There will always be the unflinching devotion of a son to his mother, and history has shown many a similar story, and mine is similar too, except that I’m gay. A gay person’s life journey can have be made difficult by being rendered… “different.” You see, I never came out to our family. I never had to rehearse for weeks what to say, sit relatives down in a circle and make that traumatizing first confession — “I’m gay” — and leave the rest to the unforgiving hands of fate.
Here is our last count: four million Filipino immigrants in America. Nary a season on primetime TV without a Filipino face gracing the screen: American idol (Jessica Sanchez, Jasmine Trias), America’s Best Dance Crew (Jabbawockeez); YouTube discoveries (Arnel Pineda, Charice Pempengco); mixed second generation Filipino-Americans (Cheryl Burke/Dancing with the Stars; Tim Lincecum/San Francisco Giants). Even Miss Universe Pageant has had Ms. Philippines in the top five for three years straight. However, in the privacy of your bedroom theatre, next to the leftover adobo chicken on the night table, is there a Filipino-American BOOK waiting for the limelight of your minds?
It would be appropriate to start this missive by noting the year of our recorded civilization: 2013; and by including a recent headline reflecting our current state of affairs: “Obama urges U.S. high court to allow gay marriage in California.” In other parts of the world, at least the more progressive parts, the public discourse has since advanced from individual gay rights to gay marriage. However, after reading the following widely-circulated articles online about you, my dear Philippines, I realized that you are still stuck in the dark ages.
My American immigration gave birth to my rational way of thinking. Had I stayed in the Philippines, I would have, just like many Filipinos, a Ba(t)hala Na mentality, the sense and act of completely surrendering one’s fate to Bathala (god). Being raised a strict Catholic, as a kid, I prayed a lot, and as an adult, I never stopped praying. But I also have learned to understand that much of my destiny relies on my actions and hard work (or no work). I don’t leave anything up to God, at least while I’m strong and able enough to solve the issues that life is throwing at me. I supplement my rational actions with prayers and wishes, call them “visualization” or “meditation.” Over the years, my spirituality has been influenced by many non-Christians and non-religious people.
These days, however, I am not certain whether this Bahala na mentality is Catholic by nature. I suspect Christianity did some iconic replacement of “God” in the Filipino mind by making bathala more palpable, as evident in the strange and public worship of statues and physical religious symbols by Filipino Catholics. The controversy around the Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines is yet another hammering of the cultural Bahala Na mentality (i.e. Bahala Na if I have ten children and can’t feed them). The cultural echoes of this public battle over a woman’s body are wide and deep. For me, having “awoken” since I left the Philippines, the battle over the use of contraception (sounds so simple) is an interrogation of Bathala himself.
The New Bathala
Nothing surprises me about the resistance against the Reproductive Health Bill in the Philippines. In my core, I can almost predict the biblical quotable quotes at work in the catholic clergy’s tongues. Having left the Philippines and having traveled to so many Christian countries, I have realized that none of this resistance to contraception has anything to do with the Filipino people. They are simply pawns, as they have always been, to more powerful “godly” forces that have controlled the country’s cultural and moral mores for as long as they have been allowed. These new Bathala are politicians, bishops and Church Clergy, and other people of money and power who are cognizant of their ability to subject their followers to their will by simply invoking the “words of god.”
Because who wins an argument when the “words of god” are called upon? Not the poor women in the Philippines whose children multiply despite the fact their mothers have no jobs or skills to raise them properly and well. Who gains from the easy multiplication of the uneducated masses but the few people who take advantage of them? Who else will toil the land of the rich? Who will do their laundry? Clean the house?
The Birth of Resistance
The passing of the Reproductive Health Bill is a sign that the sick old woman of Asia is now able to get up and walk. The matriarchal country needs to make a decision what she is going to walk away from once she can stand up straight. For her recovering self, I can present a long list, the same list that I personally have walked away from: feudalism, group think, theocracy, colonial mentality, elitism, etc. Yes, these are the big concepts, but in each you can put a lot of people from the ruling class of the Philippines (in fact, a lot of MEN with very familiar names) and those whose ambitions are as big as the biblical words that walk with them side by side.
What the women of the Philippines must always remember is that foreign women didn’t colonize the Philippines and that the Catholic Church has no women in power. The country’s future depend on how she manages her own spiritual body, whether Father Faith or Father Hope approve it or not.
In a country where all households are run by women, the task at hand is defiance and rationality. God is a woman, and so she will rule.
Language begins with my mother. In a country like the Philippines, dotted with islands, each with unique food and language, it is rare to hear someone say, “I’m Chavacana.” Filipinos identify each other by locating his or her island (or province) of origin. The roots of one’s name begins and ends a conversation.
My father hails from Oas, Albay, and my mother, from Zamboanga. Oas is the home of the letter R of the infamous Claveria Decree, and Zamboanga of a Spanish creole called “chavacano,” truly the only existing Spanish-language mix in the Philippines, where Spanish was relegated to the corridors of Church, but not in the classroom. So when people ask, how come after 333 years of Spanish colonization the country doesn’t speak Spanish. Oh well, it’s because the Friars didn’t teach us. Simple, really. However, in Zamboanga, a fort watching over the Islamic Mindanao, a Spanish language was born in Chavacano. That was my mother’s first language. Her second is Cebuano, her third, Tagalog, her fourth, Bicolano (because of my father), her fifth, English. My mother is the polyglot, fluent in major languages of the Philippines.
My Polyglot Household
Because of the English language, most Filipinos are at least bilingual. Some are lucky to have intermarried with natives of other islands and learned new ones (like my mother). In my household, all the languages written above were spoken. Because my father was from Oas, Albay, and our house in Manila was ever occupied by Bicolanos, my father’s language dominated our linguistic world. Being in Manila, my siblings and I spoke Tagalog and studied English. Thus, Tagalog is native to the three of us and not to our parents. English was the common thread among us five, the only language not truly native, but rather, learned. At any given day, five languages were spoken, thought in, and dreamt about. What does that do to the psyche?
Filipinos don’t think about such things–multilingualism, multiculturalism, multi-whatever, linguistic psyches. We are born to such mergings and separations of archipelagic and colonial by-products. Language, for us, is fun. Tagalog, at any given day, becomes Taglish, thanks to the colegialias who boast self-esteem by flaunting English prowess. We make fun of each other’s accents. Visayans, the middle island people, are such victims. Those who can’t pronounce F and H are forever the butt of jokes. And English doesn’t help. Everyone is a victim of the non-fluency in English. English, the king of the Philippines, determines class, education, and just about anything that will put one on the pedestal. I remember being so intimidated by the very young Lea Salonga’s American accent. I always wondered how she learned to speak so well. And of course, thanks to her ever threatening language ability, she had her own TV show as a kid.
The Polyglot (in me)
This week, at the University of Miami’s Department of English (program here), I am to switch on the polyglot in me and speak about what it means to be multilingual.
Speaking about things that are natural perplexes me a lot. I often get invited to events that highlight the other. Talk about being Gay. Talk about being Gay and Asian. Talk about being an immigrant. Talk about being a published writer in the U.S. among Filipinos who don’t read books. Talk about being a polyglot.
Honestly, I had to google the word. I initially invoked the spirits of my multilingual tongue and dissected the word into syllables. Poly, I knew. But I couldn’t figure out what glot meant. Of course now I know, it’s a sexy word for multilingual.
Unlike my parents, the other languages that I speak are learned (studied). My curiosity about Chavacano, its origin and purpose, had me studying Spanish for a lifetime. What I speak now is not the chavacano of my mother, but rather a language first acquired from the chavacano blood and then refined in a few Spanish grammar classes and through cultural immersion in Latin America, where I have lived and studied at different periods of my life in the past 2o years. I speak languages in this order on a daily basis: English, Spanish, Tagalog (with my family). I think/process/do-everything in American English, I must say. English is natural to me now. Tagalog, my native language, is a weekly event. It happens within the confines of my family home in Jersey City. Spanish is the language of acquaintances, dreams, and voyages. Spanish is the language of my heart. Brazilian Portuguese is my fourth, one that I will have to study forever. I have gone back to Brazil more than the Philippines.
( A polyglot, I think, is defined as someone who speaks, writes, and reads in many languages, and may not include those who were raised in other languages they might not be able to speak, but more or less understand. Those for me are the languages of my parents.)
It’s the end of Semana Santa, and I must confess that I always have two sins. I oversimplify and I exagerrate. At. Times. (Nature of the literary beast prone to poetic license).
But, today, the former. Language-made-simple. Sans politics.
I married the Spanish language for a reason. I speak English for a larger reason. One I chose (Spanish), the other I did not (English). In the Philippines, such linguistic barriers are easily broken by pathways of travel and marriage. That’s how my family came about. English was a colonial language, and the language of the Overseas Foreign Workers (10% of Philippine population work abroad). For me, Spanish is a language I must learn and speak if I were to ever understand the Spanish colonial experience in the Philippines–all the 333 years of it. Studying, living, and loving in Latin America taught me many things about the nature of the Filipino as a Spanish bastard. I own the word as a self-descriptor — latinazo.
In my little head, languages are a dance. They are secret tongues, keys, hearts, surprises, and possibilities. They are countries, islands, foods, and music. They are people, buildings, places, and songs. There is more to this topic that I can ever blog here. As a politicized writer, the word multingual has many other bends in the road, especially in the racialized America.
In literature, language is everything. In the world of letters, the polyglot has a natural weapon. In America, “land of immigrants”, it could be as mighty as a sword. But I will save that topic for public speaking.
I’m sitting on my rattan chair, feet up on the edge. The room is spotlit, mostly dark. The TV in my bedroom is on PBS, where Barbra Streisand just finished a private concert for a privileged 120 guests. I have posted enough on facebook to calm my nerves. I have listened to the theme song of Umbrellas of Cherbourgh on You Tube about ten times already, after hearing Streisand sing No Me Quitte Pas. I don’t know the connection between the two–but I instantly googled the former as soon as I heard the song. Then there’s the laundry which I glided through with robotlike precision. Three hours earlier, I left my job half an hour after five when I would normally stay much later. Times Square was a glare. In the heat of the subway, I didn’t see the point of overworking. The economic and political world seems to be falling apart again. I am holding my breath, wondering what else will sneak out of the dark. I am thinking of my World War 2 father, how he felt in 1941 as the war inched in.
A familiar song from my childhood, it is one of those melodramatic songs carried through the generation by a host of Filipino voices. I don’t remember who sang it originally, or when; or how much the accompanying memory matters. But I was suddenly thinking of post-WW2 blues, the time of my father when the world was reconstructing dreams from rubble. A shattered world seemed young again. There was much to look forward to, a gentle walk from the ruins and the ashes of war. Since my father left, I know less and less people from that era. The oldest is a 91 year old friend from Montclair, with whom I have kept in touch over the years through penned letters and cards. From her, I recreate a world that is lost now, one full of trust and self sacrifice. There is much decency to that period, and to the people who created the greatest generation. Their world, exposed to the volatility of human life, was thick with values and respect. In their place are generations of lackadaisical people. A few search for meaning. Many just live. Just.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
I always thought I was born in the wrong era, too much poetry for a world of greed and ego. I listen to the same music my mother grew up in, a strange appreciation for Connie Francies, Frank Sinatra and their kins. I love, love too much, and often end up stabbed on the back. All my favorite movies have love plot lines of cataclismic tragedy (Think: The Way We Were). When I see a movie like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I smell of hope for innocence, a prayer for this generation to love so gently again. Yet, people give up too soon. There is an air of distrust everywhere. Self-preservation makes us lie, betray, risk our own self-worth. Now, there is much talk about the economy spiraling downward again. Confidence, on which the market depends, is lost in the rising fear. More and more people in my life are losing their jobs. Those without for years are still without jobs. Communities are seeing mind shattering impact. Without hope, there is no sense to love.
When I go back to work tomorrow, I will flow through time with the wakefulness of a machine. People around me will speak of the economic situation with very little understanding of what’s about to come down. I don’t know what their dreams are made of. Whatever they are, they won’t be the same as my father’s or my mother’s or my 91 year old friend from Montclair. What makes it truly sad in this age of housewives reality TV series is that there is such an absence of true passion in life. The world is bereft of color. We live now because tomorrow we will have to die. We work because tomorrow is another day. Just another day.
No me quitte pas. If you go away, you just walk away. It is dark where we are heading. I think of my father’s restlessness in his youth when at nineteen, he was plunged in the darkness of war. There was no preparation, no time to think. These days, we have too many choices, too much time in our hands. And yet, wrong choices are always made. Greed and ego always rule.
Perhaps we are moving into another time similar to what my father had gone through in his youth. I don’t know what it was like then, but from reading war texts, it feels so exactly the same: falling economies, widespread hate, rise of fascismm, unemployment, and restlessness. The rest of what follows will hopefully not be the same as what my father went through. I hope this time we fix the roads before we fall in.
This week, I will be doing one thing I have not done in a long time — do a public reading from my first novel; and do another thing that I have not done at all — do a public reading from my Kindle.
My relationship with books began early, sealed by fate as soon as my father brought home an entire book shelf of encyclopedias instead of the much requested new T.V. Growing up without TV, an experience that easily made me an outsider in childhood conversations, opened another experience that most kids I know never had–the secret world of the imagination.
The Published Dream
For me, for many of us, the imagined world of reading is connected to the tactile experience of turning a page, of looking at the page number at the bottom, and sometimes folding the corner as a reminder of where to return at a later reading. When I wrote my first book at fifteen, I had every intention of mimicking the experience of a bound book by writing in the blank pages of a book binding project I did in school and by carefully centering the title in the middle of the first page.
Publishing a first novel was a process in the imagination: how the cover looks, the name on the spine, the people to thank inside, and in the thick of it, the words that once occupied the heart and mind and the dream. The dream was a package deal as well, and even when I wrote my first novel on my laptop, I knew exactly the first things I would do as soon as it came to fruition, from pulling it out of a shelf in a bookstore to signing the first or second page in my first reading. I even knew the color of ink I would use to sign all my books–green. I also had a stamp made to direct the readers to my website.
Then, suddenly, one day a month ago, my first book was released on Nook and Kindle. Twelve years after it was released in print edition.
The Kindle Experience
I, just like most people around me now, am what they would call a “digital immigrant,” one not born to the rather lightning speed changes in computer technology. In 1994, when I started writing my first novel, the public Internet we can’t live without now was at its infancy. I was part of a generation that was carried through the creation and invention of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and the disappearance of cassettes, Walkmans, and Floppy Disks.
I was excited to buy my Kindle. I thought of it as part of my growing up process as a digital immigrant, a new language to learn (sort of). Eventually I knew, I would surrender to E-books and E-reading; and now would be perfect time to do it, because my first novel is officially in the loop.
And so I put my Kindle on my lap while I comfortably sat on a chair. I lifted my legs and rested my feet on the edge of the chair and leaned back, letting my Kindle slide and rest between my stomach and my thighs. I thought the experience would be similar to reading from the screen of my laptop or desktop, a necessary but stressful experience for my beautifully aging eyes. Yet, before I knew it I had been reading for over two hours, still held captive by the text and the imagination, nary a wink.
The first book I downloaded was War of the Worlds, a sci-fi classic I had always wanted to read and whose movie versions where convoluted and polemical. I thought it would be the first perfect reading given the situation’s proclivity to the magic of science. My hands didn’t look for the edges of paper that they were so accustomed to turn. My eyes didn’t turn away from the screen where the text was as clear as it would be on paper. My mind knew exactly what it had to do next once I reached the bottom of the screen. And when my finger pressed the button on both sides to go to the next screen, I knew I could press another one to return.
The missing reading gadgets were replaced–my highlighter, my pen, my bookmarks. On my Kindle, I could highlight and annotate. I could bookmark a page so I could return to it later. Most of all, I could entertain my mercurial self by switching from one genre to another. So many books in one place, all of them feeling the same way, except in the heart and mind where the text of the imagination sits.
The Page, The Page Numbers, The Word Count
One morning, during my reading trips on the subway, I noticed that the page number has disappeared. I used to memorize the last page I was on so that I didn’t have to fold the paper edge or risk the quiet slipping of a bookmark from the book. At the bottom of my Kindle screen is a bar with a percentage marking of how much of the book I have read. I am now into 75% of War of the Worlds, just about when the protagonist has left the entrapped house where he witnessed first hand through a peep hole the quotidian goings-on of the Martians.
As a writer, I am conscious of page numbers and word counts. A 200-page manuscript can pass as a novel. Anything below or above becomes a matter of negotiation. In the e-book world, at least with my Kindle, none of that seems to matter. The emphasis is drawn back to the text and the imaginary world it creates. It returns us to the basics of reading, and to the solemn reasons why writers write in the first place. There are no decorative fonts, there are no status symbols in paper stock and glossy covers. There are no politics in the blurbs and endless recommendations.
For once, the book is naked and raw.
Readings This Week
Sunday Salon: Sunday, April 10th, 7pm, Manhattan
Ah, Spring! Though the weather begs to differ, spring has arrived and we’re celebrating the season of new life and, drum roll please… new books! Come join us in welcoming four outstanding writers and special musical guests to the Salon stage. At Jimmys 43, 7pm.
Directions and more info: http://www.sundaysalon.com/nyc-april-10-2011.htm
Brooklyn Reading Works: Thursday, April 14th, 8pm, Brooklyn
Thursday April 14, 8:00 pm
The Old Stone House, Park Slope
336 3rd Street (5th Avenue)
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Directions and more info: http://brooklynreadingworks.com/
A week ago, a friend from Kenya visited to attend an e-publishing conference in New York City. One evening, we talked about the changing climate in the literary world because of the slow yet steady rise of E-readership. This is no surprise to me as a technologist. After all, it was what I studied in graduate school, where I first heard of “digital natives” vs. “digital immigrants” like myself, further amplifying my multiple identities.
That same week, I sat down with two colleagues over a meal of sashimi and somehow found our conversation hovering over E-reading. One of the two had a Kindle and the other a Nook. I was embarrassed to admit that when it came to e-books, I was still very much an E-virgin (by choice, mind you). I lug a huge paper book in my huge wheeled bag daily, and in fact, enjoy taking it out to read on the subway. I love staring at it on my chair when I’m not reading it. I love finding it on the edge of my bed, quietly inviting me to dive back in. I love the fact that I can’t read it without carrying a yellow highlighter and a green pen, because I habitually mark every book I read.
Every day now, I see people on the train with E-readers. It is becoming an accessory worth flaunting in public. First, there was the nano, and now that everyone has an I-pod, here comes Nook and Kindle, and all their lesser stepsisters. I am beginning to reconsider my decision not to get one, especially after I found out that my first novel has gone E-book.
Oh, And No I-Phone
I also don’t own an I-phone. I have been tempted many times to upgrade, but the thought of adding more pounds to my already crowded outerwear is precluding me the I-pleasure. I have a cellphone that is as old as the cellphone universe. I rarely use it, because I am simply not a phone person. And I have limited chats that reach its limit before the end of the billing month. I find the moment before reaching my text limit exciting. I know how peculiar that. But I actually start organizing in my little head who is worth sending texts to when I’m reaching my limit. Someone asked me once why I don’t have unlimited texting and whether it’s worth the headache of running out of text messages every month. Truth is, because of email, I normally don’t have heavy text months.
Don’t count me out of the E-world. I don’t see anything wrong with my scenario. I am online 24/7, well almost, with four computers and wireless access every where I go. As I type this, two laptops are facing me. I have a netbook clutched in a bag somewhere should I decide to run to bed and do some work there. I consider myself quite a techie. I spent a good four years teaching computer technology to Adult learners in poor communities, translating technology to all cultural mores–try to intellectualize that. I guess it’s this kind of overconsumption that had me considering the down times, those ephemeral moments when I don’t have technology access at all.
Take the cell phone. What would I start doing when I get an I-phone? Be on Facebook 24/7, even while I’m at the gym, so it would say “mobile” on the post? Would I walk around texting and forget that there are other humans on the sidewalk? Will I take pride in being REALLY e-connected (because I suppose that those few minutes while I’m between wireless access means I’m not fully-wired)? Will I get I-phone-envy and take mine out just because?
Well, granted, I have a terrible sense of direction and may need to always have access to GPS. Well, maybe not.
The Needs of The Writerly Types
Well, here it is. I am typing this blog on my laptop. I think I mentioned that already. Last year, I bought a netbook that was much lighter than this laptop and definitely much easier to travel with. I asked myself, what I would need it for?. I thought, well, I need to get a lightweight type of writing instrument that I could hide in any bag. The Netbook, though with smaller keyboard, was the answer. But I must admit that when I type on it, sometimes the Netbook is too slow for my rapid fingers such that I end up retyping sentences. Good for a writer. Not always.
And so there are the other devices. I thought if there were such a thing as an E-reader that has some word processing capability, then it would be perfect for me. The Ipad is very pretty, very costly, but yes, a good fashion statement for the upwardly mobile. But I can’t write in the darn thing. They say, if it has word processing, then it will take the function of a laptop and that’s not what it’s for. I ask, and what’s wrong with that?
My First Child Goes E-book
To add to my world of e-cosmic coincidences in the past couple of weeks, I found that that my first novel of 12 loving years was about to debut on Nook and Kindle in a few days, that is, February 28, 2011. Naturally, I got my two colleagues of my sashimi lunch team to fill their e-readers with The Umbrella Country e-book edition, although they had read it before. And, having no qualms about random and infrequent self-promotion, I immediately posted it on my Facebook page. The novel is twelve years old, a young teen, and Big Daddy here needs to keep pushing this teen into manhood.
Last week, my co-worker showed me my book on her Nook. How weird was that? I wrote this book on a laptop. I remember a magazine reporter who came to my home and asked me if he could take a picture of my desk with piles of manuscripts. I told him that I didn’t have such a thing, and showed him computer floppy disks instead. That was a surprise to him. I was easily a part of a generation of writers who were quickly and proudly transitioning from typewriter to word processors, in my case, a laptop. Strangely enough, those disks are no longer useful to me, because I don’t have a computer that could take them. Floppy disks, what again? Now, the choices are varied. In fact, I had gone back to carrying very small notebooks in which I can write, “notes.” And next to it, my flash cards.
My life and my work have both been immersed in technology for almost 20 years now. I even pursued my graduate studies in it. My comfort level in computers and the Internet is quite high. For people like me who think fast, get bored easily, and have a low threshold for the prosaic, the E-world presents a cornucopia of opportunities. I get information at my fingertips, and quickly switch topics on a whim, and the Internet, my BFF, is still there.
On the other hand, there is the moment of technological absence, a rarity but it exists. When I go to the gym, or when I’m in Jersey with my family, I make an effort to stay away from technology to be enclosed in a real, human space with old school interactions. It reminds me that in many ways, I’ could still be old school. But it’s become harder and harder to be this way. When I meet friends for dinner, I find myself dining with their I-phones. People have no boundaries between their I-phones and real time lives, such that suddenly going online mid-conversation is not as rude as it might seem anymore. And yes, in the corner of my pixeled mind, I’m wondering whether it’s time to upgrade and get an I-phone. I can always put it in my bag instead of my pocket, next to a possible new purchase of a Kindle or Nook. So what happens now to books on my shelf I haven’t read? Does that mean I have to repurchase them as e-books. I know I’m complicating myself. Just get with the program. You’re right.
Marc Prensky’s Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants
Motorola Xoom may just be what the doctor ordered
Barnes and Noble Nook
For two weeks, I found myself wandering the streets of Downtown Los Angeles. I didn’t tell anybody where I was, nor did I plan to meet people I know there. I simpy didn’t need to hear — “comments” (I already have as I write this). I wanted to experience the lives of the people that the state of Arizona have deemed undeserving of the American Dream, without having to go to Arizona, that is. I thought California would be that place, as a haven for 25% of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. New York City, also the city of immigrants, some may be undocumented, is really not the same, as the whole island of Manhattan has been gentrified and its “cultural” people moved to the outer boroughs such as Queens, the last vestiges of good old American work ethic, the type that involved the heavy use of hands and hearts (versus the much coveted corner office and two hour coffee break in a high rise with a view). I have been to LA a few times, but this was the first time I decided to zero in on a purposeful trip.
The Bends in the Road
Since I started traveling when I was eighteen, I have taught myself to take the paths where the road bends and twists, the non-touristic areas, or so to speak, the road less traveled, where I believe the real people are. Earlier in my traveling years, I ran into these bends because I took the wrong bus and ended up somewhere off my magical travel map, but have found in them the kind of stories my peripatetic soul desires. In Rio de Janeiro, when I was twenty, I ended up in a street that would eventually inspire my first novel. The images I found–the dark alleys, the big windows, the hang-around-do-nothing men, the street kids–are as vivid in my mind and heart as the first encounter. Also, as recent as three years ago, my most important memory of the street of Rio de Janeiro were street vendors up and about so early in the morning as the competition got stiff while the hours lingered. There was this older man selling a floor cleaning product while he demonstrated dirty vs. clean by using his product on a few household parts (floor wood, tile, etc. ). He did that with so much candor, it made me wonder if he ever tired of showing the passersby (many simply overwhelmed by the human traffic) the before and after. Culture watching is what I enjoy most in traveling, and I do that with a direct glance, not from the corner of my eyes, as most tourists would, especially when the delight over false realities start to wane, and the homeless in the corner become visible again. In my point of view, the homeless is always there. I see people before I see the glitter.
And so I skirted the Hollywood glitter all together, and left with not one picture for Facebook of me in front of the notorious sign on a mountaintop. Instead, I spent much time walking Broadway, this seedy strip reminiscent of pre-gentrified Manhattan Times Square. Interestingly, I was consumed by sheer excitement. Every day, I ate at the Central Market and the Mexican dives on Broadway, contemplating on the demographic shift that is about to hit this country in a few years. I watch people get lost in their work, many very young Mexicans who obviously should be in school. I was strangely feeling that they, unlike their counterparts on the East Coast who are the children of immigrants, don’t have any sense of entitlement to work and life. There is a deep sense of belonging in the world of work, even in menial jobs, bereft completely of attitude that come from a sense of privilege that one is better than one’s job. In New York City, nastiness and lack of courtesy seem to be a job description. I keep wondering about this bottom-of-the-pyramid jobs that nobody wants, and that every Tea Party bagger claims be taken from the regular Joes. Why do we see the same brown faces behind those counters? What do they know about the seemingly 20th century American ethic that is now lost in many of us?
The State of the American Dream
On the Metro, announcements are made in two languages, which many conservative Americans who subscribe to the America=English tradition will frown upon. During my stay, I heard (and probably spoke) more Spanish than English, most likely a testament to location than anything else (although, it is also possible that it is the norm of the city). Certainly, it is portentous of what is about to hit this country—a majority Latino population whose first language at home is not English, a community of people who possess a rather different take on the American Dream.
For someone like me—who majored in Latin American Studies, a Spanish speaker, and an educator in the Latino community—the latinization of America is simply exciting. I honestly feel more at home in this community than in my own, much of which is due to my choice of work and my own proclivity to humble lifestyles. I also went to San Francisco recently and was bombarded with old Filipino ways, where pomp is the song and dance. For many of us Filipinos who immigrate to the U.S., the American Dream is as simple as the idea of “growing big,” be they in houses, number of SUVs, or the number of parties thrown in year. Because of our instant advantage over other immigrants in English, we don’t really struggle as much in America and have done quite well mainstreaming on America’s superhighway. True, a lot of it is from hard work. True as well, there is nothing wrong with having three bedrooms per head or four plasma TVs, but we now know in this climate of foreclosures that the number of rooms in one house will not a happy person make. Four plasma TVs will not give anyone a different view of racialized America.
Similarly, compared to other immigrant literary communities, there are many first generation immigrant Filipino writers like myself who manage to publish books in the U.S. Unfortunately, most Filipinos I know, including my relatives, are not impressed with my literary credentials, although they are all convinced that Harvard was a good move. We do love brands, and Harvard is one, albeit better if a law or medical degree. This may also be the reason why there are almost no Filipinos in my social justice work. You can’t wear or flaunt activism. The Cesar Chavez types were long gone in history. Sorry, Bulosan, what struggle? Sadly, it is this very sense of struggle that is absent in the lives of many young Filipino-Americans, as if their sense of comfort is a biological twin. It is a question that I ask myself when I hear of children of immigrants , these second generation Americans, who were given everything, except a sense of purpose in life: when and how did we lose the dream?
I found the struggle and the dream in the faces of Mexicans in LA, the target of the emerging American fascism. While the rest of us, many immigrants as well, watch with disengagement in one of four plasma TVs, the horrors of legislative bills against this demographic, they continue to do what they need to survive, work, work despite everything, work at all cost.
There is a lot of work to be done in the Latino community, to make sure they don’t become complacent drones in the future. The next generations need to understand that work is a privilege, not the benefit of an American passport. However, the educational system is failing many of these kids. They have the lowest college involvement and the highest in the high school drop-out rate. Latinos are here to stay, and most Americans don’t know what problems are going to face them in the near future if these issues are not dealt with now. While in the hotels, I had conversations with the women who cleaned the rooms. I asked them about their education, if they are learning English at all. They said, No, and were confused by my question. I wanted to find out whether these big hotels are investing in them, the entry-level workforce, in their education. They are all caught in dead-end jobs, many grow old pushing a cart full of dirty linen. One of them, Maria was an older woman, the other, Reina, was much younger, both will probably carve the same working paths in their lives, one which didn’t involved assimilation into the America culture via English. For both, the American Dream lies in their English-speaking children, if they make it at all. These are the very children who have now begun shaping new cultural paradigms in the U.S. In fact, New York City has been experiencing a Mexican baby boom. In many ways, for which I am thankful, the Mexican work ethnic impresses me so. If you ever get to travel in the wee hours on the New York subway, you will notice what type of New Yorkers are the first to get out to work, or the last to go home; more often than not, they are the Mexicans.
My last breakfast at the Grand Central Market brought me the pleasure of hearing these words from an old man who was showing some appreciation of the busboys: “Tenemos Alegria.” It was such a simple moment to punctuate this state of happiness I have been feeling during my past two weeks of cultural exploration and rumination. For the past year, I have been wondering about my work trajectory. I went to Harvard to start an organization, and have not fully created one. Since I came back to Manhattan, I have lost parts of myself, as I slowly get sucked into the world of mundane privilege once again. I have always been one to dismiss safety nets, yet I have allowed mine to grow even bigger in the past year. I have even considered “safe” jobs that bring in a lot of money. Fortunately, the one that I got which begins soon is neither safe nor income-heavy. I am back in the nexus of Adult Literacy, Immigration, and Social Justice. It will be an opportunity to also begin working on my new initiative, We Speak America. The latino community in LA gave me the much needed mileage and inspiration, a sense that one can still commit to American service and be appreciated.
How luxurious indeed to catch a glimpse of the American future. There is no denying that the latinization of America will breed fascists. We see them everywhere now, the likes of Jan Brewer and Glenn Beck who pander to the American fear of a brown take-over will only gather strengths in the years to come. But there will be power in numbers. And there is no stopping The United States of Latin America. America, authentically brown, will reemerge in its true form.
Related Readings: A Mexican Baby Boom in New York Shows the Strength of a New Immigrant Group, Latinos will be part of new U.S. “majority” sooner than predicted, Latino Children: A Majority Are U.S.-Born Offspring of Immigrants, Most U.S. Hispanic Kids Have Immigrant Parents
Thanks to Jan Brewer, we are all Arizona. The fascist machine that she’s created has been on my mind a lot lately. I am a staunch protester of SB 1070 that took effect on Thursday, but I didn’t expect it to be delivered to my doorstep in the same week, a reminder perhaps of how quickly the essence of this fascist machine can travel and put into practice by those with very narrow minds.
On Monday, I decided to do my laundry early in the evening. I usually do it late at night, around 9pm, so I don’t have to run into the residents of the building. To do laundry, I had to go through the front door (one doorman) and the elevator (another doorman) to be taken to the basement. During the day, the laundry room is full of brown people, all maids of the white people who live in my building. After a few times of being asked by the brown maids where I worked, I decided to stop going there during the day. I live in an all-white-resident building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As the only brown person in my building, I have been mistaken for a delivery boy by newly-hired white doormen (they’re all white), and have not been let into the building until the another doorman confirmed that I lived here. Once they found out that I actually lived here and had no pizza to deliver, they became extremely gracious, as they should be. The laundry room is next to the exit of the parking garage. At 5:45pm, I was happily stocking the washer with my clothes, when a woman, who so resembled Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, suddenly appeared at the door and condescendingly confronted me with, “WHAT APARTMENT ARE YOU IN?” Shocked, I actually answered her, and she left. Just like that.
Thanks to my netbook and wifi, I had access to my Facebook account and managed to post the incident as it happened. I usually stay in the laundry room until I finish, and spend my time doing some work on my netbook while I wait. I really should thank countless of you who responded to my public outcry with very supportive statements. I would find out within that hour that the hapless Jan Brewer of the Upper East Side was actually in a “position of power.” The doorman who witnessed the incident was just as angry and was more than happy to give me the real name of this woman. I was thinking, if such were the types to sit at the decision-making table in places like this, it comes as no surprise that there were no doormen-of-color in this building.
I was very furious that evening. I still remember her inimical gaze, the kind that rips into your soul. It was also the second time it happened to me in my building. I regret not having insulted her back, but what would that accomplish? I realized the reason why I decided to do my laundry late at night was because I really didn’t want to encounter another racial incident and ruin my day. I have developed coping mechanisms to survive this filthy rich white neighborhood I have lived in for over ten years. People wonder how I got here or what I’m doing here. I am obviously not one of these people. I tell them simply, I have relatives around the block. Yes, there are Filipinos on the Upper East Side. Yes, I am one of them. In fact, I spend so much time walking around here, I am probably a landmark, like the rusty lamp post in the corner.
Let’s talk about racial profiling. If I were a blond man doing my laundry on Monday, the Jan Brewer of the Upper East Side would think twice before violating me with such a highly-charged question. She would think twice, thrice, or may not even ask. She might even ask the doorman who I was first. She might even think I was cute. Or I might even take my shirt off for her and flex. She might even stutter while she asked me. Or she might just walk past me and assume I was a friend of one of the residents of my building, while muttering to herself, whoa, who was that? Whoa! Yet no, since I was brown, just like the women who cleaned their houses during the day, she just had to stop and find out where I WORKED. Yes, she didn’t think I lived here. She thought I worked here. She wanted to know my affiliation in the building by the apartment number I gave her. And now that she knew that I worked for Apartment # _, DANGER was lifted off her shoulder. Danger meaning, Me.
And such is the nature of racial profiling.
When Mexicans in Arizona are stopped by the police, who according to the real Jan Brewer of Arizona should be given the power to harrass, interrogate, and then arrest, only one assumption is made about them: these dangerous people don’t belong there. Because the Jan Brewer’s minions have already been blessed to propagate “if you’re brown, you must be illegal,” racial profiling has now been, to put it simply, institutionalized and systematized. And if you’re indeed one of the Mexicans who live there (remember, you NEED to look like a Mexican migrant), you need to save yourself the trouble and get out.
Diversity is in the Heart
I love America. I love the diversity of this country. I came from quite a homogeneous culture, with slight regional differences. But we basically resemble each other and ate the same food. I have lived in New York most of my life now, so any hint of homogeneity has faded in my brain (and tongue). I thrive in highly diverse environments. I choose it for work. I get restless when I work in an all black situation, or all white, or even, like in my last job, all-Filipino (teachers). When I was in San Francisco recently, I experienced culture shock because I only saw Filipinos for five days. It is so cliche to call New York the microcosm of the world, but it truly is. It is such a mesh of culture, that the melting pot has been taken to another level, just like this Mexican restaurant where I was the other night that was run by a family of Palestinians. Where do you find that?
Today, on the train in Manhattan, I gave directions in Spanish to some tourists who wanted to go to Wall Street. They probably assumed I was Latino. Being asked in Spanish by lost Latinos in New York is part of my quotidian existence. I love the idea that as a Filipino immigrant, I can assume many roles. Where else can this happen? In Arizona, I would have to carry an ID every single day, because I would certainly get stopped for looking like a Mexican migrant worker. I wonder what the police would think if I flashed them my Harvard student ID.
Jan Brewer is Everywhere
Jan, Jan, Jan. How holy do you think art thou? I don’t know what goes through the brains of these people who think they are better than others because of their color. In the time of Obama, the Jan Brewers of America seem to be coming out of their holes, and making their “holiness” a public spectacle. In Obama’s blackness, they find a reason to turn their bigotry into a public platform, after all, they “voted” for a black man. The down economy is their excuse to make accusations against the brown universe, and “post-racial” America is their forum to speak out. For the Jan Brewers, this is not about race. It can’t be. Not with a black president. In one of my job interviews, the non-profit Jan Brewer just couldn’t resist asking me, Where are you from? while his male counterpart ripped my resume apart and punctuated the ripping with, When did you leave Argentina? nary a blink (Yes, I studied there, but I am not from there, you racist idiot). They were both very comfortable with highly directed (and illegal) ethnic questions that had no bearing with the job. For these types, I make sure I wrote “Filipino” as one of the languages I speak on my resume. I am not sure Che Guevarra’s relatives spoke that language. Indeed, I, a brown immigrant man, have many coping mechanisms and am well-equipped to deal with these circumstances, or so I thought. Unfortunately, the Jan Brewers are quickly multiplying, with new strategies in the blame game.
The Jan Brewers are nervous. They are afraid the brown people are taking over the country. They are afraid that Spanish will become the lingua franca. And all of us will be watching Univision and not CNN, and eat rice and beans. They are afraid that sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld, or Sex and the City, all set in New York, will have brown lead characters in it. And all the hospital shows will have Filipino and Jamaican Nurses. Ah, they don’t exist. After all, New York City has no brown people. None (except in my building.)
America’s face is changing. Jan Brewer is very afraid. Because she is very afraid, she needs to make sure that racial profiling becomes the law of the land, so we can send all the Mexicans back where they belong. (Yes, Texas.)
As the country diversifies and as racism permeates the brown universe, Jan Brewer will take on new identities. In the future, the Jan Brewers will no longer be white and blond. She will be black, latino, or worse, Filipino. That’s how viruses spread. We have already seen them, but that is for another blog entry.
Related Reading: Alto Arizona, Alto Arizona Art Campaign, Wordstrike: Writers Against SB 1070, New York Times Coverage of SB 1070, Videos of protest against SB1070 from Puente, New with Nezua (interesting mock ICE checkpoint), Vivir Latino Coverage, Racism Review Archive on Mexican Americans,