“You have to pick places you don’t walk away from.”—Joan Didion
“Madali tayong makalimot / we forget easily.”—Known Filipino attribute
The young man in this picture is my father at his university graduation. On a full scholarship, he double majors with honours in Political Science and Religious Studies from Silliman University, a renowned American institution in Negros, an island deep in the Philippine archipelago bursting with fields of towering sugar cane sprouting on a bedrock made of gold. My grandparents have high hopes for him, the second youngest of their nine children. He is the intellectual, the one who reads too much, talks quickly, thinks deeply and dreams big. He is the story-teller, rhapsodizing about Prometheus, or King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, or about Loki’s bag of tricks and mischief. He is the family historian, extolling the exploits of Chinese Pirates on my grandmother’s side, and the victories of strapping Malaysian warriors on my grandfather’s.
In this picture, the young man wants to be a professor, or a writer, or a lawyer, or a philosopher. Or all four. He has ideas and theories he thinks the world should hear. He is the handsome student council president, the big shot on campus who runs track and field and shoots hoops for the basketball team. If you listen to family gossip, then you might believe that my father was a first-rate, fly Muchacho, with a girlfriend here, a girlfriend there, flirting, flirting everywhere. Once, on a trip back to Negros, my father brought me to his childhood home, a house on bamboo stilts, high off the ground to prevent the nearby river from devouring it in case a typhoon hits.
Inday[i], look here, my father says, pointing to the secret door on the floor his older brothers made and sneaked out of each night, sweet-talking with their girlfriends in the steamy forest of sweet cane, against the hum of cicadas.
You sneaked out too, I tell my father. He won’t admit or deny anything, except to explain that he’s had more than one girlfriend before my mother, but never at the same time; never as many as my uncles, and never after the same type of women my uncles went ran after. While my uncles chased women who easily took to compliments and kisses, my father only wanted the ones who took to books and did math for fun. And pretty, of course. They had to be pretty.
Your father and his pretty girlfriends, my mother mutters, rolling her eyes. Bastus[ii], just like his brothers.
Well of course I only wanted to court pretty women, my father answered once.
How else was I going to have a pretty daughter?
The young man in this picture is impatient and swaggers about; he wants to be great now. It is April 1971, the middle of a dry spell, the season when the unforgiving sun turns the watery peninsula into a searing hot land. In a few short months, the wet season will strike with a fury, the monsoon tidal wave threatens to swallow whole islands in the wake of its wrath. My father will think little of the looming deluge that will raze the country, disrupting the lives of many. My father is 20 years old. He is where he should be: young enough to believe he can influence the world, old enough to be told otherwise. The young man in this picture wants to carve his place in history before common sense kicks in, before daydreams dull, before the speed of youth brakes at the coming of age.
Before the President transmuted into the Dictator, a progressive people’s movement had kicked into high gear with several student, workers, peasant and women’s organizations forming and taking root all over the country. Universities, churches and barrios swell with militant activity protesting everything from the President’s support of America’s war against Vietnam, to rising prices of gas, tuition fee increases, high unemployment, and the dwindling peso that loses value each day. Even the mountains were activated, deep crevices cloaking young guerilla fighters composed of peasants and university drop-outs. During the early months of 1970, the First Quarter Storm’s slew of rallies, marches and sit-ins—ending often in violence and arrests—erupts and interrupts university and college classes, igniting first in Manila campuses and quickly spreading to the rest of the country. As a response, Martial Law, declared on September 21, 1972, censors the press, television, radio, anything that is able to communicate the rising state fascism of the Napoleonic Dictator. A curfew is imposed nationwide and anyone wandering the streets after nightfall is arbitrarily arrested.
From 1972 until 1986, some 35,000 activists are tortured, 14 human rights organizers are killed daily and 120,000 are arrested and locked up in prisons and detention centres all over the archipelago. Many are middle-class university students who, for a time, abandon their studies, take to the streets and join movements with the intention to overthrow the government. Many are caught, with some of them the best and youngest minds of the archipelago detained or murdered. Award-winning filmmaker Bonifacio Ilagan was imprisoned and supposedly had his testicles electrocuted. Guerilla fighter, poet and feminist Lorena Barros was gunned down at 28 years old as she attempted to protect her guerrilla unit from attacking military soldiers. Poet Emmanuel Lacaba, known as the Filipino brown “Rimbaud” was also killed by military forces in the mountains of Cagayan Valley. Many more are forced to join illegal organizations, take up aliases, start anew and live clandestinely for the next two decades. Some will run to the mountains and join the armed underground guerrilla movement.
My father was one of these 120,000 arrested and beaten. Shortly after he begins law school, he drops out, leaving behind a scholarship and the promise of a life on easy street to organize full time against the Dictator and his band of bloodthirsty thugs. Two months after the installation of Military Rule, my father, alongside eight other student leaders live underground, move from safehouse to safehouse, never staying too long in one place to avoid getting caught or snuffed out, changing identities as one changes socks. In November 1972, word gets around of my father’s cloak and dagger crew, and one night, while preparing for a midnight meeting, the military raids their latest hideout and arrests every single one them. My father spends his 22nd birthday in prison, and for a short while, wakes up convinced that today will be his last living day on earth without a hint of irony. He’s a well-known student leader in the region, the stakes are high and many have been killed for less. My father survives almost one year in detention, survives the beatings, at first a daily occurrence, which quickly simmers to an interrogation every few weeks and then stops when the military realizes that he is just a nothing guppy in the big bad ocean of leftie militants.
I want to know more about this time. I want to know if my father was ever scared to never love again. To never touch, never feel, never kiss another woman, never smell the monsoon rain, never have the nectar of mango run down his arms. But I never ask since my father says so little about this time, only stating that prison wasn’t that bad, it could have been worse. He was just kicked around and punched a few times.
Like a dog, he once joked. Kicked around like a dog.
Vancouver is ablaze with Expo 86 noisemakers and balloons when our family moved west that summer. Groggy and motion-sick from the road trip, I slept throughout the mid-summer festivities that hijacked the evening news and flooded the papers with pictures of smiling, sunburnt folks rabidly waving blue and white souvenir flags.
That same year, across the Pacific, the overthrow of a pint-size dictator and the inauguration of the Philippines’ first female president propelled the archipelago into international limelight, hustling the American ward to its next political posturing. The first lady’s infamous shoe collection was looted when Malacanang Palace was raided by the nations hungriest—and angriest—citizens. It was found out she bathed daily in cow’s milk while her husband taxed the nation down to malnutrition and murdered every leftie that raised a banner against them. The dictator and his family escaped just seconds after the razing of Manila in an American-sponsored helicopter.
Back in the suburbs of Vancouver, my parents were overnight sensations, immediately becoming the local PR team for a political upheaval that, for a very brief period of time in 1986, drowned out Expo and the Challenger explosion.
“What do your people think of the coup and are your parents relieved that Marcos is out of power?” I slurped down the cold glass of milk to soften the cookies I crammed into my mouth. My then best friend’s mother smiled her toothy grin and waited patiently for my answer. I looked over at my first-grade best friend, Charlotte and her younger sister watching Jem and the Holograms in the living room. Their colouring books and felt pens were buried under Lego bits scattered on the beige carpet next to their backpacks they casually dumped when they arrived home. I looked back at Charlotte’s mother, whose freckles and blond hair seamlessly bled to her offspring. They look like the kids from Children of The Corn. I nod, gulping down milk.
Are they supportive of the new president?
What does your family the Philippines think?
Are they happy with what’s going on?
Yup, I repeated. Yup, yup, yup.
A block away, in the neighbouring townhouse, my parents kept up with the news every morning well into evening, listened to radio between television broadcasts, in the car, in the kitchen while cooking, in the bathroom while taking a shower. They read newspapers daily looking for something specific. Two decades later I now know it was because they were looking for anything about the Philippines, the breaking of its past and the uncertain possibilities of a different society. They’d drag us to meetings with other Filipinos and progressive Christians in church basements or to co-operative run cafes in Vancouver’s East Side district, debating with a motley crew of barking anarchists and patchouli-smelling hippies. My little brother and I would almost always be the only kids at these gatherings, me reading the latest edition of the Baby-Sitter’s Club and my little brother duelling his transformers against his hot wheels in the battle royale of the late 1980’s.
Agrarian reform, I’d hear over and over again. Urban insurrection and guerrilla warfare became mainstays in family conversations and social gatherings. Karl Marx was the cover boy on every book my father read. 1987 and 1988 were uneventful. 1989 was a banner year: The Dictator died, getting bucked off his horse at his Hawaiian Estate.
What a way to die, my 9-year old self chuckled. What a way to die.
Manila. I’m 19 years old and on an exposure program organized by the Filipino-Canadian Youth Alliance. I’m trying to understand the social and economic problems of the Philippines by integrating and working with the most oppressed members of Philippine society: the factory workers, women workers, farmers, and student activists. I’m actively trying to remould myself, trying to slough my middle-class ways and selfish ideas of individualism and narcissism. During my four month stay, I sleep on the street on a make-shift bed of flattened card-board boxes alongside striking factory workers and cross rickety bridges near the Cordillera Mountains devastated by international mining corporations. I attend funerals of murdered youth activists, and am invited to birthday parties of veteran activists who’ve survived Martial Law and numerous assassination attempts. I live for a week with a family who live at the base of a waste dump and scavenge with children through the man-made valleys of trash, looking for anything that can be sold, hoping to earn a couple of centavos a day. I meet little boys who know the sound of bullets but have never visited a doctor, and a six-year old girl who wants to be a maid when she grows up.
At first I’m homesick, the Tropical heat so hot it sizzles the evening street. Traffic jams at every corner, intersection, even in parking lots, and mall security guards armed with shot guns the size of my leg. Roosters crow vociferously at sunrise and jumbo rodents swarm the city at night, where nothing stands stills, the city pulsating sharply under black, black skies. I want my bed, food that comforts me, people who speak English and a sense of independence that only the familiar can offer.
It doesn’t take long though, for me to adjust, to navigate my way around a crammed city of smog and garbage, poverty and ruthless contradiction. Daily mass and Jesus is Lord car ornaments set against billboards of naked San Miguel Beer models and good time girls whistling for dates. Street children with rotten teeth run bare-foot along EDSA, selling cigarettes and sampaguita flowers.
After a day of rallies and meetings, I return to the Centre of Women’s Resources a feminist institution where many young Filipino-North American activists stay. I arrive shortly after one o’clock in the morning, waking up Linda, the caretaker, and Coni, the administrator. Linda scolds me, asking me if I have any idea what time it is and who the heck do I think I am for waking her up so late? I have to get up in a few hours and do the laundry, she hisses. Coni calms her down, tells her to go back to bed, turns to me and says, we need to talk. I apologize desperately to Linda, I’m sorry, I really am, and promise not to do it again.
“Don’t you realize that rape is the number crime against women in Manila? Think about that the next time you decide to stay out late,” Linda warns me before slamming her bedroom door.
“She’s right, you know,” Coni says. “You really have to be careful. Just because the city is awake doesn’t mean it’s safe for women.” She turns on the kettle for tea and we sit on the balcony where she fires up a cigarette, inhales deeply and exhales a long billow of smoke. I look at the Ilonga[iii] with short bobbed hair, a round body made from the stress of childbirth and age, look at her yellowy skin and the scar above her lip. She was a classmate of my father’s at university and I ask how well they knew each other.
“Not well, not intimately. I wasn’t part of his circle, but everyone knew who he was,” Coni says. I look at her in disbelief.
Everyone? Everyone knew him at Silliman University?
“Your father was the crush ng bayan,” Coni tells me.
I scream laughing and try to quiet down so as to not to wake everybody up.
“Your father was very handsome when he was young,” Coni says, smiling.
I shake my head. My father, the crush of the people. I roll my eyes and tell Coni it’s a funny story but I don’t believe it. And then she gets all quiet and smokes and smokes and soon, everything is quiet, a serious weight falls over us. Coni lights another cigarette.
“Charlene,” Coni begins, softly. “I know it’s hard to believe that your father was a student leader, but that’s what he was. He didn’t have to go to the mountains and be some big time guerilla fighter, even though that’s what he wanted to do.” She inhales and looks over at the restless city. Manila after midnight.
“Martial Law forced a lot of us to change. We had to stop thinking about being scared and just do what we had to do.” So many people died Coni said, more than the newspapers reported.
“Each person that died had to be replaced immediately. Each person that replaced a dead leader had to become one overnight. Your father did what was demanded of him, up until he was arrested,” Coni explains, puffing the last bit of her cigarette.
She hugs me good night and whispers, you’re father wasn’t perfect but he wasn’t a nobody.
A couple of weeks before I’m to return home, I call my parents to tell them I’m extending my trip because I’m staying for International Women’s Day, attend the rallies and go to all the related events. Oh, and can you please send me some money, I’ve kinda low on funds.
It’s a collect call, the crack of static courses through the lines, dragging the conversation
“Dad? Are you there? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, I can hear you,” my father replies.
“No?” I mistake it for an echo, or some other word that sounds like no transmitting through the wires, distorting the connection.
No, I can’t stay any longer. I had to come home in two weeks as originally planned. Right there and then, my father knew and understood that the power of the movement in the country he left some twenty years earlier was too strong to walk away from. He remembered that feeling of being someone. A movement can only exist with people and each person mattered. Who am I in Canada? Too short, too brown, too immigrant even though I was born there. In the Philippines I mattered.
“Look,” my father begins. “If you want to stay in the Philippines, we won’t stop you—“
“But you’re stopping me now!” I cry, cutting him off. “You’re stopping me from staying.” I begin to sweat, angry tears start to bead around my eyes.
“I want to stay. I have to. Please, let me stay just one more month,” I whisper desperately. But I can’t and they aren’t going to send me anymore money.
“If you want to stay in the Philippines,” my father continues, “we really won’t stop you. I’m happy you want to stay, but you need to come home first.” Settle things, close up your bank account, make a concrete plan.
“Then you can move to the Philippines and live there the rest of your life, if that’s what you want. But just come home first.”
I wave the white flag and agree, reluctantly.
“We’ll talk more about this when you get back,” my father reassures. A pause before goodbyes.
Your mother misses you, my father says.
Just mom, I ask.
Your brothers miss you too.
I’m squeezing my feet into my white patent leather shoes, a battle I know I’m losing but I refuse to surrender. My feet have grown a few centimetres since moving to BC, but I want to wear the white shoes with the straps and tiny bows because they match the white sundress with red polka dots my mother has sewn for me on the occasion of my first day at my new school. I don’t tell my mother that the shoes no longer fit because she’ll make me wear my runners which are dirty and really, really ugly. My hair is shoulder length with a row of thick bangs that make me look more Chinese than Filipino and this is how the kids think of me. China-girl, China-girl, go back to China the kids at the playground will say to me in just a few short weeks. But I’m jumping forward a bit because right now I feel grown up. Maybe it’s because I’m in an actual grade, not pre-school, not kindergarten, but in grade one, that I feel grown up. Or maybe it’s because I’m all dressed up with my new dress and new hair that I know will make an impression that I feel this way. In any case, I feel so, so grown up that once my father and I arrive at school I tell him I can walk home all by myself later.
“Are you sure?” My father looks at me skeptically. “It’s only your first day. Are you sure you don’t want me to meet you?”
I tell him irritatingly that ye-essssss, I remember the way back. There aren’t any complicated turns or too many streets to cross. It’s just one straight walk along Glen Drive until I hit Pipeline Road where our new house is located. I walked to school all by myself in Montreal, remember? I manage to convince him and my confidence boosts and I am prouder than ever before. I’ve convinced a grown up to let me do something on my own and if that’s not grown up, than what is?
In class, I learn that Terry Fox went to my school when he was a kid, and we have to do his run in a few weeks. ’m the only new kid in the class; this is crushing to my pride and the shyness that plagues me for the next several years kicks in, and I turn mute, nodding and shaking my only forms of communication.
When school is over I leave through the front doors, the same ones that I entered that morning, walk past the chain link fence that separates the playground and the sidewalk, cross the street, pass a wooded area and keep walking. Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back. This is what I learn overhearing the older girls chanting in the playground. On the way home, I sing it to myself, jumping over every crack I see on the sidewalk. I don’t want to break my mother’s back.
Several loops into the rhyme, I begin to notice that I’m crossing streets I don’t recognize. It’s taking too long to walk home than it did to walk to school and I start to panic. Up ahead I see a construction site and my heart splits in two and I start to cry with a force so hard my body shakes. I keep walking, keep crying because I don’t know what else to do and this tension makes me want to run home, my real home, not the fake new one my family moved to.
A lady with a stroller approaches me and asks if I’m okay. I shake my head and wipe my face with the back of the hand. The other holds a notice my teacher has given me earlier that day for my parents to read. She kneels to get close to my face and asks softly if I’m lost. I nod and manage to gasp, I’m new. The lady tells me it’ll be okay, takes my hand and walk to her house where I see the red and white block parent sign on her window. The sign makes me feel a little better. The lady has short curly brown hair with light freckles across her nose. She’s plump with a round stomach that makes me think it would be soft like a pillow if you hug her. I sit in the kitchen and she hands me a glass milk I drink down quickly to keep myself from having another meltdown.
We’ll find your parents real soon, the plump lady tells me. She asks for my name and what school I go to. I tell her and even spell out my last name, but I forget what school I go, I’m in grade one and in French immersion and my teacher is Madame Christie. She takes the notice from my hand and tells me again not to worry, that I’ll be home in no time. I gulp down another glass of milk while the she starts calling people. I’m tired from all the crying and sit, scared that I’ll have to go to a new family, if my real one can’t be found.
Soon, I see the clunkering blue station wagon approaching the drive way. They’re here, I yell, jumping from the table, the plump lady leads me to the front door and I run towards my parents, tripping on the walkway. My father scoops me up quickly and I squeeze his neck with my tiny, skinny arms, wrap my legs around him and start to cry all over again. I want to go home, I gasp, wiping hot tears and snot on his shoulder. I want to go home, I repeat. Marc and Giovanni, Rue Aubin, St. Hupert, our big backyard, listing all the things I know and want to go back to.
I don’t like it here, I don’t like it here, I cry. My father rubs my back softly, hugging me tightly with his other arm and whispers that everything’s alright, everything’s going to be okay, we’re going home, Inday.
We’re going home.
*This piece is dedicated to the memory of Elenita “Tita” Ordonez, pioneering Filipino-Canadian community organizer, militant Anti-Marcos activist, and former Art History Professor at the University of Philippines. Tita passed away on April 20, 2012 from natural causes in Imus City, the Philippines.
[i] Little girl, or sweet little girl, a common moniker of affection for daughters in the Visaya Region.
[ii] Rude, pig, disgusting, gross, bad.
[iii] Women of the linguistic group, Ilongo, from the Visaya region.