Thursday, December 4, 2008

Filipinos in Obama’s America

On the night of Nov. 4 when Barack Hussein Obama was elected president of the United States, journalist and book author Benjamin “Boying” Pimentel took his eldest son to downtown Oakland where thousands of people were waiting for the officials results. They found people celebrating with cheers and tears. After more than 200 years, Americans had chosen a person of color to lead them forward.

“Pareng Barack: Filipinos in Obama’s America”, (Anvil) Pimentel’s latest book, is about Obama’s amazing rise to the presidency and, more importantly, about how Filipinos responded to his campaign and victory. “Often with excitement, sometimes with fear and dread,” Pimentel writes.

“Pareng Barack” is also about the Filipino journey in America, “how it has intersected, sometimes collided, with those of other communities, and how it has taken a dramatic turn as America enters a new era of anxiety and hope.”

This book came out a few weeks after Obama was elected but it didn’t take just a few weeks for Pimentel to write it. He had been pounding the streets and watching the groundswell. With or without Obama’s win or defeat this book could still stand alone to show those intersections and collisions that Pimentel describes. But Obama’s win provides Pimentel a starting point, and for Filipinos who chose America to be their home, it also offers landmarks on a cultural and historical landscape, that is, from there to here. Also a timeline from then to now.

This gem of a book is easy to read. It is an engaging journalistic read because there are real human faces, voices, names and places in it as only a seasoned journalist knows the importance of if one is to show proof of one’s point or analysis. This book is not the result of a survey but of a journalist’s walking the streets where stories unfold, where lives are lived.

“For Filipinos in America, it is a time of celebration and pride. For others, of concern, even fear.” This is how Pimentel describes the aftermath of the Nov. 4 elections that saw Democrat Obama win and Republican John McCain lose.

“Nevada had become a battleground state and Fran joined other Filipinos in the ground war to rally support for Obana. This meant going from house to house…It was while knocking on doors on one part of Reno that he came across one Pinoy…A Philippine flag was displayed in his garage…The young man was a registered Republican, and had never voted Democrat. But he said he was voting for Obama. ‘He speaks to everyone, and seems that he can reach across the aisle,’ he told Fran. ‘Obama is different from the rest.’

“But then there was a woman in her 30s whom Fran met on a Philippine Airlines flight during a short visit to the Philippines before the election. She had lived in the United States for about eight years, had been married, and had just become an American citizen…The woman had just mailed in her ballot—she voted for John McCain…Now that her daughters were about to join her in the United States, she wanted a ‘strong leader.’ But eventually she also admitted to Fran, she simply could not vote for a black man. ‘I just don’t trust them. Di ba sila yung laging nanggugulo? Aren’t they troublemakers? They’re so violent.’”

In the chapter “American in Living Color” Pimentel writes about how Nobel Prize winner for literature, Toni Morrison, a black woman, noted that many newcomers readily embraced American society’s long-held prejudices against blacks. He also shares what Asian American civil rights attorney Bill Lee told him: “Immigrant communities generally tend not to know the history and to buy into the biases and prejudices of the dominant group. Unfortunately, becoming American often means buying into the prejudices. They want to identify upward. They don’t want to identify with those at the bottom.”

Something like that fable about the fly that alights on a carabao and suddenly thinks he’s a carabao. (It’s better told in Filipino.)

But it’s not that way all the time. Pimentel digs into the “racial wedge” that Asian Americans occupy, that uncomfortable in-between mezzanine position where they are expected to be loyal to their superiors and demanding on those below.

Pimentel’s book also deals with other racial and ethnic groups as well. He writes, “Obama’s victory is significant for another important reason. With the steady growth of Latino and Asian communities, there will no longer be a racial or ethnic majority in the United States in less than 50 years. A biracial leader with a deep personal experience of life in the Third World, Obama, many hope, could prepare the nation for that coming change.”

“Lessons in Patriotism and Forgiveness” is a poignant chapter. Here Pimentel explores his experience as a Filipino whose father endured suffering during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and then reflects on his own encounter with Japanese-Americans who suffered ostracism and internment in the U.S.

In “From the I-Hotel to Powell Street” Pimentel revisits the bygone milieu of Carlos Bulosan (“America is in the Heart”) and enters into the world of the aging WW II Filipino veterans. Powell St. in San Francisco is where these veterans spend their winter years. I have been there myself and it’s really a tearjerker.

Toward the end Pimentel writes about his family and waxes sentimental. He muses: “In the end there were more people who were ready to move on, to break ground, to reimagine the United States, to redefine America. It will be Obama’s face and voice that my sons will see and hear on television and on the Internet over the next four years, maybe longer. It will be Pareng Barack who will play a critical role in defining my sons’ future in America.”