How Fil Ams in the West Coast are engaging with Ilocano weaving as resistance

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A renaissance of Filipino arts is taking place among Filipino-Americans on the West Coast. Notably, a budding interest in Ilocano weaving. Community-engaged weaver, activist, and entrepreneur Rachel Lozada (in photo) shares her experience in sharing her heritage to other Filipinos. Photo by MYLEEN HOLLERO/Courtesy of RACHEL LOZADA

Malagep ko diay inabel nga ules mi idi ubbingak.

I miss the inabel blankets from my childhood.

As a first-generation Ilokana immigrant, now based in San Francisco, California, I remember my whole family being gifted inabel blankets with our names on them. Yet I didn’t fully appreciate their significance until I immigrated and began exploring weaving as part of my own process of decolonizing and reclaiming the pre-colonial indigenous nature of Ilokano culture.

These processes of decolonizing and re-indigenization are remarkable phenomena among Filipino progressives living or born in the North American diaspora — which in turn directly correlates to the phenomenal blossoming of Filipino culture and arts there, such as in dance, music, kulintang and other percussion music, literature, martial arts, baybayin, tattoo, language classes, herbal medicine and many more. I dream to make traditional and indigenous weaving part of that renaissance among Filipino Americans.

Jamie Cardenas, a 37-year old third generation Hawai’i-born Ilokana now based in Sacramento, is one such Filipino American. A healer and activist, she attended one of our Ilokano weaving workshops last October, hoping to try her hand at making her own woven pieces, but more than that, connecting to her roots, family, and cultural identity.

Jamie Cardenas excitedly dresses a pedal loom for the first time at Rachel Lozada’s studio. Photo courtesy of RACHEL LOZADA

“I’ve always had this hunger to learn what it means to be Filipino, what it means to be Ilocano,” Jaime said. Despite being her teacher, this is a process that I myself am still going through and I invited Jamie to be one of my weaving apprentices.

Truth be told, I’m a “master student,” not a master weaver.

Rooting in familial ties in Laoag, Ilocos Norte, I put up HABIness, a pop-up and online store of Filipino handwoven textiles. The workshops I hold are part of the Inabel nga Indayon Project, meaning “Inabel Woven Hammock/Cradle” that I started to engage the Fil-Am community in creating the first ever inabel blanket in contemporary times.

It will honor the first wave of manongs and manangs who came to the US in the 1900s to the 1950s to work in plantations in Hawai’i, fish canneries in Alaska and Washington state, and farms up and down the West Coast. The project welcomes everyone who are descendants of manongs and manangs to get involved, and is not limited to just those of Ilokano descent.

I call myself a “late bloomer weaver,” starting in my 50s as an apprentice weaver in the only women’s circle in the United States practicing Kalinga backstrap weaving. I sought to learn my own region’s weaving called abel-Iloko or inabel, inspired by the decolonizing experience of weaving in my community.

Not having any inabel master weaver in the US, I made visits to Ilocos Norte to learn from the 96-year-old Magdalena Gamayo, National Living Treasures Awardee and Inabel master weaver. Given the distance and many other obstacles, I continued to challenge obstacles to learning abel-Iloko, because I believed that the best way to spread abel-Iloko is to share, and teach it to others.

Jocelyn Tabada Nguyen, a mother, tech support representative and second generation Ilokana, recalled her excitement walking into the workshop I held at Kapwa Gardens, a community garden and event space in San Francisco's officially legislated Filipino Cultural Heritage District, SOMA Pilipinas.

Through our workshops, we provide participants a brief overview of certain patterns.

The dizzying binakul pattern is traditionally used to distract and ward off evil spirits, and used as sails for fishing boats. Photo courtesy of RACHEL LOZADA

Though binakul, an optical illusion weaving technique hundreds of years old is the most popular — abel-Iloko has so many varied intricate patterns used to create blankets, clothes, pillowcases, tablemats, and shawls that are revered for its high-quality cotton and artisanship. The beauty of inabel and the project’s goals are resonating with the community. Both workshops in May and June were overbooked with a waitlist of people. Other cities such as Los Angeles and all the way to Hawai’i are asking when the workshop can be held locally.

Historically, the practice of Philippine weaving was a generational one: older females taught the younger girls in their families how to make cotton threads and weave inabel on a wooden pedal loom.

Jocelyn shared how after posting pictures of the workshop on social media, her aunties commented on her pictures, sparking a conversation: “Did you know your great-great-grandmother wove inabel?’” Jocelyn asked them why this history was never shared to her and other younger relatives — why this was considered not valuable enough to be passed on to her and could have just been lost forever.

The same goes for Jaime, whose grandmothers on both sides were inabel weavers from Ilocos Sur. But she didn’t know this until after they were gone.

Like Joyce and Jaime, I didn’t even get confirmation until 2019 that my maternal great grandmother, Marcella Ballesteros Espejo born in the 1870-80s, was indeed an inabel weaver from Laoag, Ilocos Norte.

Rachel (center) with apprentices (from left) Gavrielle de Leon Thompson, Jamie Cardenas, Liberty Rapada, and Charlene Tan. Kapwa Gardens, June 2021. Photo by MYLEEN HOLLERO/Courtesy of RACHEL LOZADA

Through the project, the workshops, and social media, participants and Fil-Ams from other cities and states are discovering they have weavers in their ancestry and some are uncovering the vintage inabel pieces in their families that also made the journey from Ilocos to Hawai’i or Alaska and California when their Lolas and Titas immigrated.

These histories and family treasures have not been valued in the past by older generations; they didn’t pass it onto their descendants, in the same way our languages are not valued and thus not passed on by the majority of immigrant families, yet younger generations hunger to learn these. This dilemma is rooted in our colonial experience with the US. It is when we challenge and subvert this colonial influence that our valuable narratives, histories, and art forms re-surface.

As though fated to the craft, both Joyce and Jaime say they plan to pass on woven blankets to their young children and continue learning abel-Iloko as a personal practice.

National Living Treasure for abel-Iloko Magdalena Gamayo with Rachel Lozada. Pinili, Ilocos Norte, 2015. Photo courtesy of RACHEL LOZADA

SOMA Pilipinas has been a vital venue. Aside from supporting our weaving workshops, it has hosted a wide range of Filipino arts and cultural programming and even very timely and much sought-after self-defense classes as anti-Asian hate incidents impacted the Fil-Am community. It partnered with artists Sami See and Kristian Kabuay to paint colorful flowery murals on a used school bus transformed as an oversized jeepney right in the middle of Kapwa Gardens. The latter is a former parking lot at 937 Mission Street until it was transformed into a community garden.

Centered around the concept of “kapwa” — shared identity — creating it with community volunteers during the COVID-19 pandemic only deepened the meaning and longing for such an outdoor space. SOMA Pilipinas is a hub for the blossoming renaissance of Fil-Am arts and culture in the US West Coast. That blossoming correlates to Fil-Ams decolonizing and re-indigenizing themselves. I envision Filipino traditional and indigenous weaving to be part of that growing resistance and renaissance.

With reporting by Dani Ramos.