A Lifetime of Resistance: Bienvenído Oscar!

Book Reviews

Update (9/26/2017):
Click here to support frontline Puerto Rican communities in the
recovery from Hurricane Maria! 

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i was born Boricua,
i will keep being Boricua,
and will die a Boricua.

–Oscar Lopez Rivera, Puerto Rican Independentista
(Oscar does not capitalize the “i” when referring to himself, in order to deemphasis the individual with respect to the collective)

I picked up Oscar López Rivera: Between Torture and Resistance (Amazon | Indiebound) at a local event in Berkeley where I signed up as a security volunteer. Even though I didn’t know who OLR was, I was excited to be part of an event celebrating the release of a political prisoner. Apart from Angela Davis whose book inspired me, I don’t hear many stories of political prisoners being released.

Maybe it was the timing, but I wanted to learn more about Oscar and his own struggle as a Puerto Rican independentista. As I write this, ten political prisoners were just released in the Philippines as part of ongoing peace talks between the NDF and the government. But more still languish behind bars. Many of the political prisoners released by the Philippine government are out of jail on certain conditions — as consultants for the peace talks.

The event was rapidly filling up, as people walked in with  the widest smiles. On the stage was a big “Bievenído Oscar!” banner. The reception hall was lined with artwork calling for Puerto Rican independence. The air had an electric feel to it and I’ve never seen so many activists in one space so joyous.


Oscar was born in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico in 1943. At age 14, he moved to Chicago with his family and soon enough, he was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces where he was awarded the Bronze Star for his service. But what came out of his time in Vietnam was not an increase in patriotic fervor, but a realization of who he was — Puerto Rican.

As soon as he came back from the service, he started to organize his communities and push for an end to U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. From 1969 to 1976, Oscar helped found several programs and initiatives: the Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school for Puerto Ricans celebrating innovator Paulo Freire (who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed); the Puerto Rican Cultural Center; campaigns for bilingual education support; Project 500 at the University of Illinois, an educational initiative to ensure the annual admission of five hundred Latino and African American students; the Latin American and Latino studies, as well Proyecto Pa’lante; the Latin American Recruitment Education Services; the first Latino Cultural Center in the state of Illinois; the Spanish Coalition for Housing and many others.

His civil activism between 1969 and 1976 clearly evidenced his genuine and significant effort to use every possible route of change within Chicago’s existing official structures. The question, however, remained: was it really possible to develop lasting (and not merely cosmetic) change within the prevailing dominant structures of U.S. society?

5 Books to Celebrate Filipino-American History Month

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

“America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling on a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities are closed to him. We are all that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native-born or alien, educated or illiterate – we are America!”
–Carlos Bulosan

October is Filipino American Historical Month (also #FAHM2016), a commemoration of when Filipinos first landed on American soil at Morro Bay, California. That was back in October 18, 1587, about 300 years before I was born! 

So what’s up with Filipino-American history, and how far do we go back? Filipino-American relations have always been contentious, since the U.S. paid $20M to buy the islands from Spain. And then World War II happened, where we first got our “third-world country” designation (along with being slaughtered by the Japanese, and then ‘saved’ by the Americans). Since then, we’ve had our share of being a colony — with military bases and talk of freedom and economic hit men (World Bank, IMF) coupled with presidencies super tight with Washington.

On the first day of the month, Pres. Obama had a special message (a first!) wherein he recognized the contributions of Fil-Am soldiers during World War II. It only took 74 years for the government to finally launch the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program “which enables certain Filipino-American veterans to request that their family members join them in the United States as they wait for their green cards.”

I’m not sure if this message was to fortify the Philippines’s relationship with the U.S., after Pres. Duterte’s remarks of pursuing a foreign policy independent of the latter back in September.

“I am no American puppet. I am the president of a sovereign country and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people.” 
–Pres. Rodrigo Duterte

This month, I’ve been really thinking long and hard about #FAHM2016 from personal and political perspectives. I could talk about being Filipino in the Bay, about being part of the Asian-American fabric, about being a queer brown immigrant but along with these identities are socioeconomic and political landscapes that I’ve always been a part of.

And as always, I turn to literature for perspectives that continue to enrich the culture of Fil-Ams and at the same time challenge what we know: 
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America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan

First published in 1943, this classic memoir by well-known Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan describes his boyhood in the Philippines, his voyage to America, and his years of hardship and despair as an itinerant laborer following the harvest trail in the rural West.

(It’s a shame that I haven’t read this book yet but it comes as a highly recommended title which speaks of the Filipino migrant’s experience.)

516ljlycykl-_sx324_bo1204203200_The Gangster of Love by Jessica Hagedorn

Rocky Rivera arrives in the U.S. from the Philippines the day that Jimi Hendrix dies. So begins a blazing coming-of-age story suffused with the tensions of immigration which finds Rocky moving from the counter-culture in 1960s San Francisco to the extravagant music scene in Manhattan of the 1980s. The Gangster of Love tells the story of the Rivera family as they make their new life in the States all the while haunted by the memory of the father and the homeland they left behind. 

(I read this book in 2014 as I was on my way back to the Philippines for a brief trip and thought — this is everything that I love and detest in a Fil-Am novel!)

51wzfy7vg4l-_sx294_bo1204203200_Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement by Lilia Villanueva

Filipino farmworkers sat down in the grape fields of Delano, California, in 1965 and began the strike that brought about a dramatic turn in the long history of farm labor struggles in California. Their efforts led to the creation of the United Farm Workers union under Cesar Chavez, with Philip Vera Cruz as its vice-president and highest-ranking Filipino officer.

(This is another book I’ve yet to read, but definitely on my next-to-read list.)

41-ie7cypcl Doveglion by José Garcia Villa

Known as the “Pope of Greenwich Village,” José Garcia Villa had a special status as the only Asian poet among a group of modern literary giants in 1940s New York that included W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams, and a young Gore Vidal. But beyond his exotic ethnicity, Villa was a global poet who was admired for “the reverence, the raptness, the depth of concentration in [his] bravely deep poems” (Marianne Moore). Doveglion (Villa’s pen name for dove, eagle, and lion) contains Villa’s collected poetry, including rare and previously unpublished material.

(On my way to Hawai’i, I was finally introduced to José Garcia Villa’s poetry with this book and boy was it an out-of-this-world experience. Villa’s poems not only transcended form and format but also political and social boundaries.)

41xmvcxul7l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Leche by R. Zamora Linmark

After thirteen years of living in the U.S., Vince returns to his birthplace, the Philippines. As he ventures into the heat and chaos of the city, he encounters a motley cast of characters, including a renegade nun, a political film director, arrogant hustlers, and the country’s spotlight-driven First Daughter. Haunted by his childhood memories and a troubled family history, Vince unravels the turmoil, beauty, and despair of a life caught between a fractured past and a precarious future.

(Yet another one I’ve missed out on, but of which promises to be the kind of book I’ll find pieces of myself in.)

For a full and glorious list of Fil-Am reads, check out this list on Goodreads.

“You… see us… and you think you know us,
but our outward guise is more deceptive than our history.”
–Carlos Bulosan

Sunday Spotlight: To Choose What to Never Forget

Sunday Spotlight

I woke up pained and heavy this morning, with the weight of a sprained ankle slowly clearing the fog of my senses. A headache that was all too familiar arrested my attention, with the mere thought of caffeine temporarily soothing the pain. The trek to the kitchen was unsuspectingly laborious but the sound of drip-drip-drip was gratifying like no other. I checked my phone. Pained or not, this reflex of checking in with the world through social media was a constant.

The first picture on Instagram that popped up was Teju Cole’s:

teju

Source: Teju Cole’s Instagram

Never forget.

But the truth is that we forgot instantly. The pain of loss would always be remembered. The wounded know their wounds. Who in our open city did not wake up heavy and sad this morning? Memory is permanently dyed with any personal experience of horror. And the State, meanwhile, reliably organizes its pieties.

What we forgot was that meaningless violence—counterviolence, strategically misdirected violence—was the one thing to never forget. We forgot that defending the principle of the equality of human life was the core meaning of never forgetting. We forgot that to forget this principle was to obliterate both the Other and the Self. Never forget, more than the transparently false operation this and operation that military slogans, has been the vengeful motto under which this obliteration continues incessantly. Never forget, with its moral weight and ethical force, became the shield for any and every forgetting.

We forgot instantly, are still forgetting, because callousness is no less contagious than courage. The infamous day was not the culmination of a certain phase of mercilessness. It was its beginning. Weeping, mourning, me, mine, our, ours, but not them, not them, forgetting, forgetting, and all the while saying: never forget.

It wasn’t until I saw this photo that I was reminded of what day it was. The phrase “Never Forget” instantly conjured up images of Americans panicked in New York City that day in 2001, as I watched from a small television screen in our kitchen at Apalit, Pampanga. My dad was sipping his coffee while my mom was sitting at the kitchen table, both their eyes glued on the video loop of planes crashing onto the towers that the local cable news kept playing.

It didn’t make sense to me then that the benevolent United States of America would be the bearer of such horrific blows to its people, its honor, its dignity.

And then I moved here three years after that. My formative years in the Bay were filled with anti-war protests and literature by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. While the tragedy of the American lives lost to 9/11 was imprinted in my mind, I was slowly  becoming more aware, more alarmed by the implications of what followed after.

There were memorials, conspiracy theories and more protests. It wasn’t too long before the ‘U.S. War on Terror’ became a norm, used to justify every military offensive and operation by the country. As these wars increased, so did the number of civilian lives lost around the world.

I’ve been reading Cole’s book Known and Strange Things for a while now, savoring every essay as much as I can. In one essay he also published on The New Yorker, he wrote about the drone attacks authorized by Obama that his Cabinet goes over weekly. I read this essay yesterday, before I sprained my ankle, while sitting in a car that was making its way through coastal California.

I was in New York City on 9/11. Grief remains from that awful day, but not only grief. There is fear, too, a fear informed by the knowledge that whatever my worst nightmare is, there is someone out there embittered enough to carry it out. I know that something has to be done to secure the airports, waterways, infrastructure, and embassies of our country. I don’t like war; no one does. But I also know that the world is exceedingly complex, and that our enemies are not all imaginary. I am not naïve about the incessant and unseen (by most of us) military activity that undergirds our ability to read, go to concerts, earn a living, and criticize the government in relative safety. I am grateful to those whose bravery keeps us safe.

Reading this a day before the 15th year anniversary of 9/11 was uneventful, but the blaring truth of Cole’s words are searing. And this truth, the horrible truth that I am a part of as a citizen of this country, is what I choose not to forget.