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Back to Batanes : In the Aftermath of Revolution, a Filipino-American Journalist Returns to His Homeland After More Than 30 Years

April 06, 1986|VICTOR MERINA | Victor Merina is a Times staff writer

I cannot recall when I first thought of my Pilipino heritage, only that it has rarely left my mind.

I have memories as a small boy on a ship to America, gazing through the porthole, feeling excitement and bewilderment and being soothed by the sea racing below me.

I remember growing up in Southern California as a Filipino immigrant, astonished one day when my polite, soft-spoken mother suddenly rebuked a startled grocery checker for dismissing me with a racial epithet.

I think back to the dreaded afternoons I spent in the attic of a Kansas schoolhouse, crowing like a rooster as part of a speech therapy exercise to "correct" my foreign accent, and later, grappling with classmates who had dubbed me the Kamikaze of Kiowa Street--young racists oblivious to the fact that they had the right sentiment but the wrong country.

I remember one morning standing beside my older sister in the courtroom of a Kentucky military base, dressed in a new suit and fresh haircut, my right hand raised and pledging to defend the U.S. Constitution--the earnest promise of a 12-year-old, newly minted American citizen.

As a college student I recall attending a farm workers' rally in Los Angeles and being mesmerized not by Cesar Chavez and his union officials but by a stooped Filipino laborer who spoke haltingly about the 30 years he had spent in the fields of Central California, living a lonely and ascetic life, dutifully mailing his meager pay to the islands and knowing he would never see his homeland again.

Years later, I remember sensing some apprehension from the family of the woman I intended to marry. She was from New York and of German-Irish heritage, and only years later did my mother-in-law speak about some of the cautionary words she had been given by well-meaning relatives. You know, one family member had advised her, horses and zebras simply don't mix.

I also recall my first day at The Times, accepting the congratulations of a new colleague who applauded the fact that my hiring had increased the pool of Latino reporters. When I told him I was Filipino, he quickly replied, "Well, we need more of them, too."

Today, being a Filipino is no longer an afterthought, although for an ethnic group that is California's largest Asian contingent--more than 358,000 in the 1980 census--Filipinos have remained largely obscure. That began to change with Benigno Aquino's assassination in 1983 and the subsequent flash of yellow that became the battle color of his widow, Corazon Aquino. These are heady times.

In a televised revolution that toppled Ferdinand Marcos' 20-year regime, the world witnessed ordinary citizens defying a powerful incumbent, protecting ballot boxes with their bodies and facing down tanks in the streets of Manila.

Those images became locked in our memories. Filipinos everywhere began sharing a sense of pride and a common yearning--even expatriates who have been gone for three decades.

" Oras para umuwi ," my father told me in the Tagalog I barely know.

It is time to go home.

As the Philippine Airlines flight departs on its 16-hour journey west, I review the inventory of goods that were thrust upon me by family members on my way to the airport: letters and packets of money, photographs, clothing, chocolate and a jar of instant coffee wrapped in a Los Angeles Rams T-shirt for my relatives in the provinces.

I have two textbooks, a Tagalog dictionary, news clips, and my sister Anita's journal that she kept in 1983 when she saw the Philippines for the first time. I slip through the pages, fascinated by her accounts of a family that is at once so close to us and so much apart.

My own mission is as much personal as journalistic. I often tell my children how I look up the Merina name in every city I visit and am never surprised that it is not there. We are the invisible people, I tease them, yet we are also the distinctive ones. In the beach community where we live, my kids somehow understand that. They are brown-skinned without the summer tan. They must often explain their heritage, while their friends blend in. They ask me questions I try to answer. They grope for their own answers about their ancestry, just as my parents' children had done before them.

There is indeed a place where there are lots of Merinas, I tell them. And although they are still young, someday they will want to go there. This will be a story for Vanessa and Dorian, Hilary and Kali. And for their grandparents. As I close my sister's journal, I realize this is the most difficult story I will have to write.

Malacanang Palace had been home to one family for two decades. But after the Marcos clan fled the country last February, it was open house along Manila's Pasig River. On this Sunday afternoon, nearly two weeks after Cory Aquino has been propelled into the presidency of a nation of 54 million people, the presidential palace is the gathering place for tens of thousands of people and the backdrop of countless family photographs.

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