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At certain points in my childhood, it seemed as if all of my female cousins were being guided to become nurses. And many cousins did train to become nurses and—as was hoped by their parents, teachers and other guardians—some would come to parlay their nursing abilities to good jobs in the U.S. In the process, they became part of the sizeable number of overseas workers whose repatriations have been critical to supporting the Philippine economy.

When I started writing fiction seriously, one of my early efforts at the short story revolved around such a Pinay nurse. In that story (now lost somewhere in the graveyard of old files), I depicted a woman who was unhappy with working as a nurse, but who couldn't develop an alternative as she'd never learned how to hope for her own happiness—that, since girlhood, she'd always had her money-earning responsibilities emphasized to her by those rearing her.

Later, as a grown-up who would see Pinay nurses in hospital or other medical settings, I sometimes wondered whether these nurses had ever possessed other career aspirations. This whole meditation, if it needs to be said, is not a critical look at the nursing profession—but as I would speculate when coming across a Pinay nurse, I would wonder if that person perhaps would have preferred being a teacher, a musician, an architect, a baker, and so on.

I was reminded of this old dialogue with myself after seeing the most recent exhibition of the Mail Order Brides (M.O.B.). M.O.B. is a performance art group comprised of Filipinas Reanne Estrada, Eliza Barrios and Jenifer Wolford. The M.O.B. specializes in dressing up and acting out often over-the-top scenes of Filipino-American life. Their performances are memorialized through photographs, installations, sculptures, film, video and performances. As a collective, M.O.B was born after its three members saw a "Frasier" television episode wherein a character referred to women from the Philippines as mail-order brides. The context implied that Filipinas are subservient or victims, a portrayal M.O.B. subverts with edgy portrayals that are often, in Estrada's words, "kick ass."

What is shared in common by many of the M.O.B.'s projects and my meditation/speculations over Pinay nurses is how Filipinos often adjust their identity as a result of political and economic constraints rather than be what they would like to be. Yes, perhaps personal choice is always an illusion—we're all affected by environment and circumstances of our times. But to accept such generalizations is not the same as to excuse the political abuses that have economically hijacked the Philippines' development, such that many in the Philippines must look beyond its borders to find jobs.

Such loss of one's "true" identity underlies the whole premise to M.O.B.'s most recent performance and exhibit, "Honeymoon Suite Nothings"—aptly titled for the word-play on "sweet nothings." The exhibition was featured at the Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery in San Francisco (who helped provide the illustrations for this article). "Honeymoon Suite Nothings" finds the Brides taking on femininity and romance at San Luis Obispo's campy Madonna Inn, the honeymoon hotel with 108 themed rooms. The large-format digital prints are evocative—the Brides' psychedelic Filipina drag contrasts deliciously with the Inn's barmy burnishings. Like the artists themselves, many of the images are humorous and wacky—but ultimately thought-provoking.

Title it what you will—this "Honeymoon" is not a Honeymoon as one hopes honeymoons to be: ecstatic and full of promise. It is a "suite" of hidden messages, none of which are purely sweet. Why should it be? The group's name, alone, references the mail order bride experience which, while sometimes birthing genuine love between couples, also sets forth the stage for tragedy. In a recent example, Filipina mail order bride, Michelle Nyce of Hopewell, N.J., was allegedly murdered by her white husband on January 26, 2004. They were married for 14 years and had three children. News stories seem to emphasize their financial difficulties and then her infidelity. He is pleading not guilty saying the death was an accident.

Previously, Estrada has said that M.O.B. wanted to "turn the idea of a mail order bride on its head" since none of the Filipinas they know are "subservient." Their notion, however, does not deny some of the uglier realities behind the mail order bride phenomenon; relatedly, the occasional humor of the campy depictions in "Honeymoon Suite Nothings" cannot hide a strain of ... unrelenting sadness. And such sadness, I speculate, must be linked to one's loss of identity, both literally and psychologically—thus, also making it fitting that many of the photos depict cut-off images as well as a deliberate blurriness in certain parts of the prints.

It's also relevant that, as seen in these photos, the images display a soft light (and what I call "blurriness" may be merely the artists' decision on the lighting) that Wolford has attributed to Vermeer. These three Pinays are artists in the diaspora who don't slight their "Filipino" art works by ignoring non-Filipino influences inevitable for those attuned to the world as a global village. The photographs' attractiveness, therefore, is enhanced by learning from the Dutch Master's influence (both in light and the setting up of domestic/interior scenes) before making the images resound with their own Filipinized vision.


What saddens me further, as I consider the issues of Filipina identity, is how we often are formed by negative circumstances, whether as mail order brides or as far back as the 18th century to Gabriela Silang. As I write this essay, I am proofreading the manuscript of my next poetry book entitled MENAGE A TROIS WITH THE 21ST CENTURY (xPressed, Finland, 2004) as well as an article I wrote for the Spring 2004 Special Filipino American issue of MELUS (published by the Society for the Study of Multi-Ethnic Literature in the U.S.]. In both projects, I refer to poems I wrote as regards Gabriela Silang.

Gabriela was the wife of Diego Silang who witnessed the Spanish colonizers' ongoing abuse of Filipinos and began the Ilokano tribe's revolt against the Spanish authorities. Following Diego's assassination, she carried on the crusade for freedom. After she and the remainder of her army were finally captured, the Spaniards hanged her soldiers—known to be among the most defiant of Filipino rebels—and lined their bodies along the coastal towns for everyone to see. Their bodies were left to sway with the sea breeze in order to serve as a reminder to anyone who dared fight the Spaniards. Gabriela was given the doubly painful experience of witnessing the death of her followers before becoming the last to die. She was 32 years old.

I wrote poems to fictionalize—and create—a new life for Gabriela Silang in the 21st century. In writing these poems, I sometimes depicted Gabriela in the midst of mundane activities (for example, doing the laundry) to contrast against the larger matters of revolution and politics that took over Gabriela's life. I believe that war teaches us how to appreciate the luxury of having no other momentary concerns than, say, to clean house. Gabriela's story, in fact, reminds me of how war eliminates Home—in Gabriela's case, the Spanish invasion eliminated home not just in terms of her specific household but in terms of psychic stability as well as her country as "homeland."

In these poems that are intended to be about someone else, I nonetheless integrated elements of my own life. For instance, when I turned forty years old, I wrote a poem about Gabriela turning forty even though—and also because—she never experienced this particular threshold. Similarly, I wrote a poem about Gabriela reading Charles Baudelaire as I like to think that if Gabriela had a preference for how she would have spent her life, she would have spent time reading poems as I do.

Despite the occasional reference to elements from Gabriela's life, the poems' narratives are generally different from how her real life unfolded. As a poet, I am comfortable with this result because the underlying sensibility of these poems is one of sadness. For me, sadness ultimately captures Gabriela's life. She became a martyr, but that martyrdom was not her choice. Gabriela inherited a set of circumstances which perhaps she would not have wanted to be her fate.

Featured below is one of the poems from my "Gabriela Silang" series; other poems in the series are available in the internet at 2ndAvenuePoetry and ShampooPoetry. In these poems, the narratives may seem to have nothing to do with Gabriela's life. What relates it to Gabriela is the underlying sensibility: loss and desire.

A Recollection (As Gabriela Ends a Coffee Break)

Photographs overcome
by sepia—

Certainty demolished
through a scream—

I have never learned
to unlock doors

without a sense
of anticipation—

A livid dress
becomes a boulder at sunset—

Perhaps stars hide
for a good reason—

beds and doors

is an exercise
in democracy—

How to avoid

there exists implacably

a sense of shame
demanding banishment—

But like the only partially-completed images of M.O.B., my Gabriela poems can only show part of Gabriela Silang's story. It is as politically and personally devastating for me to understand that, even through Poetry, Identity cannot be completed. This is one reason why I ultimately consider Poetry to be A Persistent Failure.

© Eileen R. Tabios

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