The Senate Judiciary Committee approved an immigration reform bill last week that would gradually make citizenship possible for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants. The bill is widely described as sweeping in scope. In fact, it is not quite sweeping enough, as it leaves the plight of another group of would-be Americans unaddressed.
Although by birthright, children born out of wedlock to an American father and a foreign mother are entitled to United States citizenship, they must file paternity certifications no later than their 18th birthday to get it. But since the military bases in the Philippines have been closed for over 20 years, virtually all Filipino “Amerasians” — a term coined by the author and activist Pearl S. Buck to describe children of American servicemen and Asian mothers — have passed that age.
Amerasians in the Philippines substantially outnumber those living in neighboring countries, with recent estimates as high as 250,000.
The large numbers are explained by our military’s 94 years in the Philippines, from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to its withdrawal in 1992. During the cold war, the United States leased military installations throughout the archipelago, including Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, the United States’ two largest overseas bases at the time.
Around them emerged bars and clubs, where servicemen were encouraged to find “rest and relaxation.” While some Amerasians were conceived through prostitution, many were born out of committed relationships. Soldiers’ limited tours of duty — and, later, the abrupt closures of the bases — tore couples apart.
The closures dealt a serious economic blow to many Amerasians. A 1999 study commissioned by the nongovernmental organization Pearl S. Buck International showed that Amerasians had disproportionately suffered from underemployment, poverty, domestic violence and sexual abuse.
They also face relentless discrimination. In a Catholic society that stigmatizes illegitimate children, Filipinos deploy an arsenal of slurs against Amerasians: iniwan ng barko (“left by the ship”) and babay sa daddy (“goodbye to Daddy”) among them. Black Amerasians are often called “charcoal,” or worse.
For these reasons, most Filipino Amerasians dream of coming here for a better life. But despite their American blood, it is very difficult if not impossible for them to immigrate legally and eventually become naturalized citizens.
Some members of Congress have tried to rectify the omission of the Philippines. On several occasions between 1997 and 2001, Senator Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii, who died last year, introduced a bill to extend the Amerasian Act to the Philippines and Japan. But the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected it, claiming that Filipino Amerasians were not victims of discrimination, that they were conceived from illegal prostitution, and that, unlike Amerasians in South Korea and Vietnam, they were born during peacetime. But none of these are conscionable grounds for selectively preventing Filipino Amerasians from coming to this country.
BCP: Your poetry is very personal. Was it, or is it, hard to go to those personal places in your mind and heart? For example, your poem “Do The Right Thing” is powerful and sad. Being told, “you ain’t even Black” by Spike Lee, one of the most influential Black directors of our time, must have been horrible. When reading it I felt its last line deeply: “the missed free throw feeling in my chest.”
AM: Thanks for your words about the poem. You’re absolutely right; some of the poems in Mixology are very personal. “Do The Right Thing,” in particular is open about its intention in a way that some of the other poems (“Language Mixology” or “This Be The Verse,” for example) are not.
Because the poem is so personal, I almost took it out of the book. I’m not comfortable sharing information in that way because I’m not really big on the “this really happened” aspect of poetry. It works for other poets, but it feels like a limitation to me.
The thing is, I don’t think the truth (in the “this really happened” sense) should get in the way of a good poem. The poems should be emotionally honest and true to the poet’s intent, but there are different kinds of truth, if you see what I mean. I’m not adverse to embellishing a moment to write a better poem. But in the case of Do The Right Thing—meeting Spike Lee and having my authenticity questioned all at the same moment—no embellishment was needed.
BCP: As a mixed-race person I really appreciated references to skin politics throughout the collection. Can you explain what you mean when writing in Colloquialism “Bad to be black, worse to be a mixed indetermination”?
AM: I’m sure you have probably experienced a version of what inspired that line. Some mixed-race people have the rare ability to be whatever “other” is out of racial fashion at the time. When I was kid in Southern California, there was (and still is) tension between the Latinos and whites. Through the lens of that tension, everyone thought I was Mexican. When I moved to Indianapolis, issues of race revolved around black and white, so I was seen as being black. After 9/11 I was magically mistaken for Middle Eastern wherever I went. For a couple years after 9/11, I could count on being taken out of the security line at the airport for an enhanced search.
The thing is, I have identified as black my entire life. I don’t recall ever having conflict or confusion about it. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve given a different kind of consideration to what it means to be mixed race. It’s much more complicated than my original “I’m black” manifesto might have suggested.
In the part of Texas where Colloquialism is set, there is a whole different template for race. Latino Texans and white Texans live together uneasily but are acutely aware of each other. So the white Texans and the Latino Texans both knew I wasn’t Latino, but neither could tell what I am. There was something very dangerous in that ambiguity. Especially since everyone in Texas seems to have a gun.
It’s the same old story: Nothing in this world happens unless white folks says it happens. And therein lies the problem of being a professional black storyteller– writer, musician, filmmaker. Being black is like serving as Hoke, the driver in “Driving Miss Daisy,” except it’s a kind of TV series lasts the rest of your life: You get to drive the well-meaning boss to and fro, you love that boss, your lives are stitched together, but only when the boss decides your story intersects with his or her life is your story valid. Because you’re a kind of cultural maid. You serve up the music, the life, the pain, the spirituality. You clean house. Take the kids to school. You serve the eggs and pour the coffee. And for your efforts the white folks thank you. They pay you a little. They ask about your kids. Then they jump into the swimming pool and you go home to your life on the outside, whatever it is. And if lucky you get to be the wise old black sage that drops pearls of wisdom, the wise old poet or bluesman who says ‘I been buked and scorned,’ and you heal the white folks, when in fact you can’t heal anybody. Robbing a character of their full dimension, be it in fiction or non fiction, hurts everyone the world over. Need proof? Ask any Native American, Asian, Latino, Gay American, or so called white “hillbilly.” As if hillbillies don’t read books, and Asians don’t rap, and Muslims don’t argue about the cost of a brake job.
There’s nothing wrong with being white. I’m half white myself and proud of it. There isn’t a day passes that I don’t think about my late white Jewish mother and the lessons she taught me about humanity. But bearing witness to this kind of cultural war over the course of a lifetime will grind a man or woman down in horrible ways, and that’s my fear.