Oakland, early Sunday evening. A sense of calm is rare while driving on the Bay Bridge, but it was there as I made my way from San Francisco to the other side. Comrades from the Philippines were giving a report back on their recent trip to the motherland and I thought about the ever present thread of home between two places: Oakland, Philippines.

On a table in the space were goods for sale from home — woven wallets, tote bags, shirts and a pile of books. I came upon the books and recognized her face instantly. Bai Bibiyaon Likayan Bigkay. A flood of thoughts, a rush to the heart. I’ve seen this face countless times, as she continues to speak out against the injustices the Lumád people have been experiencing.

Lumád is a collective term for non-Islamized indigenous groups in Mindanao. It hails from a term meaning “native” or “indigenous” and was accepted by about 15 Mindanao ethnic groups to differentiate themselves from Moros, Christians and other Mindanao settlers.

I came home with copies of BAYI: Stories of Lumád Women that night. For the next few days, I learned about the stories of fierce Lumád women and their struggle to fight for their land, liberation and people.

Here are the stories and struggles of three Lumád women:

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At 92 years old, Bai Bibiyaon Likayan Bigkay‘s strength and courage has been a constant source of inspiration for many. She is a bibiyaon, a female Lumád tribal chieftain in a culture that is traditionally patriarchal. In the 90’s, she joined a tribal war to fight the logging company Alcantara & Sons (ALSONS).

The Pantaron Mountain Range, a mountain range that runs across several provinces in Mindanao, is home to tribal communities and has been sought after by transnational companies for its resources-rich landscape.

Instead of defending the Lumád, the government has been aggressive in pushing tribal communities out to give way to profit-seeking entities. With aggressive military and paramilitary operations, Likayan and her community have been forced to evacuate and seek encampment in other areas.

Still, her resilience and commitment to justice remains strong.

If we continue to struggle just as we are doing now, tomorrow is ours. The struggle must be continued by the future generations. What we are doing now, even if we die, we will die contented if our children, our grandchildren and the future generations will continue what we are doing. We know we can do and achieve many things. The unity that we have achieved now, can also be accomplished by future generations, even more.

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Lumád Women You Need to Know

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.

– James Baldwin

I was at the Green Apple Bookstore in San Francisco a few days when an older white man approached me. He said that he loved my hair; I said thanks and ran off to the poetry section upstairs. I’ve been on the hunt for Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry after reading Teju Cole’s latest book of essays, eager to turn to a new poet’s work for light.

The pursuit was successful. As I was heading downstairs to pay for my copy, the same man approached me and started asking some questions. He was past my hair, and went straight for it: Are you Filipino? What do you think of the new president? He’s dangerous, no?

These days, the spotlight from international media has been on Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’s newly elected president. He came to power after winning a landslide victory, eluding all national scandals alluded to his “colorful” character. He won on the pretext of a hard-line crime fighter, after “cleaning up” Davao when he was a mayor of the province.

Three months into his presidency:

3,313 total number of persons killed in #WarOnDrugs
since July 1

1,185 drug personalities killed in police operations,
as of September 21

2,128 victims of extrajudicial or vigilante-style killings,
as of September 18

(Source: IN NUMBERS: The Philippines’ ‘war on drugs’)

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The numbers are alarming at a glance. In the name of fighting crime and cracking down on a vicious drug trade, human lives become mere statistics. Duterte was solemn in keeping his word, but we didn’t anticipate the toll it would take on the population’s number and psyche.

While criminals have long been the subject of salvagings by the police, the rate by which drug users and pushers are killed today, either in police operations or vigilante killings, are unprecedented in Philippine anti-crime history.

Nowadays we have that ubiquitous cardboard saying “Drug pusher, huwag tularan.” Like the activists during Arroyo’s time, suspected drug users and dealers are subject to public vilification through “Oplan Tokhang.” They are forced into surrendering and admitting guilt on the basis of a nebulous list drawn up by the police and barangay officials. In fact, many of those who surrendered have succumbed to vigilante killings. Police say the killings are part of the drug syndicates’ effort to cleanse its ranks.

– Teddy Casiño

On one end, citizens fed up with the corruption and crime rampant in the country have turned a blind eye to the extrajudicial killings that have reached over two thousand. My aunt, like many supporters (and non-supporters alike) of Duterte think of the killings as a necessary evil, as instant restitution to pain and fear.

On the other end, there are NGOs and human rights groups who are speaking out against the inhumanity of the culture Duterte has propagated, of the feckless violence he has allowed to run rampant.

Talk of these killings started while I was reading Teju’s Known and Strange Things. I came across an essay that seemed to me as if he was describing the situation in the Philippines. In “Perplexed… Perplexed,” he wrote:

Lynching is common in Nigeria. Extrajudicial killing is often the fate of those accused of kidnapping and armed robbery, but also of those suspected of minor crimes like pickpocketing.

– Teju Cole

He spoke of “jungle justice” — a term he used to describe mob violence-turned-justice because “the mob is a form of utopia. Justice arrives now, to right what has far too long been wrong with the world.”

I couldn’t help but make comparisons to the killings happening in my homeland. The killings have also been reported to be used as a means to get away with other crimes, and outrage among the population has been insignificant.

In a move deemed to challenge the President’s anti-crime and anti-drug agenda, the Secretary of the Department of Justice called for a committee hearing on the extrajudicial killings. The televised committee hearings have become the butt of everyone’s joke, with ratings higher than prime time soap operas. Worse, the secretary herself was ousted in the committee because members didn’t think that she was able to do her job effectively as the chair (not to mention that she’s also being implicated).

In a piece penned by Teddy Casiño, a former Congressman from a progressive alliance in the Philippines, he writes that:

What makes today’s EJKs particularly complicated is that the victims are considered undesirable members of society. Unlike activists or revolutionaries, drug addicts and pushers have no redeeming quality. These are not idealists being killed for exercising their constitutional rights or addressing legitimate social grievances. Druggies, for most people, are the scum of the earth that should be wiped out from existence.

– Teddy Casiño

He delivers a hard truth. What is also apparent is that the victims of these extrajudicial killings belong to the lowest economic class of the country. Beyond the hearings, the aggressive administration’s agenda and the proliferation of even more drug syndicate crimes, what is not being addressed are the root problems of Philippine society. For many poor Filipinos, resorting to drug peddling and petty crimes are the only means for their survival. While I do not condone committing crimes nor slinging drugs for food and other physiological needs, there is a vastly bigger and more complicated picture of the country’s social and economic reality.

I don’t think the fight is really the government going after criminals — ultimately, it’s a war of classes, waged by the ruling elite against the poor which it uses, manipulates and makes profit off of.

In human life, economics precedes politics or culture.

– Park Geun-hye

Jungle Justice: A Look into the Philippines’s #WarOnDrugs

Sunday Spotlight

I always imagined that heaven would be kind of a library.

– Jorge Luis Borges
(quote engraved on to a wall in the National Library of Brazil,
as reported in this piece)

With the 2016 Rio Olympics underway, all eyes are on Brazil. Now on its second week, I admit I never really cared much about the Olympics. I have a slightly more nuanced view of any sports competition between nations, and I echo George Orwell’s sentiment when he says that “sports is war minus shooting.”

In an article from The Atlantic, J. Weston Phippen writes about the depoliticization of sports between nations, something that Russia and other countries have attempted to live up to miserably.

The world has always equated the fastest, strongest, most- winning country in the world with the most economically successful, most politically potent. The best proving ground to do that is the Olympics.

He writes how hosting the Olympics is also another way of showcasing geopolitical relevance.

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Brazil, much like other developing nations, has its own problems: the impeding impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the worsening poverty of many of its citizens, the crumbling infrastructure that the Olympics committee tried to mask and a host of other social and economic issues that the world should also be paying attention to.

As always, I seek literature that reveals what the mainstream refuses to acknowledge. I was in luck: I came across Lit Hub’s 10 Works of Fiction to Better Understand Brazil. Francesca Angiolillo listed and reviewed a number of literary pieces that haven’t been translated in English yet, of which she offers comparable alternatives.

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What I love about her recommendations is that they tackle social, political and economic problems of the country in different literary genres:

  • Lima Barreto’s Clara dos Anjos is about a young, mixed-race woman whose situations was meant to represent the class of whole black women submitted to sexual and social abuse. Angiolillo recommended The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresmo.
  • Rachel de Queiroz’s O Quinze tackles the problems of internal migration, “frailty of the law” as well as racial prejudice. Literary critics say that while de Queiroz’s work has been influential and significant to Brazil’s literature, her political leanings (she was a Communist) and gender got in the way of her popularity. She recommended Barren Lives by Graciliano Ramos.
  • Joāo Antonio’s Leāo-de-Chácara is a collection of stories based on the life of people in the streets of Rio and Sāo Paulo, shedding light on the agricultural problems of the country. An alternative would be Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star.
  • Bernardo Kucinski’s Você Vai Voltar pra Mim is the story of how the Brazilian dictatorship disappeared his sister. A journalist in training, he recounts the story of his sister Ana Rose went missing. Fortunately, his book K is already translated.

Finding out about these titles is as sweet as being witness to Naomi Jackson’s essay from the Brazil Beyond Rio edition of the publication Words Without Borders, who also writes from the breadth of personal and political history: as a West Indian woman from Brooklyn, who would love to call Bahia home.

She wrote and revealed the intricacies of home, geography and identity. The essay reverberated with tenderness, as Jackson navigated the same struggles that most people in the diaspora face: the loneliness of being far, of being away, the longing for the physicality of home.

Once I touched down in Bahía, I felt an intense mix of familiarity and intrigue and what I can only describe as hominess, the same as I’d felt the first times I visited the Caribbean as a child and Cape Town, South Africa, as a teenager. Wary as I was of adopting yet another country as second home in the same way I had with Barbados and South Africa, the moment that I saw the gold statues of the orixas floating above the water just past the airport, I knew that this was another place I would long to call home.

– Naomi Jackson,
Falling in Love with Bahía & Brazil: On Negritude, Saudade & Surrender

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I didn’t realize how similar the Philippines and Brazil socioeconomically and geopolitically. But perhaps that is the fate of developing countries whose economies and culture are constantly bombarded and influenced by the West, as colonies of imperial powers.

These writers and poets reveal the intricacies of Brazil and as always, I am grateful for their work.

To write is to be at one’s own extremity.

– João Cabral de Melo Neto

Sunday Spotlight: A Literary Brazil

Sunday Spotlight

The rhetoric of politics can be draining: it is a roller-coaster ride of hope, repudiation, alarm, back to hope, at times inspiration, and then it’s back to more repudiation, more alarm, until your realize your mind becomes a pestle, your heart an unduly mortar.

No wonder so many people are apathetic about politics, even if their own lives and their interests are at stake. What does it take to keep engaging?

This is even more compounded for folks like me, a wild-eyed child of the (queer) Filipino diaspora, perpetually straddling two worlds. The flourishing of one requires the sacrifice of the other. If it isn’t taken, it is forced out. One is oil, the other, water.

In the past two weeks, I’ve been a witness to three major speeches: two American presidential nominees in their respective party conventions and the first State of the Nation Address of the Philippines’s president.

From “I alone can fix it” to “We’ll fix it together,” coverage of both the Democratic and Republican conventions was nonstop. My inbox reeks of “Breaking News” alerts every time someone says something to counter the other. I’ve never been more dismayed, disillusioned with the state of party politics.

I was never for Hillary Clinton, in spite of the fact that I am a fervent women’s rights activist. What matters to me, more than her gender identity, are her political views, accomplishments and perspectives. And while her stance on social issues like abortion, immigration and access to healthcare are liberal, it’s her economic agenda that rattles, unsettles me. What do you call someone who would rather free the money, not the people?

A neoliberal.

Celebration of income inequality? Lower corporate taxes? Labor deregulation? Weakening of trade unions? Privatization of public goods and services?

And it’s no secret that whatever economic agenda the U.S. sets, it reaches the farthest corners of the world. If Hillary wins, the Trans Pacific Agreement might survive Obama’s lame duck moment of crisis.

Voting for Trump is a no-brainer, although I’m convinced he’s really just trolling all of us (h/t to Katchingles for this one) but what choice do I have?

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Back in the Philippines, Rodrigo Roa Duterte gave his first State of the Nation Address which elicited high hopes for a better government, the resumption of peace talks in the country (finally!), reforms in taxation and social services, with a few chuckles here and there. He also reiterated his crusade against the drug trade, the most recurring theme of his presidency so far.

He made me tear up when he talked of a permanent and lasting peace before his term ends as his goal, as his dream. I laughed when he called out members of the Congress, when he commented on the inefficiencies of public agencies. While #SONA2016 was charming, rousing at times, with a this-is-your-good-ol-uncle-giving-you-a-talk feel to it, it was also exasperating as this article points out.

 

He announced a unilateral ceasefire between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, of which he rescinded a week later after Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit. Go figure.

I was skeptical of Duterte while he was campaigning, but upon his election and subsequent appointment of progressive forces in his Cabinet I started to pay more attention.

After #SONA2016, the Center for Women’s Resources came out with a 100-Day Challenge to his administration. Filipinos like me in the diaspora are watching his administration closely, in support of his pro-people policies. He must be accountable to his promises, he must serve his people genuinely.

* * * 

My nose is usually buried in books, and I know that my Sunday Spotlight usually features literary musings. I can’t help but focus on political discourse for today’s post, specially at this time, when folks teeter on extremism or worse, political apathy.

In the end, while we are at the mercy of the media, while we are lambasted with senseless political prose, while we are offered promises that at times ring hollow, we should not be deterred.

Indignation must always be the answer to indignity. Reality is not destiny.

– Eduardo Galeano

Sunday Spotlight: State of the Nation

Sunday Spotlight

My parents got back from the Philippines last week, after spending two blissful weeks in the homeland. Every time they go for a visit, they always come back electric and full of life. Along with that renewed zest is also a tinge of melancholy, written in their faces as they slowly readjust to life back in the States. I hug both of them and smell the sweet scents of home.

But because homesickness also has a physical element, it wouldn’t be a homecoming for Filipinos without balikbayan boxes. My parents had four of those boxes which contained gifts and goods from the country: dried mangoes, polvoron (plain and chocolate ones), specialty dried herring in mason jars, “French” corned beef, candies from sari-sari stores we used to buy as kids (Mik Mik, Haw Haw, Hi-Ho), lengua de gato (butter oats), 3-in-1 coffee mixes, garlic peanuts, special tamarind candy, delicacies from Baguio (chocolate marshmallows, chocolate flakes) and more.

I think my sisters, our relatives, family friends and I have enough goodies to tide us over until the next wave of homesickness hits. We can always eat our feelings.

While munching on one of the Pan de San Nicolas my dad absolutely adores, my mom handed me another package wrapped in plastic. I think they secretly waited until I ate some of the “heritage cookie” specially made in our province (Pampanga), which bears an embossed image of the St. Nicholas on the biscuit itself. My parents are unhappily aware of my Buddhist beliefs, gravely disappointed by my spiritual choices after having gone to a Catholic school for 14 years. Word has it that it has a “curative effect,” to be eaten while saying a prayer. I felt bad after literally biting the head off one.

I opened the package and in it were three glorious things:

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Habang Wala Pa Sila (Mga Tula ng Pag-ibig) by Juan Miguel Severo

Stupid is Forever by Miriam Defensor Santiago

The Duterte Manifesto

The first two books were from my dear cousin back home, Ate Tet, and the last book was something that caught my dad’s eye. I mentioned that I wanted these two books unavailable in the U.S. and sure enough, my family came through with my request.

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tag-ulan

minahal kita
walang payong na dinala.

– Juan Miguel Severo

I first heard about the poet after watching a spoken word piece that went viral. I’ve always loved spoken word artists — Kai Davis, Aja Monet, Saul Williams; and I’ve always admired Filipino poets — Bienvenido Lumbera, Joi Barrios, Jose Garcia Villa. It was a breathtaking experience to see both Tagalog and spoken word combined, to witness Severo’s work. The depth of his poems and the conviction of his delivery tugs at the heart. It was like being granted permission to access those parts of us we didn’t even know existed. And to top it all off — I’m an undoubtedly big fan of a Filipino teleserye called “On The Wings of Love” which featured the poet and his work consistently.

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Law school is quite easy. It’s like a stroll in the park. Pero Jurassic Park.

– Miriam Defensor Santiago

The next book Stupid is Forever by this renowned politician in the country is “a collection of jokes, one-liners, pick-up lines, comebacks and speeches delivered and/or curated by the beloved Senator.” I’ve always looked up to MDS even as a kid, as I watched her on TV deliver impassioned speeches in Congress, in awe of her intellect and outspokenness. She ran for president during the most recent election season in the Philippines and lost, the frailty of her health a huge concern.

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I don’t care if I burn in hell as long as the people I serve will live in paradise.

– Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Last but not the least (and also unexpected) was a copy of The Duterte Manifesto from my dad. My dad likes (or loves) to challenge my political beliefs, specially when it comes to politics in the Philippines. He knew I would find this book interesting, notwithstanding its title very similar to another very popular manifesto out there. Duterte is an interesting figure, rife with contradictions but I’m watching and learning. If anything, this book promises to be an intimate rendering of the president. In the introduction, it was signed (translated from Tagalog):

“From my humble hacienda larger than the terrain/estate of (bleep),”

– Senyora Santibañez (the main antagonist of an old Mexican
telenovela aired in the Philippines)

I can only surmise that Senyora is alluding to Hacienda Luisita, owned by the former President Aquino’s family, a site of decade-long struggle and resistance of the farmers against their landlords.

These three books in no means capture the state of Philippine society as a whole, but they draw a picture of popular culture that is reflective of different parts of Filipino society. I’ve always trusted books more than television, finding poets and writers more credible (even while they’re making jokes!).

I’ll be spending the next few weeks immersed in these three literary pieces of which I will duly be reporting back and writing about in this blog. Now that’s what you call healing.

Pasalu-book: Gifts from the Motherland

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

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Cue the fireworks, fire up the grills, get the hotdogs and burgers ready. Fourth of July in the U.S. has been synonymous to picnics and cookouts, marking the sweet start of summer.

I remember a few hard facts from my political science classes: that the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain this day, that the United States of America was born and instituted by the Continental Congress, that it is a day for celebrating the country’s independence.

For immigrants like myself, this holiday is a glorious three-day weekend, a welcome respite to the drudgery of the 9 to 5. The same goes for my family and many immigrants; it is a chance to breathe a little longer, prepare for the toiling weeks of labor ahead. The truth is, the holiday reinforces what many come to this country for: to achieve the American Dream. I am reminded of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poem:  

The old men who have lived here stare at us,
from deep disturbed eyes, sulking, retreated.
We pass them as they stand around idle,
leaning on shovels and rakes or against walls.
Our expectations are high: in the old world,
they talked about rehabilitation,
about being able to finish school,
and learning an extra good trade.
But right away we are sent to work as dishwashers,
to work in fields for three cents an hour.
The administration says this is temporary
So we go about our business, blacks with blacks,
poor whites with poor whites,
chicanos and indians by themselves.
The administration says this is right,
no mixing of cultures, let them stay apart,
like in the old neighborhoods we came from.

Immigrants in our own land

Or maybe it’s the fact that I’m reading Yaa Gyasi’s book Homegoing, which revolves around the lives of generations of slaves from the Gold Coast — from their childhood to their time of capture, from the dungeons where they were imprisoned and then aboard the ships which sailed to America, from the plantations to a semblance of freedom for a black man and his family in Baltimore. I read about Esi and Ness and Kojo and remember that the struggle for black folks still isn’t over, even after slavery has been abolished. I remember Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd.

The day is not only limited to the U.S., as the fourth of July is “Republic Day” as it is also the same day that the Philippines won independence from being a U.S. colony (July 4, 1945). The history of this holiday is wrought with irony (it is called “Filipino-American Friendship Day”), but I think the late great historian Howard Zinn could not be any more right:

We invaded Cuba in 1898 to liberate the Cubans, and went to war in the Philippines shortly after, as President McKinley put it, “to civilize and Christianize” the Filipino people.

As our armies were committing massacres in the Philippines (at least 600,000 Filipinos died in a few years of conflict), Elihu Root, our secretary of war, was saying: “The American soldier is different from all other soldiers of all other countries since the war began. He is the advance guard of liberty and justice, of law and order, and of peace and happiness.”

Howard Zinn’s July 4 Wisdom Stands the Test of Time

Last June 30th, the Philippines just inaugurated its newly elected president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte. While he is being vilified by the Western media because of his vigilante-style tactics of fighting crime, there are a lot of things worth noting: his cabinet appointments to specific departments (labor, agrarian reform and social welfare) were all from progressive-left and his willingness to resume peace talks between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front (Read: 10 Things to Know About the Peace Talks Between the Communists and the Gov’t of the Philippines). I’m hoping that this president won’t be a U.S. puppet unlike his predecessors.

Any talk of independence would not be complete without the history of Native Americans, whose culture and population were decimated upon the arrival of the British and the establishment of the colonies. It seems like the celebration of independence in the Philippines on July 4th (before it was moved back to June 12th) was preceded by what happened in Native American communities:

More than 12,000 American Indians served during World War I, and after the war, the American flag began to be given a prominent position at American Indian gatherings, especially those held on the 4th of July. This symbol of patriotism and national unity is carried into powwow and rodeo arenas today. It is extremely important to note that before the Reservation Era, when most Indians saw the American flag coming toward their villages and camps, it symbolized conflict, death, and destruction.

Indian Country: Do American Indians
Celebrate the 4th of July?

The U.S. is currently engaged in three wars, along with missions of militarizing parts of the world where it sees fit. What is imperialism Obama-style? 800 military bases around the world.

While I am a U.S. citizen, aware of the benefits I receive by living in this country, I struggle with all of these contradictions everyday. To live in the belly of the beast and to belong to the Filipino diaspora is a compelling reason enough to act, to understand the political and personal stake.

Just yesterday, Holocaust survivor, Nobel laureate and writer Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87. May his life, words and work be an inspiration to those of us who refuse to forget, to those of us who live with our histories and to those of us who are committed to the struggle.

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Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016)

 

Sunday Spotlight: Some Meat for the Fourth

Sunday Spotlight

Nigeria, Philippines, Americanah: Longings & Musings

Book Reviews, Fiction

For three nights in a row after finishing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah I found myself missing Ifemelu and Obinze.

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It was about 11 at night, and I was sitting in bed with the vastness of the Oakland sky outside my window. I reached to my side table and held Adichie’s book, still in awe of how one book could contain multiple worlds. How one book could illustrate timelines and lifetimes.

I saw myself in the pages, along with Ifemelu and Obinze, the two main characters of Americanah. Ifemelu, with her “prickliness.” Obinze, with his tenderness.

Reading about their lives unraveled a reality that was a little bit familiar, albeit entirely different. As I turned each page, I knew that I resonated with the book so much because of two things: immigration and the (im)possibilities of long-distance love.

When Ifem (a nickname from Obinze) moved to the U.S., her experience as a non-American Black woman was amplified. It was new to her, much as being a Filipino was new to me.

#IAmAnImmigrant: My Story in 5 Books

Sunday Spotlight

The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Featured image and all artwork featured on this post are made by the incredibly talented Favianna Rodriguez.

 

 

#GetLit: Of Presidentiables, Of Writers

#GetLit

I’m straddling two political worlds, a Filipina immigrant in the Bay Area. I am shaped by my history, seventeen years of molding in a province north of Manila. I am also shaping a story of survival, twelve years in the making in the land of milk and honey.

Central to my identities is what I do with my hands: I write. Writing has always been a medium of personal and political expression, my words weighted by the struggle of a queer immigrant woman.

And as a writer living at this time, I am aware of the shifting political landscapes around me — both in the Philippines and in the United States.

The Philippines just had the most bizarre election season, wherein a mayor from Davao (in the Southern part of the Philippines) known for his vigilante-style tactics of fighting crime emerged as the winner.

Here in the U.S., Donald Trump’s popularity continues to rise as he racks up delegates across the country. His rhetoric reeks of misogyny, racism and xenophobia, reigniting the bigoted sentiments of conservatives.

While the presence of liberal pundits and progressive activists are to be expected, the situations in both countries have also given rise to another unlikely group: writers.

Banding together as vanguards of free speech and democracy, Filipino/Filipino-American writers have signed on to A Manifesto Against Silence, spearheaded by writer Miguel Syjuco.

A Manifesto

I am a Filipino writer.

I am one among journalists, fictionists, poets, essayists, bloggers, screenwriters, graphic storytellers, copywriters, playwrights, editors… Citizens, all—in a perilous place to wield a pen.

I stand for unfettered expression—to discuss, dispute, debate, dissent. For democracy is respectful disagreement—change persuaded, never imposed. And freedom cannot be dictated, for the right to speech empowers all others: to worship, and participate in society, to cry against injustice, and call for what is just. Speaking responsibly is my responsibility—but expression remains unconditional, essential to equality and universal liberty: To each citizen, a free vote; to every citizen, a free voice.

(To read the rest of the manifesto and its Tagalog version, go here.)

* * *

And just this week, I came across a petition of writers on Trump, opposing his candidacy. The petition has been signed by 450 U.S. writers including Junot Díaz, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Eggers and Tracy K. Smith.

Writers on Trump

Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response;

For all these reasons, we, the undersigned, as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.

(To read the rest of the petition and sign on, go here.)

* * *

These two pieces, albeit different in intention, reaffirm the role of writers regardless of the political landscape.

The manifesto above is rightful in its claim:  that writers shall not be silent, and that they cannot be silenced. Write on, friends!

May Day: Poetry for the Workers

Poetry, Sunday Spotlight
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Mural in Santa Mesa, Philippines

May 1st is International Workers’ Day, a symbolic day to commemorate, celebrate and continue the struggles of workers around the world. Currently, it is celebrated in 80 countries including Nigeria, Egypt, India and Chile, and it is also celebrated widely in the Philippines where a labor group has named themselves Kilusang Mayo Uno (May 1st Labor Movement).

It is not, however, an official holiday in the United States. In fact, Labor Day was moved to September prompting many to call the move a whitewashing. Unbeknownst to many is how the commemoration of the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago back in 1886 is also central to May 1st:

On May 4, 1886, a labor protest rally near Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned into a riot after someone threw a bomb at police. At least eight people died as a result of the violence that day. Despite a lack of evidence against them, eight radical labor activists were convicted in connection with the bombing. The Haymarket Riot was viewed a setback for the organized labor movement in America, which was fighting for such rights as the eight-hour workday. At the same time, the men convicted in connection with the riot were viewed by many in the labor movement as martyrs. (Source: History.com)

To celebrate and commemorate the rich history of workers who have paved the way for humane working conditions, and for those who are still continuing the struggle, I’ve compiled some poems which offer depth, racial history and perspective of workers then and now.

* * *

The first poem is from a Marxist collection of poetry, an anthology published for The Workers Party of America. I’ve never heard of this party before, although a quick search on Google shows that it was the “legal organization for the Communist Party of the USA.” Communist or not, the collection of poems stirs the reader, evokes strength as they “center upon the life, struggles and revolutionary movement of the working class.”

We Have Fed You All For a Thousand Years
Poem—By an Unknown Proletarian

We have fed you all, for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the worker’s dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full.

The next poem is by the Black poet Langston Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance figure whose work I’ve come to love. Although his work was deemed by many as controversial, the grit of his poems on workers has contributed to a body of literature that is often missing. He states that his poetry is for “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.

Open Letter to the South
Langston Hughes

White workers of the South
Miners,
Farmers,
Mechanics,
Mill Hands,
Shop girls,
Railway men,
Servants,
Tobacco workers,
Sharecroppers,
GREETINGS!

I am the black worker,
Listen:
That the land might be ours,
And the mines and the factories and the office towers
At Harlan, Richmond, Gastonia, Atlanta, New Orleans;
That the plants and the roads and the tools of power.

The next poem I chose is written by Joseph O. Legaspi, a poet born in the Philippines who migrated to Los Angeles when he was 12. As a Filipino myself, I found this poem of his — its details vivid, its theme familiar — an ode not just for his own mother, but for many immigrant mothers.

The Red Sweater
Joseph O. Legaspi

slides down into my body, soft
lambs wool, what everybody
in school is wearing, and for me
to have it my mother worked twenty
hours at the fast-food joint.
The sweater fits like a lover,
sleeves snug, thin on the waist.
As I run my fingers through the knit,
I see my mother over the hot oil in the fryers
dipping a strainer full of stringed potatoes.
In a twenty hour period my mother waits
on hundreds of customers: she pushes
each order under ninety seconds, slaps
the refried beans she mashed during prep time,
the lull before rush hours, onto steamed tortillas,
the room’s pressing heat melting her make-up.
Every clean strand of weave becomes a question.
How many burritos can one make in a continuous day?
How many pounds of onions, lettuce and tomatoes
pass through the slicer? How do her wrists
sustain the scraping, lifting and flipping
of meat patties?           And twenty

hours are merely links
in the chain of days startlingly similar,
that begin in the blue morning with my mother
putting on her polyester uniform, which,
even when it’s newly-washed, smells
of mashed beans and cooked ground beef.

The final poem featured tells the unfortunate and haunting story of Xu Lizhi, a Chinese factory worker who committed suicide. Lizhi moved from a Chinese province to the city where he worked at Foxconn, the company that manufactures iPhones. The Washington Post states that his poems are “a wrenching echo of the alienation and hardship felt by countless people in modern China and, for that matter, in other parts of the developing world. They lament the grinding ennui of the assembly line, the squalor of a migrant worker’s narrow, frustrated existence.”

(Untitled)
Xu Lizhi

I swallowed a moon made of iron
They refer to it as a nail
I swallowed this industrial sewage, these unemployment documents
Youth stooped at machines die before their time
I swallowed the hustle and the destitution
Swallowed pedestrian bridges, life covered in rust
I can’t swallow any more
All that I’ve swallowed is now gushing out of my throat
Unfurling on the land of my ancestors
Into a disgraceful poem.

* * *

Together, these poems weave a historical and contemporary narrative of workers that has continued to transcend borders. Buried by the current political rhetoric and ignored by the loudest media mouthpieces of our time, it is ever more important to pay tribute to their struggles. To honor the workers who have tried to shift the shape of an unjust world for many, for those of us who were raised and taught by their calloused hands, we breathe in their history, and remember their beauty through poetry.