I was 5 years old the night my late grandpa visited my grandma. My grandma said he sat next to her bed late at night and told her everything will be alright. I have to admit I was a tad bit jealous. I remember thinking, When is my Lolo going to come visit me?
Several years later, I realized my family and ancestors did visit me — but in completely different ways. Not like ghosts in haunted mansions but via signs and coincidences. And yet, I felt like I was being haunted by two opposing ancestors. Sometimes my postcolonial Filipino Catholic ancestors would visit. Other times, my pre-colonial Filipino ancestors who believed in animism came. And for the longest time, I believed both took over my body and argued about who should possess it. At least, that would explain why I was constantly pulled in different directions. Should I learn more about animism and my Itneg (Indigenous) ancestral practices or should I focus on becoming a more devout Christian like the more recent generations of my family? I was confused and I didn’t know who or what to believe. I didn’t think those two could ever coincide.
• • •
Whenever my Catholic family came to “haunt” me, they made sure I remembered my Catholic roots. Even though I considered myself spiritual but not religious, I would find myself drawn back to Catholicism.
I remember shortly after my maternal grandma (who was an opera singer) passed away, I heard the Maria Callas version of “Ave Maria” on the radio. I thought, “Hmmm, what a coincidence.” This was one of my favorites of the songs my grandma performed. My grandma sang just like Maria Callas.
But then I realized the song was playing on a radio station that mostly aired contemporary pop music. I double-, triple-, quadruple-checked to make sure I was on the right station. It just wasn’t possible. Each radio station stuck to their norms and this one would never play something like “Ave Maria.” But I wondered if maybe it wasn’t just a coincidence. Maybe my grandma was trying to say hello.
I was compelled to find one of my grandma’s rosaries in my jewelry box and hold it in my hand as I played the song on repeat on my phone. I began looking for other Christian songs my grandma used to sing. To be honest, I was surprised to find myself looking for Catholic relics and listening to gospel music, but both brought me comfort in that time.
• • •
On another occasion, I felt like I was “possessed” by my paternal great-grandma (also a devout Catholic).
I had just moved to Cincinnati due to my now-husband’s family emergency. I remember being on the phone with my dad and telling him about some pictures of my great-grandma I had found while I was unpacking. Dad told me how most of our living family members who knew her thought I was just like her. I looked just like her. My mannerisms were just like hers. And I am a teacher just like she was. The only significant difference was that she identified as Christian and taught at a Catholic school and I did not.
Dad and I talked until it was almost midnight, and I noticed he was getting sleepy. I told him I would call him back the next morning. I’m not sure why but I glanced over at my great-grandma’s picture again. As I looked at it, Dad spoke in a monotone voice, “You are her.”
I focused in on my great-grandma’s deep almond eyes before Dad repeated, “You are her.” I tried to take my eyes away from her picture but I couldn’t. I was transfixed.
Dad said it a third time, “You are her.” I shook my head and was like, “Dad! What are you talking about? Stop. You’re creeping me out!” I thought maybe he was messing around. Then he snapped back and said in his cheerful voice, “OK, talk to you tomorrow.”
When I asked my dad why he said “I was her”, my dad replied, “Huh? I never said that.” I shook my head and decided to let it go.
Now I hadn’t been to a church for the longest time; I even tried to avoid going near one as much as possible. But the very next morning I got a phone call from a Catholic school. They wanted to know if I was interested in interviewing for a teaching position. To this day I don’t know why I said yes without hesitation. To this day, I can’t for the life of me remember when or if or why I applied for the Catholic school. Nevertheless, I was offered the job and I accepted it.
It could have been that, deep down, I still felt some sense of comfort in that space. Over 80 percent of Filipinos identify as Catholic; it’s like it’s embedded in our culture. It could be that I was subconsciously being drawn to church so I would feel like I was in the Philippines again.
I thought about this for a while. There could be different explanations but overall, I knew myself well enough to know that it wasn’t me who “gladly” accepted the offer. I had way too many doubts about the institution as a whole.
Looking back, I felt like I wasn’t the one who said yes. It was all my great-grandma. I felt a sense of honor at hearing “I was her” or believing one of my ancestors was alive again through me. I felt like I was continuing the work she was doing.
• • •
Soon after, I transitioned to work at a Catholic Jesuit University and decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Theology. I believe it was after this point that my Indigenous ancestors also started to visit me through signs, messages, and coincidences.
Even though I signed up to learn more about Christianity, I instead began learning about pre-colonial spirituality and decided to change my topic to focus on my Indigenous ancestors.
I started learning about ancient pre-Philippine traditional tattoo practices called batok. Batok are wisdom or symbolic messages, to each family or tribe, that are passed down through generations. Most of our Indigenous ancestors had batok before Catholics colonized and destroyed the practice that had existed for thousands of years.
I found out there are now less than five mambabatoks (spiritual tattoo practitioners) in the world. While I was researching this practice, I saw a flyer for a presentation on batok by Lane Wilcken (one of those five practicing mambabatoks). I thought it was an old flyer but realized it was advertising an event that would take place on the upcoming weekend. I looked at the location and to my shock, it said Lane Wilcken was coming to Cincinnati from Las Vegas for the very first time. I couldn’t believe it. Of all places, of all times, Lane Wilcken was heading to my current city of residence. I quickly messaged him to see if he had any appointments available for a batok session. I felt like my Indigenous ancestors were saying “We all had one and now you must have one too.”
Lane Wilcken messaged back and said all his spots were booked. I was disappointed but knew it was OK since I would still get to see him speak in person.
The next day, my husband and I flew to Florida for his work conference. We were going to be there for a few days but be back just in time for Lane’s presentation. On the third day, my husband and I went hiking on a trail hoping to see some alligators. The moment I spotted an alligator, I received an email from Lane saying that someone canceled their appointment and there was a small window available for me. I was so excited and felt incredibly lucky. I placed the phone in my pocket when the alligator came in my direction. The alligator seemed to look at me and then swam away.
I later learned that crocodiles were considered sacred creatures. My Indigenous ancestors believed crocodiles are a symbol of power, strength, and fertility. Looking back (and since there are basically no crocodiles in the United States), I think the alligator was another sign that my ancestors wanted me to receive batok. It felt invigorating, knowing what a coincidence it was that Lane had messaged me at that exact moment. It was as though I was connecting with my true roots, finally. Roots that had existed for centuries before Christians came to colonize my homeland. I also felt honored that my ancestors from long ago would want to contact me.
But to be honest, I was also a bit confused. I was learning about pre-Philippine spirituality, but I was also learning about the humanity of Jesus, Liberation Theology, Womanist Theology, and Rainbow Theology. I started to have faith and wanted to be part of the change to help Catholicism be more inclusive as Jesus was — although knowing that Christians had demonized, terrorized, and colonized my Indigenous roots was upsetting. I didn’t know if or how I could be a part of something like that.
• • •
I truly believe I received many “hauntings” from both my Catholic and my Indigenous spiritual ancestors. I knew both were a part of me. But it took me a long time to learn to be at peace with both seemingly conflicting visits. I had a hard time reconciling the colonized with the colonizer. I had a hard time trying to figure out if I even should try to reconcile the two. I thought maybe I had to choose one or the other. But whenever I focused on learning about animism, I feared I was forgetting about my grandparents whom I knew, loved, and learned from directly. Whenever I focused on my grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents, I worried that I was forgetting about my long-ago ancestors who had practiced and passed down their wisdom and culture for centuries. Whenever I learned about one part of my history, I felt I was betraying the other and vice versa.
Eventually I would learn that I can have both, learn from both, and be of both just as I had learned about intersectionality. Though in terms of my own spirituality, I felt being both also meant rejecting parts of each. I might integrate what I learned from albularyos (folk healers) into my life, but I might also light candles at a Catholic church and appreciate the benefits of Western medicine. I might have my own Indigenous spiritual ceremony at home, but I will also join a Catholic charitable community. I might pray the Rosary with my titas through Zoom, but I might not agree with what they say against LGBTQ+ rights. I might work for a Catholic University, but I will celebrate transgender shamans along Babaylans at another university conference. I might have had a traditional Catholic wedding in the Philippines, but I also read my vows in Italian so no one would understand me when I said my husband and I were equals (as my Indigenous ancestors were).
Others in my family had been integrating both belief systems all along and I never noticed until I began doing it in my own life. My very Catholic grandfather still offers food to his ancestors at every meal. This practice, “atang”, was an indigenous spiritual practice of our ancestors. He also heals with methods passed down by our ancestors. I never asked him if he struggled to reconcile them, but if I were to guess, I think he’s always found them complementary and didn’t see a need to reject one or the other. As he prayed with his “atang” in Ilocano, he included Jesus. As he healed with his hands, he prayed to Christ for help.
When I researched Folk Catholicism in the Philippines, I found that Filipinos have been practicing it for many years. This is not new — the integration of Christian and pre-Christian belief systems. Now that I live in New Orleans, I am also learning about Marie Laveau and how she was a devout Catholic and a Queen of Voodoo (a combination of West African spiritualities and Christianity).
While I once thought the two hauntings were fighting against each other, I have since learned that they were not. They were already at peace. It was my perspective that needed to change by listening to both. My spirituality today is still ever-evolving, but I am each and both and all my ancestors at the same time. I think this is indicative of our world and how, even with our differences, we can learn so much from one another and live peacefully side by side. When I think about Catholicism and pre-Philippine Indigenous spirituality in this way, I feel more at peace. These hauntings don’t have to be at war with one another within me, just because they practice in different ways or believe in different entities. I can learn from both and create something that ultimately fits me.