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Tough guys and ghosts in Filipino America

First Posted 09:14:00 02/21/2010

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CALIFORNIA, United States?Filipino-American novelist Peter Bacho?s latest work is partly about ghosts. They?re tough ghosts, street-smart spirits, trying to settle unfinished business. They come from a part of Filipino America that few people, including many Filipino Americans, read about, or even know about.

That?s what makes ?Leaving Yesler? (Pleasant Boat Studio, New York, 2010) an important work.

In the classic ?America Is in the Heart,? Carlos Bulosan chronicled the plight of the first major wave of Filipino immigrants to America, the farm workers, called the ?manongs,? who endured racism, violence, and isolation.

Bacho tells the stories of their children. He is one of them, the son of a manong. Many of his generation came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, as America was reeling from the Vietnam War, the civil rights protests, and the identity-based activism that swept through many ethnic and immigrant communities, including Filipinos.

Many of these young FilAms led a tough life, as children of working-class Pinoy immigrants. This is the world Bacho portrays in ?Leaving Yesler.?

Yesler is a well-known public housing project in Seattle, home to working class people, including many Filipino families. For Filipinos in Manila, think Tondo. It?s a community where a certain level of toughness is required to survive.

It was a world Bacho got to know pretty well in the 50s and 60s.

?There were a lot of Filipino families in the projects back in the 1950s and 1960s,? he told me. ?I knew a lot of them because the community was very, very close and geographically centered, and the projects were part of Seattle's FilAm world.?

The novel?s protagonist, Bobby Vincente, is a mixed race FilAm teenager. He has lost his mother to cancer, and his elder brother to Vietnam. His dad, a Pinoy old-timer and one-time boxing sensation named Antonio, has been struggling to recover from psychological wounds from World War II.

In many ways, he is typical of the Pinoys of his generation, the manongs who struck out on their own in America at a time when Filipinos were seen?and rejected?as outsiders. They were hard-working, tough men. Bacho knew many of them growing up.

?My dad was a pretty hard, tough guy,? he says. ?But I loved him and admired him?even though he was sometimes distant. I knew he did the best he could do, given who he was.?

In ?Leaving Yesler,? Bobby is setting out with his dad to move on. And he gets some help?from ghosts. One of them is his late older brother, Paulie, who helps Bobby wrestle with issues of identity, their parents? past, love, and sex. The fine points of young adulthood.

I?ll stop there and not spoil the story.

?Leaving Yesler? is a fun, engaging read. It?s Bacho?s first attempt to write for a young adult audience. And he succeeds wonderfully, telling a moving coming-of-age story in a relaxed, elegant style, that pulls you into a world of struggle and violence, but also of courage and perseverance?a world where Pinoys fight on despite the odds, and where Bobby Vincente, the hero of the story, eventually learns not to lose sight of what?s worth fighting for.

This was Bacho?s world.

The war in Vietnam loomed large among young people during his time. He himself almost got drafted. A military doctor ?flunked me out on my 18th birthday,? he recalls. Many of his friends weren?t as lucky.

?The war screwed up most of my friends, most of whom were draftees?or joined up to avoid the draft and negotiate a better deal,? he says. ?Of those Filipino Americans I knew in the Seattle area, about 80 percent were drafted...the Filipino kids then, for the most part, were regarded as not ?college material,? especially in the public schools, which meant they were meat for the draft.?

?In my generation, there wasn't much wrestling going on, at least for the guys,? he says. ?We were Pinoys, and we wanted to be like our fathers...and that applied to the guys who were mixed race as well. It was a very powerful culture, in my opinion.?

And it?s a culture that he is taking on now in fiction aimed at young people. That?s particularly good news for Filipinos in North America and beyond. There?s such a dearth of material on the Filipino American experience, especially the stories of the children of the manong generation.

Bacho, who won the American Book Award for his novel ?Cebu? and who has won praise from other writers such as Thomas Keneally, is doing us a big favor. And fortunately, he?s also having a good time.

?It's fun,? he says of writing for young people. ?I can take risks and insert humor with greater freedom?and it?s adolescent humor, aimed at the youngsters who will be reading this.?

(Peter Bacho will be reading from ?Leaving Yesler? on May 1, at Eastwind Books, in Berkeley. For more information, check out the Pleasure Boat Studio website.

Copyright 2010 by Benjamin Pimentel


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