We Laid His Body Down, anniversary of the murder of Filipino Labor Leader


“Bye Bye Miss American Pie…”

We were singing because it was a wake and this was HIS favorite song. It was night, and still almost 100 degrees because we were in the tropical Philippines. As is the custom when a loved one dies in the Philippines, we were all there for the duration of the night. It is traditional for everyone to stay with the family through the night – the hardest part of mourning, making it through the night. The body was in the house, sealed in the casket. We were outside, in front of the home, singing at the top of our lungs,

“took the chevy to the levy but the levy was dry”.

Tears, sweat, and laughter.

The dead man was Fortuna Diosdado (1954-2005), the president of the Nestle workers union. He was assassinated on Sept 22, 2005. Men on Motorcycles wearing ski masks shot him in the head. The Nestle workers were on strike because the company wanted to take away retirement benefits in their collective bargaining agreement. He was also a father and a husband and he loved Don Mclean songs.

“Starry, starry night
Paint your palette blue and gray
Look out on a summer’s day”

 I met him once, I remember his smile and warm greeting. We were all laughing in the back of the jeepney – going home after a rally. He was loved. Loved by workers and his family. His nickname was Ka. Fort. (Ka. is an abbreviation for kasama, which means “to go with.” There is no real English translation, comrade is the closest but kasama doesn’t have to be political. It means someone who walks “with you”.)

Ka. Fort’s death, his murder, shook us all. We were not going to only mourn in the darkness. We were going to keen and gnash our teeth and shake our fists in the day.

We took his body 100 miles from his home to Manila. His casket on a flatbed truck covered in flowers. We followed, in jeepneys and on foot. Hundreds of us, we brought his body to the doors of the Commission of Human rights who had so clearly failed to stop the murder of labor leaders in the Philippines. We took his body to the front of the Nestle HQ in Manila. There, men all in black with large guns greeted us, Nestlé private Security. Standing faceless, with automatic weapons in front, guarding the modern office building of a worldwide corporation.

All along our pilgrimage of rage and grief, police and military followed us, sometimes stopping us for hours, blocking traffic. I rodein the jeepney with Ka Fort’s older brother. A man in his 60’s yelling out the windows at the military, you are all murderers!

It was hot. It was humid. We were dripping in sweat. We were exhausted and angry and covered in grime and dirt. We were stopped again, the police and military blocking the highway. Cars and busses that were not part of our caravan jumped the median to get out of the blockade. We poured out of vehicles and moved towards Ka. Fort’s casket. The police had water cannons pointed at us and at his casket. His sister was screaming at police in riot gear. I began sobbing uncontrollably, overcome from days of no sleep, from special security precautions, from the reality of a dead labor leader’s body so threatened by water cannons.

“With eyes that know the darkness in my soul
Shadows on the hills
Sketch the trees and the daffodils
Catch the breeze and the winter chills
In colors on the snowy linen land”

Finally, the police turned around and let us leave Manila. We began a long journey back to Ka Fort’s hometown, back to the gates of the Neslte factory where he had spent more than 2 decades working. Back to the strike line. As we entered the barangay(town) we all got out and walked behind his body. People lined the streets. It was dark by the time we arrived, but still steaming hot. Children, women and men all stood on the side of the road, fists raised high to honor Ka Fort’s commitment to the rights of workers. Many held candles, their faces lit and glowing in the darkness as we all walked forward carried by our mission.

“Now I understand
What you tried to say to me
How you suffered for your sanity
How you tried to set them free
They did not listen, They did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now”

 Suddenly we saw the darkened, locked gates of the Nestle factory and our mood changed and fury swept over the crowd. We rushed the gates and shook the bars and screamed “murderers!” We shook and shook the bars, the sound of metal scraping against concrete, the angry words, the sweat, the smell of fear, all washed up over the concrete the way heat rises from pavement. Then suddenly from behind the storage containers that were lined up behind the gates of the factory – more men in black. They scurried out into positions, automatic weapons trained on us – unarmed civilians. The organizers, realizing the imminent danger, began shouting “peace brothers and sisters” and “ move away from the gates” so we did, and we began our final vigil. After a long day, the next day we had to bury our friend, labor leader, father, brother, husband – but tonite we sang our final songs on the strike line. The men with guns in the shadows, watching and guarding their corporate masters.


Discovery of new Balangay “mother ship”

Givebalangay2n the name of my blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t post about this exciting discovery. As I mention in my “about” section, the Filipino word Barangay means the smallest administrative unit of government in the Philippines, like a neighborhood or barrio. It is believed that our Filipino ancestors built the ships that could take 100 or so people, and these 100 or so people became a barangay. This past August, a new, much larger balangay was found in Butuan in the Philippines. This ship pre-dates Magellan and indicates and ability to travel and trade with much of Asia – further than originally thought. Here is a link to the story http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/321334/scitech/science/massive-balangay-mother-boat-unearthed-in-butuan.

There is a lot of lost Filipino history that we, as Filipinos don’t know. As my cousin says, who grew-up in the Philippines, “we know more about American history, than our own.” Of course, this was deliberate. When the US took the Philippines as a colony, after committing genocide, killing up to 200,000 people on the island of Samar, they then began a system of killing our history and sense of ourselves as a people. They brought in American textbooks, taught English, ran the government in English. This is very similar to what the US government did here, in North America, killing the First Nations here and then banning their language and their religion and kidnapping their children to place with white families.

Just a thought as we go into the weekend, I leave you with an excerpt from Saul Williams’ poem – Amethyst Rocks

I dance for no reason, for reason you can’t dance,
call me an activist of intellectualized circumstance,
you can’t learn my steps until you unlearn your thoughts,
spirit, soul, can be store-bought, fuck thought,
leads to naught, simply leads to you trying to figure me out,
your intellect’s disfiguring your soul,
your being’s not whole, check your flagpole,
stars and stripes, your astrology’s
imprisoned by your concept of white, of self,
what’s your plan for spiritual health? Calling reality unreal,
your line of thought is tangled, the star
spangled got your soul mangled, your being’s angled,
forbidding you to be real and feel, you can’t find truth
with an axe or a drill in a white house on a hill or
in factories or plants made of steel. Selling us was the
smartest thing you ever did, too bad you don’t teach the
truth to your kids. My influence on user reflection you
see when you look in your minstrel mirror and talk about
your culture, your existence is that of a schizophrenic
vulture who thinks he has enough life in him to prey on the dead,
not knowing that the dead ain’t dead, that he ain’t got enough
spirituality to know how to pray. Yeah, there’s no repentance,
you’re bound to live in infinite consecutive executive life sentence.


My Self-rationing of “Alone” Time


I find myself self-rationing personal/alone time. In so many ways – as a parent, as a parent that works outside the home, as an activist – my time is always on demand and my supply seems constantly low. In the end, it feels like I have very little to give myself.

It is like a self-imposed self-deprivation. If I go to yoga or see a “grown-up movie” at a movie theatre or meet a friend for dinner, I feel like I have used my allotted time for the week. I don’t allow myself another personal time event until the next week. It’s pretty messed up, I know!

I don’t know where I came up with this unfair system. I am guessing that I have internalized the gender bias that places the primary responsibility of childcare on mothers, and condemns women who assert their own needs over their children.

In law school, we read a case from the 60’s where a judge took custody from the mother because she was in law school and was seen reading her law school book during her children’s recital. That was totally me in law school, reading my law books while my kids were taking trapeze class. I had to use every “extra” moment to get through law school. And that was ok, despite what that asshole judge ruled. Law school was one of the most fulfilling projects I ever completed. I felt like a superhero, making Halloween costumes while acing my Contracts exams. It was good I did it, I kicked ass! And I still derive satisfaction from that fact, even if now I am not so sure I want to practice and work the grindstone of a law job (assuming I could even get a legal job in the worst legal job market in history).

It is the balancing act that I find unbearable. Work, children, self, these categories are simultaneously distinct and intertwined. My level of happiness in one activity directly connected to my satisfaction in the other activity. For instance, having my own work outside my children makes me appreciate being home even more.

The famous quote from Khalil Gibran reminds us that our children cannot be OUR project/work.

Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They came through you but not from you and though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

This rings true for me. It is our obligation and sometimes our joy to raise them, but their lives are their own and not ours to lay claim to.

Conversely we, as mothers, do not belong solely to our childen. Adrienne Rich writes beautifully in “Of Woman Born” about the creation of “Motherhood” under patriarchy. This social creation of a “mother” that is created to fulfill a “need vaster than any single human being could satisfy, except by loving continuously, unconditionally, from dawn to dark, and often in the middle of the night.” She writes about our loss of self, our anger, and fear of never finding our way back to our selves again.

When I left for law school and felt racked by guilt, my husband said – Our children need to learn to share their mother with the world.

So, as I begin a new year (it is the Jewish new year), maybe I can do the opposite of rationing and assign myself personal time instead. I am thinking a sticker chart to reward myself.

Back to school Blues & High Stakes Testing


From teachers:

“3rd Grade is no Joke”

“It is time to get Serious”

“Let’s all cross our fingers for the 3rd graders taking their big tests this week.”

 From my kids:

“I wish my teachers wouldn’t say that 3rd grade is no joke, because it makes me nervous.”

“So and so is reading at level R and I am only at level O.” Me: “I don’t care about levels, it’s about enjoying reading.” Kids: “you are wrong mommy, it’s all about the levels, that is what my teacher says.”

 As we enter the third grade, all I can think about is high stakes testing. 3rd grade begins the mandatory NYS testing in public schools. It is 6 total days of standardized testing! (this is not including the practice tests, the drills, or assessments). 3 consecutive days of English and reading and then the next week, 3 consecutive days of math. This equals 9 hours of testing for 8 and 9 year olds! To put it in perspective, the NY Bar Exam is 2 days long, 6 hours each day.

Even worse than the grueling and mean-spirited length of the exams, are the consequences. The exams are linked to promotion to the next grade, entry into the few decent public middle schools in NYC, and linked to teacher evaluations. This past year we shifted to a brand new curriculum called Common Core.* The kids were tested on curriculum that they never learned. 70% of the New York State kids failed the tests. The DOE was forced to issue propaganda about how failing grades was a good sign, because they are raising the standards. No mention of how it must feel as an 8 year old to fail a test that they have been told will decide if they get promoted to the next grade and decide if they are ready for college! (Teachers reported children crying, laying their heads down on the desks, throwing up during these tests.)

It is also a money-making business. With Pearson, the company with the contract to create these exams, making millions from these tests.

 Honestly, it makes me want to take them out of public schools altogether.*  Private school kids don’t have to take these tests. They can go through education believing that the breadth and depth of their work through the year is what matters. They will have the privilege to explore, critically exam, and struggle without the specter of ill-devised exams.

 Standardized tests do not demonstrate what a student has learned, only whether they are good at taking standardized tests.

Last year, there was a nation-wide movement of educators and parents to refuse to take these tests. In Seattle, an entire school district of courageous teachers refused to administer the tests, in favor of actually teaching for all those hours. In NY, many parents refused to allow their children to take these high stakes tests, even though there is no clear way to opt-out. As the results came out, their choice was even more justified, why take a test that was designed to fail the majority of students in the state?

 All of these tests are given with the justification of college readiness. Give me a break, learning how to take multiple choice questions does not make us ready for college, surviving 9 hours of high stake testing doesn’t indicate whether one is ready for college.

 Study after Study have proven that standardized tests are notoriously race and class biased.

 It all makes my stomach sick. Imagine what it feels like if you are 8?

* Don’t even get me started on Common Core – so called corporate driven education “reform”, with it’s emphasis on non-fiction, as if there is nothing to learn from reading fiction. Hmm, 10,000 leagues under the sea? Song of Solomon? Shakespeare? African folk tales? There is so much to say about Common Core, the pet project of the Gates foundation, I will save it for the next blog!

* I am a product of public schools, I support our local public school and our children have wonderful, dedicated, loving, and professional teachers.  We love our principal who grew up in the neighborhood and wants all our children to succeed. But I hate the Department of Ed! I support teachers’ unions, but hate that our NY teacher’s union collaborated with Bloomner and attached these exams to teachers’ evaluations – Rendering them even more “high stakes.”

On Kal Penn & Owning Up to Hate in our Asian-American communities

ImageThe other day the Twittersphere was all a-twitter about Kal Penn’s tweets supporting racist profiling by the NYPD in their stop and frisk harassment program.   When questioned by his Twitter followers as to why he supported stop & frisk, a program that disproportionately targets Black and Latino young men in NY, he answered “and who, sadly, commits & are victims of the most crimes?”  His tweet implying that it was Black and Latinos committing the most crimes out there anyway, so a little racial profiling was justified.**

But really this blog post is not about Kal Penn or about stop and frisk, but about how we shouldn’t be surprised by Kal’s tweets. Rather, my post is about how we should be pleasantly surprised by the support of leaders in the South Asian community and how it led to Kal’s subsequent change of heart. I think it reveals a profound shift in the Asian-American community. I hope that this shift continues but it won’t without: a. recognition of the problem and b. continuing education on the history of Black America – a source of profound lessons in organizing against state power resistance to oppression, courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and theories of social change.

Growing up Asian-American in the rural South meant I experienced racism from an early age. But it also meant that I was taught to fear and hate Blackness from both my White father and my Filipina mother. Some teaching moments:

  • We stopped going to a public pool that I loved because “too many Black kids go there.”
  • When I dated a Black boy for the first time, my mother said, “White people hate Black people so it’s just better if you stay away from them.”
  • My White grandmother complained about integration saying that Whites and Blacks shouldn’t go the same schools. I asked, “But grandma, what about me, and she said well White people don’t mind your kind as much.”

But for me, a transformative moment happened when I received a hate letter in high school, signed “KKK”, using racial epithets and telling me to go back to China, and wishing me dead. I knew who did it; they were privileged, popular upper-middle class White guys who thought they were funny. So I turned them in to the school administration and immediately many of my White “friends” questioned my decision. Predictably, they felt sorry for those boys and didn’t understand why I didn’t understand it was a joke. Rumors were flying around the school that I should be prepared to get my “ass kicked.”

I felt alone. Until a Black classmate of mine, whom I barely knew came up to me. He said, “Hey we heard about what happened to you and I just want you to know that if any of those white boys touch you, every Black guy in the school is going to kick their ass.” Then he walked away.

I learned a powerful lesson about whiteness, blackness, race, and solidarity. I learned that day, that I may be “half-white” or “light skinned,” but the One drop rule still applies. I also learned that all those lessons that I learned about Blackness and Whiteness from my mother was wrong. We would never be assimilated – when push came to shove, White people mainly like and side with White people, and Blackness was powerful and could be our ally if only we weren’t so busy hating and trying to align ourselves with Whiteness.

So I was very happy that Kal Penn’s Twitter followers called him out on his own anti-Black prejudice. And even better, South-Asian community leaders then reached out to him to replace his childhood lessons with new ones.

** The actual statistics that came out in the class action lawsuit to stop NYPD’s racist stop and frisk policy in NYC: Out of 4.4 million stops, only 6 percent led to an arrest, which means that cops were wrong 16 times more often than they were right. (Source: http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/08/stop_and_frisk_south_asians_and_kal_penns_tweets.html)