In Tagalog, Malakas means strong. Maganda means beautiful. The story Si Malakas at Si Maganda is the Philippine creation story, one that I have never encountered before beginning this project and this research, even though both of my parents are Filipino. This fact alone is something that I could delve into, rip open and analyze because it opens up a host of questions: Why didn’t my parents tell me this creation story? Why didn’t my grandparents tell me this creation story? What other stories are missing in the storage files of my mind--stories that are labeled in my head because of where I come from, but open up to blank pages?
In the story, Malakas is the name of the first man on earth. Maganda is the name of the first woman on earth. They are born out of a bamboo stalk that is cracked open by a bird that is sent to earth by God.
Gender analysis aside, I think there is something absolutely beautiful about the idea that the human race is made of strength and beauty and that we need both strength and beauty in order to survive as a species.
When I found this story, I began collecting all the different versions of it that I could find on the internet as well as reaching out to elderly in the Filipino community to share their own versions of the tale. I am still collecting. Because Filipino stories are traditionally passed down orally, the “true” version of this story is hard to track down, just as elusive as water running through my fingertips when I wash my hands. I know that it exists, but I can’t quite grasp it and while I feel the dew and get some droplets, I can’t seem to hold or find all of it to really sit down with and analyze as a whole.
There are a lot of things about my identity as a Filipino-American that I’ve been having to grapple with since the beginning of the year. At first, this manifested as me exploring my interracial relationship with my fairly conservative, white boyfriend. This was interesting work that led me into the archives, reading about the history of interracial romance in the United States. It also led me to other interracial couples and I began collecting their stories and photographing them for a series. Something that I noted in all my interviews was a similar concern that threaded throughout the different discussions. How do we pass on our cultural history and heritage onto our children? Is it possible? Is it necessary? How necessary is it and which parts are the most important to save and which parts should we simply let die in the archives of the past?
These questions led me into the bookstore and library, searching for texts that would help me learn and understand Filipino history and culture. This was an interesting quest for a while but then the thought came into my mind: I’m not Filipino. I was born and raised in the United States. I am Filipino-American, and I belong to a separate cultural category. I am part of many in the United States who have hyphenated identities. I decided to search for Filipino-American books and I decided to start from the beginning: children’s literature.
The looks on the faces of bookstore employees when I asked for Filipino-American myths/legends children’s storybooks were classic, and I wish I had evidence of these interactions. It felt like I was doing performance art of some kind, going from bookstore to bookstore in search of something that didn’t exist. The reactions were similar no matter where I went, as if they were scripted.
There are an estimated 81, 000 Filipino Americans living in New York, with 65% of this population residing in New York City. I help care take for my 83 year old Jamaican landlord and so on Sundays, I take her to her Baptist church in Manhattan. Today, I noticed a Filipino woman come into the side while we were waiting to come in. “Kamusta,” I greeted her. “Ay naku! Kala ko Chinese ka,” she responded. I had said hello in Tagalog and she had responded, “You surprised me! I thought you were Chinese!” We began a discussion in Taglish about Filipinos and New York city. “You need to go to Queens,” she told me, “It’s like Little Philippines!” Why is there so little literature for Filipino-Americans when there is such a dense population of them in places like San Diego, where I grew up, and in Queens? “Filipino youth today do not appreciate our culture,” the woman went on. In my mind: Do we not appreciate the culture or do we just not have access to it?
My father was in the navy and my mother was undocumented and worked in LA for money under the table so they were around for only parts of my childhood. I spent my earliest childhood years primarily with my grandparents who spoke broken English. Because of this, my first language was Tagalog. My preschool was very diverse, something I think my parents did on purpose. It was a parent-child preschool but since my parents weren’t around, my grandfather came with me to school. When I went started preschool, I still had a Filipino accent. I remember little kids making fun of me, teasing, “Why do you sound like that?” It wasn’t just kids who weren’t Filipino--there were other Filipino kids who asked me the same question. “I don’t know,” I would stammer, and I tried my best to sound “normal”. This put a strain on my relationship with my grandparents that I didn’t recognize until now. I didn’t want to talk to them in Tagalog anymore. I wanted to be “normal”. I started talking to them in English, even at home, even when they were talking to me in Tagalog. Many first generation Filipino-Americans call their grandparents “Nanay and Tatay” which translate into “Mom and dad” because our parents call their parents “Nanay and Tatay” and kids mimick. I stopped calling my grandparents Nanay and Tatay, insisting that the proper way to address them was by “Grandmother” and “Grandfather”.
I have this very vivid memory of 3rd grade. My class was made up entirely of Filipino students, black students and Hispanic students. Our teacher was a retired white nun (I went to Catholic school… I could go on about my experiences there but I digress). She asked my Filipino friend where his homework was. He stammered, “I forgot it but my Nanay is bringing it after school.” She responded, “Your what?” He said, “My nanay.” Our teacher said, “You mean nanny. NAN-EE. Try saying it.” He said, “Nan-ee?” Frustrated, our teacher turned around and continued about with the lesson. She was a great teacher, and I learned a lot from her in many ways, and I don’t tell this story to villainize any singular person. However, I think this is a strong micro-example of what many Filipino-American children experience every day. This constant push and pull between the two worlds where we live in full time, as if we’re straddling a line at some border and are being drawn in by food to one side one moment and pulled in by a friend or a teacher to another side the other moment.
I recently wrote an open letter to the Filipino-American community, the Asian community and anyone who knows and loves us. I posted it online 2 days ago and I just checked and it has 483 reads and 75 shares by many people who I know and love but also by many strangers who identify with what I am saying.
Si Malakas at Si Maganda is an important project for me in a variety of ways. Exploring the writing of this tale is opening questions that I’ve never forced myself to answer. A lot of it is tearing at really vulnerable places that I’ve never had to explore, but I think are very necessary for me to function as an artist in this world. When The Hunger Games came out, I was so excited because I loved the books so very much. When I went and watched it and Rue and Thresh and their entire district were black, I was jolted for a moment because I realized a very strong bias in my head that I never realized I had: I always imagine characters as white when I read fiction. I went back into the text, read Suzanne Collins’ interviews and realized she had dropped hints in the books. She never calls these characters black but she does call them “dark-skinned”. Even with these hints, I just imagined white people who had been out in the sun too long. Curious about my own subconscious bias, I started asking other Asian-American friends and family members about their experiences reading literature and so far, it is similar. We don’t imagine ourselves in stories unless it is explicitly stated that the characters are Asian. We imagine white people, even when the text does not mention race at all. I wonder why this is and what I can do about it and whether I should do anything about it at all.
Looking at children’s storybooks has been an incredibly interesting exploration. I analyzed the covers of TIME Magazine’s 100 Best Children’s Storybooks of all time and counted 83 white human characters and 12 people of color. There were many animals on these covers as well, which led me to an entirely different point of research. I interviewed a family from Temecula, California last night. The father is Filipino and the mother is white and their two daughters are biracial. These two children--7 and 12--absolutely love to read and so I asked them to show me their favorite books and explain what they like about them. Then, I asked them questions about representation and race in their texts. I also asked their mother, who is a high school chemistry teacher and avid reader, how she chose these books and what she notices about her children when they pick books out for themselves at bookstores. Charlene, the mother, is very insistent that her daughters are exposed to many different cultures, so she intentionally sought out children’s books that taught or explored different cultures. She showed me many of them, including a Filipino folk tale called Dikya the Jellyfish. She said, “You know what I’ve noticed about the ones of different cultures when I was pulling them out to show you that I haven’t noticed until now?” I asked, “What?” She responded, “They’re all of animals!”
Since beginning this research, I have found a few books that feature Filipino or Filipino-characters as human beings, but Charlene’s revelation was a shocking one to me. Why does her collection of children’s books about other cultures consist of images of animals?
I had a beer with a friend two weeks ago. She’s an editor in the publishing world and she’s Chinese-American. She told me this story: Over dinner, she and her co-workers, who are mostly blonde, blue-eyed women, were talking about race. It was a casual conversation and discussion over the meal and one girl turned to Cordia and asked, “Is race still a thing with us? Like you and us? I mean I think of you as completely integrated here. What do you think?” Cordia said, “Well, I think I’m integrated because we’ve been raised similarly. I’ve read the same books as you. I understand this world. But I don’t think that necessarily means you understand my world as a Chinese-American.” This story was a revelation and turning point for me. It is important for there to be characters of color in literature because representation is important we should be reflected in the media that we consume. However, there is a bigger issue at play here. Literature helps us understand one another. There’s an article that a good friend and former professor of mine, Katie Sciurba, wrote called “Texts as Mirrors, Text as Windows” documenting her experiences interviewing and working with a set of twin boys here in New York city, one who wanted to read books with characters who look like him because he could see himself in the work and the other who preferred reading books about people who did not look like him because it taught him about other people and cultures. We need Filipino-American books (and diverse books in general) not only because Filipino-Americans need mirrors but because our society as a whole needs windows into our lives and our experiences.
I am headed to San Diego this coming Saturday and will be hosting two events as part of my Si Malakas at Si Maganda project that I hope to expand and continue far beyond my time here at NYU. I want to analyze the canon and I want to look at its holes. What stories are missing from our bookshelves? How can I work to put them there? As a former English teacher (and hopefully as a future English teacher as well), it is important for me that these books exist for our smallest readers because that’s where we tend to learn to love or hate reading. Any changes in our relationship with reading tend to be fixing or reversing this love or hatred in our adolescence and adulthood.
As I continue this work, I’m totally open to the community telling me that Si Malakas at Si Maganda is not the story they want to tell America. However, the ideas of strength and beauty as what makes up the human race is something that I feel like is going to stick with me for a very long time. We’re strong and we’re beautiful. We need mirrors so that we can see this. We need windows so we can see this in others and so others can see this in us.