I grew up in a time that seems so long ago, when memories were captured on film and sent off in canisters to be developed and printed. The final product was frozen in time between pages of cardboard and flimsy sheets of transparent plastic. My generation called this the photo album.
While I say all this with levity, I’m truly grateful to have a tangible binder of memories to occasionally lift from the shelf and rifle through whenever there’s an urge to feel sentimental. Nothing beats the multisensory experience of an actual photo in hand, freed from the pixelated grip of a computer monitor. But these days, my photographic memories are blurred, my album having gone through years of reorganizing to the point that any chronological story that existed has been lost.
As I look at it now, my photographs are an assemblage of memories of my early life growing up in both the Philippines and in different parts of the United States. My mom, an immigrant to the United States, largely raised me single-handedly and worked tirelessly as a nurse. Because of her, I have these snapshots of a full childhood. From the Bay Area to the Pacific Northwest, even the American South, my mother and I made memories and the most of what little we had. And yet these photos tell my story only so far. Newer entries abruptly stopped when the world entered the digital age of social media that sounded the death knell of the physical photo album.
Nonetheless, the album has remained a fixture throughout my life. I pack it with care whenever I move. Although once I settle in, it quietly slips into the backdrop easily enough to be forgotten. In hindsight, if I were to ever lose it, a huge chunk of my early life would vanish. There are no negatives to develop. Every tear or crease each photo has weathered confirms they too are only here for a moment. Beyond family stories and fragmented memories of childhood, sometimes conjured up by the aroma of certain Filipino foods, these photos are among the few tangible means I have to recall my early life in my mother’s homeland, the Philippines.
Recollecting that time takes a bit of digging. Infrequently there is a clue scribbled on the back of the photo, a snippet of information. I scan the image with my eyes and wonder aloud, who is this person beside me? Something unexpected sometimes jogs my memory. My eyes are drawn to an object in the background that the photographer likely thought nothing of in the moment of taking the shot. Suddenly, something out of focus or barely in the frame takes center stage, an object strange yet familiar to me. Yes—that floral artwork made of coconut shells, wooden carving of a man hunting, or image of a lady balancing a votive candle on her head are all things I’ve seen throughout my life both in the Philippines and the United States.
I have gradually come to realize these objects have been with me throughout the decades, at my mother’s home and those of her Filipina friends. Such objects can be found hanging on the walls, inconspicuously greeting visitors. Perhaps I was too preoccupied by the Christmas party spread of Filipino foods and nonstop karaoke to think much about them.
These objects have also popped up unannounced in my everyday life. I have stumbled upon similar objects while partaking in a favorite pastime: thrifting and antiquing. Only later in life did I learn a word to broadly describe such objects that sometimes bore the sticker “Made in Philippines”—Filipiniana.
Early Days of Collecting
While living in the American South, I had a limited connection to my heritage. For quite some time, I even felt shame. My ethnicity set me apart from others, leading to unfortunate episodes of bullying, name-calling, and racism from both peers and adults.
I can’t pinpoint when, but gradually I found myself no longer running from my heritage, but totally embracing this part of me. Perhaps it was those phone calls with my grandfather, Lolo, who often shared warm stories of life back in the Philippines. Perhaps it was those courageous feats of resilience he enacted in WWII while serving the U.S. in the Philippines that put everything into perspective. Maybe it was something as simple as Filipino food itself that gave me such comfort and feelings of belonging. No matter if I was simply eating at home or with my mom’s Filipino co-workers, sharing savory dishes potluck-style, I felt I belonged. Filipino food was even resilient enough to withstand the occasional jeers and taunts of classmates at the cafeteria lunch table.
Filipiniana became a profound means for bonding with my heritage. I remember talking on the phone with aunties, my titas back in the Philippines, asking them to send me something Filipino. One of the first things I received was a bag of old Philippine coins that was found under a house. How ironic! I knew my mom often sent money back home to help relatives. Now, these Philippine coins were helping me to further my sense of belonging. And while some were engraved in the Filipino language, others were from the U.S. occupation of the Philippines stamped with the all-too-familiar words, “United States of America,” and a bald eagle perched above a crest.
This was one of my earliest brushes with the legacy of colonialism, an eleven-letter word that has often served to impede and obscure my journey to find and understand my Filipino heritage. Moreover, such products of the colonial encounter have been recycled and incorporated into the material cultures of some Indigenous peoples of the Philippines, showing the layers of complexity in relation to trade, cultural exchange, and agency.
Lolo’s Lessons through Filipiniana
In my early childhood, I connected with my lolo during birthday calls or on cross-country family trips to his home. I remember the daily routine fondly. Watching The Price Is Right, followed by soap operas and then naptime, but the most memorable times together were spent eating seemingly endless amounts of food like warm pandesal bread lathered with butter, coupled with a hot beverage. I also remember the large and ominous statue of Santo Nino de Cebu, decked out in ornate regalia, peering down on me with his curly locks and piercing expression.
When I helped Lolo move to our home in the South, he kept with him few possessions. The first things I unpacked were related to his Catholic faith. I remember carefully unraveling statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus who he had wrapped with strips of cloth, rosaries, and medallions of Pope John Paul II. He also brought miniature statues of the Santo Nino de Cebu. Observing my keen interest in these tiny figurines, he happily gave them to me along with a couple antique barongs, Filipino formal men’s attire. I felt I had inherited a great fortune and was another step closer to connecting with my Filipino identity.
A box full of documents shed equal light on what life was like for him in the Philippines: his old college transcripts and picturesque postcards featuring scenic views. Joining the coins, these keepsakes from my lolo were the start of a growing collection of Filipiniana, touchstones along a journey to bring me closer to my roots, a journey that I have come to find is actually lifelong.
Clues in the Photos
My family photos served as inspiration in my collecting as I worked to identify the cultural significance of the objects I saw. I also sought to learn about Filipiniana that didn’t make a cameo in my photo album. At first what I uncovered felt small and random, like facts about our native sport sipa and the children’s game sungka. I would ask my family questions behind cultural traditions we practiced during the new year and other holidays. I read books on topics from local industries to ethnic folk dancing. I proactively asked to study the Philippines for school assignments or reports when possible.
I came to appreciate how diverse my mother’s homeland is—a nation of many ethnic groups, languages, and religions. Eventually, I felt confident enough to identify material culture from different parts of the Philippines. I also came face to face with complex histories brought on by colonial encounters as well as struggles Filipinos have faced since independence.
I began to curate exhibits in the communities I lived in, and the Filipiniana I collected helped me bring to light some difficult topics. Through this work, I also sought to bring greater awareness and advocacy for the Filipino American experience.
Today, 4 million people of Filipino ancestry live across the United States. Our history on this continent goes back to the late 1500s, yet many in our community share feelings of invisibility for reasons too complex to explain concisely; however, a large part is arguably due to a history of underrepresentation in the educational system and popular media and the fact that Filipino spaces are few and far between.
So, where does that leave young Filipino Americans like myself who want to know our history? For me, this became a personal journey through memories, stories, collecting, and engaging in full-fledged research and studies abroad.
Healing through Object Storytelling
Object storytelling is a process and practice that has been healing for me. It has been a means for transcending past traumas of bullying, racism, and even domestic violence I experienced as a child by a male parental figure who found fault in me for not living up to his expectations of masculinity. It has helped me to take agency over my own life.
In adulthood, I set out on my own, living in and out of homeless shelters while struggling to work and attend community college. I put faith in the notion that education would bring a brighter future, words both my grandfather and mother instilled upon me in my youth. I graduated magna cum laude and was offered a scholarship to a four-year university. This began my transition from homelessness to dormitory living with a full meal plan and a greater semblance of stability.
My culture and elders’ teachings guided me along some rocky points. I drew inspiration from old adages and the histories of a resilient Filipino people. I dug deeper, questioning culturally established norms in my culture like machismo among other byproducts of colonialism. I focused my attention on how gender is viewed through a nonwestern lens. I learned that among different cultures of Southeast Asia including some in the Philippines, gender was thought to be more fluid. I read about times in history when cultures valued those in their community who embodied what we today consider non-binary.
Moreover, gendered objects helped me convey this knowledge to others. For instance, variations of Southeast Asian material culture similar to lingling-o helped me to find peace with myself, that I didn’t have to fit into this Western notion of masculinity, that my culture and ancestors had already carved out space where I too belong.
Research became my ticket to reconnect with the diverse world I read about in my early childhood. I was accepted to my university’s Ronald McNair Scholars program which mentors minority students who dream of one day attaining their PhD like the program’s namesake, Dr. Ronald E. McNair, the second Black astronaut who tragically died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Through the program, I developed and presented research on the topic of the Filipino American experience at conferences and delved into the research fairs circuit.
This work helped me see that there is value in my people’s history and experiences. My senior year, while studying the impacts of cultural tourism upon Indigenous peoples, I booked a flight to reconnect with family in the Philippines, visiting places like Baguio where many of the Filipiniana I had collected was originally produced. It became a homecoming in so many ways.
Later, as I pursued my master’s degree in anthropology at Northern Illinois University, I connected with members of the Filipino community of Greater Chicago. This led to opportunities with the Philippine-co-curation program at the Field Museum, where we engaged with the museum in a collaborative effort to identity and better understand 10,000 objects their anthropologists had collected since the 1900s. I was one of the guest speakers at the program’s opening ceremony and served as presenter at later events engaging in object storytelling around themes like gendered objects. I also helped in co-curating a Philippine exhibit in the Field Museum’s Regenstein Pacific Hall.
Moving to Chicago, a large hub for Filipinos, also afforded me a chance to reconnect with Filipino food at local restaurants and grocery stores, as well as participate in Filipino community festivities like Simbang Gabi during Christmas. Through these spaces, I further grew my networks and created new memories.
Meanwhile over the years, I continued my own independent exhibition work curating exhibits at NIU’s Southeast Asian Collections gallery. While sharing Philippine cultures in my new Midwest community, I also highlighted my experiences studying abroad in other countries like Madagascar and Indonesia. As a summer intern at the Smithsonian’s Summer Institute in Museum Anthropology, I trained under esteemed professionals and developed my own preliminary research on the institution’s large collections of Cordillera wooden utensils of the Philippines.
Today, I continue to explore opportunities related to my professional passions. I am fortunate to live in the Greater Chicago area as a community cultural worker because of the rich diversity in the area. I have been lucky enough to participate in area cultural programming, particularly with members of the Chicago Cultural Alliance. From volunteering to help digitize FANHS Greater Chicago photographic collections to curating a digital exhibition in response to the pandemic with the Trickster Cultural Center, I am grateful to help share our collective voice on issues that matter, like community building.
My family photographs remain invaluable to me for so many reasons. They remind me where I came from, guide me on a path of self-discovery and belonging, and provide opportunities to share with others along the way. Objects of Filipiniana, my unexpected travel companions, have proved an unexpected treasure. Encountering these objects across space and time has brought both comfort and inspiration to me even prior to the pandemic and hopefully beyond.
I see these as reminders of our human connections. Filipiniana objects hold different meanings for every Filipino. Some understand Filipiniana through the lens of local culture and contexts while others appreciate and interpret based on their individual experiences with them across the diaspora. No matter these differences, Filipiniana open doors of opportunity to start the conversation about who we are and share our diverse stories!
So what stories can you tell through objects?
Anthonie Tumpag is the regional director of Illinois for the nonprofit organization ATAYAL and a graduate of Northern Illinois University with a master’s degree in cultural anthropology and certificates in applied anthropology and art history. He has been honored as an Asian Pacific American Youth Leader by the Illinois state comptroller and recognized by the Cook County Treasurer for his commitment and dedication to the Filipino American community.
Tumpag would like to thank all who have welcomed him into their spaces over the years including members, staff, and partners of the Chicago Cultural Alliance. This story is dedicated to all babaylanes, past and present, especially Dios Buhawi and Papa Isio from Tumpag’s ancestral homeland of Negros.