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A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: BOOK REVIEW: MAGDARAGAT, An Anthology of Filipino-Canadian Writing

a sojourners view karl gaspar mindaviews column

BOOK REVIEW:
MAGDARAGAT, An Anthology of Filipino-Canadian Writing
Edited by: Teodoro Alcuitas, C.E, Gatchalian &amp, Patria Rivera
Published by: Cormorant Books, Inc., Toronto, Canada
2023

CEBU CITY (MindaNews / 20 February) – Considering that the Filipinos reside in an archipelago constituted by at least 7,000 islands, it is safe to conclude that a big percentage of the population are closely linked to the sea (karagatan/kadagatan). Only those living in the highlands, faraway from the seashore, would have very little contact with the sea.

Our lives are therefore very much inter-connected with the dagat. We rely on the sea for our livelihood, for our constant supply of protein as the sea provides us with its bountiful harvest of seafoods and for our cheapest form of combining sports and recreation. A big percentage of Pinoys rely on fishing as their main or secondary livelihood. No wonder, there are tens of thousands of households whose houses are by the sea, including house on stilts.

Our ancestors were seafarers; during the Neolithic age, according to the migration theory of Peter Belwood, they traversed the sea between Taiwan and the islands across our archipelago. On their balangays, around the 11th century, they sailed to China, Vietnam (then known as the Kingdom of Champa) and other parts of Southeast Asia to trade goods. As recorded in the chronicles of the Song Dynasty, the rulers of the Kingdom of Butuan entered the early age of commerce with a booming maritime trade.

Through the centuries since the first ancestors settled in our shores, we have always moved around. Which was why our artisans found a way to make sure our boat technology would constantly be improved. We found a way to move from island to island. One can tell by the way languages moved around. Thus the Warays of Samar moved across to what is now the Waray-speaking people of Leyte. The Cebuanos moved from Cebu to the other side of Leyte while others to the Oriental part of Negros which is why Cebuano is spoken in these areas. Such was also the movement of Hiligaynon from Panay to Negros Occidental.

At the tail-end of the Spanish occupation and throughout the American regime, those in the Visayas (especially Cebu, Bohol and Leyte) migrated to all parts of Mindanao in search of land to cultivate and jobs. No wonder the majority of Mindanawons either speak or can easily understand Cebuano. It is even a proven theory that the Tausogs were not originally from Sulu but from the archaic Kingdom of Butuan. Even a number of Mamanua households, the original settler around Lake Mainit in Agusan, migrated and settled down in Leyte.

And these “perpetual departures” have made our ancestors wanderers beyond our shores. On October 18, 1587, a Spanish galleon docked at what is now the Morro Bay in California carrying the first Pinoy ancestors to reach North America. Centuries later, more Pinoys would migrate to the U.S.A., especially when we became a colony in 1898. Men were recruited from mainly North Luzon to work in the plantations of Hawaii and California. Years later unmarried, aged manongs would remain a remnant of the Pinoy presence in Hawaii. For more than a century Filipinos have continuously found their way to the US in the hope of a better future, that is, to earn dollars and thus progress economically.

In 1863, the CSS Alabama landed in Cape Town in South Africa, which brought the first Filipino to Cape Town, a lowly fisherman by the name of Felix Florez, who settled in Kalk Bay. His descendants intermarried with other migrants from other countries as well as the local residents. Today, if one were to visit Cape Town, one can find his descendants who can trace their lineage to Florez.

The constant movement of Pinoys to the four corners of the world would peak in the late 60s and would become a cornerstone of the Marcos dictatorship to help float the economy. First, it was mainly to the oil-producing countries in the Middle East, and then to Europe and the rest of the tiger economies of Asia.

Through the past administrations until the present one, our government has continuously promoted the departure of (overseas foreign workers) OFWs precisely because their remittances are needed to keep our economy afloat. But for all the State’s claim that they are the bagong bayani, the OFWs and their organizations have complained of the government’s neglect for their protection especially in countries where they are mistreated.

According to a 2022 study, approximately 1.83 million of the Philippines’ 110 million citizens were OFWs. Just a few years from now, the number could easily reach two million as thousands continue to apply for passports in the hope of finding a job abroad. But if we were to include all overseas Pinoys, a broader term to include all of those with Filipino ancestry, regardless of citizens who live outside the country, the number would reach around 12 million. With an estimated 2024 population of 119 million, this means almost 10 percent of our total population are residing outside the country.

As for those who migrated to the Turtle Island (the name coined by the local indigenous people including the Algonquian- and Iroquoian-speaking peoples), referring to the northeastern part of North America, constituted mainly by Canada, the first Pinoy to reach this part of the world was in 1861. In various indigenous origin stories, the turtle is said to support the world, and is an icon of life itself.

Unlike the U.S., Canada did not hold much attraction for Pinoys in the early migration waves to North America. However, as entry to the U.S. became more difficult, more Pinoys ventured north of the forty-ninth parallel as opportunities arose. Today there are approximately 950,000 Filipino-Canadians, making them the fourth largest visible minority in Canada and they can be found on both sides of the huge country and in-between. In fact the first Pinoy to reach Canada settled in Bowen Island, British Columbia. His name was Benjamin ‘Benson’ Flores. Of the total number, there are 44,380 Pinoys who are employed in nursing or health care support occupations.

Wherever Pinoys migrated and ultimately settled down overseas, they carried with them stories from the homeland passed on to the next generations. Eventually, new stories evolve as they and their descendants chronicle their experiences in the adopted country. Most are transmitted orally, both to relatives at home and their own children. Eventually a few of them gifted with both the talent and the grit to try their hand at writing, began to write down these stories.

Through the years more books would be written by first- or second-generation Filipino-Americans detailing their lives lived away from their country of origin while adapting to the demands of living the American dream. A number of these have been published in the U.S. Some of those that have gained readership include Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto, Mia Alvar’s In the County, Elaine Castillo’s America is Not the Heart and Glenn Diaz’ The Quiet Ones.

A recent phenomenon has been the publication of anthologies written by a group of writers from one specific country. Instead of just one person writing her/his own account, a group puts together a book detailing their personal stories of working/living abroad. One that attracted attention in both Hong Kong and the Philippines is Diaspora: Stories of Philippine Migration to Hongkong, which are stories written to provide portraits of domestic workers, musicians, IT professionals and others. Published by the WIMLER Foundation Hong Kong, Ltd. Diaspora Journey puts together tales from 32 Filipinos that provide a panoramic view of the overseas Filipino in the Crown Colony.

And now comes MAGDARAGAT, An Anthology of Filipino-Canadian Writing edited by Teodoro Alcuitas, C.E, Gatchalian & and Patria Rivera. The editors decided that Magdaragat was the apt title of this anthology because, being an archipelago, the sea as both literal and metaphysical entity, has dominated Filipino life since time immemorial. Thus, the sea as “water both as separator and melder, as symbol of cultural fluidity, of the protean adaptability that is both our blessing and curse.”

In their Introduction, the editors posit: “The phenomenon of Filipinos forced out of their homelands because of political corruption and poverty, and of Filipino women leaving their own children behind to care for others’ children abroad, are well documented. What isn’t as well documented is the extreme disconnection felt by many second-generation diasporic Filipinos – the children of Filipino immigrants – from the culture of their ancestral homeland, a disconnection intensified by colonialism and white supremacy. For second generation Filipinos on Turtle Island, the ocean is simultaneously that which divides us from, and binds

us to, the homeland, whose shores many have never seen and whose culture and ethos have historically been denigrated.”

A group of 44 Fil-Canadians who reside in various parts of Canada – from Victoria facing east towards the Pacific Ocean to Toronto facing west towards the Atlantic Ocean – were mobilized to contribute poems, short stories and essays. There is even one illustrated fiction by Lorina Mapa entitled First Winter, which shows how Pinoys struggle with shovelling snow. Difficulties of settling down in Canada is one of the theme of the pieces in this collection. Compared to other countries, migrants to Canada have to face the day-to-day survival like adjusting to the climate as much of Canada is buried in snow for six months of the year. Another survival issue is how they have to navigate the passive –aggressive racism of white Canadians.

Like many Pinoys who have left our shores as an escape from what the editors claim as the “extreme poverty in the homeland – exacerbated by corrupt politicians embezzling money from the public coffers and a World Bank unforgiving of debts that its own colonial projects caused, layered over by ongoing pas de deux with post-colonial melancholia – which have driven Filipinos overseas taking all varieties of work to survive.” Most end up as caregivers of all kinds: nurses, housekeepers, nannies. In these kind of jobs, they naturally have to go out of their own homes to serve other people.

In the process, white Canadians have mostly positive comments regarding the Pinoys they meet. These comments range from Pinoys being regarded as cheerful (always smiling!), friendly, family-oriented, unthreatening and are good Christians. But the editors provide a subtext: “What ultimately is effaced is the truth behind the smiles we’re known for: the stories of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, informed by the colonial trauma every Filipino carries in their DNA – so many stories buried under the rubble of colonialism, under the smiles we wear out of regard for others.”

The 390-page book is divided into four parts, grouped together by a theme. Part One (“The Homeland”) contains pieces set in the Philippines; Part Two (“The Big Picture”) wrestle with the systemic struggles of Filipino-Canadians and furnish a clear socio-political context for the book as a whole; Part Three (“Proximity”) explains the liminality of having one’s body in one’s new (adopted) country while mind, heart, and most of one’s family remain in the homeland; and Part Four (“Made in Canada”) illuminates the polychromatic realities of being Filipino in Canada. The authors made sure that these are not just about success, delights in the company of family or joyous moments but there are also stories about mental illness, sexual abuse, addiction and racist violence.

Kaia M. Arrow brings back the lamentation of a people who have lost so much owing to colonization in her piece – Dreams of Pinoy Joy: Decolonial Rage and Disabled Resistance in the Diaspora: “I grieve what has been taken from us. I don’t know what holidays my ancestors celebrated before Spanish galleons broke the horizon in 1521. I don’t know what songs they sang, the rituals they had, or the lives they lived. These stories are systematically destroyed by the Spanish colonists, American imperialists and Japanese occupiers. I don’t imagine some pre-colonial utopia. There is precious little left to imagine at all.”

Having settled in another nation-state with its own cultural realities (although Canada is a multi-cultural country originally inhabited by the indigenous nations of native North Americans), Fil-Canadians have no choice but embrace the phenomenon of hybridity in the various aspects of their life abroad while asserting their own identify. In Alexa Batitis’ essay Living a Life of Hybrid Languages, she writes of the pragmatic embrace of a hybrid life: “There are so many of us living this kind of hybrid lives of languages, starting to feel comfortable with exploring our Filipino roots, desiring to feel more connected to the homeland. I believe we can heal by realizing that we can exist without shame in the in-between, hybrid life. We can embrace this as part of our collective identity as a community.”

Speaking about identity, Fil-Canadians have to navigate between two opposite poles as they cross the national boundary into a foreign land. And once again, this involves a deep longing for one’s roots, even as they get uprooted and needed to adjust to a new environment. Jellyn Ayudan succinctly expresses a sentiment of having to cross from one pole to the other in her essay, Roots: “Now, I find myself navigating through the world split between two identities with two homes and being okay with that because there’s no need to choose. I know now that home is not a location you type into a GPS. In many ways, finding home is like the mango or the Dutch elm trees planted around us, they did not choose to be rooted to their land, yet they flourished, adapted to the weather, and continued to grow. And so, I shall too.”

However, adjusting to a new environment involves survival which has challenged the Pinoys’ capacity to be resilient. It has been a constant struggle to adapt and thus lives have been characterized with joys and sorrows, light and shadows. Goodbyes and hellos are the facts of life for the wanderers. Departures of loved ones – especially a mother – always bring deep heartaches, even traumas for children left behind. Being reunited brings a bit of relief but how can traumas be healed? Leah Ranada’s essay Foragers manifests both the pain of a rupture in relationships with separation and a bittersweet joy at meeting again: “When Mama left for Canada, our father wrote her lengthy emails… When Papa wept at night, I slept, pained and comforted by his devotion. Six long years passed before we saw her again. Against the cool interiors of YVR, our mother looked much older. Her sentences had a lilt, syllables softer on her lips. She embraced Paulo and me together, our grown bodies awkward, getting reacquainted with the childlike need. She and Papa hugged for a longer time. Then we pushed our luggage carts out into the cold, giddy with hope.”

Fil-Canadians are known as family-oriented because they do take pains to get in touch with family and relatives no matter the long distances across this huge country. These are the moments of sheer joy where songs are sung, stories are told, food is sumptuous. Christine Añonuevo’s essay roots and routes celebrate these family reunions: “Each time I visit, I return to the place that moulded me, and my kinship roles shapeshift from daughter to caregiver, to mother, to Tita, to Ate, and back again to daughter. Three generations eating food from the backyard, conversing in English and stitched together Tagalog, and spiraling through the histories of our memories of one another…I feel grateful for the time my parents, my sister, my nieces, my son, and my stepson can spend together as we braid time and geography: past, present, and future existing in each other’s iterative and shared moments.”

The editors claim what this book is all about. “In line with Filipino-Canadians’ hyphenated identities, the book’s overall spirit is a hybridized one: it celebrates individual voice, style, and artistry while upholding not just common themes but a spirit of mutual seeing, truth sharing, and affirmation… While this anthology is about, and primarily for, Filipino-Canadians, it by no means eschews ‘the universal…’ This book, therefore, is meant for everyone.”

By striving to come up with this anthology, the editors and contributing writers have embraced the challenge to speak from their hearts and in the process they have truly become “mystic wanderers in the land of perpetual departures.”

(The book can be ordered at https://www.amazon.com/Magdaragat- Anthology-Filipino-Canadian-Teodoro-Alcuitas/dp/1770867724)

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is Mindanao’s most prolific book author. Gaspar is also a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents. He is presently based in Cebu City.)

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