In the biblical texts are many allusions to the experience of exile. Anawim, the very concept of the poor in Hebrew, for instance, speaks of the foreigner as exile or the other equation, the exile as foreigner: for the poor are exiles in the table of the rich, in the temple of the sacred, in the corridors of power. They are, simply, outsiders. And the fact that every immigrant is an outsider makes the allusion and equation a powerful case of insisting upon all nations to remain true to their social contract with their own people, the social contract to fulfill the promise of a good life for all their citizens and not only for some. An immigrant can only acculturate so much in a new land.
It is in this light that I view my own experience of exile in a land that is romantically exalted in keeping with the lens provided by a history of victors and a history of filmic imagination that has successfully kept secret the reality of homelessness and squalor in the big cities of New York and Los Angeles. The Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, to me, is a window to the soul of a city and a county and a country: the city of Los Angeles, the county of Los Angeles, and the country of the United States of America, a country so powerful it can halt war or export it anywhere if it wants.
I have seen deprivation in some of these big cities, a kind of deprivation unlike no other except perhaps the deprivation in my own Manila, in the dumps of my merciless metropolis run by politicians as callous as the big fat flies of Payatas, that infamous garbage area where old and young men and women including innocent children try to live on the refuse of the powerful and the patrons of unearned privileges.
From the Chinatown side of the Empress Resto where successful Pinoys gather to celebrate anything worth the raucous laughter for a few hours of get-together with friends and family, I have seen A’ala Park.
I have seen its two faces, this A’ala Park of two sides, one ugly and one beautiful; its two characters, one good and another evil; and its two contradictions, one for spectacle and another for its denial. And indeed it is so. Because this is O’ahu, ‘the gathering place’ of the monarchs and the subjects, Hawai`i’s most commercially mined island where tourists come and visit, not by the dirty dozens but by the loaded millions, bringing in business and bucks and more bucks for the capitalists and industrialists who do not have to work so hard because there are many immigrants willing to do the dirty servile work so every tourist will have reason to come back and rest and relax and recreate. You of sugar plantations long gone and that is a lie, a big lie; the plantations have assumed a new form in hotels and in the tourist industry. The economic structure has remained the same.
I have seen A’ala Park in the light of day and in the light of lampposts, seeing no less than what the winds from the Waikiki have seen.
There is despair here, there is failure, and there is something of the tragic.
While we have the courage to say no to gluttony at the Empress, preferring instead to wrap the almost untouched food and bring it home, there is hunger in A’ala a hungry man’s spit’s throw away. The hunger of the hungry man is real and ugly and evil and merciless.
We wrap the food that is almost untouched by the diners on our table and yet we are not certain whether it is going to be consumed or someone in the household would ever take interest in it. For a day or two, perhaps, the food ziplocked for effect, it would stay in the fridge, and then it would find its way to the garbage bin and then to the city dumps, there to await its return to the earth, the food that could have been otherwise consumed by the homeless, who, when drizzle comes about and always unexpectedly, the wretched of the A’ala earth would scamper to safety.
Safety is inside makeshift tents of plastic sheets or blankets tied on four corners and then poked on the ground. The flooring is the earth, or the green grass, if the soil has not yet succeeded in claiming its right to breathe air after we have it artificially carpeted with something, just something, green. Remember that downtown Honolulu is a premier tourist city in the whole of the country and all unseemly sights, including the dark brown soi,l must look spic and span, green and lush, robust and inviting.
I look at all of these in the light of my immigrant experience. No, I have not been shown the way to El Dorado here. I fought it out to find my way to something grander, greater, better, with the fighting sometimes the prize and not the outcome of the fight itself. Here, in exile, we rest content with what you have got, or learn to do. Your ambition to ink up a social compact that will lift you up to something more meaningful other than a hard-scrabble existence remains an unyielding ambition. That is your only given, your amulet, your drive, your engine. You cannot afford to give it up.
You are in a foreign land and unless you have taken your oath of allegiance to the adoptive country, you will remain a stranger and foreigner, alien and immigrant. Oh your skin, height, and accent will always give you away. Unless chameleon is your next of kin and you have fully metamorphosed into a natural born citizen. Unless you have gone through the ways of the artistas in the homeland, with their salamat-po-doktor bodily trophies to completely and totally reinvent themselves. Unless you have undergone a real honest-to-goodness reincarnation. Unless you have become the number one exhibit for having been literally born-again.
I take a walk at the A’ala Park to make me remember the bounty that I will partake of and to make me see the difference between being wretched because of exile and those that have taken roots and have reincarnated to afford a gluttonous dining like this one tonight.
I think of Lazarus and his crumbs, the crumbs from the table of the rich who was giving a feast for his friends and the elect. I cannot eat. I swallow my tears. I swallow the lump on my throat to hide my cry for justice, for social justice to come about soon and fast.
Someday, I pray, I will do something. Someday, I remind myself.
I pray for courage.
A Solver Agcaoili
A’ala Park, Honolulu, HI
August 2, 2006