Tongue-tied and displaced, in between languages

By FC Marie Esperas

“Kay ano nga makarit ka mag-Tagalog kay Waray-waray ka man? (How come you’re good in Tagalog when you are Waray?)”

It was a good writer-friend who commented on a post about my essay in Liwayway magazine a few weeks ago. While I knew she was just teasing, her comment hit me hard—it was more like a slap in the face, actually. She was right, after all. I may be a full-blooded Waray, having been born in Tacloban to parents whose roots hail from Leyte’s fearless grounds, and yet I could not speak their language until I became an adult.

While I eventually learned to speak Waray, I can only engage in light, casual conversations. I still get lost in translation whenever my family members are immersed in discussions and speak in pure Waray. While I get some words, they’re not enough context clues for me to grasp the gist of their discourse. I find out too late that they were just talking about trivial things, ranging from a restaurant they liked to a neighbor they’re annoyed with.

I am amazed at how my home province expresses their thoughts and feelings through their language. What pains me, however, is that while their blood runs through my veins, I cannot call the language mine. Waray remains foreign to me, even if I understand and speak it at barely basic levels. This handicap not only prevents me from composing the famous siday. It also keeps me in a limbo between two distinct Filipino cultures with languages acting as walls that keep them apart.


I grew up in Pasig, which back then was a quaint town situated east of the metro. We spoke English at home, then Tagalog at school. We were then living in a compound where Waray was spoken by the older people, such as my grandmother and her friends. My peers and I were only familiar with what the language sounded like. We could easily say it’s Waray (and not Bisaya), but we wouldn’t understand a word they say.

My consciousness about being Waray came in the form of stories. My lola would open photo albums filled with black and white photos of them—her mother, her siblings, and the children they bore. Each photo had a backstory, all based in Leyte’s capital city and its neighboring towns.

This handicap not only prevents me from composing the famous siday. It also keeps me in a limbo between two distinct Filipino cultures with languages acting as walls that keep them apart.

But she either told her stories in English or Tagalog. Looking back now, omitting Waray as a language kept me disconnected from embracing an identity that was supposed to be mine. It has become a painful journey, for unlike the typical foreigners who come to learn a language and immerse in local culture, I found myself lost instead.

It can be harrowing to realize that while my citizenship says I’m a Filipino, I am displaced in my own land. Tagalog won’t have me as its own since as a language, it dominates the entire archipelago (if not most of it); nor would Waray take me in, since my perspectives about life—not just my mother tongue—are built on the solid foundations of Imperial Manila.

The worst part is, I often end up relying on a foreign tongue, i.e., English, to keep my disjointed cultures somehow together, rather than trying to learn from each other—all because it’s the easier and more convenient way out.

The struggle turns more real

It’s been five years since I moved back to Manila. These days, my conversations using the Waray language are limited to Facebook chats with friends and family in my hometown, and rarely, when I chance upon a taxi driver who is from either Leyte or Samar. Even so, my Waray friends and I would switch between Waray and Tagalog and English throughout our conversations, and whenever I’d ask why, they’d just say it’s easier this way.

I remember almost a decade ago when National Artist Bienvenido Lumbera and poet Ricardo de Ungria had a talk at UP Tacloban and I asked about this struggle of being caught in between languages and how they affected the way I wrote about my identity. They had contending views—one said that it was a must that I embraced the language, while the other told me to invest in experience so I could tell the stories of my hometown, in my words. I kept their tips in mind, but the struggle has just turned more real since I am far away from Tacloban.

As each day passes, I feel the gap between me and my Waray roots is growing wider and wider. I guess it would take me another 180-degree turn to reclaim my identity, maybe by moving back to Tacloban (perhaps, for good). One thing’s for sure, though: the Waray language will be my golden ticket to finally achieve that self-actualization.