Pederico’s story

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“It’s here! I feel it! It has finally come.” I gasped, roused from fitful half sleep by a bare wisp of stinging cold wind suddenly brushing against my feet while I lay in bed one early autumn evening heavy with the still lingering heat of summer. My legs jerked wildly, recoiling instinctively as the touch of the chilled wind became heavier and more persistent. The wind had appeared abruptly and unexpected out of a crisp, clear darkened sky just as my father had predicted it would, nipping and snapping, at first barely perceptible, like a frisky puppy at my bare, unprotected heels, then moving up my leg forcefully like a growling dog. Seized with fear, my muscles from the top of my head to the extreme tips of my toes stiffened, tight and taut. I could not move. I dared not move. The knife-sharp chilly breeze sliced across the soles of my feet in short, sharp strokes before slithering snake-like slowly, undulating up the length of my legs and along the expanse of my shivering body until it reached my neck. Tarrying there for a breath of a second awash in the heavy perspiration oozing from open pores widened from spasms of fear, the breeze then inched up, up, up along my torso like a silky spider’s web enveloping my mind in a tangled parody of Eve enticing Adam. My father had warned me when I was about to enter manhood that it would be useless to resist the wind. He counseled that if a man passes through high peaks and low valleys of life with appropriate balance there would be no need to fear or challenge the adjudicating wind’s minute and detailed assessment. Dismissing his words with my habitual obstinacy, I was able to lift myself over the throes of a long, lingering illness that had sapped almost all my remaining strength and find enough determination to put up a fight, however feeble, to break free of the Aswang wind’s possessive grip.

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ILLUSTRATION BY PERRY GIL MALLARI

ILLUSTRATION BY PERRY GIL MALLARI

My last ditch resistance to my destiny was not for fear of dying. I was not in the least bit afraid. I was predisposed to meet, as a man should, the fate destined for me because of my youthful follies. During the younger man days of my 83 years, recklessness and foolhardiness had taken me to the farthest and deepest realms of human curiosity about life, sometimes leading me to delve into the most dubious tangents that even the most emboldened would avoid. In this way, I had come to know almost each and every shame, remorse, pain and failure that singularly accompany every man’s life. I had overstepped the line of balance. I thought I had made up for my mistakes after I met and married Isabel and changed my wayward ways. Desperately clinging to few remaining remnants of my normal man’s life, I naturally tried to conceal my failings and shortcoming beneath the cloak of an extraordinarily average life I had built while weaning myself off the sins of my youth. I am not a religious man, but I prayed to any god who would listen to accept my regrets for some of the things I did even though I knew I could not undo what had been done. Nevertheless, rather weakly, I did not consider all of my human blemishes as a sure path to perdition that would destroy the complexion of my character or perhaps leave obvious, telltale scars. Rather, I saw them as the average pockmarks of human weakness that would always be part of me.

No, it was not death that made me resist succumbing to the cold, yet strangely comforting, deceptively sensual womanly caress of the Aswang wind. Rather, I knew that I could not die before fulfilling my obligations. And I needed more time for this. First, I had to keep the promise to return home made to my parents when I left the Philippines 62 years before. Next, I had to complete the bequeathing of a Filipino legacy to my children who had never really known their family and their home and the customs of their ancestors.

“When will you return home? You are the oldest son. You have duties!” my mother Liberata had asked me as she struggled to say farewell, the welling tears clouding her eyes and the last view she would ever have of him. “After I have become a real American,” I replied. The words slipped with seeming ease off my tongue, but they stuck in the recesses of my heavily laden heart as if reluctant to reach my mother’s ears. It was this promise and the legacy for my children that infused me with the determination to resist the wind as a rabbit flaunting the wolf.

There were thin wispy veils of rain falling gently on that August evening in Manila in 1923 when I boarded the steamer bound for far-off San Francisco. In that distant and continually dimming past morphed into the faded penumbra of a full lifetime, I recall looking through the wet mist squatting on the bay like an immense, flabby gray cat and all I could see was the world waiting for me to reach out. My suitcase carried the letter of acceptance to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as well as my letter of scholarship, two volumes on the travels of Jose Rizal throughout Europe, a small Fernando Armosolo water color reproduction of “Rice Planting” taken from a calendar and photos of my mother Liberata and my father Castor standing at the edge of the family’s vast coconut plantation and each of my six brothers and sisters. There were a few of my family, friends and classmates who had made the journey with me from Kalibo to Manila to see me off and were with me on board the ship competing to spend the precious moments wishing me goodbye, so I had little chance to notice the steady trickle of tears winding down along the thin premature crevices etched into my mother’s face until the announcement came for all visitors to go ashore.

“When will you return home?” she asked again. I knew what she wanted to hear but she sensed what my reply would be. “When I am a real American!” I repeated, not knowing what I could say that would ease her mind and stem the steady trickle of tears. “Then, I will never see you again,” she blurted out as a torrent held back in her grieving heart burst through. It was not until after her death that I realized what she meant and that her tears had foretold her eventual lamenting for not being able to see her eldest again before dying.
She knew that a trip to America was long and arduous and took not only time but also a great deal of money. Although my mother and father have been dead for many years, I always felt I would be able to at least return home one day to keep the promise I made to my mother until today when the wind suddenly appeared.

I had a feeling the wind might be near a few weeks ago when I was not feeling well and had been told by the doctor to stay in bed for a few days. My eldest son, Ben, had come over to visit and had scoffed when I confided my fears to him and told him not to tell his mother.

“Ben,” I asked, “do you think people will say when I am dead that Federico was a real American?” This seemed to take Ben by surprise. “Why would anyone wait until you die to say that? Everyone knows you are an American! All your friends and the neighbors know it. And you have the citizenship papers to prove it if anyone should ask!”

Ben tended to see things the way a real American would. He said, “Dad, papers prove everything. What you own, what you have done, what you are. Besides your citizenship papers you have all your records as a civil servant in the Postal Service, your military service records and your discharge papers. These all give you legality and rights as well as honor and integrity as an American citizen. Papers also prove you actually exist as a real American. The papers made you a citizen in the eyes of the law! What else is necessary?”
I tried to explain my feeling that being an American should come to me in the same way that being Filipino oozes out of my pores, like perspiration, like knowing the scents of rainy season or rice when it’s new or old, or the buntot maya nape beauty of a woman’s neck. It should be something I feel with my heart and body not with my mind and a certification. I didn’t want to be stamped “American!” I wanted to live American.

No, Ben did not really understand what I was asking, but he did know how much it meant to me to be recognized by other Americans as a full-fledged American. He also sensed that even after 62 years America had still not become home to me in the same way that Pook in Kalibo, Capiz in the Philippines was my home. He could not fully comprehend why not, but he sensed that the contradictions of loving America and wanting to return to the Philippines had something to do with my having a heart that could only beat as a Filipino heart while accepting the stimulations that America gave it to continue to beat. It was difficult for me to try to explain my emotions adequately to Ben and the other children. The words failed me. I could think them perfectly in Aklanon or even in Tagalog or Spanish, but they would not find understandable form in English. Because of this I concentrated on trying to evolve into a real American for their sake and to take their mind off my Philippines fixation. This approach had drawbacks, the biggest being my children’s growing identity problems. I agonized most over this.

I was aware that the children had a difficult time building an identity as Americans because often they were pulled from one side to the other about their father and mother being American or Filipino. This tension led them to live simultaneously in truth and fiction about being Filipino while trying to metamorphose into an American. However, while an insect’s metamorphosis is natural, the desire to emerge as something foreign is an unnatural process. Recognizing this, my wife and I intentionally had not told the children much about their Filipino heritage. We had come to know that prior heritage was generally unimportant to Americans molded by the “melting pot” analogy as it cleansed away elements not conducive to becoming a real American and could be a disadvantage.
Within the surrounding white culture with which we wanted to identify and become a part of our striving for complete emergence as real Americans might have been easier if we only we had European ancestry. Anything less would be pseudo-American. We started emphasizing to the children the little Spanish blood we carried so they could blend in more with the English, Irish, German-Russian-Polish Jewish European backgrounds of their classmates and friends. In this way, they too could say that Europe was also their ancestral bosom and the breast of England had nurtured their English.

It became apparent that the children were confused when they questioned why the Filipino grandfathers, grandmothers, cousins, uncles and aunts—staring down from the living room walls—looked like the family that operated the neighborhood Chinese laundry. What was the Philippines? Why didn’t it appear in their history textbooks except as a place of battle during the Second World War? Why was there almost nothing but occasional stories about kidnappings, killings, children searching in garbage dumps and poverty in the Philippines in the newspapers or on television? Why did such a terrible place mean so much to us? And why should it be important to them? And why, if it was so important, did they have to pretend to be something they were not?

Our insistence that the family should emulate the European ancestry of our neighbors in many ways made the family more American than the families of our friends and acquaintances. We thought that if we made our house the cleanest, worked the hardest, saved more money, gave the children a better education (even as far as university), were more law abiding, especially in paying taxes, and if I would join the military to fight for the country, my wife and I could be real Americans just like our neighbors. I concentrated on studying the history of the United States and eventually knew it better than most of my neighbors. I studied and knew the laws and, of course, followed them to the letter. I voted when I should and never, ever spat on the sidewalk, not even the one outside our house.
No one in the family had ever been detained by the police or, god forbid, been put in jail! The only time the family had anything to do with the police was when my wife and I had to answer questions after helping a woman who was being attacked on the street one summer evening a few years ago.

When we first moved into the neighborhood we thought it best to maintain a good outward appearance and for some time avoided inviting too many Filipino friends to the house lest we give the impression to the white neighbors that we had few real American friends outside the neighborhood and were, therefore, in reality less American. We also struggled to keep our lawn neater and painted the house more often. Of course, we used a subdued white with pale gray trimming in appropriate balance. We avoided being ostentatious. We made sure the children were neatly and impeccably dressed. And most important and in our one of our few concessions to Philippine tradition, my wife and I strictly required the children to strive to do better than others, particularly, their white counterparts, and to appear cleaner, smarter and just as ambitious, but not too much to avoid provoking resentment.

As a real American, I supported the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan, the war in Korea, America’s position on Cuba, the Cold War with The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and The People’s Republic of China, the incursions into Vietnam, even though these reminded me of US incursions into the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, the attack on helpless Granada and the puzzling support for the Shah of Iran against the Islamic fundamentalists. For a time, I went as far as condoning discrimination against Negroes.

I felt that if I could become a real American then nobody could question my name because it’s not Abercrombie, Brown or Clark or Davidson. Nobody would care if I don’t pronounce “F” properly and cannot pronounce my name, Federico, the way Americans do. I would have earned the right to act like any American and do what I wanted to do no matter what anybody else said. Of course, if one was not white, to earn this right to be an American was difficult without a hard struggle.

The children came to realize that unlike most of their friends, their grandfather and grandmother, their uncles and aunts and cousins lived in a distant country halfway around the world. Visits to go see them or visits by them to come and see us were out of the question because of the cost of traveling so far. Our next-door Irish neighbors had two boys in the army stationed in Hawaii. It was not quite as far as the Philippines, but their two sons had not been home for three or four years. During the time our children were growing up, it would take several months to travel from the Philippines to New York City. The only contact came by way of a regular stream of letters written in a language that was strange to the children, accompanied by sepia photos of relatives in “frozen moments” during various stages of their lives. The children knew that the language was linked to the Philippines where their parents originally came from. Several times a year, I would get together with some “classmates” from the home country, outside the neighborhood, and speak in Bisayan and rarely Aklanon. My wife would meet with her friends from her home province and from school and speak Ilocano. It was important for us as Filipinos and Filipinas to watch out for each other while far away from home. We felt we must keep part of home always with us, even if it only meant keeping the bonds of kinship and friendship.
In spite of their exposure in various ways to the Philippines the country became for them just one among many countries in the world atlas. They knew little about the Philippines practically and we did not try to teach them too much Tagalog and certainly not any Bisayan or Ilocano. As a result, they cared little about it. As they grew older, I began to realize that they were often embarrassed by my strong accent and strange way of speaking English. I once overheard them heatedly discussing why I could not sound like the fathers of their friends in the neighborhood. The neighbors, teachers and staff at school, the clerks in stores where we did our shopping never seemed to mind. It was only our children.

When Ben was nine years old one of his friends asked him why his father spoke in a funny way. Ben could not answer and it troubled him. When he was ten years old, I took him to the hospital to have an examination for eyeglasses because his school had determined that his eyesight had become bad. It was the first time for me to go to the ophthalmology department so I did not know the receptionist. When she asked my name, I replied, as I usually did, “The name is Arevalo, Pe–der–ri–co Arevalo.”

The receptionist began to write the first name, saying each letter out loud as she did. “P–e–d– .”

“No! If you please, it is Pe – de – ri – co,” I interrupted. I pronounced each syllable slowly and distinctly, “Pe”, “de”, “ri”, “co.”

Puzzled, she looked up and said, “That’s what I am writing, sir, ‘P’, ‘e’, … .”
“No, no,” I insisted, “You’re spelling it wrong. It is common Pilipino name, ‘Pederico,’ spelled widan ‘ep’ not wida ‘pee’.”

Even more puzzled, the reception cocked her head, while glancing at Ben apparently for some kind of help, and asked, “I’m sorry sir, spelled with what?”

Before I could say anything Ben quickly interjected, “It’s spelled with an ‘F,’ not a ‘P.’ It’s pronounced “Fe – de – ri – co.”

The receptionist smilingly beamed, “Oh, OK, that’s what you meant,” as she wrote, ‘Fred – der – ri – co.’

As Ben was about to correct her, he saw me wince as I motioned to him with a slight
shaking of my head.

As we walked to the bus stop after leaving the hospital, Ben asked me why I could not pronounce certain words like those starting with “F.”

“Let’s walk home,” I said, “I’ll tell you a short story about Filipinos that I learned from my grandfather. He told it to me when I started to learn English in school and was having a hard time with pronunciation.”

“There is one ancient tale that was told to children about the great god Bathala who held the hearts, souls and minds of Filipinos before other gods came from the west and east. It tells how Bathala created human creatures. Taking clay from the nourishing mother earth of plants and animals, Bathala first kneaded it with water from the briny seas filled with swimming life until the clay became soft and pliable. From the soft clay Bathala shaped male and female figures, which he then laid in the warm eternal light of the almighty never-ending sun. When the figures were sun-dried, Bathala placed them in the fiery kiln of the volcano Apo to be fired with trees from Kitanglad for forty days and forty nights.

When Bathala removed the figures from the kiln it was found to the god’s dismay that they had been fired too long. They were as black as burnt tree ash from the kiln and deemed not suitable as the desired human creatures because they did not have a similar likeness to the god.

“Bathala laid the black figures aside and turned once more to shaping new figures from the clay. Carefully, the god placed them in Apo’s fiery kiln. Determined not to commit a mistake again, Bathala let them fire for seven days and seven nights. Alas, when the figures were removed from the kiln the god found the firing had been too short and they were as white as the frost of the mountains of Benguet and, again, far too pale to be a suitable likeness.

“Bathala put the white figures beside the black ones. The god then decided to try once more. In this next attempt, Bathala was determined not to let the figures remain in the kiln too long nor to remove them too soon. The god first paid strict attention to place the newly shaped figures with care into the kiln and then waited the optimal siyam number of nine days and nine nights. When the kiln was opened, there lay before the god the perfect male creature and the perfect female creature, both in the resemblance of Bathala. The new creatures were golden brown as the soft light of the evening setting sun on acacia leaves.

Bathala picked up each creature and with mouth upon mouth, from god to creature, slowly breathed life into them fusing their labas (the outside), loob (the inside) and lalim (the deep inside) with thinking and capabilities that were almost like that of the god.

“As Bathala reached to discard the two other pairs, the black one and the white one, a thought came to the heavenly mind. Why not allow them to live and inhabit other lands on the earth? After all, they too were replicas of Bathala’s own features although they were black and white and not nearly as beautiful as the two brown creatures most resembling the god’s own image. So life was breathed into them also and in this way people of different colors came to inhabit the earth.”

I knew that Ben would not understand everything I said and I could see in the faint frown that framed Ben’s young eyes a flicker of an American-bred Thomasian as he looked up at me in doubt about my story. Then he looked down as we walked slowly along Victory Boulevard toward Tompkinsville and after a few minutes looked up again with a broad beaming smile of satisfaction. He had found something to hang on to.

“It’s not an easy story to understand Ben, especially if you’ve been brought up to believe in how the Christian god created the world. There are so many stories about how people came to be people, white, black, brown, red and even yellow. There are people in far-off countries like India, China, Egypt and Ethiopia that have stories about how their people came into the world. The Filipinos have their stories also. This is one of them. It’s a story that families pass from generation to generation, mainly through the lolas (grandmothers) and lolos (grandfathers) who carry the young children and watch over them while the parents work in the fields or other places outside the house.”

I told Ben that Filipinos derive much of their pride from this link to Bathala, particularly the resemblance to the god. Their pride transcends far beyond the time that they came to be known as “Filipinos” because as a people they had come to the world long before Felipe and his people or even his name existed. Their pride is also in a history, even though unwritten, that began long before a time when those who later became their masters were still a barbarian horde. Today, Bathala’s people are called Filipinos. That cannot be helped now because it too is part of their long and varied history. Filipinos are Filipinos wherever they are because their essence remains the same whatever name they are called. They are Bathala’s people. Others are different. The way that a Filipino pronounces his name is part of being Filipino.

I said that when Bathala breathed life into the brown clay figures their tongues were given a feature that would shape their words to imitate the god’s own words and forever distinguish them from all other human creatures as the representative people of the god. Bathala also infused them with the competence to learn and speak many languages beyond their own so that they could go far beyond their own land and be understood and welcomed by other people. That is how I and your mother came to live in America and that’s why I pronounce “F” as “ep.” “You might say,” I added, “it’s a Bathala ‘ep’.”

I told Ben of my many struggles to improve my English pronunciation from the time I came to the States to go to college and later at work taking great pains to imitate the sounds spoken by people around me. Try as I did, I made pitifully little progress. I knew it was not my capacity to learn. It was as if god had decided that the thick Filipino accent I grew up with was sufficient for me to find my way. The other sounds that would not emanate from my mouth were unnecessary for me to move ahead.

As we came near to Tompkinsville, I also told Ben of the promise I had made to my mother before I left the Philippines. Ben had learned the concept and responsibilities of kuya since his younger brother was born. It was the one concession Isabella and I had made to teach the children about Philippine culture. As kuya he was very good at carrying out his role as the oldest son and sibling. After we arrived back home, he gathered his younger brother Jose and two sisters Solidad and Consolation and told them the story of Bathala and the promise I had made to Lola Liberata. I know that they did not fully comprehend the meaning of the story, but they were pleased to have something that identified them so uniquely. They also seem to finally accept the limitations of my English pronunciation.

In recent years, the children, now adults with children of their own, had begun to comprehend the meaning of the story in much the same way that much of western society accepts the Christian biblical version of how the world was created. They saw its significance in helping them to understand their own existence as Filipinos in a world where the Philippines and its people are largely unknown, or worse, misunderstood. With the story in mind, as they grew up, their interest in the Philippines grew and their knowledge about the country and its people increased. They told the story of Bathala to their children and to many of their friends and impressed upon them the necessity of telling the story to as many generations of Filipinos living outside the Philippines as possible and preserving it for posterity. Ben’s second son, Teodoro, or Teo, as we all called him, was a filmmaker so he made a video about the story first using me and Isabella as narrators, but later remade it using the daughter of one of my old friends from childhood who had become a well-known actress as the narrator. It was a private video meant only for Filipinos living abroad. I am not confident that the video approach is appropriate to passing the tale down from generation to the next because I think the oral recitation is important to establishing rapport between the storyteller and the listeners, usually small children. I also told Ben of the visits of the Aswang wind.

Ben and the others had long recognized my quandary about the promise to my mother to return. However, they hesitated to accept my explanation about the Aswang wind, but they said they would support me in my resistance to succumb to the wind so that I could continue to tell the story of Bathala hopefully to their children’s children.

The wind has come again. It is powerful and relentless, and, in truth, I am afraid. In the past two days the wind’s caress is not so cold. I suspect this might the wind’s way of lowering my resistance because it senses I am giving in to my age and am tired from trying to resist what has been ordained. Nevertheless, tonight, while I have been lying here, the tears of my mother have fallen on my face, washing over me and cleansing my soul and filling my heart creating a feeling that my mother is trying to ease my guilt. The dreams that come in fits and starts reveal to me my grandchildren and their children and their children beyond, increasing in number and generation as they wait patiently to hear the stories about their ancestors so that they too can pass them on. I feel renewed vigor and I am filled with the strength to fulfill my obligations.

Note: This is a heavily revised version of a short story “My name is Pederico—Becoming a Filipino American” that was published in Solidarity, No. 115, November-December 1987.

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