Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Remember the Poet-Warrior, Al Robles

, Al Robles was the wise old man, the gentle warrior, the philosopher-poet who spoke proudly of his Filipino heritage, who also celebrated the cultures and struggles of other communities, the Asians, the Latinos, the African Americans.

He was the Manong who was brother to those who endured and battled against social and racial injustice.

On Saturday, the Bay Area will come to pay tribute to his life and legacy in an afternoon of poetry, music, and dance at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco.

Al Robles died in May at age 79.

I never really got to know him, even though I’ve lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years. I’ve seen him at some community events, and heard him read his poetry. Through his poetry and activism, Al Robles became a Filipino American icon.

As veteran community activist Emil De Guzman recalls, “Al Robles now takes his place immortalized like Carlos Bulosan, N.V. M. Gonzales, Manuel Buakin as the literary champions of our people.”

In fact, Al Robles strived to become a champion of many communities. In his poetry, he explored other worlds, other struggles in a society where the struggles of many communities of color have often been forgotten and ignored.

Al Robles wanted those stories told, and sought to bring other poets from these communities to speak out.

“We have become brothers and sisters,” he wrote in a 1989 article in Amerasia Journal. “We gathered with Chicanos, Blacks, Japanese, Native American Indians, addressing certain political issues that affect the lives not only of our people but all Third World folks.

“While living and working in our little, tiny communities, in the midst of towering highrises, we fought the oppressor, the landlord, the developer, the banks, City Hall. But most of all, we celebrated through our culture; music, dance, song and poetry—not only the best we knew, but the best we had.”

Poetry was a central part of Al’s life, and in his twenties, according to Emil De Guzman, he was a regular in San Francisco’s famous North Beach neighborhood, with the Beat poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. Al was also a painter and a carpenter who made Japanese tea houses.

But his art and poetry also were inextricably linked to his activism. After all, he grew up in California at a time when it was tough to be a Filipino, to be Asian, a person of color. He was about 11 years old when the US government began rounding up Japanese Americans and taking them to internment camps, in one of the saddest chapters in American history. It is said that Al’s younger brother, Remy, was picked up by the military thinking he was Japanese. Al had to fight to pull his brother from the truck headed for the internment camps.

Al Robles eventually identified with the struggles of the Japanese American and other Asian American communities. In the late 1970s, one of the most important battles took place in downtown San Francisco where a group of elderly Filipino and Chinese old-timers fought for the right to preserve their home, the International Hotel, also known as the I-Hotel.

The residents eventually were evicted, but the confrontation helped focus attention to the problem of homelessness and poverty in San Francisco. It also helped galvanize the Filipino American community, giving rise to a new generation of activists and advocates, many of whom joined the fight against the Marcos dictatorship.

More than 25 years later, a new International Hotel was built with affordable housing for the elderly and a community center with an exhibit commemorating the historic battle.

“No history of the International Hotel struggle can be written without including our revered leader Al Robles,” Emil De Guzman said. “Volumes could be written about his community service and his dedication to the struggle for our Manongs and Manangs. … He cared for the hundreds and hundreds on Kearny Street in his forty and more years. … We celebrate this victory today and we have Al to thank as one of the leaders of this long arduous struggle.”

In his Amerasia piece, Al Robles spoke of coming close “through a sense of respect and openness,” of telling and listening to the stories of different communities, who find themselves becoming “one tribal family.”

“If the children of the rainbow can speak to us of the woods in winter, of the rains and snows, of the sadness of autumn, of the chilly winds in Harlem, of the smell of plum sauce dripping from the old in Chinatown, of the old Pilipino men whose bodies smell like a hundred water buffaloes soaked in the Kearny Street mud, then we should a lend an ear and listen to them.”

The Al Robles Tribute will be held on July 25, 1 to 5 p.m. at Glide Memorial Church, Ellis and Taylor Streets, San Francisco.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Filipino Reflection on Apollo 11

This month marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. There has understandably been much media attention to what that historic event, when humankind finally reached the moon, has meant for the world.

I myself was five years old in 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made their first steps on the moon. I remember watching, with much excitement, the blurry black and white TV footage of the landing.

Many years ago, a writer also skillfully and boldly pondered the significance of the Apollo mission—to the Filipino experience.

Gregorio Brillantes’s “The Apollo Centennial” is undoubtedly one of the best Filipino short stories in English ever written. Academic Timothy Montes called the story “the first successful science fiction story written by a Filipino.” I may be accused of bias, of course, since Greg is an old friend and my former editor.

“The Apollo Centennial” is not the typical science fiction tale. As Montes pointed out in a 2000 lecture, Brillantes does not tell a story about high-tech gadgets or the anticipated Space Age future.

Instead, the story is a critique of Philippine society during the regime of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos—and a meditation on the economic and technological chasm between the First World and the Third.

The story is set in the year 2069. The world is commemorating the 100th anniversary of Apollo mission, and the celebration extends to a troubled rural community in the Philippines. There, Arcadio Nagbuya, a poor farmer, is taking his children to see an exhibit of the Apollo centennial. It’s not an easy journey, for they have to wait for a makeshift raft to cross a river, and then take a bus that must pass through military checkpoints where soldiers are on the lookout for rebel guerrillas. The security forces even have fighter bomber “helidiscs” patrolling the skies in the hunt for rebels.

At the exhibit, Cadio and his sons marvel at the photos of the historic event and the taped voice of Neil Amstrong repeating his famous quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” As Montes writes, “The juxtaposition of the poor farmer and the technological feats of the past creates a Twilight Zone effect because the man is twice removed from reality.”

The Twilight Zone-like society Brillantes paints probes a major fear of many Filipinos in the 1970s and 1980s: That the dictator would be with us for a very long time. For instance, in Brillantes’s Philippines of 2069, people speak Tagilocan. Society is so repressive that the other regional languages are on their way to being made extinct.

On the trip back from the exhibit, Cadio and his sons briefly run into his cousin, Andres, who is part of the rebellion.

Brillantes writes: “His cousin clicks off the flashlight and speaks to him, not in Tagilocan, but in the old language…and the tender fluid accents of their fathers’ tongue, unheard for so long yet never quite lost nor forgotten, bring a swift rush of pride and love that pushes back the enclosing dread.”

It’s a simple, yet moving, scene, one that I have enjoyed rereading through the years.

The grimmest aspects of Greg’s bleak vision of our future did not materialize, of course. The dictatorship is gone, after all. Still, one can’t deny the prescience of Greg’s story.

Forty years after the moon landing, many of the ills Philippine society was struggling with in 1969 are still here—the poverty, the brutality, the mind-boggling underdevelopment. Despite the technology revolution, underscored by the cell phone culture that has radically changed our society, deep chasms remain, and many would argue that they are growing wider, more oppressive.

Sixty years from now, when the world commemorates the centennial of humanity’s first lunar visit, what kind of society will we find? Will there still be the glaring disparities in affluence and power?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Susan Fernandez, Our Nightingale

SHE was the nightingale of the protest movement, a folk singer with the inspiring voice, powerful, yet soothingly gentle, a committed artist-activist who dedicated her life to helping the many who are weak and powerless in our country.

My friend, Susan Fernandez, died this week at 52. Many of my generation and others will miss her, her beautiful voice, her gentle soul.

During rallies or at political events at the University of the Philippines or other venues in the 1980s, I was always happy to know that she would be one of the cultural performers. And recently, she was the one I also thought to ask to perform to help my book events less boring. She was a gifted and courageous activist who embraced the struggles of her generation, whether it’s for the rights of women, or against tyranny and dictatorship.

On a personal level, she was a generous friend, who felt happiest when her music touched other people’s lives. Three years ago, she readily said yes to an invitation from Joy Jopson Kintanar to perform at the launch of “UG An Undergound Tale,” my book about the late activist Edgar Jopson, known as Edjop.

I was not able to attend the launch, though my sister Nymia emceed the event. And Susan later recalled what happened in an e-mail.

She first sang “Kundiman ni Abdon,” the classic kundiman that inspired “Kay Taas ng Pader,” a popular song among political detainees during the Marcos years.

“I took a bow right after this first song when Nymia signaled to me to do another one,” Susan later told me. On the spot, she said, she thought of “Madaling Araw,” one of her favorite kundiman songs by Francisco Santiago.

It turned out to be a fortuitous choice.

“You know what,” she continued in her e-mail, “during the cocktails, Edjop’s sister approached me. This song pala was their favorite nung bata sila (when they were younger)! She felt so nostalgic and all the more missing her brother. Kaya lalo akong natuwa sa coincidence ng napili kong awitin (So I was glad that I chose to sing it).”

“Haay, it's really wonderful to touch lives this way,” Susan said.

To be sure, Susan touched many lives. She impressed many of the leading activist-intellectuals of her time, including the late Lean Alejandro.

“Did you ever have one of those opportunities where you meet someone who is not only good in the arts, but incredibly smart?” academic and former student leader Jojo Abinales said. “That's Susan.”

“Everyone was, of course, enthralled by her voice. Lean used to be mesmerized by her jazz songs and confessed to me that he would never sing in front of Susan. Of course, noong nalasing na hala kanta na ng kanta ng (when they got drunk they sang and sang) Paul Williams, to Susan's amusement.”

Abinales quickly added, “But I was amazed at her intelligence.”

For while Susan was best known as a performer, she also made her own contributions to the academic world. While working for her master’s degree at UP, she decided to take on what was then an unusual, and tough, thesis subject: Child prostitution in Manila.

“I was surprised about this when she told me because no one expected her to do such a thing—being one of the few ‘pretty bourgeoisies’ (Lean's term) of the activist generation of my time,” Jojo recalled.

“So Susan would spend long nights hanging out with the kids in Ermita and getting their stories. She would visit us at Diliman at the end of the week and I would listen to her stories about her encounters. … Then she sat down and wrote this incredible MA thesis which I think is one of the earliest works on child prostitution during the Marcos period.”

“She would have become a fine academic. UP or Ateneo would have benefited immensely from her ideas,” Jojo added.

Susan eventually did turn to teaching, but music always was at the center of her life.

And there was music when she passed on.

She was surrounded by friends and family right before she died Thursday afternoon. Musician and her friend, Lester Demetillo, was playing her favorite song, “Both Sides Now,” when she passed away.

FilAm Honored as 'Hero' for Veterans Work

“Kaylangan lang poh ng kohntee pahng tiyago.”(We just need a bit more patience.)

That line, uttered by the character Attorney Anna (played superbly by veteran actress Missy Maramara), always got the audience breaking into hearty laughter and applause in Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.”

The play, adapted for the stage by Rody Vera and directed by Chris Millado, was based on my novel. And I must reveal now, however, that the real Attorney Anna, the Filipino American lawyer who was devoted to helping Filipino World War II veterans in San Francisco, but who was prone to mangling Tagalog, can actually speak the language fluently.

The broken Tagalog and funny accent—I made that all up. (I decided while writing the novel to honor the United States-born Pinoys who have also taken up the cause of the beteranos and of the Filipino community in general by turning Attorney Anna into a FilAm.)

In real life, Attorney Anna is Attorney Lou, as in Lourdes Santos Tancinco, who has spent nearly two decades now helping and advocating for the beteranos, many of whom hang out outside her office near the Cable Car Stop on Powell Street in downtown San Francisco.

For her service and commitment to these men and their families, Attorney Lou was recently named an “Outstanding Local Bay Area Hero” by KQED Public Television. It’s a prestigious award given to individuals who made a difference in communities in Northern California.

And Attorney Lou certainly has made a big difference.

She served as the chair and founding member of the San Francisco Veterans Equity Center which led the advocacy campaign for the beteranos in the city. She offered pro bono legal services and held free legal clinics for the beteranos and other immigrants. She also has her own TV show, “Pusong Pinoy sa Amerika,” which focuses on immigrant issues in the Filipino community in the United States.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to know that Attorney Lou was honored this year as a result of the passing of the federal bill granting benefits to the beteranos. As a result of the law, the beteranos who have long been denied the benefits granted to regular US military veterans can receive up to $15,000 in a lump sum compensation package.

Many US and Philippine lawmakers, and some community leaders, hailed the passing of the law as a major victory for Filipino World War II veterans.

But Attorney Lou doesn’t see it that way.

Yes, the beteranos and their families could surely use the money, especially in these difficult times, she said. But it simply isn’t enough. The beteranos deserve a lifetime pension and other benefits, like those received by those who served with the US military. Fifteen thousand dollars is a substantial amount, it’s true. But that’s not going to last. These old men deserve more, she said.

Otherwise, all the waiting and fighting they did over the past 60 years would have been in vain, she told me.

We had a chat in her office near the Cable Car Stop on Powell Street, near the spot where many of the old beteranos still hang out. In her office hang photographs of some of the veterans she aided, and who eventually became her friends.

Magdaleno Duenas, a hero in the Allied campaign in the Philippines, came to America hoping for a better life, but ended up being one of the veterans who fell victim to a fraud scheme that Attorney Lou helped expose.

Then there’s Ciriaco Punla, in his fake fur coat and cowboy hat, who became one of Attorney Lou’s cheerleaders in the fight for the Equity Bill and who was a beloved figure at the Powell Street hangout of the old guys. (He was my inspiration for the Ciriaco in the novel.)

Both men have passed away. But Attorney Lou continues to honor them by having their images displayed prominently in her office.

When she received her award from KQED, Attorney Lou said she had planned to simply say “Thanks,” and keep her remarks short. But many people at the event were congratulating her for the “victory.” So she decided to set the record straight and elaborate on how she really felt: That it was not a victory and the fight is not over. That these men deserve more for everything that they have done.

Attorney Lou plans to keep repeating that message in the years to come.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Pinay First Lady of East Timor

She was called Jackie S. in the Inquirer report, which made me chuckle for the name clearly refers to Jackie O., as in Jacqueline Onassis, who, as Jackie Kennedy was one of the most glamorous First Ladies in United States history.

Of course, in the eyes of most politicians and other members of the Philippine elite, there was nothing glamorous about what Jacqueline Siapno did. What on earth was Siapno, the first lady of neighboring East Timor, thinking taking a public bus and then a tricycle from Manila to Pangasinan?

The Inquirer was right to contrast Siapno with the rich and powerful in the Philippines for whom political power means extensive protocol and traveling with an army of servants and assistants. But the attention Jackie Siapno attracted for her low-key homecoming should also extend to her own standing as one of the most accomplished Filipina intellectuals in the world, and an expert on a part of the world that Filipinos and the Philippines should really be paying more attention to.

I got to know her in the early 1990s when we were students at University of California Berkeley, where she eventually got a PhD in Political Science and we both got involved in a conference on the Philippines. She had moved to the US as a teenager and eventually pursued a career in academe, earning degrees from prestigious Wellesley College and the University of London before going to Berkeley. She speaks, writes, or reads eight languages: Pangasinan, Tagalog, English, Indonesian, Portuguese, and Acehnese.

And she has written a book on Aceh, “Gender, Islam, Nationalism, and the State in Aceh: The Paradox of Power, Co-optation and Resistance.”

These credentials may make Jackie sound like a highly-intelligent but boring egghead. But Jackie Siapno is anything but boring. The attention she attracted with the unusual bus rise to Pangasinan proves that. And one thing I’ll always remember from our days in Berkeley was her passion whenever she tackled a subject she felt strongly about, whether it’s the plight of the Timorese people, Indonesian culture, Philippine politics, or women’s issues.

During the Berkeley conference, she told the Malay folk tale of Putri Babi, the Pig Princess, who married a rajah who fell madly in love with her despite her being different. But the rajah wanted to change Putri Babi so he burned her skin and called a healer to turn her into his ideal wife. “In burning her skin,” Jackie relates, “she is transformed into a princess, identified with the aristocratic ruling class and hence no longer able to represent the Bangsa which she was supposedly to continue. In becoming identified with the aristocratic class, the representation of their own Bangsa is foreclosed.”

She continued, “The rajah saw an imperfection in her body, a sign that marks her difference and he wants to burn it to make her body more normal and to make it conform. The treatment of Putri Babi is symbolic control, symbolic of male control of a female body which he does not understand, so he kills her.”

I remembered her telling this story when I heard about the stir Jackie caused in taking a bus from the airport to Pangasinan. She’s had an unusual journey—from young Pinay from Pangasinan to US immigrant to academic to activist to Indonesia expert to first lady of East Timor. But while we haven’t talked in years, I have a strong feeling that her own transformations did not involve any skin burning. I suspect Jackie took on, absorbed, and incorporated the knowledge and cultures of the places where she has traveled and lived, and eventually built on all these without having to shed her past as a Filipino woman from Pangasinan.

Before telling the story of Pig Princess, she explained that “Bangsa” in Malay could mean race, sex, class, or group, but is now commonly means as nation. Jackie pointed out how the story was originally told in a language similar to Maranao. “Any of you who speak Maranao or Tausug, Indonesian or Malay will probably understand it,” she told the audience.

I can’t help but think of how much someone with her background and passion can contribute at a time when the Philippines is still wrestling with unrest in the southern part of the archipelago involving Muslims who have suffered for generations under Christian rule from Manila.

We last communicated via email a few years ago and by then we were both parents. Jackie spoke fondly for her son Hadomi. Hadomi, Jackie explained to me, means “love” in the East Timorese language of Tetum.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Old Man With the Helmet

Friends at Tanghalang Pilipino in Manila remember the old man with the helmet. Wenceslao Rodriguez Sr. wore his military headgear during the gala of a play about men like him, soldiers who fought bravely for his homeland, but whose sacrifices have largely been forgotten.

Mang Wenceslao kept his helmet on for more than two hours during the premiere of “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street.” I had missed the gala last November. But the Tanghalang Pilipino folks described it as a moving and meaningful event, and a big reason for its success was the old man with the helmet.

He was from a poor community in the University of the Philippines area, and graciously accepted Tanghalan’s invitation to attend the first performance of the play based on my novel about World War II veterans (and beautifully adapted for the stage by Rody Vera and directed by Chris Millado).

The Tanghalan folks, led by creative director Nanding Josef, later became close to Mang Wenceslao. When the equity package was recently passed by the United States government, they thought he would at last get some financial assistance for his sacrifices. Unfortunately, he ran into a problem—there was another person with the same name and that had to be sorted out.

My friend Nanding said it’s not clear if Mang Wenceslao ever received the benefit which recognizes the courage and service of thousands of Filipino veterans. One day, he and other Tanghalan staffers got a text message from Mang Wenceslao’s family. He had passed away late last month. They were inviting his new theater friends to the 40th day commemoration of his death.

Before he died, his family told the Tanghalan folks, Mang Wenceslao often talked about “the tribute given to him at the CCP”—“iyong parangal na binigay sa kanya sa CCP.”

* * *

“Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street,” which starred veteran performers such as Bembol Roco, Tommy Abuel, Joe Gruta, Dido Dela Paz, and Lou Veloso, focuses on the plight for veterans who moved to San Francisco after they were granted citizenship by the US government. But the production itself exposed me and others from Tanghalan to the broader world of the beteranos.

For while thousands of Filipino veterans took the opportunity to move to America hoping to provide a better life for their families, many more remained in the Philippines.

Some of them belonged to the Defenders of Corregidor and Bataan, whose members survived the bloody battles at those historic places. Some of the group’s leaders and members came to watch the play last year. Some of their leaders enjoyed the show so much that they invited me and other members of the Tanghalan staff to their regular luncheon. When we met they also mentioned the plight of other veterans like Mang Wenceslao, who was struggling against poverty and whose contributions have been ignored.

The Corregidor and Bataan veterans later helped bring “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street” to the Armed Forces of the Philippines Theater last month, as a way to honor the beteranos, both those who now endure loneliness and isolation in cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles—and also the seniors still living in the Philippines, battling illness, poverty, and in many cases neglect.

Unfortunately, I also missed that performance. But I was happy to hear that, like the run at the CCP, the show was also well received. “Crowd loved it,” my friend Maricor Baytion, director of the Ateneo Press, which published the novel, said in a text message shortly after the performance ended.

“This is a funny yet tragic, sentimental, yet soul-stirring story all rolled into a two-hour musical play that portrays the vicissitudes of the aging, sickly, dying— and dead—Filipino veterans of World War II during their final years in their Powell Street hangout in San Francisco,” former President Fidel Ramos wrote in an op-ed piece for the Manila Bulletin.

If only Mang Wenceslao had been there too for another tribute to men like him. It would have been another proud moment for the old soldier, the warrior who fought bravely for his country.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Filipino Veteran’s Lonely Struggle

THE benefits package approved by the United States Congress for the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans is an important victory. For many of the old men who’ve endured years of isolation in America in order to support their loved ones in the Philippines, the money would surely be a big boost in difficult times.

But there are those who see the approved bill as a sad, tragic compromise.

One of them is photographer Rick Rocamora who has spent nearly 20 years documenting the lives and struggles of the beteranos.

“As a photographer who has captured moments in the lives of the veterans during their early days in America, the funeral services of their passing and life in between, I also look forward to the day that our heroes will be given the full recognition as equal to US veterans,” he told me in an e-mail.

“While the monetary compensation will find its way to help the surviving beteranos and their relatives, being recognized as equals is more important,” he added. “For those who died waiting, I have been waiting for them. But we must not forget that it took many years for the US Congress to recognized and correct the injustice. We must credit the collective efforts of the Filipino community in America and their supporters to finally gain justice for our heroes.”

To the elderly Pinoys often seen hanging out on Powell Street near the Cable Car stop in downtown San Francisco, Rick “Totoy” Rocamora has been a friend and ally who helped preserve the memory of their gallant, but sad mission in America.

They’ve known him as the soft-spoken heavyset man with a mop top hairdo, who seemed always to have a fancy-looking camera around his neck. Totoy told in moving, vivid pictures the journey of the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans who arrived in the United States in the 1990s.

His work has been published in many magazines and newspaper articles, and put on exhibit throughout the world. Now, Rocamora's impressive body of work has been collected in a newly-published book of photographs, “America's Second-Class Veterans.”

Rocamora's photographs helped spread the word on what has become a sad chapter in the history of US-Philippine relations. The Filipino veterans began arriving in the United States in the early 1990s after they were finally granted citizenship for fighting alongside American troops in the war against the Japanese forces in World War II. But many of the elderly men found themselves in a bind. While they fought bravely under US command during the war, they did not receive the same rights and benefits enjoyed by other American military veterans.

The beteranos came to America hoping to send money back to their families in the Philippines or to enable their loved ones to immigrate to the United States. But most of them were old and ailing. Some became vulnerable to abuse, falling victim to swindlers. Many of them lived in cramped and damp rooms in San Francisco's Tenderloin District.

Rocamora began documenting their struggles almost as soon as the first veterans began to arrive. His work helped mobilize the Filipino American community in advocating for the elderly Pinoys. A few times, when one of his beterano friends became ill, Totoy brought him sinigang and kept him company.

Totoy's photographs also helped inspire me to write my novel Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street (Guerrillas on Powell Street) which was adapted for the stage by the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Pilipino. His pictures also inspired prominent figures to support the fight for equity rights. One of them is Congressman Bob Filner, who has been the leading proponent for equity rights in Washington DC, and who wrote an introduction to the book.

“The photographs in Rocamora's book and the words of the veterans next to the photos will not only bring tears to your eyes but also a firm resolve in your heart," Filner writes. “Congress has officially granted the recognition as Veterans of World War II to these brave men, both living and dead.”

Totoy, Filner added, “has created a book with a powerful message, a book that should be in the homes and offices of every American.”

Totoy’s powerful images should be given even more prominence, as a reminder of the lonely struggle of the beteranos. As Totoy himself said, “Personally, I would like that my archive about the veterans will be housed appropriately in an institution where young Filipinos and Americans can look back on how much our heroes suffered waiting for full recognition.”

Copyright 2009 by Benjamin Pimentel

The Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Pilipino’s production of “Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street” will be staged at the AFP Theater on March 29 and 30. For more information, contact 832-3661 or 832-1125 loc. 1620 or 1621.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cool to be Brown

Another reflection on Barack Obama by Luis Francia of New York who also mentions "Pareng Barack," and correctly points out that I missed an opportunity to discuss the role of African Americans in the Philippine-American War. Luis co-authoried the book Vestiges of War, about the bloody, but little-known, conflict that shaped Philippine-American relations over the past century.

The artist abroad
Cool to be Brown
By Luis H. Francia
First Posted 09:37:00 01/27/2009

Filed Under: Elections, history, Politics

New York—“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.”

That quote is from the late Louis L’Amour (a writer known for his novels about the American West) and is inscribed on the leather-bound journal that the new first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, gifted her outgoing predecessor, Laura Bush.

It’s an astute observation on the end of an eight-year stint, likely to have grown more and more uncomfortable towards its conclusion at the White House, and the start of a more unfettered life for Mrs. Bush, no longer bound by the protocol demanded by her being married to a head of state.

As for Mr. Bush himself, I’m not sure what he would make of that inscription (surely he would have read it by now) and what sort of beginning he envisions for the future. Upon being welcomed by well-wishers on his return to Texas, Bush said he and his family were glad to be back, and that he promised to stay.

Please do, Mr. Ex-president. Enjoy your ranch, and no longer cast your shadow on the rest of us. And I extend the same sentiment to the ex-vice-president, a man so passionate about public service he believed he had to do it in secret. Now he can team up with Sarah Palin and do some huntin’ and shootin’—as long as they clear out all humans within a fifty-mile radius.

On a larger scale, we can exhale, and even for a short while (god knows we deserve it) bask in contemplation of the rich array of possible beginnings, of renewal after wandering in the wilderness of fear, of hope after surviving the many assaults on democratic ideals. And bask a weary nation and a receptive world did on January 20, when close to two million people thronged Washington to celebrate the first black president in U.S. history and just as importantly its first multicultural chief executive.

Barack Hussein Obama is a man who grew up in Hawai’i and Indonesia, had a Kenyan father, a white, politically progressive mother whose roots can be traced to abolitionists and even the Revolution of 1776, and a half sister, Maya Soetero Ng, (half Indonesian and half American) married to a Chinese-Canadian. His wife, Michelle is descended from slaves, and has a cousin who’s a rabbi.

An improbable family in an improbable place: a scenario most of us couldn’t picture even as recently as a year ago, but one that reflects the growing diversity of this country, where twenty-five percent of white families and about fifty percent of black families have multiracial roots. They are all on the way to being Filipino!

Even more fitting is the fact that the swearing in took place, as it traditionally does, on the steps of the Capitol Building, built largely through the sweat of African slaves, a building that faces a mall where a slave market once stood. No one failed to note the irony and heady symbolism more than the new president, who noted of himself in his inaugural address, that he was “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant” and who “can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

The 44th president also unequivocally repudiated the Orwellian mentality of the 43rd by declaring, “As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.” (Two of his first acts as chief executive have been to order a stop to torture and to shut down GuantĂĄnamo in a year’s time.) He also extended conciliatory, and welcome, words to the bĂȘte noire of rabid Christians: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

The Obama presidency can be seen as the culmination of several factors, from Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to the Civil Rights movement, from the Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools to Lyndon B. Johnson’s civil-rights legislation. But perhaps it owes much more to the countless individuals all across the spectrum of ethnicity who stood up to racism and injustice in their own lives (at times dying for their beliefs), some of whom we know, like Rosa Parks and Carlos Bulosan and Muhammad Ali, but most of whose names we will never learn but are surely inscribed in the hearts of their descendants.

What does the presidency of a black man mean to Filipino-Americans, themselves the beneficiaries of the black struggle? An incisive reflection on precisely this topic was published late last year: Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama’s America. Its author is Benjamin Pimentel, a Filipino journalist (and friend) living in San Francisco and on the staff of The San Francisco Chronicle for many years.

In 2007, he wrote his first novel, Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street (The Guerrillas of Powell Street), dramatizing the plight of Filipino World War II veterans fighting for long-overdue benefits from the US government, adapted last year for the stage. Pimentel also authored UG: An Underground Tale, about the life of the slain anti-Marcos activist Edgar Jopson.

His latest book is an attempt to examine not so much the role the new president might play in relation to the expatriate Filipino community in the States, but the larger issue of how Filipinos deal with race — and the racism that often poisons their approaches to it— as evident in the presidential campaign. He cites examples we are all sadly familiar with, best summarized by the immigrant Filipino father who fervently tells his activist daughter, “You’re not going to marry a black person. Don’t ask me why. Just don’t. They’re up to no good.” But he also cites many instances of Filipinos and Filipino Americans who, in their activism, keep the dream alive of a just and racially integrated society.

Why are so many immigrants anti-black, who, as Pimentel notes, “embrace the views of the dominant white society—including the prejudiced, distorted image of blacks”? He quotes Toni Morrison: “In race talk the move into mainstream America always means buying into the notion of American blacks as the real aliens. Whatever ethnicity or nationality of the immigrant, his nemesis is understood to be African American… A hostile posture toward resident blacks must be struck at the Americanizing door before it will open.”

He moves on to the fractured and ambivalent colonial relationship between Filipinos and the United States, encapsulated in that famous passage from Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (still unequalled in its powerful depiction of racism against immigrant Pinoys): “I came to know that in many ways, it was a crime to be a Filipino in California—I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And this crime is that I am a Filipino in America.”

He casts an appraising look at how the brutal 1899 Philippine-American War has been glossed over and even held up as a successful paradigm for the immoral war on Iraq. Such willful disinformation isn’t new and reflects the disregard the U.S. has towards its imperialist past, thus blinding itself to its imperialist present. Surprisingly, Pimentel doesn’t discuss the presence of black soldiers in the war and how their presence sparked debates within black communities in the States.

Interwoven with his take on Filipinos and race are recollections of his own journey. These are the most personal and endearing passages in the book. He recounts being a student activist at UP and editor of the UP Collegian; his friendship with the charismatic Lean Alejandro, another progressive young left-wing activist and rising political star assassinated by right-wing thugs in 1986; his experiences as a journalist in Manila and the Bay Area; and being a husband and the father of two young sons.

Wisely, he and his wife Mara decided at the outset that, “Tagalog would be our children’s first language.” Pimentel was being, as he puts it, “practical: I didn’t want my kids to get mad at me.” He has met, as I and other Filipinos here have, so many Filipino-Americans “disappointed, even angry” at their parents for not making them learn a Philippine language, thus shutting them off from their heritage.

Pimentel’s book demonstrates not just the hard work that came before and that lies ahead if we wish to build a color-blind society, but that we can also expect immensely gratifying rewards. The ascension of a man of color to the highest office in the land shows that coming from a culturally and racially mixed background is not only welcome, it’s downright cool.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

TV news interviews on "Pareng Barack"

Reporter Steve Angeles interviewed me on "Pareng Barack" for Balitang America. Check it out here.

Janelle So of LA18TV also did a phone interview for her program. Check it out here.

BOOK REVIEW: Pareng Barack by Ceres Doyo

"Pareng Barack": Filipinos in Obama's America

Inquirer.net, News Report, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo/Philippine Daily Inquirer, Posted: Dec 25, 2008 Review it on NewsTrust

REPUBLISHED by New America Media

MANILA, Philippines --- On the night of Nov. 4, when Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States, journalist and book author Benjamin “Boying” Pimentel took his eldest son to downtown Oakland where thousands of people were waiting for the officials results. They found people celebrating with cheers and tears. After more than 200 years, Americans had chosen a person of color to lead them forward.

“Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama’s America,” Pimentel’s latest book, is about Obama’s amazing rise to the presidency and, more importantly, about how Filipinos responded to his campaign and victory. “Often with excitement, sometimes with fear and dread,” Pimentel writes.

“Pareng Barack” is also about the Filipino journey in America, “how it has intersected, sometimes collided, with those of other communities, and how it has taken a dramatic turn as America enters a new era of anxiety and hope.”

This book came out a few weeks after Obama was elected but it didn’t take just a few weeks for Pimentel to write it. He had been pounding the streets and watching the groundswell. With or without Obama’s win or defeat, this book could still stand alone to show those intersections and collisions that Pimentel describes. But Obama’s win provides Pimentel a starting point, and for Filipinos who chose America to be their home, it also offers landmarks on a cultural and historical landscape, that is, from there to here. Also a timeline from then to now.

This gem of a book is easy to read. It is an engaging journalistic read because there are real human faces, voices, names and places in it as only a seasoned journalist knows the importance of if one is to show proof of one’s point or analysis. This book is not the result of a survey but of a journalist’s walking the streets where stories unfold, where lives are lived.

“For Filipinos in America, it is a time of celebration and pride. For others, of concern, even fear.” This is how Pimentel describes the aftermath of the Nov. 4 elections that saw Democrat Obama win and Republican John McCain lose.

“Nevada had become a battleground state and Fran joined other Filipinos in the ground war to rally support for Obama. This meant going from house to house… It was while knocking on doors on one part of Reno that he came across one Pinoy… A Philippine flag was displayed in his garage… The young man was a registered Republican, and had never voted Democrat. But he said he was voting for Obama. ‘He speaks to everyone, and seems that he can reach across the aisle,’ he told Fran. ‘Obama is different from the rest.’

“But then there was a woman in her 30s whom Fran met on a Philippine Airlines flight during a short visit to the Philippines before the election. She had lived in the United States for about eight years, had been married, and had just become an American citizen… The woman had just mailed in her ballot—she voted for John McCain… Now that her daughters were about to join her in the United States, she wanted a ‘strong leader.’ But eventually she also admitted to Fran, she simply could not vote for a black man. ‘I just don’t trust them. ‘Di ba sila ‘yung laging nanggugulo? Aren’t they troublemakers? They’re so violent.’”

In the chapter “American in Living Color,” Pimentel writes about how Nobel Prize winner for literature, Toni Morrison, a black woman, noted that many newcomers readily embraced American society’s long-held prejudices against blacks. He also shares what Asian-American civil rights lawyer Bill Lee told him: “Immigrant communities generally tend not to know the history and to buy into the biases and prejudices of the dominant group. Unfortunately, becoming American often means buying into the prejudices. They want to identify upward. They don’t want to identify with those at the bottom.”

Something like that fable about the fly that alights on a carabao and suddenly thinks he’s a carabao. (It’s better told in Filipino.)

But it’s not that way all the time. Pimentel digs into the “racial wedge” that Asian-Americans occupy, that uncomfortable in-between mezzanine position where they are expected to be loyal to their superiors and demanding of those below.

Pimentel’s book also deals with other racial and ethnic groups. He writes, “Obama’s victory is significant for another important reason. With the steady growth of Latino and Asian communities, there will no longer be a racial or ethnic majority in the United States in less than 50 years. A biracial leader with a deep personal experience of life in the Third World, Obama, many hope, could prepare the nation for that coming change.”

“Lessons in Patriotism and Forgiveness” is a poignant chapter. Here Pimentel explores his experience as a Filipino whose father endured suffering during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and then reflects on his own encounter with Japanese-Americans who suffered ostracism and internment in the US.

In “From the I-Hotel to Powell Street” Pimentel revisits the bygone milieu of Carlos Bulosan (“America is in the Heart”) and enters into the world of the aging World War II Filipino veterans. Powell Street in San Francisco is where these veterans spend their winter years. I have been there myself and it’s really a tearjerker.

Toward the end, Pimentel writes about his family and waxes sentimental. He muses: “In the end there were more people who were ready to move on, to break ground, to reimagine the United States, to redefine America. It will be Obama’s face and voice that my sons will see and hear on television and on the Internet over the next four years, maybe longer. It will be Pareng Barack who will play a critical role in defining my sons’ future in America.”

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Book Review: Pareng Barack

by LEI CHAVEZ, abs-cbnNEWS.com | 12/17/2008 5:20 PM

Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama's America
By Benjamin Pimentel
Non-fiction, Anvil Publishing Inc., 2008
Paperback, 158 pages

Pareng Barack exceeds my expectations. For a small book of seven chapters, it neatly describes the Asian situation in America, the clashing of different communities, the discrimination, the weight of Barack Obama's victory, Philippine politics, and even a glimpse of Benjamin Pimentel's life as a Filipino in a foreign land.

Released a few weeks after Obama's monumental Nov. 4 victory in the American elections, Pareng Barack chronicles the way the Filipino community responded to the campaign ("often with excitement, sometimes with fear and dread") and the root of the racial debate.

Pare, which means either a close friend or a stranger one asks for directions on the street, is the same premise Pimentel uses to present the contents of the book. The issue is treated with closeness, friendliness, sometimes a sense of detachment, especially when it comes to the historical narrations. Good thing there are enough (sometimes too much) third-person accounts that give the story a personal appeal. Don't worry though. It's not a long, boring history lecture. Pimentel writes succinctly and conversationally, much like a friendly chat over coffee.

Pimentel was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicler for 14 years and has been living in America since 1990. He covered and wrote migration stories for the newspaper. Some of the most profound instances in the book must have come about during his heydays in the Chronicler. Pareng Barack is his third and latest book.

I specifically like the way Pimentel introduces the idea through his own accounts then shifts to the perspective of people he mingles with, then ends it with his thoughts and realizations. His keen sense of details makes the heart ache. A good example can be found in "Chapter 3: Lessons on Patriotism," where he discusses the interment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. Pimentel wrote: "On the train to Tule Lake, Muramoto and other internees were forbidden from raising the curtains or peeking out the window. Fifty years later, on the air-conditioned tour bus with wide, tinted windows, she saw for the first time the scenery she had missed."

Pimentel also describes, with expertise and deftness, the situation of war veterans in America, one of the most striking topics he includes in the book. This was the same setting of his humorous but sad novel, Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street. I was close to tears when I read "Chapter 4: From the I-Hotel to Powell Street," where Pimentel narrates gloomily: "Occasionally, I stop by the Cable Car station where I still see them, still telling one another about their latest misadventures in America. Still waiting. Sometimes a few of them just stand there on that busy corner of San Francisco, letting for time to pass, waiting for night to fall."

I can't decide what the best chapter is but I specifically read chapters five and six with gusto. As for the strongest chapter, I'd have to go with chapter six. The narration, from the violence brought by racism to Philippine politics, builds up to one conclusion: a man of color leading a country that once discriminated against minorities. If the voice of wariness reflects strongly in the first part of the book, it completely shifts to hope and pride as the book nears the end.

"In the end there were more people who were ready to move on, to break ground, to redefine America. It will be Obama's face and voice, not McCain's, that my sons will see and hear on television and on the Internet in the next four years, maybe longer. It will be Pareng Barack who will guide this country forward…It will be Pareng Barack who will play a critical role in defining my sons' future in America," Pimentel writes.

In this thin compact book, Pimentel speaks simply, his voice clear and flowing, continuously streaming page after page. He indulges on an idea long enough to let the thought linger without being branded as overbearing. Pareng Barack brings you to the heart of the conflict and makes you sympathize, mourn, laugh, cry, and breathe with the characters as you read along.

Pareng Barack is a recommended read for every Filipino who has relatives in America, Pinoys who have plans to migrate, readers with a satiation for politics, and interest in Obama's monumental rise to power, or for anyone who simply wants to read a nicely-written book on an equally interesting topic.

as of 01/19/2009 4:00 PM

Children in the Age of Obama

Published January 20, 2009

I was eight years old when Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law in the Philippines in 1972. I didn’t totally understand the meaning of what had happened then. But the Marcos dictatorship eventually became a major influence in my life. It shaped my views on politics and political power, led to my disdain for tyrants and bullies, and to my critical view of American foreign policy having grown up watching one US administration after another endorse and embrace a corrupt and brutal tyrant.

I remember this now as Barack Obama begins his presidency and America enters a new era. My sons, Paolo and Anton, may not fully understand the significance of the change. But I suspect that, like me during the Marcos years, the age of Obama will be a major influence in their lives, helping define their view of America and the world.

The coming four years – perhaps longer – will likely help shape their understanding of race and race relations in America as the first person of color takes over the most important job in the land.

Perhaps under the new administration, they and other young Americans will embrace a more inclusive view of Muslims and the Third World under a president with strong personal ties to those worlds, and who has promised a more engaged, even progressive, foreign policy.

And maybe the Obama presidency will give my sons a more enlightened idea of the role of government, as his administration faces the gargantuan task of rebuilding an economy battered by years of unhampered and reckless free enterprise.

A lot of exciting ‘maybes.’

If Obama goes on to serve two terms, my eldest son Paolo, who is now 9, will be a young man getting ready for college, gearing up to take on bigger life challenges, by the time Pareng Barack leaves office.

How will eight years of Obama influence my son’s take on the world?

Let me say this now: I do not envision a utopian future under Obama. He is not Superman. And the problems he must now take on are mind-boggling. There are no easy solutions to the problems most Americans now face.

I expect Obama to play politics. He has to, to survive. And he has to survive – that is, win reelection and make sure he has more allies in Washington – in order to carry out his program of change. But the question is: Will he end up playing the game mainly so he can survive and stay in power, even at the expense of the great things he has said he wants to accomplish?

I expect him to make mistakes. Hopefully, he also will learn from these mistakes. But most important of all, I hope he owns up quickly to these missteps and explain what he plans to do to fix the errors.

In other words, in what increasingly has become a grim period of uncertainty, even fear – in America and the world, it’s important to set a tone of openness and honesty.

Obama himself has made this promise. Now we’ll actually see if he can, and will, do so.

In my book, I mention the more than 20-year old San Francisco mural featuring activist icons of the 80s, including my friend, the late youth leader Lean Alejandro. The original mural also featured South African leader Winnie Mandela. But her image was later painted over and replaced with the portrait of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in empowering women, battling corrupt officials and planting millions of trees in ravaged lands in Africa.

Once a symbol of the South African movement, Winnie Mandela had become a reviled figure to many after she was accused of abusing her position and power during the struggle against apartheid. The muralists said they made the made the change principally because they wanted to honor Maathai – but also because Winnie Mandela, as an icon, has become “outdated and complicated.”

The refurbished mural serves as a sobering reminder as America and the world turn to Obama for leadership in a difficult era, of how leaders and how they are perceived can change -- dramatically. Yesterday’s revolutionaries can become today’s tyrants. Yesterday’s mavericks can be today’s staunch defenders of the old, discredited view of the world.

Obama may be the central figure in the new American mural created during his campaign. But he will have to show, in a time of intense anxiety, that he deserves to stay on the painting and not have his image and his legacy be painted over and forgotten.

For in the long run, the mural is being composed and created by the people who made Obama’s historic victory possible.

The only thing certain right now is this: Obama has inspired Americans, young and old, to become involved again, to care about their communities, to hope.

I saw this a couple of weeks ago in an alley behind a French bakery run by a Filipino American family in Los Angeles. I was in LA for the launch of my book Pareng Barack, Filipinos in Obama’s America.

Before the event, lawyer and veteran community activist Prosy Delacruz, whom I mentioned in the book, invited me to have breakfast at the French bakery where she also was scheduled to meet her community group of Obama supporters. Their leader was Abbie Howell; it was she who came up with the idea of a street cleaning campaign once or twice a month as part of their commitment to the Obama campaign themes of change and hope. So for about an hour that morning, I watched her, her dad and Prosy pick up trash around the bakery.

I realized then, as I watched the trio cheerfully pick up cigarette butts, candy wrappers and other trash, that the significance of Obama’s victory goes beyond what he does and how he performs in Washington DC. It is also about how the energy and enthusiasm of people like Abbie Howell can be sustained, and will sustain, the new idealism that emerged from the historic election.

With Abbie Howell, that will be exciting to watch for another reason. The morning she led her group to clean up a small stretch of her community in the name of change, Abbie Howell had just turned nine.