5 Tagalog words I wish we had in English

GABRIELA Seattle organizers Rosie Dino and Elaine Agoot at gate of Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, Philippines. (Photo by Katrina Pestaño)
GABRIELA Seattle organizers including Elaine Agoot (right) stand at the gate of Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City, Philippines. (Photo by Katrina Pestaño)

Grief and rage has been palpable in the air these past few weeks. Violence and injustice is being reported almost non-stop, from unabated police killings of black and brown people, to the struggle of land defenders in Standing Rock, to the fact that we’ve  passed the point of no return with our historic climate crisis. In Seattle, we recently lost our beloved Uncle Bob Santos at a time when the guidance of our elders is very much needed.

As I have gone through different edits of this article, I have struggled to showcase humor and lightheartedness, and eventually just decided to write what I have been feeling. After all, we Filipinx* are a people of passion: we are feeling all the feels all the time.

Perhaps it reflects the fact that we live on a tropical island and experience extreme weather conditions in rapid climate change. Or maybe it has to do with widespread Catholicism repressing our emotions. I’m more inclined to think it’s our resistance to colonization and arguably, current U.S. occupation in the Philippines. They tried to subjugate us, but our emotions (you can also think of it as “spirit”) cannot be subdued.

More recently, I’ve been spending time with people I resonate with on a deep emotional level and feel more affirmed in the ways I can be tender yet still embody resistance. Even with non- Filipinx folks, we find connection in our search for home as part of the diaspora. Not everybody can go home, but we are all struggling to create home. Here are five Tagalog  words that bring it home for me:

1. Gugma

On the Southern Philippine Island of Mindanao, where the author's native Bisaya is commonly spoken. (Photo by Katrina Pestaño)
Tinoc, Ifugao in the Philippines. (Photo by Katrina Pestaño)

Gugma (goog-mah) means love in my native tongue of Bisaya (formally known as Cebuano), a Visayan language spoken by 20 million people throughout major regions of the southern Philippines. It sounds like a curse, which resonates with so much of our collective experience because once this type of love hits you, you can’t get rid of it. In a country where a large majority of pop culture depictions of love are set against a backdrop of economic class tensions and obligation to family, cursed love (especially torn by the wealth and poverty divide) is the main attraction of any worthwhile soap opera.

Most of the time, this translates to unrequited love or love that must overcome the barriers of social status.  I have only heard gugma used in the context of romantic love, specifically the heart-wrenching kind. 

2. Utang na loob

(Photo by Katrina Pestaño)
(Photo by Janelle Quibuyen)

Utang na loob (ooh-tahng nah loo-ub), roughly translating to “the debt from within,” is a Tagalog term that I grew up hearing and very much internalizing. It is a deep gratitude layered with the obligation to repay an emotional debt — and sometimes across generations. It’s kind of like emotional interest. This concept conveys how we honor our obligations, especially when it comes to paying back debt.

3. Naghandom

(Photo by Katrina Pestaño)
(Photo by Katrina Pestaño)

I first learned naghandom (nug-hun-dom) from friends during a political trip to the Philippines in 2014. It falls somewhere between sadness and longing. As a Filipina in diaspora, this is a constant state of being. I think about overseas workers who have to leave their families to make a living and I know how deeply they must be feeling this. Since the Philippines’ No. 1 export is its people for labor power across the globe, so many of us are torn from our loved ones and longing to see them again.

4. Kilig

via GIPHY

Kilig (keel-eg), which means romantic excitement, is both a feeling and a sensation. It’s like having a crush so dreamy that you feel butterflies in your ribcage. It’s when your skin tingles while you touch and when they look at you, and you can actually see your entire life together playing out like a movie scene. It not only depicts the feelings of being in a new and exciting relationship, but conveys how your love can still make you feel this way even when you have grandkids and grey hair. This is possibly one of my favorite Tagalog words.

5. Intawon
(Photo by Katrina Pestano)
(Photo by Katrina Pestano)

Intawon (in- tahw- on) is another common Bisaya word used in many different ways, without any clear translation. When I looked it up, the definition was “hapless” or “pitiful,” but I don’t think that captures the way that I have heard people use it. I think it’s more like “unfortunately” combined with “oh, this wretched life,” but with a dash of wistful longing. At least that’s the closest I can get to the feeling.

I like the way that it captures emotion in the sound of the word and the tone in which people say it.

The Philippines will always reflect the deep contradictions of colonization and the struggle and resistance of our people. Feeling and expressing such a glorious range of emotion makes us not only Filipinx* but fully human despite all the ways in which our rights and dignity are being taken away from us.

It is what connects us to each other wherever we end up in the diaspora.

*Filipinx (Filipin-EX) is used intentionally as a non-gender binary pronoun in this story.

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