Wednesday, May 11, 2005

vignette: gaudencio in america

It was news of the utter annihilation of Manilaville in the swamps of Louisiana that broke Gaudencio Rivera’s streak of empty pages one day in 1965. The shrimp-catching colony, established by a band of intrepid Filipino settlers in the dim days of 1895, struggled from the mire of obscurity to become both a reminder of home and a haven for later tiny trickles of natives from the southern Philippines. Named for the capital city of the old country, Manilaville in time acquired a small measure of fame among the Filipino expatriates scattered around America, from the rain-drenched communities of Washington State across to the small enclaves in New York, and back again to sunny California, where Filipinos where not Filipinos but simply Orientals.

The hurricane named Betsy did not care an iota for whatever Manilaville symbolized, and went out of her way to wreak destruction upon the little fishing town, blithely skipping across the bayou counties in a straight path that seemed guided by the vagary of fate. In a supreme concerted effort so devastating that the code name was forever retired, Betsy wiped out the helpless town, leaving only troubled waters and submerged photographs when she was finished. The end of Manilaville sent shock waves across the thin lines that connected the scattered Filipino communities, and provoked insomnia and intense depression, making more than one person think twice about living as a stranger in a land that so violently underscored the illusion of assimilation.

When Gaudencio and the handful of Filipino writers in Iowa heard the news, a compulsion triggered by equal parts of grief, loneliness, and outrage invaded the innermost part of their spirits where the capacity for expression sat still; and a torrent of poetry, stories, and plays was unleashed, each crisp and clear in metaphor, imagery, and nuance, imbued with the unmistakable power of longing.

“It is not about the storm in particular,” Gaudencio—who before the tragedy had been considering permanent residence in America—told Alexander Baron, one of the Filipino-American poets-in-residence at the University of Iowa. “I have lived through storms myself. The deeper question is just how can anyone survive with sensibilities intact after something like this? Just what have we lost beyond the obvious? What are we doing here in America? Why are we even here?”

The painful questions of the Filipino writers in Iowa, disguised as literature and callously titled ‘Betsy vs. Manilaville’, were transformed into a traveling exhibit that wandered up and down America wherever there were Filipinos who needed to listen to the formalization of their own unspoken issues.

It was in California that Gaudencio Rivera met Dr. Eleanor Temple, the old woman whose family name, years after her death, would never cease to rouse in Gaudencio the memory of a friendship that, perhaps, saved his soul.

Dr. Temple was the dean of one of the university stops of ‘Betsy vs. Manilaville’. The famous wrinkled educator, moved by Gaudencio’s impassioned reading, quietly requested him to stay and teach or study as he wanted, imbuing in that simple invitation a seed of familiarity that moved Gaudencio to unbidden tears.

“I’m not certain that America is a place I want to be,” Gaudencio told her, as they sipped strong tea in her cluttered office.

“Then any place in my country is exactly the same,” Dr. Temple said. “It would not matter where you go, unless you return to the Philippines. Stay here with us, for as long as you want. This could be your home and -.”

“This cannot be my home,” Gaudencio said softly.

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