No history, no self; know history, know self. – José Rizal, Filipino patriot and national hero, physician, and man of letters
All these past months – a blur to me now – all came down to this Labor Day Weekend, the 50th Anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike. My novel, A Village in the Fields, came out the Friday before – no small feat. My publisher, Eastwind Books of Berkeley, and I worked hard the last five months to get the novel out in time for this historic event, Bold Step: A Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike. It was worth the sleep deprivation.
I’ll admit that I was a little apprehensive about the weekend because I’d spent most of those five months focused on editing, production, and then marketing and promotion activities. There was no moment of stepping back and enjoying the moment or thinking about the reception in Delano. As we packed up the van, which our friends Raissa and Mike lent us, with 20 boxes of my novel, I told myself I wouldn’t bring any work with me. I needed to decompress, enjoy the moment, and anticipate what I would say or do up on the stage during the open-mike evening and with anyone who came to our table to inquire about the book. As we drove down Interstate 5 in bumper-to-bumper traffic Friday early evening, I wondered whether I should practice reading the chosen excerpt or choose another passage. I was already stressed that we weren’t leaving when I had hoped to leave.
On Filipino time
If there is one overarching theme, it is that we were on Filipino time even before we left for Terra Bella/Porterville/Delano! I was looking forward to a leisurely dinner to celebrate my cousin Janet and her husband Tim’s anniversary. They ended up getting Mexican takeout and having it ready for us when we pulled up at 10:30pm. After dinner, Janet and I stayed up till past 1 in the morning catching up, even though David and I had to be in Delano before 10am on Saturday.
The festivities begin
We were late, but so were the festivities. The welcome and keynote address was held at the Filipino Community Center on Glenwood Street, which was a meeting place for Filipinos made historic during the grape strikes. Alex Edillor, president of the newly formed Delano chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), welcomed the audience who hailed from cities and towns up and down the state. Other dignitaries included Paul Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez and president of the Chavez Foundation, the mayor of Delano, and keynote speaker, Rob Bonta, California State Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Alameda. Bonta is the first Filipino-American elected to the California legislature and author of AB123, which requires California schools to teach Filipino-American contributions to the farm labor movement in social science curriculum, and AB 7, which requires the Governor to proclaim Larry Itliong Day in California on his birthdate of October 25th and encourage public schools to teach about Itliong’s life and contributions to California.
From the Filipino Community Center, we set up shop at Robert F. Kennedy High School, along with other vendors at the campus food court for the lunch break. The dance troupe Kayamanan Ng Lahi, adorned in beautiful and colorful traditional dress, put on a wonderful performance, which included the tinikling and a dance to the classic Filipino love song, Dahil Sa Iyo.
During the lunch hour, we cultivated relevant contacts, including an executive committee member of the National Education Association who was a contemporary of the farm labor movement. I talked with Dr. Oliver Rosales, who teaches history at Bakersfield College and the University of California at Santa Barbara. He was part of a terrific panel, which included Dr. Dawn Mabalon of San Francisco State and Dr. Robyn Rodriguez of UC Davis – she read an advance copy of my novel and blurbed me. During that panel, Dr. Rosales emphasized that he wanted to include Filipino-American courses and materials to his teachings because his Filipino-American students were thirsty for more knowledge about their heritage.
Once the symposium started, everyone moved over to the learning center auditorium, which was across campus. I wanted to watch and listen, so David stayed behind, only to pack up shop in a little while because everyone had gone in. By this time, Janet and Tim and the kids joined us. It was really wonderful for Janet and Tim to be here with me and learn about the part of our Filipino American history that has been obscured for so long. The rest of the panels included a personal film by John Armington – a tribute to his immigrant father Bob Armington, a discussion of what had preceded and paved the way for the grape strikes, and historical legacies and new activism, the latter a necessity because sadly we still see exploitation and discrimination in the labor force.
A mom moment
At the evening event, a reception and open-mike, we were treated to young slam poets who impressed me with their mastery of their poems and the passion in their voice and their artistic ability to express their experiences as “other.” I read the first chapter of the novel when it was my turn. In retrospect, David and I agreed that I should have read a section from the strike, and that the first chapter is more in line with any other crowd. I wasn’t nervous, mostly because the event was outdoors and I couldn’t really see anyone’s face. I confess that I didn’t read the Ilocano sentences or phrases for obvious reasons; rather, I read them in English. I was already anxious about incorrectly pronouncing the word “manong” because I’d been pronouncing it a different way. (I want to call out and give thanks to my cousin Annie who explained to me that the accents change when you address someone using the term versus when you are referring to the group as a whole or using the historic reference to them.)
The next day, a few people who came up to the table and bought my book told me that they had listened to me at the open-mike event and said they were impressed and that I read very well. My ease is in part from having to do public speaking in my profession, which has been an invaluable experience. Also, through the years of working on this book, late at night, I would often read revised passages in my head or out loud and transform myself into an unabashed thespian. I was a little more restrained Saturday evening, but my heart was in it. The biggest thrill for me, however, was when I walked off the stage and Isabella and then Jacob came up and gave me a hug. Later, I found out that Jacob had posted on Instagram and wrote: “My mom, reading a part of her novel at the Filipino Community Cultural Center of Delano. Her novel came out yesterday. It took her a long time to accomplish her goal, and I’m so happy for her!” That was all the validation I needed at that moment and now.
I was honored to sit with Marissa Aroy during Saturday’s sessions and chat in-between the session breaks selling our respective DVDs and books. I met Professor Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, who is using my novel in her Filipino/a American literature class this fall. I talked at length with Johnny Itliong, son of labor leader Larry Itliong. I connected with two Filipino-American librarians from San Jose Public Library, who were interested in a reading at the library. I gained more knowledge about the strike and unions of the past and of today from veteran labor leader Al Rojas. And I met wonderful people like Dale, a student from my alma mater UC Davis, who was just as thrilled as I was about the Aggie connection and the enthusiasm for my book. I’ll admit to enjoying my celebrity moments when people asked if they could have their picture taken with me.
We missed the luncheon at the Terra Bella Veterans Memorial Building for the 60th anniversary of the San Esteban Circle – and I missed catching up with my cousins and seeing other relatives. We were late to the dance, though we were able to see my cousin Annie and her mother, my Auntie Berta, who at age 93 was being honored for her work with the San Esteban Circle. She is not only a pioneer with the club, but she is the only one left of my father’s generation. We stopped by another cousin’s house to catch up with four more cousins, and we stayed up past midnight talking about Ilocano translations and the book.
After the Sunday events concluded, since we missed the bus tour of historic sites, we drove to Agbayani Village, which wasn’t that far away from RFK High School. Growth had indeed come to Delano because the last time I was here in 2004, Agbayani Village was isolated from the rest of the town. The village is still operational and clean and tidy; it is being rented out to retired farm workers. The kitchen and recreation room building was locked up, but we could peer inside and see the photographic displays still up for the tours. The garden, line of trees and cacti, goats in their pens, and vacant rabbit hutches, however, were gone. What stood was a vast empty field of cracked earth with a layer of powdery topsoil. I was sad to see that part of the village gone. But I was excited to share the village with Janet and Tim, and especially Jacob and Isabella.
As we walked through the village one last time and headed out through the main entryway, we came upon an elderly Filipino man who sat on a chair facing out. It seemed as if he was waiting for us, so we stopped to talk to him. His name was Edmundo. He told us he came to Agbayani Village in 1982. When we mentioned that Janet and I were related to Fred Abad, his face lit up. Fred was a good friend of his, and he said he was so happy to know that somebody else knew his good friend. He laughed and smiled and walked us out to the parking lot. That meeting touched my heart.
Because the Sunday afternoon sessions ran late, we were late getting back to Porterville. Our anniversary dinner out for Janet and Tim ended up at Super Burgers on Olive Avenue. We hurriedly ate and then David, Tim, and I headed back to the Veterans Memorial Building for the San Esteban Schools Alumni Association event, while Janet took the kids home. I sat with Annie and her mom. While we waited for my introduction, Annie and I surfed through her family photos, which she has been slowly digitizing. What a wonderful walk through nostalgia.
Kudos go to my cousin Leila Eleccion Pereira: During the awards and recognition ceremony for the community’s student scholars, Leila presented my book to the top scholar, who was attending UC San Diego and wanted to become a pediatrician. She gave a brief introduction and had me come up to address the audience. I talked about my mom and dad, the backstory to the novel, and how I wanted to learn more about our history and contributions to the farm labor movement and share that not only with our community but the global community. When I told everyone that our young generation needs to learn about and embrace their history, I was heartened to see some of the students nodding their heads – such a satisfying moment for me. We sold many books, and I give Leila all the credit for her introduction, her enthusiasm, her pride.
I was touched by the request by two moms who wanted to take a picture of me with her sons, who were holding up my book. Two college students, one a recent graduate from UCLA, the other still at Loma Linda University, bought a book. We chatted for a bit, and they understood the need to remember our history, which made me hopeful for the next generation’s convictions. We left as the evening concluded and retired to Porterville, the last of our Delano activities for the weekend. Wanting to capture more cousin time, Janet and I stayed up again.
The best way to cap the long weekend, which seemed to zoom by, was to have a leisurely breakfast with Janet and Tim and our cousin Debi, who played her guitar and entertained us with all of these wonderful stories from our childhood and from her incredibly rich and complex life. As we left, knowing that we left late and will encounter bumper-to-bumper traffic when we hit the Bay area, I made a note that we’d connect again so I could write down her stories. We made plans to get the cousins together to compare photographs, share stories, and talk about a San Esteban Circle archiving project. So much to do. So much history back home. And overall, so much to be grateful for.