In Their Desperation
In their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand – Alfred, The Dark Knight
I thought of this recently because I’ve been thinking about a couple of things with regard to immigration, the “why” and also the “how” of when the act of migration is actually completed.
This past summer I made contact and re-connected with my cousin while working on my parent's change of status applications. I referred to her in a previous entry as my Gemini twin. Our families have not connected in a long time for reasons I will not address in this blog. I was trying to be casual about asking if she knew anyone in Lagonoy, a province in the Philippines where we use to vacation. Lagonoy is also the province where my mother was born and my cousin’s grandmother was born. They are sisters and my cousin and I are actually a generation apart although we are close in age. Lagonoy is rural and is approximately 267 miles away from Metro Manila. Lagonoy is the place where I had to dig up information about the beginnings of my mother from 8,518 miles away (according to Google) from my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
My Gemini twin and I had long thoughtful discussions via Facebook, mainly because it is too expensive to call and there is a 12 hour time difference between us. We didn't just connect as long lost cousins, we connected as sisters. I recalled the times we swam at Club Filipino and afterwards when our fingers pruned, we ate hamburger lunches and drank Coke. Well, she drank Coke and I liked water. I never liked how soda burned my throat. I also recalled taking dance lessons together and practicing our routine to Madonna’s Material Girl. I recalled swimming lessons and a natatorium that smelled strongly of chlorine. My OCD self appreciates the chlorine now but at the time I was as terrified of the instructor as were the rest of the little girls. We often cried during swim lessons because the instructor screamed at us the entire time. Looking back he was one swim instructor with many students and had to scream. It never seems that way when you are smaller though.
In my youth I spent many days with my cousin and her older brother in their home that I came to see as my second home. My mother lived there before she married my father. I learned to ride a bike in their neighborhood. The neighborhood was called Green Hills and the homes there had lawns, pools and wrought iron gates. It was so unlike our home in Malibay, Pasay City. My cousin’s home had many Katulong or helpers that did the cooking and cleaning in their great home. Many of the katulong played with us as we rode bikes on the wide streets and caught dragon flies. I learned how to ride a bike with one of the helpers holding the back of the bicycle. I didn't realize he had let go until I looked behind me and saw that I was riding on my own.
In the Green Hills house there was a bathroom in every bedroom that had showers and hot water. It had a great marble stair case and also a great family room, living room and dining room. I remember a great fish tank that I think I must have stared at for hours on end. It wasn’t a dime store tank with orange gold fish and brightly colored gravel. It was a large tank with multiple pumps, real under water plants and exotic fish. I remember photos of a birthday party there on the front lawn with my mother standing over me as a baby. She was lovely and timeless.
In that home I would try the steaks that were brought back by my relatives when they visited the United States. I would watch things heating in their microwave. Sometimes their cooks would make banana bread in their oven for breakfast. Other times we would have pancakes. My cousin and her family traveled to the United States often. Theirs was a life of privilege that I was lucky enough to experience because my mother sent me there as often as she could. Maybe it was to have some down time as an adult. I certainly cherish those moments as a mom. But maybe it was so I could experience another kind of life since their life in Green Hills was different from our life in Malibay.
In our compound, we were considered rich by our neighbors. As a bank executive, my mother made enough so we could have two katulong in our home. They cleaned, cooked and took care of me. The neighbors around us did not have katulong. The cooking and cleaning were done by the family themselves. Unlike the house in Green Hills our water did not run freely from the faucets and we did not take warm showers. I write this only as a comparison. I didn’t mind cold baths since it was hot all the time. Our potable water was gathered from somewhere in the middle of town. Unlike the Green Hills house, our home did not have an oven or a microwave oven. We only used a stove top. Sometimes for really big things, I remember my Lola or grandmother cooking in a big pot over an open fire. Unlike Green Hills, the street in our compound had chickens that roamed free and a sewer behind the homes. None of the houses in our compound had a lawn, a pool or a wrought iron fence. Some of the homes did have out houses. My family was fortunate, the compound in which we lived was owned by our grandparents. For that reason we lived on the nicest house on the street although its size was a fraction of the house in Green Hills. Our house did not have a bathroom with showers in every bedroom. We did not have pancakes or banana bread for breakfast. Instead, we had fresh bread or pandisal from a street vendor behind our church. On Sundays when I went to church with my mother, I got to pick out the roll that I wanted. I always tried to pick one that was the lightest in color. Other times, the children in our compound looked forward to a rural man that would walk the streets yelling “taho”. This man would amble down the streets with a pole and on each end were 2 great metal covered buckets. One bucket contained warm silken tofu and the other bucket contained sweet syrup. When he did this on weekend mornings, the children of the compound would run out to greet him in their pajamas, plastic bowls and bits of change. This was a great breakfast and I appreciated the warmth of it, even in the equatorial heat.
Rural man selling taho, courtesy of Google.
Even as a child I lived a double life. When I was with my cousin in Green Hills I assumed their life as well as their political bent towards Ferdinand Marcos. Looking back on it, of course the people of Green Hills would advocate for Marcos. His was the red party that kept power centered among those that already had it. Their symbol was a “V” which stood for Victory. They assumed they would win the battle on the political stage. I neither had the voice nor the rationale to disagree. I usually deferred to my cousin anyway because she was older. I was vaguely aware that I was in their world, their reality, which was a little more pleasant than the realities of other Filipinos. By “other”, I mean those that did not live in Green Hills, did not have a membership to Club Filipino, did not eat hamburger lunches (which were considered an American treat) and did not take dance or swimming lessons.
When I left Green Hills and returned to Malibay, the people around me were a sea of yellow. The yellow represented Cory Aquino, widow of a martyr, murdered in the airport. His face was often on propaganda for his wife that did not intend to run for the presidency. Her symbol was an “L” which stood for Laban or fight. They were fighting the power that has been in place for 20 years. When I was away from Green Hills I was among the sea of yellow. These were considered rebels although they advocated power to the people. Cory won the election having the backing of the people. She was sworn in as President at Club Filipino and her face, not her husband's, was on Time as Woman of the Year.
I hearken back to these times because I have to think that if people risked their lives against the military power of the government, those times must have been extraordinarily difficult for those that lived outside of privilege. It must have been a time and place in which my mother only saw a bleak future for us. It had to have been because there was so much to risk by leaving a familiar country and coming into a completely different world. Again, we were fortunate because we came by plane and had our passports stamped. We did not cross by more savage means under a fence, through a dessert and under watchful eyes with riffles pointed at us. Our lives were not at risk when we traveled. It was simply a vacation. My parents could not have possibly foreseen what their lives would become and how it would change us not existing on paper. They did not foresee how long they would reside in the shadows.
In talking with my mother this past weekend, as we await the arrival of her green card in the mail, she said that we were lucky to have been here all this time. She didn’t speak of the dehumanizing conditions in which undocumented immigrants live. She was happy to have worked and now on the eve of her retirement, can receive benefits from the US government, to whom she has paid taxes for almost 3 decades. She was full of gratitude. She needed to say those things to me and ultimately change my view that we moved our lives from one form of hardship into another. She would go on to say that she was happy that our lives have turned out this way, that I had an education, a family and have a better future than I would have had if we stayed in the Philippines. We did not discuss the damage that our situation has done. It is quite possible that the trauma is still undigested. We are not yet in a place to process the “trauma”. The DREAMers are still out in the news, fighting subtle and not so subtle savagery that their lack of a paper trail has brought upon their lives. They must believe that their life here is worth fighting for. They must believe as we did that there is nothing to return to in their countries of origin. The political battle now rages on the respective stages of ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN without a tanks and an army like the streets of Manila. The DREAMers are as peaceful as the People Power demonstrators.
I am aware that from my suburban home that I can romanticize the People Power revolution that occurred when we left the Philippines. I think to myself that it must mean something that I was brought up among people as they were rising to take back something vital that the government was taking from them. I think that as much as subjugation by imperial powers is in Philippine heritage that the act of subverting that power is also in my history. The truth is that I did not get out in front of the camera and identifies myself as an undocumented the way these kids are doing now. I lived my life in the shadows until it was no longer necessary. A revolution in my heritage did not mean I myself lived the revolution on the current stage. I live with my cowardice hoping that one day I will forgive myself for it.
I can only convey pride that the Filipinos demonstrated peacefully against a dictatorial government and regained their democracy before we left. I convey pride at the young DREAMers and activists that use their voices in a way that I did not. Finally, I convey gratitude that despite the savagery of not existing on paper that I did create a life worthy of my mother’s ambition.
Beloved late President Corazon Aquino. May this life honor your legacy.