Fil-Am memoirs: A multicolored fabric
Fil-Am memoirs: A multicolored fabric
- Alfred A. Yuson () - May 6, 2002 - 12:00am
Seven Card Stud with Seven Manangs Wild: An Anthology of Filipino-American Writings, edited by Heen C. Toribio, published by the Filipino American Historical Society East Bay Chapter, not only has an arresting title and an attractive paperback cover, but promises upon initial browse another cornucopia of literary delights from a sector of Philippine writing in English that continues to show the way to a new global order.

Gulp. Yeah, quite a mouthful. But it’s true, it’s true. Bear me out and I’ll come close to proving it.

As I’ve expressed repeatedly in this column, I believe that the future of Philippine literary writing will depend in large part on the breakthroughs being achieved abroad. And what better way to accomplish these than be a part of the great diaspora?

The roster of writers in this anthology includes the following: Joseph T. Oliva Arriola, Gloria Balanon Bucol, Teresita Cataag Bautista, Evangeline Canonizado Buell, Trudy Bonzo Chastain, Eleanor M. Hipol-Luis, Abraham Flores Ignacio, Jr., Herb Jamero, Peter M. Jamero, Jeanette Gandionco Lazam, Brenda Manuel, Benjamin Mendoza, R. Baylan Megin-Cravagan, Elizabeth Mendoza Megino, Mel Orpilla, Loralei Cruz Osborn, Tony Robles, Victoria J. Santos, James Sobredo, Bill Sorro, Helen C. Toribio, and Raquel Jumawan Willey.

That’s 24 contributors, half of whom sport hyphenated or extended names, giving us an immediate clue as to the sort of identity concerns that will be taken up in this collection of individual memoirs and poems.

Anyone familiar with literary bylines among Fil-Am writers will also note that apart from the editor Toribio and the poet Tony Robles, the names here hardly ring a bell. This makes reading the book a virginal experience, both ways. No bias informs the ice-breaking; we are intrigued by the promise of what these apparent amateurs, or possibly a garden variety of weekend memoirists, can offer.

Ms. Toribio sounds a hopeful, subtly confident note in her well-articulated foreword, er, apologia of sorts, titled "On Language and the Filipino American: Broken English, Broken Pilipino." It may seem unnecessarily apologetic, but ultimately comes across as an honest appraisal, or explanation, of how these collected writings manifest a multi-cultural and/or sub-cultural experience, warts and all.

Toribio writes: "We have mined our memories to illustrate in words our life journeys as Filipino Americans. These journeys span seventy years. We wrote these stories in the language that now comes naturally to us.

However, to rely entirely on English would be denying an integral aspect of the American sub-culture where we were raised. We thus integrated those words we heard or overheard during adult happy hours or when our butts were stung and our arms pinched by parental sanctions.

But if chldhood memories are more sentiments than replicas of past events, then defectiveness is natu-ral. The Tagalog, Cebuano, and Ilokano words that you will find in the following pages may not be grammatically correct in the present standards of the Filipino languages. We, therefore, beg the indulgence and forgiveness of our immigrant brothers and sisters, and all relations in our ancestral homeland who have sustained the languages of our roots."

I have great admiration for Toribio’s clarity and elegance of expression, but I must reserve concurrence with the notion of a "natural defectiveness" when it already concerns "the language that now comes naturally to us." For if there’s anything to fault in this book, it’s the deficient copyreading that attended many of the contributions. A more stringent application of the blue pencil would have preempted numerous instances of gaucheries in prose.

There is also a sense of repetitiveness in much of what’s discussed in the individual recollections of arrival, initial problems of fitting in – the whole, serial caboodle of immigrants’ woes. This may however prove unavoidable, given the collective theme and scope, if highly personal, of the essays.

Literarily, I much enjoyed the poems of Tony Robles that serve as more than mere breakers. Here’s an excerpt from the concretely serpentine "Being Pilipino":

"Being Pilipino/ and black/ or black/ and Pilipino/ is a chocolate chip cookie// Are you more cookie/ or/ more chocolate/ chip?// The dark part/ sometimes gets hidden/ on the bottom, but/ it sticks to the soul/ and is strong/ and you just know/ it’s there// And sometimes/ the whole thing/ drowns itself/ in milk/ and crumbles to/ the bottom ..."

Of sheer literary worth too is the spinning strength of the "objective correlative" of a handcarved Filipino top besting the American commercial versions in Herb Jamero’s "Uncle’s Top," which would read well as memoir or short fiction.

Another essay, "The Mail Box," reverberates with the haunting image of Gloria Bucol as a young girl in 1960, desperately wishing for her farmhand-clad mother to finish repairing a mailbox before the school bus comes to fetch her. Her fear of humiliation speaks volumes of the universality of similar experiences faced by the young captive of a new or alien environment.

"... The bus drew closer and closer, finally stopped right in front of us, its doors swung open, and I hesitantly climbed the steps to enter. As I walked down the aisle, I looked up and saw the kids on the bus, looking curiously at Mom through the windows, then at me to see my reaction. I walked straight ahead, my head high, just thinking – just let any one say anything and I would punch them.

"It was not until many years later that I came to understand the significance of this small incident. Now, when I look back, I can only think of what courage it must have taken for my mom to proudly continue fixing the mail box, looking straight into the bus, almost defiantly meeting the stares of my schoolmates. Certainly she knew she was dressed unlike their mothers, that she looked like a farmer, that she was different, and even spoke with an accent! But the lesson I finally learned was that no matter what your origins, your station in life, and even if you don’t quite ‘fit in,’ you can still be proud of what you are. You can still be proud even if you’re just fixing a mailbox..."

Then there’s the sterling narrative that is the title story, by Evangeline Canonizado Buell, which is no replication of "The Joy Luck Club" but stands out on its own for its story-telling: of how the manangs would speak five dialects while playing poker, and how they "all had to learn Tagalog to communicate with one another here in America."

The story ends beautifully. Buell recounts a game where four of the manangs hold good hands and keep raising the ante, but eventually come to a tacit agreement, helped along by kicks under the table. "... Standing behind them, I caught a glimpse of the cards. One was holding a full house, another two pairs and another a straight. Then, with craft and skill, they purposely folded one by one so that Manang Rosario was left with the ’winning’ hand, a pair of tens. They had known she didn’t have enough money to pay the PG&E and to buy groceries for the rest of the month. Her ’Oy, my goodness’ was music to their ears.

"As the years passed, one by one the manangs folded. There were four and then three left to place their bets. I heard the last ‘Oy, my goodness’ of the angels as they swooped down and opened their arms to scoop up to heaven the last remaining manang – my grandmother, Roberta."

The Introduction by James Sobredo, titled "Filipino American Lives: A Multicolored Fabric," offers valuable historical data.

"The Filipino experience in California is a multiracial one, which has its roots in the 1830 marriage of a Filipino named Domingo Felix and his wife Euphrasia, a Coast Miwok. They were married in Point Reyes and settled at Laird’s Landing. Today nearly all the Coast Miwoks are part Filipino...

This multiracial theme continued when the first documented Filipino family under the American colonial regime arrived in the port of San Francisco in 1902. Rufina Clemente Jenkins, a mestiza from Naga, Camaranes Sur, of Filipino and Spanish parentage, was accompanied by her six-month-old daughter Francesca. Rufina came as a ‘war bride.’ Her husband Frank Jenkins was an African American corporal in the US Army’s 9th Cavalry, where he also served as a Spanish interpreter. Because of his Spanish language skills, we discover that Jenkins was also part-Mexican, and at home the Jenkins family spoke Filipino, Spanish, and English."

The rest of Sobredo’s Intro updates us on the cycles of Filipino immigration to America, and gives a well-deserved pat on the back for the effort that went into this collection.

"... (M)any of the stories ... are about a time and place that no longer exist, and therein lies the value of this book. It is a tribute to the manangs and manongs and the life that they lived.

"We have presented these works in public readings and conferences in Chicago, Portland, San Francisco, and Manila. These stories are a labor of love and a way of preserving our family stories for future generations of Filipino Americans and the general public. The editors of this book have done a marvelous job of bringing the project to completion. As these stories will testify, the communities like Alameda, Berkeley, Fremont, Hayward, Oakland, San Francisco, Union City, Livingston, and Stockton provide a rich and multicolored fabric to that experience which we call Filipino American."

Amen to that. To think that what’s commendably preserved in this book is but the collective memoirs of Filipino immigrants’ experiences in the West Coast. Should the rest of the FANHS chapters replicate this effort, imagine how rich a virtual cyclopedia of Fil-Am memory can help all of us – out there or back at the poor old ancestral home – arrive at our destiny with full appreciation of all the bittersweet steps taken to get there.

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