|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.)
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.
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.
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.
#amreading: SKELETON HILL, by Peter Lovesey
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