The author of Boxing in Black and White pulls no punches. The opinions he expounds are backed by the mass of a professor's knowledge and the life experience of a man who clawed and climbed his way out of migrant worker camps.
Peter Bacho, age 63, has six award-winning books and has written for the Christian Science Monitor, The News Tribune and foreign policy journals, including the Journal of International Affairs. With two law degrees, he has taught at the University of Washington and currently at the Tacoma, Washington campus of Evergreen State College. As a professor, Peter has influenced young Filipinos for over three decades. A majority of Positively Filipino readers who opened this article probably took his classes, read his novels or interacted with him at Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) meetings. They know that with any issue percolating within the Filipino-American community, whether social, intellectual or cultural, a decision cannot be considered informed unless it factors in Peter’s perspective.
This time few will find Peter’s perspective palatable.
Peter calls Seattle and Stockton, California the two epicenters of Filipino-America. He spent part of his youth in Stockton, but was born and raised mostly in Seattle, Washington. In the 1950s, Seattle was a one-industry (Boeing) town known mainly for its rain and Skid Row. Peter’s neighborhood was the city’s Central District, which at the time, was blue collar, multiethnic and hardscrabble. Sixty years later, their bunkhouses would be restored into today’s million-dollar Victorian and Craftsman homes a short walk from the downtown digital startups and bus lines to Amazon, Microsoft and Costco.
Times were tough for Peter and his sister, Irma, the children of Post-WWII immigrants Vince and Remedios Bacho, migrant workers who followed harvests and salmon catches from California to Alaska. Today’s young Filipinos cannot replicate Peter’s childhood because the government will intervene before social conditions become so intolerable. Young Filipinos might relate better to the next phase of Peter’s journey.
Seattle University, a Jesuit college, is located within the Central District and it’s where Peter graduated summa cum laude in 1971. Unlike the Yukon pioneers who decamped from Seattle for Klondike gold, Peter traveled only three miles north to earn his LL.D and J.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle. From 1974 to 1981, he taught courses in law and Asian American Studies at the University of Washington before leaving UW for a stint as a staff attorney for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Then came his writing career. Peter’s oeuvre includes the novels Cebu, Dark Blue Suit, Entrys, Nelson’s Run, and young adult fiction Leaving Yesler. Peter’s short story, “The Wedding” gained distinction in Best American Short Stories of 1993. Cebu received an American Book Award, and Peter’s script for the book is being adapted to the screen by Lunaventure, which is seeking funding.
The longtime fight enthusiast’s underappreciated Boxing in Black and White gives a quick, authoritative overview of the sport. “I boxed because contact – a drive to render the other fellow senseless – determined what worked and what didn’t work. Boxing is my metaphor for life, or at least the life my father and I knew.” A nugget of trivia: Peter trained in Jun Fan Gung Fu taught by Taky Kimura, the closest disciple and Best Man of Bruce Lee.
The prolific writer has dedicated his life to relating the Filipino experience to fellow Filipinos. Peter believes his mission was doomed from Day 1 for the simple reason: “Filipinos don't read.” He no longer writes but continues to teach.
“Young Filipinos are not interested in the past; they are not intellectually curious, so I have no real desire to explain [the Filipino experience], to be honest,” Peter states. “They are creatures of comparative comfort, and that’s fine because it means that society is more accepting – more so than in my dad’s generation and in mine as well.”
Anyone who has looked to Peter in the past for a sign of hope will be disappointed. “Am I optimistic? Not really,” he responds based on his encounters with the young generation. “Filipino kids don’t have much curiosity, but that’s OK, because that is their lives. However, they do sing and dance well.”
Peter's blanket judgment of young Filipinos will offend some. The Web can be a polarizing tool for people to confine their eyes to favored viewpoints. The Web can also expand minds by presenting alternative points of view. Readers who didn't close this tab may find that Peter's disagreeable opinions are not entirely incompatible with their personal experience. It could be beneficial to consider the reasons behind Peter’s downer disposition if for no other reason than to refute them.
The Trouble with Moving Forward without Looking Back
Peter is not speaking from personal disillusionment. He accepts that old attitudes eventually become dated and no longer conform to modern conditions.
“It’s a generational difference,” he observes. “For those of my generation, our parents knew the harsh side of America, as did we, their children. My dad, for example, was a migrant worker [moving from] field to cannery to field. Most doors were closed to him and his friends. It was a rough, racist time.”
Based on his upbringing, Peter says, “I used to think that Filipinos were all blue collar and/or poor. Then I taught at UC Irvine (1994 to 1995), and that changed my view. Many of the kids were wealthy. And folks were very conservative.”
This conservatism among Filipinos in California’s Orange County was reflected in the outcome of California Proposition 187 in 1994. “I remember, after a statewide ballot measure passed targeted against undocumented Mexicans, asking my class at UC Irvine (many of them Filipinos) how their parents voted. Most said their folks supported the measure.
“Given the long history of Filipinos and Mexicans in the fields and other locales in America’s underbelly, Filipino support for this measure would have been unimaginable,” he asserts.
An opinion can carry as much prestige as a designer purse. Some might look at the transformation of the sons and daughters of poor immigrants to anti-immigration proponents as proof that Filipinos have arrived. Peter recognizes that bobbing along with the mainstream can mean endorsing policies that hurt newer generations whose hardships echo those of early immigrants who endured prejudice to give their progeny a better life.
“The danger [of young Filipinos not reading and understanding their history] is their inability to critique in any sort of way the society in which they live,” Peter explains. “For the first two generations at least, struggle was the key to survival. That and an understanding that there were other people in the margins. The result was the development among ourselves of a deep sense of fairness, of empathy for the underdog, whatever the underdog, because that’s what we are.”
Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Peter and others of his generation took a bitter pill of untold miseries that remain in their system. By listening to them, young Filipinos still have an opportunity to shed their innocence without losing their exuberance. Regrettably, the opportunity to examine life through someone else’s pain will someday pass away.
Peter tried his best for a quarter century to guide young generations of Filipinos toward an appreciation of their people’s history. He has given up trying to get through to them, but has not given up on teaching. “If you love what you’re doing and are good at it, there’s no reason to retire,” he says. With some of his students Filipino, Peter hasn't yet given up on our next generation.
Anthony Maddela lives with his family of four in Los Angeles. He writes grant applications to support residents of the 14 public housing developments of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.
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