Of torture, racism and Santa Claus
I grew up not believing in Santa Claus, but like other expats I raised two Fil-Am children who did.
I spent years hiding and secretly wrapping “Santa’s” gift on Christmas Eve, eating cookies we prepared for the big man in a red suit. (I know of Filipino friends who even make fake reindeer hoof prints on their front yards as part of the Santa ritual.)
But no more.
Santa’s not coming to our house this year. My panganay, now 15, stopped believing years ago. This year, my bunso, age nine, after a year of gnawing doubt, also came to know the truth.
We had tried to postpone the inevitable, reassuring him constantly throughout the year that Santa Claus is real: “Of course, he exists.”
But in his world of curious-minded fourth graders, talk of the Santa hoax just kept getting louder. There are so many ways it is exposed. A schoolmate reports seeing his dad wrapping Santa’s “gift.” Another’s older sibling reveals the Santa scam.
So eventually the doubts returned, got stronger. A couple of months ago, when my bunso asked again, with more conviction and some frustration, we sat him down and admitted the truth: “No, there is no Santa Claus.”
“I knew it,” he said.
Then the other myths fell: If Santa isn’t real, then neither is the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Yes, I was forced to confess, it was his tatay who took the tooth he put under his pillow and replaced it with a dollar bill.
I felt relieved.
This year, I don’t have worry about hiding and then secretly wrapping a gift on Christmas Eve.
But I must admit “losing” Santa was sad.
A fun, if silly, tradition of parenting in the US has ended. The change for my bunso was perhaps more significant: He has just taken a big step away from the age of innocence.
In fact, for my sons and perhaps other children in the US, that seems to have been this holiday season’s theme.
I knew of torture, growing up in Manila. I had read about, heard of and even met people who endured the most cruel and inhumane punishment for speaking out against the Marcos regime.
Although I never personally know what it’s like to be beaten up or subjected to electric shock, I was aware that the brazen violation of people’s human rights was part of my country’s sad reality during those years. (Recently, Amnesty International reported that the torture is still practiced by the Philippine security forces.)
But that’s generally not the case for many in the US, certainly not for my sons.
America does not torture, they’ve been taught. That’s not part of the American story.
Now, comes the shocking reminder that, like Santa Claus, that’s a myth.
The US Senate itself exposed it, which some point to as a positive sign. “Finally, torture will forever be banned,” some have said. “That is not what America is about, after all.”
That prompted a response from journalist Peter Beinart. His essay in The Atlantic was titled, “Torture Is Who We Are.”
“Imagine someone beating you up and then, when confronted with the evidence, declaring that ‘I’m not really like that’ or ‘that wasn’t the real me,’” he wrote. “Your response is likely to be some variant of: ‘It sure as hell seemed like you were when your fist was slamming into my nose.” A country, like a person, is what it does.
“America has tortured throughout its history. And every time it has, some Americans have justified the brutality as necessary to protect the country from a savage enemy. Others have called it counterproductive and immoral. At different moments, the balance of power between these two groups shifts. But neither side in these debates speaks for the ‘real America.’ The real America includes them both. Morally, we contain multitudes.”
That’s certainly true when it comes to another issue that once again was on center stage in the US: race.
It’s lately been a popular topic at my bunso’s elementary school. He and his friends have been talking about that word “racist,” he told me. “About why it’s bad,” he said.
I wasn’t surprised. The whole country has been talking about it in the wake of events in Ferguson and Staten Island.
My bunso was three, and his kuya was nine when Barack Obama became the first African American president of the U.S. That was six years ago when they began their journey as Fil-Am children in the age of Obama.
This month, that journey took an unexpected turn.
Suddenly, an ugly reality one American community has struggled with for generations came into short focus: the brazen harassment and killing of unarmed young African Americans.
In the age of Obama, I’m once again an expat Filipino father struggling to deal with the reality of race in America with Filipino sons born and raised in the US.
“This is ridiculous,” my panganay says as we viewed once again the video of the death of a man named Eric Garner,
It’s painful to watch.
Garner, young black man, described as the “neighborhood dad,” the “neighborhood peacemaker,” father of six, is on the ground, pinned down by several police officers. One of them has him in a chokehold.
“I can’t breath,” Garner says. Eleven times, he says it. You can hear it on the video. “I can’t breath.”
Moments later, he stops speaking. He’s no longer moving. Garner, accused of selling untaxed cigarettes, is dead.
As I watch the clip, my son and I are also following the coverage of the protests on Staten Island where a grand jury refused to indict the police officer who killed Garner.
Just two weeks before, we watched the protests on TV after a Missouri jury also concluded that a white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black man did not have to go to trial for the killing.
Last year, my family attended a protest picket after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman, the man who shot another unarmed black teen mistaken for a criminal while walking in a neighborhood.
Another killing happened closer to home. Oscar Grant was shot dead by a policeman at the Fruitvale station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit, the local train system known as BART.
I pass that station every day to work. There was movie about the incident titled “Fruitvale Station.” Playing a cameo role of the African American nurse who shows Grant’s mother his body is a family friend, the mom of one of my son’s neighborhood buddies.
In school, he’s been exposed to the history of race in America, including the many battles for civil rights led by African Americans–struggles that led to many of the rights Filipinos living the US enjoy today.
That has helped make it easier for him to understand the context of the racial tensions he encounters in the news. In many ways, I also learn from him. He is wrestling with issues of race in ways I never did. In school. In our neighborhood. With his baseball teammates.
On the other hand, I’m like many other Filipino expats, exposed to the same negative images, the same historic biases that have plagued the African American community.
While I’ve learned to reject many of them, it’s safe to always assume they may still be there, trapped in hidden corners of my consciousness.
My panganay was around five when my wife and I were robbed at gunpoint by a black teenager. I use that experience to bring home a message on racism and prejudice, asking him, “You know that nanay and I got robbed by a black kid, right?”
‘‘Yes,’ he answered.
“Now, does that mean all black kids are bad?”
He answered quickly, without hesitating. And I sensed that he was even a bit annoyed as if to say, “Why in the world would I think that tatay?”
He was right. It was a stupid question.
Santa Claus is not the only myth my panganay had stopped believing in.
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