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A Poet’s Journey – The American Story
of Luisa Aguilar Igloria

Igloria's love of the English language has always been part of her life. She was taught to read at three years old and later attended a Catholic school run by Belgian nuns.

For Professor Luisa Aguilar Igloria, teacher, poet, writer, the journey to her book lined faculty office at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Va., began 8,500 miles away on a clear, sunny afternoon in her hometown of Baguio City, in the mountains of the Philippines.

The petite 50-year-old looks more like a student than a survivor. Her almond eyes and café au lait complexion, her low voice and crisp accent spin the hands on a compass.

On July 16, 1990, she stepped out of her faculty office at the University of the Philippines in Baguio, into the bright afternoon. The sun was bouncing off the trees, and the air smelled like pine. The ground began to buckle and roll. For a full minute it rumbled, the sound of rocks beneath the surface clashed with the sound of buildings crashing down and glass breaking. In a minute, an earthquake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale had shaken down the City of Pines, the jewel of the American colonial period. Over a thousand people perished. "The world as I knew it came to an end that day," said Igloria.

She walked home, passing groups of stunned and hurt people. She saw women miscarrying on the street. She found her three small children terrified but unharmed. Her house was destroyed.  For the next two weeks, there was no electricity, water, telephone, or help from the outside world. The hospitals stayed in full crisis mode.  Two weeks later, her beloved father slipped into a coma and was rushed to the Baguio General Hospital. He died later that day of heart failure, and was brought home in the family car because the funeral parlors were filled to capacity and there were no coffins in the city.

He was laid out in the living room and Igloria captured the memory in a poem called, “Tree of Watchfulness”.

Father, I brought a basin of lukewarm
water and a towel with which to wash
your feet. I coaxed the dry cotton socks

over the raised pink swellings around each
ankle and felt the weight of your regret
rest briefly in each palm. I sorted your letters,

emptied your desk drawers, unshuttered
the windows to let air in, the false
odors of longing from the starfruit fallen
to the ground.

Igloria's love of the English language has always been part of her life. She was taught to read at three years old and later attended a Catholic school run by Belgian nuns. "Their native languages were Dutch and French. They learned English in Belgium to teach in the Philippines. They taught well and were kind."

“In my family, there were three first languages, English, which was the language my parents spoke to me and the language at school, then Tagalog, and Ilokano, the language spoken up north,” Igloria said.

Igloria was born at Fort McKinley Hospital in Makati, Rizal. When she was two, the family moved to the beautiful hill station of Baguio, a fantasy summer city created by Americans at the peak of their new colonial fervor in the early 1900’s. The city was laid out by Daniel Burnham and Fredric Law Olmsted, who also created New York's Central Park, Golden Gate Park, and Boston's Emerald Necklace.

Baguio became the summer capital of the Philippines and was known for its beautiful scenery and cool climate.

The beautiful thing about teaching, she says, is discovering new voices. "I love it when my students feel their breakthrough moments, when they become excited about language..."

Igloria’s father was a lawyer and later on a judge. Her mother was a homemaker and expert seamstress. "Because my father was trained in law, words were always a part of the fabric of our daily life. Books were appreciated and conversation was the highlight of every day. I enjoyed my school days and my friends. We were not wealthy, but my parents made sure I had a very rich cultural life; I studied piano and a little ballet, and went to concerts and movies with them."

Igloria had a dream of striking out on her own as soon as she could. She married young, as she thought it would be a way of establishing her own identity outside of her family. "My first husband was 9 years older than me. I was 18. I had lived a sheltered life up to that point,” she said.

Igloria writes about this in her poem “Trousseau”.

 At my first wedding, I was the central
witness: days before, they killed

three goats and singed their flesh
under the guava trees. Knives

dipped in rum sheared closer
to the spongy membranes later diced

with vinegar and shallots,
served warm, nearly raw.

The laughter and the clink of bottles
rose with the smoke and found

me in my hiding place. I wished
to sleep, never to return to this place

where I had voted yes to my own
undoing.

Before the earthquake, there had already been tensions in Igloria’s marriage. They had also just built their first home on a government housing loan, with additional debts accrued from family and some friends.  Their savings were cleaned out. Their home was not spared by the earthquake, though it was repairable. But after this, the tensions escalated. In the midst of all the ruin and personal loss, news came of her award of a Fulbright scholarship and acceptance in the Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Once again, education offered her hope.

It broke her heart to leave her children, but there was no other option. After getting her Ph.D., she returned to the Philippines to teach—but her salary in Philippine pesos barely covered her family's living expenses since she was now the only wage earner.

Then her life changed again. "I got an offer to join the faculty at Old Dominion University. I was offered a chance to emigrate. Once again, I had to leave my children, but I knew that this time I would have more of an ability to secure possibilities for their future."

Teaching and writing became even stronger lifelines for her. "Both actions tethered me to my true self,” she said. Igloria started teaching right out of college and has been teaching for 31 years.

"Teaching has made me a better reader, a better writer. Every now and then I like to do some of the writing assignments that I give my own poetry students. I view my role in the classroom more as a facilitator."

That's what's unique about being part of this diaspora. We carry our homes in our hearts, while trying to create new homes wherever
we are.

The beautiful thing about teaching, she says, is discovering new voices. "I love it when my students feel their breakthrough moments, when they become excited about language and how it makes that connection to other things in real life more brilliant in some way. I love sharing their triumphs and successes, seeing them forge forward. Some of them have won prizes and have been published. That's wonderful too," Igloria said.

Childhood friend Dr. Josephine Alinea of Buffalo, N.Y. remembers Igloria as someone who just had to teach. "She was always pointing out the deeper meaning of the poems and the origins of words," Alinea said.  “When she transferred to another school, we would write to each other.  In this age of email I cannot fully describe the magic of receiving letters from her on pages of foolscap. She could always describe things with such emotion and clarity,” Alinea said.

Igloria has won numerous poetry awards in the United States. She has won the Carlos Palanca Award, the Philippines highest literary distinction, eleven times—including its Hall of Fame distinction. She has published ten books, the most recent of them being Juan Luna’s Revolver (University of Notre Dame Press, 2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize) and Trill & Mordent (WordTech Editions 2005; Co-Winner of the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry in 2007).

Former Ateneo friend and college professor Marianne Villanueva, who teaches in San Jose, Calif. said, "I really love her language. It's very lush, but also precise. There are also layers and layers of emotion in her imagery. She’s such a fab writer and person."

Igloria became an American citizen in February, 2008.  She is happily remarried and has an 11-year-old daughter.  "My husband is a wonderful man who embraces my whole history, and loves all my children," she said.

"My life is so different from how I thought it would unfold. I love my life even though many parts of it are difficult. I'm very far from Baguio, but I carry it within me. That's what's unique about being part of this diaspora. We carry our homes in our hearts, while trying to create new homes wherever we are. I feel very fortunate to be teaching about writing and creating new poetry from this perspective,” Igloria said.

Igloria is a tenured Professor and Director of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University.  She teaches creative writing courses on the graduate and undergraduate level, and is one of two poets on the creative writing faculty.  www.luisaigloria.com

© Kathleen Burkhalter

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