I Am Conversation
Breathe in, breathe out. My grandpa told me stories about his childhood. He told me how Japan occupied the Philippines during the Second World War. The Japanese soldiers trampled through the marketplace—looting the fisherman’s haul. As my grandpa told me this, his eyes, black pupils, looked away from me. His mind was half in his words and half in thought. His tongue pierced his phrases like Japanese knives in fisherman’s baskets. The fish fell to their feet—our culture on the floor. Catch and release.
My brown skin “confuses” people. I do not necessarily have a “Filipino” nose, my tongue has no “accent” but I have that “straight-Asian” hair. So, I’m asked: What are you? Being of a certain background is unique, being Filipino is a distinction in itself—my culture has a life of its own. Breathe in the scent of vinegar that filled my grandma’s kitchen, exhale like the whispers of her daily prayers—Hail Mary, full of grace; Hail Mary, full of grace—over and over. Quiet, gentle.
I speak the story of immigration; from a homeland I call “somewhere.”
But I’m American. I only know the dents of my grandma’s metal pans and the words that linger on her green rosary—the metal links tarnished from her persistent fingers. I have never been to the Philippines. I don’t know Tagalog. I don’t know how far a Balikibayan Box has to travel. I don’t know who my grandparents were. I only know the Nenna and Roberto, who took me to the commissary and would cook me Chicken Adobo in the afternoon. The ones who place 13 fruits on the table on New Year’s and would make crosses out of leaves on Palm Sundays. The ones who taught me who I am, who I am not and where I am from. Our story speaks through me. My traditions are in the floorboards, beating through my footsteps.
But the underlying principle of immigration to America is cause; of how the West invaded homelands, oppressed entire cultures for centuries, uprooted people, forced migration to where dreams are.
For my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, my mom made the seven grandchildren do a traditional Filipino dance in tribute to our grandparents’ marriage. The music started:
Three boys in back. Four girls in front. Borrowed Filipiniana dresses and Barongs, stiff with starch, itched to the touch. Around and around we waltzed. Switching partners. Making formations. Our hands pointing this way, then that way. Sounds of Spanish Suites spin circles through us.
The Spanish first set their sights on the Philippines in 1521, taking aim at millions of my people. From the ostracized to the marginalized, the oppressed to the forgotten, the effects of colonization and exploitation are present today. Tomas comes from the Aramaic root of Thomas which means “twin” in Latin—the other half of a whole, with a piece missing—adopted by the Spanish, the letters were sliced into my culture with swords. Tainted with the blood of my own, my signature curls itself at the tips as if it is doesn’t know how long it extends; half me and half something else. Written on the bottom line: my name reeks of occupation. My identity is disjointed: a mestizo boy with a Spanish name, who has a Filipino mom and a Mexican dad. One arm in The Philippines and the other in Mexico, but both feet in America— Western history labels me a “victory” because my people are of the conquered.
My tongue is dulled by the promises of success: I was always told to do well in school. Study hard. Pursue something worthwhile. Raise my hand. Only speak when spoken to—just as the Japanese soldiers told my grandpa. Oppression is in the promised, the way that students are trained to be submissive.
In Filipino culture, children are taught to never leave home until we are ready—until we have the means of a comfortable life. There’s a lot of pressure on us to pursue high paying jobs because opportunity is something our ancestors lacked. Our responsibility is to do everything our ancestors didn’t. I find myself in between doctors and engineers, between medical masks strung over lips sewn shut and math problems. The position of my role and who I am is between the values of the east and the demands of the west. Half way. I find myself in the ebb and flow, under the ship that took my grandma and mom to America. In the crevices of that ship’s hull and the ones on the streets of San Diego, I see myself in moldings that I cannot fill.
At family gatherings, I am often asked “what do you want to do with your life?” I hesitate. I am twenty-two years old, half of me is too old for “interests” and the other half too young for a “career.” But, I have spent my whole life waiting to understand my in between. The space between my identity and who I am; National City and Pangasinan— how those crevices breathe through my words. I write: I am sorry, I am sorry. I am sorry for not being the Berkeley graduate—six-figure paychecks and nice car. I am sorry for not knowing my own tongue. The effort of preserving who we are is lost in transit. I am wasteful of all these opportunities. I am sorry.
Apologies are left for the aftermath. Traditions, from families so rooted in “somewhere else,” are still foreign—our voices still silenced. Apologies, shaped from the tongue of my culture, linger on my lips—passivity, acceptance. I am sorry. Our history and culture stem from our relationship to our captors. We are so used to living in the frame of the West.
I am told—raise your hand. Only speak when spoken to. Education is through the eyes of the victor, we did not win. Knives sculpt thought—split speech—forked tongue—snake. Poisoned. I am taught to think, so my sharpened tongue curves itself inward. This is why I was always told to never write in first-person. I. I cut out my identity in the name of enlightenment. I replace myself with absence, in order to be what I’m told. I am taught to dance to the American sameness that is meant to have saved us.
But, save us.
Plaza Boulevard: I grew up among the other “natives,” among the other “immigrants”—however “other” is defined. My words are the diaspora of the mango tree rooted in soil I do not know. This story is the product of the West—one of both coming together and breaking apart. This is conversion, a kaleidoscope—fragmented, confused, but vibrant, dynamic, growing. I am eksena—scenes, plural. Both of the colonized and the communal—I am the contemporary. A combination. A culmination. I am conversation.
I am the dialogue, the hyphen in Filipino-American. I speak from the West, but I write from the East—my words circle between the two. My identity is inside my own veins but outside of myself, in between me and them. I. From the beaches of Pangasinan, where my grandpa used to fish, to the desk where I write now, I find comfort in knowing that we are in transit. Breathe in, breathe out. Catch and release.
Powerful, Tomas! I remember meeting you briefly at VONA in 2015. Such great work and truth here…