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

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

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

#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!