A Brief Ethnography of a Sweet Good Luck

Ethnography is a big concept, something social scientists, those on the qualitive research persuasion, toy with to gather, interpret, and analyze their data.

Forget those social scientists who think of numbers as the only one that matters, that can say something about the human and social condition.

These are the scientists who do not know the meaning of subject, subject position, and meanings and suggestions beyond statistical configurations.

These are the same scientists who do not see that these statistical tools are invented by those who are lazy to listen to other people's pains and perpetual passion to reinvent themselves, this last one the kernel, and always the kernel, of what we call self-redemption.

But let me arrest this concept of ethnography, snatch it from the scholars just for this piece and just for a little while to account, in a rather tongue-in-cheek way, the ways of men and women, they who are in search of that one sweet good luck that will liberate them from the humdrum of daily life, with its routine and frustration, its sorrows and disappointments, its small joys and big tears.

Filipinos in the US of A are not spared of this waging thing--the waging for the better life.

In simplistic term, this lining up in a liquor store to come up with the winning numbers: five on the left and one on the right if it were a superlotto while if the bet were the megalotto, five on top and one below.

If one were not inspired, or the gods of good fortune are not smiling, you can do a rundown of what luck is in the stars by simply running through the quick pick either announcing that to the cashier or doing it yourself on the lotto card.

Yesterday, an informant of a co-worker told me: Ay, biag, nagrigat ketdin ditoy America. Kunada ngata no pidpiduten ti kuarta. Ngem dida ammo a kubboka a kubbo tapno makapagpaw-itka iti doliar a no maibus ket kasla tapno nga agpukaw.

I will translate that for those who are semi-illiterate in Ilokano language (and read the laughter here): O life, it is so damn hard in America. They might have thought that money is picked up here. But they do not know that you have to keep on bending your back endlessly so you can send the dollar that evaporates so fast like water.

I tell him, this co-worker of an informant from Pangasinan: That is how it is here, I suppose. This is not our land.

His name is Michael Canuto, the name a pseudonym. This is acceptable in social science research to protect the name of informants. So I am using this as a technique.

He does not know, of course, that I am--I have been doing--an ethnography of immigrant life.

Yes, but I would want to win the lotto, he tells me. He picks up his canned soda, drinks it from the can they way many immigrants quench their thirst for the Philippines, the homeland of their heart, the one heart of their universe, the core of their cosmology.

You do not bet, do you? I ask him like a judge in the Philippine court trained to look at a bulging envelope from a wealthy accused rather than for an evidence to be weighed.

I don't, he says, scratching his nape and unsure whether he should tell me that stupid answer or not.

That is the big trouble, I tell him. You have to bet once in a while.

I wanted to confess to him right there and then that I do bet, well, really now, once in a while, when the going gets rough and when I dream of the number coming out the next time around.

Or when the loose dollars--or pesos, as the case maybe if I am in Manila for a visist--get to be insistent, as if saying, bet, bet, bet.

We shift to another topic, how he ran away from America for six months so he could get settled in a village in Pangasinan, get married there, and when the wife was six months pregnant, had to get back to the US fast because his financial resources dwindled fast.

But his sister comes in, settles in one chair on the rectangular table where staff take their lunch break.

She is my sister, Elena Ramirez, he volunteers the information. Ramirez is her married name. She just came here two years ago, fairly new.

Yes, I met her last night, I told him. Your elder sister.

Nagrigat gayam ditoy America. Makaaw-awidakon, the woman said. She is saying: It is not easy here in America. I want to go home.

Elena is 40, married, three kids, 15, 14, and 2, the last one born in the U.S. but had to be brought to the Philippines because they cannot afford the salary of a baby-sitter while she goes to work in an insurance office.

Mangabaktay koma iti lotto. I hope we hit the lotto. It was Michael, wistful, repeating himself, and hopeful, a smile, mocking and tired, on his face. He is 30 but he looks older, having come to America 14 years ago when he was still in high school but had to leave school when Black American gang members in Carson where he went to school ganged up on him and threatened to kill him.

He forks his adobong baboy and puts some adobo sauce on his mountain of cold rice his sister brought and which they halved at the start of our lunch break.

Elena just smiles, impish, and unknowing in her ways, quite reserved, almost modest and shy but there is some urgency of hope in her eyes and in the way she carries herself on the lunch table.

Then we should bet, I say, laughing my scornful laughter when the lotto topic crops up, anytime, anywhere, in the Philippines or in da US ov A.

I remember that my daughter threatened to bet in the lotto a day before my scheduled departure for America for the nth time.

If I won the lotto, papa, do not leave anymore, she tells me. Stay here so we can live together again as one happy, normal family. I do not like it this way. We are living apart most of the time.

Then bet, I counter her threat. I would not have to leave anymore if you hit the numbers right. I do not have to slave it out in America anymore, akala mo.

Promise? she says, her dark and brooding eyes twinkling.

I promise, I tell her.

I imagine myself having all the hours and the luxury of time in my hands writing that one great Filipino novel. More and more I realize that writing, all writing, is essentially burgis because you have to have to time to sit down and think and remember and write and write.

Ok, call this intellectual work, according to the post-Marxists.

But I am not Jose Maria Sison or that priest Jalandoni who gets a pension in the asylum land. No one will give me the lunch money over here, in this America of many immigrants, because everyone is busy earning a living and fending for themselves.

Even as I remember this scene with my daughter, with the whole family as members of the cast on that night that I was packing my bag, with the dinner table as our stage, I see that point in Michael being frustrated by the America that promised him so much life.

It is the same with everyone who came here: to hope for the better things America can offer.

Having none of those, those who come here depend on the lotto, Michael and Elena and many others who hold on to what the lotto can offer in terms of endless hope, enough money to live by, relatives to care for and help out.

I think of other people waging their rare dollars in the lotto each Tuesday and Wednesday, each Friday and Saturday.

One friend of an acquiantance hit it right here, right here in Los Angeles, some millions, in cold millions, and in dollars for that matter.

But then that guy did not know what to do with the sudden wealth.

He was just simply overwhelmed by it all, by the dollars that came as a deluge, as an avalanche of blessings, so he bought a house in a ritzy-ritzy area in Dominguez Hills for several millions, gave some amounts to his siblings including those who oppressed him before that turn of good and sweet luck, and then went on a ceremonial spree to all the casinos in town and the surrounding areas and played and played to his heart's content.

And then at the end of the day, he realized he almost had wasted all. He had to sell the house.

Eventually, he had almost none.

And so he ran away, ran back to Manila, and there started his ritual of remembering his good old days in Los Angeles, including his days of want before the big win came.

And then, of course, I remember us academics trying to imagine and reimagine a scholarly possibility for all our researches and research agenda.

I remember one afternoon at the University of the Philippines administration building, the one where the nude man is, in oblation, giving himself and his nakedness to humanity, to life, to society, to the world.

The afternoon was scorching. That was a couple of weeks ago--and we were in that meeting of the core group of Ilokano-Amianan scholars trying to come up with a long-term research agenda for something bigger, some idea nobler than our small causes.

We were there, the academics: LQS, the Lilia Quindoza Santiago, one of the better feminist scholars of the nation; Marot Flores, the ethnologist par excellence; Noemi Rosal, the comparative literature expert; and I.

We were exploring the possibility of holding a pre-Nakem Conference in UP Diliman in September 2006.

We were to gather all the state colleges and universities from Regions 1, 2, CAR, some parts of Mindanao, and Manila for that conceptualization of Ilokano and Amianan studies.

We were worried about the money aspect of the pre-conference.

Mananalo sana tayo sa lotto,--I hope we hit the lotto, LQS said. Or was it Marot who said it? Or, from hindsight, did I say that?

The memory, so recent, is vague now. Dunno why.

Vivencio Jose the professor of folklore won, someone blurted out.

Yes, I heard, another one said.

He collected P25M, another one said.

I had to rapidly change the direction of my gaze. I got drunk by all the tidbits of a professor in the English department winning the jackpot.

I calculated his winnings: One teacher in the state university had to retire 25 times over to be able to rake in all that sum. Imagine 25 times of a lifetime of service teaching both the educable and the incorrigible?

So there, the lotto again.

I imagine the winning numbers and run to the liquor store for that sweet sweet good luck.

I summon the spirit of good fortune.

Today I hit it.

Or tomorrow.


So many will be helped, I promise to the spirit.

Including myself and all my small causes.

A. S. Agcaoili
Redondo Beach seashore, CA
May 27, 2006

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