More American Than You

If ‘being American’ is defined as someone who’s flexible, bold, risk-taking, fluid, adaptable, and innovative, I’m more American than you.

Just like you, I attended (public) school here. As a kid, I learned to read through a subscription to Walt Disney books, watched Romper Room, New Zoo Review, Mister Rogers, Might Mouse, Rocky and Bullwinkle. I ate Campbell’s soup from a can, Lipton soup (with rice), made peanut and butter jelly sandwiches, drank soda, chewed Bubblicious gum, slurped snow cones in summer, played jump rope, dodge ball, tether ball, ding dong ditch, swung high on the swings and jumped off at dangerous heights. Played in empty barns, swam in public pools, rode my bike, roller skated all day, played with Barbies. Owned a pet rock. Walked around barefoot.

Just like you, I watched Little House on the Prairie, Mutual of Ohama nature shows, The Brady Bunch. I played monopoly, with yo-yos, hoola hoops, Atari games, foos ball, Centipede, Asteroids, Space Invaders. I studied hard, made good grades, got on the honor roll. Took family road trips to LA, San Diego, camping trips to Yosemite, Lake Camanche, KOA Campgrounds. Had sleepovers, attended sleepovers, had crushes, signed slam books, made prank calls, listened to The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Motown artists like Mary Wells, metal bands, rap, punk rock, ballads. Got addicted to General Hospital thanks to my grandma.

Just like you, I celebrated Fourth of July, President’s Days, recited the pledge of allegiance every morning, know all the words to The Star-Spangled Banner, This Land is Your Land. Jumped off the couch screaming during any Superbowl with a Bay Area team. Worked at a McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr. during high school. Had crushes on Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon and, later, Matt Damon. Hung out at Great America, Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Universal Studios.

Unlike you, I navigated this childhood with immigrant parents, one with a heavy accent and broken English. It once took me hours to explain to my mom that I needed her to sign a permission slip for school so I could join my first-grade class to see bunnies in someone’s back yard. She didn’t understand what a ‘field trip’ was, why I had to leave the school grounds (dangerous), why we needed to see bunnies. It wasn’t until I cried and said I’d be the only one left behind in school if I didn’t get a signed permission slip that she eventually signed it.

Unlike you, I excelled in my kindergarten class even with a racist White teacher excluding me from games and pinning a note on my shirt everyday that read, Teach Your Daughter English. Excelled when a third-grade teacher sat me down to say I needed to slow down on my SRAs, that I was reading them too fast and moving too far ahead of the rest of the class, and I ignored him, and continued to read the stories, answer the questions, and move up to the next level.

Unlike you, I watched my older sister get pulled by her long ponytails while wearing skates as the neighborhood kids called her a ‘gook’ and a ‘chink.’ Unlike you, before I even started school, I watched my dad fistfight with a big White man on our front lawn after he’d been harassing us for months about not parking on the street in front of our Navy housing. Unlike you, I watched my parents pour time, money, energy, and tears into petitions to bring relatives over from the Philippines, seeing my parents wait patiently for five, ten or more years until the petitions finally got approved.

Unlike you, I had to explain to my newly emigrated grandpa that he couldn’t barter for the cost of grapes at Alpha Beta. That I didn’t want any of the broken pencils, run-over combs, rubber bands he’d found on the street while walking or riding his bike.

Unlike you, I had to grab the phone from my mom when bill collectors talked down to her, confused her even more with their lengthy explanations of what was due, only to change their tone completely when I, her daughter with perfect English, got on the phone.

Unlike you, I continued to love bukayo from the Philippines even when I brought a bag full of it to school and all the kids said it looked and smelled gross.

Unlike you, I ate rice with eggs, put heaps of bagoong in my rice to eat with fried fish, grated fresh coconut in the backyard for the kutsinta, crushed the ice for halo halo in summer, ate pigs feet, tripe, and lechon while everyone thought my food was disgusting.

Unlike you, I listened to story after story about the war, starvation, disease, death, Japanese occupation, losing everything, martial law.

Unlike you, I cussed out a Harley Davidson motorcycle rider who told me and my mom to go back to our country after his claim that she almost hit him with her car.

Unlike you, I get up and get to work trying to raise money for low-income communities even when someone at the BART station stalks me after a client meeting and tells me to go back to my country.

Unlike you, I and my Asian brothers and sisters have found a way to be both American and Asian at the same time. If being American means being adaptable and flexible and moving forward even in challenging times, then I, and we, are more American than you.

Ghost Candy

This morning, as I sat down at the oversized island in my sister’s kitchen, eating a bowl of fried rice my brother-in-law made, picking out the bits of sausage in the dish—the only dish I’m willing to do that for as a pescatarian, I noticed a handful of Werther’s Originals in a bowl in front of me. Enough to catch my attention. Enough to distract me from my breakfast. The shiny golden foil wrapper resembling the color of 18 karat gold covered in yellow-tinted cellophane. The candy’s unique oval shape. Its recess in the middle where the groove of the tongue fits nicely. The other side smooth as a mirror glaze on a cake on the Great British Baking Show.

I used to carry Werther’s in my purse all the time but stopped a few years ago after I read the obituary of my ex-husband’s girlfriend of two years (may she rest in peace). My ex-husband and I had dated for three years before getting married. The marriage lasted less than two years, the same amount of time it took us to finalize our divorce in 2015. Not because it was contentious, but because neither one of us knew how to deal with the matter at hand. The paperwork from the agency handling the divorce would arrive and sit at our respective places unsigned, unreturned. At one point they checked in with us to see if we still intended to dissolve the marriage. We’d meet up as friends over dinner, sharing meals and a bottle of wine, looking like a couple to anyone who would’ve been watching. Our friendship confused my sister and my family. If you’re still friends, why not stay married? They would’ve done anything for me to stay married. Anything to avoid bringing the disgrace of divorce into our divorce-free Filipino family.

She had passed suddenly. They’d just moved in together after dating for a few years. She was his first serious relationship since we finished. I had yet to have a relationship as serious as his, so I felt behind, as if it were a competition. She came from a famous, wealthy family so unfortunately the gossip columns took hold of the story. My humble, gentle, innocent ex-husband suddenly on the pages of tabloid magazines. Nothing could be more disturbing to me.   

I knew nothing about her. Knew nothing of her personality, interests, likes or dislikes. But when I read about how she was known to carry Werther’s in her purse to distribute randomly to friends, I felt like I knew her. Because it’s something I do, too. Well, something I did. I’d buy a pack of the Werther’s hard candy (not the chewy caramel ones, yuck), a pack of Butter Rum Lifesavers, and would often have a Heath Bar tucked away somewhere as well. My boyfriend says I like old people candy. He does, too. In fact, when we first started dating, he pegged me as a Butter Rum Lifesaver person. Without saying a word, I got up, grabbed my purse in the other room, and presented him with an opened roll of that exact flavor. Once, I offered my niece, a teenager, a Butter Rum Lifesaver. She looked at me and said, “Who buys that??”

My love for old-fashioned flavors must’ve begun in childhood when my maternal grandfather, who’d emigrated from the Philippines with my grandmother to live with us in San Jose, would pull them out of his pocket like a magician and inconspicuously place them in our hands like we held some great secret. He’d cycle to Alpha Beta, the local grocery store, and buy the Brach’s butterscotch candies in bulk. Back home, he’d wrap them in a plastic bag, and then place that bag in another plastic bag, wrap a dozen rubber bands around it, and store it in a dresser drawer. To get at the candies became a small project that took several minutes of undoing and unwrapping and unwrapping again.

Right after my ex-husband and I got married, his mother (may she rest in peace) passed down several items to me from my ex-husband’s paternal grandmother, who had raised him. The items included fur and mink, which I had to respectfully decline given my love for animals. One of the items, to my surprise, was a vintage Heath Bar box that contained jewelry. His grandmother loved Heath Bars too? At the time, I took it as a sign that we were meant to spend our lives together. Without having known his late grandmother, I knew a lot about her through her candy choice.

Just like his late ex-girlfriend who I knew nothing, yet everything, about. People like us who are drawn to old-fashioned candy are nostalgic, (overly) sensitive, domestic, deeply loyal, honest, giving of everything we have, appreciative of small things, aware of the subtle changes in moods and emotions in people when others are not. We can be reflective, interior, grounded, yearning for simplicity, and seekers of silence and solitude. Werther’s and Butter Rum and Heath Bar aren’t just candy, a way to satisfy a sweet tooth; they’re a way of life.

The fact that my ex-husband’s late girlfriend used to carry them in her purse like me shook me enough to stop buying Werther’s. In my mind, the candy has been redefined and in some ways is no longer mine. For now, the ghost of the candies rest in my purse, knowing that they’ll always belong.

Awareness

A kidnapping isn’t really the ideal subject for me to be writing about right now as I grieve the recent loss of my dog Isso, who has been my best friend for the past 17 years. But as I took a walk alone in my sister’s neighborhood this afternoon, part of my grief ritual, something about the scent of fresh tar that had been laid down in large square spots on the streets by maintenance workers reminded me of home—of East Side San Jose, the Evergreen area where I grew up. It reminded me of walking home after school from Quimby Oak Junior High, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. Passing the homes of friends and acquaintances along the way, like the Perales home where I spent many nights with my close friend Carmen and her family, the Sato house—a family of mixed race (Filipino/Japanese?) and a boy my age, Jeff, who would never look me or anyone in the eyes, Jimmy’s house—a Filipino guy who frequently could be seen in his driveway cleaning the louvers on his Trans Am and driving his mother around in it, Harry’s house, my Black friend who lived with his older brother Terry and their kind, gentle father (no one knew where his mother was or why she wasn’t in the picture). More Filipinos like us closer to our home, on the same side of the street, across the street, around the corner, up the road. Filipinos everywhere.

Fresh tar, so thick and dark. The darkest black you could ever see. The temptation to step on it, to stick your toe in it to see if it had dried yet, was always there. Before you could even see the tar, you could smell it. Like burnt tires, but deeper, smokier. Much thicker. It brought with it a feeling of renewal, of newness, a reminder that someone (the city?) kept watch over us, and just when we got used to the faded, sometimes crumbling old tar that made up our streets, they’d lift our spirits with a new fresh coat. That new fresh coat could shock with its contrast to the worn color of the washed-out street we’d all grown accustomed to. It reminded me that we could get used to something less than, something mediocre, and forget that improvements were possible.

During this time, a girl at my school named Jeana Rodriguez got kidnapped. I didn’t know her. She was a year younger than me—a sixth grader—the grade that seems to be forgotten in a junior high school. (Why anyone would choose to go to sixth grade at a junior high school and be invisible instead of going to an elementary school and be top of the class I never understood.) Sixth graders wouldn’t be welcome to hang out with the seventh and eighth graders at break and lunch. They wouldn’t be seen hanging out on the oversized cement steps watching people in the courtyard below. They wouldn’t be moving their heads and snapping their fingers to “Start Me Up” by the Stones at lunchtime, a makeshift DJ station taking up space in the defunct locker area behind a chain link fence—an idea a student came up with and somehow got approval for. I wouldn’t know Jeana if she walked right in front of me.

The flyers featured a big black and white school photo of Jeana with the words “MISSING.” It described where she was last seen (walking home just blocks from the school), what she wore, and offered an award for any information on her whereabouts. Flyers covered the school (classroom doors, bathrooms, girls locker room, administration office, on the ground and stepped on as students shuffled to class), the neighborhood street lamps, the community bulletin board at Alpha Beta and other stores in the strip mall at the intersection of Quimby and White. Her kidnapping was all over the local news and then the national news. Front page of the San Jose Mercury News. The picture showed a young Latina with long, straight hair, big eyes, a shy smile. I imagined she had a soft voice and could harm no one. A part of me felt bad that I had never known her, had never noticed her.

It didn’t seem possible that a kidnapping could take place in our neighborhood, with its new tract homes at the base of Mount Hamilton. We were the first neighborhood to have cable (which meant we had MTV before our friends did), to have underground electrical lines so you could no longer see the so-called unsightly crisscross of wires, some taut and some sagging, connecting our homes to power and telephone systems. Nothing remarkable ever happened in our neighborhood. Parents went to work, some on the assembly lines in companies located in what would one day become Silicon Valley. Kids went to school, hung out at the new Carl’s Jr. or at 7-11 across the street. Great America on weekends, riding The Tidal Wave and the giant carousel. Middle-class immigrant families keeping it honest and real. All the neighborhood kids on my street, Winwood Way, playing together until sundown.

Jeana’s kidnapping would be my first awareness of the serious dangers that existed outside the home. (Inside my own home, I felt the danger of an impatient, violent father.) The strangers lurking, waiting and ready to take you when you least expected it. Like my parents who experienced the brutality and suffering of hunger and war as children during WWII Philippines, the children today who run safety drills in school to prepare for active shooters, whose lives have been disrupted by a global pandemic and who bear witness to nationwide and global protests against police brutality, kids in California and the West Coast wearing masks to avoid COVID-19 and unhealthy air levels as smoke from hundreds of active wildfires burn out of control due to climate change. The same year of Jeana’s kidnapping, 1981, we’d had some alarm when the Mediterranean fruit fly began to devour crops in California, leading to nightly sprayings of malathion from helicopters flying low and close to our homes (cover your cars and keep pets inside). The pilots so clear in their cockpit I could wave to them from my bedroom window. But this was nothing compared to a girl gone missing.

And yet school continued as normal, as if one of us wasn’t missing, hadn’t been home in months. As a cheerleader, I attended basketball and football games, both at home and away. I sang in the choir. My parents had arranged a Filipina piano teacher to come to our home every Wednesday for piano lessons. Sometimes I remembered, sometimes I forgot. Slam books still circulated and people signed them. I’d had crushes on boys like John and Edwin and James—all Filipino boys, the younger siblings of the boys my older sisters hung out with and had crushes on. In some ways, it felt as if we were safe; the kidnapper certainly wouldn’t be as bold to take another kid while he had Jeana. I stopped noticing the flyers around school and in the community; they’d become background noise, the same picture, the same word “MISSING” in bold across the top of the page. I don’t recall our teachers talking about the kidnapping. Perhaps they were instructed not to bring it up, not to cause panic. But you think they would’ve done the opposite—scared us shitless and told us to walk with friends—never alone—and to stay aware of our surroundings and avoid any suspicious people. So on top of this newfound awareness of the dangers outside the home, I also learned that something as horrible as an abduction could occur without any significant change in our daily school lives.

Five months after she’d been taken, Jeana showed up to the front door of her family home. Rumors went wild on campus. She’d been molested. Her kidnapper was a creepy loner. He’d held her in an underground dungeon. She’d carved her name into a wall in the dungeon so that one day she could prove to police that she had in fact been held captive there. She didn’t return to school that year. Most of us thought she’d never return after what’d happened to her. That she’d switch schools, move far away, maybe out of state. And then she turned up for seventh grade. The innocent girl on the flyers had changed. Jeana had a short pixie cut with long bangs in blue and purple streaks. She wore low-cut tops, tight jeans. Walked around holding her books close to her chest. In many ways she’d tarred over her old image with a new, provocative one. The innocent Jeana no longer visible under this protective façade. She watched people from the corner of her eye, head down, knowing we were all looking at her and wondering what had happened to her. I could feel her silent rebellion, see her I-don’t-care-what-you-think-about-me mannerisms. The shock value of her new look didn’t match her inner fragility. Conscious of fashion at the time, it felt like the equivalent of pairing my favorite pink houndstooth Guess jeans with my bright rainbow sweater. A complete mismatch.

People wanted to know the worst treatment, they wanted to know exactly what had been done to her and how many times it had been done to her. None of us (as far as I know) had been sexually active yet. I didn’t really know how sex worked except on a theoretical level. So for someone to be among us who’d had sexual experience already, even though it wasn’t consensual, made her somewhat of a celebrity. But also broken, tarnished, loose, a whore. Kids didn’t gather around her in a protective circle welcoming her back; instead, they (and I) watched her actions, movements, and behavior, wanting to see the effects that a kidnapping could have on a young girl. How much psychological damage this man had done. She’d been outcasted by the very students in her school who should’ve been protecting her, helping her heal.

When I look back, I’m not proud to have been one of those students who said nothing to her. I didn’t know how to even if I wanted to. My friends, a tight circle of Pinays, had been insular. My whole family insular within the Filipino community. To me, it would’ve been obvious that the only reason I was trying to befriend Jeana was because of what had happened to her, and that made be too embarrassed to even say hello. Perhaps another awareness occurred: my ability to blend in with the masses who chose to stay silent when silence was the last thing Jeana needed.

Media coverage on Jeana Rodriguez’s kidnapping:

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/08/06/A-kidnapped-12-year-old-girl-who-suffered-repeated-sexual-attacks/6679365918400/

https://www.upi.com/Archives/1981/09/16/Four-minutes-after-a-12-year-old-girl-had-begun-to/2807369460800/

Letter on Animal Communication

Dear T–,

I would love to tell you all about it. Animal communication has changed the way I move in the world. I didn’t think I could do it, although I had aspirations to be an animal communicator for many years now.

One day in 2018, I just signed up for the beginner’s class with well-known and respected teacher and master animal communicator Marta Williams, thinking, I’ll give this a try, and if I’m no good at it, at least I can say I tried! 

I first heard about animal communicators when Isso was about two years old (back in 2005). I hired one as a birthday gift for him and was amazed by the reading–his insights, thoughts, feelings, wishes–all available to me in writing. There are things the animal communicator picked up on that she could not have known about. For example, I started closing my bedroom door when I left for work because Isso and my housemate’s dog would have what looked like a wrestling match on my bed each day. I’d come home to discover sheets and pillows and the comforter all topsy turvy. Well, during his “talk” with the animal communicator, he said, “I need access to my room. I need to be able to go inside my room.” From then on, I kept the door open and came up with another solution: I covered the bed in a fitted sheet so they could play on it all day without disturbing the bedding below. Without the animal communicator, I wouldn’t have known that access to our bedroom was so important to him. I was hooked! There are many, many more examples over the years when various animal communicators I worked with provided me with information I would’ve never known. 

Learning animal communication is something anyone can do. We all have intuition and it can be cultivated. It’s telepathic communication, the same process psychics use to read people. (In fact I can read people, too, now.) The process to me is very similar to writing–you open up, connect to your inner core and universal knowledge, let yourself express whatever comes to you without judging or filtering. The information can be accessed/conveyed in several ways–through a voice, an image, a feeling, taste, touch, smell. In the very first class, I got really nervous when Marta said we were going to read her cat. I thought, I don’t know how to do this! But on my first try, I was able to connect with the cat based on a picture Marta shared with us and talk with the cat. Marta was able to verify our findings and it turns out my reading was spot on. This gave me confidence so I continued taking more classes a la carte and am considering signing up for her master certification program. All the information is on her website below. Because I have a day job as a freelance grant writer, I don’t really need animal communication to be a source of income for me, but many people who take Marta’s master program do go on to build their own businesses and are quite successful. Right now, I’m doing readings for friends and family pro bono so I can practice and improve. If you want me to read any of your animals, please let me know. 

Marta did ask me if I had any family history of healing, spirituality, psychics, etc. My maternal line is all healers, including my mother. I’ve grown up used to (and comfortable with) living partly in the physical world and partly in the spiritual world. I’ve been seeing mediums, psychics, dousers, healers, chakra cleansers, reiki masters–you name it–all my adult life. As a child, my maternal grandfather did all the healing with Latin prayers and coconut oil right in our home. We only went to the hospital for emergencies. And as a creative person, I’ve always been a daydreamer and have experienced an out-of-body experience at least once. So I’m a good candidate for animal communication. Perhaps even natural at it. 

Anyway, it has opened up a whole new way of being in the world. I get immense satisfaction by talking to animals and helping their person better understand what they need and want, what they enjoy, their hopes and fears. Animals are incredibly wise, generous, loving souls. We almost don’t deserve them 🙂

That’s a lot, and perhaps more information than you need, but I really wanted to express how learning this skill has changed my life. I want to get better and better. And as I mentioned in my previous email, one can learn to read animals in spirit. I took that class and have spoken to a few animals in spirit and will be speaking to my Isso. I had a beautiful reading with him just 30 minutes before he was scheduled to be put down on Tuesday and the advice and gratitude and love he shared is the most wonderful gift I’ve ever received.

Here’s the link to Marta’s website and also a link to an interview I conducted several years back. 
https://www.martawilliams.com/

Much love to you, Beverly

Mini-Interview with Patty Enrado

I first met author Patty Enrado via an online introduction by Tony Robles, and then had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the 5th Filipino American International Book Festival in October.

Recently, Patty posted on social media about an award ceremony she and her family would be attending to accept the bronze replica of the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf and in honor of her father Henry Empleo Enrado, from General Major Eldon P. Regua, U.S. Army (retired).

I wanted to know the back story for this award, and reached out to Patty to learn more. Below is our email exchange. What I learned from her responses is that her father was not only brave, but also humble about his military contributions.

***

Beverly Parayno: What was your father Henry Empleo Enrado honored for? 

Patty Enrado: In 1946, Congress passed the Rescission Acts, which revoked veterans benefits and payments to the Filipino soldiers, and denied them their U.S. citizenship, which had been promised to them in exchange for their service. Public Law 114-265, signed by President Obama in December 2016, recognized the Filipino veterans’ “outstanding wartime achievements and honorable service to the U.S. during WWII.”

My father served in the First Filipino Infantry Regiment as an automatic rifleman. He was a scout in New Guinea and fought in the Battle of Leyte. He was also the recipient of the following citations: WWII Victory Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal. I wish we had them, but my sisters and I never knew of their existence and don’t know what happened to them. We only found out about these citations from his honorable discharge paperwork.

Beverly: How did this award come about? Were you/your family involved in the process of making sure your father received recognition? Also, how long was the process?

Patty: I belong to two chapters of FANHS, and one of the chapters forwarded information on the award application. You can access the application from this link: https://www.filvetrep.org/application. We submitted the application in November 2017 to the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. We received word in May 2019 that our application had been verified. But it was another five months before the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony took place.

My sisters and I took turns pinging our contact to find out the status of the application. Given that there were 260,000 Filipino veterans, and this is a volunteer, community-based national initiative, we remained patient throughout the entire process. I’m not sure how many have been recognized nationally, but in the state of California, some 880+ veterans have been officially recognized. So there’s a long way to go in outreach and getting all 260,000 Filipino veterans recognized.

Beverly: What does this award mean to you/your family?

Patty: It’s a great honor for my two sisters and me and for our children. Our father sacrificed the quality of his life in service of his adopted country. He suffered PTSD, which was not diagnosed at the time, and even our family didn’t realize fully this until after his death when we spoke to his first cousins and they let us know that he was not the man that we all knew before the war. So, his sacrifices were great, but he was very patriotic and proud to be an American citizen. And I know he would be so proud for this achievement.

***

Patty Enrado was born in Los Angeles and raised in Terra Bella, California. She has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California at Davis and a master’s degree from Syracuse University’s Creative Writing Program.  She writes about healthcare information technology and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children.

Divorce Triptych

This essay appeared in Bellingham Review (2019).

I.

Auntie C—, my mom’s eldest sister, lived in a bahay kubo on Tondaligan Beach with her son and his several children. Somehow they’d dissected the small hut into four or five separate rooms: tiny bedrooms with bamboo mats on the hard floors and a front room where Auntie C— sold chewing gum, cigarettes and offered gambling such as blackjack. The house always won. 

When I met her for the only time, on my first visit to Pangasinan, Philippines over twenty years ago, she might as well have had a large “D” imprinted on her smooth, brown forehead. Growing up, that’s one of the few details I knew about her: she’d gotten divorced. Or she lived the life of a woman who’d been divorced if such thing were legal in the Philippines. 

Perhaps that’s why she lived in squalor compared to her younger sisters who owned homes on Gonzalez Street. Homes with proper floors, walls, roofs. Without a man, she lost whatever value she’d had as a person, a family member. A dilapidated hut on a littered beach mirrored what the rest of our family, and the local community, thought of her. 

My grandmother had despised C—. That’s the word she used— ‘despised.’ As an eight-year-old hanging out in my grandparents’ cramped bedroom in San Jose, California, shortly after they emigrated to the US, I couldn’t have known the meaning of the word, but from the tone she used whenever she said it, I knew Auntie C— was no good. The mention of her name made the corners of my grandmother’s mouth turn downward as her eyes grew wet behind her oversized glasses. 

Once, as a young girl, my mom overheard me say ‘divorce,’ and immediately seized upon me to say that that word, THAT word, under any circumstances should never be repeated. A rare viciousness in her eyes and voice made me take her more seriously than I usually had. And so I worked for years to erase it from my brain, to act as if the word didn’t exist in the English language. Not a difficult chore to do when no one else in our family or community ever went through one. To erase the word is to eradicate the possibility of any serious marital problems between two Filipinos. 

When I felt bold one day, I asked my grandmother why Auntie C— had gotten a divorce. “Her husband was a drunkard who beat her up.” I waited for an explanation, some expression of sympathy for my Auntie C—, but none came. The story goes that he just walked away one day. An image in my mind of a thin, brown man staggering down a dusty street at dusk with a bottle in his hand. He doesn’t look back. No one ever sees him again. Auntie C— meets another man, with whom she has several more children. So in addition to being a ‘divorced’ woman, she’s also a cheater and a whore. 

For three days in a row during my visit to my mom’s hometown, Auntie C— turned up at the front gate of the family home where I’d been staying, her hands outstretched, asking if my missing balikbayanboxed had turned up yet. “Come back tomorrow, Auntie,” I’d say. 

By the time she passed away, years later, I felt some relief. For her. The whispers would finally end. People could focus on something else besides how she ruined her life by telling her abusive husband to go. Now that she’s gone, I overhear my mom and her sisters talk about how her son continues to have children, so many children he can’t afford to support, so many children they’re spilling out of the makeshift windows of the bahay kubo. It must be his mother’s fault, I hear myself think. 

II.

Cousin A— and I share the same age. When my maternal grandparents left the province to emigrate to the US and live with our family when I was eight, A— cried and cried. Letters on see-through onion skin paper arrived on a regular basis. My grandparents would let me read them, but it always felt like a violation: they left her behind to live with us. I stole my grandparents from her. I shouldn’t be reading her most intimate writings about how much she missed them, how she’s taking care of their German Shepherd for them until they return. My grandparents, in their lifetime, would never return. 

Sometimes we wrote to each other. But these letters felt forced. They weren’t actually letters to each other; instead, they served as letters for our grandparents, especially my grandma to see. Pieces of paper with ‘Via Air Mail’ written across the envelopes to prove that my cousin A— and I had formed a new friendship despite being thousands of miles apart. 

When I thought of A—, I thought of a small girl like me, sitting on a fence in the barrio. Surrounded by carabao and trees filled with coconuts and mangoes. Expansive fish ponds in the background, one of several of our family businesses. 

Eventually the letters stopped coming. Years later, my grandparents would eventually get stolen away from my family by my auntie in San Diego. I understood the deep loss A— must’ve felt. 

And then complete silence. Did A get married? Did she have children? It’s as if she’d never existed. No updates reached me. Not that I sought any updates. I’d run away from home as a teenager. By the time I returned at age twenty-one, I focused on school and work—nearly killed myself with trying to get ahead, to make up for missed time. To catch up with everyone who’d somehow done life right. 

From years of no news about A— came big news. Really big news. She’d met someone in Saudi Arabia, or whatever country in the Middle East she’d left the Philippines for to work in as a domestic helper. Or a nurse? Either guess leaves a fifty/fifty chance of being correct. I don’t have any details about her affair, but can fill them in for myself: she left the province in search of better opportunities, to send remittances to her family, to put her children through school, to help pay for the education of poor cousins and neighbors who wanted to study, to help her adoptive (within the same family) mom with daily expenses and household needs. I wasn’t there and no one told me so, but I know they regarded her as a hero on the day she left. She and her husband cried, laughed, promised to write, and call although not always possible due to the expense. She’d taken her paycheck and sent as much as she could back home. Perhaps after several years of saving up, she could afford to go home. And her employer let her. And when she got there, the one place she really wanted to be, everything had changed. Her children had grown, she had to get reacquainted with her husband—mentally, emotionally and physically, she was expected to share her experiences living in the Middle East but could find no real words to explain what it’s like to have one life but live another. 

Back in Saudi Arabia, it started out as a prolonged look. She looked away. He didn’t. And wouldn’t. No one understands how lonely it can be. No one knows how alone you can feel. When she started the affair, she knew it’d never get back to her family. How could it? She edited her life like a well-crafted essay, only showing them what she wanted them to see. 

The remittances continued while the letters and phone calls became less frequent. I’m busy. I’m tired. As long as she kept up her end of the deal—to send money so everyone else can have a good life—why couldn’t she have a good life as well? 

(Sometimes I wonder if the innocent girl from the barrio who longed for her grandparents could’ve ever imagine she’d grow up to have a lover in Saudi Arabia.) 

Somewhere, as I write this, she’s in the arms of another man. People act shocked. And stunned that she won’t be coming back. I imagine her husband back in the Philippines in a house she bought. Her children educated thanks to her ability to pay their tuition. Our family and her neighbors labelling her husband a cuckold. 

Somewhere, as I write this, she’s walking to a Western Union, or opening her Venmo app, to send her hard-earned money back home. As their bank account fattens, she turns to her lover who she can never marry for more reasons than one and says Kiss Me. 

III.

The psychic, a Filipina who we’d never seen before, sat on the living couch with my mom, whispering predictions as my mom nodded. My sisters and I lay on our stomachs, looking down from the second floor, through the railings, as they spoke. When the medium left, my mom came upstairs. She gathered the three of us in front of my bedroom door and delivered this news: “She said one of your daughters is going to get a divorce.” It’s going to be me. At twelve years old, I don’t know how I knew this, but I did. I had no doubt that this would happen, and that this most taboo of acts would fall on me. 

Thirty years later, when I delivered the news to my oldest sister over the phone that my husband and I were having problems after just over a year of marriage, she said, “Marriage is forever. You have to make it work NO MATTER WHAT.” Her fist pounded the oversized granite counter in her giant kitchen. To my surprise, my parents showed sympathy and understanding. When my dad said I shouldn’t stay in a marriage if we weren’t happy, I let my sister know that dad’s opinion trumped hers. And that was that. 

“Don’t tell Auntie you’re divorced,” said my dad, whispering in a corner at a party at my brother’s house. The news was fresh, the idea of having a divorced daughter hadn’t settled in yet. I kept the news to myself. Separately, my mom approached me at the same party, but in a different corner, and delivered the same message. I know I know I know. 

Now, it’s been five years since my separation, three years since my divorce. In January, I’ll be travelling to the Philippines with my parents to see relatives and take care of family business. Without having discussed it with my parents, I know when relatives ask why my asawadidn’t come, I’m going to pinch myself hard and say, “He’s working Auntie.”

Go back where you came from (For BP)

Go back where you came from (For BP)
By Tony Robles

Go back to the mountain
Of your heart
Carved with your poem
Your story

Go back to the
Skin scarred
Soil of your name
Before the teachers
Mispronounced it

Go back to the
Strong smell of who 
You are, lingering in
Pots and pans smouldering
In the fire that is you

Go back to when
Your words betrayed
Your throat in
A shadow of shame

And somebody
Else’s laughter

Go back and get it
Back, whatever it is
Or whatever it isn’t

Go back to your face

Will it
Recognize you?

Go back
Where you came from

Is it everywhere, 
No where?

Go back

(C) 2019 Tony Robles

Mini-Interview with Veronica Montes

My mini-interview with Veronica Montes, author of BENEDICTA TAKES WING AND OTHER STORIES, is up on #allpinayeverything. Thanks to Barbara Jane Reyes for curating this site!

You can learn more about Veronica here: veronica-montes.com. Buy the book–a copy for yourself and as a gift. Support your local Pinay authors.

Montes on silence and a lack of shared oral histories in Filipino families:

“The pockets of silence in my family seemed to come from a combination of our elders not wanting to upset the apple cart (everything’s fine, nothing to see here, move along!) and perhaps not fully grasping that subsequent generations would—as children of immigrants—grapple with their identities and be semi-desperate (or maybe that was just me?) to hear and know more.”

Frank’s Home

This memoir excerpt appeared in Southword in 2013.

I responded to an ad in the paper for a room for rent in the northwest part of Poughkeepsie, an upscale area with which I was unfamiliar. Frank Caruana, a shrunken, elderly Italian man, welcomed me into his home. He fussed in the kitchen over glasses of water and a package of cookies, which he placed between us as we sat at the table. The bright white cabinets and polished marble floor gleamed as if an industrial cleaning crew had just come through. I imagined there was once a staff of cooks preparing elegant meals for him and his family.

“My wife passed away six months ago,” said Frank. “It’s been very quiet here.”

He told me about his late wife, how they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary before she died. And how he was a famous musician and conductor in Italy. Without asking any questions about my past or future, he launched into the terms of the rental agreement.

“No deposit needed. No smoking and no pets.”

I assured him we didn’t smoke or have any pets. My shoulders, which had been hugging my ears since the eviction notice, came down an inch after I took a long, deep breath. In the corner of my eye, I saw something wiggle in the package of cookies. A tiny, white maggot reared its head as if straining to participate in our conversation. It climbed up over the ridge of a cookie, followed by another worm-friend. Frank smiled at me through his thick glasses.

“I just rented the downstairs room to a nice man,” he said. “We’re going to have a full house!”

Three weeks before my visit to Frank, Jimmy and I sat on our frayed couch, pulled apart at the seams by our cats’ claws, with an eviction notice in our hands. We stared down at the low wooden table filled with foil, resin-stained glass pipes, mirrors, razor blades, rolled up dollar bills. The couch and table were the last pieces of furniture we owned, after having sold most of our possessions, including our TV, to pay off drug debts. Two freshly cut lines of coke, in perfect symmetry to avoid argument, ready to be snorted. We could hear our neighbors, with whom we shared a wall, screaming and banging around, the woman, Christina, yelling for help. This time we didn’t respond.

“Which line do you want?” asked Jimmy, crumpling up the eviction notice and throwing it across the empty room.

I looked over at him; he had grease on his hands and face, and wore a blue jumpsuit seeped in so much oil it no longer made sense to wash it. I could tell he’d been sleeping inside the hollow portion of the tractor tire at the garage where he worked. I’d spent my work day stealing as many naps as possible in the dark room while developing full-mouth x-rays for the dentist I assisted. Jimmy’s eyes, yellowish and glassy, focused on the part of the room where our TV used to be.

The can began to rattle, but, for the first time, we ignored it. Jimmy had rigged a homemade doorbell by filling an empty beer can with coins and attaching it to a telephone wire outside our kitchen window. How could we’ve known over a year ago that our friend, a dealer, would introduce us to coke and teach us how to free base with the knowledge that we’d be climbing the walls and selling our possessions to buy more from him? Jimmy and I looked at each other. We always had a connection. I’m not sure who blew first, but the next thing I knew, we exhaled, and tiny white particles flew up in the thick air.   

“The man downstairs is a pedophile,” I whispered to Jimmy in our bedroom late one night. We’d been in Frank’s house for a week, unable to sleep. Dreaming of a glass pipe filled with turbulent, yellow smoke.

“Don’t worry, baby,” he said.

The old man Frank explained to me that Ed, the new tenant in the basement, had lived only a few blocks away with his parents, up until other parents on the block grew so fierce Ed was forced to leave. His picture featured in the local paper, with an article about how he photographed neighborhood kids swimming nude in his parents’ pool. He had a hard time finding a room to rent, until he met Frank.

“He’s a nice boy,” said Frank. “Very quiet.”

Ed was hardly a boy. Middle-aged, he stood six foot, three inches tall and weighed over two hundred and fifty pounds. He reminded me of a wrestler with his dark, curly hair, barrel chest and thick legs. In the two years since I’d run away from home, I’d endured a lot with Jimmy. His fist fights in the middle of the night with his drunk stepfather; no heat in winter; the New York State Troopers trying to take me in as a minor until I proved I had just turned eighteen. Never once had I thought of calling home. Jimmy was my new life, my new family. Our theme song when we ran off together from California to New York was Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”.

“I want to go home,” I said.

“He’s not going to hurt you, geisha.”

“We’re living with a criminal.”

“Do we have a choice?”

To help pay down our drug debt, Jimmy took a second job at Jiffy Lube by the mall. He didn’t get home in the evenings until ten-thirty. After work, I’d go straight up to our room and lodge a chair under the doorknob to protect myself from Ed. I snuck my cats in from the car so I wouldn’t be alone. I avoided the kitchen altogether, in case Frank tried to offer me more infested snacks, so my meals consisted of takeout food from McDonald’s or Burger King. Slowly, my appetite returned. I set a goal to reach ninety-two pounds by the end of summer. Then I’d be only ten pounds under my normal weight.

One evening, around seven o’ clock, Frank knocked on my door.

“Just a minute,” I said.

I swept up both cats in my arms and placed them in the closet. And then I opened the window wider, snapped a towel to clear the air of cigarette smoke and sprayed several pumps of Poison, a bottle of perfume Jimmy bought for my eighteenth birthday. I cracked the door an inch, hoping the cats wouldn’t meow.

“Would you like to watch TV?” asked Frank, holding the remote.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be right down.”

When I got downstairs, Frank motioned for me to sit next to him on the couch. He hadn’t turned on the TV yet. I flipped through a few channels until I came to Jeopardy!

“Is this okay?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “Anything. Perfect.”

My least favorite categories were Presidents, Sports and Science, things I knew nothing about. I preferred Literature, World History and Geography; even though I didn’t know that much about those topics either, I could at least guess and be right sometimes. Frank never tried guessing at all. I wondered if he understood how to play the game.

“You have to answer with a question, like “Who is” or “What is,” I said.

“Yes, yes, very nice show,” said Frank.

He encouraged me to turn the volume louder. The blue Jeopardy! screens reflected off his glasses. I thought about what it must’ve been like for him before we all moved in. He didn’t have any family nearby. His only son lived and worked across the country at Stanford University. I held an image of Frank sitting in the dark at his late wife’s vanity, still filled with lipsticks, pins and barrettes, staring into the same mirror she used to look into.

When Jeopardy! ended, he asked if I wanted to watch the next show, Wheel of Fortune. The thought of spending half an hour with Vanna White disturbed me but I didn’t have the heart to say no to Frank, so I sunk back into the couch and tried to solve the puzzles.

One evening, when Frank and I were watching Jeopardy!,  I heard the basement door open. Ed emerged from his cave, bowed his head and stood at the entrance to the living room with his hands in his pockets. He had court dates set and wasn’t allowed to return to his parents’ house. No one visited him and, as far as I knew, he never left the house at all. Frank said he was on disability but I didn’t know what for.

“Sit down!” said Frank, scooting over on the couch to make room between us.

Ed sat down just a few inches away from me. He smelled of sweat and gauze. I’d never been that close to an actual pedophile before. I took in a deep breath. Jimmy had assured me that if Ed really wanted to molest me, he would’ve tried by now.

At first Ed sat completely still, as if he’d be asked to leave the room for breathing or blinking his eyes. Then he started calling out questions in a soft voice, most of them right. He knew the questions before Alex Trebek finished reading the answer. Ed didn’t phrase the questions correctly, but I wasn’t about to call him on it.

During a commercial break, he turned to me.

“Do you know why your car doesn’t work?” he asked. “Because it’s a Nova,” he said. “No Va. In Latin, that means ‘no go’.”

I’d taken a few years of French before I dropped out of high school, and this sounded reasonably correct to me.

“So I should rename our car?” I asked.

“Too late,” he said.

Jeopardy! came back on. One of the categories, Biology, had the following answer for six hundred dollars: “The intestinal tract of these insects can break down cellulose.” I wanted to say “What are maggots?” but then stopped myself in case Frank got a complex.

Ed sat up, and, like a little kid, began screaming at the contestants, as if they could hear him, his hands in the air, “Termites!” “Termites!”

He got the answer right, the contestants got it wrong. Ed turned around and high-fived me and Frank, as if he’d just won the money.

For the next few weeks, Frank, Ed and I watched Jeopardy! every weeknight. We were mesmerized by the theme music, the categories in bold white letters, and Alex Trebek, smartly dressed in a dark suit, greeting us in his soothing voice. Sometimes I wondered if my Dad still watched Jeopardy! too. If he ever looked over to the couch, where I used to sit when we watched together, and regretted his violent outbursts.

One night, while sitting in our usual spot, I realized that if strangers drove by Frank’s home, they would see three heads – small, big, small – and assume it was a family sitting down together after dinner. I didn’t know the details of Ed’s case, and didn’t want to pry, but felt I could serve as a character witness, if needed, and talk about his gentle nature and knowledge of languages, science, history, philosophy. What if they had it all wrong? What if he truly loved those children?

Some of the color had returned to Frank’s face. I didn’t want to be the spouse left behind after a long marriage. I’d want to be the one who died first. Whether or not it was genuine, I felt proud of Frank for smiling again. And for getting up each morning, looking at his wife’s vanity, and still deciding to change into neatly pressed slacks and comb pomade through his thin, grey hair.

Later that night, Jimmy came home and handed me two un-cashed paychecks, the first time in over a year. Both of his jobs paid minimum wage, so it wasn’t much, but it was more than we’d had in a long time. I held the checks in my hand, tracing over the amounts with my finger. We could make rent and a small payment toward our drug debts.

“I’ll sign my checks over to you every two weeks, geisha,” he said.

He reminded me of why I ran off with him in the first place. Jimmy promised to take care of me, of us, and I knew he’d come through. I mentioned an opening for a weekend janitor at the dental office where I worked.

“I’ll take it,” he said.