13 December 2014

California, A Challenge

ME: Lelong, I found this photo when it fell out of the album. It doesn't seem to have a place.

LELONG: Oh. That photograph! It doesn't have it's own place in the album, anak.

ME: Whose photo is it? Where was it taken?

LELONG: Hahaha.  I have not told anyone this story, anak. There are actually three parts or stories that you have to know that make up the true story of this photograph.

ME: Please tell me Lelong.

LELONG: Well, you will be surprised. But I will tell you the true story of this photograph.When I was a little younger than you are now, I signed a contract to work in the sugar fields in Hawaii and left to work in the fields in Hawaii.

ME: You are a Hawayano?

LELONG: Haha. No. Let me explain. I served my three years under the contract in what were slave like conditions. The bosses were Japanese and Hawaiian and mostly mean. They would beat us and treated us like slaves. I didn't go to cockfights. I didn't go to the dancehalls. But I decided when my contract was over that I would go on to California or Seattle. I heard that there were some jobs in California for farming and there were fishing jobs in Seattle.

ME: Seattle?

LELONG: Yeah. Actually, I really wanted to go to Seattle. I always wanted to see snow like I thought it looked in heaven and in a White Christmas. But when my contract came up, I was afraid that I would run out of money if I went to Seattle without a job. A dorm mate had a family member named Tony in California that I wrote to and he said a job would be waiting. So, I went on a short vacation to Honolulu after my contract and stayed with a brother of another dorm mate and his family for two weeks. He was also from Ilocos but he married a Hawaiian and farmed at her family's land.

ME: Wow.

LELONG: As it happened, I almost didn't make it to California. And this is the first story. You see, Doming, the brother of my dorm mate at the sugar plantation, had married a Hawaiian and had mixed children. But the woman, whose name I can't remember, had a large family -- like we had in the Philippines. And she had a brother who was my age and maybe a foot taller than me. He also worked on the farm but would also take the roots and other produce to market. During my stay, he took me to the market with him. We sold all the produce very quickly and so we went on the electric car and he took me around Honolulu. As it got late, we went to a saloon instead of back to the farm.

ME: Wait, lelong. You drank?

LELONG: Haha. Yes. But not really. You see I was not a drinker as I am not now. But the Brother was so nice and friendly. We really got along so well that he kept offering and after I refused a little, I agreed. Well, it only took one drink to make me drunk. And the Brother decide it would be better that we rented a room overnight and then go back to the farm than to try to find a ride or walk since we were both a little drunk.

And I remember so vividly the room was very nice. It was small but very nice. The furniture looked new. The linen was soft and white with a nice fragrance. We got to the room and the Brother was so kind that he help me take off my clothes and then he took off his own clothes. We got into bed and he put his arm around me and closed his eyes. We had not been that intimate but as that kind of thing was quite common in the dorms at the plantation, I didn't think anything of it. I only mention it here because perhaps you are wondering. You see, back in those days, there were hardly any Filipina women there. If you wanted to touch a woman, you would go to a dancehall and pay to dance with a woman. Maybe buy her a drink. If you wanted sex with a woman, you paid for that too. But there were few Filipinas so if you had sex it was with a Japanese, Chinese or Hawaiian. And they were not cheap. The rest of us either did without, used our hands, or each other. Nobody really cared at that time. The only problem was that sometimes the boss wanted something and that, people had a problem with.

So we were in this bed and Brother had his arm around me with his eyes closed. The room was not very dark because of the lights outside coming through the side of the curtains. I turned my head towards Brother and he put his lips on mine and started to kiss me.

ME:  *coughs*

LELONG: Well, I was surprised too. I mean. In the dorms, I had never seen that really happen. And it didn't feel bad so I just let him do it. I didn't really understand at first. I mean, I am telling you now that I'm an old man and understand the world. But at that time, he was just a tall and good looking Hawaiian guy who was nice to me so I thought maybe this was there culture and I wanted to thank him. Even at my age now, I'm too modest to go into so much detail about what happened after, but I think you get the idea. I was drunk and I enjoyed it. The next day, it was back to normal and we returned to the farm.

ME: Wait. It was back to normal?

LELONG: Yeah. We weren't drunk anymore. Anyways, for the next week before I left, I slept with Brother in his room which was really a Hawaiian version of our nipa hut. And every night, we would play our little love game. And I started to think maybe I could just work on the farm and stay with Brother. It was nice. I'd never interacted with someone who seemed to like me the way Brother showed interest and I kind of liked it.

ME: Wait. I don't understand. You kind of what?

LELONG: Well, I was young, of course. But Brother and I never talked about those things. And on the second to last night, I decided I wanted to talk to him about it. You have to keep in mind that I did not speak Hawaiian and he did not speak Ilokano but we could understand each other because we both spoke broken English but there was only so much that could be said. And his response to me talking about the subject was to tell me that my idea to stay would not work out in the long run because he was expected to marry and have children and that his parents had an idea already of who. So this broke my heart a little. I was young and innocent. So the next night before I left, his family and Doming gave me a luau. And there was hula dancing and drinking and then Brother and I did what we did like every other night but with a lot more passion and afterwards, as I fell to sleep, I had a little sadness in my heart. I left for California.

ME: I'm.... I... uhh.

LELONG: It's okay, anak. No one has ever asked me my stories including your father or Lelang, so I have never shared. No one has ever asked me about this photo. So I have never shared these stories. But I am old now. So even if you can't fully understand what I am saying, just remember what I say.

ME: Ah.... okay.

LELONG: So I got to California and it was a lot different. There were also Japanese there but there were a lot of white people. And not just the rich ones that owned the plantations. There were a lot of poor white people who were like us sugar workers and farm laborers. There were Black people and lots of a Mexicans. You see California used to be part of Mexico so there were a lot of Mexicans and some Indians but it was hard to tell the difference between them because they all spoke Spanish.

I worked in the farm ranches. So we moved a lot. The work was not as bad as sugar in Hawaii but the pay and living conditions were worse. Some guys would lose their money to gambling but most gave it up to white prostitutes. It was said that it was illegal to date a woman of another race if you were Filipino so if you went to the dancehalls, to dance with the ladies, it had to be an illegal dancehall, that maybe also sold liquor. And those ladies were real expensive and usually would also be a prostitute for the right fee.

After my experience with Brother, I found myself looking at other men in a funny way. At some point in the year, we ended up cutting lettuce quite close to the coast. And we somehow managed a truck to take all of us to the coast one Saturday night. I don't remember the name of the town, but there were a few shops, a saloon and a diner like cafe. As I didn't drink, I had decided I would go to the diner, buy a magazine and look at the pictures and maybe improve my English.

I had a nice American dinner and had ordered pie and ice cream for dessert when this young Mexican man came to my table. I had been there a while and most of the dinner crowd had already left. He asked me in Spanish something and I shrugged telling him in my broken English I didn't understand. He laughed and asked me permission to sit in English. I thought it a little unusual since there were other empty tables but I agreed. I thought maybe he wanted to conserve those for other patrons and I had been sitting there for a long time already.

He asked me my name and where I was from. He knew about the Philippines and even said that his grandfather had lived for a time in Jaro. I didn't know where Jaro was but just nodded. I'll just stop here and point out how beautiful he was. He wasn't a Spanish Mexican but was more like a mestizo Indian Mexican. But he was so beautiful. Something about his voice, his eyes. I can still remember. And his name was Francisco.

We talked for a long time. And although it was the plan for me to go back to the saloon and wait for the boys to finish their dancing and drinking, it was the boys who came looking for me at the cafe/diner! In my broken English, we were able to talk for a long time about nothing really. He was also a farm laborer but his group was picking oranges much closer to the town than where we were cutting lettuce. As we had no way of contacting each other, we agreed that we'd meet at the diner/cafe again and then I left with the boys back to camp.

Two months passed before we had the chance to go back to the town. But this time, when I entered the diner, it was Francisco who was there waiting. We ate together and talked and joked. After dessert, he told the waiter something and we went outside. And he showed me a late model Indian motorcycle. It was his older brother's. He asked me if I wanted to go a tour of the coast in the morning on it. I agreed immediately. But then I asked him if he knew the way to our camp. He said that I would spend the night at their camp. We went back in paid the bill and then I went to the saloon to get permission from Kuya Tony. He was unsure and warned me that I could be robbed and it would be very difficult for me to return to camp without money. I assured him it would be okay.

So, Francisco took me on his brother's motorbike and we rode back to his camp. It took a while. The road was not macademized so we could not ride too fast. But it was bumpy and for safety, Francisco instructed me to hold onto him tight -- which I did. The night was warm so the breeze from riding was nice but I really enjoyed holding him.

ME: Lelong, am I understanding all of this correctly?

LELONG: Haha. Anak. Did you think I was just an old man without a story?

ME: Actually, I never really thought about it and now that I am, well, I'm confused.

LELONG: Well, let me finish telling this second story. So we went back to his camp and he lived in real farmer heaven! He had his own room in a wooden little house and a bed. So, it didn't take long. We undressed and started kissing. And well, one thing led to another, very quickly. I don't think I got any sleep that night. Hahah.

ME: Uh, yeah we can skip those details, lelong.

LELONG: Haha. Well, in the morning, he introduced me to his mother and father and brothers. I ate Mexican food for the first time. It was very spicy but the tortilla wrapper was delicious, very buttery. We got on his brother's motorbike and eventually got onto a coastal road No. 60. The ocean in California was a lot different than in Hawaii and very different than in Ilocos. But I enjoyed it because it was with my friend Francisco.

Anyways, we did this for about four months. But then my group moved farther to the South. Because Francisco's parents lived permanently in that wooden house, I would write to him very short notes giving him my address. He would write longer letters which I kept until your father was born. And then after several months, we rotated to a farm ranch quite close to his parents house. And I spent every week for 6 months there. I really saved my money but tried to learn English better because I was afraid we would run out of things to talk about with the few words I knew in my broken English.

ME: You understand English?

LELONG: Haha. Well, I don't think I can speak well anymore, but I still understand. Anyways, I have to say I was quite happy. I considered leaving my group of farm laborers and joining the Mexican group of Francisco so that we could be together all the time. His family didn't seem to mind that he had a boyfriend instead of a girlfriend. I think it may have had something to do with me being from the Philippines.

But then, one Sunday, we were driving on the No. 60 coastal road on his brother's late year Indian motorcycle and decided to pull off by a food vendor. We bought sausage and were eating it on the beach when a group of young whites came to us and accused us of preying on their sisters or young white women at the beach or something. This had no obviously truth to it because, as you may now understand, I was wildly in love with Francisco.

We knew enough not to mention those finer details. But those hoodlums were looking for a fight and I have to say, Francisco and I kicked their asses. But by this point, the local sheriff deputies had arrived. And because we were Mexican and Filipino, we were the ones arrested. As I had nobody to call to help, the deputies rang the telephone of Francisco's parent's landlord who had a servant go to their house and fetch them. They bailed us and it seems that the bail money settled the case - at least for Francisco. I was not a citizen. And I think at first they were looking to deport Francisco too. But his family were long time workers at the orange groves so they dropped it for him. But I was not from around there at all and I had no boss to protect me. Francisco's family had become my family so they came when my return day came at court.

And it was there that I learned that I was being deported back to the Philippines. I was not given a chance to return to my camp and gather my things or my pocket money. They gave me fifteen minutes in a private room at the courthouse where Francisco and I just hugged each other and kissed and cried. It felt like just a moment. But then they came and took me away. The mother handed me a knapsack with some food and an envelope with $20 in it. That was a lot of money back then. I was put on a transport ship. I  returned to Hawaii briefly where the ship picked up more passengers and we returned to the Philippines -- I was dropped off in Manila.

After I got back to Ilocos, I began writing Francisco and we wrote to each other about once a month. Much of the money I had saved I had sent back to Ilocos and had my sister buy land. I no longer had to work hard in the fields because of my lands. But my mother pressured me to get married. It was my duty to have a family. I resisted for sometime. But eventually, I agreed to marry your Lelang.

ME: So you regret that?

LELONG: No. Not at all, but you see, my heart was in California with Francisco. And his with me. I informed him about my mother's requirement and he supported it. He just asked me to promise that one day I would visit him once more. I promised. Then World War II happened. And we lost contact.

But after the war, when your father was born, your Lelang found the boxes with the letters from Francisco and she made me translate them and tell them to her. She could never read. But I told her the truth of the letters. She was adamant that they were really written by my American girlfriend not a Mexican man and demanded that they all be burned.

After your Lelang died, I was able to arrange a tourist visa to the US. I was able to find Kuya Tony who had also married and was also by then a grandfather. I stayed with his family in Anaheim as I looked for any trace of Francisco or his family. One clue led to another and another. And sometimes they just led to dead ends. I found out that his parents died shortly after the war and the owner of the orange groves sold the business to people who evicted the families from the wooden houses. Francisco had joined the military in the war effort and had been injured in the South Pacific. He was discharged and rented a single-man's apartment in downtown Los Angeles for a long time.

From there it got confusing but I got an address for another single-man apartment hotel in downtown Los Angeles but was also told that he had passed away a year or two before. No location for the burial was known. I decided to visit the last known address and see if anyone there knew anything. The building was in the process of a demolition survey. The foreman took pity on whatever story I told him and let me go to the apartment and the photograph, you see, is the only picture I had to remember Francisco. I took it in the room that was his last known address -- although I doubt the calendar or the empty luggages were his.

Photography by Marco-art.

LELONG: So, you see, this photograph has three parts or stories to it like the three luggages: my vacation in Honolulu, finding the great love of my life and the unfulfilled promise to meet him again once more in this life.

ME: So did you love Lelang?

LELONG: Oh! Haha. Of course anak. And I love you very much also. It is also true that I love Francisco. But because of my own lack of courage about that love, this photograph is all that I have to remember him by.