Filipina in México: Drug Wars & Duterte

Sunday Spotlight

It felt good to say peace out to the U.S. for about a week, as I flew across and past the southern border of the country.

México was the closest thing to home for a Filipina who grew up in the tropics, transplanted in the foggy coast of the Bay Area. I yearned to be away from the toxic rhetoric that Trump spewed 24/7, and I wanted to put as much distance as I could between white supremacists and my queer, brown body.

As the plane made its way to the Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the irony. Just a few days before I left the Bay was when I first found out about Kian Loyd Delos Santos. The 17-year old from Caloocan City in the Philippines was murdered by the police, on accounts of being a drug pusher/courier/runner. President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal “War on Drugs” has claimed 12,000 lives, with the number of extrajudicial killings rising every day.

So there I was, heading to a country whose people Trump and his supporters have vowed to build a wall against, a country which has also been fighting its own drug war.

What’s a Filipino living in America to do?

The sun was high up as I stepped out of the airport. The heat and humidity felt familiar. On a ferry to Isla Mujeres, I sought to shake Trump off my mind as my senses drank in the beauty of the ocean, a glistening blue that lulled you. Surprisingly, that sentiment was affirmed by souvenirs and wares sold on sidewalk stalls: trucker hats with the words “F*ck Trump” on them, the ultimate anti-MAGA dad hats.

While Trump was fading in my mind, Kian was becoming more and more prominent. I was physically away from the States but my social media feeds and timelines weren’t.   There were many stories and articles about Kian’s death, whose mother was an overseas Filipino worker forced to come home to his son’s funeral. There were many speculations, as many as the number of Duterte’s opposition who kept showing up at Kian’s wake.

I found it interesting that just about a year ago, I read a story online that featured two books Duterte was reading: a nonfiction title about Southeast Asia and what do you know — El Narco: Inside Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency (Amazon | Indiebound) by Ioan Grillo. I don’t know much about the book, but I hope he realizes that the drug war he’s created and the level of impunity he’s unleashed is not the solution.

Whenever I think of the Mexican drug war, I remember what former President Vicente Fox said when I met him back in 2010: aren’t the customers from up north, the Americans? While the situations aren’t entirely similar, the viewpoint of crushing drug peddlers — usually poor people and worse, minors, women and children — does little to end the toxic industry. 

Loving in the Martial Law Years, with Lualhati Bautista

Book Reviews, Fiction, Fil/Lit

“Martial law” was just a buzzword when I was growing up, hemmed in within the walls of an all-girl Benedictine school compound, something we talked about in passing during our history class. While the lesson itself was short, I remember feeling a sense of indignation towards the former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his family who imposed martial law on the nation from 1972 to 1981.

This was how the conversation with one of my classmates went: “Imagine — at this age, we already have debt because of the Marcoses. Grabe! All the money they stole from the kaban ng bayan, all of Imelda’s shoes, all of their extravagances — even our great, great, great grandkids are already indebted!”

At that age, my comprehension was limited to what my mind could fathom: the ridiculousness of it all, the audacity of the Marcos family, and how I would be paying for a debt when I haven’t even started earning yet. That was about 20 years ago.

In May of this year, President Duterte declared martial law in the southern part of the Philippines after alleged ISIS-backed groups clashed with the country’s armed forces. To date, more than 84,000 have been displaced after being forced and ordered to evacuate from their homes. Last year, I published a post about martial law revisionism after seeing the resurgence of the Marcos family in the Philippine political area, backed by Duterte nonetheless.

Call it historical amnesia if you will, call it historical apathy. It wasn’t until I moved to the United States, until I moved away did I start to see my home country in a different light. Loving her from a distance. And it wasn’t until I became part of a national democratic movement did I learn about the atrocities of martial law, beyond what I learned in the classroom.

There were the economic ramifications, but also the grave human rights abuses. The suspension of writ habeas corpus. The torture. The enforced disappearances. Fear. The erosion of trust within communities, within movements.

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“Malumbay si Ina” by Pablo Baens Santos

I saw all of these when I read Lualhati Bautista’s book Desaparesidos (Amazon), a novel about a family’s struggle during Marcos’s martial law. Anna is a mother, a widow, a survivor of torture and a former member of the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines that the administration was trying to crush. The book revolves around her struggle and her story, from the time that she was part of the NPA, to her abduction where she was tortured and raped, to the time when she was imprisoned, and up until she went back to her civilian life as an NGO worker.

The story starts with a convening of NGOs, faith-based leaders, international human rights organizations, lawyers and martial law victims and survivors as a case against the Marcoses is being prepared. Anna is present, but her mind wanders back to the time when she saw the body of her lifeless husband in the town plaza, afraid to claim it for fear that their newborn child in her bosom would suffer if she did. She would be immediately identified as a rebel, her cover blown.

Hinigpitan niya ang yakap sa anak. Anak, tatay mo. Ayun siya, iyong nasa pangalawa. Namatay siya para sa bayan.

Gustong-gusto na niyang yakapin ang bangkay ni Nonong. Gustong-gusto na niyang bugawin man lang ang mga langaw na nagpipista sa natuyo nang dugo sa mukha nito, halikan ang mga daliri na binunutan ng kuko.

Pero wala siyang magagawa. Kailangan niyang magpakabato, timpiin ang sarili, mag-isip ng masaya.

(What follows is my meager translation:)

She held on tight to her child. My child, here’s your father. There he is, on the second. He died for the nation. 

She wanted so badly to embrace Nonong’s corpse. She wanted so badly to swat away the flies hovering over the dried blood on his face, kiss the fingers where his nails were torn out.

But she couldn’t do anything. She had to be steely, compose herself, think about happy thoughts.

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“August 21” by Phyllis Zaballero

While Anna was helping build a case against the Marcoses, the story pivots between several events and characters to reveal the kind of repression Filipinos were dealing with at that time. There were mass arrests, harassment from soldiers, even the burning of homes in villages.

Bautista painted fear in every character: from the former rebel who pointed out his comrades’ hideouts, the pregnant lady who was entrusted to take care of Anna’s newborn, Anna’s second child Lorena (named after the revolutionary martyr Lorena Barros) who resented her parents for being away, and the family of Mang Manuel and many others. 

It’s a struggle to be a Filipino-American these days, y’all.

And although I still balk at calling myself “Fil-Am,” I feel the struggle both ways, in all its multiplicity.

The Philippines seems to be at the mercy of a perplexing president whose politics are at best confounding. Following his declaration of martial law in Mindanao (southern part of the Philippines), he also withdraw from ongoing peace talks with the revolutionary (and underground) government of the country (strongest in the countryside).

And then there’s Trump. Following his announcement to pull the U.S. out the Paris Climate Agreements, the easier option is to throw your hands up and lose yourself in moments like “covfefe.”

Maybe my trip to Mexico City in the next few days is good timing, as all of these things can wear a Pisces down. I’m bringing Rosario Castellanos and Octavio Paz with me, two noted Mexican writers whose work has inspired me. Last night, I was leafing through Paz’s A Tree Within (Amazon | Indiebound) and came across this:

Mis sentidos en guerra con el mundo: fue frágil armisticio la lectura.

(My feelings at war with the world: reading was a fragile truce.)

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Reading as a truce, reading as a tool — that’s what this blog has always stood for. I’ve compiled books to help us through these times, like this list of reading for resistanceI also just reviewed a book on tyranny and offered up my response, based on my experience as an activist. As a Filipino in the face of martial law, here’s my blog’s literary antidote.

Even more timely is an exploration of Alexander Von Humboldt’s life, possibly the very first man to confirm man-made climate change.

In spite of this, I come back to a Alain de Botton on his book about Proust. In one of the chapters, they talk about books and reading. And as much as I love both, for as long as I am tethered to words, I recognize both their beauty and fallibility:

We feel very strongly that our own wisdom begins where that of the author leaves off and we would like him to provide us with answers when all that he is able to do is provide desires… That is the value of reading and is also its inadequacy. To make it into a discipline is to give too large a role to what is only an incitement.

–Marcel Proust

Reading as an incitement, a tool to spur us to action. I think I like that better.

#GetLit: Reading in the Midst of Crisis

#GetLit

#GetLit and #ResistTyranny

#GetLit

My experience as a Filipino immigrant in America is quite complicated at the moment, because I feel like I’m beset my fascism no matter where I turn.

This week’s book review on Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century falls short of what I was hoping for, although it elicited a different kind of response for me. Read all about my political musings here, as a response to the book.

On the same day that I published my book review was also the day that Pres. Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao, one of the main islands in the southern Philippines after clashes between an IS-affiliated group and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. A year ago, I wrote against martial law revisionists and the kinds of literature needed to counter it.

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The Consortium for People’s Development-Disaster Response (CPDDR) protests the declaration of Martial Law in Mindanao that will likely escalate the armed conflict, and intensify military operations in the region at the expense of civilians and communities.

savemarawi

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If you have any book suggestions on resisting tyranny — do share in the comments below!

Notes on Tyranny, from Timothy D. Snyder

Book Reviews, Call to Action

History can familiarize, and it can warn.

I was making my way through the fog this morning, both literally (hello, Karl the Fog) and mentally when suddenly, I got updates that martial law was declared in the entire island of Mindanao in the Philippines.

My first thoughts were: how could that be when Pres. Duterte was in Russia and what on earth compelled him to declare martial law?

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As news are still developing in my homeland, my mind turned to Timothy D. Snyder’s book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Amazon | Indiebound) which I finished last week. It’s a slim book, so handy that you can fit it in your pocket, on resisting tyranny specially in the age of Donald Trump (also a response to the wave of populist movements around the world?).

In founding a democratic republic upon law and establishing a system of checks and balances, the Founding Fathers sought to avoid the evil that they, like the ancient philosophers, called tyranny. They had in mind the usurpation of power by a single individual or group, or the circumvention of law by rulers for their own benefit.

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Snyder is a historian well-versed in Eastern Europe history, and the book is abundant with references to Nazi Germany as well as other communist states. Broken down in 20 chapters which can also be read as a manifesto, Snyder uses history and provides practical tips on resisting tyranny with each point:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one-party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.