by Jennifer Duque
“Shake syntax, smash the myths, and if you lose, slide on, unearth some new linguistic paths. Do you surprise? Do you shock? Do you have a choice?” – Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other
You are five years old when your papa brings home a sugarcane. He hacks at it with a knife to get to the center, which he gives to you to chew on.
“My uncle worked on sugar plantations,” he tells you. “The stalks whipped his back bloody, and he was always covered with flies and sweat.”
The sugarcane is fibrous and tough, tinged subtly with tasteless sweetness. It’s nothing like the snow-white crystals you mama has in the kitchen.
You are eight years old when your parents, at the behest of their Mormon church leaders, go door-to-door encouraging people to vote for Prop 22. Your mama tells you that women should only marry men, but the thought of having to live with a man all your life—you’re uneasy around men, can hardly stand to sit next to them—leaves a pit in your stomach. You were already planning to live with your best friend when you grew up. You even proposed the idea to her. (She said yes.)
“But it’s okay for girls to live together if they’re not married to each other?” you inquire. Your mama nods, but the pit in your stomach doesn’t go away.
You wonder if you were supposed to have a penis, but came out half-formed and messed up.
Here is a myth you were told all your life:
In the Book of Mormon, the LDS Church’s central sacred text, white skin is equated with righteousness and dark skin is equated with moral deficiency. A long time ago, you are told, God instructed an Israelite family to sail to North America, where they soon divided into two main factions: the Nephites, led by the “good” sons, and the Lamanites, led by the “bad” sons. For their wickedness, God “cursed” the Lamanites with dark skin. This was also supposed to keep the righteous white Nephites from breeding with the wicked Lamanites, the idea being that dark skin was an obvious deterrent.
Lamanites are not “bad” once they convert to Mormonism. This is supposed to comfort you.
You are twelve years old when you start wanting skin-lightening cream. Even your yellow-brown mestiza skin feels too dark in this white bread town your parents moved you to.
“Oh-lah,” white people greet you with, thinking that butchered Spanish is the answer to their question of whether or not you speak English.
“Are you Chinese or Japanese?” your classmates ask. “Crazy Jap,” one boy spits at you after you tell him why you’re a feminist.
“What are you?” ask the more “considerate” white people. If your Filipina-ness is ever exposed, you quickly tack on the non sequitur, “That means I probably have a lot of Spanish blood.” (You don’t.)
Your best friend teases you about having a “broad” nose and “thick” lips, but you still have accidental dreams about kissing her. Only the latter makes you want to avoid her.
Here is a true story:
In 1898, the United States knocked the Philippines off its revolution-fatigued feet and tucked it inside a narrative of colonial bliss. It was an act simultaneously understood by U.S. politicians as business savvy and, on their part, salvific. Surely their little brown brothers—half devil and half child—were unfit to govern themselves after more than 300 years of Spanish colonization.
In 1899, Filipina/o revolutionaries picked up from where they left off fighting against Spain and began fighting against their new colonizers. The rhetoric in the U.S. changed: Filipinas/os weren’t “little brown brothers” anymore; they were “n*ggers,” “Injuns,” “monkeys,” “goo goos.”
As is frequently the case, dehumanizing epithets functioned to justify genocide. During the four-year Philippine-American war, an estimated two hundred thousand to two million Filipinas/os were slaughtered by American soldiers. And in Luzon—yes, the island where your family is from—one sixth of the population was annihilated.
“It has been necessary to adopt what in other countries would probably be thought harsh measures,” a General Bell explained, “for the Filipino is tricky and crafty.” A veteran put it more bluntly: “The only good Filipino is a dead one.”
You try dating white boys and they hurt you. Internalized racism and homophobia run deep enough to leave scars on your mestiza flesh.
The Tagalog swardspeak phrase for “coming out” is pagladlad ng kapa, which translates to “unfurling the cape.” Your coming out narrative is calligraphed tentatively with a shaved head, queer theory college essays, and reminders to your mama that you’re not actually dating any of your male friends. But some of your other family members seem to intuit what you’re expressing:
You are twenty-two years old and you finally stop feeling guilty for being Pinoy and queer.
Here is a story your uncle tells you:
“We grew up with tomboys and baklas. I remember your Lolo talking to me about the gay men in my neighborhood in San Francisco and how he didn’t understand what all the fuss was, they were always just part of the village back home.”
Thanks to scholars and sages like Kale Fajardo, Jessica Hagedorn, and Martin Manalansan, you know that queer acceptance in a Filipina/o context is complex, but you cling to this story and let it rebuild your hacked-off sense of self.
You’re okay, you tell yourself. You’re not messed up. You’re just part of the village back home.
Colonization robs us of our own histories and identities, and the images it projects onto our enervated bodies—the myths we’re trained to see in the mirror—give us no option but to self-loathe.
Here is a true story:
When he was five years old, you father immigrated to the States. Forbidden from speaking Ilocano or Tagalog and traumatized with culture shock, he has no memory of his life before the age of ten. This was all necessary, his father told him, if he wanted to make it in America, the land of Positively No Dogs or Filipinos Allowed and sugarcane plantations
You need to uncover our lost memories. You need to cling to stories that matter, even the painful ones. You need to shatter the myths that have warped your reflection. This is the only way you can make it. You’ve seen what happens when we forget who we are.
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I’m J., and I am queer and Filipino. I hope to go to grad school to study literature and queer Filipina/o American studies, a dynamic and burgeoning field, with a focus on the works of Nice Rodriguez and Chea Villanueva.