The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
– John Philpot Curran, Irish lawyer and politician
Today is Independence Day in the Philippines. On this day in 1898, Filipino revolutionary Emilio Aguinaldo declared independence from 300 years of Spanish rule during the Spanish-American War. The Americans came to the islands to expel the Spaniards, but turned around to become the Filipinos’ next colonial ruler and exporter of the island country’s rich natural resources. Despite the declaration of independence, Filipino rebels fought for their country in 1899, in what was to become the Philippine-American War, with which few Americans are familiar. In the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million. It was not until after World War II that the Philippines finally gained their independence.
I first read about the little-known Philippine-American War when I was researching the history of the Philippines for my first novel-in-progress, A Village in the Fields. My main character, Filipino farm worker Fausto Empleo, left his homeland to come to America to “change his luck,” which is what my father wanted to do when he left his coastal hometown of San Esteban, Ilocos Sur, in the early 1920s. The turn of the century in the Philippines was and still is an incredibly fascinating time. The exhilaration of freedom was soon stamped out by shock and betrayal. This was a war that was not acknowledged, an unofficial war. It was a war that helped determine the 1900 presidential election of incumbent William McKinley and anti-imperialist William Jennings Bryan. It has been later called the first Vietnam War for the torture that American soldiers inflicted on innocent civilians. It is a war that I will be returning to in my fiction writing.
In honor of Philippine Independence Day, here is an excerpt from Chapter 2, “What was left behind,” of A Village in the Fields:
When Fausto reached the second floor, he saw a candle glowing in his lelang‘s bedroom. She was usually asleep by this time. He hesitated before pulling the crocheted curtain aside, but she was sitting up, waiting for him. He sat on her bed, inhaling the musty, bitter scent of betel nut mixed with lime from her lips and red-stained teeth.
“Lelang Purificacion,” he said, “Pa will not give me his blessing.”
“If he did not love you, he would let you go without a care. You should be honored by the burden of his love,” she said, and sighing, stared out her window, the capiz-shell shutters wide open. “When you are in America, you must remember him and forgive him. Better to be hurt by his love than to be all alone with nothing.”
“What about you, Lelang? Will you try to change my mind?”
She pursed her lips as if she had swallowed something more bitter than betel nut juice. Tiny wrinkles fanned out from her mouth. “I have a story to tell you. It is not my intent to change your mind. I tell you this now because I do not want you to be ignorant.”
He laughed. “Lelang, I am going to America to gain knowledge.”
She kneaded her fingers. Veins, like thick twine wrapped around her fist, warped the shape of her hands. “Do you know the date June twelfth, eighteen ninety-eight?”
“Independence Day,” Fausto answered. “The Americans helped us defeat the Spaniards. Miss Arnold taught me about the Americans’ involvement.”
She pulled her shawl over her shoulders. “There was another war after the Spaniards were removed, but you will not find it in any American history books. Your father was too young to know what was happening in the lower provinces and on the other islands – we do not talk of the bad times – but I told him years later, when he could understand. He never forgot, but now you will make him think of it all the time.”
“Remember what?” Fausto’s voice was as taut as the woven mat stretched across his lelang‘s bed.
“The war with the Americans,” she said softly. “I had received word that my parents and sisters and brothers were being sent to a detention camp set up by American troops in our hometown of Batangas. We thought the news was false, but your lelong, Cirilo, went down there to bring them here. When he left, your father was only ten years old. More than a year and a half passed before your lelong came back alone. He had lost so much weight. He would not say what became of my family. The day he came back was the day my family ceased to exist. It was also the day your lelong ceased to exist.”
Fausto’s Lelong Cirilo, who before his long absence had welcomed the removal of the Spanish government from the Philippines, kept his sons from attending the American schools that were cropping up across the islands and swore under his breath at the American soldiers who passed through town. Two American Negroes arrived one day and settled in San Esteban. He befriended them, welcoming them into his home for meals and accepting their dinner invitations. When he returned late one evening, he confided to Purificacion that they were American soldiers who had deserted the army. “They will never return to the States. They said they are freer in our country than in their own,” he insisted, though she didn’t believe him. He told her the white American soldiers had called him “nigger” and “savage,” words that they also hurled at the Negroes. “My friends call me brother, and there is great truth to that,” he said.
Fausto had no recollection of visits to their house by Negro soldiers, though he remembered seeing two Negro men at his lelong‘s funeral. When his lelang died, he looked older than his sixty years. He always had snowy white hair as far as Fausto could recall. Each year had separated him farther from Batangas, but keeping a secret from his family for so many years had aged him, kept the memories fresh.
When Fausto’s lelong was dying, he took his wife’s hand and said, “Forgive me, Purificacion, for burdening you with silence and now the truth about your family.”
He spoke as if he’d just arrived amid the makeshift detention camps in Batangas. He was labeled an insurrecto, an insurgent, by American soldiers who found him outside the hastily drawn boundaries. Everywhere soldiers confiscated possessions and destroyed crops, torched houses and rice-filled granaries. Black clouds blotted out the sun, and rolling green fields turned to gray as ash rained down on the camp. Ash clung to their hair and eyelashes, their bare arms and legs. Cirilo tasted smoke in the rotten mangos they were being fed. Exhausted and starving, he fell asleep to the squeal of pigs that were being slaughtered nightly and left to rot in their pens. When Cirilo asked what they had done wrong, an American commander accused the villagers of being guerrilla supporters. It was necessary, the commander said, to “depopulate” the islands.
Unrest plagued the camps. Men, propelled by the hope of either being released or spared death, turned on each other by identifying alleged rebels – regardless of whether the accused were guilty or innocent. Those singled out were held down on the ground, arms pinned behind their heads or tied behind their backs, mouths pried open, beneath the running faucet of a large water tank. “Water cure,” Cirilo called it. The American soldiers in their cowboy hats shoved the butts of their rifles or their boots into the prisoners’ bloated stomachs for several minutes while a native interpreter repeated the word over and over again, “kumpisal” in Tagalog to the prisoner and “confess” in English for the Americans’ sake. But many of the prisoners drowned.
The detention camps were overcrowded, with little food or clothing to go around. Malaria, beriberi, and dengue fever raged. American doctors treated the soldiers who fell ill, but neglected the sick prisoners. Everyone in Purificacion’s family died of disease. Cirilo didn’t know if anger or grief had kept him alive. He escaped with two prisoners one night, but not without having to grab the patrolman’s bayonet and smashing his skull. On his journey back to Ilocos Sur, he heard similar stories of detention camps and ruined villages. Some said the Americans were angry because the natives were ungrateful for their help in liberating them from Spain. Instead of welcoming them as heroes, the Americans complained, the natives were betraying them, hurling their bolos and hacking to pieces American soldiers who stepped beyond the towns they had pacified. They used spears, darts, and stones, but they were sticks compared to the American bayonets. The guerrillas were easily flushed out by the American soldiers like quails in a shoot.
Cirilo met a compatriot who had fled his hometown of Balangiga on the island of Samar. He told Cirilo that the American soldiers had rounded up the townspeople and crowded them so tightly into open pens that they could not move. They slept upright, leaning against one another. The American Navy fired on his village from their gunboats before they landed to invade. “They are turning our lovely islands into a howling wilderness. They cry out, ‘Kill and burn’ everyone and everything in their path,” he said. Another man who had escaped ruin in his hometown recited an order – like a drinking song, a motto – that he said had been handed down from an American general to all his soldiers in the field: “Everything over ten” would not be spared. Everything over ten.
“This is your America,” Fausto’s lelang told him, and slumped against the scarred wooden headboard of her bed.
“Things have changed.” Fausto’s voice faltered. “When I was in school—”
“Poor boy!” She sat up, spittle flecked on her lips. “Those kind American women in those American schools were not teachers. They were just another soldier, telling you what to do. How could I tell you then? Miss Arnold opened up the world for you. Education is good. But they came here for a darker purpose.”
“Lelang, Miss Arnold is not evil.”
“You are not listening!” She shook her head, her gray hair brushing her shoulders like a stiff mantilla. “You will never be accepted by the Americans because they will always treat us different. The Negroes in America have been there for hundreds of years, but they are still treated like criminals. Why go there with this knowledge?” The flame hissed as the melted wax pooled around the short wick. Her dark eyes were wet in the candlelight. “You think your father is ignorant, but he is not. American education made you smarter, but their schools erased our past, just as the Spaniards did.”
“Lelang, I am not ignorant.” Fausto got up from her bed, but suddenly felt weightless, unanchored. He held on to one of the thick, carved bedposts.
“I told this story only once before, to your father after your lelong passed away.” Her fingers kneaded her pliant cheek, skin shattered by deep wrinkles. She whispered, “Until that time, Emiliano never knew why his own father was so untouchable.”
“I am sorry for your loss.” Fausto’s words, his whole body was stiff. He pulled down the mosquito net from the four posters of her bed until she was encased in white gauze. She seemed so far away from him as she blew out the candle.
“We must make use of the bad times,” she called out.
He unhooked the curtain from her bedroom entryway and let it fall in front of him. “It will make me stronger, Lelang,” he said. He waited to hear her voice again. In the moonlight, wisps of smoke rose and disappeared.