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I … have a cultural memory. I do not need to go looking for it, it exists… Our cultural memory follows us everywhere, wherever we are. -Jean-Michel Basquiat
In 1973, my family fled the Philippines as Ferdinand Marcos cemented his dictatorship of the country with the declaration of martial law. A quarter century later, I fled rural southern Illinois to Chicago, a half Filipina knowing nothing of the Philippines.
Until recently I took in May – Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month – without a second thought. Thirty-one days dedicated to a people marginalized, cultures clichéd and histories whitewashed – the act of naming this month is surely empowering. Yet it is a curious mix of words: Asian, American, Heritage. And the month, brought to us by way of George H.W. Bush, plays out in curious ways. Amidst the meaningful events, there are also invites such as those to “join the Asian American young professionals for a free event with an Asian American C.I.A. operative!” or to attend a local news station luncheon for the one afternoon a year they acknowledge the community’s existence, or to simply shop while Asian, at Bloomingdale’s.
These days, I wonder what we truly want when considering such terms. Asian American: the two words together a proud term, the forging of identity anew amidst xenophobia and alienation. But at heritage, the brain spins. Definition: legacy, inheritance, tradition, birthright. So much lurks beneath the surface of these terms – a legacy of battles won and lost; birthright of sorrows unspoken and colonization run deep; an inheritance as varied as the countries of Asia and our names.
My own name, Macaraeg, is the name of both colonizers and the colonized, of gentry and slaves. Its syllables keep everyone guessing. Here, there is the mouth stumbling through assimilation, the pronunciation I was born into. But on the other side of the world, and in the Asian-American meccas of Hawaii and California, there is the sing-song tongue of the Philippines, land of my father. There is a third version of my name too, one which comes from the chest, moving through the gutter of the throat, from Scotland. On this altogether different island, some linguists say my name must originate.
Yet my name is an old Filipino name, indigenous. Like most things, it dates back prior to US colonization of the Philippines, prior even to Spain, whose 333-year-long rule of the Philippines began in 1565. Although it is as difficult to find ancient, precolonial Philippine history as it is easy to come across that of Europe, the story goes roughly as follows:
By the end of the first century CE, the Philippine archipelago was a loose assortment of city-states with trade networks connecting it to China. By the third century, ancient Filipinos were in contact with all of Asia. By the ninth, the islands were a highly developed society of Hindus and Buddhists and several professional classes. A few centuries later, Islam arrived.
It is only another 200 years after that when “civilization” in the Philippines begins, heralded by the arrival of expeditions from Portugal and Spain. The most renowned of these explorers is Magellan, whose ship went on to circumnavigate the globe after his own voyage ended in the Philippines. His death there is still reported somewhat ruefully. Princeton University’s online library, for instance, considers his end “undignified,” while less respectable sources bemoan a hero’s death at the hands of savages. If it must be labeled, I would name it a dignified end for an undignified man, who sought to colonize for personal gain, burned villages and brought men to death for the cause of his own hubris. Magellan lost his life to a prince and national hero, Lapu-Lapu, sovereign ruler of the island Mactan, who outmaneuvered the conquistador, protecting his land from invading forces.
Even so, Magellan was not the first European explorer to arrive on the islands, nor was he the last. And of these harbingers of death, perhaps one boat sailed with a Scotsman, arriving just in time to make a name of his own.
Spanish rule brought with it levies, and to better collect taxes, the colonizers assigned the surnames of their home country to all Filipino families. Replacing the previous system in which parents chose a child’s first name for their own last name – a most humble and hopeful act, taking the future as one’s namesake – new names were distributed alphabetically, with the Spaniards often giving whole villages last names beginning with the same letter.
To be granted exception, family names had to have been in use for four generations and must have belonged to nobility. I come from this noble class, or I come from their slaves.
One way or another, my name survived. And originated from a Scotsman or not, it is now attributed to the Tagalog words “maka” meaning “able” and “daig” meaning “win.” My name is the name of winners.
But Filipinos were too much on the wrong side of the guns, germs, and steel equation – the three great forces of human history as described by scientist Jared Diamond – to defeat the Spaniards and won only the battle to stay alive and fight another day. Some found themselves on the Spanish Galleon trade to Mexico and some of them jumped ship in the Gulf, settling in colonial New Orleans – meaning Filipino Americans were in America before America, before America would hate and legislate against them.
Prior to the 1930s anti-Filipino race riots and miscegenation laws on our continent, however, America came to “aid” the Filipinos in the Pacific. At the turn of the 19th century, the Philippines founded the first democracy in Asia, then banded with the United States to decisively defeat the Spanish in 1898.
But, from nobility to the servants of nobility, citizens of the Philippine Republic were immediately warred upon, tortured and subjugated by their recent allies. The islands became the site of America’s first coup and occupation, its first experiments in water torture and counterinsurgency, first among names such as Vietnam and Iraq. One million Filipinos perished.
According to historian Luis Francia, it all began with the words, “Line up, fellas. The niggers are in here all through these yards,” spoken by American soldier Willy Grayson just before pulling the trigger on the war’s first massacre. In A History of the Philippines, Francia relates that Vice President Teddy Roosevelt likened Filipinos to Apaches and Comanches, inaugural recipients of America’s genocidal tendencies. But more often, US soldiers referred to Filipinos as “niggers,” “savages” and “Gugus.” Definition: a variation of the Tagalog word “gago” meaning stupid, modified to “gook” in subsequent Asian wars. On domestic soil meanwhile, the organizers of the St. Louis World’s Fair coerced 1,100 Filipinos into cages and forced them to eat dog for live audiences, daily. They were guarded by light-skinned Filipino paramilitaries loyal to America. The exhibit was the most popular of the fair. St. Louis was the city in which my parents would meet, half a century later.
Penned by Rudyard Kipling, “half-devil, half-child” was another of the era’s description of Filipinos, one perhaps more fitting of the young American soldiers occupying the islands. A few remarkable exceptions however, were the rebel defectors of the American army. Primarily black soldiers, many defectors not only deserted the Americans but joined the ranks of the Philippine resistance. Central among them was 24-year-old lieutenant David Fagen, who dogged the US military so thoroughly the government put a bounty on his head.
But by and large, American soldiers perfected various forms of war crime and torture in the Philippines, chief among them the “water cure,” a method of interrogation repeated so frequently it sunk deep into Philippine culture. Political prisoners under the Marcos era of martial law would be tortured similarly seven decades later at the hands of Filipinos.
Physical violence, however, was not the only means of pacifying a people whose vast reserves of bravery began to make up for the colossal degree to which they were outgunned. Facing guerilla war with the entire country, the Americans founded a sophisticated network of schools and imported a second colonial army of over 1,000 teacher evangelists to staff it. The Thomasites, as they were called for having sailed to Manila by way of the USS Thomas, spread out across the land, teaching only in English and teaching in depth on America, training their young charges in functions that would serve and expand colonial control.
Gone was Tagalog, gone was Philippine cultural and political history, gone were the indigenous heroes, heroines and revolutionaries. Philippine children began to speak in English, ruptured in language from their parents and ancestors. They began to worship George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, dreaming of America’s promise of equality, and snow. They were trained to be productive workers of the colony. It was the original, maniacal education reform movement, producing within years a captive colonial population.
A generation later, my father was born. In his time, the Philippines paid the price of US control even further. A fact rarely discussed amidst the plethora of films and books honoring The Good War is that the Philippines too were occupied, broken and bombed, targeted for devastation as a US colony during World War II. When my father was a boy, the Japanese invaded. Their starting point was his hometown, Lingayen, the provincial capital of Pangasinan. Their methods were those of all occupations: war crimes. The response was that of all people across all time: resistance. Before the Japanese surrendered three years later, 1 million Filipinos died.
Among the Macaraegs, resistance in this era took many forms. Every night of the three-year occupation, my father’s young female cousin Socorro rolled herself up in a floor mat, which was then stood against a wall. She slept this way every night, and every night avoided rape. She never married.
Meanwhile, my sweet Lolo, my father’s father – an elementary school teacher turned market peddler when the schools closed during the occupation – became a freedom fighter, part-time. Years later he told my mother stories of how his market cart carried not only vegetables, but also guerillas in the covered slats below. He would transport them about, secretly, directly in front of the Japanese, and on weekends join the guerrillas on raids himself. When I asked my mother why my Lolo fought only on weekends, she said it was because he had a family, that it was what my Lola determined. Partners to the end, my Lola died the year I was born, and my Lolo died only a few months later.
My father’s own response to the Philippine condition was of a more dangerous order: internalization. Definition: to accept or absorb an idea, opinion, belief so that it becomes part of your character. He attempted to resist everything true of the Philippines and Filipinos and of America, and accept everything that was not. He paid a stark price.
As a child, my father was identified as a boy genius, and the entire family then oriented around sending him to the United States. When asking about my family medical history, high blood pressure and diabetes, I learned that my Lolo and Lola ate only rice and dried, salted fish every day for years in order to pay for his schooling and every need. He rose to the challenge, studying hard and winning entry to an elite college founded by the Spaniards and used as an internment camp by the Japanese.
After graduating and serving as a doctor at the US’s Clark Air Force base, my father then left the Philippines in the early 60s. He met my mother, a sweet 19-year-old white girl, and married. Raised in an integrated neighborhood by and around good people, my mother says the first time she heard the N-word, it was used by my father. The next few times it was used against my father by small groups of white men, as they were refused service in public places, traveling through the South, afraid, angry and en route back to the Philippines. They lived there for a few years and had children, surrounded again by my Lolo and Lola, extended family, cousins and abundant friends. These were the people who adored my father but also kept him in check, people who could parent us beyond our mom, who would become an overworked single parent of five in the next decade. But back in the Philippines, when the US supported-Marcos dictatorship flexed its power, we left. Armed soldiers patrolled the streets of small children. The family feared imminent danger, not realizing we would never be as safe as we were there again. Ties were severed. Hearts broke. My father saw his mother alive once again and his father alive only twice, the last time at her funeral.
Afterward, he sent money regularly to his sister but did not seem to look back. He never spoke of my grandparents and he never spoke of home. A distant cousin based in St. Louis connected to a network of Filipino Americans reached out upon my father’s return to the States. In turn, my father refused to spend any time with him. Instead, he focused on wholesale assimilation, with mixed results, somehow moving the rest of his life through rural southern Illinois a dark-skinned Filipino without taking any shit and without complaint. He became a man about town, in fact, joining the Elks Lodge and sponsoring floats in small-town parades.
But he was always unhappy and did not say much. On the rare occasion, he was sweet at home, as he always was in public, when not exacting a harmless revenge on any Southern Illinois racist for throwing him shade. Like the time we stole all the milk crates from the back of the grocery store after they refused to treat him like a man. Or the way he was always dressed and groomed better than anyone for miles and miles and would waltz through rooms like he owned them – a sort of preemptive revenge.
Among the circles that let him pass, he was a popular man’s man. He had hunting and drinking buddies. He cheated on my mother repeatedly. His patients loved him. He loved his prescription drugs. He raised money for a child who needed surgery on his legs. His children were frightened of him. He once beat my brother, who then walked two towns and two hours to our mom’s house afterwards. My brother was 12. Years later, he said my father once told him the people of the Philippines were backwards, “like savages.”
As the youngest of five, I grew up accustomed to the lore surrounding my father, and somehow that made it easier rather than more difficult to be the family’s liaison to him after the divorce. I see now it is not smart to get used to a man like that. My siblings seemed to know this all along. By the time he committed suicide, I was the last one speaking to him.
A proud American, he died an American death – a doctor without health care. Never in my life, at least in conversation with me, did he mention the Philippines. But months before he held the gun to his head, my father gave me a gift, which he did not do often. It was a small print of “Tahitian Landscape,” painted by Paul Gauguin, forefather of a movement dubbed primitivism.
Sky, mountain, flowers. Pink road. Palm trees and tall grass. I see paradise, run through with red. My father said it reminded him of home.
My name is his name, but I am also the child of my mother, the naive, knobby-kneed daughter of a nurse and an alcoholic, primed to marry a man unable to love her. She is working around the clock to this day.
Filipina, white, mixed. Mixed as they and their people are mixed. Mixed as the world, and all of history.
First democracy in Asia. First victim of American terror. Nobility and the slaves of nobility. Children of the Global South under the grip of Northern empires. Children of the North, servants of the relentless noble class.
We are born where we are born. We are born to whom we are born. We are here after all of these centuries. Our heritage is called forth while our heritage is still alive and unfolding.
Philippines, Afghanistan, Palestine. The South and West sides of Chicago. The entire country a list without end. Everywhere paradise, run through with red.
My birthright a tribe that has nothing but diaspora and this moment, willing to take our names and wield them unto our country.
My name is kilt and bolo knife, peasant revolutionary Gabriela Silang and upper-class upstart José Rizal. It is the ilustrado who left his country, saltwater crossed, death far from home. It is the name of my Lolo Federico, who stayed and fought and taught his grandchildren to sing in sing-song Tagalog Ako’y guerilla now. I am Carlos Bulosan-American and white American, southern Illinois corn and apple pie, working single-mom bills unpaid, and the two sides of racism.
I am a product and survivor of the cleaving and the recombination. I am what remains after centuries.
I have lost my place in all this at times.
But my name tells me never to choose and never to forget. My blood born from the first colony, I will be part of conjuring the end of the last.
There is no east and there is no west. Just humanity, spinning.
Our inheritance is nothing but this world. We must reclaim the future, our namesake and believe only that we are able to win.