JANUARY 1, 1924, shortly after the stroke of midnight, was when Luzviminda Cruces was born into this earth in barrio Bunot in a town named Daraga, Albay. She was the last of 10 children. Because of some illnesses during pregnancy, her mother thought Luzviminda would never be born alive or would live for only a few minutes outside the womb.
The old year had just ended, and to welcome the new, a bamboo cannon was being fired by the children of the next house, some twenty meters away. There were also occasional explosions at the end of the road. The ringing of church bells could be heard from the distance.
Virgilio, Luzviminda’s father, was listening to the bamboo cannon exploding. He had helped the children make the bamboo cannon. He was the barrio’s expert. He knew the right size and maturity of the bamboo that should be used to produce the desired loudness and timbre. He could make the hallowed-out bamboo cannon explode and send fodder of small, empty coconut shells flying twenty meters away. He could fashion many things out of bamboo and coconuts and he always shared his creations and inventions.
The explosions of the cannon were in cadence with Visitacion’s birth spasms. Puff, puff, puff, puff, puff. A young lad was blowing into the hole on the bamboo that was lying horizontally at an angle. Inside the bamboo cannon was kerosene slowly being heated by a small fire underneath.
The lad was holding a bamboo stick moistened with kerosene. He set it aflame then, puff, puff, puff…He stuck the lighted end of the stick into the hole where the kerosene was slowly heating up. The bamboo cannon jerked and let out a loud explosion. The coconut shells flew far into the trees. The chickens cackled and the pigs grunted. The adults screamed and laughed as the young lad felt his heated brow and singed hair.
Mariana, the village midwife who attended to Visitacion’s difficult pregnancy and delivery, knew the baby would survive. Mariana thought it would be a boy, but after pulling out the feet of the baby who was in a breech position, her heart quickened. “A girl, a girl!” Mariana exclaimed even before the baby’s head was fully out of the birth canal.
Visitacion heaved and let out a long primal groan then slumped, sweat and all, in the arms of her eldest daughter Virginia who, at seventeen, had her share of wooers. She was herself bathed in perspiration.
“This is the last,” Visitacion loudly gasped, hoping her husband Virgilio, who was seated under the coconut tree beside the house, would hear and heed. He did hear what his wife said, and rubbed his face with his big right palm, up and down, up and down, to make sure he was awake.
He ran up the bamboo steps and peeked into the tiny room. The women were busy fixing up Visitacion, rubbing her, reviving her. The baby was being cleaned, and everyone was fussing over the umbilical cord that was cut and to be buried along with the afterbirth. The smoke from burning firewood outside was filling the house and the midwife commanded Virginia to douse the fire and put the remaining boiled water in a clean jar.
“And what will we name her?” Visitacion asked faintly, knowing that her husband was near the door.
“Luzviminda,” Virgilio said shyly while the assisting women smiled.
“What a long name,” Visitacion grunted, as she drifted off to sleep. The women were putting the baby close to her swollen breast to make her suckle and drink the first drops of milk. The baby kicked and yawned and bit at her mother’s dark nipple.
“I like it because it’s about our country,” Virgilio answered, wondering if this was the time to explain. Except for the eldest, the rest of the children had been given short baptismal names for the simple reason that Virgilio did not want them to have a hard time in school learning to write their names like he and their eldest daughter did.
Virginia, Fe, Rosa, Ana, Lucas, Jose, Mario, Rey, Virgil. Virgilio thought the eldest and the ninth with names starting with V like his and Visitacion’s would form a bracket that would peg the number of their children at nine. Virgilio had heard of Lucky 9.
Then came this tenth baby Luzviminda, still with a V somewhere in her name, Virgilio mused. She came after five boys, he suddenly realized.
In his last year in school, which was Grade 5, Virgilio had learned about the Philippines’ three main island groups—Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. As a young man he had always thought of naming a daughter after these islands. He thought of the variations of the name that parents used for their children—Luvisminda, Luzvisminda, Luviminda, Luvimin, Luvinda, Luzviminda.
For the latest and, he hoped, the last addition, he chose Luzviminda. He wanted her to have the short nickname Luz, Spanish for light, someone had told him. Oh, she will learn to proudly write her long name, Virgilio thought. The ten letters in it, V included, and with a fancy L. She will be light to our simple coconut farmers’ life, a light, too, to others, he hoped.
Vising secretly preferred the name Mayona, after the Mayon Volcano that dominated the fertile landscape but, Vising conceded, Luzviminda her name will be.
Dawn was breaking when Virgilio woke up to the baby’s cry. He had fallen asleep on a mat outside the room where Visitacion gave birth. He crawled and took a look inside. He couldn’t see the mother and the baby because of the mosquito net over them.
“Are you there, Virgilio?” his wife asked. “Take a look, take a look.”
“Yes, Vising,” Virgilio answered. He raised the hem of the mosquito net and looked at the newborn. He has always been afraid of touching newborns.
“Had she been born a week earlier, on Christmas Day,” Virgilio said, “we would have named her Jesusa.”
Virgilio left the room, took out his bolo from its scabbard and went to the cold outside. He walked to the backyard where he had gathered about a dozen mature coconuts. Some were starting to sprout stalks. He stabbed a few nuts with the bolo’s sharp end and shook them to assess their weight and fullness.
He chose four big ones and husked them. He bounced each husked coconut in his hand like he would a ball then cracked them open with a sudden strike of the dull end of the bolo. The water gushed out like a spring.
Virgilio had a way of striking the round husked coconut while holding it in his left hand so that it broke into symmetrical parts with even edges, halves that could later be fashioned into water dippers, soup bowls and molds for raw sugar.
One of the coconuts he just broke had a delicious bulbous thing inside, a sign of its maturing. Virgilio took it out and was about to put it in his mouth when four-year-old Virgil, the ninth child, approached and grabbed it from his father’s hand. The boy ran and ate it.
Virgilio sat on the kudkuran to grind out the coconut meat from its shell. As the meat fell in shreds, Virgilio remembered the times he did this chore when he was a boy and cut his finger with the serrated blade of the kudkuran. There was a way to hold the shell against the iron serration, there was a way to scrape the coconut meat so that the shell did not get scraped. Gentleness and firmness, he remembered always.
For Virgilio, newly-shredded coconut at its whitest, juiciest was always a sight to behold. Irresistible, luscious and life-giving, like a woman’s breast.
“Tell your father where to find the panotsa,” Visitacion told Virginia. “It is among the pots and pans. The sticky rice is there, too.”
Virginia found the items and gave them to her father. The panotsa, two half globes of raw sugar molded in coconut shell halves would be enough for suman for a family of 10.
Virginia and her siblings loved to watch how panotsa was made from newly-harvested sugar cane. A carabao on a leash would set into motion a grinder at the center. The animal walked around at a radius and by the time all the cane juice had been squeezed, the beast would have logged a number of miles.
The sugar-cane juice was then boiled until it was heavy and brown, ready to be molded in coconut shells. This was best done when the moon was full, when the barrio’s young lads and maidens came together to dip sliced bananas and starchy roots in the boiling cauldron and eyed one another with delight while they ate.
The next-door neighbors were now making their own coconut dishes and the women who assisted at childbirth knew that sometime during the day they must bring something for two families with new babies. Earlier, at the other end of the dirt road, a baby boy was also born. Mariana, the same midwife who delivered Visitacion’s baby girl, also assisted in his birth.
Virgilio left the women to themselves. He knew this was their moment. Surrounded by his nine children, he began to make the suman. This was for Visitacion. This was also for their last born, Luz, Luzviminda Cruces. It was the first day of the year, the first day of her life.
SHE REMEMBERED THOSE golden mornings when she would come out to the yard and into the clearing, gather her worn-out tapis in front of her and fill it with grain. Oh, the joy of it all, she would say to herself as she listened to the happy cackle of hens and the flutter of wings.
Luz loved how it felt, standing there, calling out to the beasts and fowls and seeing them come running at her feet, so many of them in different colors. She remembered those feathery silhouettes roosting against the deep colors of the sky when the sun went down. She still heard in her mind the long-ago sound of crickets that was her music at eventide.
She was young then, starting over in a faraway land that seemed to brim and run over with hope and never-ending bounty. That place, she thought, was her little paradise.
The place was Mindanao, the year, 1954 when Lanao province was neither Sur nor Norte. Luzviminda Cruces Dimagiba and her brood were among the first 400 poor families from all over the Philippines that boarded ships and arrived in Wa-ay, Lanao province in Mindanao, under the program for settlers of President Ramon Magsaysay. Mindanao was vaunted as The Land of Promise and indeed it was, until men, clever and scheming—ranchers, loggers, miners—came to rob it of its secrets.
But how could she and her husband Francisco Dimagiba have known what lay ahead? They had married young, they were both eighteen going on nineteen, of exactly the same age, in fact, having been born a few hours apart in the same village. Theirs was young love in time of war.
When families from their village fled to the mountains to escape the attacking Japanese in 1942, Luz and Francisco, nicknamed Ikong, began to know each other as grown-ups—as if for the first time—in a mountainous setting, in the foothills of Mayon Volcano. The war had made them reluctant adults. But war or no war, they knew, and everybody knew, that they were drawn to each other.
On moonlit nights, Ikong and his friends would serenade Luz with love songs. She would come out of her family’s makeshift hut and join them while her parents and older siblings peeped through the holes. The evacuees found the singing very enjoyable, it made them forget that war was being fought. How they wished the courtship would last the entire duration of the war.
One day, a priest, himself an evacuee, happened by and the wedding happened. At sunrise, in a forest clearing, Luz and Ikong, standing on fertile volcano soil, pronounced their vows and became wife and husband.
All that Luz could remember of the priest’s words were his reference to the Mayon and how it should remind them always of God’s majesty and redeeming love.
To make a long story short, when the war was over, Luz and Ikong lived happily every now and then, here and there, ever in search for their place in the sun. Both impetuous and daring, they decided to leave their village and traveled to Manila where none of their next of kin had been.
To make a long story shorter still, they found themselves among the teeming thousands of urban poor dwellers in search of the Promised Land. And so they sailed away to a land they knew little of. A land where many kinds of people spoke in many tongues, wore clothes they had not seen before, and worshipped God in ways unfamiliar to them. Luz, Ikong and their children lived contented lives while rations came every now and then, and while the promise of land—land to own and turn into farms—was there to hope for.
A little more than a decade after discovering what they thought was their Mindanao paradise, Luz, Ikong, and their brood of four, were back in a forest of shanties in Tondo in Manila, back where they had begun as a family after the war. They had lived in this ever-changing place after the war, their first stop after leaving the village of their birth. That was before skyscrapers rose near the breakwater and before towering structures obstructed the view of the sea.
Back from their Mindanao adventure at the age of 40, Luz and Ikong became Everysquatter, with their dream of a home and a better life still eluding them. Poverty and broken promises have tossed them here and there, up and down as in a storm at sea, like jetsam on their native shore.
How ill-prepared Luz was for life’s quakes and their aftershocks. She simply weathered them as they came, learning as she went on, gathering her family to lecture them about her new insights until they cringed, but she kept on, knowing, as if knowing, as if so assured they—the Dimagibas, with the indestructible meaning of the name—would all prevail one day. Just as a visiting missionary priest who had come to baptize the un-baptized and marry the unmarried had said in a sermon long ago in Mindanao, about the poor being blessed and inheriting the earth someday, and heaven, too.
Luz hung on to those words even though she did not know where those assurances had come from. Did Hesukristo really say those things? she wondered. But Luz believed. And she kept pestering her husband Ikong to believe.
Husband and wife took on odd jobs—laundering clothes, selling cigarettes on sidewalks, watching and washing cars. Once in a while, Ikong would go to Pier Dos to do some portering when the passenger ships docked. He would hope to see some people he had met in Mindanao come down from the ship.
One day Luz accepted a job as a live-in maid and nanny in Chinatown but she lasted for only a week. She could not bear being away from her children and husband while she took care of the children of other people. Luckily, her employers accepted the reason she gave for leaving—that her coughing might be the beginning of tuberculosis. “God forgive me for telling a lie,” she told her husband.
Life should get better, Luz thought. And it would. But first it had to get worse. After a series of odd jobs, the children’s bouts with illnesses and the family’s experience of hunger they had never known before, the couple managed to save up for fare that would enable them—with four young children in tow—to take the train home. Home to the families they had left behind. Home to the place where Luz and Ikong were born, to find the place they both once knew so well, and for Luz to claim her small share of a piece of land where coconuts grew.
WHAT IS THAT!” Luz screamed. She heard the thud. It was eerie, solid, like the sound of a sack of rice falling from a truck and onto the ground. Never before had a sound shaken her to the core. It was like muffled thunder. It was alive.
Luz jumped out of the house and found Ikong, sprawled on the ground, lying on his back, down from the tree. The small scythe that he used to trim the coconut blossoms had flown out of its wooden casing and missed his belly by a meter. The newly-gathered tuba spilled on his body and on the ground. The bamboo tuba container that he hooked over his shoulder every day did not break. It landed on a mound of ants beside him and soon the stunned insects were all over him, getting soused on the sweetish morning coconut wine.
Luz thought Ikong was dead. But before she could scream to the neighbors for help, Ikong stirred. “I slipped on my way down,” he muttered then rolled up his pupils until only the white of his eyes were staring at Luz. “Tabang! Tabangi kami!” Luz shouted for help.
Several neighbors came. Gorio, also a mangguguti who learned tuba gathering from Ikong, rushed to the scene, not knowing what it was all about. He thought Ikong and Luz were having a fight but when he saw his friend with his pupils gone, he sobbed the sob of the bereaved.
“I am alive,” Ikong grunted, “help me up, my foot is painful.” Luz watched as three men and two women lifted Ikong so he could sit, his legs spread wide. The gash on his foot started to bleed.
“I told you to always have the belt around you and the coconut trunk,” Luz scolded. “If you slip or miss a groove, at least you go straight down slowly and don’t get thrown off that way! Did you hear me, Francisco?” She was gesticulating, demonstrating how a safety belt, even if it was just a piece of rope, could save a life.
“No self-respecting mangguguti or para-tuba would climb a coconut with a belt,” Ikong retorted. “Had I worn a belt I could have fallen straight down but with a lot of scratches on my knees and thighs.”
He’s alive, Luz thought, indeed, Ikong is alive.
By midday, Ikong was in their bamboo-nipa house, sipping Gorio’s morning tuba that had begun to ferment somewhat, something mellow men like Ikong relished at that time of day. He never liked tuba with too much alcohol, the kind drunken men of the village preferred on late nights when the crusty sound system blared Elvis Presley songs and Ruben Tagalog ballads and every one was raring to dance.
Gorio had learned how to put into the tuba just enough crushed tree bark that gave it a tangy flavor and the reddish color that resembled the earth. Ikong was pleased. A few coconut trees in his little coconut patch were dedicated to tuba production. These chosen trees flowered but the flowers were cut for their juices before they could spread out and become fruits. They yielded just enough tuba for the neighbors’ daily dose and for vinegar to be sold. The rest of the trees were grown mainly for their fruits that were turned into copra that middlemen came for regularly. The family could live simply on the coconut trees’ blessings.
The village hilot came to check Ikong’s bones. He spat on Ikong’s swollen left foot, rubbed it with warm coconut oil and wrapped it with steamed young banana leaves. The children—Amanda, Jose, Manila, and Ryan—arrived from school by mid-afternoon to find their father leaning on the bamboo doorway, chewing betel nut, tobacco, lime and ikmo leaves, spitting out the red juices with a force and trajectory that hit an ant mound with precision.
“My children,” he mused aloud to Gorio who dropped by to check on him, “our children. They will have a better life than their elders. Amanda, my eldest, will soon go away to study and I miss her already. I want her to become a teacher. She once asked me why farmers who produced food remained poor. My answer was, perhaps it is God’s will. She did not agree, so I told her, maybe your schooling will provide you with answers. God has blessed Luz and me with good children and the best coconuts.”
The best coconut flowers that bleed out tuba, the best fruits for their meat, milk, and oil, the best palms for Palm Sunday, he added. “Ah, and the scent of coconuts on a young maiden’s hair.” Ikong continued to enumerate all the other uses of the coconut tree and its secrets. Gorio listened to Ikong’s meditations without saying a word.
It was still early in the day, but Ikong began humming Sarong Banggi, the nocturnal song he used to sing when he serenaded Luz on wooing nights in the mountains during the war, the song they sang as children in this place where both of them were born and raised. He had often dreamed of the old barrio Bunot of his birth, the place he called the land of a million coconuts.
“You don’t know what a million looks like,” his playmates used to tease him.
“Oh, but doesn’t it sound nice?” Ikong would answer. It was music to his own ears. He loved this land.
This land where Luz and he and the children have come home to for good. Barrio Bunot where he learned to climb the tallest coconut trees, where he learned to pick which nuts for a cool drink and which ones were heavy with milk for a Sunday feast of pinangat of gabi leaves that heaved with pork rind, shrimp paste, and the reddest chili pepper.
Luz knew how to make the best. Luz and Ikong had taught each other how to cook many varieties to suit the many tastes of many people in different climes and places where they had been. And now Luz was cooking the dish for him. It was oozing with the milk of coconuts.
Luz and Ikong’s easy-to-follow gabi pinangat (Laing)
Air-dried, hand-shredded gabi leaves and peeled stalks (from 2 big bunches)
Coconut milk from 2 to 3 coconuts
1 large onion, diced
1 thumb-size crushed ginger or a stalk of lemon grass (tanglad)
4 to 5 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 red hot chili pepper (could be added separately)
1 spoonful of bagoong (instead of salt)
1 medium-sized dried fish, or a cup of pork rind or belly, cubed
Squeeze out the thick milk from the grated coconut. Set aside. Add a cup or two of water to the pulp and again squeeze out the milk. Set aside in a different container.
Into the coconut milk from the second squeeze, add all the ingredients (except the gabi stalks and leaves) and bring to a simmer in a kawali. When the coconut milk becomes thick, stir, then add the gabi stalks and, after a while, leaves. Cover. When the gabi has wilted, mix carefully so that the dried fish would not crumble. Simmer and let the water evaporate so that the dish would not be soupy. Add the thick coconut milk from the first squeeze. Add more chili and bagoong according to your taste.
Luz and Ikong’s cooking tip: It is how you choose and prepare the ingredients, how and when you mix and blend the flavors, how you adjust the fire while the dish is cooking that would make the tasty difference. And it takes a number of tries to get the desired result.