National Filipino-American History Month: exploring our diaspora

Men who had poetry in their soul come silently into the world and live quietly down the years, and yet when they are gone no moon in the sky is lucid enough to compare with the light they shed when they are among the living. – Carlos Bulosan, Filipino-American novelist and poet, Charlie Chan is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction

I just finished watching a video celebrating the Asian American and Asian Diaspora Studies Program at the University of California at Berkeley, which I found while exploring the meaning of Asian and Pacific Islander diasporas. I’ve always been intrigued with the word “diaspora,” which I’d first come across many years ago in a flyer describing an independent film about displaced Africans. For me, what it boils down to is a search for identity when you are no longer home – whether you were forced out or felt you had to leave your homeland – but with the circumstances of your flight greatly informing the process of identification and the identity or identities you take on.

Diaspora literally means “Jews living outside Israel, the dispersion of Jews beyond Israel, the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.” It’s a state of disruptive being and one that is, of course, constantly evolving. I’ve been refining my query letter for my novel, A Village in the Fields, adding or deleting historical facts or descriptions of my novel as I personalize each query for the intended literary agent. But one description that I have kept throughout all of the queries is this:

“This novel encompasses more than the Filipino farm workers’ struggles in the fields. It also chronicles the Filipino community that my father and his cousins built in the farming town of Terra Bella in the Central Valley. Upon examining their lives, I found that as immigrants my father and his cousins were trying to determine what home is and who encompassed their concept of family when they were far away from home. I sought to answer those questions through my characters, in particular my protagonist, Fausto Empleo, whose story is at the heart of A Village in the Fields.”

Filipino immigrants leaving the ship that brought them to America (photo credit:

Filipino immigrants leaving the ship that brought them to America (photo credit:

October is National Filipino American month, and this year I’m celebrating it with yet another excerpt from my novel, with an eye toward diaspora. In this scene Fausto recounts to his nurse, Arturo, the boat ride that took him from Manila to Seattle in 1929:

Fausto took comfort in his cabin mates—four others besides Benny. Three had cousins or uncles waiting for them in America. Vermil Bienvenido spoke good English. He had worked in hotels in Manila and was counting on making more money in the American hotels. Ambo Ayson’s uncle had a restaurant job waiting for him in New York City. Arsenio Magsaysay hailed from Santa Maria, ten kilometers north of San Esteban. As he rolled cigarettes made from his family-grown tobacco for his cabin mates, he told them he expected his work in the fields would serve him well on American farms. Vermil and Arsenio were going to return home rich. Ambo wanted to remain in the States but visit his hometown, bringing gifts for his nine sisters, his parents, and grandparents. Everyone’s heart was still in the Philippines, except for Jun Villanueva.

Jun didn’t talk much, but one evening when Arsenio spoke longingly of his family’s land, Jun cut him off, blurting out that there was no future in his hometown of San Fernando. When Jun declared he would never return because he hated his country, his cabin mates wanted to fight him—even Fausto. It was as if he had spit on their mothers! Fausto calmed down and convinced the others to go up deck to cool their heads so he could talk to Jun. With just the two of them in the cabin, Jun complained that the rice they served on the ship had too much grit. His mother milled rice with a mortar and pestle, which made it taste more fragrant. Fausto told him the rice would be better once they got off the ship, but Jun said it would always taste bitter in his mouth. His family had lost their fields to harsh weather, which ruined their crops, and cheating agents who made it impossible to make a living off of the harvests. The new landlords overcharged, but his parents conceded just so they could stay on his lelong’s land.

“I told him he did not hate his country,” Fausto said to Arturo. “The people in power were dishonest. I told him he would realize that—maybe not now, but later—when he is in America and he grows homesick. I admitted I was already homesick.”

Fausto massaged his eyelids, bringing up an image of the teenaged boy who sat rigid in the bunk opposite him. Jun’s face and body were angular and hard. His eyes, mere slits, told everybody he trusted no one. The part in his hair was severe, a white streak. But when Fausto told him his homesickness was their secret, the hardness melted away. Jun yanked the bunk’s wool blanket over his head and began wailing.

“There is no shame in being scared or angry.” Fausto pulled the blanket down and locked his hand on Jun’s knee, which Jun had pulled up and tucked under his chin.

“If they had not taken our land, I would not be here!”

Astun, astun,” Fausto said softly. “You will get it back. You put your anger to hard work in America, eh? Then you return. But you are tired, you need to rest.”

“I cannot stay here. They all hate me.” Jun sat up, amid the empty bunks.

Fausto promised to talk to them; they would understand his family’s hardships. Jun lay down, crossing his arms, but when Fausto patted his hand, Jun grabbed it and held tight. Neither of them moved. As Fausto watched Jun sleep, he thought of what they had left behind. His life in San Esteban was not so bad after all. Homesickness gnawed a hole in his stomach, but he wove his fingers with Jun’s until they were entwined.

Benny and the others offered Jun extra bread and fruit that they had smuggled out of the kitchen, but Jun wouldn’t accept them. Fausto didn’t know what happened to him when they landed in Seattle and parted ways. When he was working near Stockton years later, a pinoy on his asparagus crew told him about a pinoy named Jun Villanueva. The two Villanuevas shared similar stories from back home. At the time he heard this story, the American government had passed a law giving pinoys free passage to return to the Philippines. Not many took it. Fausto later found out that if a pinoy accepted the offer, he could never return to America. This Villanueva had gotten into trouble up and down California, fighting with whites and pinoys alike and landing in jail. He took the free passage, bragging to anyone who would listen that he was glad to be leaving.

“You think it was the Jun from your ship?” Arturo was on his second cup of coffee.

“When I heard the story, I hoped it was not him,” Fausto said. “I did not want to think he had no place to call home. When we landed, he said he wanted to keep in touch. I gave him the address in Los Angeles where my cousins lived, but I never heard from him again.” Fausto stared into his cup, his watery black reflection now cold. “Last time I saw him he was walking off the pier. But he looked like any of us leaving the ship. He was all of us leaving the ship.”

Farm workers in an asparagus delta farm in California, circa early 1930s (photo credit: Frank Mancao).

Farm workers in an asparagus delta farm in California, circa early 1930s (photo credit: Frank Mancao).