Photo credit: Jonna Baldre
by Melissa R. Sipin
One family, two mail order brides
When I first met my beloved stepmother, it was on a computer screen. Her tinged-brown face was shrouded by the limelight’s glow. We stood in my family’s old blue house on Neptune Avenue, the one that was inevitably foreclosed in 2009 and sat on the southern edges of Los Angeles, near the streets of Compton. Carson, for all that I have known it, has always been a Filipinotown, and my father, an immigrant, an ex-meth addict, son of a war hero, a stricken gambler, but also the parent-who-never-left, hovered above me, with that bright smile filled with dentured teeth. This is my anak, my father said. A surging hello followed. There, my future stepmother stood before me, boxed in the laptop’s glaring glow. A baby was in her arms, waving. I said hello back, warmly. This is your girlfriend, daddy? I said. He nodded back. Proud. His fading hair shimmering in the sunlight that knifed in through the window. His wrinkled face, his whitened skin bleached by papaya soap products from Manila, all beaming, bursting, with love.
That blue house on Neptune Avenue was the only house my father ever tried to buy. My paternal grandmother and adoptive mother, Pacita, whom I called Mama, Lola, mine, sold the very first house she bought in America on Javelin Street to bail my father out of jail. The house was bought with a mortgage by my aunt, my uncle’s third wife and a hard-working nurse who arrived from the Philippines when I was around nine years old. Even back then, it was rumored that my uncle, a jolly-faced man who wore “FBI” shirts — Female Body Inspector — and only adored action films because all other films with too much talking in them were what he called “chick flicks,” had bought my aunt on the internet. That he had agreed to marry another Filipina, seas away from her, but at the end of it all, she got cold feet. So, whatever dating service my uncle had used sent him another one, a Filipina he did not love. But they married, in the heat of Vegas, anyway. And she became one with our family, us calling her “tita,” our aunt, an addition to our ever-growing, huge, big, fat Filipino family.
The arrangement was that my aunt would buy the house with a mortgage, because my father couldn’t get one due his shitty credit, and that my father would use those mortgage payments as rent. Eventually, after the mortgage would be paid in full, my aunt and uncle would give us this powdered-blue house on Neptune Avenue. My uncle would joke: anak, you’re so beautiful! I’m your favorite uncle, right? What street do you live on again? Ah-ha, I knew you were from out of space! It was his ironic way of showing love, this uncle who was my second father, who called me anak though I was not his child.
My aunt, just like my stepmother who would enter our lives years later, was a mail order bride. She was not a slave, but she was trafficked. She was hardworking. She did the housework impeccably and without fail and she cooked and cleaned and worked without complaining. She wanted to come to America and take the hard-earned money she gained from working overtime and late-night shifts and send it all back home, to her familia, to her beloveds.
In the end, my aunt banked my father’s monthly rent payments. She never paid the mortgage. She took that money and ran away to the other side of town, which wasn’t very far. She divorced my uncle, who had a penchant for other women, just like my grandfather. We got the notice that the home we were living in, with its white carpeted floors, the pictures of us as children on the walls and arrayed in the china cabinet, the hospital bed that could rise up and down my grandmother owned, and the kitchen stove — the first stove I learned how to really cook on — would be foreclosed in a week. During that time, I was finishing my last semester in college, the first one in my family to do so, and the news took me by surprise, shook me with fear and shock, made me afraid that my father, half-brother and I might end up homeless. It made me feel stupid and foolish for thinking I was like those other colleges kids, who always had a home to return to, a house and a room to hold all their childhood things, their first pictures and drawings and clothes and shoes and all the things loved and held dear.
Our home was lost because my aunt needed to escape, needed to run away. This is the irony of Filipino families: the way we construct them allows us to abuse and maltreat each other, and even allows us to enslave our own blood.
Despite this, in spite of losing the first house I allowed to feel like home, I thought: but who could blame her? Chastise her for leaving, for stealing my father’s money, for doing what she needed to do to survive — just like my birthmother? No one can.
I think of my stepmother, whom I call nanay, my mother, a name I never called my own birthmother, and I feel the same contentious emotions. The difference is that my nanay loves my father. They joke. They laugh. They chase each other around their small apartment and fall down tickling each other. They kiss, they make love, they hold hands while walking down the street, he takes her on dates, she cooks dinner, and they watch “Bones” together religiously, crying and laughing whenever the characters they love fail or succeed. My nanay is not like my aunt, not like Lola Eudocia “Cosiang” Pulido, the grandmother who was enslaved by the Tizon family for 56 years.
But the same racist socioeconomic, imperialist and classist forces that led to Lola Eudocia’s enslavement also pushed both my aunt and nanay to marry my uncle and father as mail order brides.
I am not here to absolve Alex Tizon, his family, mother, father, or great-grandfather, the upper and middles classes of the Philippines, or even my father. They and Tizon cannot be absolved: He was complicit, they are complicit, we are complicit by virtue of living and paying taxes in America that fuel the neoliberal and foreign policies that create these industries of modern-day slavery. This is why the industries of memory have lauded Tizon’s piece in The Atlantic, and it is lauded because of the very reasons that gave critics of his essay their knee-jerked and triggered reactions: his essay, by virtue of The Atlantic’s power and reach, conforms the single story of the Filipino as victim (and only victim) and as oppressor of his own people.
“Filipineza”: Maid, servant, caregiver, domestic help
In the 1990s, a dictionary in Greece defined the word “Filipineza,” the Greek word for Filipina, as “domestic worker from the Philippines or a person who performs non-essential auxiliary tasks.” In 2014, a textbook for elementary students in Hong Kong named an activity “Racial Harmony,” where they drew cute pictures of different ethnicities which prompted the students to fill in the blanks.
A picture of a blond-haired man with blue eyes had a thought bubble next to him: “I am _______. I am an English teacher.”
A picture of a woman with black hair and a kimono said: “I am _______. I have a sushi restaurant in Hong Kong.”
A picture of another woman with black hair dressed in a red cheongsam said: “I am _______. Shanghai is my hometown.”
Finally, another image of a woman, also with black hair but dressed in a simple yellow shirt, said: “I am _______. I am a domestic helper in Hong Kong.”
Across the globe, the Filipina is translated as maid. As servant. As caregiver. As domestic help. This comes from the industries of memory and how the Filipino is erased, without measure, constantly. It is why we are known as the Forgotten Minority.
This is why, I believe, I have heard Filipino Americans demanding to sue the Tizon family and to disown any Tizon sympathizer; why I have heard Filipino Americans and Asian Americans from upper and middle classes criticize non-Filipino Americans for tying threads between Eudocia’s honorific, “lola,” and the term, “mammy,” a word given to enslaved domestic caretakers by their white masters. There are many parallels, many intersections, and we ought and need to see these connections, honor and mourn them. But we must also be acute and specific in these comparisons, for we cannot equate “lola” to “mammy.” To equate how Philippine feudalistic slavery operates — which has been rooted in and perpetuated by U.S. imperialism — with the devastating mass genocide of American chattel slavery is to do a disservice to those who have suffered from these cycles of oppression, massacres and enslavement. We must give each their own degree of mourning and resistance.
We cannot talk about the Philippine society without the acknowledgement of the Philippine-American War (which by its very name causes a mistranslation; it was an insurrection, a fight for freedom against an invading army) and our own genocide. We cannot talk about Philippine enslavement without first recognizing that to categorize it within an American framework is imperialist: It is reductive to say all slavery is the same (i.e., “all slavery operates the same,” rather than “slavery, objectively, in all cultures, is morally wrong”), and that reductive thinking is based on Westernized Enlightenment thought.
The reason that “lola” could hypothetically be used for an enslaved person in a Philippine family is because the construction of that family is based on the psychological terms of kapwa (sense of togetherness, the need to be one, the need to be the same), awa (pity), utang na loob (reciprocal indebtedness) and hiya (shame). These words can’t translate properly into English, but I feel them in my body, I know them every time I kiss a relative “hello” or “good-bye.” These constructions of family are based in indigenous thought, not Westernized thought. It is just as cruel to label your slave with an honorific such as “lola” as the condescension of “mammy.” Lola — like anak, which roughly translates to “my child” — means “my grandmother,” and these psychological terms express how the Filipino family operates in a framework of hierarchal possession. It is similar to what my birthmother once said to me, after she threw a flurry of insults at me and my sister on a Facebook message, disowned me for the x-nth time, and confessed that she didn’t know how to be a mother when her own mother sold her when she was only 15 years old: If I gave you life, carried you in my womb for nine months, then I can give you death.
Sometimes I don’t know how my body holds onto so much grief. It is like I am in a perpetual state of grieving.
The rapes of our grandmothers
Here is a fact:
The Philippines is one of the largest labor exporters in the world with 6,000 Filipinos — 60% women — leaving the country every single day to work, because of rampant poverty, joblessness, and landlessness. Lured to apply for positions that do not exist, promised legal status and wages, and instead becoming undocumented, drowning in debt, and isolated in a foreign country — thousands of OFWs end up working in virtual slavery. Recruiters and employment agencies take advantage of their workers, by charging exorbitant fees and loans and threatening their workers with deportation or physical violence to the workers and their families. Living in fear and with no place to go, many OFWs endure the discrimination, abuse, and exploitation in order to survive. — Gabriela USA
Here is another one:
When I search Google for the term “Lila Pilipina (League for Filipino Grandmothers)” I come up with a slew of articles. They portray the fight for redress for the Filipina Comfort Women — the lolas who were captured during the WWII and raped repeatedly, instituted in sexual slavery. They were mostly girls, 13, 14, 15 years old. They were raped more than 20 times a night. Their families were massacred in front of them. Beaten by the butt of the gun. Slashed open with the bayonet. They were girls. They were women. They were as young as 12 years old. Now they are lolas, grandmothers, who are fighting for recognition, for an official, government-sanctioned apology, proof that what they suffered was not erased, was not forgotten. Japan refuses. They instead issue a blanket apology and give reparations to the Philippine government, funds the grandmothers have still not received.
Funds that my own grandmother did not receive.
She was a hostage, a prisoner of war, because my grandfather, Major Diego Sipin, was a wanted guerrilla fighter and one of the heroes of the Battle of Bessang Pass. She was held in a garrison in Agoo, La Union, Philippines, a seaside town on the Lingayen Gulf hit right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, for more than six months during the war. She gave birth in captivity. This is a cemented truth, something no one can counter or erase. My eldest aunt, to the silence of my familia, is the only sibling out of 11 who did not inherit my grandfather’s looks.
Out of the 200 Filipino Comfort Women who came forward after 50 years of silence, none had a child of the “enemy’s.” Most of them, estimated to be more than 1,000, perished in the “comfort” stations, these militarized and forced brothels. In my own contours, I estimate more — because our islands were enemy territory and the Imperial Army retaliated with brutal ferocity, especially those who were part of or supported the guerrillas. According to the Asian Women’s Fund, a quasi-public organization established by the Japanese government with state and privatized donations created as redress, but only if the lolas accepted an ambiguous apology, the Imperial Army did not only have official “comfort” stations in the Philippines; they had countless of makeshift garrisons turned into rooms of mass rape, ones that were not organized into “militarized brothels” and were not visited by Japanese doctors. The systematic mass rape the Filipino women suffered was an instrument of warfare and scorched-earth policy, much like the Bosnian mass rapes that grabbed international attention in the 1990s.
Was my grandmother a Comfort Woman? It is possible. The Imperial Army was mercilessly brutal to any person who was suspected to be connected to the guerrillas. It is also possible that she was the sole woman to give birth in this captivity whose baby survived.
I can only imagine, only witness the bottomless cavern within my own body; I want to stop the grieving, I want to stop the erasure, I want to remember. I want to witness and speak. I need to remember.
Something impedes me, a gate, a lock, like the one my grandmother once placed on the outside of my girlhood room that I shared with my sister.
I wonder what will happen if I let it slip. Let that golden key dangle. I wonder how much I would fall. I’ve done it many times before; have seen the brink, the edge, of my grief. Psychologists call it dissociation, dysphoria. Suicidal ideation. I need to go slow; I want to stop the triggers, the voices shouting over mine. Over my nanay’s, my birthmother’s, my lola’s, my family’s. And yet. All I hear is that cacophony, that mixture of missionary complexes and erasure.
Tomorrow, I wonder if Lola Eudocia will be remembered. Tomorrow, I wonder if my own grandmother, a woman who must have suffered the most one can suffer and lived, would be remembered, too.
I ask myself now: What does it mean to become family? Familia? Pamilya? What are these terms but a representation of the bonds we hold with one another? They are lies. They are true. They are what we are left with, what we have. Should I call my birthmother Mother? My mother? Nanay? That is what nanay means. What lola means: my grandmother.
Here is a truth: Lola Eudocia unfortunately did become part of Alex Tizon’s family, because despite her lower class, she was still considered a Filipino citizen in their eyes. In contrast, chattel slavery never allowed the enslaved to become one with the family, because those who were enslaved were considered less than human. It is here where the difference lies, and it is imperative to point this out.
The white supremacy that fueled chattel slavery is also what fueled America to conquer the Pacific, to massacre over 1.4 million Filipinos and make the Philippines theirs:
“There was nothing wrong that profit motive and gain should be the only reason for American expansion into the Pacific.” — Theodore Roosevelt, June 24, 1900
“We make no hypocritical pretense of being interested in the Philippines solely on account of others. While we regard the welfare of these people as a sacred trust, we regard the welfare of the American people first. We see our duty to ourselves as well as to others. We believe in the trade expansion.” — Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, June 1900
“It has been charged that our conduct of the war has been cruel. Senators, it has been the reverse. […] Senators must remember that we are not dealing with Americans or Europeans. We are dealing with Orientals. We are dealing with Orientals who are Malays. We are dealing with Malays instructed in Spanish methods. They mistake kindness for weakness, forbearance for fear. It could not be otherwise unless you could erase hundreds of years of savagery…” — Albert J. Beveridge, January 9, 1900
The difference is stark: Filipinos have become the embodiment of their colonizer by enslaving their own people; white Americans, through their racist mythos of manifest destiny, enslaved and conquered and massacred those they believed were not human. We must find the parallels, we must find the intersections, but we must not allow Westernized, reductive thought to conflate these two systems of oppression — to do so is another erasure, and erasure is the crux of trauma for Filipinos. It is what catalyzed our migrations, both forced and voluntary.
This erasure is important to say aloud. It is because of the Philippine Insurrection, because of the over 300 years of subjugation by the Spanish, that the feudalistic and racist system of domestic servitude, katulongs and kasambahays continues to exist and thrive; it is this forgetting, this un-memory, this erasure that allows the Philippine populace to shroud their past and embody the colonizer that has colonized them. Simply put: The novelist Bob Shacochis once said the identity of war is “the genesis of a nation’s soul.” Even the name of our genocide is written in mistranslation — the Philippine-American War — as if these two countries were on equal footing. Let me repeat: It was an insurrection against an invading army. And it was an invasion that eventually succeeded because General Aguinaldo and the ilustrados wound up conspiring with the Americans to gain privileges and control during the U.S.’s rule, just as their ancestors conspired with the Spanish. The Philippines is a nation defined by its oppression, by its corroboration for complicity.
Through this erasure, this anti-memory, our old dictator Ferdinand Marcos and our new dictator in-the-making Rodrigo Duterte, who has just declared martial law in Mindanao and has threatened to extend it to the Visayas and Luzon, were created. They promised us they would be the strong-man we needed against all oppressors, and yet. Their promises were and are masked and wrapped up by their collusion with the United States, so that they could maintain their power and control. Marcos was supported by Reagan and Nixon. Duterte is supported by Trump. This is not by coincidence. This is because this is how oppression operates, according to Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” — through conquest, divide and rule, manipulation and cultural invasion.
This is our erasure: Our fight for freedom, our insurrection against the invading American army, is not taught either in American schools or Philippine schools; 1.4 million Filipinos died as a result of this invasion through water torture, concentration camps, famine, diseases and public massacres. And yet. The colonizer has us believe that America is the land of the free and the bounty. The colonizer has us believe that our island’s resources are theirs to conquer and keep — for the sake of expansion. The colonizer has us believe that the way they enslave is exactly how we enslave, and thus who are we to complain of our sufferings, our traumas, our complicity, when we are just like them?
I will end with this: This past weekend, one of the Dulay matriarchs, my great-aunt, who became a surrogate mother to me after my own grandmother passed and knew and remembered so much about the war (she was 15 years old when the Japanese Imperial Army bombed the Island of Corregidor), was laid into the earth near her sister.
Ever since Alex Tizon’s essay came out, I’ve finally come to understand the intense class, hierarchal, and often racist class dynamics that my own family operates in, and especially the intense class anxiety I grew up with and still often feel, especially around the rich side of my family. Just because my nails were not painted, I felt poor. Just because my teeth never had braces and aren’t straight, I felt poor. Lesser, of no value. My familia reaches over 300 in Los Angeles, and the main matriarch, my other grand aunt, married a white real estate tycoon and took over his company while employing most of my family members scattered between the freeways. The wealth disparity in my family is vast — my great-aunt, to give you a sense of her wealth, donated $13.5 million to the hospital I was born in, where many of my relatives were. My side and those who work for her and/or live in her apartment complexes, like my father, are regulated to the “help” side of the familia; it’s the katulong system working within America’s capitalism. We are not slaves, but we answer the beck-and-call of my great-aunt and of her son.
You want to tell me that slavery is slavery. You want to tell me that slavery is the same everywhere. But this is what I believe you are saying: Slavery, morally, is and will always be, no matter what, wrong. It is objectively evil in all cultures, like rape. How it exists is objectively and will always be evil and based upon the superiority complexes of the oppressor class — and therein lies the intersections, the parallels, the ravaged truth: The master’s egotism is rooted in his enslavement of the oppressed.
But I also believe this is a truth: How slavery operates, by culture, country, and nation-state, is different. It bleeds and finds its way into our lives and cuts the very core of our bonds and our ability to love and see each other. The consequences, the devastating ruptures of familial bonds and love, are the same: they are knifed by the trauma, by the intergenerational trauma. They mirror the other.
My inay is not a slave, is not an indentured servant, but she was trafficked. My aunt is not a slave, is not an indentured servant, but she was trafficked. My birthmother, who abandoned me the day after I was born, is not a slave, is not an indentured servant, but she was sold — by her own mother. Modern-day slavery is filtered through this system of human trafficking.
When I am near her, my inay, my stepmother, she fixes my dress, my hair, my messed-up lipstick with her fingers, like she were my real mother. I ask her if she misses her family back home, if they, too, want to come here, and she tells me, It is okay anak. Here, I can help them more. But they want to stay there, and I want to be with your father.
My father, through the hard work of my familia, is finally a citizen. My inay, who migrated here legally, will soon, too, become a U.S. citizen.
Her children are my age. I meet them, too, on the computer screen. Next year, my husband and I will make a pilgrimage to Metro Manila to meet my stepsiblings for the very first time. Though we are thousands of miles and oceans away from each other, we laugh and talk and smile as if we were familia.
I know there are many nonprofit orgs fighting for the rights of my titas, my lolas, those from families like mine. Damayan Migrant Workers Association, Gabriela USA, Lila Pilipina, and so many more — they are on the frontlines, like Gabriela Silang, and they are fighting to dispel modern-day slavery in its most current, most vicious institutionalized form. I know this is not enough. I know my familia is lucky; that not all families are like mine, not all are kind, that they do not operate in the same clannish, overly protective way the matriarchs in my family do.
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