• The Alchemy of Language: Ina Cariño on Naming, Claiming, and Protecting Ancestral Land

    “I spell myself deliberately, with intention: an alchemization, plain metal to gold.”

    Words are symbols, names are spells; and in this othered life, I am drawn to such magic, such enchantment. For a moment, consider divination—imagine circling the tarot, its Major Arcana and the four suits: wands, cups, swords, and pentacles. We begin this fortune-telling story with The Fool, who has no name. And, because the tarot is a circle, we always return to The Fool.

    But in my own confused circling, I name myself Other, spell myself into being, yearn for a future that spells me correctly. Mornings I spell my name loudly, willing the hairs on my arms to prickle and rise. Evenings, whispering my name to myself, I nest into a thousand feather pillows. And in that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, I spell myself deliberately, with intention: an alchemization, plain metal to gold.

    *

    Over and over, the other begins again. When I was eleven, I moved to the US to live with my newly remarried mother. I had flown by myself across the ocean from the Philippines, with connecting flights in Japan and Colorado, before I arrived at my new home in the middle of the night. Ma took me to K-Mart to shop for the next day’s breakfast before we drove home to our apartment.

    I still remember those shiny aisles: immaculately stacked rows of canned soup and boxed cereal, an infinite amount of milk jugs sweating in fridges, piles of fresh vegetables with halos from the backlight and an occasional soft mist. So different from the wet markets at home. I remember pushing my palm under that mist—how my brown hand dampened and glowed, edges blurred for a brief moment, before my mother pulled me away.

    *

    I started my life in a new country by entering fifth grade at the local public elementary school, which was an unfamiliar world. In the Philippines, I attended a private hybrid Catholic and Montessori school, where I led the national anthem in the mornings, sang hymns in the choir, and learned about the natural world in classes like Geography, Botany, Zoology. In the playground, caterpillars would drop onto my shoulders from the giant pines, and there was a hole in the back fence of the grounds that led to a small, overgrown sayote patch.

    Gradually, I stopped naming the space around me as mine, and the teachers all thought I needed ESL—were surprised when I opened my mouth and spoke “standard” English better than any of the kids in homeroom.

    Sometimes I’d sneak out of that hole and onto the nearby street, just for a moment, before returning inside. Sometimes I’d barter my allowance with street vendors for “dirty” ice cream—so-called because its origins were largely unknown.

    *

    My hometown is named Baguio—derived from the native “bag-iw,” meaning “moss.” Story goes, my ancestor Mateo Cariño, born in 1841, owned vast tracts of land that would one day become the city in which I grew up. Wikipedia tells me he was an Ibaloi chieftain; that he led a revolt against the local Spanish garrison and won; and that he was declared the Capitan Municipal by (then) President Emilio Aguinaldo. But because Aguinaldo was the president of a revolutionary government which fought against imperialist rule, and because he was given refuge by Mateo when fleeing the country for Hong Kong, the American government attempted to confiscate those ancestral lands.

    Eventually, the land dispute turned into a trial. Though Mateo Cariño died in 1908, his land was posthumously awarded protection by the US Supreme Court—through what is now known as “native title,” which is a legal mobius strip that “allows” Indigenous people to live where they have already lived, if they can prove that they had already been living there. It is the assertion of claim—a naming, a titling—on Indigenous land by its people.

    Words are symbols, names are spells—but for some, even renaming oneself is unthinkable, untenable.

    I have muddy memories of those ancestral lands. But there is a faded picture of me, from when I was five or six, sitting in mountain grass: talahib. Striped overalls over a striped shirt. I am smiling, my hair in ponytails on either side of my head. Fields and hills of green that seemed to never end.

    *

    At the new elementary school, there were pink and purple crêpe myrtles all along the sidewalks; I’d never seen such crinkly flowers growing on trees. I’d also never heard of detention, or classes like English as a Second Language or P.E. And I had always been a sickly child; my severe asthma caused me to catch infections easily. Five seconds sprinting and my lungs would seize. When I couldn’t play tag with my new peers, or run the mile in its entirety in P.E., no one seemed to care whether I breathed or not.

    Gradually, I stopped talking. Gradually, I stopped naming the space around me as mine, and the teachers all thought I needed ESL—were surprised when I opened my mouth and spoke “standard” English better than any of the kids in homeroom. This, too, was an inheritance from empire.

    *

    In Filipino folklore, there is an old wives’ tale, a custom of renaming someone when they are ill. As in, when a child falls ill, they are renamed temporarily, to fool the spirits who may have brought bad health. Little sorceries to dispel, to heal the self, the body: elders would leave me to rest in bed, choose for me a different name, coax out my sickness. It almost always worked. Or maybe my fervent belief in this ritual (along with my inhaler and ventilator) made it so I could heal.

    Still, in the Philippines, I was a mostly cheerful child, even when my lola—the kind of grandmother who wore red stilettos to church even in her sixties—dragged me to neverending Catholic mass and prayed for my health. After I was born a girl and given the female form of my father’s name, after they cut from me the tether to my mother’s womb, perhaps a spirit attached itself to me, promised me a life of illness. But my lola prayed for me a life in America, where, now, I almost never get sick.

    When I was in my late teens, I told my mother I didn’t believe in God. She asked if I believed in something, anything at all—and I suppose I do. I believe in the stories I grew up with in Baguio, of wood spirits and guardians of tree mounds.

    Here in this country, healthy in this country, I wonder where the spirits have gone, or who they have gone to bother—as if they too, are kin. There is a certain loneliness I’ve become familiar with after these specters had untethered from my body, my name. I try to remind myself that poor health is nothing to be nostalgic over; that reclaiming my name after losing it so many times as a child means I’ve come into my own—come into a tangible sense of my own being, of being seen.

    *

    “Tutoong Cariño ka?” It’s unsettling to be asked if you’re something real. I was six years old when I was first asked this question by a new teacher at school—a question implying my higher status, or at least, some sort of special treatment. I replied, Opo, Cariño ako. The teacher looked at me with round, awed eyes, as I sat there completing a worksheet, my full name in the top right corner. Josephine Anne Aguilar Cariño. I wouldn’t learn until I was older that my family on my father’s side are, to this day, caretakers of the ancestral lands that Mateo Cariño protected so long ago.

    My father, Jose Kintanar Cariño III, thought he’d finally get the baby boy he wanted after having two girls before I was born. All of us have names that start with the letter J—but, being Josephine, I’ve always felt a certain pressure to be… not a boy, but some sort of stand-in for an heir.

    But to be asked if I were real—a real Cariño, someone whose blood tethered them to the land—was something I couldn’t yet comprehend. I didn’t know then what it meant to be something real; do I know now?

    *

    The Grimm fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin tells of an imp aiding a miller’s daughter, who is tasked by the king to spin straw into gold. In this tale, naming becomes a transaction. In fact, the whole story is about transactions: in exchange for spinning straw into gold (the king threatens execution at the girl’s failure), Rumpelstiltskin demands something precious in return. On the first night, a necklace; on the second, a ring. On the third night, the girl has nothing left to offer, so the imp claims her firstborn child instead.

    Who knows what one wants to leave behind and what one wants to build or rebuild, renaming and claiming their own future.

    Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin—a garish, spectral creature greedy for gold, or wealth, or an extension of self—wants nothing more than something to call his own. Who knows what other treasures such a creature hoards. Who knows what one wants to leave behind and what one wants to build or rebuild, renaming and claiming their own future.

    After the girl marries the king, Rumpelstiltskin tells the new queen that if she can guess his name within three days’ time, he will release his claim on the child. One day in the woods, she spies on the imp and discovers his name. When the queen correctly names him, Rumpelstiltskin becomes angry; in most versions of the story, he runs away never to return. Such a tale of magic, of imbalanced transactional relationships, of secret names and release—why did Rumpelstiltskin protect his name so, while still risking its discovery?

    Most likely, it was a calculated risk that he imagined would end in his favor. And the cruelty—of Rumpelstiltskin’s claim on the queen’s firstborn—is what defines the imp’s loss so succinctly. The transactions between girl and imp, the stakes rising with each day she has to transform straw into gold, betray, yes, not only Rumpelstiltskin’s greed—but also, the untold, otherworldly history of his own existence. When the imp ran away, his name revealed and (un)claimed, did he flee to a hollow to hide in the muck, to imagine himself anew? Who are we to judge?

    In some versions of the story, upon being named, Rumpelstiltskin stomps so hard into the floorboards that his foot crashes through them. For a while, he becomes stuck, immobilized, unable to escape being seen.

    *

    When I was in my late teens, I told my mother I didn’t believe in God. She asked if I believed in something, anything at all—and I suppose I do. I believe in the stories I grew up with in Baguio, of wood spirits and guardians of tree mounds; of ghostly gowned women and the cries of children in the night. In so many words, I told my mother I believed in my culture, in the energy of that word/world.

    Not that I am superstitious—rather, I like to name things as I was taught to see. In Baguio, my city of moss, I was taught by my elders that moths, especially silver or white ones, are likely a loved one who has passed away, come to watch over us. Believe it or not, I have spotted a white moth hovering near me during almost every major event in my life. So I name these creatures: lolo, tita, forgotten cousins. Perhaps, in naming them once-human, I am only hanging on to something that isn’t real. But I’d like to think that I have someone watching over me, tethering me to home, if only in the lamplight.

    *

    Words are symbols, names are spells—but for some, even renaming oneself is unthinkable, untenable. Reckoning of bone—discovery of home in our own bodies—the occasional foot pushing through floorboards, waiting to be salvaged, released.

    Yes, sometimes it seems as if this world only gives the other enough warmth to get through the day. So I become an impatient, hungry creature, waiting for the moon to undangle while I sleep, so I can wake and spark, always at the ready—for what? Wary of those who know my true names, apprehensive about being rejected for being other, I am a Fool, never realizing that nothing’s as simple as I’d like for it to be. The days repeat, my otherness repeats. Eventually, a comet’s tail fades.

    But to be asked if I were real—a real Cariño, someone whose blood tethered them to the land—was something I couldn’t yet comprehend. I didn’t know then what it meant to be something real.

    Really, I know very little about my father’s side of the family, or the stories passed down the Cariño lineage. And these days, I am called other than what was given me by my father. It is a diminutive of longer names that end with -ina. A baby name origin website asserts, “This suffix is used as an independent name, but doesn’t your little girl deserve more?” As if the gendered diminutive does not exist independently of names that end with -ina. Christina—Latin and Greek, female version of “anointed Christian.” Valentina—derived from Latin, female, “healthy, strong.”

    The name I go by reflects a past always threatening to render me invisible. But it also means mother in my native tongue Tagalog, mirror in Urdu. It stands on its own, untethered in this othered life, and I walk through it, pulling my knees up deliberately with every step.

    And still, I find rest in between—find respite in my remade self. I nest in a thousand feather pillows, wrap my hair in burnished silks, billow the air with smoke from snuffed candles. In dreams I am as nova, bright bloom of light—beautiful even in slow dissipation.

    And despite these little reminders that we all die daily (small moments of madness), it’s okay to forget how alive even long-dead stars can be, to bathe in their transformed light—even knowing they no longer exist. After all, the light is still here. I am touching it; I am in flames. I name myself: metal turned, finally, to gold.

    Ina Cariño
    Ina Cariño
    Ina Cariño is a 2022 Whiting Award winner who holds an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University. Their poetry appears or is forthcoming in American Poetry Review, The Margins, The New Republic, Guernica, Poetry Northwest, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, Waxwing, New England Review, and elsewhere. Ina is a Kundiman fellow and a recipient of a fellowship from the Vermont Studio Center. She is the winner of the 2021 Alice James Award for Feast, forthcoming from Alice James Books in March 2023. In 2021, Ina was selected as one of four winners of the 92Y Discovery Poetry Contest.





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