Celebrating Larry Itliong’s 100th birthday, with an excerpt

I don’t see why I should bow my head when I could hold it high, or place it in the hands of my enemies when I can defeat them.
– Jose Rizal, Filipino nationalist, writer, and revolutionary

Larry Itliong, circa 1960s.

Larry Itliong, circa 1960s.

In honor of Filipino American labor leader Larry Itliong, who was born today, 100 years ago, in San Nicolas, Pangasinan, the Philippines, I present another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, A Village in the Fields, which is about the Great Delano Grape Strikes, in which Itliong was the leader for the Filipino farm workers. Following my last excerpt, we find our protagonist, Fausto Empleo, as a boy, with his first experience of America on his home soil, in his hometown of San Esteban, Ilocos Sur, the Philippines:

Although his father worked him hard, Fausto never missed school. When Miss Arnold presented him with a map of the world for his geography lesson, he was stunned to see how small the islands were compared to other countries, how vast the oceans were, and how big the world was. He learned about American history, and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. By the end of his first year, before he turned eight, he could read and write a little in English, and add and subtract. He was looking forward to mastering English and learning the industrial skills she was teaching the older boys.

But one Sunday after mass when he came home, Miss Arnold was at the door, talking to his mother, who had stayed home sick. He wondered why she was not at church. She rested her hand on his shoulder, and then withdrew it, her touch so fleeting he thought he had dreamed it up.

“I’ve come to say goodbye, Fausto,” she said.

“Miss Arnold is needed at home,” his mother said. “Her father is very ill.”

Miss Arnold patted a handkerchief across her moist upper lip. “Your father was right about one thing: In the end, our families need us and we need them.”

Fausto wanted to strike the door. He didn’t want his father to be right. He didn’t want Miss Arnold to admit it. But he held his arms down, digging his fists into his thighs. “Are you coming back?”

“I’ll miss the planting season. It’s almost here, isn’t it?” she said, as if she didn’t hear him. “It’s my favorite time—accordians and guitars, singing, dancing in the mud. Such a lovely tradition, such a lovely people.” She fastened her gaze on Fausto. “I’m going home for good, but I hope to see you again. Perhaps you can come visit me in Kansas City when you’re all grown up.”

Fausto’s father emerged from the shadows and stood in the doorway. “There is no reason for him to leave San Esteban,” he said.

Miss Arnold’s eyes did not waver from Fausto. “With an education, you can do anything. I grew up on a farm, and look where I’ve been in my life! Remember Lincoln, where he came from and what he became. You can become anything you want.”

His mother coughed into the sleeve of her kamisa. “We can never imagine sending Fausto to the States, Miss Arnold. It is too dear a price for us,” she murmured.

Miss Arnold’s cheeks reddened. “Please excuse me for my indiscretion. I should leave now and pack. I’ve accumulated so many things in my eighteen years here!”

“Have you not seen your father in eighteen years?” His father’s voice was sharp.

Miss Arnold stood still for a moment. “No,” she whispered, blinking hard.

His father bowed his head. “Miss Arnold, we are sorry for your loss.”

“Pa, her father is not lost yet,” Fausto said. It was bad luck to talk about someone as if he or she had already passed away.

“It is a loss,” Miss Arnold said. She stuffed her handkerchief beneath her sleeve and tugged on the stiff cuff of her suit jacket. “Thank you all for your kindness.”

Fausto stood in her way. “What will become of our lessons?”

“Fausto!” His mother pinched his arm.

“Let Miss Arnold go,” his father said.

“Josefa Zamora will be taking my place,” Miss Arnold said. “She told me she will try to open up the schoolhouse on Sunday afternoons for you.”

Fausto didn’t know what else to say. Time would not stop. He stepped aside.

“I have fond memories of my stay here,” Miss Arnold said to Fausto’s mother and father. She knelt in front of him and gathered him in her arms. He smelled lavender in her hair. It made him think of the bars of soap at the schoolhouse for her students to wash their hands. She touched his cheek. “I shall miss you the most, my little spark of light—so full of promise. Remember, you can do more. You have it in you.”

She stood up, sucking the air around him, and hurried away. Fausto ran after her, but he stopped at the gate. He watched her leave, watched her arms swing by her side, her feet, in their brown, button-up boots, march—as they always did—across the dirt road. Then she was gone, swallowed by the bagbagotot bushes, the bend in the road.

“No more,” his father said in Ilocano. He clamped his hand on Fausto’s shoulder. “School made you worthless in the fields. I was going to stop it, but she did it for me.”

Fausto locked his knees, dug his feet in the earth. “If I finish seventh grade, I can teach school, too,” he insisted. “Just like Josefa Zamora.”

His father snorted. “Teaching is for teachers.”

Fausto wanted to bolt after Miss Arnold. She was still somewhere down that road. He imagined him next to her, ignoring the blisters on his feet from his shoes, wanting to keep pace with her boots. “I can become a teacher,” he said.

His father spun him around and turned his hands over. “See?” With his leathery finger he pushed the calluses in Fausto’s skin. “You are meant to work the land.”

He let go and strode into the house. His mother followed, trudging up the stairs. His lelang, quiet as a house lizard, emerged from behind the door.

Fausto turned to her. “Lelang Purificacion, are you with Pa?”

Her face was full of hard lines and sorrow. “Your father has his reasons, Fausto. You are too young to understand. There is so much you must learn.”

“I was learning!” he said. “You are all against me. Now I am alone.”

“Alone?” She stared at him as if he’d spoken in a foreign tongue. “You will never be alone, Fausto. You will always be with us.”

He shook his head and ran out of the yard, covering several hundred meters before realizing he’d gone in the opposite direction of Miss Arnold. Each breath scalded his lungs. His legs were giving out, his toes wet with popped blisters. He fell to the side of the road, crashing into a thatch of cogon grass. Its sharp-pointed leaves pricked his face. He rolled over and pawed at his ears, his lelang‘s words burrowing like a tick.

Author pose.

Author pose.