IN THE CRUCIBLE OF STRUGGLE—
THE TRAGEDY OF A ROMANCE THAT COULD HAVE BEEN LOVE-FILLED: a Critique of “The Romance of Magno Rubio”
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, UH Manoa
(Presented at the Kumu Kahua Theatre, Honolulu, Hawai`i, on the occasion of the public presentation of the play, “The Romance of Magno Rubio,” by Lonnie Carter, an adaptation from Carlos Bulosan’s “The Romance of Magno Rubio,” April 1, 2008)
In the Ilokano language of his soul, Magno Rubio, the four-foot Filipino boy who fell in love with Clarabelle he has not seen but only imagined like a phantasm, he could have said:
Nakurapay a babai
Masapulna pay ti kuarta.
Babassit ti addina,
Dida pay agsangapulo,
Adu a gatas agindulto
Adu a karne iluto
Balitok siak ti agbirok
Utong pay siak ti agsirok
Kasla nuang agtrabahoak
Kasla aso agbiagak
Nalpasen ti gisantes
Panagsasanohorian di aglabes
Magnoka a dungritan
Iti Ingles ken Muddy Man
Naikali iti daga,
‘nak ti baka
Sueldom ket nalaylay a lechuga
Magno a babaonen
Tallo a kaban asparagus nagian
Uppat, lima, innem, pito
Ti brokoli maikawalo
Sigarilias, mustasa, istroberi lima ken sangapulo
Sippaw apol, maysa pay nga apol
Timbangem, kurang, dayta’t trobol.
Nanateng a nairteng
Buras a buras a barus kas Hudas
Itudom, itudom kas kasilias
Buenas no adda pay.
Tallo, lima, pito, agtutuonen a tarongen
Kadakkel ti singkamasen
Ti ayatko a tumangtangken
Ima laeng pangagas
Maysa, maysa, sibulias
Dua, dua, letchugas
Uppat, ti gardilias
Innem, ti mansanas
Tallo, ti mustasa
Walo, ti patata
No malpas, ikipas.
Iraman ti sitaw
Adda latta ti buttaw
Burasen ti tabungaw
Ti aba, iparabaw
Di umunay a pagtalawataw
Sangapulo a takalen
There is exuberance in this play—its meaning and relevance and import in its being played, acted out by the five actors, with the director’s sensitive signature in the robust juxtaposition of movements and sounds, with life lived in pain leaping from the page as the actors say the word to reveal the hidden in the sad hearts of the Filipino laborers.
Whoever said that the meaning of a play is its being played? The ‘hermeneuts,’ I think, and one of them, perhaps, is Hans-Georg Gadamer when he ‘problematized’ what texts are, and what cultural texts are as expressions of the historical and linguistic experiences of people, also called their 'lived experiences'.
This ‘playing’ of this play is commendable, and it exudes the kind of education that we Filipino Americans or immigrants need to always remember even as we negotiate spaces we can negotiate, however difficult the negotiation is.
There is one problem though: The speech denied of Magno Rubio. And this problem is not to be dismissed.
For one, we have permitted him to speak English.
And now we are passing him off as Tagalog-speaking, thus, depriving him of his tongue, his language, the intimacy of knowledge that he has to remember in order to make that remembrance a lesson for the future, a lesson that could, somehow, teach him the rudiments to self-redemption.
No, I refuse to believe that Magno Rubio, in the depression years, and even today, in Hawai`i, in Stockton, in Anchorage, and in Agana, is Tagalog-speaking even if he knows how to blurt out his greetings in Tagalog.
For pain is better said, and said with more honesty, in the language of one’s soul.
And that language can only be afforded by the speech one has heard when one was young and when the world was beginning to open its magic and secrets to that person.
Anywhere we look at it, Magno Rubio is Ilokano—and the historical accounts from Bulosan to Manuel Buaken, one of the underrated by brilliant chroniclers of the Ilokano exilic experience.
In the June 1933 issue of the Philippine Magazine, Emeterio Cruz wrote of Filipino worker, even as he became part of the predatory system of capital and labor in the United States in those times: “The men toil like slaves from morning till night and are often called upon to work overtime. Some are paid by the piece—three cents for handling a cooler of 168 cans, and others are paid fifteen cents an hour. The work might not be so bad if the workers were well-housed and fed, but the opposite is usually the case, as regards the ‘Asiatic’ workers at least. They are miserably housed in the crowded quarters and the feed is of the poorest—salted fish or meat and rice, supplied by the labor contractor. Only when the contractor’s supplies run low is salmon ever eaten…”
It is from this perspective that I read the “The Romance of Magno Rubio” the play and “The Romance of Magno Rubio” the short story.
Knowing Carlos Bulosan and the difficult historical context in which he produced the literary documentation of the sufferings of Filipino exiles in America before, during, and after the depressions years, I cannot read the play and the story as a Barbara Cartland romance or a Hollywood-ish take on love or what passes for one. At the very least, here is an allegory; here is a political metaphor on that bad, bad condition Filipino laborers had to go through in order for them to keep on with the dream of America, with the dream of Clarabelle, veritably a symbol, or a clue to a symbol, in this story of deprivation and wretchedness.
I am taking ‘romance’ and its possibilities in a broader context, and using the cultural logic of capital and the oppression the results from it, this ‘romance’ becomes an instrument to mediate a social discourse on human labor and its tragedies in the face of the oppressive economic relationship between those who have the money to buy what love they can buy, or its substitutes, and those who only have their sweat and strength to sell.
Magno Rubio, thus, is not the ‘foolish’ simpleton from the provinces of the Philippines who can easily be swayed by what a ‘lonely hearts corner’ of a magazine can promise: a beautiful, blonde, tall lady who is out there to win the hearts of the lonely Filipino boys in the plantations.
I insist: that Bulosan must have known this story from a plantation worker.
For the unsaid stories of Filipinos in Hawai`i, California, Alaska, Arizona, Utah and other places Bulosan had gone to scratch out a life from the hard earth speak of tragedies like this one—a tragedy because one has believed that America is real and that the American dream is worth the pursuit.
This is the reason why Filipino laborers came to America, at least from an economic sense: that El Dorado is found here, the mountain of gold, however fastastic that is.
But this is the same reason why many of them ended up in tragedy that came from the disillusionment that, indeed, “America” as an ideal of democracy, justice, equality, and fairness, is not so much a place but is, in fact, in the heart, as his memoir or novel or critical ethnography, “America Is In the Heart,” declares.
Bulosan’s story which is appropriately and truthfully rendered into a play by Lonnie Carter, is an attempt to document his initiation into the difficult life of contract laborers—and in today’s context, overseas Filipino workers, whose labors provide the backbone of the Philippine economy.
The 'buena suerte' of the Philippines is that we have the contract laborers propping the economy, with remittances amounting to $14.4B in 2007, the amount representing 10 percent of the gross domestic product, the more reliable way by which any national economy could be measured.
Estimates from the Philippine government put the contract laborers—the OFW, or the overseas Filipino workers like Magno Rubio—at 10 percent of the population, the percentage translatable to somewhere between 9 and 9.5 million. In 2007, more than a million (one million 73 thousand) left the Philippines for work abroad.
The $14B remittances of Magno Rubios came largely from the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom, Italy, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong although Filipinos are found in 181 countries all over the world.
Philippine national census data for 2004 reveal that Filipinos in the Americas constituted the highest number, with close to 4M, with a little bit less than 3M as permanent residents in these countries.
This exportation of warm bodies as matter of tacit governmental policy because of its failure to create jobs began in 1974, officially, during the most repressive years of the Marcos dictatorship, but we know that we can trace this warm-body export policy even before that, with the 1906 importation by the Hawai`i Sugar Planters Association of plantation workers from the Ilocos, initially, and from everywhere else, eventually, including the Bisayans who came in 1908.
This phenomenon has given rise to some metaphors on the exilic condition of Filipino labor, some of these flatter the contract laborer, to wit, “Global Filipino,” “Global Pinoy,” “Global citizen,” “at home in the world,” and “new heroes,” this last one because their remittances keep the Philippine economy afloat.
On the other hand are the sad realities, the same ones we see in Magno Rubio as he say, in exasperation, “Sige lang, sige pay!” Some of the metaphors are about “left-behind households” and “re-integrees,” those who need to be equipped with the social skills to get back into Philippine society, hence, reintegration.
The play, thus, is a refracted reflection of what has happened—yet this event continues to hold in Hawai`i and elsewhere: in Alaska’s canneries, in the farms of Central California, in the orchards of Washington State, in Guam, in Arizona, and many other states.
In Hawai`i, the Magno Rubios who are dreaming of a romance fulfilled, a love coming into fruition in the Clarabelles of their dreams, are in hotels and resorts and other service industries. The hotels are the new plantations and canneries, and the Ilokanos—the Filipinos—have remained the laborers.
One hotel in downtown Waikiki, for instance, has not treated its employees well, and the laborers, 85% of them Filipinos, are the new Magno Rubios dreaming of their Clarabelles. We hear that plaintive, almost a mantra of resignation, "Sige latta! Sige latta!"
I read this play as an act of critiquing where justice is not served. This play clearly demonstrates the layers and layers of injustices in this country and elsewhere.