Nanay (n.)

Nanay (n.)

From Nahuatl, a language group from the Uto-Aztecan family, nāntli to mean “mother” or “womb.” It’s the word a wayward grandchild uses to describe loving at a distance; a thread holding family and history together is a simple five letter word.

Nanay, a loan word borrowed and carried to the Philippines through Spain’s Galleon Trade with Mexico. Imagine early shipmates trading stories of home – Acapulco and Manila linked through our mothers, yearning for homecooked meals while fearing the adornment of mourning clothes, their bodies buried in foreign soils.

Separated by 6,264 kilometres of the Pacific Ocean, my mother’s mother is a living ghost, a voice I can’t put back inside a body. We exchange conversations over the phone about growing up in Sydney, about the family back home. All we have are glimpses of language, the spectre of being together in the same time and place. When she calls, I remember that I am speaking, that I have a voice worth hearing. I know this to be true. I have a voice and I am speaking right now, but in a forcefully broken English to ease the displacement of a mongrel tongue, Tagalog.


Tagalog (n.)

“Pertaining to the Tagalog people or language.” An ethnolinguistic group inhabiting Metro Manila and Calabarzon regions in Southern Luzon.  From taga “from” or “native to” and ilog “river.” Alternative translations include taga-alog “people from the ford.”

Before it was named Las Islas Filipinas. Before the Spanish challenged the Sultanates for the island passageway. Before the trinity of Persian, South Indian, and Chinese Muslims came for trade and conquest. As the waterways dried and valleys flooded, the children growing by the river became warriors that fled into the arms of the mountain, where few conquistadors and missionaries dared to go.

Who are we, if not the rock empires are made from?

4000 years ago, ancestors of Austronesian descent sailed to the lowlands of Manila. As they made homes around the Pasig river and the mountains of Rizal, they began carving images of frogs, lizards, and fish into a shallow rock shelter in Angono. Among the anima are figures in the likeness of children, etched into the stone in a position, which suggests they were kneeling in worship. 20 kilometres away in San Mateo, my Nanay wakes and lights a cigarette. My Tita scolds her while placing the kettle on the stove, preparing the water for Nanay’s coffee and her cup of green tea. The phone rings as she blows into the steaming liquid and sits into a sunken armchair.

Before I could imagine the contours of your face or feel the tender down of your hand against my forehead, you were distorted soundwaves echoing into the phone. Once a week, sometimes twice if Mama missed you too much, we would speak. Mama would coach me on what to say on the phone like an awkward, gangly boy forced to play footy with his unripe limbs. Every conversation was an injury waiting to happen. As she handed me the receiver, the plastic would be moist with her sweat, or tears, after spending hours speaking to her siblings. Exaggerating the muscles on her face, she drops her jaw, purses her lips then abruptly taps her tongue to roof of her mouth. I identify this as ka – mus – ta.

“Kamusta, po.” I whisper.

“Mabuti. Ikaw?” I recognise the timbre of the throat, her voice melodious yet powerful. Stumbling between repetition or English, I forget how, or if I can, continue speaking.



From the Spanish ¿cómo está? cómo, “how” and está the conjugation of the verb estar, which means “to be.”

Panglima Awang, more commonly known as Enrique of Malacca, was enslaved by Ferdinand Magellan at 14 years old. Other accounts say “taken” or “acquired” as though our bodies are fruit picked from trees. It is an insidious euphemism for historians to say taken and to complete the sentence with as a slave at 14 years old. The Ancient Greeks believed that replacing ill-omened words with more favourable, fair speech would avoid man-made calamities. This is how we are taught that Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world without Enrique of Sumatra, how James Cook discovered the great southern land without Tupaia of Raiatea.

Who are we, and how did we get here?

Mama mouthed the words; I love you and I miss you. I used to imagine a plump, small woman with ashen hair. So vividly, I drew the outline of a beige apron, the careful stitching of an ankle-length dress; as if I were a cartographer and you a city levelled by chaos. Unlike other children, there exists no memory of walking to your house after school or the stomach-ache of eating too many freshly baked cookies. There were no pictures to bring to show and tell, no tender recollections of my sisters or frightening stories of mumus to force me into bed.

“Mabuti, po Nanay.”

“That’s good. Remember, ingat ka lagi. And be good.”

I never told you this story, po. When I was in kindergarten, my teacher wore a palda and I had never seen her in one before. I used to sit cross-legged at the front of the classroom and after she marked the roll, I said, “miss, you’re wearing a palda.”

“A what?”

“A palda. You’re wearing a palda.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying.” And she lets out a hearty laugh.

The rest of children stare in confusion at the lost joke. “I think it’s in her language, miss.”

But it wasn’t in my language, I just didn’t know it yet. Nanay, when our ancestors spoke mabuti to the pale skinned Engkanto, they were slaughtered.

Mama’s stern eyes watch me as I lay Tagalog over an English tongue. She mouths the words again, encouraging a sentence I don’t fully understand.

“Mahal kita.”

“Mahal na mahal din kita.”



Tagalog borrows the word from Malay traders: expensive, rich or dear. In exchange, it derives from Hindi to mean, “a mansion or a palace.” Older than this, it comes from the Persian word mahal with roots in Arabic – “abode, stopping place.”



1. Dear

Mahal kong Nanay.

In 1961, Nick Joaquin writes: “he had looked up and suddenly seen, with a shock of recognition, a range of mountains that looked like a woman sleeping…it changed the indifference with which he had come to his father’s country into a stirring of clan-emotion – a glow, almost, of homecoming.”


2. Expensive

Ang presyo ay masyadong mahal.

If we date the rock material, the terminus post quem for the petroglyphs at Angono would be approximately 11,700 years. With strengthening typhoons and disastrous heat, the woman in the mountains drowns, leaving only dreams for her children. What price do we pay for bondage, instead of freedom?



1. Beloved

The Angono petroglyphs show 127 distinct drawings in the cliffside. It was believed that by carving the figures of their sick children, the mountain would carry the ailments of the child and save them from death. In your kitchen, there is the image of three little girls with pale skin and mousey brown hair taped to the bare concrete. Nanay, I once asked you who those girls were, and you laughed even though a sadness returned to your eyes.  You didn’t have any images of your three apo before they flew away, so you carefully took a cutting from a magazine in their memory.



1. To love

I think it’s in her language. We say hello and how are you instead of we’re lost, and we don’t even know how much we’ve lost. I’m writing because I don’t remember how to speak to you. I remember I started filling myself with a belly full of English when I felt the heat of shame grasping at words, trying to make sense of why no one else understood me. I am etching these words so that one day, we can find our way back; to bring the mountains to the river.


Gloria Demillo

Author: Gloria Demillo

Gloria Demillo (they/them) is a poet, performer and multidisciplinary creative from Sydney, Australia. They have worked closely with Word Travels for Australian Poetry Slam, Bankstown Poetry Slam, Red Room Poetry, CuriousWorks, and Radio Skidrow.

1 thought on “Nanay (n.)”

  1. Thank you Gloria for the lessons in Tagalog word origins and for the introduction to Nick Joaquin. I enjoyed your writing. Now I see why ‘tahimik ang mga bata’ on the telepono.

Your thoughts?