I have been meaning to say a few things about M. Evelina Galang’s novel, One Tribe (New Issues, 2006). As some of you may know, this is her first novel. Her very first book is a short story collection entitled, Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press, 1996).
These will be more like notes rather than anything close to a polished statement. I realize that even though I have recently been reading a lot more fiction that I typically do, One Tribe is the first novel that I’ve recently read that I’ve thought hard about in terms of structure in addition to “story.”
The protagonist: Isabel Manalo, a Midwest Pinay who grew up a minority among white folks. She is socially and psychologically scarred, and/or haunted by her recent miscarriage.
The problem: She’s placed herself among the Virginia Beach Filipino American community, and has never experienced this before, a huge, overpowering, and suffocating Filipino social world. I think about its similarities to the sprawling Bay Area Filipino American communities, though the Virginia Beach Filipino Americans are portrayed as tightly tied to the American military.
Isabel is a teacher, and she has found herself forced into this position as the Role Model for the typically troubled youth, and here, youth is equated with gang member. And so even when we are thinking about them as barkada, we have to remember that here, barkada is also equated with gang.
The community exists in this state of denial about the state of their troubled youth. When Filipino American teenagers are dying from gunshot wounds inflicted upon them by other Filipino American teenagers, clearly things need to change. The questions are what, and how.
Another thing to remember is that in the educational institutions, there are no Filipino American teachers or administrators. This is why the community has invested so much in Isabel’s arrival. Already we see this is an unfair expectation, that one person who’s come from elsewhere can come into a situation that has had many years to develop into the beautiful, complicated, and volatile thing that it is. It is unfair that she must singlehandedly repair it, especially when she is prevented from diagnosing its problems.
The problem, continued: Whereas Isabel believes she is most effective as a teacher of Filipino and Filipino American mythology, history, and cultural movements, the young women want an Ate, and come to resent her when she acts and speaks “teacherly,” and “white.” She doesn’t speak or understand Tagalog, and the youth Taglish with one another and with their parents. The parents, especially some vocal mothers, expect her to slip seamlessly into their social fabric, and this means coordinating the all-important beauty pageant, rather than empowering the youth by providing spaces for them to dialogue and create, filling their heads with our revolutionary history, and exposing the historical and contemporary condition of the Filipino and especially the Filipina in the world (OCW’s/OFW’s, Japayukis, et al).
The real problem: It wasn’t gaining the trust of the youth, but the political and ideological differences between Isabel and the parents’ generation. The parents are hard working folks who’ve fought for the American Dream for themselves and their children, and they refuse to acknowledge how they may have any part in their children’s disaffectedness and self-destructive behavior. So here, the characters of Ferdie Mamaril and JoJo Reyes are important, as they also exist in that vast space between the youth and the parents. First: they are men, and so people don’t push them around and speak condescendingly to them the way they do to Isabel. Second: because they are of this community, because they speak the language of this community, means that they are trusted by the community. Isabel is an outsider.
Ferdie, for the most part, is a fanatic. At least this is how I see and read him, though I think others would view him as an activist and community leader. In his mind, he’s created this oversimplified caricature of Isabel, the bourgie, whitewashed Pinay daughter of a surgeon, who’s never known a day of racism and struggle, though clearly we see through Galang’s presentation of photographs and flashbacks that Isabel’s parents have experienced a segregated American South, and have been denigrated as foreigners in American medical institutions. Still, one Filipino family’s struggle is another Filipino family’s American Dream.
Ferdie constantly tries to school Isabel, doing so with all these assumptions about her in mind. In other words, communication is one sided, as we see his impassioned, ranting monologues on Isabel’s answering machine presented to us in all caps and kind of bad English. When he assaults her in the supermarket parking lot, shoving her body onto her car hood and shoving himself onto her as he rants into her face, he doesn’t see how he’s invaded her bodily space, how this can be construed as a crime. He only understands that he has very pressing and important things to say to her, and that she must hear him. This is one way Isabel is held hostage by the activist Pinoy narrative.
There is all this argument throughout the novel of what is truly Filipino, who is a true Filipino, what makes a Filipino a Filipino. The young mestiza beauty queen and Las Dalagas gang leader Lourdes vocalizes unabashed that you can’t become Filipino from reading books. You just are. Conversely, Isabel believes teaching that mythology and history is so crucial to Filipinoness. As for the parents, who Galang really represents via Anita Starr, Lourdes’s single-minded, obnoxious, dragon of a mother, it’s not really articulated what Filipino is. Filipino just is.
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Let me try to end this post because I’m already saying too much. This is an ambitious novel.Throughout my reading of it, I kept thinking, this is too much, there is just too much here, including Isabel’s white boyfriend, whom she dumps for a Filipino boyfriend, including how her med school sister automatically stereotypes Isabel’s students as thieves when her gold pen goes missing (it fell into the sofa cushions). But that’s the point. Despite Galang setting up “neat” conflicting positions, it seems there is no neat way of organizing the community/ies into any singular definition or image of Filipino American. It’s a messy entanglement of multiple interpretations of histories, survival strategies, socioeconomic conditions, cultural institutions, generations, gender expectations, with folks really believing they are trying their best to work it out given their subjectivities.
There’s this quote from José Rizal:
“Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinangalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”
Here’s a translation for the Tagalog impaired: “He who does not know how to look back at the place from which he came will never arrive at his destination.” Or more colloquially: “No history, no self. Know history, know self.”
This to me is probably the most self-explanatory, common sense, and sensible thing that I can remember as a Filipino. In fact, it’s so self-explanatory and common sense that it feels like a fortune from a fortune cookie, my colloquial translation sounding more like spoken word trope. As well, this is Isabel Manalo’s pedagogy, and operating principle on this larger Filipino community level, and on a personal, familial level.
Addendum: I wanted to also go back to the title of this novel: One Tribe. So, “gang” and “barkada” are other words for tribe. “Community” is also another word for tribe. I am ambivalent about both “one tribe” and “tribe,” the former for its insistence upon singularity, though singularity doesn’t require sameness, sameness oftentimes becomes the expectation. As for the latter: “tribe,” I am ambivalent about romanticizing any kind of indigenous purity pre-Spanish contact. Of course it is tempting to indulge discussions on what kind of greatness was there in that glorious indigenous past, as if there was no such thing as inequality or oppression then, and to speculate on what kind of greatness there could have continued to be had the Spanish not interfered with the development of the people, the islands’ many tribes and societies.
I think Galang toes the line here, and I think we see this in Isabel’s teaching. Maybe it’s inevitable, to approach mythology and history with this reverence or awe, to impart this reverence and awe upon the students who may be learning these things for the first time. You have to jar them out of their here and now in order to imagine other possibilities.
I also see the purpose of having those moments in the book be bursting with pride and revolutionary fervor. As the Filipino American students reenact or perform dramatizations of Philippine mythology and historical events, the space is transformed, as if the space exists outside of the 1990’s Virginia Beach “real world.” It’s a stark contrast to the here and now, this realistically mixed up and fissured community. I actually prefer the idea of the space being a liminal space, where even “one tribe” can be reimagined as diverse and encouraging of discourse between its constituents.