Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD.
I came to the United States of America in the light of this conviction about what stories are. With an openness of heart and soul, with a certain degree of understanding of the forces of history that pre-formed and pre-shaped this nation of (im)migrants, I arrived in March 2003 with that major purpose of telling the migrant’s story in a way that respects his voice.
I promised myself: that I will not speak in the migrant’s behalf. Instead, I will make him speak—and speak out loud so that those who are not listening may listen, those who have acquiesced to the stodgy conditions of existence may take courage and boldness and daring and may speak out loud and clear for and in the name of the nameless, the voiceless, the powerless, the marginalized.
In coming to “this America”—the kind of naming some present-day political leaders of this country would want to use minus the term “United States”—I brought with me all the socio-cultural biases that go with being born in a multicultural society and living in that same society as an advocate of culture and language, learning and education, social renewal and commitment to justice.
Likewise, I became aware of the learned fondness for stories and goodies that relate to America or may even obliquely refer to being American.
For a time in the Ilocos of my childhood, the concept “imported”, “PX”, “American”, and “the best quality stuff for the mind and the heart and the body” were all synonymous. Anything not American was no good. At the time that I was growing up, Japanese products were having an inroad in the country but the way the adults looked at these goods were never at par with the “imported” from America. Such was the consciousness that I came into—and the concept of America as the country of the best was what we kept in our heart.
Carlos Bulosan, of course, arrived at the conclusion that America, in the end, is not a place. Carlos as Allos was a trope—a prototype—of the wandering Filipino in search of something better, something more than what the old country offered. Allos the main character in the novel-cum-memoir America is in the Heart was a window to the aspirations and dreams of every Filipino—that dream of being able to go to the United States and there eke out a life, and there struggle hard, and there, succeed.
The America as Promised Land is not exactly the literal and factual America of Western geography, history, geopolitics, godly democracy, and commerce of the global kind—or so Allos as Carlos Bulosan would argue.
America, Bulosan clearly told us in that autobiographical novel-cum-history-cum-memoir is a beautiful topos where justice and peace reign. As such, America is more of a symbol, a metaphor of a dream, a vision of a kind place—in effect, a place without a place, a land without land, a geography without the borders and boundaries, a place located in the heart of each man actively looking for the good and decent and dignified life anywhere whether in the United States of America of the “red Indians” and migrants or elsewhere.
But all these strange ideas were not known to me at this stage. Like all the young rural children of the Ilocos, we would dream of going through the rites of getting rich in America like the Hawayanos in my father’s barrio, the Hawayanos going home from their sacada work in Hawaii with boxes and boxes of corned beef and sausages and oatmeal and chocolates and candies.
My father’s barrio was a tightly-knit community of clans and tribes and families all linked up by marriage and/or by sanguinity. That barrio was known for sending at least one member of the family to Hawaii to work there, to live there, to marry there, to raise a family there—but always, always, with that wild idea that the one who had the luck to get on ahead and get that visa to work and stay in America is duty-bound to “order” the others soon and fast. I remember clearly the phrase I would hear so often during each despedida: “Tawingennakaminto met, a!”
That was a hard language—a hard expression that evoked a dream and a duty. Tawing—this drawing of water from the well. I would tell myself even when I was a kid.
Images would come to me so quickly.
I have the image of water.
I have the image of a well.
I have the image of water to be drawn from the well.
I have the image of the poor barrio people all in that well waiting—and dreaming—of getting into the pail one uses to draw water from the well.
It was a life linked with water, a life fluid and flexible, inseparable from the rest.
In the tawing is the ancient clan in reality—the primal tribe speaking in earnestness and demanding recognition, insisting to be given a name, resisting change even when one family member has gone to Hawaii and has started his own family. No, marriage and its responsibilities is not the end of the tribe, the clan, and the old family. He who starts a life in Hawaii as that proverbial potential or real Hawayano has to share his Hawayano privilege and power, imagined or real, possible or fantastic. And the civil status is not a marker—never a boundary. Married or not, you bet, the whole clan is your responsibility, the whole tribe is on your shoulder, the barrio is yoked on you.
So: the manong or tata Hawayano ought to send the tuition money to the nephew of the second cousin.
He has to send the sab-ong to the erratic brother-in-law of a sister whom he sent to school but finished another M.D. instead—a marriage degree.
This was the consciousness that I was reared and nurtured into while taking in all the pangs of becoming aware of the pains of innumerable leavings and departures among the members of my father’s clan.
This experience was no better than the arrival of wooden coffins one after another in that same barrio—the coffins of young relatives who had gone to fight the war of President Marcos in Jolo or in the other parts of Mindanao, the wooden coffins shining bright in the orange Ilocos sunlight, the wooden coffins sealed for a purpose, the wooden coffins during the wake always closed and never opened and guarded by soldiers who held vigil as if they were candles without feelings or eyes or ears, unable to hear the wailings of fathers and mothers who would invariably start the dung-aw to narrate of the heroism of the dead, their heroism defined at that time by the regime and its brand and concoction of truth. This was a difficult time, not the time of peace but the time of so many occasions of going away, so many goodbyes, so many sad farewells.
But this was also a time of awakening for me: of the contradictions governing our lives, of the extremes taking hold of our future, of the polarities steeling us into facing life more fully in the round.
For those who had left earlier for Hawaii, many had been able to acquire more lands in the Didaya—and their immediate family members had better chances to improve their lot in life. They began to build stone houses like those in the ili, many as big as the stone houses left by the Spaniards when the ili was still a municipio of the whole province of Ilocos.
There were concrete proofs of the economic betterment of the families left behind. There was passion in this proof—and this spread like wildfire among the Ilocanos who had nothing better to do except to coax the parched earth of the lonely Ilocos land. I wish to advance a thesis now: That this is the same reason why Allos as Carlos Bulosan and his brothers had to convince their farmer of a father to allow them to leave for the lands beyond the seas—to the America of progress and development, to the America of every young Filipino man’s dream of the good life.
There was news of good jobs, many jobs, and high-paying jobs.
There was news of sugar cane plantations their vastness the eyes cannot measure.
There was news of canneries always looking for workers all year-round.
There was news of this idea of the good, quality, satisfying and productive life in the United States of America. It was news—and it was the idea of being news. It was also the news of an idea.
Today, many decades after, after more than half a century of wandering of Filipinos in this land of contradictions and contrasts, these news as reasons for their coming over to the USA serve as the main reasons for the continuous and unabated (im)migration of Filipinos to this land. We see them now as we have seen them before in the pages of the history of the immigration of Filipinos to this nation of immigrants.