Ariana Zuniga: On Trinidad Escobar’s “Pantoum for Nanay”

Trinidad Escobar, Pantoum for Nanay

Before reading this poem and actually taking this course I had never tried to find a Filipino/Filipina writer. Not that I wasn’t interested, but I never made it a huge priority to seek them out. The main reason that brought me to choosing this very talent young Filipina out of the rest was simply because Trinidad Escobar is a very unique Filipina with a very creative way of presenting her poems to the public. She is a cartoon artist, a poet, and an educator from the Bay Area located in Oakland, California. She was born in Bataan, Philippines in 1986, during one of the most powerful typhoons that hit the Philippines. She was later adopted that same year and raised in California.

After doing some research I couldn’t find much information on Escobar, but I did find things about her through YouTube videos and small paragraphs on her website (trinidadescobar.com). Escobar writes a lot based on the experiences she faced growing up. She definitely has a different approach to things compared to other poets. She went to school to study poetry and then studied comics to make cartoons in her poems to illustrate a graphic story. She has combined two things she is passionate about to create comics to tell her stories. The visual approach she uses is very attention grabbing to the readers. The images given to the poems tells us part of the story and still leaves some mystery behind to help us interpret what she might be trying to say.

As I read this poem I had to break down the lines and reflect on what the message of the comic was saying. I had to come up with my own personal interpretation of her work and how it relates to key Filipino values such as: Kapwa (a shared identity, “shared self”, a connection of togetherness), Hiya (shame), and Ibang-tao (other people). Her graphic poem entitled “Pantoum for Nanay” has certain literary devices that Escobar uses in her poem, almost like a folk tale. The poem for “Nanay” is telling a story and we don’t know if this is actually a folk tale or just something inspired from creativity. Breaking down the stanzas into each comic is a visual guide to understanding the message of the poetic piece. Since I was not familiar with the title of the poem I had to look up the words. I learned that Pantoum is a type of poem verse and the word “Nanay” translates to “mother” in English. Escobar was adopted and raised in San Jose. She attended college at San Francisco State University (SFSU) were she received her BA in Creative Writing. This poem is meant for her biological mother in the Philippines. I’m sure she wonders what happened to her and this is Escobar’s way of remembering what her mother might have gone through during the difficult time on the island.

“At the base of this island
Close to the sun,

A viper descends a palm.
I think it is dangerous here.”

The poem for Nanay was written very vividly with strong clear images kept in mind for the reader to follow along. Escobar illustrates an unnamed naked woman on an island. She feels trapped, and there is a storm occurring. Based on the cartoon images and as I continued to read the poem I could see a palm tree. The palm tree is broken in half due to the storm. After doing to research on symbolism I discovered palm trees are a symbol of peace and eternal life. Having a broken palm tree would mean chaos. There are natural disaster happening around this island and surrounding this storyline. The poem reads, “it is dangerous here” on this island, but we don’t know the reasons why the island is “dangerous”. I feel like this poem is a reflection to the Typhoon of 1986, which is when Escobar was born in the Philippines, an island with hot weather, and a history of dangerous typhoons. As the reader of this piece, I feel Escobar has a connection to her mother and the motherland and she is telling us this story takes place in the Philippines. Demonstrating a connection to her culture and tradition of folktales. As well as a sense of family and unity.

“Close to the sun.
My life is too hard.

I think it is dangerous here;
I have no place to rest.”

The image of the broken palm tree reappears and now there is an image of the woman once again, only this time it is just her feet drawn in the comic. Her feet appear to be lifted from the ground. Symbolizing a moment of relieve and weight lifted. From the words written, we know she feels her life is too hard. Her feet are dirty and her legs look like they have endured a lot of pain. The storyline continues and the visuals shows a close up image of the woman with wrinkles around her face. She looks older and restless. She’s tired of her way of life and the conditions she has been through. There is more than meets the eye with her. Something is happening or happened to this woman that she is reflecting on. We get a sense the she is a hardworking individual and who spends long days in the sun. The woman appears to be young in the beginning and now with a close up, we can see her wrinkles. The island is hard to live on, the conditions can be hard, and the weather can be unforgiving. Is that what is dangerous?

“I let my child go.
Years have gone”

The narrative speaks of a child the woman has let go and of the years that have gone by. She gave up her child. This child is Escobar; her mother gave her up for adoption. This is an example of Hiya, which brings shame to family honor or to one’s self. Escobar’s mother is the woman in the comic and this is a personal poem from Trinidad to her mom. She could be reflecting on decisions her mother made in the past and now that she is older and wiser understand why she might have been put up for adoption. The reflections are addressing her mother’s mistakes and the way she feels about the choices she’s made. This poem isn’t just about this one woman, but about the daughter she “let go”, her memory of the daughter being gone, and the mother she never knew or saw again. The connection to this island represents her origin. Somehow all of it is connected and the memories associated with this location are not all good memories. because there is obviously some dark side to this tale.

“A viper descends a palm”

Throughout the poem there is a mention of a “viper”. Snakes are venomous and dangerous, but a viper can also be used to describe a treacherous person. Looking carefully at the comic you can see where Escobar drew a snake. Something is involved in betrayal or deception in the story. After reading more about the Escobar. I learned that she uses violent descriptions of nature to tell her messages through her art. Since she was born during the Super Typhoon Gading of 1896. This typhoon is also known as Typhoon Peggy to Americans. The typhoon was very intensive and has been documented as the 8th strongest typhoon in Philippine records. This disaster alone caused over 300 deaths, and over 2 million dollars in damages. Peggy can be the viper to the story. The big descending attack that separated her from her mother years ago.

Definitely some core values were introduced to this reading. It is possible to say that this specific poem has more meaning than just what one can see on the pages. There is a sense of something personal and unique to the writer. There is historical affiliation, the story is written on a very personal level. The poem demonstrates a very powerful connection to one’s roots and acknowledging one’s cultural background. It acknowledges unexpected circumstance which people cannot control such as natural disasters and it shows the unsolved thoughts one has about their parents. There is a sense of family in this case to her biological mother. There is some insight to how a woman feels not only just in their own culture but in general. There are moments of insecurities, moments of power and strength, and also moment of weakness and regrets in the poem. Although it was quick and very short, the message is powerful and very mysterious. This viper has taken something very important from this woman, a daughter who is now gone and memories are filled with dark moments and broken paths that never reached a destination.