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When Cultural Virtue Puts Life in Harm's Way

By Lu Sobredo

Fourteen hours after receiving the news, I struggled to process and put things in perspective. Writing has become a means of coping in the pandemic and during other life-altering events. So, why not now?

Forgive me for the surge of thoughts and emotions that others within my family or community might deem extreme. But damn it, someone has to say it out loud.

I grew up among a very loving Filipino family and supportive community in California. Hearing words describing what’s unique about my ancestry, my ancestral province or region, and traits extolling our sensibilities and pride was as organic in our daily lives as breathing, eating, sleeping, and dancing. Dancing had to be included for my own sanity, a source of relief from the stressful news. Whether our Filipino family member had the ability or not to dance, we danced. Dancing was as natural as day. And to eliminate any physical awkwardness when expressing cultural pride and affection through dance, my beloved aunt Lucia aka Mama Nene aka Auntie Lucy enrolled me in ballet school at a young age. She and my mom made sure I learned to dance. Jazz, tango, waltz, native and Spanish-influenced folk dances had nothing on me when I was young. I faced the challenge head on.

Thus, the news from my cousin in the Philippines of my aunt being quarantined for COVID 19 was stressful. She is our everything in the family circle. Not too long ago, this 92-year-old/92-year-young elder told my husband James, “Just because I’m old does not mean I’m stupid.” The context of how that statement was blurted is immaterial. My aunt is smart, alert, spritely, elegant and would not take guff from anyone. Except she turns mush when caught up in wanting to maintain “acceptable behavior by what she perceived as expected in her corner of society.” 

When she insisted on having my cousin Grace take her to attend the ritualistic wake after a relative passed away, they went. That was May 31, 2021. 


I’d like to think that she was diligent after being reminded often to always wear a mask. The rate of COVID infections in the Philippines is shamefully high; the rate of COVID vaccinations is shamefully low. She knew she must stay vigilant. She was.

Come the burial event on June 5th. Dear cousin Grace tried to talk her out of attending. Too bad Cousin didn’t reach out to me as I would have done my best, not to reason but to beg our aunt not to go. Cousin is not responsible for my aunt's adult decision. Yet, maybe, if I had lectured her via Facetime—


They attended the funeral.


I am furious. But too late; she went. One of the relatives there tested positive for COVID 19, come to find out. Now they all had to be tested. Thank goodness Grace tested negative. Our elder did not. And I am mad and not mad like the mad hatter. I’m livid. Okay, it’s still hard for me to swear when talking about our elders.

Comforting at this time—Mama Nene is asymptomatic and being quarantined in our beachfront home with a caretaker. I immediately asked Grace to make sure they take her oximeter reading daily. The dip of oxygen supply in the blood is a very effective telling sign that could be the difference between health and physical suffering or worse. Once the reading dips below 94 or in the high 80s, time to go to the hospital for oxygen treatment. This action has saved many in Italy who were given oximeters to monitor their condition during the pandemic.

The reason Mama Nene gave to convince Grace to drive her to the funeral was “Nakakahiya” if she didn’t attend. Others more versed in the language than I am might give a better translation, but the word is another one of those depicting a Filipino trait I’ve worked on shedding all my life. A trait called for on many occasions. In this case, Mama Nene considered it shameful not to show support when family members are grieving and not accompany them for their last rites. It must be one of those required/expected behaviors. But the fear of shame put her in harm’s way. Put our family in harm’s way. And I am not amused. I now pray most ardently for her. I do expect my aunt to test negative in a few days, that is my prayerful petition to the Universe. But darn it. This phrase, “No one ever dies from embarrassment,” was true prior to COVID 19 pandemic. It’s true and more so now, it must be embraced under COVID pandemic conditions.

The word, “nakakahiya” (Tagalog origin) reminds me of another word, “patugsiling” (Aklanon origin) that the late NVM Gonzales, a renowned Filipino American writer who it turned out was related to me, used to proudly say that it is  such a unique word in the Visayas, Aklan Province specifically. Aklan is the seat of our common family roots. There’s no direct transliteration for the word "patugsiling" in English. A dear friend Elena Mangahas could help me with the translation I’m sure, but absent her direct input let’s just say I grew up understanding the word to mean, “sacrificial patience.” Another trait or virtue that could put one in harm’s way if not careful.

The point of this rant is personal. It’s a way of gaining a sense of relief from the anger and stress of finding out my beloved elder is dealing with a COVID-related event that could have been avoided. A cautionary reminder to all.

The point is, I won’t be apologetic for doing all I could to shed myself of the so-called virtues that are unique to my culture, especially ones that are not practical when conditions and circumstances in the world have changed. No, I never did succumb to the feeling that I must send money to the Philippines even when I started earning after college. Other family members did. I am fortunate that my family in the Philippines managed well without expecting monetary infusion from me. I do show my gratitude and affection in ways that might require spending money, but I refuse to be an enabler in other ways. Alright, that was somewhat related to the topic, but random at best. It was all to show there are traits and virtues Filipinos hang on to for dear life, but at high risk to their lives and well-being and the well-being of others.

There are other traits and practices I do embrace and won’t shed even if forcibly  pried out of me—hospitality, compassion, demonstratively affectionate (mostly), sentimental, musical, love of food, love of dance and restraint (only if I must). There are other traits I’m sure, but with my head still reeling from the unfortunate news, this list will do for now. 

We love our Mama Nene. She spent most of her adult life in the U.S. but chose to retire in our ancestral home. She was a teacher by profession and our mentor and teacher in the family all of our lives. She is extraordinarily resilient. It has been twelve days since the precipitating exposure on June 5, 2021 so far. Pray with me. Or at least dance. I love it that Native Americans have their “rain dance” and I am all for expressing prayer in a “dance for health." Filipino health dance, anyone?

Essay ©Lu Sobredo

Photo ©James Sobredo—Taken 2017 when hubby James traveled to the Philippines for his research and to pay our aunt a visit. Mama Nene was tearfully reading a handwritten letter I wrote to her.



  1. Hi Lulu,
    Hoping you're still celebrating All Births. Praying that everyone in the familia is doing well now. This post alarmed me since Auntie is 92. It's good to hear from Grace that she's back in town post quarantine. Yet I know gatherings are not allowed in the provinces. We've always been praying for Auntie Lucy and all of you. Last year Grace helped Auntie record this video I collaged for IG. It speaks to all of us, yes?
    <3 Sending love and prayers, JoanMay, also known as "Lola Baniy," with Akeanon accent written with original spelling by Eve when crafting cards at 5

    ps ((Posting here because I stopped posting on FB and IG before my last birthday. Am a "target" since I'm the prof coordinating a new Human Security Institute (similar to the center I founded/directed at the U back East) at the U here on this high risk island. Plus I've been teaching international nonviolence on-line for years. Yet so much is good with daily access to the sea and 1 and 2:1 meet-ups; no groups even if some of us are vaccinated.))


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