COMING TO AMERICA, RETRACING BULOSAN, AND GATHERING NARRATIVES OF EXCLUSION
In the first part of this essay on migrant life in the United States, I wrote about my coming-into-an-awareness of what awaits the (im)migrant in this country and perhaps elsewhere. I was, of course, zeroing on the Filipino experience of (im)migrant life in the US.
I wrote that in graduate school, I did a rereading of Carlos Bulosan and realized that the metaphors of “land of milk and honey” and “greener pasture” are true to some extent but are also false to some extent. The migrant’s life is a metaphor of sorts, a metaphor of a country wishing it were something else. It is a metaphor of a private soul going public, exposing the tall tales of milk and honey and golden treasure and narrating the pains of taking roots.
But back to the book on (im)migrant life that I would write. This book was the raison d’etre of my coming to America. My university wanted me to push through with the project and one Philippine summer, a day after turning over all the grade sheets and test papers and class cards, I flew to Honolulu on my way to some other immigrant communities in the US mainland.
I remember that when I came to the United States for the first time, I talked in a conference of language educators and scholars about the value of heritage language. I elaborated on the pedagogical requisites of including the epistemological and cosmological realities embedded in the heritage language in order for the second language learner to learn about the cultural categories and concepts used in the language to be learned. I explored this in the way Ilokano language and literature is to be taught and demonstrated how that could be done with much success. If there is one university in the world that takes pride in its innovative concepts on heritage language appreciation and teaching, it is the University of Hawaii. That conference introduced me to a world other than my Ilokano world as I touched based with other Pacific Islander languages.
The next time I came, I talked in another conference on the necessity of studying exilic texts written by Filipinos if only to understand the complex nature of exilic life. So here I was coming full circle with my obsession on the Filipino Exile and Diaspora theme to rationalize my analyzing narratives of exclusion. With my coming back to the United States—with my returning to America to write that book on the life of Filipino immigrants and Filipino Americans—the book was taking shape in my mind—and in my dream.
I would daydream and in the dream I would title my book with “Philippine Exilic Narratives in America: Negotiating Identity, Transacting Nationhood.”
I would be the quintessential social researcher and ethnographer, with notebooks in tow, pencil and pen on the ready, alert on so many things crucial and not so. This is the way of the fieldworker, the researcher who goes to where the action is, become himself an agent in the production of what could be purported as a liberating knowledge.
I would come and live in the America of (im)migrants, connect with the struggling nandarayuhan, the excluded exiles, listen to them, record their stories, and retell these stories in the way I thought it best: Each story-teller listening to himself telling his own story, his manner and mode of telling consciously preserving his voice, intelligently structuring his history in accord with his own sense of meaning and truth. No, I would not intervene in his manner of telling except for some artistic and communicative considerations.
I would want the voice to be there, the texture of the telling to be there, the tone of the narrative to be there.
I would sharpen my listening skills, mark out nonverbal cues, and pursue leads the way a disjunctive logician does.
I would eliminate those narrative clues that would not lead to a productive telling and retelling of the migrant’s story in order to preserve the grander story that I would be after: his story of surviving America.
That was the grand plan: to come to America and execute the research.
To come to America and write that definitive book on the Filipino Diaspora that seems to have no end.
In the meantime, four days before my departure for Honolulu, I went to Laoag to direct a national teacher training institute, deliver a professorial lecture on my novel Wayawaya, and facilitate the workshop with the help of colleagues at the state university in Diliman. The colleagues are literary historians and critics who know Iluko literature the way they know the back of their hand: Dr. Adel Lucero, Dr. Noemi Rosal, Dr. Marot Flores, and Prof. Derick Galam. Galam has since left the university and has taken the route to self-exile by working in London. In the institute, I presented concept papers and methodologies to approaching exilic texts in general, and Iluko exilic texts in particular. I had, of course, the book in my head—always imagining it as the definitive book about some other exile’s experience—and never my own. I did not know that I would be a subject matter of the book as well.
While the teachers’ institute was going on, I was at the same time absorbed in my thoughts about the book. It paid that resident experts on Iluko life at the Mariano Marcos State University helped me in facilitating the institute. It paid that Dr. Visitacion Mamuad was there; it paid that Dr. Onofrecia Ibarra was there as well. Both are the pillars of Ilokano studies in that university, if ever there was one.
One expert, Dr. Shirley Mina, served as encargada primera while my thoughts took me to Hawaii, Guam, California, Alaska, New Jersey, New York, Chicago, Texas, and Arizona—to the very lands setting the spatial dynamics of American Adobo and partly that of Tanging Yaman, two films that have somehow successfully portrayed the life of Filipino exiles.
I would create and recreate the lands of the exiles: the farmlands of Hawaii, the recreation spots and hotels and resorts of Guam, the canneries of Alaska, the farmlands and care home of California, Arizona, Hawaii, New York, and Texas.
I would cry in my thought, cry out loud like a stone crying out in the Old Testament of the exiled “people of God”: “Oh, my people, my people!”
I would imagine how the book would look like: the cover red, a flaming one, with some shades of blue and yellow superimposed by an alibata of freedom and justice and fairness and humanity. The inside pages would be newsprint, the cheapest kind so that in this way I would be able to redeem myself from that novel Dangadang that is sold in the market for six hundred pesos. Dangadang is the first novel in the history of Philippine letters to be priced that much according to Dr. Domingo Landicho. That meant I would not expect much royalty from Philippine readers since it was not affordable by Philippine standards, what with the purchasing power always going down. Dr. Landicho said, “You better trim down your pages or else no one will ever buy you much less read you.”
But I had other thoughts other than listening to what Dr. Landicho was saying.
The thoughts of Filipinos in Stockton, California would come rushing.
The thoughts of the farmhands in Oahu would seduce me and entice me to go after them.
I thought of beginning my excursion with the story of Manong Amado Yoro, his story of surviving the sugar cane fields.
I thought of beginning with how Manong Loring Tabin took root in Utah by accounting how he survived California with his plain guts. Or that Terry Tugade who wrote that novel, White Gold, by just simply imagining where Alaska is and imagining as well its abused workers in the canneries and then abruptly exiled his writing when he decided to migrate to the United States.
Well, there were many beginnings. But the writing had to begin somewhere.
Published in The Weekly Inquirer, August 19/05; some earlier portions published in Life Today USA, 2003.