Me, Mike and Manny circa 1966

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Pamana: The Lolas' Legacy


Yesterday, I stood before a group of 150 SFSU students—Asian American mostly—but diverse. I shared Lola Pilar Frias’ testimony.  I stood before them and I read her words (translated of course).  I played my book trailer where every woman’s face and name appears on the screen.   I answered these questions from the students:

1.     How did you feel when you heard their stories?
2.     How did you use your tools as a fiction writer to write this book?
3.     How did you get the stories to leave your body?
4.     Did writing the book hurt you? In what ways?
5.     Is my lola one of them?

At the end of the day, the first student who came up to me did not have a book in her hand, but she had the saddest eyes.  “Can I please give you a hug,” she asked me.

Another student, a young woman, tried to keep herself from crying.  Held her breath.  Scrunched her face up and said, “I was afraid to come talk to you.  I was afraid I’d see my lola’s face on the cover of your book.”

Two boys approached me.  One Filipino American and the other Vietnamese.  They each said they were moved.  They wondered if these stories were their grandmothers’ stories too.  “I’m going to read the book tonight,” said the Pinoy.  “Then I’m going to give my mom the book, can you sign it to her?”

“Me too,” said the other boy.  “I’m from Vietnam and I think we have war stories too.  Could you sign it for my mother?”

I think the lolas would be pleased.  So many young people told me they were going to go home and ask their parents and grandparents to tell them their family’s stories of war. 

Isn’t this the first step?  To discover the stories.  To listen to the elders.  To listen.  To breathe with them.  Hold onto them. 

That’s the first step.  Then, write them down.  Put them in some historical context.  And if you see the need for justice, fight.  Push. Make sure these tales will never happen again.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

#Irma: Why You Gotta Rain On My Parade?

My book, Lolas' House: Filipino Women Living with War (Curbstone Books), was supposed to be launched on September 15, 2017 at my hometown bookstore, Books & Books in Miami.  We were going to throw a party for the nearly twenty years in the making of this document housing the testimonies of sixteen surviving Filipina "Comfort Women" of WWII.  This date is also the death anniversary of my Lolo Miguel, my grandfather who appears like a ghost in my first published short story, "Our Fathers." The date had significance for me.

But who had time to think of these seemingly trivial markers when a cat 5 storm was ravaging the Caribbean, spinning like a wild beast, spitting vitriol, breaking everything--and everyone--in sight?  Who could think of anything but the matter at hand: we have been told three days before the storm to close up shop, batten down hatches, leave South Florida?

My husband and I talked about it.  I have been living in Miami since 2002.  I was on campus and a residential faculty master in a freshmen building during Rita, Wilma, and Katrina.  I was a veteran hurricane survivor.  But then, we had never seen a cat 5 cone covering the entire state of Florida before.

We left.  We took one day to ready the house, clean out our pet carriers, pack one suitcase.  It didn't occur to me to bring my papers.  I thought we'd be back in a few days.  We drove a fourteen hour ride to my Virginia in-laws for twenty hours.

On what was supposed to be my pub date, I sat at a restaurant with my husband and his sister and her husband, thinking about the book.  My heart was heavy for so many reasons.

Things for Lolas' House turned out better than I could have imagined, though.  First of all, the actual book party happened the next weekend at Asian American Writers Workshop in New York.  I shared the stage with activist and Gabriela New York's Jennine Ventura.

Why is that special?  When I first began my journey in search of the lolas, I asked New York activist and novelist, Ninotchka Rosca, to point me in the right direction.  She sent me to Liza Maza, one of the New York leadership of Gabriela National Alliance of Women.  It was Liza Maza who introduced me to the women of Liga ng mga Lolang Pilipina, Gabriela, aka LILA Pilipina.

Gabriela has been one of my strongest and best resources.  I like to think of them as the foundation layers of Lolas' House.

Jennine Ventura gave a true activist presentation that supported and gave context to the book.  She gave the night an energy that truly supported the spirit of Lolas' House and with her, the women of Gabriela.

Here's what I learned the night of our launch:

1.  Even though I felt guilty for wanting to celebrate my book during the hurricane week of Irma, I realize it was okay to feel that sadness.  To resent not being able to welcome the book into the world on its publication date.  This book deserves our attention.  Not because it's my book, but because it is the Lolas' book.  It is the house that holds the testimonies to what happens to women living in war.  It is the document that questions why we allow our women to be treated without any regard for their bodies, their minds, their spirits.  It is a book that demands us to hear the women.  It is a call to action to stop war on women.

2.  Lolas' House was meant to be introduced to the world with Gabriela at our side.

3.  It's funny how Irma's path directed even this.  And look how well things turned out.

I have rescheduled the book launch in Miami for Sunday, October 29th.  This night will be special too, for my Miami literary community will come together, and they will welcome the Lolas one by one into our bookstore, our home.  6:30PM.  Books & Books.  See you there.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Love Letter to Our Nation


Dear Immigrant Nation,

My name is M. Evelina Galang.  I am the daughter of Miguel T. Galang and Gloria Lopez-Tan Galang, two immigrants who met in an auditorium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the late 1950’s, just as the third wave of Filipinos arrived in the United States (http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/filipino-immigrants-united-states).

As a child I have watched their struggles.  I have seen the discrimination and the disappointment in their faces.  I have heard their voices late at night, making sense of this so-called dream.

I know firsthand what courage it takes to leave everything you know, your family, your land, your people, to make this American dream a reality.

It doesn’t always feel like a dream.

Know I am with you.  I know you.  I am one of you.  This nation is nothing without you.   

The hypocrisy of those Senators and Congressmen and women who do not stand up to this 45th President will be the undoing of all of us.

Stand up, Senator Rubio.

Louder, Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen. 

Thank you, Senator Nelson.

And shame, shame, shame on you Mayor Carlos Gimenez.  Have you forgotten? 

I write this letter on the day after Valentine’s Day, my love letter to you, my people, my nation of first, second, third and twenty-seventh born generations of Americans. 

Let us stand up on the streets, holding our signs.

Let us sit in the offices of our Congresswomen and Senators.

Let us write our love letters to our brother and sisters, to ourselves.

Let us not forget.

We are a sanctuary nation.  

With love and in solidarity,

M. Evelina Galang

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

My Important Vote of Our Lifetime

I Voted Early. Because I am a woman, the first born of an immigrant family from the Philippines, the wife of a man from the hills of Virginia, the auntie of children born of sons and daughters of various ethnic backgrounds, the cousin to husbands of same sex marriage, the cousin to documented and undocumented immigrants, the teacher of writing students I encourage to speak their truth and be who they are without apology, the stepmom of liberal and progressive and beautiful daughters, the lola of Jaiden, newborn of all things good. I am the sister of five other Catholic siblings, and a citizen of a free nation, a democracy, a gateway for many nations calling this land home. 


I voted for Hillary Clinton because she will uphold the lives my families have built, she will encourage the education of my students, she will protect my right to think differently.

I voted for Hillary Clinton because I know that life is also about making changes slowly, reasonably and with the support of those around us. It is not always obvious. It is not always to our liking. There will be compromise. But then again, that comes with having so many people with different perspectives and making it a practice to respect and honor the people around us.

Just saying. #imwithher

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Reigning Queens and Kings of Story


for NVM Gonzalez, in gratitude



On this two-hour ferry from Batangas to Mindoro, a breeze blows about us and the not-so-hot sun shifts in time with the sea.  More than one hundred passengers are tucked in different pockets of this vessel—high on the deck, around the railings and hidden in air-conditioned spaces below.  Twelve passengers from the NVM Gonzalez Centennial Writing Workshop ride this boat in search of a good story.  Some of the writers are from the United States.  One is living and teaching in Hong Kong, but he too is originally from the Northwest.  One writer lives in the Bay Area and at 86, is on her way to her hometown in Calapan.  Several of the writers are graduates from the University of the Philippines.  One young woman studies opera, but her mother was a student of the writer NVM Gonzales and so she is taking this course, in honor of the late Philippine national treasure.  I have been invited to teach the workshop and have traveled from my home in Miami.

            “Let me give you some context,” Michael Gonzalez tells us when we first board.  “Thirty years ago, you would have been riding with pigs and cows.  Thirty years ago, this would have been a twelve hour ride.”  Michael runs the workshop once every two years at one of the universities where his father taught. This year it is the University of the Philippines. Now we are going to NVM’s Mindoro, where Michael also grew up.

            Our van is parked on the deck below, along with other buses and cars.  The writers scatter among the passengers.  Someone drinks a three-in-one. It’s a packet of instant coffee that has the powdered milk and sugar mixed in.  It tastes more like hot cocoa than coffee.  The NVM writers are a jolly group and no matter where they sit, I can hear them making chica chica, laughing loudly, charming one another.

This workshop is only a week long and there is much to do.  How will we find the time to talk about race, culture, class and write our stories too?  I am more concerned with generating work than workshopping it.  You can always workshop your stories later.  First you must find them.  First you must write them.

I have asked my charges to interview their families and discover a secret they have never known.  I have asked them to read articles by Gloria Anzuldua (who talks of the spiritual practice of writing stories) and RoxanneGay (who questions white writers like Kathryn Stocket, who conjure up ill-conceived stories of magical negroes) and my own essay that talks about integrating Tagalog dialog within the English text.  I have asked them to meditate on EdwidgeDanticat’s “Prayer for the Dying” and sing a song to our ancestors (in karaoke and a capella and at grand pianos we find along the way). 

           I lean on a railing and watch the sea, bluer and greener than anything I could have imagined.  In the distance, palm trees poke up from tropical mountainscapes, and coffee-colored beaches invite us to wade in the sea.  
M.G. from Oak Park, Illinois, tells me the story of her story, a novel that reaches back through our history to the pre-colonial Spanish, to the Babaylan of the islands, when women were men’s equals, when healers were also community leaders and stories had the power to save lives.  She has made offerings to the ancestors.  She has asked them for their stories. She has been silent and she has been taking in all the elements of story—researching, reading and listening. 

Later, I will sit in the air-conditioned hull of this ferry, on torn leather seats lined in theater fashion before a huge flat screen TV.  I will watch a Tagalog movie as I listen to Penelope tell me about her great uncle’s adventures with novelist Jose Rizal.  Her story takes place all over Vienna, Spain, and Germany and is born of her great uncle’s diaries.  Lisa will talk about the way she landed in the Philippines in search of her family in Cebu.  And still, later on, Claire will read me a story of a native woman, barren and frantic, because she has lost her fertility amulet somewhere in the middle of a tropical rain forest.

I am thinking of this journey we are taking on planes and ferries and diesel-fueled vans as a pilgrimage.  And while we focus on how to write a scene, how to develop authentic characters, and how to write a tight sentence, we also travel back to our ancestral landscape to find our stories.



Chris is a tall Fil-Am.  He has many ancestors from around the world, including Filipino.  He is halo-halo with family who migrated from the Philippines to Hawaii.  When I go to the spa across the street from our hotel in Calapan, the lady asks me if I know the foreigner who came in earlier.  His stories are about the diasporic Asian American traveling Asia.  His characters are in search of their most authentic sexual identity.  No home.  No context.  No sense of belonging.  When you look at Chris and think about it, you can see the Filipino blood.  When you hear him talk—he is all-out American. “I only recently found out I was Filipino,” he tells me. But his stories run deep into our identity.  That people look at him and say foreigner wherever he goes is all our stories too.


When I returned to the Philippines in 1998, I found writers asking, who has a right to these stories?  These are stories of Filipinos and you are foreigners.  You might not get it right, anyway.  These are not your stories.

They’re not?

For years now, I have heard this reasoning in one form or another.  I have been told that for some Filipino writers, the act of Fil-Am writers, balikbayan, flying into NAIA on Fulbrights, and other grants, on money earned in U.S. dollars, is an act of thievery. That farmers who live on these lands till the earth and Fil-Am writers are profiting from the famer’s work.  Is this not our land too?

The direct translation of balikbayan is return (to the) country.  The Philippine Bureau of Immigration defines the Balikbayan in three ways:  1.) A Filipino citizen who has been continuously out of the Philippines for at least one year; 2.) A Filipino overseas worker; 3.) A former Filipino citizen and his family who had been naturalized in a foreign country and come or return to the Philippines.  In other words, people of Philippine ancestry like Chris, and M.G. and Penelope, and me.  It is a term that refers to the great writers N.V.M. Gonzalez and Bienvenido Santos, writers who have lived in the United States and return to their native land. It means your ancestors are from these islands.  Ang dugo ninyo ay puro Pilipino.  You are an extension of the farmers plowing the fields, planting the rice, healing the sick, fighting the war.  Your story is your great uncle, is our lola and lolo, is your mom and dad.  You fit in differently than the natives.  You speak Tagalog and Visyan and Ilocano with an American accent.  But this is your heritage and these are your stories. 

So we fish for stories on motor driven bangka with bamboo arms that stretch like wings of the great Philippine eagle.  We gaze at clouds shifting in the sky, and memorize the way light turns from yellow to deep red.  We sway in rhythm to the palm trees leaning to the wind.  We follow the dapple of light on ocean currents.  We wade into clear waters and run our hands across smooth flat pebbles.  These are our stories. 


 

Once in Calapan, our hosts invite us to their home for a dinner and a welcome ritual called a Putong.  The wives of city officials and dignitaries are dressed in beautiful pink and white dresses.  The twelve of us—men and women—Filipino and Filipino American—sit on plastic chairs.  There is a moon out.  The women sing to us.  They dance before us.  They spin in circles and pull a crown of flowers out of nowhere.  They dance their way to the row of plastic thrones where we are seated.  They crown each and every one of us.  “You are a queen,” says the woman in my ear as she places the ring of flowers on my head.  I hear the other ladies crowning my students and colleagues.  I hear them whispering in their ears too, “You are a king.”  And “You are a queen.”  They end the ritual by showering us with flower petals.
This is where the ferry has brought us—to these thrones, on this night, with a beautiful breeze kissing us and a song in the air.  We are kings and queens for a night.  We are welcomed.  We are part of the community.


          Four days later, on the ferry’s return to Batangas I will thank our ancestors for this great honor, for this ritual of belonging.  I will take my crown of flowers with its wilted petals and brown leaves and I will make an offering to the sea.  I will make my own ritual of thanksgiving.  I will call the ancestors and send a blessing to my family everywhere.  You will not find this ritual in books or local traditions.  It is authentically mine.

The day will be sunlit and windy.  The ocean tide will break into wide white waves and my flowers, like a kite with a trail of falling petals will rise with the wind, then tumble clumsy and awkward into the sea. 
 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Kababayan Ko


For Via and Mo on the Go

At the gates of the White House, rain fell steadily as we waited to get through security.  Our tour of the East Wing would begin at 10:30 that morning.  We had been instructed to bring no more than a wallet, a cellphone and if we were to carry an umbrella, let it be blunt and compact, let it be harmless.  We were not to carry bags or purses or cameras with removable lenses.  We were warned that such items on our person would prohibit us from entering.  The Filipino American Heritage Month invitees were scattered among other groups waiting to get in.  Umbrellas popped bright colors all the way up to the guardhouse.   
     Some of the manongs and manangs, elders of our community, stood in line, leaning on walking canes or seated in wheel chairs.  It seemed that while we recognized one another as Pinoy, not many people knew one another.  In front of me, two old titas and a young woman dressed in a beautiful blue suit and a red and white bow tie huddled under one umbrella. One tita held onto the young woman’s arm.  After 15 minutes or so, we started to see people being turned away or being sent to a little tent for shelter.   
     A Filipina rejected at the checkpoint walked away from the line, shouting,“You can’t bring these in!  They turned me away!” She held up a ziplock back of meds. Another woman with a big purse full of make up and extra hankies and what-not did not bother to zip the bag back up.  She just turned and left the line.  The women in front of me got all the way to security. The younger woman gave the umbrella to the titas as a guard came over and escorted them to the tent.

            “Was that a special tent for elders?” I asked.  I looked at the shoulders of her jacket, how they were dark with rain. 

            “No,” she said.  “That’s where they sent them for not having the right ID or for carrying too many things.” I held up my umbrella, offered her shelter.  She shook her head, “No thanks, I’m okay.”

             “So you left them there?” I asked.

            “Who me?”  she said.  “I just met them now, in line.  I let the tita have my umbrella.”
     The young woman’s name was Via and we made friends in a hurry.  Inside the White House, the photo ban had been lifted and we were given free reign to take selfies and photos, and group shots and shots of shots.  Gorgeous frames held groupings of historical photos—first families, first ladies, first pets.  Via and I took turns, standing before the China room or Red, Green or Blue Room, and we took photos of one another.  I was in my long barong dress and she in her blue wool suit.  We looked like we were going to a wedding. 
     In one of the rooms stood a huge gold fireplace, just beyond the velvet ropes.  Another stranger said,“Do you want me to take a photo of the two of you?”
     “Sure!” we said.  “And do you want a photo too?”


     In this way, Via and I met Mo on the Go.  Via was from New York, and Mo from the Bay Area, and I was from Miami.  The three of us looked like characters from the Wizard of Oz, on the road to catch a glimpse of President O, if he would allow it.  All day long, we kept an eye on each other, as we continued our tour of the East Wing and then leaving that grand White House, finding our way to the KAYA town hall meeting for Filipino Americans and then to the reception back at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.  Every time we left the White House, we went through security and every time we returned, we stood single file, waiting to get in. We were sisters looking out for each other, meeting other brothers and sisters on the way, making mano to lolas and lolos, seeing old comadres and compadres along the way, folks we’ve organized with, people who have modeled the life of leadership, who supported each of us in various times of our careers. 

 We were all there, standing in line at the White House, umbrellas raised, wet from heaven’s rain and full of wonder.  Kababayan to the core.









 
  

Monday, October 5, 2015

Filipinana At the White House


for myself 

The invitation to the White House Celebration of Filipino American Heritage month suggested business attire or Filipinana.  What? 

For this daughter of immigrants, this first generation American born girl, this on the ground and canvassing for President Obama two election cycles in a row volunteer, the thought of wearing Filipinana to the White House was the ultimate physical manifestation of being a hyphenated U.S. citizen.

I had been to the White House on a number of occasions and I had been dressed in business attire.  I had been all red, white and blue.  Throwback to my elementary school days when everyone thought I was a foreigner.  When I was bound and determined to differentiate myself from my Filipino cousins.  I was a brown girl in a white world.  I was going to fit in and ignore my Filipinoness.  I would not be caught dead in a butterfly sleeved, barefoot dance between two bamboo poles garment if it was the last thing I would ever do.  I wore Levis.  I floated around in gauzy peasant tops.  I wore clogs, for God’s sake. 

Since those days I have traveled quite a bit.  I have gone from wanting to fit in and be one of them—the white girls—to finding out who I am. Gone are the days when I cringe at the thought of being in a loud group of Filipinos—aka the Galangs.  Gone are the days when I reject the question, Where are you from?  (Miami is where I am from now, Chicago before that.  And before that Milwaukee.) Gone are the days when I am embarrassed to say to the old ladies next door, “Mi familia es de las islas Pilipinas, pero yo soy de Wisconsin!”

I ran to my closet to look for the perfect outfit.  A dress that said I am Pinay—but modern and of U.S. citizenry.    Two years ago, as I was planning my wedding to my White Southern Man (progressive and blue-eyed and beautiful), I asked Filipina dress designer, Bong de Ocampo, to make me a modern barong.  I told her I wanted it to be long and sleek.  A shift.  No sleeves.  I wanted a shawl.  I wanted a dress that I designed myself. 

I was all set to wear it, even posted it on Facebook, when Hurricane Joaquin threatened the DC area.    I would have to stand in long lines to make it through security and into the White House.  I would have to hold a flimsy no-point umbrella over my head.  No, said my comadre Bing Branigin from DC, wear something warmer. 

I had to think about it.  For like a nanosecond.  The White House was not only acknowledging Filipino American Heritage Month, it was celebrating it!  I was invited to show my Pinay pride in the way I carried myself, in the way I took on my identity, in the way I wore that dress. 

With Jason Tengco | Deputy Director
White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
I stood in the rain at least twice that day.  The wind turned my White House-approved umbrella inside out. My long sheath barong was covered up to my knees in a sassy dress coat. The hem of my barong was soaked.  My hair was damp, falling straight.  I felt like a drowned rat. I was kissed by rain and it didn’t matter.  The dress was a beautiful sampaguita from my garden in Miami—the pineapple weave shining like gossamer and the joy from inside me radiating all kinds of heat.

Ako ay Pilipina-Americana taga Miami, one of the 4 million in the United States.  Her Wild American Self had arrived.