Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide
No escape from reality
~Queen (Bohemian Rhapsody)
My father still jokes at some of the words I uttered when we first came to the United States in the 1980’s. As a two-year-old, I could only jumble up in my best Tagalish, “Is kakain na ba tayo?” We reminisce on some of our earlier days in this country with my broken English and the remnants of the Tagalog that would later take a back seat to a new fluency. Growing up wasn’t always littered with joviality, but there were still some things we could laugh about from the past.
History has never been kind to its immigrants and the ’80s were no exception. My father worked for a Jewish entertainment law firm in Century City, California, having broke from senior rank at GrolierTM in the Philippines. He was a high level auditor at a company that defended the top A-list superstars of the era. He ran into Madonna in the elevator one day, expressing shock that “hindi naman sya mataas,” because as he said, she was “so much shorter in person.” I would often get autographs from some of their clients. One night he came home with a signed poster of all the actors from the movie, Grease. It seemed fun and games but life wasn’t always so glamorous.
One night he told my mother what happened in the lunch room as he was having his dinuguan to the curiosity of his co-workers. Upon telling them it was a Filipino dish made of savory meats simmered in a gravy of pig blood, garlic, and vinegar, they all reacted like a pack of school children decrying the unkosher lunch. This really hurt my dad and I remember him calling my grandmother in the Philippines, crying about the incident. He’d never been belittled this way. That impacted me. I couldn’t understand how so-called grown ups, could deprecate a grown-man, a prominent CPA, to tears. I was so angry and unable to understand how an institution founded on defending individuals couldn’t even defend one of its own. And I couldn’t understand why my father choose to persist through this adversity because the only thing I could see, was red. That was my second lesson encountering prejudice.
My first came much earlier at the age of three. My mother and I were in line at Thrifty’s in the Wilshire district near the Wiltern. An older white woman, in front of us, was paying for her items and I was contently stuffing my face with the largest scoop of ice cream that could fit in one of their sugar cones. My mouth was covered in the chocolate confectionary. The woman in front of us suddenly turned around, pointed at me, and accused me of pick-pocketing her purse! My mother was infuriated and in her most taurine Filipina-like manner told the clerk what an insensitive and ignorant thing to accuse a small child of such an act. The clerk dismissed the incident, and we all walked away from it, but it struck a nerve with me. Was this really the country that my parents defended and brought me to after having plucked me out of an environment full of friends, family, and palabok?
Racial differences, equity, and racism are not common things most American-born children have to understand and in many cases never have to deal with because they reside in the country of their birth. They’re easily accepted in relative comparison and are never really made to feel different. Many of us who came from immigrant upbringings have very different stories to tell. Ours speaks of inequity, injustice, unfair treatment, and diminishment. It’s as though there are two very different Americas co-existing side by side ― each having no understanding of the struggles of the other― and with only some commonality to bridge the chasm. We often forget the tales of this Other America because we are so hell-bent as a Nation to remember only the stories we want to hear whilst silencing all others.
My dad always tells me stories from his childhood when he grew up in Bulacan and had to go to school with no shoes on. They were living in such poverty that despite the TV generation he was raised in, my dad and his family didn’t even own a television set. They had to drill holes in the walls so that all three siblings, my dad, uncle, and aunt could stand side by side with their respective peep holes to watch the neighbor’s TV set from across the yard. He sought to better his lot in life by leaving a country under the dictatorship of Marcos to make that a reality.
In retrospect, I think it made sense to come to the U.S. because, at the time, it seemed to afford the best opportunities for my mom and I. But I envy the upbringing of my cousins. They got to grow up together, in a community, not some pseudo-nuclear family in an artificial landscape wrought with the seeds of hate and indignation toward what missionaries have always seen as the poor little brown people of the world who needed saving. They grew in a kind of self-confidence and esteem about themselves as Filipinos bearing a surname which, in Tagalog, means bold because our ancestors fought to keep that last name during the Hispanization of the islands. They understood their ethnic origins. They were proud of their nationalistic identity and remembered the time when a Francisco Estrella Santos Mangahas, my grandfather, fought as a guerilla fighter during the Japanese occupation in World War II, walking the Death March from Manila to Subic Bay, and escaping to help save the lives of countless in Niugan, later displaying his helmet and bayonet as proud trophies in his home.
I, on the other hand, lived on the scraps of that history, picking up the bits and pieces of a cultural origin from school history books penned in the hand of the victor. I would half be proud, half ashamed, making sense of it all, whilst still trying to enjoy my lumpia, ignoring the taunts that I had become whitewashed. Had I been able to choose back then what I wanted, I don’t think I would have wanted to learn about injustice and hate at such a young age.
One would think that in the new millennium, things would have drastically changed, but old habits die hard. We live in an era where the racist demagoguery of certain presidential candidates is reigned supreme and where countless blindly follow. It goes to show things haven’t changed that much. Some years back at a local Rite Aid, in Huntington Beach, a pregnant white woman who was the cashier, after hearing over a loud speaker of someone being caught shoplifting, saw me walking up to her register with my purchases; wrongfully connected the dots, and actually had the nerve to ask if that was me. I sort of gazed back with the look of someone who’d just been forced a mouthful of sour lemons, and retorted back with a, “No, of course not…” I’ve often wondered if she would have asked the same if I had a different set of eyes and skin color. When I look to the future, I do hope things will change for everyone. I want equality to be a very tangible reality for all kinds of people, so they can have a life they from which they don’t need an escape. ✿