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: Filipino Literature

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

The month of April is National Literature Month in the Philippines or #BuwanNgPanitikan and in its honor, I thought of doing this Sunday’s feature on the literary work of Filipinos.

I grew up with mostly American literature and found it incredibly difficult to engage with Filipino lit. Although my first language is Tagalog, it was much easier for me to read and write in English. José Rizal, the journalist/poet/writer and national hero of the Philippines, would’ve surely scoffed at this.

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One cannot omit Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, two important pieces of literature that awakened the country’s consciousness during the Spanish colonization. Both of these were required reading when I was still in school. I have some faint recollection of the texts, mostly remembering the female characters of María Clara and Sisa. The former is the mestiza heroine of Noli Me Tangere, embodying the Filipino “feminine ideals” while the latter embodies the kind of hardships mothers go through for their children.

I was introduced to Jessica Zafra when I was younger, although I can’t remember any of her work. I might have read a book of hers (maybe Twisted?) but I think my mind was stubbornly glued to American lit, finding it more interesting at that time.

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I also vaguely remember reading Andres Cristobal Cruz’s Ang Tundo Man May Langit Din (Even in Tondo There is a Heaven), a Tagalog novel about poverty and violence in one of Manila’s most impoverished neighborhoods. Again, my experience was the same — I found it hard to engage with the text, much less comprehend the essence of the book.

The single piece of literature that spoke to me at that time was a book called Tibok: Heartbeat of the Filipino Lesbian, an anthology written by queer Filipino women writers. I was immediately smitten. The stories, essays and poems spoke to me on a personal level. That copy belonged to my English high school teacher and a decade later, I finally got my own.

I am fortunate that in the Bay Area, there are resources that people can turn to for Filipino literature. There’s the Filipino American Center at the San Francisco Public Library with its trove of fiction and nonfiction materials. In the recently established Filipino Cultural Heritage District in the South of Market of San Francisco is also an indie bookstore called Arkipelago. It is a community-based specialty bookshop that I could get lost in for hours. And there’s PAWA, Inc. (Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc.), a space that encourages Filipino American art and literature.

It wasn’t until I moved to the U.S. that I became more interested in Filipino lit. The San Francisco Public Library and Arkipelago aided and nurtured that interest. My politics also influenced the kinds of literature I sought; I stayed with Amado Guerrero’s Philippine Society and Revolution, I was smitten with Bienvenido Lumbrera’s Poetika/politika.

To contribute to the conversation around #BuwanNgPanitikan, here are my own “Pira-pirasong Panitikan” (literary pieces) from Filipino lit I’ve acquired over the years, à la Rappler style (as seen above).

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As this month and the celebration of Filipino lit nears its end, the resolution to keep reading and engaging with it remains. It is a continuous process of deepening one’s self, and a life-long journey that grows one’s roots even further. There are numerous literary greats that are not mentioned here, of which I’ve yet to discover. As Manuel Briones, another Filipino writer states:

The end of the Filipino writer, although he employs foreign materials, should always be to harness and unite these in the native manner so that the resultant piece becomes a perfect work of our own literature; developed in the treasury of the national soul.

Do you have Filipino literature recommendations? Leave them in the comments below!