The fact that I
am writing to you
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else.
(Gustavo Perez Firmat)
My parents dreamt of going to America, and my grandparents did as well. When my grandfather’s brother joined the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, those dreams were suddenly within reach.
It took about 15 years for my family’s U.S. petition to be approved and fast forward to April 2004, my family moved to Daly City where my mother learned to love the fog.
I was the rebellious daughter, hesitant immigrant. That 17-year old who refused to accept her new reality as she clung to international phone cards hopeful that she could live a life back in the Philippines through her own means, albeit 6,000 miles away.
Of course, I turned to books. Serramonte Public Library in Daly City (or “Little Manila”) became my refuge, while clutching Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga’s The Bridge Called My Back close to heart:
The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian–our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.
That was over a decade ago and still, the poems, stories and essays from the anthology still resonate with me. I am always reminded of those first few days and weeks of my newly immigrated self, as I first learned about Immigrant Heritage Month celebrated this June.
I’ve been seeing the tag #IAmAnImmigrant on Twitter a lot and I’ve read some stories on its website, welcome.us. The experiences of other immigrants are not different from mine, but reading about their stories brings different selves to the forefront, no matter the length, time and effort of assimilation.
I remember Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and feeling so affirmed as I followed the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian immigrant in the U.S. Just as I was disoriented at my first college class at San Francisco State University, I shared Ifemelu’s sentiments:
But she was uncomfortable with what the professors called ‘participation,’ and did not see why it should be part of the final grade; it merely made students talk and talk, class time wasted on obvious words, hollow words, sometimes meaningless words.
I started working at Borders Books and Music a couple of years later and in spite of the extensive walls of fiction books, I gravitated to the Political Science alcove. As a queer immigrant, I had a lot of questions and I was hungry for answers.
One of the books that was consistently on the bestsellers’ list was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It wasn’t until I read Zinn’s book that I felt like I finally understood the historical and political context of the U.S., seeing my new host country in a different light.
What struck me as I began to study history was how nationalist fervor –inculcated from childhood on by pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing– permeated the educational systems of all countries, including our own. I wonder now how the foreign policies of the United States would look if we wiped out the national boundaries of the world, at least in our minds, and thought of all children everywhere as our own. Then we could never drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or napalm on Vietnam, or wage war anywhere, because wars, especially in our time, are always wars against children, indeed our children.
The longer I stayed in the U.S, the more I knew. With that knowledge came realizations about how the personal and political are intertwined, that the immigrant story is not just a personal choice for most but a situation brought about by many factors: geopolitics, economic situations and others that are for the most part beyond an individual’s control.
Lorde’s poetry, her books Zami and Sister Outsider helped me articulate my own struggles as a queer woman of color, while giving me the kind of resilience I needed transcend the harsh realities I faced.
When we define ourselves, when I define myself, the place in which I am like you and the place in which I am not like you, I’m not excluding you from the joining – I’m broadening the joining.
And then there are books like John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hitman, a title that called out to me from the front display table while I was still working at Borders. It reminded me of my grandfather’s books in the Philippines whose shelves were lined with mystery thrillers, memoirs and spy novels.
Perkins’s book details his life as a consultant engaged in helping U.S. intelligence agencies and multinational corporations “blackmail and cajole foreign leaders into serving U.S. interests.” All of it was appalling to me. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, but I knew that it was the truth.
Reading about these things as an immigrant gave me the perspective I needed to situate myself in the work that I knew needed to happen: my activism with a women’s grassroots organization, GABRIELA. Perkins stated that there were efforts by U.S. intelligence to kill this project, but he still pursued writing Confessions.
This book was written so that we may take heed and remold our story. I am certain that when enough of us become aware of how we are being exploited by the economic engine that creates an insatiable appetite for the world’s resources, and results in systems that foster slavery, we will no longer tolerate it. We will reassess our role in a world where a few swim in riches and the majority drown in poverty, pollution, and violence. We will commit ourselves to navigating a course toward compassion, democracy, and social justice for all.
* * *
Featured image and all artwork featured on this post are made by the incredibly talented Favianna Rodriguez.
Pia Cortez is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She runs a book blog called Libromance where she reviews books and publishes literary features with a queer Filipino immigrant lens. She is a contributor at Hella Pinay, an online magazine for Filipino-American women and at New Life Quarterly, a literary magazine based in Oakland, California. She is currently working on her first novel.