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 Guantánamo in a year’s time.) He also extended conciliatory, and welcome, words to the bête 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, 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, | 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.