Four years ago, a hundred-year-old photograph came to mind. It framed a poem I included in a manuscript that was published in 2010. The poem, “Lolo Claudio in Colorado,” was an American love story, and had it ended more happily, I wouldn’t be here at all. As it happens, I lived to write the poem.
In the 1900s, Filipinos, being U.S. nationals, were allowed to travel freely to America. Perhaps it was the pursuit of happiness, or the promise of “unalienable rights,” or both, that prompted many young men, my great-grandfather included, to pack their trunks and embark on a voyage across the Pacific. My great-grandfather settled in Colorado between 1905 and 1910. Sometime during that period, he fell in love. Lolo Claudio didn’t take matters of the heart, or of freedom, lightly. At 12 years old, he witnessed the execution of Jose Rizal. Even then, he understood that the costs of love and liberty sometimes required forsaking one for the other. And in America in 1910, he found out that one couldn’t simply marry whom one loved. There were laws that prohibited this, both constitutional and cultural. But if one were not free to love, he told himself, one wasn’t free at all.
He decided to go back to the Philippines and, like other young men, found a job, bought a house, got married, and raised a family. He lived to be almost a hundred, surviving his wife and many of his friends. In moments when he was alone with great-grandchildren he believed to be too young to understand, he would pull out of his wallet a very old photograph, and trace with his finger the image of a beautiful girl. “It was too cold in Colorado,” he would simply say.
His eldest child, my grandfather, moved to the U.S. in the 1970s during the early years of Martial Law. He and his wife and children settled in the San Francisco Bay Area; my mother, who was already married at the time, fell under the third preference of the family preference immigrant visas, and had to wait a few more years to be given a “green card.” I would grow up in a society with enforced martial rule, on the one hand, and the promise of freedom in America, on the other. My pre-immigrant images of America, formed by my U.S.-based relatives, included Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan juxtaposed with Lawrence Welk. For my grandparents (and my parents, eventually), adapting to a whole new sociopolitical and cultural system meant being one step closer to the American Dream. When I think of a great American love story, I think of my elders and all the other manongs, whose heritage I share, ploughing America’s unyielding furrows. Turning over the earth meant, for them, giving their children the right to call this place home.
There are more than three million Filipino Americans scattered across the U.S. today, and nearly 500,000 call the San Francisco Bay Area home. Demographically, we make up more than one percent of the population – and theoretically, we have enough signatures to qualify a measure for a ballot, more than enough people to make a city, more than enough strides to change the future.
I am a poet based in the San Francisco Bay Area. How can I not be moved by shorelines, or by ground built on rubble and traversed by many faults? I grapple with the weight of words. At the corner of San Francisco’s Kearny and Jackson, the grand old men still stand watch; and in Santa Clara County, there is a place that leaves the light on for me. Take me home on a rail, from the southern base to the northern tip of a peninsula. The measure of a poet’s stride equals a bridge.
Lolo Claudio in Colorado
Said he could not
stand the cold and hail, so
he went back to the city of
his affections, warmly sitting
on alluvium. There, he married
a colegiala of someone else’s dreams.
(Fast-forward seventy years)
At ninety-seven, he pulled out
of his wallet an aged
photograph which he said was
taken in Colorado in 1910.
Beside him, a girl, white,
very “foreign”. Their sepia
smiles intimated unhurried
familiarities. Lolo said he could not
have married her. That even though
the law did not specifically include
him (him, belonging to
the Malay race), he still couldn’t
have, hindi maari.
Said he did not want
to be “odd” around her.
First published in TRAJE DE BODA: poems (Meritage Press, St. Helena & San Francisco, 2010)
Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto is the Associate Editor of Our Own Voice Literary Ezine (www.oovrag.com) and author of the poetry collection, Traje de Boda, published by Meritage Press in 2010. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in Galatea Resurrects, Moria Poetry, Fellowship, Manorborn, and the anthology, Hanggang sa Muli (Tahanan Books, 2011). She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.