For Filipino American History Month in October, I started to re-read Carlos Bulosan’s AMERICA IS IN THE HEART. In the first chapter, Bulosan makes reference to a stopover in Dagupan, my mother’s hometown, to see his brother before heading down to Manila. Dagupan sits twenty-four miles west of Binalonan, where Bulosan grew up. At age seventeen, he’d board a ship in Manila and sail to America in the steerage deck. He writes:
I had written him that I would pass through his town on my way to Manila, and had asked him, if he would, to stand in front of his house and wait for my bus. In those days there was only one bus a day from Binalonan to the train station, in the town of Dapugan. I could at least look through the window of my bus and wave good-bye to him.
When my bus came to the white saltbeds, I knew that I was nearing the place where my brother Leon lived. I saw the mango grove and the shining fish ponds beyond it, near the mouth of the Agno River that opens lazily into Lingayen gulf.
The fish ponds Bulosan writes about could be my family’s fish ponds. He could’ve been gazing at my family’s fish ponds before heading to America. I gave myself some time to take this in. I did the math. My mother’s side, the Paras family, has owned “hectares and hectares” of fish ponds in Dagupan, specifically in the barangay of Bonuan Boquig, for at least five generations. We still own them. We will never not own them, as my grandfather outlined in his will that our fish ponds should never be sold outside the family. When I travel to the Philippines in January, my mom will sign over a share of her fish ponds to me.
My grandfather inherited the fish ponds from his parents. I don’t know how much further back they can be traced to our family. When Bulosan would’ve been looking out at the “shining fish ponds” from the window of his bus in 1930, it is likely that those fish ponds belonged to my family.
Fish ponds in Dagupan, especially in Bonuan, produce some of the best bangus in the country. So much so that Dagupan is also known as The Bangus Capital of the Philippines and hosts an annual Bangus Festival. The secret behind the taste, my Uncle Ric once said, is in the water—the tide from the sea mixing with the river, which keeps the fish pond water fresh and flowing.
This same uncle brought me to our family fish ponds during my first and only visit so far to the Philippines twenty years ago. One day, during my two-week stay in Bonuan, Uncle Ric warmed up his jeepney, loaded the biggest bowl of rice I’d even seen, and drove at a slow pace down the dusty street. One by one, neighborhood kids jumped in the jeepney until it filled up. Then more joined in by hanging on to the sides and on the back. Just when I thought we couldn’t possibly take another passenger, kids climbed on top of the roof.
We parked at the side of a road and followed my uncle on foot along the raised mounds of dirt that served as a walking pathway to navigate the fish ponds. These pathways also served as demarcations. If you look at them on Google Earth, they resemble the hedges in the English countryside used to create boundaries in the land.
“Which ones are ours?” I asked.
“All of them,” he said. “As far as you can see.”
We arrived at a bahay kubo the workers used as a home base. Their jobs were to maintain the fish ponds, collect fish, squid and shrimp for sale in the marketplace and prevent poor townspeople from stealing. My Uncle Ric, however, had given one man permission to fish in the ponds so he could feed his family.
The workers caught an abundance of fresh seafood using a net and flash fried it in a steaming hot wok. My uncle brought out the bowl of rice and we squatted around the bahay kubo eating with our hands. Soon the neighborhood kids pulled out bamboo rafts and long bamboo poles for navigation.
“Shhhht! Don’t play in the pishpond!” said one of the workers.
The kids ignored him and so did my uncle. The calm waters of the fish pond turned into a makeshift battleground where you could get knocked off your bamboo raft if your opponent made you lose your balance. One kid fell in the water. And then another. They’d climb back on their raft and seek revenge, toppling other kids into the water while laughing and screaming.
“Come on the raft, Auntie! We won’t tip it over!” they said.
“No way. I’m not going in that water.”
I imagined brushing up against a slippery fish or getting a giant shrimp caught between my toes or having a squid stuck in my shirt.
How I got to standing on a narrow bamboo raft on my family’s fish ponds in Dagupan I’ll never understand. But there I stood, looking down at the brackish water. Watching the neighborhood kids have more fun than almost any kids I’d ever seen at play. Looking out across the horizon at our family’s business. One of the businesses that helped my grandparents send eight children to college. These are the fish ponds I’d heard about all my life.
All of the sudden, two boys swim underneath my raft, lift it on one side and flip it over. I scream like bloody hell as I land in the warm water. The kids laugh and cheer. For a moment, I forget about my hair and makeup.
“Do it again! Do it again!”
I climb back on to the raft, take a deep breath, and prepare to capsize once more.
Bulosan’s passage evokes the memory of this day. As he looked out on to the fish ponds, however, he faced an uncertain future in a place that would prove to be unwelcoming and harsh. I like to believe that the brief glimpse of our family’s fish ponds on his way to America came to be one of his fond memories of home no one could ever take away.