There’s the story in my family when I was lost. We lived in the house on Dolores Street, and behind our backyard lined with a wall of cacti there was a field of brown and green hills that extended into the distance. Not big hills, small ones. Some were dry, some were burnt, most were filled with grass and trees and the blossoms and the flowers were white and beautiful and I remember peering through the heads of cacti wanting to see what was behind them, wanting to roll down the hills. I wanted to play a game my half-brother and father played. They walked to the tallest hill and roll and roll until they reached the bottom grass and the sea was heard in the distance and sometimes they rolled off the cliff into the sea. My lola wouldn’t let me play this game. Though I was older, she said a girl ought to be clean. Not dirty. She gave me a look that felt like a stranger lost in the woods, dusting off a windowpane and peering into a house crammed with knickknacks and rotting furniture and lit yellow lanterns and I stared back at her, as if I were that old, dying house and said: but I want to live again. My lola stayed silent, then laughed. Then one day, I walked through the slits of the cactuses, between their piercing blades, slowly, carefully, and I walked a whole mile through the field and hills until I reached the tallest one next to the roaring sea. I bent my knees. Clutched the grass between my fingers. I did not laugh. I placed my palms on the burnt grass and flipped over and rolled down the hill and perhaps I rolled into the sea perhaps I jumped in perhaps I was always lost perhaps I wanted more perhaps I died perhaps my father and my lola never found me but they did and they pulled me back by the arms, from the behind, and perhaps they carried me home, perhaps I never rolled down the hill next to the sea perhaps I wanted to make up this story to remember when I became fearless, when I had no qualms of mischief, of leaving, of unfurling obedience, of cacti and their thorns or the licking, unforgiving sea.
You called the girl to tell her of the affair. The lies, the half-truths, the catalogue of details and dates that the love you had with her now fiancé were true. You paint the picture of Disneyland from four years ago. The blue and yellow Mickey Mouse teacups you spun in, him around you, kissing, and the lies that stayed in the belly because you knew he told the girl he was alone at home. These were only happenstance: meeting you at an arranged hotel. Of him only calling you. Of him driving your car. You think of that first midnight meeting on your front porch after a fight they’ve had and how he came to you, wanting. You think of dialing her number because of the Facebook photo of the ring that was tiny on her fingers, barely a speckle, and you saw him in his Navy dress whites, that Dixie cap you knew your father once wore, the father that left, and you pick up the phone, dial the numbers you remember from years ago, and the heart beats against the tank top shirt you are wearing, you take off the shirt because of the heat, because the walls feel like they are closing in. You are heated, angry, ready to scream at the girl, but then she answers—Hello, who is this?—with that sweet, chirping, bird-like voice of hers that was always more supple, more fluid than yours, and you picture her standing next to the boy, your once lover, you picture her naked, skin so white, beautiful, skin not like yours, dark, rough, dry, and you want to say hello back, you want to bite, to rage, but the voice stops at an octave higher and nothing comes out, not even a fuck-you. You collapse on the couch in your Berkeley apartment, tie your hair up in a bun, look at your image in the mottled mirror across the room and hang up. Disappointed. Stare at your toes. Unpainted, long, ugly. Hands covering the face. The body quivering at the weight of a memory that comes during the night when you cannot sleep and the clock’s red light glows and the window’s open and the dry heat crowds the throat and you remember the falling in the first grade, off a baseball stand, breaking the arm, the drop of your body, a dead weight, a discard. Your mother ran to you screaming, Don’t you dare cry. Don’t. Arm dislodged, arm bent like an L, the mother repeating, Don’t. Don’t. Cry. A child’s game. You were playing follow-the-leader. The girl next to you turned and with her spinning arms pushed you off the opposite side of the baseball stands and down you fell and the air rushed past your legs and you were not a bird and you were a dark thing falling with hair covering the face and you fell, broken, limp, a thing discarded, and you remember the mother running to you, Don’t.
Don’t be weak like your father. Don’t cry. No.
You still have the phone in your palm. The numbers attached to her phone. You redial. You hear the girl’s breath through the white noise. You hear the boy’s laugh, the asking, Who is it, my love, honeybutt, pretty girl? That girl will muffle the sound, laugh back at your once lover, and you are angry, you want to break the girl, her and her beautiful skin and her perfect relationship with her perfect lover the lover that was once yours and she does not know you need her to know you want her to know you want to reach your arm into the phone, through the white noise, break her ignorance, break her laughter, break her. Destroy the bird-like girl. But you cannot say what you called to say and you begin to say something but you begin with a Don’t and you stammer, the chest rising and falling, the tears rushing, and don’t they? They don’t rush. You don’t cry. The girl is asking, Who is this?
Fuck you, you begin. Or don’t. You’ve hung up. Turn on the computer, the limelight’s glow flooding the bare room, with a couch as a bed and a desk and books stacked up against the walls. You open the tab to your email and begin to write a letter to the girl and her lover, your once lover, and you write and write and profess and erase and fall and begin. Try. Fall.
Do your dentures hurt?
Are you embarrassed to smile at interviews?
When did you start using?
Was it in the Philippines?
Did all your older brothers do it?
Did you make a lot of money working endless nights?
Did you like cutting meat in America? In a cold grocery store serving white people? You did every immigrant job in the book, even eventually became an accountant.
Did you do it in Bahrain? When the Arab men beat you? Did the smoking salvage the pain?
Did you really not blink when mom showed you that house she wanted to buy?
What was it: the embezzled money? The drugs? The dying down heart?
Did my brother’s mom steal you from Mercy? My mother—does she deserve mercy for leaving?
Did you know I love how you love math?
How proud were you when your honors math teacher said, “This student is bright. He should continue in math. He will go far.”
Was lolo proud? Did lolo beat you?
Did he tell you stories about the war?
Did lola teach you how to play mahjong?
What about the women? The shabú?
Did you know I saw the women you brought to the garage late at night?
Did they leave at twilight? Did you pay them?
I didn’t see the shabú. I never saw the shabú. You were that good.
I don’t remember much about childhood.
Do you remember yours?
Did you start again when Lola died?
You said God foreclosed our house on Dolores Street. Took it away. It was a miracle, you said. Did you praise Him when the police came?
Remember when you wore bellbottoms on your first day of school in America. It wasn’t the 70’s. Daddy, did it hurt to smile?
A wise bird once told me to give up. A wise bird once said to give in.
A wise bird once flew high and high and then fell by the limbs, fell
because the flap of the wings failed, because the sky said, “No,”
because the earth said, “Come,” because the wind said, “Fall.” A
wise bird once flew up and up to the great blue and empty sky and
met the sun, and the sun said, “Burn.” A wise bird once told me to
work hard and fail. A wise bird once worked hard and failed. A
wise bird once won all the birdsongs’ love and the birdsongs’
worms and the birdsongs’ prizes and the birdsongs’ books and the
birdsongs’ validation but the wise bird was not a bird and was a
poet instead and the wise poet once told me, a young bird, a young
poet, that I will never fly or sing or reach the sun or see the stars
because my bird wings were too frail, too weak, too young, too
undeveloped, too petty, too sad, too rejected. The wise poet took me
by the arms and tried to clip my wings and I almost fell by the
burden of my loneliness. But I flew instead. I did not fly to the sun, I
did not fly to the stars, I did not fly, I glided, I struggled, I sang, I
remembered why the caged bird sings. I flew up and up and up to
the clouds, over the sun, and straight to the moon. At the moon, I
told the blackness I came from dirt and soil and I once met a wise
bird who told me I would never fly. I told the moon she was wrong.
I told the moon she was me.
I was born of two countries—one with a heavy, tormenting sun and dry weather that cracked my skin, claimed that I was of the other, which questioned my brownness and the accent in my voice. One where I called “small” repeatedly, critically, and where I attended school with a sea of other brown faces who spoke languages beyond English, a mix of Spanish, Tagalog, and Samoan, and we learned only about the American civil war and white-wigged presidents, memorizing and singing their names. A country where I perfected my English with Hooked-On-Phonics as my father stood above me—hands on hips, eyebrows furrowed—practicing the strange words I couldn’t sound out, words that didn’t even fit his own mouth. It was here where my father, worried of his daughter’s failures, silenced his Tagalog and stopped speaking to me in his mother tongue because I was taken aside in the first grade and placed in an ESL class—despite the fact I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, or even Tagalog. It was here where the slur and silences that imbued my speech were deemed “problematic;” they embodied my loss of language, and in turn, my loss of culture. The loss of self.
In this one country where I was born, I was taught to forget.
Whether it was about my mother, who left my family when I was two, or about the hills in a faraway land she had once roamed when she was a child, I was taught not to remember. I was taught silence. My father and lola, who both raised me with iron fists, rarely mentioned their homeland, their fractured memories of Marcos or addictions to gambling. There were no stories about their broken childhoods or the land they still loved—only the want, the need, to return. They would still speak of the Philippines like it were “home.” They would fill balikbayan boxes with cans of packaged meats, snacks, sweets, or my outgrown clothes, and “Send it home.”
Growing up, this loss of “home” spilled into my lola’s or father’s anger. Whenever they were angry with me—whether I was home late, talked back, or acted like a know-it-all “Americana”—they would switch to Tagalog, and I knew the level of their rage from the shrill or twitch of their eyebrows. A cascading wall of sound. I had to distill meaning from the movement in their mouths, the crooked smiles, or the narrowed eyes.
Tagalog, to me, has always been emotive, like images replaying on a screen. It was the one tangible thing I could hold onto in my head and mouth, the vehicle I used to imagine that land my family had once walked.
It is that land, my other country, which I also belong. It is a land I had not seen until I reached the age of 12 and flew across the Pacific to the tarmac where, five years before my birth, a man, whom I had not known or recalled or remembered, was shot. This history, this memory of a dictator and his ruthlessness, this nightmare that forced my family to flee from the country of my ancestors’ birth, never left my body. And when I returned to Manila at that tender age, that age of awakening, a torrent of change lapped through my body. It was the moment I first felt the wet heat, heard the incessant honking and spitfire Tagalog on the streets, entered a cemented church in colonial square, and pressed my feet on the land that obsesses me today with no end.
It was the first time I marched in a funeral parade for my father’s mother, the woman who raised me. It was the first time I ate pancit palabok on a banana leaf and nibbled on fresh pan de sal in the twilight of morning.
This was a strange moment of my life. It somehow trajected everything that made me into the dalaga I am today—it perpetuated this in-betweenness, this constant walking between two countries, this rampant desire to discover, reveal, who I am.
We prayed. We huddled in a basement when the winds fell and lit candles and signed the cross as we gave thanks to the statue of Holy Mary. She is a small statue. She is all we have left. She has been in our lives for 400 years. She is draped in an olive robe and her eyes are blue like the raging mouth of the sea. We prayed to our Holy Mary. We crowded the basement. There were bodies spilling out, we couldn’t all fit, and some took refuge in the scattered Jeepneys along the road, and when the trees and metal gates bent, so did they. The waters came and it took their bodies from the colorful jeeps. The sea swallowed our loved ones with the broken windows and collapsed doors and the portraits of our fathers and mothers and the rice cookers and the pots and pans. But we prayed. When the sun broke the clouds and we stood on the wet grounds with every house crushed under the weight of our hopes, we prayed. We prayed, Lord, we prayed. We took our silences and our constant smiles and hugged our neighbors who still had hands and feet to stand on and we walked the ten miles and heard the planes above and we prayed. This was our prayer, Lord. This was how we prayed. Holy Mary heard our crosses, bore the weight of our silence. Hawak kamay. We held hands when the winds fell, when the land emptied our bellies, when the raging sea took every house and man and child and woman with her. We prayed, Lord, we prayed:
We can smell the dead.
We can smell the dead crying, Lord.
We can smell the dead scurrying for food.
We can smell the dead lying, Lord.
Our resilience, isn’t it the wind calling?
Take our hope, Lord, we will eat it.
Eat till our guts and loins are full:
Kumain tayo, kainin natin ito.
Tayo tayo tayo.
We can smell the dead living, Lord.
We can smell the dead alive.
We can smell the dead eating, Lord.
Stand before our broken houses.
Raise your fists as the sun howls.
Wash our feet, abashed, wash the sounds.
And hear us, now, as we pray.
I’ve dealt with major depression since birth. When I was in first grade, I wrote a story (a nonfiction piece, actually) that I was incredibly proud of. It was called, “I’m So Only.”
I remember the white assignment sheet perfectly: on top, there was an outline of a parent walking their child. Then, a line for the title (which I wrote in, “I’m So Only.”) And finally, lines for the story: I wrote over and over again that I was so “only,” that I missed my father, that I longed for my mother, that I loved my lola. It was a rendition for loneliness; a silly grammatical error to express it; the only way for a young girl, a young dalaga on the brink to something, anything, to express her pain between loss and her parents’ leaving. I never knew how to explicitly explain my “cute” childhood pangs. Now that I’m in my late twenties, I can finally laugh at this girlish typo: that I was so “only.” It wasn’t until now that I could finally affix my mouth around this statement, this truth that summarized my young life: I was orphaned. My father had trouble with the law back then. I think he was either in the Philippines or jail. I don’t remember. I can’t really ask my father now, because I know it pains him. And my mother: well, she left with a white man who sold Toyotas. What I struggle with is this: I never “knew” that I was orphaned at that age. I thought my father would eventually come back, even when I lived with my uncles and my lola in the back room of a relative’s house, when I had no bed to lay my head on and slept on the floor, when I would visit my father at a bachelor apartment that I did not understand why I wasn’t living in, and yes, my father eventually did come back, and yes, to this day, I still defend and love and protect my father with every tooth and nail and memory. It’s because he was there. Because he gave me love and uncertainty. But when I think of my mother, I draw a blank. It’s why it’s so difficult for me to write any mother character, let alone any woman character. Once, when my therapist asked me for the fifth time why she left, why she did not take my sister or me with her when she ran away with that white man who sold Toyotas, I drew that blank, emotive silence again. Negligence, abandonment, and fear clouded my childhood, and maybe this is why I laugh when I think of that very first nonfiction essay I wrote in the first grade, when I claimed that “I’m So Only.” For truly, I was.
I am still frozen.
The past weeks have been a kind of daze, a kind of waking up into a nightmare and a need to fall asleep again to stop the overwhelming emotions, to freeze them. Maybe I’ve just been too exhausted.
There are things to be learned in failure, things to be gained in failure, things to try again after failing. But when I am alone, I go back to my shell, I escape within myself, I search for that metaphorical shoe closet I used to hide in when I was child. I know this depressive state will soon lift, as it always has. It is just the waiting, the modality of being “so only,” that has been so draining, so wretched.
I remember that day so long ago fondly: when the class bell rang, I held onto my story instead of shuffling it back into my backpack and ran all the way home to Dolores Street and showed it to the very first person who was at the door. It was my older cousin, who I had affectionately called “Kuya,” older brother (and to this day, I still call him this). When he first read the essay, he was confused, so he shifted to reading it aloud and laughed: “So only? Do you mean so lonely, Dolores?” He proceeded to read the whole essay aloud, line-by-line, and though I was flushed, mortified, and desired to escape and hide into that shoe closet down the hallway and cry in fetal position, I stood there, facing the music, the repetitions of my, “I’m So Only,” and I survived. This is the solace I find in this little origin myth of mine. I survived. Even if I am “only” now, even if my husband is off to sea, even if my family is thousands of miles away, even if I am alone in my apartment with only my plants Margot and Sylvia to keep me company, I survive. I listen to my Brazilian music, my Elis Regina, my Caetano Velosoa and his melodic voice singing, “Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar,” his need to say, “Love Me Forever or Never.” I open my books, I read Elena Ferrante aloud, I thumb through her Days of Abandonment or Those Who Leave, and Those Who Stay, and I weep: I think of my lola, I think of my sister, I think of my niece, I think of my mother. In all our leavings and stayings, we survived.
I am slowly learning that I was put on this earth to try and to fail, to love and to fail, to become and to fail. And if it is any penance, I know as long as I am alive I will write to survive, even if it is as silly as a story that sings over and over again: “I am so only, I am so only, I am so only.” It is an anthem to my survival. It is an anthem that reminds me: I am alive, I am not alone any longer, and I am alive.
In the morning, we awoke to the sun and the smell of rotting flesh. In the morning, we awoke to collapsed houses. In the morning, we awoke to missing children, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters. In the morning, we crawled from the pit of the earth and saw hills covered with mounds of broken buildings and crashed cars and dead bodies. In the morning, we awoke, our bellies hungry, our wills scattered. In the morning, we awoke and began to walk.
We walked ten miles to the airport after the winds fell and the storms bent metal gates and 10,000 went missing. We walked ten miles and waited eight long hours in a crowded room spilling with bodies. We walked ten miles and the roads were paved with bodies. We walked ten miles and the churches were filled with bodies. We walked ten miles and we prayed for two days in a basement when Yolanda swelled and screamed, and in her loudness, 10,000 bodies went missing, 10,000 bodies we saw lying in the dirt and the debris, 10,000 bodies in a broken chapel, 10,000 bodies for empty coffins, 10,000 bodies under the bamboo and wood and brick and bent metal, and did you know? We walked the island of death and the trees uprooted themselves and the sun came to brazen the wetness and it was ten miles to the airport and eight long hours awaiting a military plane crowded with supplies and food and blankets and pills and bandages and cans of packaged meats and bags of rice and all the objects we needed but we call to you, to ask you this, we must ask you this: What can erase the image of bodies lining the streets, the trees and buildings and lampposts and wooden beams hiding their limbs, separating their hands and feet and heads, the empty coffins awaiting their sleep, tell us how to forget the 10,000 bodies that crowd our minds?
We walk the island of death and we walk the roads paved with the smell of flesh.
But when we see the young woman birthing a girl in the crowded airport, we cry. We cheer when the babe cries. We hear the military planes roaring above, bringing us more things to eat: we eat our hope. We move as the earth watches, as the journalists come, as they ask us if we are hungry, as the cameras flash, as the global reports claim we are looting and stealing and so, we turn away and we walk. We walk and walk and walk and walk. We remember without stopping, without feeling the pain surging our feet, our lungs, the head, the heart.
We walk, one leg lifting, we walk, one arm swaying, we walk, one breath inhaling, we walk. We walk with 10,000 bodies. We walk more than ten miles. We walk longer than eight hours. We walk till the metal gates unbend. Till the trees re-root. Till the coffins are filled. Till the houses are rebuilt. Till the roads are paved with our sweat.
Our will walks us through the island of death, and with our hands, we await the next day and the next, ready to build.
They named her Dolores after the street they lived on, after this beautiful Spanish-Mission style house they said matched the color of her skin.
The color of sand, the mother sang in a tight-fitting dress, I know great things will come because you’re the color of sand. Mestiza.
The look she gave the little girl’s sister was of fire and brimstone, and with her nose lifted to God, the mother said: Unlike your morena sister. What good will come of you?
This is the story of why the little girl’s hair was chopped off. This is the story when in the shower, the sister grabbed a fistful of the girl’s hair and chopped it off. This is the story of no crying, just silence, and when the water tap turned off, the girls’ stepmother walked onto the cold, black tiles and saw what was done.
Did you cut off your sister’s hair?
The sister hung her head.
Did you cut off your sister’s hair?
The sister sat in the tub and bent her knees. She wept. The little girl saw her older sister weeping. The little girl hugged her sister and said no, she had cut her own hair. This is the start of her defiance. No, she repeated. I chose to cut my own hair. The stepmother was rage.
This is a story of two women who slept with the same man and lived in a Spanish-Mission style house on Dolores Street with their bastard children. This is a story when a little girl was taken by her stepmom, rushed into the kitchen, and had her hair chopped off with a knife. A lesson, the stepmother said, this is a lesson you won’t forget. This is the story of the little girl’s mother sitting on a mustard yellow chair with mustard yellow heels and a tight-fitting dress and how she watched her little girl’s hair being chopped off by her rival’s hands and how the blade swiftly cut near the roots of her little girl’s head and how none of the women cried.
This is a story the little girl barely remembers. Her name is Dolores. Her name is the sweet, sweet sound of black waves falling to the ground. Her name carries the same weight as her mother’s, Mercidita. Mercy. Dolores, oh, Dolores, do you remember your hair being chopped off by your stepmother? Do you remember your mother’s silence? Do you remember that your stepmother bore a son and your own mother bore you and your sister? Do you remember that her lips were tied shut because you, Dolores, were not a boy?
Do you remember when your lola stepped in? The sound of dragons rushing. Even the stepmother was afraid. How dare you, the lola said. She stilled the air with her breath. How dare you. The knife dropped. The sound of it falling embodied the room.
Dolores, here, your tears began to rush.
Lola picked the little girl up and carried her outside, to the wall of cacti that guarded their home. Lola pressed her hand against the little girl’s head and outstretched the other and let the little girl touch the thorns of the cactus.
Your hair will grow, Lola said, you will be beautiful again. The little girl did not cry. Or she stopped. Or Lola gently begged her to stop. The little girl knew her beauty was taken from her. Under the limelight of the side door’s steps, the little girl’s mother watched. The little girl turned to her mother. Her sister held unto their mother’s legs. In the distance, they could hear her father and half-brother playing, yelling at the top of their lungs, and even if it were Hide-and-Seek or Marco-Paolo or a game of rolling down the grassy hills, it did not matter: they were laughing. The little girl stared back at her mother, saying nothing, and returned to her doting Lola, knowing fully that her beauty and happiness only manifested when compared to thorns.
We are ready to build. We are ready to build because there is nothing else. We are ready to build but there are no supplies. We are ready to build but there is no food. We are ready to build and it is the fifth day since the winds fell and still, we have no food. We have no buri mats to sleep on, no clean water, no electricity, no power, no medical supplies, no pots or pans to cook rice in, no man or government person with his uniform in charge, and around us, the earth is flattened: there are collapsed houses, broken bamboo stilts, crushed cars, bent metal, shattered glass, splintered wood, a sea of black body bags, a sea of long lines and the waiting. There is the stadium with the crumpled government cars wedged into fence posts, a twisted chain link fence. We walk with makeshift masks, desperately trying to escape the smell.
We can only walk. We walk. There is nothing else. The lucky ones have motorcycles. The lucky ones stole bikes. The lucky ones climb into government cars. We, we walk. We walk. We are hungry. We band together, we eye the others. We walk. We loot. We steal. We walk. We follow the crowd. We walk three hours to a warehouse with a shattered roof. We climb the broken wall, up the roof and down to the building filled with thieves. We hope for rice, but there is more: cans of sardines, bottles of water, blankets. We steal. We loot. We take whatever our hands can carry, whatever our children can bear. We take, we steal, we are hungry. We are women. We are men. We steal metal guns. We hold onto metal guns. We run. We sleep in huddles. We stand guard. Take turns watching. Waiting. Till the night falls and the earth is filled with the air of flesh. We stand still. Guns pointed. Guns ready. We walk.
In the morning, we see the white man coming with his cameras. We see him treading with us, asking our folk if they are hungry, where their houses stood, where their children’s and husbands’ and wives’ bodies lay. We watch the white man cry. We watch him answer the camera and say:
Can you imagine the strength it takes living in a shack, to be sleeping on the streets next to the body of your dead children?
We look at the white man eyeing the camera, glancing left and right, collapsing his face into his hands, his khaki slacks perfectly clean, unspoiled, his grey hair slicked back, his eyes the bluest, like the raging sea.
Can you imagine that strength? I can’t.
He turns to us, he looks at us, and he says:
And I’ve seen that strength day in and day out here and we honor them in every broadcast that we do.
We look back, we hold hands, hawak kamay, we walk to this white man and we grasp his shoulders and we ask him: don’t you know? Don’t you know? Don’t you know?
We carry our statue of Holy Mary, we hold her close, we touch the rough marble and kiss her olive robe, and we ask the earth and the television screens and we sit on our stolen buri mats and we say: She is all we have left.
We hold hands, hawak kamay, we pray. We pray, Lord, we pray. We want to tell the white man and his cameras: didn’t you know?
We are used to typhoons. We grow with typhoons.
Who Are You?
I am a daughter of a call girl.
I am a daughter of an ex-meth addict.
I am a granddaughter of a woman once kidnapped by the Japanese.
I am a granddaughter of a major and guerrilla resistance fighter.
I am a niece of a Filipina prostitute.
I am a sister of a girl once impregnated at sixteen.
I am a half-sister of a girl once molested by her stepfather.
I am a half-sister of three half-white children who know nothing of their call-girl mother.
I am a half-sister of a boy who didn’t grow up with the loving father I had.
I am a woman who eloped in the sweltering heat of Las Vegas to a U.S. Sailor.
I am a woman who carries a diasporic body of contradictions.
I am a diasporic body who carries the memories of these contradictions.
I am a diasporic body who cannot forget. Who must think-feel. Who must weep. Who must question to exhume, to remember, to be.
We have two seasons: the wet and the dry.
Typhoons ravage our land, our islands, and more than 20 whip through our towns in a year. We could smell the rain when it comes. We knew when the moon had a ring around it, there would be rain. The winds would fall. We knew from the chattering of the birds. We knew from the cockroach hordes marching from our cupboards and up our walls. We knew from the scurrying of ants outside our porches. We knew from the roosters and their stilled wings and their suspended cries that the rain was coming. We could tell the strength of the storms from the color of the clouds, from the grey streaking across the sky, from the thickness and darkness of the blankets above us. The cities would blare signals of these predictions. A siren would blow when the typhoon was encroaching. The first signal meant rain and some wind, but we still went to school. The second signal meant stronger rain and wind, and we were excused from school. But the radio lines still worked, the cinemas were still open, the telephone lines and electricity still buzzed. When the third and fourth signal blew, we stayed indoors and hid in our basements. The winds would fall and the rain would plow through our streets, flooding the passageways—the branches would break, the trees would uproot, the metal gates would bend, the corrugated metal roofing would collapse. We huddled in our basements with canned goods, water, candles, matches, and the world outside would wait, the electricity and telephone lines would cease, and don’t you know, dear white man, we knew how to wait. We waited. We would wait for the sun to break the clouds and brazen the wet grounds and in the morning, we awoke to a city still standing.
What was this storm, dear white man? Was it the fifth siren, the sixth, the seventh? The city we knew: it’s gone. Everything: it’s gone. Where is our strength? Our resilience? Where is our brokenness? Where is our food? Where are our politicians and their wives on broadcasts, telling you, white man, that you’re wrong: that we’re not starving? Where is our hope? Where are our voices? Did the wind ravage them too?
We pray our Hail Mary’s. We pray Our Father. We pray and we smile and we hug those who are left. We walk and we scavenge and we bury our dead, even our children. We walk and we loot and we steal and, Lord, we have to eat. We walk and we steal a treadmill because maybe we can sell it for food, because maybe later, our still breathing child can say we may have nothing left but this treadmill, but this treadmill is all we have left. We walk and we walk and we laugh and we cry and we keep walking until the sun continues to dry up the land.
We laugh. We find a hoop beneath our broken houses and we prop it up with broken wood beams and rusty nails as if it were our treasure. We play basketball among the ruins of our lost town. A crowd gathers on Juan Luna Street. We play, pushing each other aside, grabbing at our arms, shooting the orange, grimy ball into the metal ring. We laugh. We hold each other’s hands and we huddle on this street where our families once stood and we share stories of loss: we grieve. We laugh at what we’ve lost, we joke, if only briefly, we list them, we itemize and inventory the objects, the relations, the people, our loved ones, our dear ones, and cry. We laugh. We remember. We eat our silence. This is all we have left.
You call us resilient.
We say to you, dear television sets, dear journalists, dear broadcasters, dear outside world that paints us like brown savages, that must ask us: why?
This is nothing new. Bahala na, sir: whatever happens, leave it to God. It is why we pray. It is why we leave. It is we stay. Our collective blood seeps deeper into the islands’ rivers, the underwater caves, the mountains, the trees, the dirt of our land, our kapwa of will, of death, of moving on.
It is why we board a crowded U.S. Air Force C-17 along with 500 others, all displaced, all who have lost everything too; it is why we stand by babies and pregnant women and men with dolls who kiss the stuffed animal-like wings over and over, remnants of a daughter now gone. It is why when an American crewmember holds her iPhone to the aircraft’s speaker, playing Earth, Wind & Fire, a song we do know, a song we play on the karaoke, that we break out into dance and song.
We sing: Do you remember?
We dance: While chasing the clouds away.
We twirl: Our hearts were ringing.
We sway: In the key that our souls were singing.
We laugh: As we danced the night, Remember.
We cry, as the plane nears Manila, far away from the carnage, our home: How the stars stole the night away.
Bahala na: I wasn’t the model Christian dalaga my husband’s familia wanted. My lola wasn’t either: this is inherited. Maybe it was the name change—his name change—or maybe it was the elopement.
But what can I say? I am my lola: defiant. Head-strong. Born of dragons in the Cordillera mountains facing a sea without calm. She raised me like cast iron, to be the stainless steel wok that burns against high heat.
Maybe I wanted too much—a conjoined name of two lost families—and the kindness it takes to lie. It’s an addiction, wanting too much: marrying a military man just like her; men who left a broken familia behind.
Home, a name—it’s complicated, imaginary, full of palms. It was the way he loved it. The way we traveled 2,500 miles back home and buried her among the hills of Mandaluyong. “We don’t know the next time we’ll see him,” his familia yelled, as my lola lay back to earth, to rest, soil, sands, death. Maybe it was the way I ate silence, bit my tongue for the first time, kept my lola within. They often say I open my mouth and here, she comes out.
Where is she now?
The earth ate her up.
Maybe if my lola wasn’t captured in the war. Maybe if my lola didn’t marry a stubborn major and had his 11 kids and became the second wife not entitled to his pension. Maybe if my lola didn’t gamble her addictions or swallow her poverty or pulled her teeth to come to America. Maybe then I wouldn’t have been birthed by a mother who ran away when pain became our first language, or had a father who wore disco shoes and bell-bottom jeans and chased after women who birthed desire… Then maybe I would’ve become the model Christian dalaga they wanted: quiet, submissive, obedient, a part of the man’s family, without identity.
But even after I bit my tongue, I shot his familia this look. A dare. Defiance. Dragons rushing, beating the tip of my stainless steel mouth. I walked past his sister without turning. The green hills and their graves reflected the sun, the ocean. It’s a role I’ll never play: a harmless Filipina on the brink of awakening. And what would my lola say?
She’d smile and nod, point at me, tell the stranger buried next to her: She, she is my daughter. Dolores Marie Ligaya Dulay. Bahala na. Hear her sing; hear her roar.