Thursday, March 22, 2007

Heart in two places

MANILA, Philippines -- “When we were asked to stand up, raise our right hand, and pledge to ‘renounce’ our loyalties to our old country, I felt a giant lump in my throat and I had to struggle not to cry. By the time they sang the national anthem, they had already lost me.”

That paragraph, though emotionally charged, sounds prosaic when compared with the rest of the essays in Gemma Nemenzo’s gem of a book, “Heart in Two Places: An Immigrant’s Journey” (Anvil). The moment she describes is a watershed moment for most Filipinos who have left their homeland to strike it out in the U.S. of A. But its impact and significance for a variety of Filipinos could be as varied as the Filipinos themselves and their reasons for living there.

Gemma writes about that pledging experience in her first essay aptly titled “Citizen Cain” (double entendre there), one of the 53 essays in her book.

A little backgrounder: Gemma is one of the Women Writers in Media Now (WOMEN), a bold group we formed in the early 1980s to fight the military’s strong-arm tactics against women in media. She was a freelance writer for print and a scriptwriter for TV’s “Batibot.” Today, we’re still the same clutch of irreverent women meeting regularly, and Gemma’s book launching was another chance to laugh, eat, reminisce and tell stories. Our sisterhood has survived revolutions, coups, marital breakups, change of governments, jobs, homes and citizenships.

Among us, it was Gemma who bravely took on the distant horizon. 1988 it was, after her marriage ended. With three children (aged 10, 8 and 9 months) in tow, she forged ahead to strike out anew in San Francisco.
That last sentence begs for a “never to return” cliché ending, but that’s not the case with Gemma. She has come home again and again. And when one reads “Heart in Two Places,” one realizes that she has not really left. She left her heart in the Philippines. She also has a heart beating to the beat of San Francisco which she calls home … at least for now.

The 53 essays are grouped into six categories--“Assimilation Angst,” “The Mommy Track,” “Friends and Lovers,” “The Philippines is in the Heart,” “Middle-Age Spread,” and “Politics is Personal.” The engaging, heart-tugging pieces (reminiscences, reflections, ruminations and humor) were published in Filipinas, the only monthly glossy magazine for the Filipino-American community circulated in all US states. Gemma is managing editor and columnist of Filipinas, which has been around for about 15 years now.

The categories suggest how Immigrant Gemma journeyed from here to there, through a landscape that is both familiar and strange, starting off with loads of the homeland in her heart, in her mind, on her back. Who was she, where was she, why was she … in this journey?

Gemma gives a voice and face to an immigrant’s painful dilemmas and exhilarating discoveries. She speaks for those who may not have the gift of words. Those who are not immigrants will find pearls of truth about themselves, their relationships, their own view of the world.

Gemma writes as a keen observer of what’s happening around her and, more importantly, inside her. She writes not as a dilettante but as one deeply engaged. Her style -- simple, conversational and yet profound -- is so down-home, with just the right "timpla" [blend], like the hometown flavors she craves for.

But the great surprise is the foreword by her headstrong daughter Jaja Nemenzo Almendral, now all grown up, who describes her internal journey with her mother. My mother, my self. “Her words were mirrors from which I could see life through her eyes, and the view, rather than staring off into the distance and over our shoulders, was actually looking at us.” A wow piece, if you ask me. Haunting.

But Gemma should take us herself through her own journey.

In “Citizen Cain” she writes: “I held Maia’s hand tight as we pushed our way through the crowd. ‘That was so exciting, Mama!’ Maia enthused. She was already planning her presentation in class the next day on how her Mama became an American.

“At the restaurant where we celebrated, I gulped down the iced tea, hoping that the constriction in my throat would go away. It didn’t, but my emotions were no longer as raw. Nothing will change, this is just a piece of paper.”

From “love, Patience and Renewal”: “When Maia was nine months old (Carlo was 10 and Jaja, 8), we left the country to start life anew in a foreign land. It was a move that sprung not just from failure but more so from defiance. The odds were against us: a single mother and three small children didn’t stand much of a chance if you believe the statistics. True enough, it had not been easy but we have steered our way out of the fog. And in so doing, I was able to give back to my children what they have taught me: love, patience and renewal in exchange for strength and endurance.”

From “The Big Night”: “What’s a Filipino mother to do when her upbringing and experience clash with the prevailing mores of America in the nineties? In addition to my anxiety over my daughter’s safety and the quality of my parenting, I was struggling with my own immaturity. As a mother, I was concerned about her date’s driving. But as a post-adolescent forty-five-year-old, I wondered if he was cute.”

From “May, Come She Will”: “Yet when May comes around, I always find myself looking back with fondness to the fiestas in our home town, and the other home towns I’ve been to, knowing deep in my heart that when the time comes for me to embrace a quiet life, those are the places I will return to and finally call my home.”