was three years, before nursery school, I was bilingual. But when my parents were told by my English schoolteachers, “She doesn’t speak English very well. She must learn to speak English better.” Sadly, I never spoke Tagalog, Ilocano or Kankanaey again.

I’m an adult now, so I take responsibility that I haven’t pushed through learning a second language because I’ve become complacent. As I’ve become a parent I recognise I want my children to have a more meaningful connection with their culture. Although important, I want them to know not just how to beat the gongs or dance in a tapis, but I want them to be able to communicate with family members when they are in the Philippines or where ever they are.  Understanding the stories, songs, and rituals of our elders and ancestors are just as important and being multi-lingual would have made this task much easier for a second generation Igorot .

I question why Igorots or Filipinos, who form a significant part of the population in the UK don’t have any recognised language schools for our young children? My husband and I have had many discussions on this, as he has had a very similar experience being a second generation in the United States; observing that those who are second generation would have benefited if there was a concerted effort to teach the language. Instead of just following, “what the Romans do when in Rome.” We see other ethnicities have very robust after school programs for their young children. For example, British Muslims have after school programs that teach their young children Arabic so they can learn to read and recite the Quran. In California, Chinese Americans have after school programs that teach Mandarin. The Jewish people all over the world also makes a concerted effort to preserve their culture with language schooling to learn the Torah.  All are done to preserve their cultural, values, history, and identity while still integrating with the larger diverse community of cultures around them.

I recognize that learning your culture away from the Philippines takes initiative and effort from all generations from 1st, to 1.5(those born in the Philippines but brought to their respective countries at a young age) to the 2nd (Born and raised in their respective country away from the Philippines) and so forth.  I will end my discussion with a thought that I want to leave with each of you. What is your experience of being an Igorot in Europe? What legacy do you want the next generation of Igorots -- be it, second, third, fourth, to remember you for?

About the Author

Averil Pooten-Watan "Wendy" (Igorot name is “Alimayo”) is a second generation Igorot born in London, UK. Her family trace their roots to Besao and Sagada, Mountain Province.

Averil studied her law degree in the UK and postgraduate legal studies in the USA. In her "former life" she worked in the trademark department of a large Fortune 500 semi-conductor company in Silicon Valley, California. Currently, she manages the family business a residential care home.

Presently she resides in London with her husband, Mark Sapaen Watan, also a second generation Igorot from California, USA. She is the mother of two beautiful girls, Penelope “Gamosal” and Eleanor “Ayagan”.

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