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Filipino CrosscurrentsOceanographies of Seafaring, Masculinities, and Globalization$

Kale Bantigue Fajardo

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780816666645

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816666645.001.0001

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(p.ix) Preface Boatmen and Boyhood

(p.ix) Preface Boatmen and Boyhood

Filipino Crosscurrents
University of Minnesota Press

I learned early on in life that water and the sea are spaces of Filipino/a gender production (masculinities), transnational connection, and cultural translation.1 The sea first reached out to me on the banks of the river in Atlag, Malolos, Bulakan, Philippines. Lolo 2 (Grandfather) Pete (my paternal grandfather) used to take me to Atlag as a child because that was where many of our relatives—the Fajardos—lived. The river in Atlag, simply called “ilog” (river) by locals, then and now, flows into nearby estuaries that directly connect to Manila Bay or what some fishermen call the “dagat” (the [South China] sea). The sea grabbed my attention with its airy and watery saltiness, an aroma that filled my nostrils, somehow working its way to my tongue, dancing on it, and emerging as a hint of taste. The sea’s scent and flavor reminded me of eating sweet and sour sampoloc (tamarind) seeds rolled in a little salt, a popular candy in the Philippines. My mouth watered and I grew hungry.

I loved (and still love) the hums and roars of the motorized bangkas (canoes) that traveled to Atlag, transporting people to nearby villages on the river and bay. The bangkas and boatmen reminded me of tricycles 3 and “tricycle boys,” adolescent boys and young men (although sometimes older men drive them too) who drive people in need of a ride to neighborhood, town, or city locations. One of Lolo Pete’s siblings lived smack dab on the banks of the river and from their concrete back porch I could see the bangka drivers, men of different ages, so clearly. I admired one handsome young boatman who was brown, muscular, fit, and confident. He wore a wellproportioned straw hat, and I enjoyed watching him maneuver his bangka to slow down as he neared the docks close to the tulay (bridge) in Atlag or quicken as he sped away down the river. This boatman’s way of being, that is, his masculinity, reminded me of “Edwin’s,” my favorite tricycle boy in Malolos. I knew Edwin’s name was Edwin because his name was stitched on a leatherette sign that hung from the roof above his (p.x) motorcycle. To me, Edwin was the most handsome tricycle boy, and his tricycle matched his good looks, as his Japanese motorcycle and new side car made of polished chrome glistened in the hot Bulakan sun. I always looked for Edwin near the cathedral where the tricycles zipped by the church whenever I was with my mother, “ya-ya” (nanny), or older relative waiting for a tricycle “sa bayan” (in town in Malolos.) And so in Atlag, I watched from the banks of the river, appreciating my favorite young boatman who handled his bangka with skill and style, with cool Filipino macho-ness.

After visiting with relatives, Lolo would take me to the little palengke (market) below the bridge, showing me some of the fruits of the river and bay being sold at small makeshift stands: large oysters, small blue crabs, shrimp, and fish of all kinds. My grandfather was a former fisherman when he lived in Lucena in Quezon Province (Lucena sits on Tayabas Bay in Southern Luzon), so I think he wanted me to see what the sea created and what the river baymen and fishermen caught. I was happy to see the slippery river and sea creatures with Lolo, but even happier when one day he took me on a bangka ride with my favorite boatman. In the middle section of the bangka where Lolo and I sat, we were surrounded by passengers, men, women, and children. Many of the women had pink and yellow translucent plastic bags filled with groceries, fish, and produce sitting on their laps or at their feet, as they probably went marketing in Atlag or sa bayan (in town). Our boat passed lush mangroves on the banks of the river and I watched the young boatman look calmly dead ahead, gently guiding the tiller. He always waved or moved his chin and head up (and I presume his eyebrows too [a Filipino/a bodily gesture]; I couldn’t really see his face because we sat behind him), acknowledging and giving respect to the other boatmen who passed us going in the opposite direction, seemingly saying with his body language that he was part of a large circle of boatmen, fishermen, and river and baymen who proudly traveled and labored in and out of Bulakan waters.

Later on in my childhood, my family immigrated to Portland, Oregon, in the United States (in 1972–1973) as my father (a man who came from a poor family; he was the first in his family to finish a college degree at the University of the Philippines, Diliman) joined the post-1965 wave of Asian immigrants, many of them professionals, who arrived in the United States after U.S. immigration laws were liberalized due in part to President Kennedy’s advocacy. In addition to professional opportunities for my father, our family also had personal connections in the United States because my parents and maternal grandmother used to host and house U.S. American Peace Corps volunteers in Malolos and many of them taught at Marcelo Del Pilar High School where my mother taught English. (p.xi) One of the Peace Corps volunteers (who we called “Uncle T”) provided an affidavit of support for my father when he immigrated. My mother, two sisters, and I joined my father in Portland in June 1973.

Later that summer my parents decided to take our family to the Oregon Coast for a day trip. I overheard my mother and father having a disagreement as they were getting our things together in preparation for our drive to Lincoln City, a beach town in Northern Oregon. My mother was confidently saying to my father that we (that is, their children) should pack our swimsuits, so that we could splash around in the ocean and play on the beach. My mother, having just recently arrived from Malolos, later admitted that her desire for us to have our swimsuits with us had something to do with watching U.S. American television and movies in the Philippines. Perhaps images of Elvis’s Blue Hawaii4 or Gidget’s Southern California surfing were in her head before our drive to the coast. The Philippines in the 1970s was, of course, already saturated with U.S. American movies and television as a result of earlier U.S. colonialism and its neocolonial situation. Giving proof of this transnational media presence, my parents liked to recall that Peace Corps volunteer Uncle T enjoyed watching Star Trek (the original series) when it aired in the late 1960s on my parents’ boxy television while he stayed at our home in Malolos.

My parents’ disagreement did not seem to get fully resolved, but nevertheless we all got into my dad’s Volkswagen Beetle (VW) and headed to the coast. We drove through downtown Portland and then the outskirts of the Willamette Valley. Later, we traveled on a scenic highway that crisscrossed the Oregon Coastal Mountain Range. As my father drove, I enjoyed looking at the dark forests of sitka spruce, Western red cedar, Douglas-fir, and Western hemlock, a landscape that kept me occupied until we arrived at Lincoln City.

My father stopped the car in a parking lot in front of a long brown beach full of driftwood, kite-fliers, beachcombers, and walkers. We opened the car doors and the cold Oregonian Pacific wind chilled our faces. This was shocking because in Portland the weather was warm (it was summer), but, more importantly, because we were used to the heat and humidity of the Philippines. Determined to prove her earlier point, my mother insisted that we change into our swimsuits so we could hit the beach and play in the water. Being little immigrant children from tropical islands used to playing in the hot sun and splashing around in water to cool off (e.g., on special occasions we were allowed to bath outside using a “tabo” [water dipper] and bucket near an outside faucet at my parents’ house in Malolos) we quickly complied, perhaps thinking that once we had our swimsuits on we (p.xii) would feel better and not notice the cold Oregonian coastal air. Holding our arms and hands crossed close to our chests, we ran hoppety-hop down to the beach, trying to warm up, mimicking the tiny seabirds that jumped in and near the water’s edge. Being brave, I ran closest to the water and jumped over a tiny wave, saying hello to the Pacific Ocean first. Ang lamig! (How cold!) My older sister and I (the bunso [youngest] in the family was still quite small, so she was not running around on the beach with us) did our best to perform Blue Hawaii on the Northern Oregon Coast for our mother, but after a while, we quickly ran back toward our parents, shivering, our teeth rattling due to the cold. “Ang lamig, ang lamig!” we declared to our parents. My parents both laughed at us and the scene. My father, being a practical man, went into the VW and pulled out extra clothes and acrylic sweaters for us. Despite my mother’s earlier protests and challenges, he knew that there was a high probability that it would be cold on the Oregon coast and he wanted to be prepared. I put on a striped green and white sweater and pants and went back to say hello to the Pacific, a little wiser about Oregon’s temperamental weather and a lot warmer.

I felt a strange mixture of emotions as I stood at the edge of the Pacific. Happy that our family went to the sea for the first time in Oregon, but sad as I looked out at the horizon, searching for the islands and home our family had just left. After a day of playing and exploring the beach, my mother bought some Oregon Dungeness crab at a nearby fishmonger. She was surprised to see how large they were as she was used to the small blue “alimango” (crab) in Malolos. Back at home in Portland, she cooked the crab with tomatoes and onions and served it with hot white rice, the perfect meal to end our first day at the sea on the Oregon Coast, a day I remember was full of immigrant Filipino/a cultural translations and transPacific connections and sensibilities.

My vignettes of boyhood “first seas” begin to show how oceans and seas are sites for Filipino masculinity productions and performances, labor, pleasure, mobility, cultural memory, transnational/translocal/transoceanic connection and interpretation, and processes of globalization (globalization here specifically encompasses, in part, the effects of U.S. colonialism and neocolonialism [e.g., Peace Corps] in the Philippines, my family’s subsequent immigration to the United States, and United States–Philippines media exchange and cultural influence). In keeping with these broader themes, Filipino Crosscurrents is an interdisciplinary ethnography that addresses the cultural politics and everyday practices of masculinities, seafaring, and globalization. (p.xiii) The book in hand highlights the cultural meanings of the sea, ships, ports, and seamen in the context of the contemporary global shipping industry, Philippine nationalism, neoliberal economics, Filipino sea-based migration/transportation, and contemporary economic and cultural globalization. In doing so, this book reveals how these oceanic/ maritime spaces, places, phenomena, and figures are important to how dominant and marginalized Filipino masculinities are produced, naturalized, and contested in the Philippines and diasporic locations. (p.xiv)


(1.) This preface is inspired by Pablo Neruda’s poem, entitled “First Sea.” See Neruda, “First Sea.”

(2.) Filipino language words are not italicized in this book. Following and agreeing with historian Noe Noe Silva’s approach, I do not to italicize Filipino language words in this book. Silva states that she does not italicize Hawaiian words in her book Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism “to resist making the native tongue appear foreign.” See Silva, Aloha Betrayed, 13.

(3.) Tricycles are motorcycles with sidecars that are used for short-distance local transportation in the Philippines. One to four people can generally fit on a tricycle (at least the kind found in Malolos; other styles of tricycles are available on other islands, some able to accommodate more passengers).

(4.) For a compelling analysis of Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii, see Isaac, American Tropics.