Yes, I will be a writer and make all of you live again in my words.
– Carlos Bulosan, Filipino American novelist and poet, from America Is in the Heart: A Personal History
As I look ahead to the last two chapters, 13 and 14, of the final revision of my novel-in-progress, A Village in the Fields, I offer one scene from Chapter 3 in which my protagonist Fausto Empleo relates to his nurse and friend, Arturo Esperanza, his memories of coming to America:
Fausto shrugged, trying to think of something. Before they could get on the ship headed for America, he and Benny had to take many tests in Manila. The blank-faced doctors poked Fausto’s and Benny’s testicles and penises with cold metal rods, and scribbled notes in silence. For a thick wad of pesos, the doctors handed over papers that declared Fausto and Benny “bacterially negative.” The two paid a handsome fee for the document that proclaimed them citizens of the Philippine Islands who could travel freely to America by way of the S.S. President Jackson.
He hadn’t spoken the ship’s name in decades. Son-of-a-gun, Fausto laughed, how the ship’s propeller rumbled the entire trip! It sat below the stern side of the third-class passenger section, but to Fausto it was lodged in his head like a great mechanical heartbeat gone mad. His bunk bed vibrated. In the dining saloon, cold bean-paste soup spilled out of their bowls. Knives and forks rattled menacingly against steel tables.
He didn’t know other Filipinos could travel outside of third class until he saw a group of them on deck one evening. The men, their hair slicked back and shiny with pomade, wore suits and bow ties. The women wore high-heeled shoes and hats that hugged their heads and sprouted feathers. Fausto asked one of the men where they were staying when they walked by. He hadn’t seen them, or any well-dressed Filipinos for that matter, in third class. The men and women exchanged glances.
“We speak Tagalog,” one of them said in English. “We are students— pensionados—not laborers. Can you not see by the way we are dressed, boy?”
The women laughed behind their gloved fingers. Benny grabbed Fausto’s arm so the two of them could leave, but Fausto stood his ground. The pensionados were trying to get into one of the social rooms, but the steward, who was Ilocano and as dark as cured tobacco leaves, shook his head. The man who had spoken to Fausto poked his finger at the steward. He spoke loudly enough in English for Fausto to hear. They were staying in second class and had the right to enter the smoking room. It was the third time they had been denied access. The pensionado removed his spectacles, as if to show off his fair skin or the lack of pinch marks on the bridge of his nose because his nose was narrow and delicate, not fleshy. The steward folded his arms, replying in Ilocano that only first-class guests could use the smoking room. Besides, he added, no matter how well they dressed or behaved, the white passengers would not welcome them.
“Speak Tagalog!” the pensionado barked to the steward, and turned on his heel.
The group retreated, approaching Fausto and Benny again. The pensionado brushed shoulders with Fausto. As they disappeared below deck, Fausto thought to go after the man, but Benny pulled him toward the nearest stairwell and pointed at the deck above where the first-class passengers had gathered.
As the S.S. President Jackson chugged away from the port of Hong Kong, the passengers gawked at the Chinese families whose sampans were being tossed about in the white water that churned beneath the propellers. Using their oars, mothers and fathers, elderly men and women, clashed with other sampans for position. The children reached out to the passengers, who waved and leaned over the rail, laughing. The families called out in their native dialect. One man torpedoed fruit into the water. A red apple struck a girl’s jaw. Only after she had eaten it whole did she massage the side of her face and lick the blood from the corner of her mouth.
Other passengers threw coins that disappeared in the froth, but it didn’t stop the men and boys from diving in. A fistful of coins came raining down, and Fausto and Benny gasped as a tiny boy kicked off the edge of the boat with frog-like legs. The rope knotted around his waist and attached to the sampan uncoiled in the air with a snap and was pulled tight. After a few moments, an older sibling yanked at the rope and the boy’s head popped up from the sea. Water flowed from his clothes and hair as he was pulled in. His arms and legs hung limp as seaweed over the side of the sampan. But he held up his hand. Silvery disks flashed between his fingers, and his brothers and sisters piled on top of him, hugging him and patting his head. The passengers clapped. The men whistled their approval. And then they all dispersed. Fausto lost sight of the boy. Soon, the S.S. President Jackson outran the sampans, although the mothers and fathers continued to row, refusing to return to shore, even as the sun dipped below the horizon.