In the pit of her stomach, Mari knew there was something wrong with her mother.
She wanted to call her. To make sure. But she was teaching a class.
It was the middle of spring, in the middle of the country, in the middle of a lecture about the farmworker movement in California, and its architects, Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and Cesar Chavez.
Mari looked out at the rows of the twenty or so students in her special seminar course. It had taken some time to convince her department that there would be demand for a class they said was about ‘esoteric history’ and ‘without broad interest.’
“Ms. Magtaytay, is everything alright?”
Mari nodded and knocked on the lectern a few times, willing her body into the present. “Yes, thank you Dara, everything is fine. Where were we?”
“Delano, California,” Dara said. Dara was one of Mari’s most earnest students, who wrote meticulously researched essays. When she had told Mari that her mother died when she was little, Mari couldn’t think of the right words to address that kind of long-standing loss.
“Right, who can share with the rest of us why Delano, California was important?” Mari motioned with her hands, an invitation for students to speak out. Slowly, one by one, they raised their hands and told her what they knew.
“There were labor strikes up and down California at that time,” Luther said. He was the college’s student-run co-op vice president. He loved to tell her about his conversations with local farmers in Lorain County.
“And weren’t there grapes involved? The Delgado Grape Strike or something?” Sean asked, his eyebrows raised in a bushy question mark.
“It was the Delano Grape Strike. In Delano,” Sherrie said. Mari thought maybe Sherrie’s family was from that area, owned some farmland possibly.
“Oh yeah. Hardly anyone knows it was the Filipino leaders who convinced the workers to band together. And then after that Cesar Chavez joined.”
Mari interjected at this point, “Right, they were led by Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz. When the Mexican farm laborers joined the Filipinos, they were rebelling against the growers’ years of strategic segregation. Now, is there a deeper story to tell? A historical context?” Moments passed. “What had been happening abroad that would impact these immigrant workers?”
Dara tapped the end of her pencil to her temple, used the eraser to push her bangs to the side. Then she raised her hand again. “America had colonized the Philippines?”
“Yes,” said Mari. “The United States had been building their empire in the Philippines after buying the Spanish out at the turn of the century, after the Spanish-American war, and that set off the Philippine-American war. Thousands of Filipinos thought they would have more opportunities in America. But?” Mari asked, probing.
“A lot of people hated immigrants,” Dara said.
“Specifically, the Brown ones,” Jerome said. He was half Filipino and half Chinese. He had sought her out as a mentor when he started school there.
No one else spoke for a moment, then Mari broke in, “They passed various laws against the Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and the Filipinos. What were they trying to stop?”
“Everything… citizenship, marrying Whites, owning property and eventually from coming at all,” Dara said.
Mari pushed them a little more. “And the newcomers felt this not just on the farms, but in the towns too. You saw in the national newspapers how White people called them barbaric and savage and in California wanted to get rid of the Filipinos or they’d burn the town down.”
“They didn’t like their White women dancing with the Filipino manongs,” Jerome said, with a rhythmic bounce of his shoulders and arms, “but the manongs were young, single, and looking for love.” His smile lit up the faces around him.
“In the ’20s and ‘30s, mobs of White men shot up Filipinos’ houses. Burned them, tied them up, and dragged them around,” Luther said. “Just for trying to make a buck.”
“Not that many people died though, right?” Sherrie asked. “How many died Ms. Magtaytay?”
Died. Did the number matter? A young man’s life was taken at twenty-one years old. He would have sent remittances, whatever money he didn’t spend on food and boarding, to his parents and five younger brothers and sisters living in his village. Would have been puffed up proud for making the journey, thousands of miles away. He would have met another man like himself, heard about the jobs in the Central Valley –– Stockton, Delano. He was a farmer in the Philippines, so he could be a farmer in America. He would save up enough to buy a house. It would take a while, maybe a couple of years if he was lucky and was rehired every season. When he wasn’t so new, maybe he could meet a woman. He could start his own American family. Maybe he could petition for his parents to join him.
They were reciting the facts, but she wanted them to feel it too. So they’d never forget. Mari searched inside for the right words, the right stories to tell her students. So they could feel it in their bodies, just under their rib cage, in their guts. The hunger, the loneliness, the scowling faces at the windows, smashing against the walls, driving them out.
Mari’s phone started to light up, a second time and then a third time. A blurry snapshot of her father, his face framed in a wiry beard, pulsed at her from her lectern. Oh god, was this it?
She made some joke about the unions calling her to get the story straight and excused everyone to a quick break. She pushed out of one of the back doors into an empty stairwell.
“Hi Dad, I’m in the middle of enlightening my students. Everything ok?”
“Oh anak. I’m sorry to tell you now…” he said.
“What? Dad, wait, you’re breaking up…”
“… accident, but…”
“Are you ok? Car accident?”
“…yes a car accident…”
“….decided to do a scan…”
“What? You? A scan of what…”
“…I can’t hear you…”
“… your mother, anak.”
“…Come home, anak.”
Mari hung up and leaned against the cement wall. She slid down until she was on the ground, the rough blocks scraping along her spine. Fuck, that hurt. That felt real, unlike the garbled conversation on the phone.
She checked her texts from her mom. Nothing for the last couple of days. She tried calling her father back but couldn’t get through. Shit. She pulled on a railing to stand up. She’d have to cut the class short and then she would try to reach them again, make her way home.
The street blinked by, stuttering, like images on damaged filmstrip. Purita tried to keep things smooth by forcing her eyes wider, lifting her brow, making more space for the light to get in.
A stoplight. Green. People on the corner checking their phone. A line of cyclists streaming by, an inch from her window. A cafe. A bakery. The groomer. The steering wheel’s white balloon that expanded into her face and held her still. Her baby Mari, asleep in Jo Jo’s arms. “Come with me,” he had said. “But, we can never tell her,” she had said.
Her face smashed against the airbag which saved her life. Its chemicals entered her body, waking her, pushing the unconscious dark away. She sensed different parts of her body, checking in with her toes to find out if she could wiggle them. In her arms, she could feel the subtle flex of her biceps, how they splayed across the airbag. She could bend the knuckles on her left hand. She could sense her thighs pressing together when she thought about them.
The talcum powder from the airbag floated around her like a dusting of flour. The particles settled in her hair. She thought about when she and Jo Jo made sourdough bread together once. They took turns watching the timer, calling each other to the kitchen counter to uncover their loaves from under tea towels and plunge their hands into the silky bag of flour and tossed it across the risen dough, making it dusty and dry, pulling the corners of it from the bottom and up around to the top, cradling it as she pushed it along the counter’s floured surface. Hiding it again with a towel.
She woke up alone in a hospital room, grown-up Mari miles away in Ohio. But she woke up! What a gift. Now she could tell her.
Her eyes opened again and this time it was Jo Jo, searching her face. Pleading something she couldn’t hear. He squeezed her hands and she squeezed them back but didn’t think he could feel that. He ran out of the room, calling for a nurse, and she rolled her eyes. He was too jittery, too eager for help. She would be fine. And closed her eyes again.
She blinked her way back. It must have been early morning because there was no Jo Jo, no nurse, the sunlight snuck its way into her room. Her hospital room where she was by herself. Her husband, always showing off. What did she need all this space for?
She could keep her eyes open this time, for a long while. All the way until Jo Jo came back with two mugs from home. The ones he’d made during that weekend workshop he wanted her to go to, but she refused. Had better things to do she had said. In the garden. And a carafe of coffee. Instant, with condensed milk. Just exactly how she liked it.
“Purita, mahal.” Jo Jo put the things on the mobile table and wheeled it over her hospital bed.
All these years together had passed. She wondered if she had wasted too much time with her clipped words, her restrained affection. She held herself from him, with just enough distance for both of them to change their minds if they wanted. Rewind to how things were supposed to be. As the people they were supposed to be.
She wasn’t making sense. She moved her lips and said something to him. He smiled and leaned to kiss her, gently on her nose and each cheek and then her lips. Gently, gently, he always said. As though she were a brute all the time.
After the doctor left, when they were alone, Purita whispered to Jo Jo, as if anybody could hear them behind the heavy closed door.
“You heard him Jo Jo. We don’t know what the tests will say, but it’s made me realize something.”
“What is it, mahal?”
“I want to tell Mari everything.” Purita watched his face withdraw and then frown. She thought he would be relieved, finally, that she agreed with him.
“Why now? Why pile that on top of everything else right now.”
“You’ve always said she deserved to know.”
“Perhaps, but there will be time.”
“What if there isn’t any more time? I won’t let you bear the truth alone.”
Jo Jo had always liked to watch Purita sleep. Being in a hospital bed made no difference to him. In her drowse, her facial expressions put aside their fight and opened into a kinder silence. Her eyelashes might flutter, her lips could push into a smile.
She had finally come to see things the way he saw them. But he was unprepared for the unreadiness that bloomed in his gut.
Mari’s plane would land soon. There was no more time to deliberate. They had agreed that Mari should know. Even if it created pain for her, for all of them. He looked at Purita’s quiet face, took a mental snap of it so he could hold onto it inside his head. And he got up to go to his car.
He couldn’t find it right away. He wandered from row to row and thought maybe he was on another level. The first time Mari asked about family, he had dreaded the story he began to weave for her. One character led to another and he would lose track of their names, how they were connected to each other. He tried to base them on people he knew, to help him remember. But Mari was sharp. She could easily follow a thread and point out where it got tangled up. She would pick away at the knots, asking question after question. And soon Jo Jo learned to evade. It wasn’t easy for him. He built walls in his mind to shut out the people from his past. He closed doors, drew curtains so he wouldn’t have to remember his childhood home or the places he and Purita liked to go. And now he would have to find his way back to all those openings.
He was unsure of his way through the labyrinth he built in his mind. He wondered if the doors would move, how he could punch through a wall, let the air rush through. He walked back to the first level of the parking garage and clicking the lock button on his key, followed the beeps all the way to his car.
Mari pushed through the door back into the classroom. Some of the students looked up at her when she came in. Some had gotten up and were standing around talking. She could see a couple of them had ducked out of class entirely. This history felt important to discuss now, just as important as almost anything that could happen to her in the present.
But it was time to go home.
“Sorry class. We have to end there. For next time, I’d like you to think about American colonial and military goals in the Philippines and economic policy at home. How are they opposed, how are they aligned?” Mari wasn’t sure she would be there for that lecture, but didn’t want to say the words ‘car crash’ or ‘tumor’ out loud.
She sat in front of the chalkboard and watched her students leave, not able to move right away, suddenly seeing an image of the tumor in her mother’s brain, like a worm burrowing in its tissues.