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How this son of immigrants reimagined his parents’ homeland

Chris Santiago is the son of Filipino immigrants, so it’s only natural that his first published collection of poems would be called “Tula,” the Filipino word for ‘poem.’ Except that the language of his parents is not so natural for Santiago; while his father spoke Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, and his mother spoke a different dialect, he speaks neither.

“I didn’t acquire either language, so if I’m at an airport and overhear Tagalog, it reminds me of home, but I’m not able to parse the language. I don’t even know enough grammar to know when one word ends and another begins. So it’s comforting in one sense when I hear it, but it’s alienating, too.”

The poems in “Tula” wrestle with that tension: of being both inside and outside the language and the culture of the Philippines. Santiago is very much a product of America, but he wants to tell the stories of his parents’ homeland. Several poems are about his uncles who fought against the Ferdinand Marcos regime. One was imprisoned, the other was killed by soldiers. His poem “The Silverest Tongue in the Philippines” reimagines their stories.

I can hear my uncle muttering
in the stillness of his cell.

Bad-mouthing Aguinaldo. Reciting Marx and Mao.

He has the sharpest tongue in the Philippines.

It’s why His Excellency the President hates him
& why his doomed brother
worships him.

“My uncles gave up so much. It was for a patriotism that I don’t have allegiance to since I was raised here. But I wanted to tell their story to keep their spirit alive.”

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Santiago says he is terrified by the language he hears today in the presidential race, especially when Donald Trump talks about rounding up certain immigrants because of their religious beliefs.

“It’s so frustrating to think that language is still being used like this. I don’t know what poets can do. But I know my uncles spoke out and made their country stronger by telling their stories, so I feel like I need to speak up.”

He’s particularly worried about the effect that rhetoric has on young people. He recalled that earlier this year his 8-year-old son came home from school, asking about Trump and wondering, “What will happen to us if he’s elected?”

TULA

An immigrant’s son
I have ears like the blind.

Music comes easily;
night frightens me.

Home late from the hospital, she comes to my door–
I fake sleep.

She sings a soothing song
in the language I never learned:

prayers against rain.
Catalog of mythic birds.

As many names for music
as English has for theft.

Using them I invent
a country with only two citizens.

The word I choose for mother
sounds like the one for dream.

From Tula by Chris Santiago (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2016). Copyright © 2016 by Chris Santiago. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.www.milkweed.org


Chris Santiago is the author of “TULA”, winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, selected by A..Van Jordan. He holds degrees in creative writing and music from Oberlin College and received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Southern California. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, Santiago is also a percussionist and amateur jazz pianist. He teaches literature, sound culture and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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