Immigrants from the past

Next to his family, the only other possessions that Eddie Tiongson could think of saving from the rampaging lahar that buried his house and restaurant in 1995 were the family photos.   Not the cars, not their clothes, nor the jewelry – but only the albums.  “You can always buy the other things,” he said,  “but not the memories.  You cannot go back into the past and take the same pictures.”

I could empathize with this sentimental scale of priorities.  For I remember very distinctly what my own father, wasted by illness, had preoccupied himself with the year before he died.  He gathered all the family photographs that had lain unfiled in every drawer around the house.  And like an assiduous archaeologist, he meticulously classified these according to person, year, and occasion.

He typed out a brief description of every picture, locating the precise position in those faded photos of the family member concerned. Naturally, he did not always have the information he needed at his fingertips.  He had to ask.  He had thirteen children, and each one of us had a class photo for every year we spent in grade and high school. Often he would not be content with identifying which one of us was in a given picture; he would also insist in knowing who our classmates were and what had happened to them since graduation.

He was a lawyer, obsessed with evidence.  He surveyed each picture like a clue to an entire event and to a whole constellation of relationships.  In his active lifetime, he had become too busy at work to concern himself with the everyday life of the family.  By  putting together the family albums, he tried to catch up with the lives of his children before it was too late.  It was a pilgrimage that he thought he needed to undertake, perhaps a kind of closure.

We are all, in a sense, “immigrants from the past.”  Sometimes we can revisit this landscape by going back to the villages of our childhood.  There, in the faces of young children in the old village, we may often be rewarded by a flash of recognition of our own selves in our youth.   They could be our contemporaries, preserved by time for the enjoyment of a returning immigrant.

However, in a land not of just virtual but of real immigrants, this landscape may no longer be available to most of us.  Entire families have resettled elsewhere.  Whole communities have been buried by lahar in Pampanga, or – in most parts of the country – irretrievably transformed by OCW money and by uneven urbanization.

But nothing is forever lost; we can always rely on the old photographs as tools of postmemory.  This is exactly what the Geronimo B. de los Reyes Jr. collection of 3000 rare photos does for the whole Filipino nation.  This unique museum in General Trias, Cavite has lovingly put together, as it were, an album for our young nation.  What my late father did for my family, Mr. De los Reyes has done for the  country.

The interest in old photographs has also caused excitement in the academic world.  A title from the Harvard University Press 1997 list says it all: “Family Frames – Narrative Photography and Postmemory.” It’s all about the way families look at themselves through photography.

It is interesting that as globalization shrinks and homogenizes the world, we see everywhere a frantic effort to recover what is unique in each of us as persons, as families, as cultures, and as nations. This effort often entails not only an attempt to form coherent narratives of our lives, but also to redescribe these lives autonomously, which is to say, to free them from the chains of past descriptions.

A photograph tells more than just a story.  It also tells us what was thought important to photograph.  The camera that took those pictures of early Filipinos in the GBR Museum in Cavite was not an unbiased eye; it was a colonial eye.   A fascinating book written by the young scholar Benito Vergara and published by the UP Press precisely deconstructs such historical photos and brings out their subtle colonial messages. Unfortunately, our ancestors did not own cameras at that time.  So we do not know what photos they would have taken to indicate what was important in their lives.

But, even so, we know it is possible to look beyond the pictures.  As I open each one of my father’s family albums, I suddenly realize how particularly dominant the theme of education has been in our lives. More than half of the pictures my family thought important enough to keep were class pictures, graduation photos, snapshots of declamation and oratorical poses, and of school folk dances.

We did not keep pictures of illness or of funerals.  The first funeral recorded in my family was that of my own father’s.  The pictures from this milestone formed one more album in the family’s photo collection. For, that too was a closure.  But it wasn’t to be the last album.  In the last 16 years after my father’s death, my mother has continued to accumulate more albums.  This time, they are mostly of her grandchildren here and abroad – of their birth, their baptism, their first communion, and their graduation.

When our ancestral home in Betis was threatened by lahar, my mother came to Manila, leaving everything behind – except the family photos.   Like Eddie Tiongson, she knew what was irreplaceable.


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