My fascination with America started at an early age. I was a skinny ten-year-old kid in the Philippines, sitting on one end of the L-shaped, firm-as-hell sofa in our living room, and flipping through the thick pages of volume nineteen of The New Book of Knowledge encyclopedia series, which my mother had bought earlier that year—1989.
My favorite aspect was looking at famous landmarks. I learned that the Grand Canyon was in Arizona, the Sears Tower, which was still the tallest building at the time, was in Illinois, and Niagara Falls was in New York.
If I were to compare where I grew up in the Philippines to a place in the States, I would say it was the Midwest, specifically Iowa or Kansas—because of their placements on the US map and other topographic similarities.
I grew up in a province called Nueva Ecija, located in the main island of Luzon and approximately 120 kilometers north of the country’s capital, Manila. Nueva Ecija is a landlocked region, often referred to as the rice capital of the Philippines. Its terrain encompasses vast areas of plains surrounded by lush greenery, occasional rivers, and countless fields that are divided into rectangular shapes and decorated by displays of grain crops used for rice production. On both the east and west ends of the horizon, silhouettes of the mountains appear, seeming to erupt from the ground below. Their majestic tops kissing the last stretch of visible sky creates a calming effect as one gaze at them from afar.
It was the same calm I found in myself after I had been staring at the glossy pages of the encyclopedia for over two hours. I looked at the clock, hanging on the wall in front of our sofa, and realized it was already five in the afternoon. The thought of my mother coming home from school suddenly popped up in my head.
Her name was Edna. She was average built but petite, probably about five feet tall. She worked as an English teacher at a nearby private school called Holy Cross College where I attended as a fourth grader.
She was also the most important person in my life. Mom did everything she could to raise me well and had instilled in me the value of hard work, which ultimately paved the way for me to accomplish my dreams of one day moving to the States, or the US, as most Americans refer to it.
At school, Mom was the go-to person for anything related to communication activities. Many students went to her for extracurricular grammar lessons, but others sought her help with public speaking or for oratorical and declamation contests where students would recite their dramatic pieces on stage and compete with others from school across the province. As a teacher, Mom emphasized the utmost importance of education. She believed anyone could achieve all their dreams, but only if one had a college degree.
When not teaching, Mom took on other side gigs to make ends meet including working as a part-time sales agent for the provincial branch of Grolier International, a company known for its encyclopedias and other educational books. Through her gig at Grolier, she was able to purchase the twenty-one-volume New Book of Knowledge series using an installment plan that spanned several years and by availing herself of an employee discount. Otherwise, the encyclopedia’s tag price was way beyond our family’s modest means, especially given the low salaries of teachers in the Philippines.
Aside from selling educational books to supplement her full-time work, my mother also sold other miscellaneous things like clothes—mostly blouses and long garments called duster, worn by older mom-type ladies in our town. She sold frozen meats too, including tocino, a local delicacy made of cured and sweet-flavored pork that tasted like a Philippines version of Texas barbecue. Those meats were wrapped in clear plastic, and Mom often took the meat to school to sell to parents of her students. She would store the meat in a rectangular Styrofoam cooler and would carry that cooler with her to school, every day of the week!
As I closed volume nineteen of The New Book of Knowledge encyclopedia, I looked again at the clock, hanging on the wall above our black and white television. It was now thirty minutes past five, and Mom would soon arrive from school.
I stood up from the sofa and walked towards the kitchen, the very first room one would see upon entering our house. Mom walked in after a few more minutes, greeting me with a kiss.
“What’s for dinner?” I asked Mom.
“We still have tocino,” she replied, smiling, in an animated and teasing way, as if tocino was the best thing in the world.
I loved tocino. I still do. But it was not the best thing in the world.
“Can you help me cook?” she asked.
“Of course, Mom.” I responded with pleasure since cooking was my other passion aside from reading.
I walked towards the refrigerator located across from the front door. When I opened the freezer, I was greeted by a dozen or so square-shaped packets of frozen meat, all wrapped in plastic and stacked on top of each other like a collection of flattened Jenga blocks. Some of the meat was red due to the coloring substance of the tocino, and some was light brown color which was typical of other prepared meats.
“Mom, can we go to NE mall tomorrow?” I asked as I picked one package of the tocino from the freezer. NE was short for Nueva Ecija. Tomorrow was a Saturday too, which meant there was no school.
“Sure. Is there anything you want?” she asked.
As soon as Mom asked the question, my younger sister Michelle, whose nickname was Mitch, walked into the kitchen. She was six years old and had been taking a nap in one of the two adjacent bedrooms upstairs while I was sitting on the couch and reading a chapter on the United States.
“Oh, I want to come too,” Mitch said in a sweet, almost-begging way while her eyes twinkled.
“Okay, okay,” said Mom, waving her hands up and down and agreeing to our request. “Is there anything you would like to do at the mall?” Mom asked, directed to both me and Mitch.
“Well, I wanted to buy some fairy tale books,” I responded.
If there was one other thing I was interested in aside from encyclopedias, it was fairy tale books! I had been saving some of my allowance money from school for over a year now and had been collecting those pocket-sized delights from the publisher of Well-Loved Tales. Aside from the colorful pictures inside which astounded me to no end, those books had glossy covers too, and had images in front that were related to the stories themselves. For example, the Rapunzel book had the long-haired princess on the cover of it, The Emperor’s New Clothes had a picture of a semi-naked man who was wearing only a crown on his head while one of his servants was measuring his waist, and The Golden Goose had a picture of, well, a golden, almost yellow-colored goose.
Mitch told us that she wanted to buy some fudge brownies, her favorite dessert.
“Oh, I think I have something else in my bag,” my Mom quickly exclaimed as she remembered about a gift from one of her co-teachers.
Mom opened her bag, which was sitting on one of the four dining chairs in the kitchen and then revealed a package of cheesy ensaymadas.
“Oh, I want one. I want one!” Mitch exclaimed, almost impatiently. Her brownie cravings had now shifted to the delicious, round, soft bread that looked like a regular roll with a butter cream spread and grated cheese topping.
“You will, but we have to eat dinner first,” Mom replied.
As Mitch sat on one of the chairs in the kitchen, she inspected the ensaymadas and looked to see whether there were other surprises in Mom’s bag. Mitch then found a few peso bills, several pens for Mom’s teaching stuff, the keys to our house, a rosary, a prayer booklet, another small booklet for random notes including a list of people who had bought frozen meat from my mother and who hadn’t paid yet, some loose change, and several receipts from various places. Once Mitch had scoured through all the things inside Mom’s purse, she quietly returned everything back inside, parking the ensaymadas on top of the dining table.
I started placing a few slices of the now-thawed tocino on the hot sizzling pan, and as I cooked the meat, I found myself humming some sounds, “Hmm mmmm mmm mmmm mmm mmm,” and then singing the words to Whitney Houston’s hit “Greatest Love Of All.”
The song had been playing over and over on our relatives’ radio next door while I was reading the encyclopedia for over two hours and the lyrics were stuck in my head. I kept singing and singing while cooking the rest of the tocino and using the spatula as my mic. Mitch watched me in delight and seemed enthused like a true fanatic at a Whitney Houston concert.
When all the meat was cooked, I served it on a floral-designed plate, placing it on the table next to the ensaymadas. Mom picked a small piece of the cooked tocino from the plate, tasting it.
“Mmm, delicious,” Mom said. The tocino’s sweet, fried aroma floated in the air as it traveled from the plate to my mom’s mouth.
“Are we going to wait for Melissa?” I asked Mom.
Melissa was our oldest sister. I was the second child, followed by Mitch, and then our youngest sister was named Melai. She was still a baby and was sleeping in one of the bedrooms upstairs. We all had “M” as the first letter of our names and we were the 4M’s of the family.
“She will be late tonight because of a dance practice at school,” Mom replied.
After my mom, Mitch, and I finished eating dinner, we sat on the L-shaped sofa in the living room and played a quiz game, naming the capitals of different countries. Mom asked the questions and mostly I had the answers while Mitch participated as an observer, occasionally repeating either Mom’s questions or my answers, but without fully understanding much of what was being said.
While I spent most of my afternoons reading cerebral delights such as The New Book of Knowledge or fairy tale books which made me feel warm and fuzzy, my thirteen-year-old eldest sister, Melissa, spent most of her afternoons and often evenings and weekends, either practicing a dance routine with her classmates or preparing for an inter-school quiz bee. She was studying at Holy Cross as well and was a freshman in High School. She was top of her class in kindergarten and all the way until she finished elementary. She and her classmates had been practicing a pop dance routine to the song “Name Game” by Laura Branigan for an upcoming school activity.
It was half past eight when Melissa arrived in the house that night. She threw her bag on the floor in front of the tall bookshelf where the rest of the New Book of Knowledge encyclopedias were stored. Immediately, she blurted out how tired she was from all the dancing she had been doing that day.
“Is there any food left?” she asked, although to no one in particular.
Mom told her there was tocino left and asked if she wanted the food to be reheated.
Melissa inserted herself in the L-shaped sofa, gently pushing me and Mitch to the side so that she could sit closer to Mom.
“I am so mad at Leila!” Melissa exclaimed, facing Mom, and referring to someone from her dance group.
“Why? What happened?” Mom asked, with her eyes squinted and her appearance seemingly intrigued.
“Well,” Melissa responded as she flipped her hair to the side using her right hand. “She kept changing the dance steps that I had already suggested. And Patricia was siding with her too!” Melissa added, her exasperation toward her friends seemed more and more apparent.
“So, what did you do?” Mom asked.
“Nothing. I told them that we will just have to finish the practice tomorrow,” she replied while rolling her eyes, although this time Melissa seemed more resigned about the drama at school.
Mom stood up from the sofa and walked towards the kitchen. She reheated the food by refrying the tocino in a pan and brought it back to the living room on a plate, along with rice and some tomatoes.
“Do we have any Coke?” Melissa asked.
At that point, Mom turned her head towards me and asked if I could go to the sari-sari store located several steps away from our house, to buy a bottle of soft drink for Melissa since there wasn’t any in the refrigerator.
“Ugh, I am so tired,” I replied, showing my hesitation to do anything. “It’s already too late,” I added, emphasizing that it was almost nine in the evening and that I did not want to go anywhere at that time.
“Um, I am SOOO tired from the dance practice and I really want a Coke!” Melissa exclaimed, emphasizing that her tiredness was more important than mine or anyone else’s for that matter. Her voice, this time, was louder and had a frustrated tone. She also seemed genuinely confused, wondering why I was not doing anything for her, considering how SOOO tired she was.
“We started at three in the afternoon today and I have not eaten any food yet since then!” Melissa added, providing an explanation as to why I should buy her a bottle of Coke in that very instant.
“Okay, fine,” I said. I left the living room, but I showed my irritation by stomping my feet as I walked towards the kitchen and out of the house.
“KEL. Don’t stomp your feet.,” Mom shouted. KEL was short for Michael, which was Mom’s occasional nickname for me.
I had no choice. I had to do what I was told. So, I went to the store and bought a bottle of Coke for Melissa.
But it was not the only time I had to do things for her. A couple of weeks before, Melissa had asked me to wash the dishes. I was okay washing the dishes. I had done it a million times. I just hated being told to do so immediately. My annoyance was exacerbated by the fact that none of our faucets, either in the sink or in the bathroom, were working at that time. We did not have a dishwasher so I had to wash all the plates, and utensils, and pans, and spatulas, and much other kitchen stuff, all with my bare hands. I also had to go outside our house to fetch water from an actual pump, one that looked like a fire hydrant with a long handle on one side and had to be pushed up and down several times before it could release water.
When my older sister asked me, or rather, commanded me to wash the dishes, I did not respond. I pretended not to hear her. Afterwards, I went to one of the bedrooms upstairs and locked the door. Within minutes, Melissa was banging the door. Loud noise could be heard from the entire house and possibly even from outside, all while she was screaming and demanding me to open the door at that very instant. Nobody was at home that morning except for Melissa and me.
After a few minutes had passed, I still did not respond to her screaming. The banging on the door kept getting intensely louder. Then, her banging stopped. I overheard some scratching noises from the adjacent bedroom, next to where I had locked myself in to escape Melissa’s eventual wrath.
Finally, the knob on the door in the room where I was staying started rotating sideways. Melissa seemed to have found the key and it seemed too, that she was going to succeed in confronting my disobedience to her. She stormed the room, carrying a broom on her hand, and proceeded towards the bed where I was sitting while reading a fairy tale pocketbook. When she was just a hair away from me, she aimed the broom at me, gesturing as if she was going to hit my face with it.
“Stop!” I begged. She did not hit me, but her gesture was enough for me to feel scared for my life.
“Are you not going to follow me?” she asked, angrily, while grinding her teeth.
I pushed her away, stood up quickly, and ran as fast as I could.
Melissa was mean to me, but she wasn’t always like that. Sometimes, she was sweet. Other times, she ignored me. Although, I think she ignored everyone else most of the time as her primary focus was on herself. There were a few times when she wanted things in the house to be done like dishes cleaned or any of the chores completed, so I knew she meant well. As the oldest among her siblings, she felt responsible for ensuring there was order in the house and that she was in control.
Despite Melissa’s occasional mean streaks and controlling nature, I looked up to her, sort of as a role model. I had always admired her achievements in school as she’d always finished on top of the honors list by the end of the school year while also able to fit a lot of extracurricular activities in between. Plus, she had a lot of friends so her weekends were always busy with social activities.
On the other hand, my weekends were dull and ordinary, at least I thought so anyway. Except that weekend, when Mom decided to take Mitch, Melai, and me, or three of the “4Ms” to NE mall.
Later that night, my father, Bonifacio, arrived from Manila. He was about six feet tall, slender, and had a moderate-sized belly. His hair was long, dark, and had a few streaks of gray in it. He had been working in the city for a few years now, ever since he’d left his teaching job at Holy Cross in 1985. He chose to live and work in Manila, about five hours away from our house in Nueva Ecija, because the pay was much higher and there was not a lot of high-income work in our province. Dad worked for a company owned by his younger sister, Aunt Jade, and her husband, Uncle Fred.
My father worked in sales. He drove a medium-sized truck that looked like a regular U-Haul truck in the US, but his truck was loaded with boxes of household consumer products including shampoos, conditioners, body lotion, and others from Johnson & Johnson. He delivered stock to many different groceries and convenience stores in the metropolitan areas of Manila. He worked long hours, sometimes including weekends, but he would come home to see us in the province every other weekend, usually bringing with him various pasalubong gifts of Filipino food varieties such as chicharron (fried pork belly), pastillas sweets, or roasted chicken from Andoks, a local chain that specializes in rotisserie meats.
It was almost midnight when Dad arrived that Saturday night. Melissa and Melai were already asleep, but Mom, Mitch, and I waited up for him to arrive. When I heard a screeching bus engine sound from outside, I knew it was him. I quickly opened the front door while Mom started heating some food. Mom knew that Dad was going to be hungry.
“I am here now!” Dad announced as he stepped inside our house. His voice was low and had a soothing and calm tone. I instantly hugged his waist area, which was all I could reach due to his towering appearance. Dad kissed Mom on the cheeks and lips and then handed her a plastic bag containing the chicken from Andoks while asking her to fix dinner. Melissa had woken up too and proceeded to greet Dad, while Melai was left sleeping in a crib in one of our bedrooms upstairs. Soon, Dad picked Mitch up and carried her on his right arm.
“How’s my little girl?” Dad asked, enthusiastically and with a bursting smile on his face. Although Dad never admitted it out loud, Mitch was his favorite among the four of us.
“Fine,” Mitch replied sleepily yet in a sweet voice, and while rubbing her eyes with her hands.
“I brought chicken and chicharron for you,” Dad said. Chicharon was yet another of Mitch’s favorite food items aside from the brownies, ensaymadas, and many others. As Dad gently placed Mitch back on the floor, he also dropped his navy-colored travel bag, which was resting on his shoulder while he had Mitch on his arm.
I strode towards his travel bag, picked it up, and then sat on the floor, next to the L-shaped sofa in our living room.
“Dad, Dad. Do you have a lot of coins?” I asked enthusiastically while opening the zippers on his square bag, which was about the same size as our black and white television.
Dad always had loose coins in his bag every time he came home to the province. Those were pocket changes from his work, such as when he’d paid tolls on the highways or when he’d stopped for a lunch or snack break. Mitch and I loved counting those coins. We would first scour through his bag for every bit of coin available, placing all of them on the floor, and then we would start stacking them up based on similar denominations. All the fifty cent coins were stacked together, next to the one-peso-coin stack and the hexagon-shaped two-peso-coin pile. My favorite was the five-peso-coin stack because of its higher value. If I collected only ten of those five-peso coins, I would end up with fifty pesos, and that would be enough to buy many fairy tale books.
The next morning, we were all awoken by a loud banging on our front door. It was our grandmother, whom we often called Mama Julie. She lived next door with her older sister whom we called Tiyang, a Filipino word for Auntie. Mama Julie was not really our direct grandmother, lineage-wise. She was my dad’s aunt. She took care of my dad and his three siblings when they were young. Both dad’s parents died when he was just eight or nine, so Mama Julie and Tiyang had raised Dad and his three sisters.
Mama Julie was single and a devout Catholic. She had been banging on our door since six in the morning to make sure we were not late for the mass service which would soon start at seven thirty. Since there were six of us in our family and we only had one bathroom in the house, it took us a long time to get ready for church which resulted in us being late. When we finally got to church, we stood in the back section directly behind the last wooden bench where the early church goers sat, and close to the entrance door. There were a few others standing among us, most of them came in late as well. I wondered if someone else had been banging on their doors too, to ensure they got ready on time the same way Mama Julie had banged on ours on that god-forsaken hour in the morning.
The mass service took about an hour, and as soon as we were back home, Dad had started a grill in the back of our house. He cooked a few pieces of tilapia, his favorite type of fish, serving it with a soy sauce dip and drizzled with a squeeze of the citrus fruit calamansi. These tilapia pieces were cooked with their skins on, and their round black eyes still intact, almost staring at us, screaming “don’t eat me” as each one of us started to devour their soft, juicy flesh.
After we ate, we parked ourselves in the living room to watch TV. A basketball game was on, which Dad enjoyed watching. We then ate some pastillas for dessert, followed by ice cream on a cone as our next treat.
It was a simple weekend get-together, but it was truly a meaningful family affair.
It was perfect. I could not have asked for more. Family is the most important thing in the world. They are the very foundation of my eventual success in America and the very reason why I was pursuing my dreams in the first place.
When I graduated from elementary school, sometime in March 1992, I received two gifts from my family. The first one was from my parents—white Stan Smith Adidas tennis shoes with a green foam padding in the back and the tongue part of it. Mama Julie gave me the second gift, a black Kodak camera. I took an interest in taking photos—mostly portraits of people in random poses, and Melai, my now three-year old sister became my de facto muse in all those photos. I took pictures of her in our living room, in our bedroom, outside the house, or wherever, and I directed her with various poses, sometimes with a hand on her face or both hands below her cheeks. I took the floral curtain from our living room and used it as a backdrop for some of the photos. To achieve a blowing hair effect like those of supermodels in TV commercials, I used an electric fan and placed it directly in front of her face.
I made her wear many different types of clothes, too. Mom’s blouse. Melissa’s headband. Mitch’s outfit from an intramural pageant. I used a blanket and wrapped it around Melai like a robe used by beauty queens in pageants.
Pageants became one of my obsessions. The very first one I saw was back in the early 1990s, when Miss Mexico, Lupita Jones, won the Miss Universe crown. She wore an elegant red gown, matched with a long set of red earrings while her hair was pulled back, thus placing more emphasis on her beautiful face. Her response to the question-and-answer portion was spot on, saying the most difficult problem her country was facing at the time was the challenges of free trade and how it was going to be difficult for Mexico to compete internationally, but she ended her answer with a statement of hope and said that everything was going to be possible.
From then on, it became a habit for me to watch Miss Universe every year. I even came up with my own Miss Universe game. I would cut a whole sheet of white paper into eight different pieces—each probably the size of a typical playing card. I would then draw a picture of a beauty pageant contestant on each card. Each beauty pageant contestant had a different hair style and was wearing her own unique gown, obviously designed by me. Some gowns were long, others were short. Some had floral designs while others had sparkly sequined elements in them. Each of the drawings included a sash too, bearing the names of the countries that each contestant was representing. My Miss Universe game would go on for hours, with me playing the role of the host and the judge. It would continue until I made the announcement of the top fifteen finalists, then the top ten, then the top five, and finally, the announcement of the winners, including the coveted title of Miss Universe.
It was fun. I did not think of it as anything strange.
However, some of my cousins thought differently.
“That’s so gay!” they often said, referring not only to my interest in photography or beauty pageants, but also to my overall mannerisms. From then on, I started getting teased more.
“Bakla! Bakla!” My cousins would often yell. Bakla is the Filipino term for gay.
My emotions ranged from being hurt to being angry to being vengeful. Often, I’d find myself crying to my mom. Sometimes, I would fight back by saying a phrase or two to express my disapproval. Other times, I would deflect by teasing my other male cousins back, telling them that they were bakla too. I got used to being teased eventually. I didn’t even know what it meant. Being gay. I thought it was probably because I was skinny, or because I loved reading fairy tale books, or singing while I was cooking food, or my recent interest in taking pictures using the black Kodak camera.
Why were my cousins calling me gay? I had no clue. I did not know anything, until something else happened later that following summer.