Sunday, November 19, 2017

When Your Parents Are The Elders

This is (slightly late) Essay #46 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

Who’s on the guest list?

I am planning my annual holiday party and putting together my guest list. It’s a little later than when I usually send out invitations, but it’s been that kind of year. And every time, as November approaches, I sit on the fence. Do I want to host the party again? Do I want to invest that kind of time and energy that goes into planning and cleaning and preparing? I go back and forth. I think about what it might be like to not host a holiday party. Would I be okay with that? Would I be okay with just trying to make plans to meet up with friends at a restaurant or bar instead?

And then I think about how restaurants aren’t as much fun as home. How we’d have to jostle with other patrons. Sure, someone else will cook the food and serve the drinks. But then we’d be stuck in place, sitting in our seats (or cramped at the bar), limited to conversation with whomever was next to us. We’d probably be yelling, too, as everyone will be out getting together with friends, too. And this is if we can even find a date that all of us would be able to meet. Which is virtually impossible.

But also, it’s more warm and inviting being in someone’s home –namely my own home—sharing in the holiday spirit, moving freely throughout the house, mingling with whomever you choose.

Okay, okay— I convinced myself: I’m going to host the holiday party again this year.

Now the matter of the guest list.


Growing up, my parents would take us to people’s houses for parties all the time. And “party” seems like a misnomer, though I don’t know what else I’d call it. “Get together” maybe? It was always a house full of people my parents knew from back home –kababayan, countrymen—or, more often than not, specifically folks from my mother’s hometown of Lucban in the Quezon province: Lucbanin. It seemed like there was some special occasion or another practically every weekend. This one’s baptism. That one’s First Communion. This one’s post-piano recital reception. Or just a picnic to celebrate summer.

The kitchens of these homes would be jam-packed with trays of food on every available surface –counterops, tables, unfolded tv trays— kept warm over sternos. The requisite lumpiang shanghai and pancit (at least two kinds, if not three – canton, palabok, bihon, sotanghon). Diniguan, pinakbet, sinigang, If it was a really special occasion, then lechon: a full roasted pig, complete with apple in mouth.

The dining rooms hosted desserts: ube, maha blanca, cassava cake, brazo de Mercedes, espasol, sans rival, bibingka. And a sheet cake to mark whatever occasion we were celebrating. And there was plenty of soda. Plenty. And Johnny Walker Black and Chivas Regal.

The titas would chitter about, gliding through the two rooms, ensuring the food was always replenished. Where the extra food came from I never knew. I wondered if the oven was some magic portal to the local Filipino turo-turo where these titas just pulled out dish after dish. As they moved, they’d share tsismis about this daughter or that cousin. And did you notice how Baby is getting fat? What’s the latest on Totoy’s girlfriends? The titos would talk about back home: the political unrest. Everyone sitting wherever they could –folding chairs, stools, the arms of couches—balancing paper plates snuggled inside bamboo plate holders on their laps.

The kids? We really didn’t eat (except for maybe the desserts). We kids would scatter everywhere, depending on how old we were at any given point in time. The backyard for tag. If we were lucky, there’d be a swing set, too. The driveway for basketball. The upstairs for video games. The basement for movies and combat practice (think: Street Fighter) – that is, if it wasn’t set up for card games.

When I got to the tween years, the basement would be set up with a DJ – a crew of boys I kinda knew from these get-togethers, messing around with vinyl and beats and sound. That was some good shit in those days.

But if you were quiet like me (if you believe there was such a time!), you’d hang with the elders, your face in a book. Maybe you’d sit in a corner of the family room, watching tv with them. Or watch them play mahjong, kicking each other’s asses, raking in the dimes. Laughter above the clack of tiles as they reset each game, the sound somehow soothing. But be mindful not to bring too much attention to yourself lest the questioning begin: how is school? How are your grades? Are you studying hard? From the lolas: do you have a boyfriend? To which you lower your head even further in embarrassment. And then: go help your mother.

If we were lucky, they’d force one of us kids to play the piano. Sige na, play us the “Cats”. You are so good at it. It didn’t matter if we were actually good at it or not. As long as we could play the melody to “Memory” from the musical “Cats”, we would be yanked to the piano bench and made to play. The excuse of “I don’t have the music” doesn’t fly. Everyone has a copy of the sheet music in their piano benches. Everyone. And if we were really lucky, one of the titos would stand up next to the piano, which was in the living room saturated with plastic-covered couches, mirrored walls and capiz shell chandeliers, and sing along with our stuttering play – start, stop, start again, fumble over the keys, stumble through the notes. He would belt out the notes as if he himself were on a Broadway stage.

Ah, those were the days.


My grandparents have been gone for thirteen years. A lot has happened in thirteen years. Including the fact that my own parents –and their friends (my titas and titos)— are now the elders. How weird is that?! And I can’t remember the last time I was at a Filpino get-together. The only ones who now host such things are my parents and their local friends. Only every once in a while. Gone are the days of getting together with Lucbanin every other weekend. Now, it’s just once a year, if that. And I don’t usually attend. I have my own family and our own very busy schedule of commitments and our own friends with whom we (occasionally) get together.

And so, in putting my guest list together for this holiday party, I am thinking about these things. Thinking about how life is shorter than we think it is. Thinking about how, while I hated bring dragged to these get-togethers with my siblings, I actually miss it. How I’m a little sad that my own kids won’t get to experience these gatherings. That yes, they will have their own version of childhood get-togethers and being dragged to places they don’t want to go –I just hope they look fondly back on them as I am doing now. But I am sad about what is lost. This is part of living in the diaspora, no? What is lost and what remains.

I am going to do what I can to keep what little remains and try to pass it on to my kids. I will invite the elders to this holiday party. I will order trays of Filipino food. I will bust out the Magic Mic (because, after all, what Filipino party is complete without a little singing, a little karaoke?). Maybe one of my kids will play the piano. Or maybe they all will. And maybe we will laugh and gossip. Maybe they’ll talk about the good old days. Maybe they’ll talk about back home. (They most certainly won’t talk about getting old.)  Maybe they’ll ask my kids about their studies. Or offer strategies for winning mahjong. The sound of Tagalog filling my house full of love. Maybe, after all, not all is lost.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Privilege as a Non-Black Woman of Color

This is (slightly late) Essay #45 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

It’s ten-thirty on a Monday night. I’m driving home from hip-hop dance class. I am thinking about a million things –the choreography I just learned, the emotional weight of the song that just came on, the stack of ungraded papers that keeps growing, my schedule for tomorrow. The residual vibrational energy from Kundalini teacher training this past weekend is humming. (Trust me, it’s not the afterglow of dancing – that’s an entirely different sensation. I’d try to describe it but the humming is overpowering my muscle memory right now.) The road is pitch black (I live in the country where streetlights are sparse, even on main roads, and full of deer. Okay, I don’t live in the actual countryside, but I’m not lying about the streetlights or the deer.) There’s a car behind me driving a little too close. I try to ignore it.

Then the blue lights start flashing.

I’m getting pulled over.

For what? I have no idea. I was going the speed limit. I wondered if my tail lights were broken. Why on earth was I getting pulled over? I start a small panic: I noticed this morning that my registration wasn’t the current card & I couldn’t find the current one at the time. He (because I know it’s going to be a “he”) is going to ticket me for that. Shit.

At this point of waiting for him to approach, I notice that I am not my usual panicky self. My palms are not sweating; my heart is not racing like it usually does. Maybe this pranayama and meditation stuff does kick in automatically after all.

The officer comes to the passenger side and signals for me the open the window. I am startled because I was expecting him at my side of the car. He is polite and introduces himself. Then, he asks my to turn down my music (which wasn’t loud to begin with but probably just to make it easier for us to have a conversation) and asks to see me license and registration. As I am getting those things out, I ask him what the problem was. I don’t usually do this; I usually wait for the officer to inform me of my transgression. But I knew I did nothing wrong. He tells me that he will let me know as soon as he looks at my credentials (translation: who are you? And do you live around here?).

“Where are you coming from?” he asks.
“Dance class – over at [the dance studio nearby].”
“Good class?” He’s making chitchat.
“Yes. And exhausting,” I reply.
“So a good workout.”
He is looking at my information during our verbal volley. Please don’t look at the date on my registration, I plead in my head. I’m watching him. I don’t think he’s really seeing the documents in his hands. He’s just staring at them.
“The reason I pulled you over was because you took that curve back there really wide. If it wasn’t so egregious [yes, he used that word], I would’ve let it go.”
“Which curve?”
“The one by the elementary school.”
“Oh.” Honestly, I don’t recall if I did that or not. It’s possible, but I was so inside my head that I can’t remember if that happened or not.
“I just wanted to check in with you.”
“Well, get home safe.”
“Okay. Thank you.” Why the hell was I saying thank you??

I take my time putting away my documents, hoping that he will drive away first. But no such luck. So I practice extra-careful by-the-book driving. I put on my turn signal, check for traffic (the streets are empty at this hour, so I have no idea why I’m surprised to see no cars in that moment), and pull out onto the road to continue my journey home.

And then I lose it.

I burst out weeping. There’s a heaviness in my chest, like stones gathered beneath my ribs. I don’t know what this is. At first I think it’s the emotions triggered by the song that was playing before I got pulled over. But the tears keep coming. I keep asking: what is this? What is this? Then, I realize that it is something else.

I have come to experience firsthand the level of privilege I carry. While it’s not white privilege, it’s privilege just the same. It’s not that I was unaware of my privilege, but I really got to see it in action. Often, it is me seeing how I am oppressed.

I was crying for my black sisters and brothers who cannot be at a peace when an officer pulls them over. Who must always be on alert, always “on”, always at the ready. Who fear for their safety, for their very lives.


Earlier that day, a student was talking about some of the things she, a young white woman, notices when she is out with her best friend who is black. She didn’t mention any specific incident, but talked about how she would speak up to defend her friend, how her friend would usually refrain from defending herself. I asked her if she understood why. Why her friend had to make these choices to stay silent in certain moments. Actually, in many moments.

Yes, my student said. She understood that it was because she was white and her friend was black. I pressed her further. What does that really mean, the difference in race? She said it was because of white privilege. And then quickly added: “And I feel bad about it.” There is it: white guilt.

I took this opportunity to tell my students to get over it. White guilt does not help anyone. Yes, you didn’t ask for white privilege, but you got it. So what are you going to do with it? Own your privilege. Wield that power for good. Speak up for your black friend. Declare that it’s an injustice that black bodies are deemed disposable to white police officers. And then do something about it. The more white voices we have in this fight, the louder and more effective we can be.


I don’t know what else to say. Getting pulled over really did something to me and I can’t quite articulate it yet.

For now, for my part, I will say this: I am doing what I can as a woman of color in a position of authority as an educator to develop critical thinking in these young people. To challenge the system. To incite change.

Yeah, I’m trying to create an army of rabble rousers. Hah!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Kind of Homecoming

This is (slightly late) Essay #44 of The 52 Essay Challenge, a series in which I write a new (unpolished & messy) essay each week during 2017.

Last night, I attended a benefit poetry reading at Poets House, Poets for Puerto Rico, curated and hosted by the fantastic Willie Perdomo. I was looking forward to it – it had been a hot minute since I last attended a poetry reading in the city, let alone one that had a headline full of folks I knew. These folks, in particular, I hadn’t seen in about 15 years.

I’ll admit: I was feeling a little apprehension.

My poetry path looks vastly different from everyone else’s. I have kids and live in soccer mom country (parts of which are frighteningly Red – don’t ask me how I survive. I’m not sure myself.). I am very removed from any kind of poetry community. It’s hard. But this is my life and so I make do the best way I know how. By myself. It’s kinda lonely. But I do have my people – albeit through a mostly digital experience.

Last night was about me engaging live and in person with poets who I hadn’t seen in a long-ass time.

Would they remember me? Would they not? Would I feel less than? Under-accomplished (as Insecurity monster considered rearing her head)? After all, it’s been over a decade and I have nothing concrete (ie. a book) to show for my work as a poet for all these years. I wasn’t sure. All I could do was be aware of these possibilities and notice what might happen. No judgment.


I met my friend Jen, who is an incredible creative nonfiction writer, for a drink beforehand. It felt like so much goodness to reconnect in person after several months of not seeing each other. We talked about the highs and lows of being a poet & writer. She was going through some frustrations. Me? I think it helped me get perspective: we all go through this shit. And, despite the really low lows where we think about quitting altogether, we still write. There is no other way.

I’ve had a hell of a week, with really extreme lows only to be met with equally extreme highs (I got two big important acceptances, which will be revealed once everything is official). To talk about these things with Jen in person was grounding. For that I am grateful. Our conversation was a good way to kick off the night. And yeah, the double IPA helped too. Hah!

Hello, blurry. Hello, awkward shadows. 
Me & Jen failing at taking a selfie.


We arrived at Poets House just as the event was starting. The place was jammed. Standing room only. What I loved most about it? It was a room jam-packed with brown people. I could already feel the love.

Jen and I squeezed in a found a spot on the floor. Thankfully, two people left before the end of the first half and we grabbed two seats. My body was thankful. It’s hard to sit on the floor with riding boots on. Barefoot in yoga pants? Well, that’s a different story.

After some buzzy rhythmic performances, tear-filled voices, and fierce calls to resistance, there was a 15-minute intermission. Our dear host invited us to enjoy some snacks & beverages and to take an opportunity to talk to the poets. I wanted to stretch my legs a bit, so I wandered toward the snacks in search of a little drink of water.

Along the way, I ran into a few people from the Old Days. Willie was one. Hadn’t seen him in well over a decade, like most of these folks. And yet… he recognized me right away and gave me a big hug. I suspect that he had forgotten my name (which was fine – I kinda expected it), but he knew that he knew me. That was enough.

I saw Lee Bricetti and Jane Preston – the amazing women at the helm of Poets House. I had interned for them as an undergrad a million years ago. Both recognized me in the same way Willie did. Both greeted me as he did: big hugs.

And so this is how it was.

Rich Villar: hugs. I didn’t think Bonafide would remember me, recognize me, or anything like that, but he did. Not my name, but he knew, like Willie, that he knew me. From where? He couldn’t be sure, but… from around. He gave me a high five and held my hand right up there, asking how I’ve been. It was nice. John Murillo saw me –totally remembered me – like he knew exactly who I was and where we knew each other. But to be fair, it hadn’t been decades. Only half a decade. Haha! It was he and I who would actually talk afterward & connect in earnest.

I’ll say this:

It felt good to be seen. To really be seen.

But also to feel like part of a community again. One that was living and breathing. One that I could physically touch. One that mattered to me.

Someone put on salsa and merengue. So you know that intermission was longer than fifteen. Hearing that music in that room full of big love and good people – I couldn’t help but move my body into dance. It had been a long time since I’ve felt the thump of congas, the brassy blare of trumpets, the cool tone of piano in my veins. It felt so so good. It felt warm like a single malt scotch in my belly. Like the cool of a mint-muddled mojito.

The reading was amazing. So much energy! Supportive, loving, heartbreaking, truth-telling, loving loving loving. Willie aptly described it this way: It was baptism, sweet 16, birthday party, after-party. It was church. It was vigil, It was elegy.

For me, it was also a kind of brief homecoming. A flash of nostalgia for the days when possibility was an open palm and poems unfurled endlessly. When drinks were two-for-one and I got to slam, to read new shit, to make finals for a Cali team (who knew I had it in me?). When I got to talk poetry for days on end and it mattered. It mattered to the people with whom I spoke, broke bread, and danced. The days when love was rough edges and hot coal, fumbling in the dark for something solid, something true.

Yes, these days are different. But there is still love. Perhaps now, a bit smoother. A brilliant light. Yes, poems matter, but now there is action instead of talk, writing instead of theorizing, speaking up and out instead of hiding in the pages.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To my peeps from the Old Days: so good to see you. May our paths cross again.

 Willie Perdomo, host & curator, kicks off the evening with a poem.
To his left, Rich Villar. And in the lower right corner: Martin Espada.