COMING TO AMERICA by Metty Pellicer
(On the Occasion of the 119th Celebration of Philippine Independence: June 12, 2017)
Good evening. Magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat. I am delighted to talk about an experience that we all share, and is very much debated today. A hot topic discussed in the halls of government and on the stage of public opinion, American Immigration.
After graduation, 90% of my medical class of 125, were immediately leaving for the US. Bewitched by the American Dream, and lured by higher pay and better working conditions, we had enough of forty-eight hour days spent in toil without rewards. We had examined too many emaciated babies, and heard the rattle of countless deaths at the ICU. At the PGH, there were just too many patients, and not enough beds, not enough medicines, not enough laboratory and diagnostic tools, not enough funds for disease prevention, not enough of everything. We saw the end stages of failed government policies and corruption. We felt helpless. We were torn. But although many were leaving, everyone planned to return to save the health of the country. We wanted to serve humanity. I did not have the imagination to plan anything else, so the default plan was to stay. I had already secured a residency position in Psychiatry, at the Philippine General Hospital.
I did not plan to be a doctor. It was my mother’s ambition for me to become one. And she wanted me to enroll at the University of the Philippines! Imagine!
In high school I was an interna at the Colegio de Santa Isabel. It was heretic for a colegiala, especially an interna, to study at the University of the Philippines. I thought, had my mother gone crazy? Unlike my mother, I did not have the audacity to see myself as a doctor, especially one graduating from the UP. Her idea took my breath away! UP was considered too liberal, and dangerous to the reputation of young women. But it was also the premier national university. It had an international reputation for academic excellence. Only valedictorians needed apply. And since Mama thought that I could, I was daredevil enough to believe, that indeed I could.
I found out that the study was too long and seeking admission was nerve-wracking. Out of over 800 applicants, only about 100 were admitted. In the last year of pre-Med, I had a crisis of confidence. I tried to persuade Mama to let me switch. I said I had enough credits to continue with BS Chemistry, and I could graduate in a year. But Mama would have none of it. She put her foot down, and there would be no argument. That was how I became a doctor.
However, shortly after graduation, I had an epic quarrel with Mama, and impulsively, I decided to leave home. I came to America. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
My grand rebellion was made possible by a shift in US immigration policy.
The civil rights movement of the 60’s influenced the passage of The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Celler-Hart Bill). It abolished the national origins quota and replaced it with the family reunification and skills preference system. Doctors, nurses, teachers and engineers were among the skills preferred for entry.
Under the Exchange Visitor Program, I obtained a J-1 visa in two weeks. There were recruiters aplenty who were aggressive in pursuing professional candidates for a fee. I was not about to ask Mama for money, I was still too hurt and angry after our quarrel. I turned to my best friend’s wealthy father for financing. I borrowed my application fee, airfare, and spare change and promised to pay him in monthly installments for a year.
After the flurry of activity of getting all the documents in order, I finally had a moment to reflect on the enormity of what I was about to do. I had never been on a plane before, I had never been out of the country and I had never traveled anywhere in the Philippines by myself, and here I was uprooting myself from all that was familiar. I was leaving my family, to go across the ocean to another land on the opposite end of the earth. I was afraid.
And then it hit me, a profound sadness and sense of loss, and anxiety.
Ravenswood Hospital in Chicago was the first to offer me an internship position. I had no idea where Chicago was. The only thing I knew about it was the news of mass murder of nurses in a Chicago hospital. A Filipina nurse survived the massacre, because she hid under a bed, I still remember her name, Corazon Amurao. I was scared and my resolve wavered. But
as John Wayne said, “Courage is when you are afraid, but you saddle anyway!”
Fortunately I didn’t have to test my courage. Unbeknownst to me, my sisters, who worried for me, told Mama. At the airport my mother arrived to see me off and gave me her blessing, plus extra $200 for pocket money.
Having received my mother’s forgiveness and blessing, I regained my confidence and spirit of adventure. And I saddled away with all my material possessions in one suitcase and $250 in my pocket. I embarked on the grandest adventure of my life.
Let me remind you classic stories about what it was like in the beginning; Carrying that infamous big brown envelope with our chest X-ray, like it was a matter of life and death. And that announced to everyone that we were FOB’s (fresh off the boat). Each time I reenter the US from one of my travels, I smile at someone with this brown envelope. Cradled in the chest, as if protecting it from all perils, I remember what it was like, to go through US Customs for the first time.
As new immigrants, our initial experiences were excruciating and humiliating, but we managed to find humor in it.
Eating was not a simple act. What did we do with cereals for breakfast? We picked the dry morsels and ate it like peanuts. And then, we drank the milk. We thought we were cool to order to go. We couldn’t understand why we were asked over and over what we wanted to go. We ordered ham-boor-jeer, and we got a befuddled look. It was intimidating having to choose from so many unfamiliar condiments, when ordering a sandwich, or salad. Embarrassed and confused, we ended up with a tasteless meal. But in no time at all, hotdogs, and apple pie, and Thanksgiving turkey became staples on our table together with Lechon, relyenong bangus, and adobo.
And who could forget the wonder of our first snowfall?
We have endless stories about the language and our accents. I was infamous on the tennis court for a word I’d shout after hitting a bad shot. But I said it like bedsheets, and everyone laughed. And listen to this, Vendi was asked to bring a basket from YONDER, and she couldn’t find where Yonder was. I couldn’t get a Black child to answer my question about his frequency of urination, until someone suggested I use the word “pee”. Many of my male classmates thought that they were Americanized, after learning the words, “fart”, “piss ”, where’s the “john”, “be there or be square” and the unprintable ones, which I will not mention, but we all know them. And yet many Americans were surprised that we could already speak English shortly after arrival, and asked how we learned it. Johnny, my late husband had a smart answer to this. He’d say, “I hung out with all the pretty flight stewardesses and talked with them all the way over.”
It was hard to be different. We thought we knew, from consuming popular American movies, magazines, and music. But we had confusing encounters in every turn.
In filling out application forms, I had to choose a race category. I was asked to check among White or Black, Asian, or Pacific Islander. The experience was profoundly existential. What am I? It threw me into an identity crisis. I did not feel I belonged to any of these categories. Filipinos look Asian, like Malaysian, Indonesian, Burmese, or Cambodians but we have nothing more in common with them. They are Buddhists or Muslims, and their culture and lifestyle is influenced by these eastern religions. We are Catholics, and similarly religion influenced, but we identify with the lifestyle and culture of the US and Western Europe, but we don’t look like them. And although our surnames are Spanish, we don’t speak Spanish, instead we speak 99 dialects and languages. We could not understand each other across the Filipino language spectrum. But we could in English. Though we share culture and religion and colonial experience with Mexico, South America, Cuba and the Spanish Caribbean, we do not share their common language. Neither did Pacific Islander fit. We look like them but they are Polynesians, and Hawaiians. We don’t dance the hula, but the tinikling. We’re not White, but not Black either and certainly not American Indian or Eskimo.
When America got involved in the Cuban Revolution against Spain, it got involved in the Philippines who was also waging a similar war of independence. Fighting a common enemy, the Philippine Revolution joined forces with America. It facilitated the surrender of Manila and the rest of the Philippines to end the Spanish-American War. Aguinaldo then proclaimed Philippine Independence from Spain on June 12, 1898, which we are celebrating its 119th year today. MABUHAY! But as we all know, the Philippine Revolution was betrayed. Our representative was shut out from the negotiations at the Treaty of Paris. For $20M, America’s spoils from the war were the Philippines, together with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, Islands in the Caribbean-St. Thomas, St. John and in Oceania-the Marianas, Samoa, etc. The US granted Cuba its independence after a brief military occupation, but decided to retain the Philippines. Essentially one colonizer took over for another. Aguinaldo refused to recognize it, and the Philippines continued a guerrilla war with a new enemy. We were of course woefully overpowered and the Philippine-American War was concluded with Aguinaldo’s capture on March 23, 1901. President McKinley justified annexation as a fulfillment of America’s Manifest Destiny, “to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died,” never mind that we were already Catholics for 300 years!
American colonization and shifting US immigration policies created havoc in our Nationality classification.
We had been on this continent since the days of the Galleon trade between Acapulco and Manila from 1572-1815. Sailors on the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza had jumped ship on the California coast at Morro Bay and had been known to settle there since 1587. A continuous settlement had been in existence in Louisiana since 1764, the Manila men at St. Malo. Filipinos were nationals of Spain and governed through Mexico, New Spain, and in Louisiana we were under French governance.
These changed after the American Revolution and we did not become American citizens automatically, we were stateless.
After 1898, under US occupation, we were US Nationals with unrestricted immigration. This first wave of immigration brought the members of the Philippine elites as scholars of the government, the Pensionados, and the disadvantaged members of the class spectrum, as agricultural workers in Hawaii and California, and laborers in the salmon canneries of Alaska, the Manong generation.
During the Commonwealth, from 1935-1945, we were Aliens, and restricted from immigration. However, at the outbreak of WWII, citizenship was granted to enlisted men in the Navy but their role was limited to stewards and service workers. Because of the base agreement, recruitment continued in the US Navy after Philippine Independence from the US was granted on July 4, 1945, until 1992.
Post World War II, the War Brides Act brought the spouses of US servicemen.
The Immigration Act of 1952 provided for family reunification, and an exchange visitor program for nurses. Mommy Pellicer participated in this program and trained in the US for two years.
And this brings us to the Immigration Act of 1965.
The Reagan era saw the passage of Immigration and Reform Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to undocumented aliens.
American colonization and education did not make us Americans, even as we have wholeheartedly embraced American popular culture, in music, TV, the movies, fast food, and fashion
As immigrants, adjusting to this country involved a rude awakening to racial prejudice. In the 60’s, a friend driving through NC was denied purchase of milk at a convenience store. Mixed marriage was not legal in GA. A friend who bought a house in a white suburb of Clayton County, had eggs thrown at his front door and a cross burnt at his front yard. I had patients who asked to switch to a white male doctor directly. I had experienced discrimination on two fronts, as a woman and as a colored individual.
Filipinos of my generation is still influenced powerfully by colonial mentality. This is reflected in measuring our self worth and what is desirable in the paradigm of our powerful colonizers. In physical appearance we value European/ American features. Don’t we all check a newborn, and beam with bigger pride when its nose is high or its skin, fair? We like to show off our westernized lifestyle in our choice of entertainment, sports, in our homes, our clothes, in the kitchen, in the vacation holidays we took.
In pursuit of the American Dream, we quickly assimilated the doctrine of consumerism, and credit. It was incredible and truly a culture shock, to realize that it was advantageous to have debt, in order to establish our financial stability and worth. In the Philippines, it was shameful to have debts, and only the very rich could afford to pay cash on a car. But, suffused with more cash than we ever had and with new found value in credit, we went on a buying spree. We strutted in our new Mustangs or GTO’s. I couldn’t drive yet, but I bought a silver Camaro, for $50 down payment, and the rest of $2000 cost on credit. The women stocked up on Louis Vuittons, and Chanels, and perfumes, Jean Patou’s Joy and 1000. It was heady and exhilarating. We got married and had children. We felt the enormous responsibility to provide security and the best opportunity for them. By this time we had acquired a mortgage, credit cards, and debt. Our resolve to go back to save the health of the Philippines wavered. The news from home under martial law, and the repression of the Marcos regime made a decision to return foolhardy.
I completed my residency, I had a mortgage, a husband and a daughter and life was good. Then one day, my world ended. I got a deportation order! My J-1 visa had expired after completion of my residency training. Panic! Fortunately Johnny knew the ways and means. He had a friend who worked in the office of Clarence Long, the Congressman of our district in Baltimore. He sponsored a bill in Congress petitioning a permanent resident visa for me, the precious green card. That provided a pathway to citizenship, and in 1980, I was sworn in as a naturalized citizen of the USA.
My sister’s pathway to citizenship was by marriage, which provided a faster route. Because of the family reunification provision of the Immigration Act of 1965, she petitioned our parents for a green card who in turn petitioned all our siblings. So we are all here as a family.
Today most Filipino immigrants obtain LPR (Legal Permanent Resident) status, the Green Card. Compared to other immigrant groups, we are more likely to be naturalized US citizens, to have strong English language skill, college educated, with higher incomes, and have lower poverty and uninsured rates. In 2013 we are the 4th largest immigrant group with 1.85M (4.5%} of the 41.3M immigrant population.
Filipino population in Atlanta in the 60’s was 250, in the 2010 census, 897. In 2010 the Filipino population in Georgia was 28,528.
In 2006 I co-chaired the GA Celebration of the Centennial of Filipino American Immigration. The celebration brought together for the first time, fifteen Filipino organizations from the entire state. It was a very proud moment for Filipinos in GA. Everyone set aside Regional consciousness and rivalry. On that occasion we did not see ourselves as Tagalog, Bisaya, Bicolano, or Ilocano. We came out as a Filipino to celebrate our culture. We hosted a public festival of food, dance, song, martial arts, and handicrafts at the recently opened Atlantic Station. We needed to introduce ourselves to our community, for unlike the Chinese, Greeks, the Irish, or recently, the Vietnamese, we were invisible as a distinct group to the public. If they knew the Philippines at all it was about Imelda’s shoes, or Pacquiao, and most recently, the Miss Philippines who was not called the winner by Steve Harvey..
Our history had been written by our colonial rulers as a land discovered, as if we were lost and then found, and only after being found did we start living. But our forefathers had settled in these islands since the 7th century and had forged trade and security relationships with our Asian neighbors. Filipino seamen had sailed to as far as Madagascar in their balangay boats, and only guided in their navigation by the stars. We have artifacts that were traced back to India, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Japan, Taiwan, Africa, the Middle East, the Polynesian Islands and South America. We have our own written language and alphabet, the Baybayin. We have a religion and a system of government.
But we were separate tribes ruled by datu chieftains who were constantly at war,
Spanish colonization unified us into a nation, gave us our name Las Islas Filipinas, the Philippines. It made us the only Catholic nation among Buddhist and Muslims in Southeast Asia. In common with other colonized countries in the Americas and Caribbean, it gave us deep, sometimes fanatical faith, colorful fiestas, dance and music, and social class hierarchy.
American colonization propelled us into the modern world in a matter of a generation, it connected the archipelago with bridges, and roads, and a rail system, it gave us a democratic form of government it gave us a common language, and educated us with an American-oriented curriculum.
It is this proud heritage that we celebrate today, a merging of three cultures. I believe that owning the reality of our past and seeing the events as they were will inform our view of ourselves and our view of our world. It was not all rosy but neither was it all evil. What it did was shape us today, gave us resilience, gave us a rich palette where we can paint any picture. We are the Pearl of the Orient Seas. We are the Latinos of Asia. We are America’s brown brothers. We are the original fusion concept, before fusion was a byword. With Filipino overseas workers in every corner of the world, we could claim that we are the first citizens of the world. Our. numbers in the US now have reached a significance that our voices can be heard and help shape this country that we now call home. Let us not forget that we are immigrants and we have come to where we are now because of the will of the American people for its government to be humane and inclusive. We are the people now. By voting intelligently, it is up to us to uphold the sublime principles of governing on which this nation was founded; a government of the people, by the people, for ALL the people
America, we have arrived!
Salamat America!! Mabuhay Pilipinas!