“One thing about me I was told not to tell people that I was previously undocumented”- Mayo Buenafe-Ze
The family first lived with various relatives, and eventually in a small cramped apartment in Daly City, California. As her dad could only afford tourist visas, he had assumed that as long as they got into the United States, they could get a lawyer to help with their citizenship process. One of her titas (aunts) with whom the family first lived referred them to a Filipino immigration lawyer. However, the path to citizenship was cut short when they found out that for nearly eight years, Mayo’s father had been paying their lawyer nearly $20,000 just to have someone put their files at the bottom of the deportation list at INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services, now USCIS).
In 1998 men in suits knocked on their door to pick up Mayo’s father. He immediately got deported back to Philippines. A lost and confused 13- year- old Mayo soon faced the reality of being undocumented and illegal. Many people assume that only the Hispanic communities are being raided and deported. In truth, nearly 10,000 Filipinos was projected to be deported in 2017 (310,000 Filipinos are said to be undocumented in the US).
On December 5, 1998, a white van with sirens followed the carpool Mayo, her sister, her childhood best friend, and her best friend’s mom were in on their way to school; Mayo and her sister were told to get out of the car and into the van. Inside the van was Mayo’s older brother, older sister, and mother in handcuffs and ankle weights - a procedure used to prevent them from fleeing. As the family made their way to the detention center in downtown San Francisco, a sense of irony hit Mayo -- the building was where one was either detained to be deported or waiting to get their green card. Mayo’s younger sister, who was born in the US and eight years old at the time, was not detained and was left in the care of her tita. Within 24 hours, a child’s normal life had fallen apart as the family was separated by authorities.
As the family arrived back in the Philippines, Mayo returned to her birthplace -- her grandmother’s house in Caloocan City where the grandmother lived with other relatives in one house, still with no running water. Metro Manila’s Caloocan City, notoriously known for its poverty and drug-related crimes, was Mayo’s home for the next chapter of her life. She lets out a sigh and hangs her head low as she remembers what it’s like to live in poverty in a third world country and living with relatives that she had never met, and not knowing how to speak Filipino. Prior to being deported, she had thought she was American and she was raised not knowing what being “Filipino” meant. She was back in the country she was born in, but she knew absolutely nothing about it.
Mayo and her younger sister were able to attend a private high school in Quezon City with the help of her mother, who had a “connection” with the principal of the school. The principal granting admission to the two girls on the condition that they get good grades so they could get a scholarship, even if they had failed the entrance exam.
From a very early age, Mayo claims “I felt that I was supposed to be a nerd in order to get an education so that I could help my family. I didn’t give myself a choice to be dumb or not do well in school. Even in the States I saw how my parents worked like 5 jobs between them, but we were still poor. I asked how I can help, and my dad said that every A+ I get, is like $5 I am giving to the family. That forever changed my view of school; I saw it as a hustle to help my family, and my good grades helped them provide for us.”
To maintain her scholarship, Mayo would wake up at 4:30am to get to school in Quezon City by 7:30 am, studying while in the jeepney and tricycle rides on her way to school. The next few years of her life were dedicated to “being a nerd and getting really bad acne because of it.” Her first year of high school involved a field trip to Baguio City, a city that reminded her of the Bay Area. After that trip, she swore to herself that she would do everything she could to move to Baguio City because she hated living in Manila and Baguio filled her with nostalgia for Daly City and San Francisco.
After graduating from high school, Mayo was accepted to the University of Philippines in Baguio City. There she wanted to learn about the Igorot culture.
Mayo’s love for anthropology escalated during her college years. From being deported, to not knowing her roots, and then being forced to learn a culture in order to survive, Mayo had never envisioned herself returning to America. Because she was deported, she was legally banned from returning to the US for 10 years.
As Mayo’s interest in indigenous culture began, she was hit with another major shock - she too was indigenous, with an Ifugao and Itneg ancestry on her father’s side He did not reveal this heritage to her until she explained that she wanted to major in Social Anthropology. She was then 18 years old and in college when she found out. Mayo asked her dad why he never told his children about their ancestry, especially since it was his Ifugao grandmother and Itneg grandfather who raised him. Her dad answered that he simply assumed that growing up in the US and learning about what was “native” would in no way benefit them because Filipino mainstream culture looked down on indigenous people. Many people who have grown up with this same experience of a ‘hidden lineage’ and kept it secret for fear that it would be detrimental to their lives. In the US, many immigrants believe it is more important to assimilate and survive rather than learn about or share your heritage with others. This is why many Filipino immigrants do not teach the language or culture to their children -- to hide it was a form of survival during a time when you need to assimilate.
This new information about her native ancestry gave Mayo determined to pursue Anthropology to learn more about her roots, identity and culture that was literally hidden from her. She wasn’t American nor was she ‘just’ Filipino - she is a native Filipina and this fueled her personal mission to understand more about her heritage. For her undergraduate thesis, she went back to her great grandmother’s village of Kiangan, Ifugao (and other municipalities of Ifugao where wood-carving is still done) to learn from the mumbaki (shaman) and munpaot (woodcarver) on how the Ifugaos protect, preserve, and manage their sacred cultural properties. She specifically researched on the Ifugao bulul, the guardian spirit of the house or rice granary, which exists within a ritualized wooden human figure, and is still used today.
After graduating from college, Mayo decided she wanted to teach Anthropology because she knew she wasn’t the only one who had been living with this void of a heritage and ancestral connection; and she wanted to help people reconnect to it again. She says, “It is something which was hidden or taken away from us on purpose because of colonialism and imperialism. [Colonialism and imperialism] refused to encourage the understanding of and proliferated misrepresentations of cultural identities. Most of all, it tried to eradicate the validity of indigenous knowledge and experiences. I want to undo that lethal mistake, one class at a time.” Mayo’s main reason for becoming a professor of Anthropology was to decolonize the discipline. Baguio City and the greater Cordillera Region became her surrogate birth place, her teacher, and her mentor. It is the place she was born into her roots, culture, and heritage. She began to teach at the University of the Philippines in Baguio City right after she graduated, but was eventually let go by the department because they couldn’t invest in her graduate education. Mayo then turned to scholarships and grants and applied for what she thought was a long shot-- a Fulbright scholarship. Knowing her legal status, she doubted she would be chosen.
Mayo moved back to Manila to work at a call center for an American-based bank. She was hired immediately because of her American slang accent. Quickly, she found out that she hated the job because of the many racist callers she’d have to deal with (even if she loved the people she worked with) - a reminder on why for her, America is overrated. During her time at the call center, she eventually was considered for an interview for the scholarship of her dreams. At the interview, she was only asked about her deportation status and whether or not she would be able to return to America; nothing much about her merit or experience. To everyone’s surprise, Mayo was accepted into the program and granted a J-1 Exchange Visitor visa. She was back in the US in 2010, twelve years after she was deported.
It was a full circle type feeling, “...like I won the lottery. And a giant middle finger to the American government who deported me and my family. I somehow convinced them I was worth investing in, and that my previous status does not define my worth.” The teenager of the ‘90s, in love with Rage Against the Machine, who had been deported from America in 1998 was now returning on their dime with a full educational scholarship and a decolonization advocacy to guide her academic pursuits.
Back in the US as an adult, American standards were now how Mayo had to measure her success. “Many immigrants feel they have to prove their worth for American Dream eligibility. We do not get to have ‘the American Dream’ when we enter, but it is more about how we have to constantly prove that we are even eligible to pursue ‘The Dream’ in this country. We don’t get to set the standard for our own eligibility, we are subject to their policies which says that it matters where you were born, if you have papers XYZ, and can pay $$$. Then even if you have all of that you gotta be this ‘model minority’ - you can’t be TOO Filipino, because, you know, that’s not American, it makes people feel uncomfortable. Because of that, we often feel like we have to hide our cultural identity and assimilate just to survive out here, just so we can be eligible to earn opportunities, then we pass that kind of mindset to our children. That trauma instilled in me and my family, how we had to survive in the Philippines, how I found my way back to the US, is my immigrant story; and my immigrant story is the f*cked up version of the American Dream.”
Mayo pursued her masters in Nebraska learning about other indigenous cultures, such as Great Plains tribes in the Midwest like the Omaha, Ponca and Lakota, to help inform her of similarities and differences with the Ifugao from the Philippines. She soon felt the culture shock and homesickness living on her own and not seeing many Filipinos around, especially other native Filipinos. She felt she could not relate to many Asian Americans because of her experience and upbringing in the Philippines, and didn’t feel like she fit in with Asian organizations. Instead, she joined the Native Youth Organization on campus UNITE (University of Nebraska Intertribal Exchange). This group, primarily composed of all female Native college students, became her family of sisters on campus.
Once she graduated, Mayo applied for admission into a PhD program, and was once again blessed with a full scholarship, this time at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Her current research shares knowledge she learned from the Agta hunter-gatherers of Northeastern Luzon, Philippines; specifically on how they use and manage their water resources, as well as the effect of extractive industries on these water sources. The fact that Mayo obtained two full-ride scholarships for her master and PhD is “like winning the lottery twice”, she says, “and also comes with this great responsibility which confirms the work I need to do to be of service to my people.”
Mayo is currently in the US as a permanent resident, and obtained her green card in 2017. She teaches as an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco through the Cultural Anthropology Program, is a Program Manager for the non-profit organization, The Cooking Project, a board member with the Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity (FACES), and is a musician for the American Center of Philippine Arts.
Mayo realized that telling her story was a privilege in itself. With the current controversies about immigration policies in the US -- parents being deported and their children being separated from their families at the border -- we very seldom hear from those who experienced these traumas. Mayo admits that her status of being undocumented and previously deported is not something those who share the same status can talk about publicly. Even she was discouraged from sharing this part of her life for a long time. But the main reason she feels the need to share it now is to not only inform folks about how immigrants are deported, but also to uplift the integrity of those who are. Mayo’s story has an important message to share: despite all you might go through in life to challenge your identity and worth, knowledge about your cultural heritage is a powerful weapon which no one can ever take away from you. It has the power to literally change your life.
Elizabeth Keanini-Silva is a recent graduate of the University of San Francisco where she was a previous student of anthropology in Mayo’s class. Born and raised in Hawaii she has a passion and love for family, food, culture, and travel.