Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day ... Papa, Tatay, and the Library of Congress


As I mentioned in my previous blog post, two weeks ago I had the pleasure and honor of reading my poems at the Library of Congress in a symposium honoring "Unsung Heroes: Asian Pacific American Heroism in WWII." This kind of recognition in Washington, DC, has been long needed and comes at an opportune historical moment, with Congress's recent passage of reparation one-time payments to the Filipino soldiers of WWII who were stripped, immediately after the war, of the veterans' benefits FDR promised them.



At that event, I had the honor of meeting retired General Antonio Taguba as well as the Honorable Tammy Duckworth (Assistant Secretary at the VA [Veterans Affairs], a decorated Army veteran from our war in Iraq — where she lost both legs and the partial use of an arm — and still a Major in the Illinois National Guard). I also had the genuine pleasure of meeting Dr. Valentin Ildefonso, US Army Philippine Scout in WWII, and a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the US Air Force, where he served as a medical doctor. Dr. Ildefonso also volunteered later as a doctor during the Vietnam war. (By the way, Dr. Ildefonso was featured in an online news article today for Veterans Day.)


Dr. Valentin Ildefonso and Vince Gotera

As you may already know from other posts in this blog, my father Martin Gotera and my grandfather Felix Gotera also served in the Philippine Scouts in WWII, where they both were in the Bataan Death March. So it was particularly touching and moving for me to meet these three Army vets, whose courage and service are so allied to the esprit de corps that was the spine of the Gotera family's contributions to the US Army, not just my father and grandfather, but also my brother Pepito's US Army service and mine during the Vietnam war.

As part of my poetry reading at the symposium, I read the following poem, which describes my father's relationship with my grandfather, my Lolo whom all of us grandchildren and great-grandchildren called simply Tatay, the Filipino word for "father," because he was so much the patriarch for us all. He was a gentle, soft-spoken old man when I knew him, so unlike the chilling stories Papa told me of Tatay's brutal discipline towards him as a child. The poem, one of three I read at the Library of Congress, describes two sides of that relationship: first, how Tatay whipped my father cruelly and routinely, and second, how Papa found Tatay in the Japanese concentration camp and cared for him as he would have his own child.

Tatay


My grandfather in a faded photograph is
          a centurion blowing a Christmas party horn,
                    on his head my foil Roman legionnaire helmet.

I remember him smiling like a boddhisatva
          as he pulled on scuffed brogans to bail out
                    my uncle in the drunk tank — Tito Augusto

had been brawling again. But in 1933,
          Tatay seemed another man. My father
                    at twelve was circumcised with a couple

of buddies. The ring of boys.
          The penknife. Blood dwindling.
                    When Tatay heard, he bent my father

over the Army trunk again. Set up
          the pitcher and glass. He made his
                    two-inch-wide leather belt lick the boy's

naked back. Resting, he sipped water, then
          got up, belt in hand. My father glanced over
                    at the pitcher to see how much was left.

There were other stories. How after
          the Bataan death march, they met, father
                    and son, in the concentration camp near Capas.

Tatay shivered at noon, muttering of
          bodies mantled with wings, ashimmer.
                    My father could see two compounds away,

they were burning wood — bark the Igorots
          use to cure malaria. My father crept
                    under the wire. A butterfly's

lazy tango in the glare. That itch
          between his shoulderblades. A bead
                    of sweat. The imperial guard's boots

a yard to the left. The Philippine Army
          regulars who were burning the wood smirked
                    when they caught him, gathering branches

in his arms. With fists and bare feet
          pounding his head and back, did he recall
                    those rituals of trunk and pitcher?

Cradling a bundle of sticks, my father
          crawled back. I can see the bark dancing
                    now in water, next to the cot where

Tatay moans in his sleep. I hear my father
          singing softly. I can almost make it out, but
                    I can't quite place the tune, a Tagalog lullaby.

— Vince Gotera, first appeared in The Madison Review (1989).

In the poem, I highlight an ironic and iconic difference between Filipinos: the Philippine Army soldiers beat my father because he was a Philippine Scout, that is, a member of the US Army. In this context, because the US Army can no longer protect my father, they see him as too good for his britches because he is a Filipino in the US Army — uppity, someone whom they would see as having previously lorded over them. The irony is that Papa is beaten in order to save the life of the man who used to beat him.

The other two poems I read at the symposium have been featured in the blog already: "Honor, 1946" and "Refusal to Write an Elegy." In the first, we see another side of my father being caught between different racial forces: instead of being attacked by Filipinos, he is attacked by white Americans. In the second, we see the war demons he faces, not from external attack but rather from within.

Besides my own small part in the symposium, I was truly moved at the scope and span of the subjects covered, the articulate speakers who gave presentations not only about Filipino Americans in the war but also about the original Flying Tigers, Chinese American fighter pilots who volunteered to fly for the Chinese Air Force against the Japanese even before 1941; the Japanese American soldiers of the most highly decorated American military unit, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team; the Asian American women who served in various military capacities during the war; and so on. I learned quite a lot, and the symposium was indeed a joyous occasion celebrating the tremendous contributions Asian Pacific Americans made to the American war effort.

As General Taguba said in his keynote address, "The Asian Pacific American families who join us today have marked a lasting legacy in our history not to be forgotten. . . . Our unsung heroes have many untold stories yet to be shared. It is their time. It will always be their time." Amen to that, kapatid, kababayan.

Today is Veterans Day. Today is also my father's birthday. If he were living today, Papa would be 88 years young. In the '60s, he was a pioneer in the fight to restore the veterans' rights of the Filipino WWII veterans. In San Francisco, he founded an organization, the Filipino American Veterans and Dependents Association, which worked on this problem, setting out what was probably the first class action suit in the struggle. About the recent legislation of one-time payments ($15,000 to Filipino American veterans in the US, $9,000 to Filipino veterans in the Philippines), I'm certain my father would say, if he were here, "Although this payment is, in many eyes, too little too late, it is a significant gesture nonetheless; we in the Filipino American community, however, should still push for the full restoration of these veterans' benefits."

You rock, Papa. Happy birthday! Veterans Day will always be your signature holiday.



P.S. Many thanks to Reme Grefalda, librarian extraordinaire at the Library of Congress's Asian Division, for inviting me to be a participant in this historic symposium. Maraming salamat, thanks so much, for your hospitality, Reme. I hope I can return the favor sometime if you ever visit Iowa.

Now, just a couple more pictures (click on any of the pictures above or below to see larger versions). The Library of Congress is made up of incredibly beautiful buildings. If you are ever in Washington, DC, you should definitely check out the Library. Many visitors go to the Capitol, the Smithsonian, the various memorials. Go also to the Library; it is the living monument to our country's intellectual aspirations and achievements.


Kluge Room, where the symposium was held



Hallway in the Jefferson Building



Lobby of the Jefferson Building

Friends, please write a comment below. I'd really love to hear your responses. If you have visited the Library of Congress, tell us all about it. Thanks for visiting the blog! Come back often.


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