Filipino American History Month
By Tony Robles
Who is to say the weeds
Are not the roots?
Who is to say the roots
Are not the weeds?
–Poet Al Robles
I was in a large yard of a Protestant minister in central Florida. Elvis had just been buried at Graceland and I was a kid trying to earn a few bucks. I attended a small Christian school where I was issued a red, white and blue uniform; recited the pledge of allegiance to both the American and Christian flags and was the school’s only non-white student. I had a lawn mower that started every so often and I solicited business in the various neighborhoods. I’d go door to door and ask the kind elderly—-and sometimes not so elderly—-ladies if they wanted their lawns cut. They often said yes and I’d start pushing my mower. The mower had unsteady wheels and I’d have to push very hard to move it. It was very tiring in the 90 plus degree heat. Sometimes it seemed I wasn’t moving at all—-just sweating, not getting anywhere.
I kept pushing that mower every day, door to door—the fragrance of oranges settling into my dirt-covered skin. When I got to the minister’s house, I knocked on his heavy wooden door. He looked like a middle aged underwear model (The kind you see in ads standing next to a row of progressively younger men…in a display of intergenerational underwear model mentorship/solidarity). His house was filled with heavy wooden furniture and smelled of lemon (furniture polish I’m sure, for I recall seeing not a single lemon tree on the property). The minister informed me that he didn’t need grass cutting but weed pulling. He led me to his backyard. Weeds covered the entire area. A hot gust of wind moved the weeds and they swayed like some kind of torrid choir. I began pulling the weeds, tugging and yanking. They were tough, like rope. When you pull weeds, you have to pull the roots otherwise the weeds will grow back.
I pulled and pulled, often removing just the stems, leaving the roots in place. I was sweating heavily and the sun left its mark on my brown arms. The more I pulled, the more the weeds seemed to spread. I began pulling my hair out. Then the kindly minister appeared with his permed hair (salt and pepper tinged) and a glass of lemonade. I took the glass, the dirt from my hand moist with the sweat of the glass. I held it to my lips and tilted the glass to the sun, pretending it was sweet. I finally cleared the yard of the weeds and I went into the house to wash my hands. I used much soap, scrubbing with vigor but much of the dirt remained, as if it were a permanent stain. I looked into the mirror and fixed my hair, striking a variety of what I thought were stunning poses (That would be the envy of any underwear model). I turned around to find the minister and his wife looking at me. I was embarrassed but for some reason the minister’s wife’s face was red. I thanked them for the lemonade. The minister handed me five dollars and I rushed out the door to the sound of their silent laughter. I walked down the road past houses shaded by orange trees and flanked by carports. I headed towards a corner store for something cold to drink. I kept walking when I heard the rumble from behind. I turned. A pickup truck was heading towards me. As it approached I saw an object flying towards my head. I stopped and ducked. On the ground was a beer can spewing foam. It rolled towards me as the Florida sun looked from above.
At that moment I realized I was Filipino and it would be many years before I understood what that meant. I learned about Filipinos that came to the US in the early days, like my grandparents, who arrived as workers, performing backbreaking labor in agriculture, working in the fields or in the cannaries—often exploited and pitted against fellow workers—to maintain a system of cheap labor with no regard to worker’s rights. I often think of a picture—a famous picture—taken of Filipinos working in the asparagus fields, performing stoop labor. It was thought that Filipinos were better suited for this type of work since—in the eyes of the growers—they were short and, thus, closer to the ground. The stoop laborers bodies were bent, stooped and twisted—knarled with dreams planted into the ground—seeds planted in anticipation of harvest. Then I think about pulling those lousy weeds over a summer in Florida. The Filipinos who came to this country in the early days did hard work all their lives.
I learned that Filipinos had been coming to the US since October 18, 1587–landing in Moro Bay—off the California coast— as part of the Manila Galleon Trade from Manila to Acapulco—which started in 1565 and lasted until 1815. By the time the Mayflower landed on the continent, there were conceivably a thousand or more Filipinos living on the West Coast. I didn’t learn of these things on my own but through my elders. I listened to the words of Filipino poets and activists like Al Robles, Oscar Penaranda, Bill Sorro, Lou Syquia, Norman Jayo, Jeff Tagami and Shirley Ancheta. They followed our elders—the manongs—trailing their footsteps to places like Watsonville, Salinas, Delano, Isleton, Imperial Valley, Stockton—seeking out the stories written in the hearts of our people. And they found it in small rooms where the only thing they had to do was sit and eat a warm bowl of rice and fish with our elders. What else is there? Asks the poet Al Robles.
October is Filipino American History month. Our history in this country has been erased and silenced but our stories cannot, will not die. Some Filipinos want to forget our history in this country but it can’t be silenced, erased or washed away. I remember the kid that I was, pulling weeds, dirt covering my hands, arms and mind. I can’t get rid of that dirt, clean beautiful dirt of memory covering the pages yet not written.
© 2010 Tony Robles