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Letter from San Francisco: From the Diaspora: ‘To be Filipino is a burden’

Computer graphics by IGAN D’BAYAN

It has been three years now that poor health has kept me away from visiting San Francisco, America’s most beautiful city where, as Tony Bennett rhapsodizes, I left my heart after my first visit there in 1955. Three years — and indeed, so much in San Francisco’s skyline has changed but, thank God, its cloying charm has not. The airport has been refurbished and now seems plushier and more efficient. We were met there by Pastor Edwin Arcellana and Amber Rodriguez, ranking officials of Ang Lahi — an adjunct of The Bread of Life Asian Ministries International.

Some four years ago, I was invited by the same group to speak at their Quezon City auditorium, and soon after, Rev. Ella Jaymalin invited me again; on one occasion, she brought to Solidaridad the young writers so I could dialogue with them not just on the craft, but most importantly, on the themes that should concern them.

Then Rev. Gina Atencio from Los Angeles came to Manila and invited me to speak in America. For this talk Rev. Arcellana asked me to expound on the diaspora, Rizal, the Filipino condition, and the possible emergence of “new” Filipinos.

I spoke first in South San Francisco, then in Glendale near Los Angeles, and in Union City and at the Town Hall in Chula Vista also close to San Diego.

We were greeted by Mylene Jovellanos of Dagupan at the posh Manchester Grand Hyatt where she works. Our 29th floor room had a panoramic view of the harbor, the old aircraft carrier, The Midway, now a museum right in front.

My last talk was in the headquarters of Ang Lahi in Daly City.

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I told them, one look at the map shows so vividly that as an archipelago of so many islands, we are a maritime country with a seafaring tradition. When the Portuguese came to these islands before the Spaniards did, they found the native boats bigger than theirs, the cannons forged in the foundries in Sulu better than theirs. The Chinese have recorded in their ancient annals how ships with sails of woven palm leaf from these islands raided their coasts.

Carlos Quirino, the historian who was once the head of our National Library told me in the ‘50s that, on record, it was a Filipino who first sailed around the world. This was Enrique — named after Henry the navigator of Portugal. Quirino, who also collected ancient maps, said Enrique, as mentioned in Pigafetta’s account of Magellan’s epic voyage, spoke a Visayan language. In my novel Viajero which is precisely about the diaspora, I surmised that the man may have been sold to slave traders and was purchased by the Portuguese in Malacca, for which reason, he was also claimed by the Malaysians.

In my first visit to the United States in 1955, I hastened to the Newberry Library in Chicago to look at that amazing document — a book by a Chinese artist showing what is perhaps the earliest graphic record of the inhabitants of the Philippines. It was brought out of a special vault — a book-size collection of drawings of high-born women adorned with jewelry, fine clothes, and noblemen just as elegantly clothed, with swords and footwear. Only the common folk were in their bare feet.

In the museum of the Central Bank in Manila is a gold jewelry collection fashioned by native craftsmen before the Spaniards came. In the 1980s a bulldozer operator in Surigao dug them up. These artifacts illustrate the scientific and artistic finesse of our ancestors. Without modern electric drills and anesthesia, they inlaid the teeth of wealthy Filipinos with gold.

Our phonetic alphabets enabled our ancients to record their lives; two of these are still extant in Mindoro and Palawan among our ethnics there.

Even the earliest chroniclers of the Spanish conquest — Morga and Chirino — bore witness to these achievements of our distant forefathers — denying completely the calumny spread by imperial Spain’s apologists, that the Spaniards (and the Americans later) came to the Philippines to civilize a savage race.

I urged the Fil-Ams to know about our past for it impinges on the future — now, us.

The huge export of Filipino labor started during the Marcos regime. When we were living in Hong Kong in the early ‘60s, no Filipino housemaids worked there. Our maid was from Canton and she taught my wife frugality unequaled by the Ilokanos. The rich Filipinos before World War II and shortly after Liberation in 1945 had Chinese amahs, too.

Then Marcos was faced by thousands of educated Filipinos who couldn’t find work. The answer to this problem should have been massive modernization — industrialization — but again, he took the easy way out.

Could we have succeeded otherwise? Of course — if the leaders had iron will — patriotism, most of all. At the time, our economists were gloating, we were on the takeoff stage. And why not? We were the most prosperous, the most modern in Southeast Asia. Our schools attracted students from all over the region. As the Thais said, they learned rice production from Los Baños.

And so today, Filipinos are scattered everywhere — in the pitiless deserts of the Middle East, the icy wastes of the Artic, the booming cities of the West.

Our OFWs send a hefty $20 billion home in both official and underground channels to prop up the economy; this foreign exchange is then wasted in conspicuous consumption, in shopping malls, in golf courses and spas, in plush condominiums.

Meanwhile, with the dependency of those left behind, are broken homes, spouses succumbing to adultery, concubinage. The moral toll of the diaspora is very heavy indeed.

In Chula Vista, during the question and answer period, a distraught, young and pretty Fil-Am said it is a burden to be Filipino in America — a comment that I understood only too well, exacerbated by the bad news emanating from Manila, from the unsavory reputation of our women domestics in Singapore and Hong Kong and bar entertainers and prostitutes in Tokyo. It is so painful to know that many Filipinos do not want to be identified as such, not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia.

In some instances, the negative image is created by the Filipino abroad themselves when they appear in media, convicted as crooks, as killers or drug mules. Or, as in the case of writer Jessica Hagedorn, her novel The Dogeaters heaps scorn and ridicule on us for being identified as such in a country whose culture abhors eating dogs. This, though it is known that Koreans and the Chinese raise dogs for food. In the case of Hagedorn, she is even proud of that book and for the Filipinos in America — alas, no one has bothered to damn it, not for literary reasons, but because it denigrates us.

Still, I argued for the hoisting and recognition of the Filipino identity in America, an emblem to exalt and to use in the ascendancy of Filipinos as a voiceless, shadow minority. How else will they be noticed if those who have excelled — and there are hundreds of them — are not labeled as such? Their recognition will be their ultimate bonding.

A good example of how identity helps a writer establish herself is Amy Tan, who was in Manila recently. I’ve read just one of her novels and won’t read any again. She is a good storyteller but is not as skillful as Maxine Kingston from whom a writer can learn a few tricks. But like Kingston, her fiction firmly establishes her identity which, in itself, evokes attention.

Among the Fil-Am writers in the United States today, Lesley Tenorio holds the most promise. He has tremendous narrative skill; he does not try too hard to be flashy or innovative like Hagedorn, or Gina Apostol. And there is Ben Pimentel in San Francisco whose play, The Guerrillas of Powell Street, was staged at the Cultural Center the other year to much applause.

I was asked to include Rizal in my talk. I do this often for Rizal is my greatest inspiration as a writer. I have been bothered by the efforts of the Communists to drag him down from his sanctified pedestal and replace him with Bonifacio. Both have hallowed niches in our history but they argued that Rizal denied the revolution, that the Americans iconized him because he conformed with their agenda to dampen the Filipino clamor for revolutionary freedom. This, they say Bonifacio espoused.

History has always been written by the victors; surely, our history should be written by us. And here is the unblemished truth. Rizal belonged to the upper class but his sympathies were for all Filipinos — particularly the oppressed. With his novels, particularly the Noli Me Tangere, he proclaimed his unflinching revolutionary faith and decreed his own death warrant. He may have denied this in his desire to live, even in abandoning his Masonic pledge, but he could not betray his conscience as evidenced in these novels. And most of all, he could have stayed abroad and flourished. Instead, he chose to return home to his foreordained martyrdom.

Some two years ago, then Senator Edgardo Angara toured the United States and Canada looking into Filipino organizations in both countries. He confirmed that while the Filipinos in North America form one of the largest minority groups there, they have very little political clout, their presence is not felt for the simple reason that they are so divided.

The proliferation of Filipino organizations attests only too well to the Filipino yabang and avid desire for status. If this inborn trait cannot be banished, then let it be. It makes so many happy and feel important which, after all, is what most of us want.

But there are so many instances, certain issues, particularly those that impinge on the commonweal that need unified action and support. In these cases, Filipinos should be able to transcend ethnic and other group loyalties for an ideal, a cause that will benefit the whole.

What could possibly unite Filipinos abroad?

Our history is one unifying element. The ancient Greeks were also splintered — the Greek states ridiculed one another and Athens and Sparta were constantly at war. But two elements united the Greeks — the first was sport, the Olympic contests which took place every four years, and the second was their appreciation of the beautiful. We see how Manny Pacquiao has unified us, ditto with our artists, and singers.

Another important element that unites people is religion or faith manifested as patriotism. Nativistic, millemarian, jihadists — all sorts of cults energized by faith flourish all over the world. Some have grown so powerful and omnipotent, they make history, move people and mountains. Some are exclusivist, founded by charlatans who made fabulous fortunes from the gullible to whom they promised salvation, utopia, nirvana.

Ang Lahi, which sponsored my talks, is an adjunct of Bread of Life. As I see it now, Ang Lahi can well be one of those institutions that can unite Fil-Ams, bind them with the solemn affinities of the soul.

How can pride be transfused into the fractured Filipino communities in America?

What is to be done?

I told them to start with the family, which is far more splintered than it is at home. When both parents work in the US, the children are left to themselves and are then influenced by their peers, gangs. It is easy for the young to make money and so schooling — continuing on to college — is often given up.

In the affluence in which America is immersed, comfort breeds alienation, a slow dehumanization of human beings. In this state, individuals lose direction, they see no purpose to their lives. When this mental state corrodes a person, he ends up a hedonist living only to satisfy the senses, or, finding no meaning to his life, he ends it.

I was surprised to learn that the suicide rate among the young Fil-Ams in the Los Angeles area was very high, induced not so much by poverty as it would be in the Philippines but by a sense of worthlessness, much of which can be traced to the loss of identity.

I told them that the old family values that have kept Filipino families intact should be practiced, the care and respect we give to elders and grandparents and to one another. I have been shocked to hear Americans call their parents by their first names, to send their aging parents to nursing homes. Certainly, their being able to speak Tagalog would strengthen their identities, which, in a melting pot like the United States, would also enhance their capabilities and make them more competitive in a society where competition is keen. If they do not realize the importance of identity, they will then be plowed under and fester at the bottom of the pyramid.

I was very pleased to see kids speak Tagalog that their parents taught them, and to practice the old mano po, which is our most obvious ritual of respect.

Amber Rodriguez was with me on the entire tour. She is a political science scholar and graduate of University of California, Los Angeles, and a taekwondo black belter. She asked if I could visualize the Philippines 50 years from now. I said my crystal ball isn’t all that clear but for the next 10 years, it may be easier to draw some conclusions. Within this decade, I said, we will either take off or become a failed state. For one, the foundation of all the progress that we see in Manila’s skyline now is not all that firm. So much depends on who will succeed P-Noy who has already begun good programs of government. I have a very dim view of Vice President Jejomar Binay as the next president. Perhaps, Filipinos in the United States can unite to support one good candidate.

A major problem is our relations with a recalcitrant China, which has already grabbed portions of our territory. We were unable to do anything about it. We cannot depend on the United States to come to our aid. We need a very strong defense position to make it very expensive for China to demean our sovereignty. We have to worry about our Chinese minority who control 60 percent of the economy. They send their money to China to which they are loyal, not to this country which they exploit.

I wish I had more time to stay with them, particularly the very young, so eager to know about the home country, and to do what is right for her. I reminded them of the many qualities of this unhappy nation which I, myself, have always been proud of and about which I have written — our superior talent and creativity, particularly when we leave the obstructive confines of geography and culture. I told them of the many expatriate Filipinos who have thrived and prevailed.

I reminded them of our history, what a heroic people we are, who fought for our freedom as no people in our part of the world had done. I mentioned the Battle of Tirad Pass, that most of those who were revolutionaries in 1896 were all very young, that when Sun Yat Sen mounted his revolution in the 1920s in China, the greatest assistance that he got was from the Chinese in America.

And of course, I never forget Rizal. No nation in Asia has ever produced a man as accomplished like him when, at 35, he was martyred.

In San Diego, many of those who listened to me were teachers who succeeded in having Tagalog accepted as a subject course in the schools particularly in areas like Chula Vista where so many Filipinos reside. They want their young to know our history and the national language, which is their truest anchor to the native soil. I hope their numbers will increase.

I never tire in mentioning that epochal event in the 18th century — the Meiji Restoration that transformed feudal Japan into a modern and powerful nation. It took not more than a hundred dedicated and patriotic Japanese who had bonded together to make that historical change. I see this as a joyous possibility for us, if there were more young leaders like Edwin Arcellana and his colleagues in Ang Lahi.

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