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How I learned good environmental lessons from my ‘eco-grandma’ (#repost)

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

Note: This is a repost of an article I wrote for the FilAm LA (A magazine for Filipino Americans in Southern California) and was posted there September 18, 2025.

By Jennifer Suzara Cheng

We had three sets of grandparents: paternal grandparents, maternal grandparents and my maternal grand uncle/auntie. Both of our biological grandparents lived in Manila while we lived in the province thus we developed this close affinity and love to our grand auntie, who we fondly called Lola Nana (Grandma/Auntie).

She was married to my mother’s maternal uncle Lolo Tata (Grandpa/Uncle), they were childless but they raised my mother and youngest auntie in their home at Mambulao (Jose Panganiban), a small coastal town along the Pacific Ocean in the province of Camarines Norte the gateway of Bicolandia in the island of Luzon, Philippines.

Lola nana with grandkids and author’s mother

Every visit triggers fond memories of our idyllic childhood summer vacations that included the sun, blue skies, sunrise, sunset, sea, people, church, food, comics, wooden shiny floors, sea breeze, cocks crowing, pig grunts, naps and most of all love.

Fast forward to the present, I live thousands of miles away in a small city of San Pedro California on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, a small coastal city where pretty much I found my home away from home. After our last child left for College, suddenly I found extra time in my hands that led to my involvement in Environmental Organizations connected to my job as a high school public school teacher.

As I became more involved with RECYCLING and CONSERVATION there are moments that I would pause and think how Lola Nana actually used to practice some if not all of these in her home.

UPCYCLING: Lola Nana used old pots, pans , chamber pots, cookie tins, cooking oil tins and pretty much any containers for her plants. She said if it can contain soil then do not throw them away because she could grow anything on them. Something to consider for those city dwellers who want to start a home garden on limited space, just make sure to use food grade containers for vegetables and tins for ornamental plants.

RECYCLING: Old clothes were either given away/ bartered with produce with farmers or sent to the dressmaker ( modista) and be converted to children’s summer clothes then all the extra materials were sewn together and used as rags (trapo).

CONSERVATION: She raised free ranged chickens and used dung as fertilizer. She would always say that when the sea is rough and there are no fish in the market the chickens were good options for food. Since there were no refrigerators then keeping live animals guarantees that meat were always fresh.

At the same time , she always raised pigs because all the excess food (kaning baboy) at her home and her neighbors would not go to waste. These neighbors eventually will receive meat for their share in feeding the pigs when the pigs were slaughtered during Fiesta, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

ORGANIC BUG REPELLENT: The wooden floor was always clean and shiny. She would call one of the neighborhood kids and ask them to get Palo Maria (shrubs) to rub on the floor so that the bugs will not enter the house.

CONSERVATION: Water can be kept cold even on hot and humid summer days inside clay jars (tapayan). In the absence of dishwashers and running water, the first rinse of plates and cooking pots goes to a special container for her animals hydration needs.

INDIGENOUS PRACTICE: Coconut oil was use for hair as conditioner, skin as lotion, for cooking main course (lumpia, gata) and desserts (santan, bukayo, buko salad). Young Coconut water was for afternoon snack while the matured coconut water was fermented for vinegar. The husks were used as floor polisher (bunot), leaves used as brooms (walis tingting), while the shell for charcoal and the tree used for benches.

NATURAL PHARMACY: As a child I was always afflicted with cough and sore throat, she would give me a slice of fresh ginger to suck but not chew in my mouth. This would be followed by fresh ginger tea drunk slowly to soothe my painful throat.

FOOD AS MEDICINE : She was the one who taught us that Malunggay leaves (Moringa oleifera) could be added into any food, be it soup or stew. She would attest to its nutritious content.

TRASH: She would always tell us not to throw trash on the ocean because when the tide comes back the trash will come back to us as well.

NUTRITIOUS SNACKS: For our afternoon snacks, sweet potato, cassava, yam, banana and fruits in season were the options. Old cooked rice was washed and left to dry under the sun and made into pop rice with brown sugar, a real treat indeed.

She embodied the common sense approach to conservation and the old school lifestyle not to be wasteful, she always remind us that if we waste not, we will want not.

Finding my Lola Nana’s ecofriendly practices resonates with my life now, it is interesting how in the bigger picture, it all started when I was a child.

Editor’s Note: Jennifer Suzara Cheng, an immigrant from Camarines Norte and a recent recipient of the national “Outstanding Green-o-vation” award from Green Schools Inc., files this first-person story tracing her environmental consciousness from her family’s practices. In August she was one of the 200 leaders invited by the White House to attend Climate Symposium for their contributions to the environmental movement. Jennifer came to this country 11 years ago, and now teaches honors and AP biology courses at San Pedro High. She remembers being known in Ateneo de Naga where she taught for 13 years as “Reyna ng Karagatan” (Queen of the Sea) for her consummate interest in marine biology.

Author’s close-knit family in LA: From L ( standing) Melissa Villegas (niece in law), Karl Cheng (son), Steven Cheng (son), Bella Villegas (grand niece/carried baby), Albert Suzara(brother), Tyler Villegas (grand nephew/carried baby), Annie Cheng-Low (daughter), Derrick Low (son in law) seated Angelo Dia(nephew in law), Louie Dia( grand niece), Karen Dia (niece), Arlene Grace Suzara (sister), Jenifer Suzara-Cheng (author) , Alex Cheng (husband).


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