Penman No. 444: A San Diego Sojourn

Penman for Sunday, November 6, 2022

A FEW weeks ago, for the first time since the pandemic, my wife Beng and I took a plane out of the country, and I can’t tell you how liberating that felt after three years of being landbound. I’d had few complaints about the long lockdowns, because I’m used to working and writing in isolation, and have become much less sociable as I age. But I did miss the travel, the foreign air, the view from the other side of the ocean. 

Just before the pandemic hit, Beng and I had spent my first year in retirement (and a good chunk of my retirement kitty) gallivanting around seven countries, against the advice of family and friends who thought that we were overdoing it; perhaps we were, but now we know that the world we saw then will never be the same again, and that we ourselves—in or approaching our seventies—will never be able to do that again. And so it was with a huge sigh of relief that we boarded our flight to San Diego, where our daughter Demi has been living with her husband Jerry for the past 15 years. We’d visited San Diego often before, but probably not with this much anticipation, having been away for years. 

Sitting on the Mexican border, San Diego isn’t the first place most Filipinos would choose when they think of visiting America, unless, like us, they have personal reasons to go there. Los Angeles and San Francisco seem to be more exciting places, have large Fil-Am communities, and have long been the ports of entry for Pinoys landing on the West Coast. (Our Japan Airlines flight was that rare straight flight via Tokyo to San Diego.) But San Diego has its own charm and its own attractions, most notably Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and Comic-Con, that annual extravaganza of pop culture that draws about 150,000 fans from around the galaxy. (Much to my young students’ chagrin, I’ve been to Comic-Con twice, happily ignorant of much of what I was looking at.) 

And whether you’ve lived there for decades or are just passing through, San Diego will always give you a taste of home, with dozens of Pinoy foods stores and restaurants, especially in National City and Chula Vista where you can shop at Seafood City for daing na bangus and Chocnut and at Goldilocks for your party cake while dropping packages off at LBC—or you can run to Mira Mesa for your Jollibee fix. (For me, an American sojourn would be incomplete without a trip to Arby’s and Red Lobster.)

Inevitably San Diego also has its own spotted history of East-West relations, in which Filipinos have figured; the better part of that history was celebrated last month as Filipino-American Heritage Month in the city. The worst part remains in the archives, in the memories of early immigrants such as Emeterio Reyes, who recalls that “I asked the driver if he could take me to a Catholic church. As soon as we got there, I told him to wait for me because I had a funny feeling I might not be welcome at this church. As I entered the door, a priest approached me and told me that the church was only for white people. That moment, I wanted to cry and die!” 

When Sebastian Vizcaino sailed into what he would name San Diego Bay on November 10, 1602, he found that he had “arrived at a port which must be the best to be found in all the South Sea, for, besides being protected on all sides and having good anchorage, it is in latitude 33½o. It has very good wood and water, many fish of all kinds, many of which we caught with seine and hooks. On the land there is much game, such as rabbits, hares, deer, very large quail, royal ducks, thrushes, and many other birds. On the 12th of the said month, which was the day of the glorious San Diego, the general, admiral, religious, captains, ensigns, and almost all the men went ashore. A hut was built and mass was said in celebration of the feast of Señor San Diego.”

As a major port facing the Pacific, San Diego has long been home to the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, its base harboring over 50 ships. The naval presence defines much of San Diego’s character, and provides a good part of the reason why about 200,000 Filipino-Americans live there today. Since early in the American occupation, Filipinos have signed up with the US Navy as their passport to what they hoped would be a better life and to a bit of adventure. 

I just learned, for example, that the first Filipino to have joined the US Navy, back in 1903, was a seminarian in Manila named Potenciano Parel who snuck out of his vows to be a sailor, but not having the right papers, he used those of a friend and assumed his identity, Tomas Dolopo; the Dolopos continue to be San Diegans. Demi’s late father-in-law, Ric Ricario, joined in 1957; his eldest son, Ray, followed him into the Navy; Ray’s brother Jerry met and married Demi. And so we find ourselves now tied by blood to that long tradition, as did many thousands of others before us.

Despite having visited San Diego many times before, and having enjoyed its more popular attractions, we felt more acutely aware of history this time around. We finally stepped into the city’s Maritime Museum, a complex of many ships from various centuries that allows visitors a hands-on experience at traveling the world on water. The ships on display range from a full-size and fully functional replica of a Spanish galleon ca. 1542, the San Salvador, to the world’s oldest sailing ship, the grand, mid-1800s Star of India, to a ca. 1970s submarine that still holds the record for the deepest dive, the USS Dolphin. For just $15 for seniors and just slightly more for others, you can hop from one ship to another, and imagine what it was like to cross a tempestuous ocean with only the stars to light the way and nothing to eat but stale bread and salted pork. 

We enjoyed history of another kind by having dinner with our in-laws in a National City dive that our son-in-law Jerry chose for its unique ambience, which you can either call seedy or loaded with character. (There was a famous sailor’s bar in the area called the Trophy Lounge, Jerry told us, that used to be run by ladies from Olongapo…. But that’s another story, and San Diego has books of them, yet to be told.) La Maze is the kind of leatherbound ‘50s restaurant that the Rat Pack and other Hollywood celebrities frequented when in San Diego, and you can still order the same great steaks they had. A local band played dance music, and to the tune of “Solamente Una Vez,” I took the pretty silver-haired fox next to me to the floor and slow-dragged the night away. 

Penman No. 141: War and Remembrance

IMG_7163Penman for Monday, March 23, 2015

 

A FEW weeks ago, I had the pleasure of having coffee at the Ayala Museum with some good friends visiting briefly from the United States—the historian and professor Sharon Delmendo and her mother Judy, and the retired soldier, consul, and West Point lecturer Sonny Busa.

Both Sharon and Sonny were in town to do research—Sharon on President Quezon and the Manilaners, the Jewish refugees whom Quezon took in just before the War, and the Visayas-born Sonny on the guerrilla movement, for which he’s helping to seek more recognition in the US, especially those who may have fallen through the cracks of the American legal system. (Even Judy Delmendo proved to be a revelation, as I Iearned the story of how, as an idealistic young teacher, Judy signed up for the Peace Corps as soon as she heard JFK’s clarion call about doing something for one’s country. She was among the very first Peace Corps volunteers to ship out, and landed in Masbate, where she ended up marrying a handsome Filipino named Rene.)

Not surprisingly, history—both past and current—dominated our discussion. I’m not a historian myself, but have a keen interest in the subject, and might even have taken it up as my profession. (There was this fork in the road, more than 30 years ago, when I was returning to college from a long hiatus and was choosing between English and History as my major; pressed for time, I chose the path of less resistance.)

It must have been all those movies I saw and comic books I read as a kid, but I’ve been especially and inordinately fascinated by war and conflict—despite the fact, to which my friends will hopefully attest, that I’m a most unwarlike person, and have never fired a gun in all my 61 years. (In her college years, our daughter Demi was a proud member of UP’s rifle and pistol team.) I may be enthralled by the engineering that goes into a piece of weaponry, and I’m easily impressed and moved by tales of courage and heroism in battle, but I never for a minute forget that war is an ugly business, brutal and brutalizing, inevitably attended by grief and sorrow, and by the all-too-human impulse to wage even more war.

Sharon and Sonny had come to the Ayala Museum that morning not just to see me but also to take part in a conference on World War II, coinciding with an exhibit at the museum. I hadn’t known about the conference and couldn’t stay on for the rest of the day, but I did stay long enough to catch the first event, which was an exhibit on wartime Manila, particularly the uniforms worn by military personnel on both sides. The reason for this curious but interesting angle became apparent when we were soon surrounded by people dressed up as Japanese and American officers and soldiers, and also as nurses, guerrillas, and even a Makapili informer.

I turned around to see a familiar face, albeit in a totally unfamiliar context: that of the prizewinning sculptor Toym Imao, son of the late National Artist Abdulmari Imao and an accomplished artist in his own right. I’d last met Toym (so named because of the award his dad received) when he was a speaker at our Fulbright pre-departure orientation last year; he had been a Fulbright scholar in Maryland, honing his skills there. But now Toym the sculptor had transformed into Toym the tank commander, a figure right out of Fury.

“We started out as an Airsoft group,” Toym told me, “but we soon realized that it would be more interesting if we went for historical re-enactments using historically correct uniforms and costumes.” Thus was born the Philippine Living History Society, which had put up that morning’s special display. The society, which now has nearly a hundred members, counts HR managers, call center agents, and media professionals among others in its ranks; older persons, women, and children are also part of the group, which has staged re-enactments of famous battles or encounters (a mere costume parade, I learned, is simply an “impression”; members also have a term, “farb,” for historically inaccurate gear). Some of their uniforms and equipment are genuine artifacts—preserved, rediscovered and restored, or sourced from eBay; others are reproductions, but accurate down to the last button.

Despite their strong military bent, the society’s members are no warmongers. “We just want Filipinos to appreciate history better, and this is a good way of getting their attention,” Toym explained. They certainly got ours—even Sonny Busa, probably the only real soldier in the room (he had served with the US Army’s Special Forces before joining the diplomatic service), was caught up in the drama.

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Speaking of war and remembrance, I’d like to note the recent completion and turnover to the Philippine National Police Academy of a huge and breathtaking mural by the Erehwon Art Collective, a division of the Quezon City-based Erehwon Art World Corporation. We don’t have enough military art in this country, and quite apart from its powerful emotional appeal, this mural will be an important contribution to that genre. Let me draw on the description provided by Erehwon founder Raffy Benitez:

“Tagaligtas: Heroic 44 is a military mural that realistically depicts each and every member of the SAF 44 in their combat gear and uniform, portrayed as they are about to go into combat in realistic formations and stances. They gaze at the viewer with pride and fondness as comrades, sons, brothers, and fathers who have passed on into history. Portrayed across 182 square feet of canvas that measures 7 feet tall by 26 feet long, the SAF 44 are depicted in their various unit configurations, with the commanding officers and senior inspectors in front, middle ranking patrolmen in the middle, and junior-ranking patrolmen at the rear.”

Incredibly, the mural was completed in just three weeks by a talented and tireless team that included Grandier Gil Bella (head artist), Jerico de Leon, Neil Doloricon, Camille Dela Rosa; Lourdes Inosanto, Jonathan Joven, Othoniel Neri (assistant head artist), Emmanuel Nim, and Dario Noche (head researcher and photodocumentor); and Eghai Roxas. The Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) provided financial support for the project, while PSSupt Gilbert D.C. Cruz of the PNP-NCR Southern Police District provided technical advice. The mural design was conceptualized by Dr. Reuben Ramas Cañete.

So whether through the theater of costumery or the quieter grandeur of a mural, the warrior lives on in our common memory.