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My America

We staged plays—some of which I had written— conducted theater workshops with youth, joined protests against social injustice, and formed a bond so tight we became the family we had left behind...

What is my America? The question needled me as I drove to work in a dusty PT cruiser with the top down, the unseasonably hot sun against my arms, too hot it made me wish the air-conditioner was not busted or that I had worn a hat to compensate for the folded hood. There is a photograph of my family in this beat-up convertible taken last summer. I had raised the camera to capture us in the frame, and there we are looking like a beguiling Benetton ad with our faces curved up toward the camera: to my left, in the driver’s seat, is my handsome husband Luis, of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian descent but born and raised in Chicago; peering playfully from behind him is my beautiful son CB, 9, of mixed white background; beside CB is my brilliant African-American daughter AJ, 6, with a look that says “are you sure you’re gonna get us all in this picture?” and then there’s me, a pure Pinay, born and raised in the Philippines.  This, I realized, is my America.

I had been here several times before I decided to stay in Chicago in 1997 to join a Filipino-American theater company called Pintig Cultural Group. Aptly named, the group became the heartbeat that brought me a little closer to home. We staged plays—some of which I had written—conducted theater workshops with youth, joined protests against social injustice, and formed a bond so tight we became the family we had left behind, or the family who had rejected us for being misfits: too young, too old, too gay, too radical, too un-American. One thing we were not was “too plain” or “too dull.”  Looking back at old photographs, I have never seen a more vibrant, more gorgeous group of people. Today, most members have moved on to bigger things –built families, pursued careers in theater (or not), got their post-doctorate degrees or perhaps their GED diplomas, but there are still occasions for impromptu reunions. Births, deaths, anniversaries, weddings –or 12-hour brunches that start at 11 in the morning and end when they end, usually after the voices are hoarse from singing karaoke or the last drop of Shiraz has been poured and the latest chismiz on some forgotten movie star has been consumed.

My America is Lake Shore Drive, after which Roxas Boulevard was designed. Architect Daniel Burnham was said to have imagined a resemblance between Chicago and the war-torn city of Manila and so drew up a blueprint that reminded him of the city in which he was raised. Now, as I drive through LSD I remember the city in which I was raised, except perhaps, it is the sunrise and not the sunset that is celebrated, and streetkids do not roam along the embankment begging for alms or are scooped up by DCFS (Department of Children and Family Services) to be placed in foster homes.

My America is the strip of street I walk to get to my son’s school. On one side, the mostly privileged, mostly white children are bused to and from their middle-class neighborhoods to a small exclusive school for the gifted; meanwhile, across the street, mostly low-income, mostly Latino and other children of color from the neighborhood, including mine, attend a public school that services over a thousand kids.  A correlation has been recently found between reading and performance at school.  Apparently, children who have known Dr. Seuss as a toddler from their parents’ animated reading will have better chances at succeeding in school.  How to explain this to my next-door neighbors who hardly speak a word of English and who work two too many jobs to even have time to kiss their children goodnight, let alone read them a story in a language they have yet to master.

They write about the America they have known all their lives, which does not match up at all with the America I had seen on TV or heard about as a child in Manila.

My America is my classroom, where a motley group of students see education as a way out. I work at a predominantly black, low-income community college and for some of the students, just coming to school everyday is a challenge. They come from blighted neighborhoods where streets are flanked by hookers and drug-dealers. My job is to prepare them for college-level writing, and so I urge them to submit compositions about their experiences, their ideas, the things that frustrate them the most about the world they live in. They write about brothers, sons, uncles, and sisters shot and killed–often caught in the crossfire between warring gangs. They write about losing their homes from paying debt incurred through medical bills, or about being evicted from their rundown apartments. They write about children having children, or about being torn as toddlers from their drug-addicted parents. They write about living in food deserts where ubiquitous liquor stores need only have lime on the shelf for tequila shots to qualify as a “grocery.” They write about the America they have known all their lives, which does not match up at all with the America I had seen on TV or heard about as a child in Manila. (Nope. This certainly ain’t “Beverly Hills 90210,” honey!)

What is my America? The question hovered in the minutes between my waking and sleeping, settled between the tired snoring and breathing of my partner, mingled with the marginal commentary on my students’ papers, carefully wrought in the silent moments after I have put the dishes away, and the children—read to and tucked in—are fast asleep. 

My America is not having the smell of tapsilog rouse me in the mornings (courtesy of my magical father); it is not having Aling Talina come on Tuesdays to do laundry; it is not having fresh buko juice or green mangos with bagoong; it is not having a spa date or a lazy afternoon at the mall with my dear mother and sisters after a hard week at work. In fact, it is not having a mother at all to run to when things –namely work, bills, and chores –get a bit overwhelming.

My multi-racial, multi-cultural family in a beat-up convertible— this is what my America is. I married my best friend, but we could not have children, and so we opened our hearts and home to two of the most amazing human beings we have ever known.  Sometimes, kababayans ask goodheartedly about why I did not consider adopting children from the Philippines. So many poor children back home needing good homes and a second chance, they say, not realizing that the third world exists within what is known as the richest, most powerful country in the world.
CB and AJ came to us not as babies but as little balls of hurt in need of nourishment and care, yet what potential for greatness they have exhibited; what generous capacity for loving despite their circumstances! AJ is a bright and bubbly little girl who came to us when she was three. On her first day, her puny frame shook from fear, but she smiled the most disarming smile and held our hands tight like they were link chains on a playground swing she was told never to let go of or she’d fall. Unbeknownst to her, we were just as nervous as she was, if not more so.

Clearly, as the gap between rich and poor widens, my America is seeming more and more like the place where I was born and raised.

“I’m gonna get me some tattoos when I grow up,” she said when she noticed our inked arms. It made us laugh and, right then and there, I wondered if we would make ideal parents, when growing up we weren’t the most ideal kids to our parents. Why, to this day, when I am nearing 50, my 77-year old mother still asks me to please not give her a heart attack by getting another tattoo!

CB came to us for the first time when he was five. This beautiful boy that the system has shuffled around and dropped between the cracks a number of times, has experienced more pains and heartaches than a middle class American adult would probably endure in a lifetime. These children were torn from parents who could no longer provide them with shelter and care for a variety of reasons stemming from poverty. Wasn’t it Mahatma Gandhi who said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence?”

Clearly, as the gap between rich and poor widens, my America is seeming more and more like the place where I was born and raised.  The Occupy Movement that began in Wall Street to protest economic injustice is gradually gaining ground, rousing Americans from a Hollywood-induced stupor. My America can be, after all, militant and resilient. It was, as an ex-lover once described, “the land of second chances,” where people came from all over the world to re-invent themselves, as I had done when I went back to school, got my masters and started a career as a college professor, something I didn’t imagine I could ever be.  This is the America Occupy demonstrators demand to take back from the 1 per cent whose greed for wealth and power has caused economic stagnation for the poor and the working class.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, my America has become home.  It is, after all, the place where love and laughter and struggle reside. And so as I look at the photograph of my multi-cultural, multi-racial family in a beat-up convertible, I can’t help but see, the America I have learned to love.

First published in The World I Have Come to Know, edited by Grace Zamora Roldan (Manila, Central Book Supply Inc., 2012).

© Lani T. Montreal

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