Going Home, walking between borders and Living in the House of Trump

It is obvious that Trump and his followers doesn’t think we belong here.

Who do I mean by “we”? Brown skinned immigrants. His wives are immigrants, but he never talks about dirty Russians or suspicious Eastern Europeans. Black Americans, people who disagree with his politics – obviously also other.

My kids always use “American” as short hand for white American. I ask, do you mean “white American?” or “Black American?” or “Asian American?” Clearly, they perceive our otherness, in this culture and in the House of Trump. “American” defaults to Whiteness.

A Trump supporter yells, go back to Africa, go back to Mexico, tells all “Muslims” to go back to Islam(!??!). The US Supreme Court allows for the forcible internment, imprisonment of all people of Japanese descent, their US citizenship not protecting them. I learned about this as a child and realized that this belief – the belief that we are not really American, even if born here, this applies to me. This place has always been the House of Trump.

My mom always calls the Philippines “back home.” A US citizen for decades but the Philippines is always back home. A reader of my blog (thanks for reading!) asked me whether the Philippines is home. And I have been thinking a lot about it.

I was born in the US and grew up only understanding every nook and cranny of American racism, white supremacy, hatred of women. The Philippines is respite for me, where my small Asian body feels more at home and not alien, but the culture, the politics, the colonialism and its impacts are mysteries I experience only at Skype’s length of through Facebook posts. But the US can never totally be home because it includes the House of Trump and its inhabitants feel like they could kick us out at any moment, no matter citizenship.

I remember vividly the joy of returning back to the Philippines for the first time. I was astounded that my family could greet me with open arms, that the country recognized me as a returning fellow countryperson, a member of the diaspora, even though it was my first actual physical step in the Philippines. I was relating this to my friend, a Black-American and he said he wished he had that. The brutality of American-slavery was the destruction of that return home. Where would he go? To the place of his enslavement? But the US is his because his ancestors built it – it became a world superpower because of 400 years of slavery meant an accumulation of wealth at the hands of the ruling elite that no one could match.

The US is mine, because I was born here but I will always be a stranger too. The Philippines is home because my heart was born there, but I will always also be a stranger. Children of immigrants, we walk borderlands, we follow whispers, we dive into deep caves. And let’s not kid ourselves, the House of Trump has always been here. This country was built on equal parts genocide, slavery, war, imperialism, AND hope, revolution, protest, and resistance. As always, the question is Which Side are You On?


Balikbayan – On Returning Home

Balikbayan translated


root words (at the root of it) =

Balik: to return, to go back

Bayan: a town, the nation, the “People”, the homeland,

 Balikbayan = Specifically: A person who returns to the Philippines, usually after an extended time living and working abroad. Generally: a person who returns to their homeland. Radically: A person who returns to the People,

Balikbayan box – A box of gifts, remembrances, first world status symbols that the Balikbayan brings with them to compensate (but never really compensate) for the long absences, the missing of decades of birthdays, weddings, funerals, christenings. They have changed over time, from Spam to Old Navy T-shirts made in some other 3rd World country. Aspiration Definition: The treasure we bring back, the dreams, the hopes.

Preparing for the return home to the Philippines. Technically, I am not a Balikbayan. I was born in the United States. Geography and place of birth and the heart can be contradictory. My mother is the true Balikbayan who returns home with half decades and half lives lived between. I am her daughter and I chose the balikbayan status, the obligations of the balikbayan box, the money wired overseas, the designation of godmother to children of cousins of cousins.

I compile lists to prepare, Tita Vingyan, and her 14 children, born while Tito Carding worked his whole life as a groundskeeper at the American School in Saudi Arabia, his life inspiring the naming of one child – “Haji.” But what about her son Kuya Ahbet, isn’t he working in Dubai as a construction worker? Ahh no, he returned, after deciding it was too hard to be away. And Tita Budha? Who is skinny like bamboo and has lived her life next to the railroad tracks, and squatter camps and whose children are scattered. And what about the children of those children? Lists and lists, and trying to remember ages, sizes, creating timelapse photos in my head from 5 years ago.

Why take it on? – Why take on the stress of trying to compensate for the pure luck of my circumstance, being born in the ruling empire of this era, rather than the colonized nation of my mother? I do it for love. Not my love, but theirs, in exchange for claiming my 2nd generation Balikbayan status, I get a whole family, I get a homeland, and a place TO return. And yes that family is full of drama, anger, petty jealousies, and grudges. But remembering what Audre Lorde said, that we were never meant to survive, and those words are so true of the colonized, violated 3rd word nations like the Philippines. To survive and to build the bridge from one country to another, to RETURN. From the Palestinian fight for the right to return to the lands stolen, to the domestic worker wiping the ass of their first world employers’ child or parent who fights to return. So I claim the right to return back to my mothers’ country, and in exchange for my boxes of gifts I get tears, embraces, love, and the land I lost.

Broken Butterflies, Empty Homes and the Price of Forced Migration

A recent family tragedy in the Philippines really brings home the profound dislocation and loss that is the other wing of migration. That’s why the butterfly symbol for migration is based on broken assumptions. Assumptions that people come to the US because they want to, rather than forced to by the ravages of global capital. Only people in the 1st world can imagine migration without the accompanying loss and heartbreak. We believe the narrative of the migrant who wins the lottery to the land of milk and honey and builds a better life for her and her children. “How lucky they are,” we say.

This narrative misses the tragedy that forces entire populations from their homeland. 10,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines because they are driven out by economic forces. Children are gathering at the Mexican side of the US border because of desperate bid for survival. Humans are social creatures, we build families and communities because we need them for our physical, spiritual and mental survival. When we lose our families, our communities, we suffer profound trauma.

Imagine the life of the overseas workers, whom successive Filipino Presidents refer to as “heros of the economy.” Births, deaths, illnesses, and marriages happen half a world away. Children grow up without their mother, while their mother spend their days taking care of 1st world children or aging parents.

Back in the Philippines, neighborhoods are without mothers but littered with little mcMansions, gated monuments to the hard, break breaking labor of Filipino overseas workers. These homes conspicuously rise up, between bamboo houses and thatched roofs, concrete hopes of these women, who send money every month, while living in tiny NYC apartments, sharing a room. They scrub, wipe the asses of babies and the elderly, with the dream of retiring in their homeland, in their gated, concrete homes. They hold onto this fantasy as they watch their children grow up without them, miss funerals, and one year death anniversaries, Skype being a terrible substitute for actually living their lives with their families and communities.

When we received the phone call, telling us that a close family member just had a massive stroke and was on life support – There was nothing we could do. If we were in the Philippines, we could hold each other, grieve together, make food for the soon-to-be widow. But here? Here, life goes on, and we can only grieve by ourselves, wire money, light a candle. And wonder why we are a world apart.

And it is not just the big moments. It is the small ones, the sense of dislocation, not knowing your way, experiencing US racism, raising children in a land and language not your own.

But today, it is a big moment – a death of a loved one that brings the price of separation home. Can his grandson get off of school for a week? Can we afford tickets and time off work? In the Philippines, when someone dies, we do something like sitting shiva. The body is embalmed and comes back to the house and loved ones stay up all night with the body, neighbors come, food is eaten, cards played until sunrise. This goes on for an impossible 10-15 days. At the end, you are so exhausted, you are like a towel wrung out, all your grief spent, at least for a short time. Your loved one is buried and then you sleep. Here, we can’t join with the community to wring ourselves out.

RIP, to a fabulous farmer who always woke before sunrise and grew some of the most delicious rice I have ever eaten.

Why We Love Manny Pacquiao the Boxer but not the Congressman ~ A Radical Ringside Commentary

Why We Love Manny Pacquiao ~ A Radical Ringside Commentary

** I wrote this piece several years ago before Manny became a Senator. Since becoming a Senator, I find it very hard to love Manny so much anymore. More about this at the end of this piece.

 As we gather, first generation Filipina/os, 2nd generation Filipina/os, middle–class, and peasants & workers to watch another Manny Pacquiao fight, I wonder at the pride and love we all feel in Manny, regardless of our background, politics and class.

 We love Manny because he smiles when he enters the ring.

We are a smiling people. It is how we survived colonization. I imagine that we smiled at Magellan, just before Lapu Lapu lopped off his head. We smiled at the Japanese conquerors while some of us escaped to join the Hukbalahap[1] in the mountains. This coping strategy means that we smile in the most inappropriate of situations. For example, in 2008, Manila was hit with a catastrophic amount of rain, and without an appropriate sewage system, people waded in polluted, filthy water to get to safety, but when the television camera landed on people fleeing their homes – they always turned and smiled.

Manny turns to all of us and smiles. It’s like he looks at us and says, “Yeah, we are some of the poorest of the world, but I am so happy to be here for us, representing that the Filipino people still survive and we still have joy.”

 We Love Manny because he lives with all of his friends and family.

 Over and over the American commentators always express astonishment at the friend and family that Manny brings with him wherever he goes. Our families are large and dysfunctional but we try to stay together. We work, love and struggle collectively. This probably comes from out pre-Spanish history. Many of our ancestors traveled the South China Sea in large boats called “barangays.” And now, this is what we call our neighborhoods, “barangays” – because we know are all in one boat together. This innate sense of interconnectedness helps maintain us when more than 10 million of us are now scattered all over the world as result of forced, economic displacement. Millions of us grow up without our mothers, fathers, sisters, cousins. We survive through creating community in Dubai, Hong Kong, and Queens, New York. We survive through living together on the railroad tracks outside Manila.

Manny knows this, he lived, hustled, and worked on the streets of General Santos City. He hasn’t forgotten that his strength comes from his clan, and so he travels with the his kababayan (fellow countrypersons). It’s like he built a huge barangay and sails it into every fight. As an act of love, he proposed a bill to make Freddy Roach a Filipino citizen. Why would anybody want to be a citizen of one of the poorest country’s in the world? Because Freddie knows that to be a Filipino/a means to never sail alone. If the boat is sinking, you will have 100 people trying to bail out the water. As Manny said recently : “Anuman na-achieve ko, tayong lahat yun.” All that I achieved, was an achievement by you(the people of the Philippines)”

 We love Manny because he sings Karaoke, Seriously. Manny has now sung on Jimmy Kimmel – live – three times! All super corny love ballads. But he sings them, for real, seriously, his heart on his sleeve, his eyes imploring into the camera. He sings like all our kababayan(fellow countrymen/women), who working overseas because of forced economic displacement, gather together in basements and boarding houses to sing the pop songs of their childhood and resist the crushing isolation of life overseas. It’s no coincidence that karaoke was invented by a Filipino.

      He is every Filipino, fresh off the boat – unashamedly not cool and with every American pop song committed to memory. We love him because we remember every time we were mocked for our accents and our unabashed passion for American love songs.   We know that if he wasn’t the best fighter in the world, he would be made fun of for his willingness to croon into the camera lyrics like “every time we touch, the honesty’s too much” without a single note of sarcasm.

 We Love Manny because he is the Philippines we aspire to be.

Manny is the smallest guy in the ring, he was the poor third-world kid who sold water to the rich petit bourgeoisie in the cars. But in the ring, he always emerges victorious. He amazes the whole world. No other fighter in history has successfully fought in so many weight classes. US President, McKinley patronizingly called us his “little brown brothers” before he sent in the United States Marines to colonize us and murder us. We are the workers, the maids, of the world. Our own country sells our bodies and labor into the world market – relying on our billions of remittances to keep the bloated, corrupt government afloat. Rather than investing in industry in the Philippines, which would give us jobs in our homeland, the Philippines is the home of some of the largest malls in the world.

But we know, deep down inside, that our country should/could be better. We have endless shores of beautiful beaches, deposits of nickel, oil off our shores, and the hardest working people in the world. We know that we should not be living in the streets, under bridges, on the railroad tracks. We used to be called the Pearl of the Orient.

Manny is our Pearl. For the twelve rounds he is in the ring, we forget the historical wrongs we have suffered. We watch him astound the world and so bring honor to our country. For a brief moment, the Filipino is victorious, our courage is undeniable, our strength is unsurpassed. For twelve rounds, Filipina domestic workers can forget that they are millions of miles away from their family, that they live their lives taking care of other people’s families while they to try to skype love across the oceans to their own families.

But at the end of the fight, we must remember that it’s the People who must lead.  At the end of the fight, Manny takes home a few million dollars, but the majority of Filipina/os continue to live everyday with the realities of starvation and deep poverty. Manny knows and remembers the desperation of that reality, and that’s why he gives us so much hope. But the real hope lies within us, the millions of Filipino/as that have the power to force the Philippine government to really work for the welfare of the people. This means a government that isn’t beholden to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, but rather one that is run by the people and for the people. The next time we gather together to watch Manny fight yet another opponent, let’s also talk about the rich and corrupt leaders of the Philippines that continue to keep our country down for the count.

 Why I Don’t Love Manny Quite So Much, Addendum

I wrote the above several years ago and now we have some reasons to love Manny a little less. Since become a Senator, the Congressman Pacquiao has become quite the Christian, religious conservative. His own religious beliefs are his to have, of course, but he voted no on the historic reproductive rights bill in the Philippines’ Congress. This Bill, which was recently upheld by the Philippines’ Supreme court is not a radical bill, it doesn’t provide a right to abortion, for instance. “The Responsible Parenthood, Reproductive Health and Population and Development Act, known as the RH Bill, strikes down some longstanding barriers for women’s access to sexual and reproductive health care, including access to natural and modern contraception and reproductive health information for adults” according to Amnesty International’s site. Filipina women needed this bill desperately, in order to make informed choices about their reproductive health. Manny let us all down by voting no on the Bill. So, even though I am rooting for him tonite as a boxer, I hope he stops pretending to represent the people as a Senator. And I REALLY hope he doesn’t run for President!


[1] Also known as the Huk Rebellion,  (1946–54), Communist-led peasant uprising in central Luzon, Philippines. The name of the movement is a Tagalog acronym for Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon, which means “People’s Anti-Japanese Army.”

Thoughts on Getting Lost and Marauding Relatives

I have been reading Rebecca Solnit’s novel, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. A quote from her: “The mind too can be imagined as a landscape, but only the minds of sages might resemble tImagehe short-grass prairie…The rest of us have caverns, glaciers, torrential rivers, heavy fogs, chasms that open up underfoot, even marauding wildlife bearing family names.”

I guffawed at the last part, marauding wildlife/family trampling through the landscapes of our minds. As a Filipino family, we have a herds of water buffalo relatives that like to charge through our lives and loves. Like many immigrants, we have intercontinental family dramas. Arguments over cows, rice, and water buffalo cross space and time to come to roost here in hipster Williamsburg. The 20 year-old butchers over at Marlow and Daughters THINK they know all about meat – talk to my relatives, who can butcher, barbeque a pig AND climb a coconut tree and cut down some fresh coconuts with their bolo AND drink a case of San Miguel within 24 hour period. We also have the fastest intercontinental gossip (chismis) line, where gossip can somehow instantly get to the Philippines, and to several US states within 5 minutes or less.

No, but back to the book – on getting lost. I am there – hanging out in a place of no directions. Meditating on that. Getting. Lost. I am not the type of person to allow myself to “get lost.”  I knew I want to organize people for systemic change and collective action since I was 18. A therapist called me “actualized” at the age of 24. I went on a union organizing campaign at 28 and fell in love again. All of which means I have been “with it” for a long time or at least pretending I knew the way. Now that I am 40, I am much more likely to let you know I don’t know what the hell I am doing. So I mean that kind of lost – allowing myself to not know the way for a bit. This year promises big changes again, and my tendency is to plan, research, and make declarations. I am trying hard to avoid that and to let myself visit the caverns and the glaciers of my mind, to allow marauding worries plow through and then see the dust settle, to visit the scary corners and turn the lights off in the bright, shiny pretty scenes I have built for the visiting public. More later on getting lost…. For now, I will return to watching the snow.

THE new “Talk” with our Kids – Climate crisis

We were talking about the impending typhoon Haiyan. We were talking in tones of awe, fear, rage. The largest storm to hit the planet, the satellite pictures of a storm that covered the whole country. Our family in harm’s way. The fact that climate change is happening, that global warming threatens to destroy our planet.

My son, “what is global warming?” And so I began to explain how our species’ burning of fossil fuels at unprecedented rates is putting too much carbon into the atmosphere and how this has caused a chain reaction of terrible consequences for our planet. Our planet is warming, our oceans our warming, the ice sheets in the arctic is melting, our oceans are becoming more acidic. And as I spoke, I realized the magnitude of our talk. I mean, we are talking about the end of our planet as we know it, the loss of countless species of animals, the loss of islands and coastlines, the squandering of their inheritance.

My son. He is so intent, so serious for a soon-to-be 9 year old. “So we need to switch to wind and solar.” “What are grown-ups doing about this?”

How do you tell your children than we grown-ups haven’t done nearly enough? That although I believe in science and climate change, I was overwhelmed by the challenge. That I didn’t do much about it all? That WE, as a generation, brought you I-phones, but not climate justice. That we are burning more carbon than ever before?

I didn’t say all of that. But, also we didn’t talk about taking quicker showers and changing light bulbs. I heard that when I was my kids’ in the 70’s! It is too little, too late. We have to transform our entire system. An economic system based on relentless consumption just doesn’t work, relying on the private markets to make the switch has failed.

What I said

I admitted that we didn’t do enough. I said we have to try harder. I explained that we needed to join rallies and protests to fight any new expansion into fossil fuels, like the Keystone pipeline. We talked about democratizing our energy systems and  community control.

For now, we start with acknowledging the problem. Next, I want our children to meet up with other youth so they can begin organizing together. I encourage them to grow up and find solutions, not become rich, or famous.  We talk about limiting our consumption, about the trickery of advertising that makes us think we need things. We talked about the short lived nature of the happy feeling we get when we buy something new thing. We are reading about climate change. We hope to go to some protests. They learned about the Filipino’s own environmental hero – Yeb Sano – chief climate talks negotiator and held up signs to support him during the UN climate talks.

Small conversations, small steps, that will hopefully lead to something bigger.

The “Talk” changed me as much as my children.

I couldn’t look them in them in the eye and tell them about climate change without recommitting myself to do everything I can to work for climate justice. I had always felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of global warming and underwhelmed by US environmental movement which always seemed overwhelmingly white and middle class. Class based struggles and racial justice was where I had decided to fight. But without a planet? And what about my children, what about their future and their children’s future? The science tells us that we are reaching tipping points, points of no return. We owe our children to turn around now. At least I want to be able to look them in the eye, and say that I did the best I could.

To quote this often quoted Chief Seattle, “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children.”



On the frontlines of climate catastrophe


pic by me

Balactasan, Aklan, pic by me

The Philippines is beautiful. I say this to remind myself because all the pictures of death and destruction make it hard to remember. The first time I visited the province of Aklan, our family’s ancestral lands, was when I was 19. It looked like paradise. Children jumping from the bridge into the crystal clear river. Palm trees and coconuts, mangos and pineapple, fresh bananas and coconut. It was also terribly poor and without much of a future for the next generation. Rice farming barely eked out a living. There was no electricity. The only carbon we burned was bio-mass-plants and trash to keep away the mosquitoes at night.

The last few days, our brooklyn household has been anxiously glued to the TV and the internet to get news from the Philippines. On twitter, we have been sharing satellite pictures of this super-typhoon, the most powerful storm to hit the planet,  threatening our families. We all stayed up all night, desperately looking for news from parts of the Philippines that have been wiped out and with no power and no cell phone.

Knowing the Philippines and knowing how we live in homes made of nipa and bamboo, we knew what being hit by the strongest typhoon in the history of the planet meant for the Philippines. The video and news of total destruction just confirmed what we all dreaded in our hearts.


My grandmother’s house – in Aklan, in 2000, gone now, my pic.

And we are exhausted, typhoon weary. Our family lost everything a few years ago, in 2008, when Typhoon Ondoy dumped so much rain, that our home was flooded by the nearby river. Our home had never been flooded before – we were 100 feet above the river. This time, many of our family lost their homes and roofs to the wind. How many more times can we raise money from our friends and neighbors, how many times can we send boxes of clothes and food? My family in Manila were flooded out just this year in August. What will happen to our country – will it just be wiped out to sea? The news and pictures coming from the Philippines is almost too much to bear. But we have no choice but to bear it for the sake of the dead and living. And I am angry. It is like our land is being stolen, because who can rebuild and rebuild again and again?

I will post next about the brave efforts of our Filipino representative at the UN climate talks in Warsaw Poland. For now, I end with a call, yes please donate and give money to relief efforts. But then – remember that many of those on the frontlines of the climate catastrophe can’t choose BUT YOU can choose to get on the frontline – fight the XL Pipeline, fight coal and big oil, demand a Just transition to renewable energy. Demand that industrialized nations help countries like the Philippines transition to renewable energy.