A person who does not look back to where he came from would not be able to reach his destination (English translation of Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makarating sa paroroonan.)
– Dr. Jose P. Rizal, Filipino revolutionary and national hero
This year’s theme of Filipino American History Month is “Hands That Built America: Filipino Americans in the Labor Movement.” It’s appropriate that October was the chosen month for this designation, as October 25th is Larry Itliong’s birthday, and this year is special because it is Itliong’s 100th birthday. Itliong was a Filipino American labor organizer who led the Filipino grape pickers out of the vineyards on September 8, 1965, in what was the beginning of the Great Delano Grape Strikes, which lasted into the 1970s.
In doing light research on Filipino American History Month, I came across the phrase, “No history, no self. Know history, know self,” which, according to a few sources I traced, is a very loose interpretation of Dr. Rizal’s quote from above. The phrase is particularly poignant for The Philippines, given its centuries of colonial status under Spain and then the United States. It’s a reminder of the importance of understanding all aspects of our heritage – the true culture, bondage, revolution, and finding oneself all over again, as painful as that is.
In terms of Filipino American history in this country, in the last century-plus, more people need to know about the contributions of Filipino labor leaders and the many workers who brought food to America’s tables. Tying in both aspects of Filipino American History, I present another excerpt from my novel-in-progress, from Chapter 2. My protagonist, Fausto Empleo, is a boy in his hometown of San Esteban who dreams beyond the ricefields of his family’s legacy:
Ever since Fausto’s father, Emiliano, began taking him to the ricefields to plant and harvest at the age of five—the same age his father and grandfather had begun to work—Fausto knew he would not follow in their footsteps. He would not get up before the sun rose and ride the carabao to the ricefields for the rest of his life. He would not harvest maguey and strip, wash, cure, and braid its fibers into rope and then haggle with agents over how many pesos could be paid for several kilos of maguey. Somehow, he would find a way to attend the American school in San Esteban. His uncles had allowed his older cousins, Macario, Caridad, Serapio, and Domingo, to go to school but only when they weren’t needed in the fields. They fell back a few grades until Uncle Johnny, Macario’s father, forced his son to quit for good, and Fausto’s other cousins quit soon after. Fausto would not quit. But first he had to find a way to get into school.
He couldn’t hang around the schoolhouse after classes to catch the American teacher’s attention because he came home from the fields after sundown, long after Miss Arnold had closed up the wooden building. He knew one student’s mother cleaned the schoolhouse on Saturdays. Fausto convinced his grandmother, his lelang, to stop by the schoolhouse on their way to the marketplace one Saturday morning and talked his way into cleaning the floors for five centavos. The musty odor gave him a coughing fit, but he rubbed the floors with petroleum-soaked banana leaves until the wood gleamed like the bow on Miss Arnold’s hat. His lelang agreed to keep his job a secret; Fausto told her he wanted to replace their sickly farm animals with the money he was making. He secretly hoped Miss Arnold would show up while he was working, but she never came.
No matter. When he finished polishing the floor, he opened up books stuffed on shelves that spanned the length of the room. He cut his fingertips along the edge of the pages, but he minded them less than the calluses on his palms. He copied the curves and lines from the books across the slate board, and stood back to admire his work for a few moments before quickly erasing it clean, all trace of chalk gone. He stared at the colorful pictures tacked on the walls, until his lelang returned, scolding him that his secret would be found out. The following week, he asked one of the girls from town who was attending school to help him write a sign. The next Saturday, he left it at the entrance of the schoolhouse: “Floor cleaned by Fausto Empleo.”
By the third Saturday, when nothing had happened, he realized he would have to introduce himself to Miss Arnold, without his mother and his lelang‘s knowledge, at St. Stephen’s, where the teacher and his family both worshipped. After mass he spied Miss Arnold greeting members of the congregation. The men craned their necks—she towered above them with a head piled high with brown hair—and saluted. “Good morning, Miss Arnold!” they said in lively voices. The women bowed and addressed her as la maestra. She strode across the gravel walkway, her big feet marching in dusty brown boots. It was a warm day and yet she wore a brown wool suit with a white blouse that covered her neck, a long-sleeved jacket, and a stiff skirt that puffed out. As she came closer, he saw the wrinkles in her sun-burnt face. Gray hairs poked out along her hairline like fine wire.
She would have walked by him if he hadn’t stepped into her path. “Miss Arnold, are your floors clean enough?” He shifted his feet, his toes curled in shoes that didn’t fit.
She studied his face for a moment before saying in a bright voice, “You must be Fausto Empleo! I see you leave your signature, like an artist.” She took Fausto’s hand and shook it vigorously. She didn’t seem to notice his calluses. Her own hands, as big as a man’s, were covered with brown blotches.
“You look to be about seven years old, ready for school. Why are you cleaning my floor and not attending my class?” She bent down, her eyes level with his. She slid her glasses to the tip of her long nose. Her eyes were as clear as the sea off of San Esteban on a cloudless day.
He couldn’t stop staring. How could eyes that blue not see clearly? How could they not be dulled with age?
“I have to help my pa with our land.” He stole a glance past Miss Arnold. Father Miguel, in his starched white cassock, was greeting his mother and lelang. “My pa says I’m a good worker in the fields.”
“Oh, dear.” Miss Arnold held her cheek as if she had a toothache. “I’m sure you are a good worker, but you need to go to school! We teach industrial skills, not just reading and writing. The whole world is changing. You must realize we are living in a time of great progress. You can’t be left behind. School is for everybody.”
Fausto’s head swam. While even the laborers were teaching themselves English—American and English-speaking businessmen flooded the islands since the Spaniards had been driven out—what he knew was not enough. “I know about school,” he said, looking past the yellow-flowered gumamela bushes and acacia trees, in the direction of the schoolhouse. “After I clean the floors, I look at the books and the pictures on the walls,” he said, then cocked his head to one side. “But if you want to teach reading in English, you need books that have more words than pictures. We like to work hard.”
Miss Arnold pursed her lips, holding back a smile. Tiny wrinkles branched out around her mouth. “I will consider your practical suggestion, Fausto. Your work ethic will serve you well in school, and you would be a big help to me in the classroom. I strongly suggest you come to my class.” She sat on her haunches before him, her blue skirt billowing out and sweeping the ground. “A poet wrote about the difficult journey we Philippine teachers have had to undertake. The end of the poem says: ‘And let no petty doubts becloud your brain;/Remember, while you try to do your parts,/That, if one single spark of light you leave/Behind, your work will not have been in vain.'” She broke out grinning. “Fausto Empleo, you already exhibit a spark of light, but you can be more if you come to school. How exciting and rewarding that would be for you, your parents, and me—to be more!”
She promised to come to his house to request permission for him to join her classroom. After she left, he caught sight of his mother walking homeward, his baby brother joined at her hip, his sisters skipping behind her, his lelang trailing, eyeing him. Nearby, the town presidente‘s daughters greeted their American teacher with curtsies. The two girls, dressed in striped pandilings and kamisas as pale as their faces, were waiting for their calesa, which had pulled into the courtyard. The driver, a dark-skinned man, hoisted the girls to their seats. He sat in front and snapped his whip against the white horse’s flank. Fausto’s sisters called after him, and he ran to catch up, wincing in his shoes. He looked back as the glazed yellow wheels spun in circles and the red-painted calesa lurched forward, dipping in and out of the ruts beyond the arched entryway. It soon passed him and his family on the road, although he broke out into a lively gait, imagining he could outrun the horse.