A Present Presence, Presencing, and the Place of “Anak” in the Collective Memory of the People of the Philippines in the Homeland and in the Diaspora
Dr. Aurelio Solver Agcaoili
University of Hawai`i at Manoa
The paratextual in the book, Anak, is a mine of that which is semiologically fecund, the dark blue of the cover with the sepia of old pictures cut out to form the book’s main title. A newspaper cutout, with Dr. Jose Protacio Rizal in the center of the letter “A,” the first of the economized title, plays out the colors white and the blue of a blueprint, a color a journalist of old is familiar with. The outside back cover is a sea of blue, wavy and undulating, except for the now familiar icon of the Filipino Centennial Celebration Commission, the man with a hat. Released at the closing of the Centennial Celebration in Maui, this book, truly, is a long-lasting covenant of the Filipino Americans in Maui with the Filipino people in the Philippines and abroad.
When I received my copy, a gift—daton—from this newspaper’s publisher CJ Ancheta, I took the book from the student who came to deliver it, gently carried it on my desk, and looked at the packet, heavy and hard. I knew this was Anak; CJ Ancheta had called me days before to tell me that he was sending me a copy of the book the Maui Filipino Centennial Celebration Coordinating Council put together to give tribute to the Filipinos of Maui, the Filipinos of the “past, present, and future.”
I tempered the eagerness to open the packet and speak to the book—or permit the book to speak to me. I have seen many of the Centennial celebrations, with our Ilokano program giving its share when we held the first-ever Nakem Conference in November 2006. Last December, I took part in the last of the international conferences honoring the Filipino and narrating of his century of experience in the immigrant land. Likewise, I took part in the formal closing ceremonies, and there, I saw how all of these activities sanctifying the sacrifices of our people are plain and simple, labors of love. I knew that this book would be in the same mold: indeed, a labor of love by the people of Maui for the Filipino people as a whole. This thought awed me. It was the same thought that drove me to open the packet and explore the World opened up by the Word of the book—word becoming world, word opening up a clearing—a kaingin—especially for those who do not know Maui the way they know the back of their hands but share the same energy and fire of that abstract reality we call “Filipino experience” in the plantations.
I flipped through the first few pages and there, in the inside front cover running through the first page, are the happy faces of plantation workers vomited by a plantation house, the workers in their Sunday’s best, perhaps going to a church and pray for grace and blessing so that the next week would be one of endurance and patient understanding of the human condition. The student of symbols in me was working: I flipped through the last page and hit right through the inside back cover, and there, the symbols—the signs of signs—are coming full circle for there, on that one whole spread, in sepia tones, are the plantation workers in their ‘americana,’ that suit that is worn only by the rich and the powerful in the homeland. I see the context of the picture, perhaps a fiesta, perhaps a community celebration recalling the homeland and the people left behind, recalling the memory that needs to come alive, kicking, and always reminding to all the workers that the homeland awaits, that there is a prize for persevering despite the challenges, the blatant injustices, the harsh treatment of the lunas, the discrimination, the kind of a give-away of the burned and brown skin. The lacerated flesh, we call this, but worse is the lacerated mind, the lacerated thought, the lacerated memory: there is eternity in the times of sacrifice and suffering especially when grief comes to grief, and when the grieving takes on years and years of enduring as if there is no let-up.
As you flip through the pages, more sepia smiles greet you, the sorrows and sadnesses hidden somewhere in the stiff and starched collars of semi-formal wear. And then this hits you hard: the story of the plantation workers joining a union, getting awakened—nakamurmuray is the Ilokano term for this—to the solid and hard fact that they are indentured, uneducated, and non-English speaking workers from the islands occupied by the United States but they are, indubitably, also persons with rights, their rights as human as human can be. This politicization of the Ilokano worker’s mind, I should say, is the beginning of more awakenings: the first step has been made and there is no turning back. This is politics in one’s own hand, the power to govern resting on the people, the turay-linteg—power-law—coming from the people. It is the genesis of that people power that would turn the chips down in the more contemporary history of the Filipino people in the homeland. In a way, Albert Judd of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association succeeded in his “Filipino experiment” of recruiting Filipino workers to operate the sugarcane lands under harsh and oftentimes less than human conditions—but with the conscienticized workers, there was no turning back. The collective memory of struggle against all invaders was just there in the deepest recesses of the soul, the heart, the kararua, and the panunot. No, you cannot rob the Filipino workers of their Filipinoness and their humanity even if in the days of fear, the bosses partly succeeded. We call this basic decency. We call this self-respect, we call this honor—and honor they gave to themselves and to other people they worked with even as they struggled to fight for what is justly theirs: decent wages, decent living spaces, and decent treatment.
We keep flipping the pages and the texts speak to you in the sacred because sanctified silences of “Maui volunteers” in their group picture, most of whom, the caption says, are Filipino, the volunteers agreeing to fight for and in the name of the United States during the Second World War. The list goes on the succeeding pages, even as in the pages before, we get a glimpse of the Maui Filipinos who made a name for themselves because of their extraordinary abilities, with the retired judge Artemio Baxa, for instance, humble and unassuming, showing us the way to that greatness that does not invest upon that bastardly act of decapitating other people in order to rise. The medals and ribbons leap from the pages to remind us of the meaning of life, of mortality, and of ultimate sacrifice—the offering of one’s life in order to pursue peace not only for the place where you come from but also for other places where peace is a luxury, not a basic right. In the end, those who chose this land are given the option to make good with that choice, with that naturalization document that proclaims that the good Filipino “was entitled to be admitted to citizenship” and thus, “admitted as a citizen of the United States of America.”
We witness here, therefore, the dynamo—from contract worker to union member to doing good as a resident and then to citizenship. This is what the book is all about, its trajectory that of the celebratory spirit that makes the remembering soul catch fire, so that both in the remembrance and in the fire, more good things are dreamed of, more communal goals are pursued, and the sense of fairness and justice assured to everyone, citizen or non-citizen alike.
What informs the book Anak is the narrative thread we see all over the chapters, the voices of the story tellers and narrators coming all too clearly, the voices firm and solid, the voices coming off as incantations, as oraciones, as mantras, saying in the silences of the pages that we need to keep on with this duty to remember. I am reminded here of the intricate connection between story and history in the Ilokano mind. The book’s virtue is that it is both story and history: sarita and pakasaritaan. For a history has to be—ought to be and must be—a story first: the root word for pakasaritaan is sarita.
As we go through the list of extraordinary names with extraordinary deeds, we are awed, as if before us are a pantheon of those who have make it sure that no one among us will go to bed during the night with an empty stomach. They call this solidarity.
I call this panagkakadua: the kadkaddua oneing with the person, the kadkaddua buried back to the earth. Or the kadkaddua put in the earthen pot and then hung up in the topmost part of a tree to reach out to the skies.
Anak, thus, is a story of our people and its gift is that it will make us remember more and more. We call this, in sum, a present presence, and a presencing: in the here-and-now, in the present that is at the same time the future, in the past this both present and future.
Published in the Fil-Am Observer, April 2007
Honolulu, HI, USA
Written, UH Manoa/Mar 30-07