A confession: up until relatively recently, I wasn’t interested much into learning my ancestry.
After all, I was born here in America, not the Philippines, and I bought into whole American melting pot ideal I saw happily sung on those Schoolhouse Rock segments. Yes, I did hope native Filipinos did well in international competitions (the 1992 Zamboanga City Little League World Series Championship and resultant scandal was particularly disappointing) and similar, but I wouldn’t be one who would betray my country of origin, my country of citizenship.
Then, there was a progression of things. A presidential election in 2016 and a distinctly growing atmosphere of anti-immigrant and anti-perceived-to-be-immigrant sentiment that is in reality not all that new. Tensions only grew when COVID hit, with a number of politicians happily going along with the blame game. Finally, it hit home for me in a personal way, when some enlightened soul told me that I needed to go back to China.
I took a long deep hard look at myself in the mirror shortly after that. Unless I wanted to go the Michael Jackson route re: lose my skin color and had crap tons of cosmetic surgery, a certain segment of my country’s population was never going to accept me as American. I figured shortly thereafter that was a good a time to dig in more deeply and explore my roots.
I’ve read plenty since then and the time of this blogpost, from a diverse collection of authors from historians (Daniel Immerwahr) to comedians (Jo Koy), from chefs (Nicole Ponseca) to artists (Bren Bataclan), to those who’ve led similar lives to mine (Albert Samaha) and many more. These variety of perspectives, many of which are finally available for consumption on a wider-scale, show how hard it is to sum up the complicated relationship my country and the country of my parents have had.
As I’ve learned, it is almost certain that the first Filipino landed in what is now the US (Morro Bay, California) about 40 years before the Pilgrims landed in 1620. And the first Filipino community within the US started in Louisiana (St. Malo) in the 1760s by those who escaped the Spanish Galleon trade and/or slavery.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 complicated the relationship even further. What began as hope (Filipinos had started an insurrection against their longtime colonial occupiers two years prior) turned into betrayal, when Spanish officials went behind Filipino rebels backs and made a secret surrender agreement with US officials (the Spaniards were heard to say this was far more preferable than surrendering to a bunch of “n****rs.”)
From there, the American perception of the Philippines swung wildly. For every relatively positive thing (the development of the nursing profession) there seemed to be a negative one (the controversial practice of waterboarding was first invented and used against Filipino rebels, who continued to fight for independence until 1913.)
The US Territory status given to the Philippines mixed results. With that status, Filipinos were free to travel to the mainland for work opportunities. However, Filipinos found racism that in some cases matching that against Blacks, particularly when it came to anti-miscegenation (mixed-race marriages.)
And that status didn’t really help native Filipinos during World War II either – Japanese occupiers, who promised better treatment than Americans, soon treated them as harsh if not more harshly. And when the US came back to reclaim the islands, American forces were far more conscious of saving those from the mainland than the native “Americans” (as noted in Daniel Immerwahr’s book “How To Hide An Empire”, the commander of United States forces in Manila didn’t mind destroying buildings to save “American” lives, but the Filipinos in those very same buildings didn’t seem to count as “American” in their minds.)
Suffice it to say, there’s a lot more I could mention. But since this is a blogpost and not a novel, I’m forwarding this blogpost to the present to our recent travels to California. Visiting the parents always means things Filipino, but with the two-year absence, I seemed to savor it all that much more, from the cans of SPAM and Vienna Sausage in the garage; to the towering Calamansi and Meyer Lemon trees in the back yard, each brimming with tons of fruit; to packages of various baked goods like Pan De Sal and Hopia on the kitchen table available for a merienda snack. And of course, Christmas Eve, my family’s day to celebrate the holiday, had plenty of other staples, including lumpia, pancit, menudo, plus sweet treats like Mom’s fruit salad, leche flan and polvoron candies.
Even a walk through a place I had walked many times prior had more meaning on this visit. My first visit to the then newly-opened Seafood City (a grocery store chain that is up to 32 locations in the US and Canada) in Vallejo was a revelation – I had seen Filipino goods at smaller mom & pop outfits and at other big brand Asian markets (99 Ranch being the most prominent), but everything here was pretty much all Filipino. Even though I was born stateside, there was something very comforting in seeing the multiple brands of frozen lumpia, pancit noodles, patis (fish sauce), and all manner of packaged sweet and savory treats I had only seen in Balikbayan Boxes, the staple method of shipping goods back and forth between the United States and The Philippines.
This “grocerant” concept, as the store calls it, lends a sense of community to the market and those who visit it – other Filipino restaurants and retailers such as Red Ribbon, Chow King, Grill City, and Jollibee are either inside the main complex or nearby. On this visit, we made a stop into Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop, whose existence predates Seafood City by a couple decades, for some sweet and savory treats to bring back to Ohio. Later, my Dad, who has never abandoned his instinct to feed the family, took my wife’s egg allergy into consideration and came home another morning with classic Filipino breakfast staples like tocino, longanisa and fried bangus fish from another market vendor in DJ Bibingkahan.
We also ventured into San Francisco for our only time this trip out (the rainy weather pattern was inconvenient, but in light of how drought-stricken the area had been of late, we didn’t mind) to visit the newish Parklab Gardens in the Mission Bay neighborhood for a date with a pioneer and promising newcomer in the Fil-Am food truck world.
The pioneer in this case was Señor Sisig, one of the first Filipino food trucks anywhere, starting up in 2010 with their Filipino-meets-Mexican menu items like Sisig Nachos and Burritos. I may have to give up my Filipino card for this admission, but my first sampling that year of the latter was slightly disappointing in that it had way too much garlic rice compared to that nicely crackly, spicy Sisig that co-founder Chef Gil Payumo brought to the mix along with business partner/friend Evan Kidera.
Forward now 11 years and my second ever burrito from them – their take on a California Burrito was far more like it. Columbus’s Ajumama Food Truck owner Laura Lee had told me about this variation, which includes fries. That, along with shredded cheese, sour cream, guacamole, and pico de gallo combined with spicy pork sisig to make for the most satisfying burrito we’ve had in awhile.
My spouse ventured into another section of Parklab and picked up some goodies from The Sarap Shop. Vegan Filipino creations have been making headway on the culinary scene the last couple years, and this relatively new food truck (started in 2017 by Kristen Brillantes and JP Reyes) has proven to be one of the leaders in that movement.
In addition to a collection of plant-based sauces, Sarap Shop’s menu features items that cater to both meat-eaters and vegan-seekers (for example, a traditional pork lumpia is available as well as a Impossible Foods Curry Lumpia.) My spouse’s Very Vegan Tofu Sisig with seasoned jasmine rice, sweet corn, and pickled veggies was bright in flavor, crunchy where it had to be, and quite enjoyable in its own right.
But perhaps the most memorable thing we had that day was their Halo-Halo Milk Tea, which was inspired by the sweet cereal milk you end up with your average sugar-laden kids’ cereal. In this case, however, their rendition is like the bottom of your glass of the Filipino frozen dessert halo-halo, where your Ube ice cream has melted fully and has blended with all sorts of bottom-feeders of ingredients of various textures and tastes. And oh yeah, the tea is dairy-free to boot.
In a way, I’m still at the beginning of leading the rest of my life, and I’ve found it only right to be thankful for what I do have. Many cultures and religions pay tribute to their ancestors; perhaps inspired by how my spouse and her family have done this for a number of years, with a little mix of spiritual dabbling, I also have turned a keen eye toward doing that very thing.
We visited nephews I sadly never ever had the chance to play with in their older years. And then I paid respect to my grandparents, reflecting on their lives and the sacrifices they made to immigrate here. I also reflected on how many will still look at me and assume I’m not fully American somehow.
I reminded myself that no one’s uninformed opinion or insult can deny either my status or what brought me here, like millions of others that came to this land seeking their fortune before and since. I also recognized the Suisunes People and others that were here before the concept of a United States was even a figment of someone’s mind, and have shown incredible fortitude in surviving what was wrought upon them.
There’s a lot I can’t change about the past. But I can learn about and from it and use that wisdom to live the very best life in the time I have left on this earthly plane.
Seafood City | 3495 Sonoma Blvd. Vallejo, CA 94590 | Tel: (707) 654-1972 | Website: https://www.seafoodcity.com/store-locations/vallejo | IG: seafoodcitysupermarket
DJ Bibingkahan | 3495 Sonoma Blvd, Suite M, Vallejo, CA 94590 | Tel: (707) 554-0504 | Yelp: DJ Bibingkahan