"Immigration Blues," by Filipino American writer Bienvenido Santos, won the award for fiction from New Letters in 1977 (an award that includes publication of the work as part of the prize) and is available in his short-story collection Scent of Apples (Seattle and London, 1979). Santos writes frequently of the Filipino experience in America, which is the subject of "Immigration Blues."
The story is a poignant study in the loneliness and sense of exile that have often been a part of the Filipino experience in the United States from the end of World War II through the 1970s, when the story was written. "Immigration Blues" also reveals the fact that many Filipinos desperately wanted to come to the United States and remain there, in spite of the difficulties. As the story relates, many Filipino women were prepared to do almost anything to achieve their goal of living in America.
"Immigration Blues" is written in a simple style that belies the emotional subtlety it conveys. It was awarded the fiction award from New Letters and shows Santos's art at its finest.
Bienvenido N. Santos was born March 22, 1911, in Tondo, Manila, the Philippines, the son of Tomas and Vicenta (Nuqui) Santos. At the time, the Philippines was a colony of the United States, and the language of instruction at the school Santos attended was English.
Santos graduated from the University of the Philippines in 1932 and became an elementary and high school teacher. He began publishing his short stories in English at this time. When he left for America in September 1941 as a scholar of the Philippine Commonwealth government, Santos was an established writer in the Philippines. He enrolled at the University of Illinois in the master's program in English, graduating in 1942. Meanwhile, the United States had entered World War II, and Santos was unable to return to the Philippines, where his wife Beatriz, whom he had married in 1933, and their three daughters lived (they later had a son).
In the summer of 1942, Santos studied at Columbia University. From 1942 to 1945, Santos was a public relations officer at the Embassy of the Philippines in Washington, D.C. In 1945, Santos had his first fiction published in America, the short story "Early Harvest," which appeared in the magazine Story. After studying at Harvard in 1945 and 1946, Santos returned home to the Philippines, where he became professor and vice-president at Legazpi College (now Aquinas University) in Legazpi City. It was during this period that he published two collections, You Lovely People (short stories, 1955) and The Wounded Stag: Fifty-Four Poems (1956).
Santos returned to America in 1958 as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. He remained at the University of Iowa for three years. During the 1960s, Santos divided his time between the United States and the Philippines. In 1965, his first two novels, Villa Magdalena and The Volcano, written with the help of a Rockefeller grant and a Guggenheim fellowship, were published in Manila. Also in 1965, Santos won the Philippine Republic Cultural Heritage Award for Literature.
In 1972, the Philippine government banned Santos's serialized novel The Praying Man, which is about government corruption. It was ultimately published in book form in 1982. Santos had intended to return permanently to the Philippines, but he now found himself again in exile. From 1973 to 1982, Santos was Distinguished Writer-In-Residence at Wichita State University. In 1976, Santos became a U.S. citizen. In 1979, Scent of Apples, which includes the short story "Immigration Blues," was published. It is the only book of Santos's short stories published in the United States.
Many more of Santos's writings appeared during the 1980s, including the novels The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor (1983) and What the Hell for You Left Your Heart in San Francisco (1987), as well as a collection of poetry, Distances in Time (1983), and a collection of stories, Dwell in the Wilderness (1985). Santos died January 7, 1996, at his home in Albay, the Philippines.
One summer day in San Francisco, two Filipino women, one fat and the other thin, call on Alipio Palma, an old Filipino widower who lives alone. He has been an American citizen since 1945, after the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. Alipio has had a recent run of misfortune. His wife died, and then he was involved in a car accident that left him bedridden for a year. He now can walk, although he limps and must take great care as he moves around. He seldom sees or talks to anyone, so it is a surprise for him when two women he does not know arrive on his doorstep. He invites them in. The fat woman does most of the talking, while the thin one is silent. The former introduces herself as Mrs. Antonieta Zafra, the wife of Carlito, and says that Carlito and Alipio had been friends in the Philippines. Alipio inquires about Carlito, and Mrs. Zafra says he is now retired and lives in Fresno. She introduces her elder sister as Monica. Monica has never been married. She looks uncomfortable. Alipio says he thought Carlito must be dead, since he never hears from him anymore. Alipio then reminisces about his dead wife, Seniang, who died of a heart attack. He addresses a remark to Monica, but she is still unable to speak.
Alipio invites the two women to stay for lunch. Mrs. Zafra offers to help him prepare it, but he says there is nothing to prepare. He likes to eat uncooked sardines with rice and onions. Mrs. Zafra tries to bring Monica into the conversation, but she is very shy. When Alipio shows them all the canned food he has in his cabinet, Mrs. Zafra says that all she needs is a cup of coffee. He shows them more food, and Monica, plucking up courage to speak, wonders why he keeps so much of it in the house. He replies that he watches for sales and then stockpiles items.
They eat a simple lunch. It is revealed through conversation that Mrs. Zafra was once a nun in a convent in California. She left the convent more than six years ago and then married Carlito. She tells Alipio her story. After leaving the convent, she could not find any work. More importantly she was then no longer entitled to stay in the United States, and the immigration office began to hound her. Many other Filipinos were in a similar position. She did not want to return to the Philippines, where she would have difficulty explaining why she left the convent. She then remembered it was possible to marry an American citizen and automatically be entitled to the status of permanent resident. At first she disliked this idea, but after an immigration officer told her she had to be out of the country within a week or face deportation, she decided she would indeed try to marry an American. She asked God how she should go about it. God told her to look for an elderly Filipino who was an American citizen and tell him the truth. She then met Carlito, and he was willing to do what she asked. They were married a day before the deadline expired. They lived simply and well, she says. Then she sent for Monica to come from the Philippines.
Alipio then explains that the woman who was to become his wife, Seniang, was in a similar situation to Mrs. Zafra. She had to find an American husband or face deportation. Alipio liked her anyway and thought it would be a good idea to get married. In those days, Seniang was slim—like Monica—he adds. This prompts Monica to start talking, blushing as she does so. She seems more at ease now and goes unbidden to the kitchen to wash the dishes. But Alipio tells her not to; he will do them later.
Mrs. Zafra thanks Alipio for being such a good host to two strangers; he says they are not strangers because he and Carlito are friends. He recalls his youthful days with Carlito and admits he was a romantic in those days. In a moment of wistfulness, he wonders what has happened to all those friends of his youth. They are all old now, and are scattered throughout the United States and the world.
As he speaks, Monica watches him closely. Then she begins to speak, saying that she admires him because he has strength of character. She wonders whether it is hard for him, living alone all the time. Alipio loses track of the conversation and does not respond. Monica, discouraged, lets the conversation drop, which displeases her sister.
Alipio asks Monica how long she has been in the United States. Mrs. Zafra answers the question for her. Monica has been in the country for a year on a tourist visa, but now she has only two days left on her visa, and she does not want to return to the Philippines.
Alipio now realizes why the women have come to him. Mrs. Zafra admits it. They had found out all about him from other Filipinos who know him. She says Monica will accept any arrangement that suits him. Monica starts to weep and says they should leave. But Alipio invites them to stay longer. It seems he is not averse to the idea of marrying Monica. Mrs. Zafra goes out to get some groceries, leaving Alipio and Monica alone. When she returns, Monica takes some of the grocery bags and heads for the kitchen. It is clear that she and Alipio have agreed to marry.
Monica is Mrs. Zafra's sister. Mrs. Zafra says she is her elder sister, but Alipio thinks she looks younger. Monica is thin and very shy. She has never been married. In the Philippines, she works as a teacher. She is in the United States on a tourist visa and is desperate to find a way of permanently staying in the country. She and her sister therefore approach Alipio with the intention of convincing Alipio to marry Monica. Since he is an American citizen, marriage to him will entitle her to permanent resident status in the United States. At first when she meets Alipio she is too shy to speak, but she later finds her tongue and makes sure he knows how admiring and how helpful she will be to him.
Alipio Palma is an old Filipino man who has lived most of his life in California. He has been an American citizen since the end of World War II. Since the death of his wife Seniang, he has been lonely. He is also still suffering from the ill-effects of a car accident that happened shortly after his wife died. He was bedridden for a long time as a result, and now can walk only with some difficulty. Few of his friends are left to visit him, and sometimes he does not have enough to do to keep him busy. He watches television and sits out on the porch and observes the passersby. He reminisces about the friends of his youth and wonders where they all are now. The marriage he had to Seniang was a happy one, even though it was undertaken only so that Seniang could stay in the country. He has no real desire to marry again, but when he realizes what Monica and her sister have in mind, he seems ready to accede to it.
Seniang is the deceased wife of Alipio. They had a happy marriage, and he recalls her with fondness. He calls her his good luck. When they first met, it was she who approached him, because she already had marriage in mind. She needed to marry an American citizen to avoid deportation.
Mrs. Antonieta Zafra
Mrs. Antonieta Zafra is the Filipino wife of Carlito and sister of Monica. She and Monica visit Alipio, whom they have never met, in order to arrange for Monica to marry him. The idea is Mrs. Zafra's, and it is she who eggs on Monica. Mrs. Zafra is a big woman who does most of the talking. Before she met Carlito, she was a nun at a convent in California. But about six years before the story takes place, she left the convent. The religious lifestyle no longer suited her. But this meant that she was no longer entitled to remain in the United States. Threatened with deportation, she persuaded Carlito to marry her in the nick of time.
Carlito is the husband of Mrs. Zafra. He does not appear directly in the story, but he is described by his wife and is also recalled by Alipio, who is his old friend. Alipio and Carlito came to America at the same time as young men. Carlito never had much interest in women, being more interested in cultivating his fighting cocks. But when Mrs. Zafra approached him, wanting marriage to secure her own status in the United States, Carlito agreed to the marriage, which turned out to be a reasonably happy one. They are now retired and live in Fresno, California, raising chickens and hogs.
Even though he has lived in the United States since he was a young man and is now a U.S. citizen, Alipio still thinks of his homeland in the Philippines. He gives the impression that he is not fully at home in America, in a culture so different from the one in which he grew up. His memories of the Philippines remain powerful. In the second sentence of the story, when he first sees his two female visitors, they remind him of the country girls in the Philippines "who went around peddling rice cakes." The sound of the waves outside also reminds him of his home in the Philippines, where he lived in a coastal town. He used to tell his wife, "across that ocean is the Philippines, we're not far from home." Even though he lives in the United States, he still thinks of himself as Filipino, not American. When he invites the women to take merienda ("picnic, afternoon tea"), he says, "And I don't mean snacks like the Americans." Alipio is one of many such "pinoys," as Filipino immigrants in America are known, who feel they are living in exile, even though they may have lived in America for many decades. There is a tone of wistful regret in Alipio's voice as he says, "We all gonna be buried here."
Loneliness and Aging
As an old man who lives alone following the recent death of his wife, Alipio is lonely. He is childless. He often thinks of his wife, and few friends come to visit him. On the day the two women visit, he has not talked to anyone all week, nor has his telephone rung. He spends a lot of his time listening to the radio or watching television. He admits his house is a mess, since he has no reason to keep it tidy. Often he has nothing to do. Sometimes he just sits on the porch for hours, nodding to passersby. He looks back fondly on the days of his youth and wonders where all his friends from the past are. In his reflections there is a poignant sense of the passing of time. Alipio also has his share of the infirmities of age. He is hard of hearing; he cannot walk well. This portrayal of Alipio's loneliness makes him a sympathetic figure to the reader.
The story highlights the precariousness of the temporary immigrant (especially the female immigrant) to America, who must keep on the "right" side of immigration authorities. Although the story often hints at the difficulty of life in America as a Filipino immigrant, it also emphasizes the unwillingness of the immigrants to return home. Mrs. Zafra explains the plight of many Filipinos in a situation similar to the one that she faced and Monica now faces. They are forced to hide like criminals from the immigration agents. Those who are caught and forced to return to the Philippines have to cope with the "stigma of failure in a foreign land." Many become depressed and antisocial; some even go mad or become criminals. So whatever the difficulty of living in a land and culture not their own, the Filipino immigrants still feel this feat is preferable to returning home.
Although the story is a study in loneliness and a kind of cultural alienation, it ends on a note of hope. Alipio will marry Monica. She will look after him and see to his needs. He did nothing to bring this situation about; it just happened to him. Alipio appears to be a religious man, and several times he suggests that life is in the hands of God ("God dictates"). God has been merciful to him in sending him a young wife. This suggests that even in unpromising circumstances, life may always take a turn for the better.
Topics for Further Study
- Review the characters of Alipio and Monica, and then write a brief sketch set one year after they have married that portrays their partnership. Are they both satisfied with the arrangement they made, or is one partner more satisfied than the other? Are there any tensions between them? This is a creative exercise, but try to base your sketch realistically on the characters as they appear in the story, taking into account their personalities and motivations.
- Investigate the system that allows foreign nationals to become U.S. citizens by marrying a U.S. citizen. Do the arrangements made by the characters in "Immigration Blues" constitute an abuse of the system? Why or why not?
- Should recent immigrants to the United States from Asia or anywhere else in the world make an effort to fit in with American culture, or should they focus on preserving their own cultural heritage? Explain your answer.
- Research the war of 1898 to 1902 that established American rule in the Philippines. Why did the United States embark on this war? What were its goals, and how were they achieved? What have been the long-term consequences of the American colonization of the Philippines?
Structure and Style
"Immigration Blues" is notable for the simplicity of its style and structure. The diction is simple, and there is little use of figurative language. The story unfolds in one scene only, in the same place, over the course of only a few hours.
Embedded within a simple frame are many stories, including that of Mrs. Zafra and her marriage of convenience to escape deportation, as well as the reminiscences of Alipio about his youthful adventures with his friend Carlito and his obviously happy marriage to his wife. It is largely through this technique of using memories related by the characters, rather than through anything Alipio does or says in the present, that the story creates empathy in the reader for its main character. Alipio's conversation is ordinary, but his memories have power to charm—memories of how he and Carlito were young gallants who wowed the girls with their cooking or how Seniang used to wear his jacket and his slippers when he was at work because "you keep me warm all day." These memories add richness and depth to the story and the characterization.
Filipino Literature in English
The first Filipino literature published in English in the United States was in the early 1930s, a decade before Santos's arrival in the country. The writer who made this breakthrough was José Garcia Villa (1914–1997), whose poems and stories were published by Scribner's in 1933 as Footnote to Youth: Tales of the Philippines and Others. Villa lived in the United States, and his short stories, which were highly praised by critics, were included in Best American Short Stories of 1932 and Best American Short Stories of 1933. Despite the success of his fiction, however, during the 1930s Villa decided to write only lyric poetry. His Selected Poems and New was published in 1958. Although scholars acknowledge the merits of his pioneering work, Villa is little read today.
In the 1940s, poet and short-story writer Carlos Bulosan (1913–1956) came to the forefront of Filipino writers. Like Santos, Bulosan chronicled the lives of Filipino immigrants in the United States. His stories appeared mainly in magazines such as the New Yorker. His book of satirical, humorous poems, The Laughter of My Father, was published in 1944 by Harcourt, Brace and was warmly received by readers. It was followed by the autobiographical America Is in the Heart (1946), which remains an influential work today.
Also in the 1940s, Filipino immigrant N. V. M. Gonzalez (1915–1999) began publishing short stories, some of which appear in book form in Children of the Ash-Covered Loam (1954) and Selected Stories (1964). Gonzalez also wrote novels, including The Winds of April (1940), Seven Hills Away (1947), and A Season of Grace (1956). Like Santos, Gonzalez portrays the lives of Filipinos in the United States, although Gonzalez writes mainly of graduate students and other young or middle-aged people who visit but do not remain in the United States.
In the late 1950s, Linda Ty-Casper (1931–) began publishing. Her novel The Peninsulars (1964) is about the influence of Spanish colonization on the Philippines in the mid-eighteenth century. Ty-Casper has since published a total of ten novels and three short-story collections.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Santos wrote some of his best work, but it was published mainly in the Philippines. It was not until 1979 that Santos's collection Scent of Apples was published in the United States.
Much Filipino work published in the United States deals with the problem of Filipino identity. Filipinos are a people with a colonial past, having been ruled by Spain for 300 years, followed by half a century of American rule. Filipinos who immigrated to the United States had to face issues of exile, isolation, and racism. They had to forge an identity for themselves that could bridge the gap between their cultural and racial heritage as Filipinos and their new status as Filipino Americans, living in a culture very different from their own.
The Filipino Experience in America
The first wave of Filipino immigration to the United States occurred between 1906 and 1934, when Filipinos were recruited to California as agricultural workers. Alipio and his friend Carlito in "Immigration Blues" probably arrived in California during this period, although no details are given of their occupations. Filipinos also immigrated to Hawaii, where they worked on sugarcane plantations, and in the 1920s many immigrated to the Pacific Northwest. Beginning in 1934, however, the Tydings-McDuffie Act severely limited Filipino immigration to the United States.
Many Filipino Americans served in the American armed forces during World War II. Although "Immigration Blues" does not mention it, the fact that Alipio received his U.S. citizenship after the end of World War II suggests that he may have fought in the U.S. Army, although it is possible he would have been too old to serve.
A new wave of Filipino immigration to the United States began after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which loosened restrictions on immigration from Asia. Between 1965 and 1984, 664,938 Filipinos entered the country (in "Immigration Blues," this is the period during which both Mrs. Zafra and Monica secure their immigration status by marrying American citizens). The rate of immigration increased in part because of political and economic uncertainty in the Philippines. This wave of immigration is sometimes called the "brain drain," because it consisted mainly of professionals, including doctors and lawyers.
Filipino Americans have at all periods faced discrimination because of their national origins. Many have been confined to low-status, low-in-come jobs. In Santos's story "The Day the Dancers Came," which is published in Scent of Apples, a Filipino immigrant becomes an American citizen in 1945 and joins the workforce. This is his experience:
To a new citizen, work meant many places and many ways: factories and hotels, waiter and cook. A timeless drifting; once he tended a rose garden and took care of a hundred-year-old veteran of a border war. As a menial in a hospital in Cook County, all day he handled filth and gore.
Compare & Contrast
- 1970s: According to the 1980 census, there are 774,652 Filipinos living in the United States. This constitutes 0.3 percent of the total population.
Today: According to the 2000 census, Filipino Americans number 1.9 million. This is up from 1.4 million in 1990. The largest Filipino population is in California, at 918,678. Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Washington also have substantial Filipino populations. In Washington, the number of Filipinos has increased by 50 percent since 1990.
- 1970s: Filipino immigration to the United States increases due to the Immigration Act of 1965, which loosened restrictions on immigration from Asia. Once in the country, Filipinos are allowed, like immigrants from other countries, to bring their immediate family to join them, subject to visa approvals.
Today: Since the 1970s, the time necessary for approval of a visa application for a brother or sister has grown much longer. The process can literally take decades. Some Filipinos who immigrated during the 1980s are, therefore, still waiting for the immigration of their families from the Philippines to the United States to be completed.
- 1970s: With Filipino American writers such as Santos and Linda Ty-Casper publishing their work in the United States, Filipino American writing begins to make its way into the mainstream of American literature.
Today: A new generation of Filipino Americans is making its mark on literature, in a variety of literary forms and genres. Authors include Jessica Hagedorn (whose novel Dogeaters  was nominated for the National Book Award), Ninotchka Rosca, Epifanio San Juan, and Michelle Skinner.
In the early days of Filipino immigration to California, Filipinos were sometimes banned from hotels, restaurants, and swimming pools. In 1926 antimiscegenation laws were passed in California that banned Filipinos from marrying white women. This kind of prejudice is apparent in some of Santos's stories. In "Ash Wednesday," for example (published in You Lovely People), a Boston family turns their daughter Muriel out of the house when she decides to marry a Filipino.
Santos refers to the early Filipino experience in America in his essay, "Pilipino Old Timers: Fact and Fiction":
Prior to World War II and as late as the 1950s, the Pilipino immigrant was unwanted wherever he went, in the big and the small cities of the United States. As Pilipinos came in increasing numbers, they caused mounting resentment, particularly on the Pacific Coast where riots against them flared, which gave rise to violence and accusations.
"Immigration Blues" won the New Letters award for fiction from the University of Missouri at Kansas City in 1977. In 1978 it was listed as an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. In 1981 the second edition of Scent of Apples, the book in which the story appears, received an American Book Award from New York's Pre-Columbus Federation.
Anthony Tan, writing in Silliman Journal, calls the stories in Scent of Apples "emotionally poignant" and says "Immigration Blues" is "a story of understated pathos and the very human and selfish motive of marriage for convenience." He also notes that all the stories in Scent of Apples share the common themes of "exile, loneliness, and isolation."
Tan argues that the stories fall short of greatness because the characters are left groping in states of isolation, denied a moment of illumination that would enable them to make sense of their lives. However, Maxine Hong Kingston, writing in the New York Times Book Review, takes the view that Santos "places … rare incidents of joy at the center of his stories." She also praises Santos's "very delicate, very fine" writing that "gently" portrays the difficult experience of being a Filipino man in America.
"Immigration Blues" exhibits the simplicity of style that some critics in the Philippines have seen as a fault in Santos's work. But Miguel A. Bernad, writing in Bamboo and the Greenwood Tree: Essays on Filipino Literature in English,
views this simplicity as a virtue. He writes of Santos's short stories:
The language is simple but weighted with emotion. It is pitched in low key, but the emotion is implicit in the tone, atmosphere, narrative tempo, length or brevity of sentence, the rhythm that sometimes approaches musicality, and the sparing but carefully chosen imagery.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on twentieth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses "Immigration Blues" as a study in old age and assesses the degree to which the story embodies or rejects the negative stereotypes of the old that are common in American culture.
Santos is known in the United States as a writer who chronicled the difficult lives of Filipino immigrants, especially those "old timers" (as they became known) who came to the country from the 1920s through the 1940s. The old timers remained in the United States for the rest of their lives, but they never lost their sense of exile from the Philippines, and they were often lonely and isolated.
"Immigration Blues" is one such story. The protagonist Alipio is an old timer who lives alone in California and still thinks often of his homeland. But more than being a study of a Filipino immigrant from a certain era, "Immigration Blues," as well as other stories by Santos, are studies in old age.
In American culture, the elderly do not generally occupy positions of honor and respect. In a society that values youth, success, and material productivity, the old are relegated to a position on the sidelines of life. What they contribute to society is not so easily measured as it is for those in the prime of life. In addition, popular culture, in everything from television to jokes (the cognitive lapses of the elderly often being the subject of humor), creates negative stereotypes of old people. Numerous studies of attitudes to the elderly on the part of the young as well as the middle-aged suggest that old age is viewed as a time of helplessness, loneliness, dependence, senility, and passivity. Old people spend most of their time sitting around and doing nothing—or so many people appear to believe. Not all the studies suggest such a negative view, and over the last twenty years, as people live longer, more healthy, and more productive lives, this view of the old could well be slowly changing. But it remains deeply ingrained. The term "ageism" was coined to describe such biased attitudes to the old.
With that background in mind, how does Santos depict his old characters? Does he reflect the negative stereotype or does he undermine it?
What Do I Read Next?
- Santos's Dwell in the Wilderness: Selected Short Stories (1985) contains eighteen stories from the early part of Santos's career. Written between 1930 and 1941, these stories are set in the rural towns and villages in the Philippines familiar to Santos in his youth and early manhood.
- Growing Up Filipino: Stories for Young Adults (2003), edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, contains twenty-nine short stories, most of which have been written since the turn of the twenty-first century. The authors include those who live in the Philippines as well as American-born Filipinos. The stories reflect a wide range of issues that Filipino youth encounter.
- Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America (1998), edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, includes work by prominent Filipino writers such as Linda Ty-Casper, N. V. M. Gonzalez, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Greg Sarris, Marianne Villanueva, Vince Gotera, Eileen Tabios, and John Silva.
- From Exile to Diaspora: Versions of the Filipino Experience in the United States (1998), by E. San Juan Jr, is the most comprehensive examination of the history and current status of Filipino Americans.
- On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan (1995), edited by E. San Juan Jr, is the first collection of Bulosan's short stories, essays, poetry, and correspondence to focus on the Filipino American experience. Bulosan was one of the pioneer Filipino American writers, and his work covers the period from the 1930s through the 1950s.
The first thing to note is that Alipio is a character drawn realistically from life. When at the age of eighty-two Santos wrote his memoir Memory's Fictions: A Personal History, he confessed that in his old age he had come in some respects to resemble Alipio. Like his character he spent much of his time alone, and also like Alipio he was given to reminiscing, wondering whether his friends all over the world were well and knew he was still alive. "I have become my character, a character I created before I knew what direction my life would take," Santos writes. In his article "Pilipino Old Timers: Fact and Fiction," he again quotes a passage given to Alipio in "Immigration Blues" and uses it to point out that there is no difference between the "old timer" in real life and his fictional representation.
So what is the nature of that real life fictional representation? An examination of Alipio seems in some ways to suggest a negative picture of old age, one that confirms the kind of stereotypes that researchers in aging and advocates for the elderly deplore.
This is Alipio: he lives in the past a lot (exactly the way the old are routinely perceived); he is in poor health since his car accident; he is hard of hearing; he does not have enough to keep him busy. He even prepares lunch early because he has nothing else to do. He spends a lot of his time sitting on his porch watching construction work and nodding to strangers as they pass. He has few visitors, and he hardly speaks to anyone as there is no one to whom he wants to speak. Gerontologists (those who study the aging process) sometimes call this kind of withdrawal "retreatism" or "disengagement." In many cases it is considered a defense mechanism: the aged may convince themselves that they do not wish to participate in social life, or do not mind being alone, rather than face the painful fact that they, like most others, are dependent on other people, and not having enough people in their life is a cause of loneliness and distress.
There is a deep sadness about Alipio. He still broods over his wife's death, and since he has no children, he is truly alone in the world. When it transpires that often he whiles away the time by watching television or listening to the radio until he falls asleep, the impression given is of a man who has given up on life. This is a sign of what gerontologists call "alienation." As Zena Smith Blau describes it in Aging in a Changing Society:
Alienation is an extreme form of maladaptation, characterized by the feeling that "there is just no point in living," by feelings of regret over the past, by the idea that "things just keep getting worse and worse," and by abandonment of all future plans.
Those at risk for developing an attitude of alienation include those who, like Alipio, have recently lost a spouse. Being a husband or a wife is a major role in life, like that of having a productive occupation, which keeps people engaged in the world and sustains their morale, their sense of usefulness.
What it is like to be old and have neither of these things is also apparent from another of Santos's stories, "The Day the Dancers Came," which appears in Scent of Apples. The main character is a Filipino called Fil. He is fifty years old, which may not seem very old, but it is his age that is emphasized. He looks old, and he feels old. Old age has prematurely come upon him. This is how he experiences it:
A weariness, a mist covering all things. You don't have to look at your face in the mirror to know that you are old, suddenly old, grown useless for a lot of things and too late for all the dreams you had wrapped up well against a day of need.
Fil lives in a Chicago apartment with another old timer named Tony, who is dying of a wasting disease. Fil is excited because a troupe of dancers from the Philippines is coming to Chicago. He plans to introduce himself to them, give them a tour of Chicago, and then invite them back to his apartment for a Filipino meal. But what happens when he tries to put his plan into action is nothing like what he imagined. When he arrives at the hotel where the dancers are to perform, they and their entourage are already milling around in the lobby. Fil feels unwel-come in the midst of all these beautiful young people. He is conscious of how old his face looks, and his "horny hands." Everyone is talking but he is able to talk to no one. The little speech he had rehearsed in his apartment now strikes him as foolish; they would only laugh at him. He eventually plucks up the courage to invite two of the young male dancers to his apartment, but they just walk away with hardly a word. Fil tries again, and is ignored again. He might as well be invisible.
Fil's story is a sad one, made even sadder by the fact that his friend Tony is dying. Soon Fil will be entirely alone. Can the old timers be redeemed? Is there anything about them that offers hope, or is old age everything the cultural negative stereotypes present it to be? The answer is yes, there is redemption, of a kind. Let us return to Alipio.
Alipio is a religious man. His explanation for the loss of his wife is that God took her. And in his eyes it was a matter of God's will regarding whether he would walk again after his car accident. Monica notices and comments on his strong belief in God. Toward the end of the story, Alipio twice uses the phrase, "God dictates." This does not seem merely to be a routine statement of faith but one that has real practical consequences for him. He is aware that life flows on, controlled by some force (which he chooses to call God) that is beyond the petty strivings of the individual. Individuals may have their plans and their designs, but there is a larger pattern at work too, the working of the divine in the world. Alipio is aware of this. One might call it wisdom. When many other things have departed forever, wisdom is there for the old. In this respect, despite his many failings, Alipio offers a glimpse of the archetype of the wise old man, the man who has lived long and knows the way things are. And in this lies his salvation. Look at how he reacts when Monica suddenly comes into his life. His response could not have been predicted from what has been shown of him up to this point. He had no thought of taking another wife, but when Monica arrives and her intentions become known, he goes along with what God sends. He has won a new lease on life.
This story's ending shows that Alipio defies the stereotypical notion that the old are rigid and stuck in their ways. The message is clear: there is still hope for new things, transformations can still happen and in the most unexpected of ways, even when one does not ask for them or seek them. Life is eternally unpredictable, and as Alipio shows, the old can be as swift as the young to adapt to new circumstances and accept what comes to them. Alipio deserves his new young wife. She may not be another Sensiang, his first wife, but one senses that he will no longer be falling asleep watching television, or aimlessly sitting around the house doing nothing.
In "Immigration Blues," then, Santos presents both sides of the coin, negative and positive images of old age. He shows that life is many-sided and cannot be put in a box with only one label.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Immigration Blues," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 2004.
In the following essay, Tan discusses the stories in Santos's Scent of Apples and their common theme of expatriation and its effects.
Scent of Apples: A Collection of Stories (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1979, 178 pages) is Bienvenido N. Santos's first book to be published in the United States, but fifteen of the sixteen stories in this collection have appeared before in two books published in the Philippines: eleven in You Lovely People (Bookmark, 1955) and four in The Day the Dancers Came (Bookmark, 1967). Thus, all the stories in this new collection are familiar to Filipino readers except the first one, "Immigration Blues," whose significance in the book, apart from its own separate virtue as a story of understated pathos and the very human and selfish motive of marriage for convenience, is that it brings to the present decade the continuing story of Filipinos in America.
The common themes of these stories about Filipinos in America are universal themes of exile, loneliness, and isolation. Into these themes Santos has folded the special flavor of Filipino nostalgia for home, which, for the exiles, meant also the past. When Santos achieves a perfect blending of the universal themes and the indigenous sensibility, the results are such emotionally poignant works as the title story and the prize-winning "The Day the Dancers Came," two stories in which nostalgia accentuates the sense of exile and isolation.
For one reason or another Santos's Filipino expatriates stay on in America even when their dream of success in the land of plenty has finally vanished. Ambo, the narrator in many stories, has attempted to return, only to be disappointed at home, not so much by the yearly typhoon that plagues his home in the Bicol region as by the betrayal of a friend whom he used to help in Washington, D.C. So he seeks another passage, perhaps a final one, back to America. Celestino Fabia can never return to his native shore in the Visayas because, having stayed twenty years on a remote farm in Michigan, no one will remember him. His only link with the Philippines is a faded picture of a Filipina he does not even know. Filemon Acayan can only make a symbolic return by welcoming and attempting to entertain the Bayanihan Dancers in Chicago. When they turn down his offer to drive them around the city and to eat at his apartment, he makes what seems a desperate effort at preserving the last moorings with his country: he attends their show and records their songs and the sounds of their agile, dancing feet doing the tinikling. However, when he plays the tape recorder at his apartment for the benefit of his dying friend, another Filipino exile, Filemon presses the wrong button, and in one clumsy moment erases what he has tried so hard to preserve—his last link with his people and country—thus making his isolation more devastating and complete.
Many more like him never return, even symbolically, and many do not even dream of returning. Lost and confused in strange cities among strange people, they drift aimlessly, and to forget a weariness which is more than physical they play poker or billiards, and drink and seek momentary solace in the faithless arms of women. They have become spiritual drifters, suffering as much ruin as the warravaged Philippines. In a sense, they are the people to whom the words of Father Ocampo in "For These Ruins" accurately apply: "We have seen pictures of our blasted cities. But there are ruins other than the eyes can see."
It is the mark of Santos's genius as a fictionist to have portrayed these ruins in story after story, to have given a spiritual and cultural counterpart to the physical ruins suffered by the Philippines during the last war. To be sure, the stories of Santos in this collection are not about the Filipinos in the Philippines who, having suffered the physical effects of war, have also suffered its spiritual effects. The scarred psyche caused by the war remains for other Filipino writers to record, and many have attempted to do so. Having spent the war years in America, Santos could only write about those who have been, literally, far from battlefronts. Yet, it is a further measure of his genius that his stories are no less memorable and true, his characters no less lonely, for that fact.
If the outbreak of the war gave Santos the personal opportunity to travel and lecture extensively in America and enabled him to meet many Filipino expatriates, the consequent occupation of the Philippines by the enemy gave him the artistic fulcrum to elevate reality into art. It fired his imagination so that he began to see the war as one more dimension in the isolation of the expatriates. It became for him as a writer, if not as a man, the ultimate symbol of the lostness of his countrymen in America. I say this notwithstanding the fact that in the present book only three stories have something to do with the war, and even here the war is a mere backdrop: because in many stories he has transmuted the physical ruins of his country into the spiritual ruins of his countrymen abroad.
In exploring the many dimensions of the isolation of the expatriates, Santos, however, has not stopped with the war. War, after all, is a historically contained event, and although a people may suffer its consequences long after it is over, the isolation it imposes on its victims comes from the outside and from foreign enemies. Besides, the Filipinos about whom Santos has written were not direct victims of the war. If they suffered from isolation from their country as a result of the war, their isolation is somehow lessened by their own helplessness and by a great deal of historical inevitability. What is more painful is that isolation for which they were responsible and which to a certain degree they could prevent. In almost all the stories this is the kind of isolation that Santos has tried to explore.
There are at least four sources of this isolation. One is excessive nostalgia for the homeland. Another is betrayal by fellow men, by fellow-Pinoy. The third is the death of a dream of success, ironic in that the dream dies in the land which has caught the imagination of the world, and of Filipinos especially, as the land of promise, the land of opportunity. The characters of Santos, after a brief fling with the ideal, wake up one morning to find that America has turned out to be the land of unfulfilled promises, of lost opportunities. The last source of isolation is the confusion brought about by trying to live in two culturally different worlds.
Two of the best stories in this collection explore the pathos of nostalgia. In "Scent of Apples," Celestino Fabia travels thirty miles from his farm to the city just to listen to a Filipino talk about the Philippines. This certainly is not bad, but his keeping a picture of a Filipina when in fact he is married to an American is something else. It is not fair to his wife, to say the least. His wife happens to be a faithful woman, who saved him from freezing in the snow when he had appendicitis, and who worked as a scrub woman in the hospital to pay the bills. She is worthy of her namesake, the biblical Ruth. He has a good-looking son and an apple orchard which gives him more apples than he can sell. The surplus apples rot in the storeroom, and he gives them to the pigs. His wife, his son, and the apple orchard are abundance enough, but his excessive nostalgia for home, where nobody remembers him, makes him blind to all these blessings. He wastes his abundance, like the apples he gives to the pigs, throwing, so to speak, the proverbial pearls to the swine. Hence, we note in passing, the aptness of the apple-symbol and the title. This story should make the exile rethink his idea of home: not a place where you were born and grew up, but where you are at present, where your love is. But man, especially the exile, is an incorrigible dreamer. How often in the solitude of an exile do the images of home crowd into his lonely mind! And in this lies the pathos of the story.
Another such dreamer is Filemon Acayan in "The Day the Dancers Came," Growing old in a foreign country is sad enough, but if one could accept it as inevitable, if one tried to make the best of the situation, one would suffer less. This seems to be what Acayan is trying to do in Chicago until he hears of the coming of the Filipino dancers. Then he begins to dream: welcome the dancers, entertain them, show them around the city, invite them to eat Filipino dishes at his apartment, so that when they return to the Philippines they will remember him. But all his efforts at trying to establish a link with his countrymen are frustrated. When he accidentally erases what he has recorded in his "sound mirror" he loses the last link with what he knows as home. In a symbolic way, this underscores the irony and pathos of longing.
"The Door" and "Letter: The Faraway Summer" explore the other source of isolation. Betrayal, especially by a friend, is so crushing that it could burst even the mighty heart of a Caesar. This allusion to Caesar is not uncalled for. Santos himself deliberately, albeit implicitly, alludes to Caesar's "Et tu, Brute." In the story "The Door," Delfin knows that his American wife is unfaithful, but he cannot do anything, does not do anything, because he loves her. She entertains men in their apartment, and when he comes and finds the door locked, he waits on the stairs until her lover comes out. One Christmas evening, Ambo, a friend of Delfin and the narrator of the story, visits him and his two little daughters. Delfin is not at home, and Ambo, while waiting for him, takes time to fix the blinkers of the Christmas tree. The girls lock the door. When Ambo finally leaves the apartment he finds Delfin waiting outside. To Ambo's Christmas greetings Delfin can only ask the stabbing question in the dialect, "Why you also, Ambo?" ("Bakit ikaw rin ba, Ambo?" in Tagalog.) It is significant that Delfin expresses his most profound hurt in his mother tongue. The pathos is that Delfin does not know the truth, and it is cold comfort to say that at least Ambo has not actually betrayed his friend, because for Ambo it is as if he has.
In "Letter: The Faraway Summer" betrayal comes in the form of one man's, one Pinoy's, lack of utang na loob and the other man's sensitivity to such cold and general reference as "just one of those Pinoys" when friendship demands a warmer reference. In "For These Ruins" betrayal comes from one who does not understand the special value we Filipinos attach to utang na loob. Julia Flores, an uneducated Filipina, has a son by an American soldier whose life she has saved in Bataan. She is left by her husband and is driven away with her son from America by her in-laws.
Beginning with "And Beyond, More Walls" and ending with "Lonely in the Autumn Evening," seven stories must be taken as one long story (the stories being merely episodes); Santos here chronicles the aimless lives of Filipinos whose dream of success has come to naught. The focal story is that of Nanoy, a taxi driver, whose death brings the Filipinos together in communal suffering, and in whose misfortune they see their own. In these stories we see the resiliency, humor, and bayanihan spirit of the the Filipinos abroad, three qualities which sustain them and earn for them from their American friends the sobriquet "you lovely people." It is also in these stories that the real name of Ambo, Pablo Icarangal, takes on a larger significance, for it is he who goes around soliciting contributions in order to help defray the funeral expenses of Nanoy. Ambo's act may be seen simply as an expression of basic human sympathy and charity. As Filipinos we see it as a concrete example of the values of damay and bayanihan, of awa, or pity, for someone who has suffered at the hands of fate. In Ambo we see a praise-worthy Filipino who has not lost his soul even in a foreign land.
The other story that deals with frustrated dreams is "The Contender," the story of a former boxer who, doomed to sell pencils because he is going blind, loses in the larger arena of life.
The story that deals with the confusion of trying to live in two culturally different worlds is "Quicker with Arrows." In love with Fay Price (an unfortunate choice of name), Valentin Rustia cannot make up his mind whether he should marry this American cashier in a government cafeteria or a pampered Filipina heiress. As long as there is war and he is in America, he need not make a decision, but the war ends, he has to return to the Philippines and he has to decide. Unfortunately, the decision to marry Fay comes too late and he loses her; and the price for such procrastination, which in Rustia is a result of "cultural stress" (Leonard Casper's phrase in the Introduction to the book), is loneliness and isolation.
Memorable and sad as most of these stories are, they, nevertheless, leave the reader unsatisfied. Even "Scent of Apples" falls short of being great. The reason, I think, is that Santos, consciously or not, leaves his protagonists groping in the darkness of their isolation. He denies them that sudden moment of illumination of their condition, that "epiphany," as James Joyce calls it, that moment when the protagonist, provoked by an image, a sound, or a smell, realizes something about himself, or about the nature of life in general. It need not be a full awakening, an apocalyptic vision, such as we have in the novel or novella. An intimation, a glimpse, a flash, would suffice in a short story, provided that it allows the protagonist to experience a change in perception or attitude; to become, if slightly, a different person, though not necessarily a better one, at the end of the story from what he was at the beginning. A more useful term for this change than Mark Schorer's imprecise "moral evolution" would be Robert Frost's "momentary stay against confusion." This term suggests more accurately that the moment of illumination need not be, in a short story, as clear, final, and irrevocable as the shout of "Eureka!" or Mr. Kurtz's "the horror! the horror!"
The protagonists of Santos's stories draw us into their world by the force of their isolation and loneliness. Indeed, pathos is the most arresting emotional quality of these stories. Depending on one's aesthetics, it may or may not be enough. However, the stories of Tolstoy, Mann, Conrad, Kipling, Joyce, and Marquez show us that pathos can, artistically, be more poignant and satisfying if the protagonist is made aware of his condition, of some meaning in his experience or other people's. It does not matter if that meaning is not positive or wholesome so long as the protagonist becomes aware of it, and to a certain degree it clarifies an aspect of his experience. Reading the stories of Ivan Ilych, Aschenbach, Arsat, Dravot, Conroy, and Colonel Buendia elevates our sympathetic identification with them from mere pathos to tragic pity. The mature aesthetic experience does not remain in a nether world of feeling because the pain of knowing experienced by the protagonist illuminates both his understanding and ours. In his conscious suffering the protagonist elicits, if not actually demands, respect from the reader, and this respect expunges the temptation of the reader to feel, his pity, superior to the protagonist. An unconsciously suffering protagonist is looked down upon as somebody to be pitied without necessarily being respected. Shakespeare and the Greek tragedians understood this important psychological point in the aesthetic experience of literary art. If we examine our feeling of pity toward Fabia, Acayan, and Rustia, we will discover that we harbor a certain degree of superiority to them. Not so with Ambo, especially in "Letter: The Faraway Summer," because, even in his inarticulateness, he seems to know.
Santos, a professor of English and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Wichita State University, Kansas, is now an American citizen. But like many of his characters, he dreams of returning to the Philippines. He writes in the Preface that he has in fact made several attempts; the last one did not materialize because of the declaration of martial law. Whether he will ever return or not is not too important for Philippine literature. What is important is that he continue to write about the Filipinos whereever they are, in America, in the Bicol region, or in the slums of Sulucan. And whatever in the vast heartland of America stirs him to creative efforts, be it the scent of apples or that of "calamondin fruit and fresh papaya blossoms," be it a wintry landscape or the memory of a tropical skyline dominated by Mayon, the important thing, we need hardly remind him, is to carve in high relief the peculiar character of the Filipino soul.
Source: Anthony Tan, "You Lonely People: Exiles in the Stories of Bienvenido N. Santos," in Silliman Journal, First and Second Quarters, 1981, pp. 43–48.
In the following essay, Casper discusses the displaced person theme in Santos's work.
In the fall of 1942, Ben Santos was summoned from his studies at Columbia University and assigned a basement desk in the Information Division of the Commonwealth Building (now the Philippine Embassy) in Washington. Some of the upstairs officials preferred speaking Spanish and, on the avenues, passing as Latin Americans. Near Santos worked Jose Garcia Villa, mindlessly clipping news items about Bataan and Corregidor while lost in reveries about his first volume of poems, just released: Have Come, Am Here. Santos' own sentiments were fixed on his homeland and the immeasurable distances placed by war between it and not only the Philippine government-in-exile which he served, but also anxious pensionados like himself with endangered families still in the occupied islands.
His enforced separation from his wife and three young daughters brought him closer to fellow "exiles" whom he later met when the U.S. Office of Education asked him to tour America, lecturing on the worth and stamina of Filipinos as allies. "I loved my countrymen," he wrote, "the so-called Pinoys who were simple and good and trusting once they found you were not a snob." His stories about their anguish and strengths were eventually collected in You Lovely People (1955). But he has never really ceased to write about these "hurt men," whose isolation he was to share again in the postwar decades, as resident author on Midwest campuses.
The hard circumstances of prewar Filipino immigrants have been recounted too capably in Carey McWilliams' preface to Carlos Bulosan's America Is in the Heart to require repetition. For years, one of the most unnatural conditions imposed on the sakadas who cut Hawaiian sugar cane, or the truck-farm cargadores of the Imperial Valley, or the transient menials in the rundown neighborhoods of Chicago and New York, was the near absence of Filipino women among them. When women did occasionally appear, they had to defend themselves against attention turned desperate; and their caution, reinforcing Filipino decorum, was often misunderstood. In "Brown Coterie," one of the original collection's nineteen episodes, a number of educated "Filipina girls" are scolded for avoiding the "good-for-nothing boys who circulate around here." In their enforced loneliness, some Filipinos earned a reputation as "blonde chasers"; others sought in American women the virtues of fidelity and tenderness which they associated with the half-remembered, half-romanticized motherland. Novelist-critic N. V. M. Gonzalez is surely correct in seeing this ideal as providing You Lovely People with "a heroine, the Filipino woman. Obviously, she is what no woman in the flesh can ever be; still, the hurt men are as if possessed. I suspect that it is their private vision of her which made them different, handsome in their awkward way, and which guaranteed survival of some kind."
Filipinos, like their agrarian counterparts elsewhere, traditionally have enjoyed a highly developed sense of community (bayanihan), dependent on face-to-face (damay) relations. They have drawn their identity from extended family lines, fortified by very real and multiple ritual godparenthood (compadrinazco), even when nearly four hundred years of Spanish overrule and half a century of American sovereignty prevented development of any clear image of national identity. Some of the psychological security derived from supportive family closeness had to be sacrificed by persons migrating to metropolitan Manila or to American fields and canneries, despite the fact that their earnings were shared with those left behind. The Pinoy's isolation became an extension of the pain of separation that other Filipinos felt when transported from one island (and vernacular) to another, or from rural barrios to makeshift barong-barongs dangerously propped on the edge of city railroad tracks or slowly collapsing into storm-sewer esteros. Furthermore, the feeling of uneasy identity, natural to the Commonwealth years of experiments in political independence, was multiplied among overseas Filipinos because of both physical distances between themselves and their motherland, and the psychological distances between the Pinoys and earlier migrants from Europe and East Asia. In addition to the usual difficulty that all humans have, of negotiating a single selfhood out of being and becoming, the Pinoy's expectation of belonging to others and not just to himself somehow had to be satisfied.
The wonder is that, under all this cultural stress epitomized by the war years' abrupt rupture of family communications, so many Pinoys managed to remain "lovely people." Like Bulosan, Santos can chronicle the varieties of pathetic frustration; the sense of abandonment associated with liberation from a colonial past; the wearing away of protective naivete. But, again like Bulosan, he captures the infallible faith, the resilience, the resurgent dream of self-recognition and esteem, the folk endurance of a people partially immunized against despair by so long a history of dispossession.
The difficulty of reconciling the Filipino dream of solidarity with the American dream of individualism, of unity risking and enriched by diversity, is implied in the mestizo form of You Lovely People. Many of its episodes are self-contained; others, with Ben at the circumference or Ambo (Pablo) at their center, provide a kind of continuity compatible with change. Ambo's trembling hands and poker face mirror the Pinoy's profound disquiet under a mask of serenity. Similarly, Ben's near-anonymity barely conceals the fact that whatever is missing in him has to be found in these others, their gentleness, their thoughtless betrayals, their confusions and confessions. Santos deliberately keeps center and circumference subservient to the circle of Pinoy compatriots—such is the book's socioesthetic. Both Ambo and Ben exist in that purest of compassions: shared suffering, as concelebrated offering.
In all of Santos' fiction, this compulsion to belong consistently raised images of departure and provisional return, of loss and attempted recovery. The structure of his second collection of stories, Brother, My Brother (1960), is generally recollective of an original flight from the Sulucan slums of Manila to the greater opportunities in the less crowded prewar barrios of Albay under the shadow of Mt. Mayon. Guilt that the relative ease has not been deserved or adequately shared creates an alternating current of tensions not unlike the expatriation/repatriation/reexpatriation pattern in You Lovely People. The same longing for home and homogeneity serves as a central motif for his first novel, Villa Magdalena (1965), in which, driven by the smell of death in their tanneries, various members flee the decaying Conde-Medallada ancestral home, for Japan and America. Only years later do they recognize that mortality cannot be outrun, though mutual solicitude may offset it; and a family feeling is restored. A second novel, The Volcano, also published in 1965, dramatizes the Filipino crisis of identity by chronicling the lives of an American missionary family in the islands, between 1928 and 1958. Cross-cultural relationships at first rise smoothly; then, as a Philippine-American marriage is planned, abruptly drop. The sharp contours of the action resemble the perfect cone of Mt. Mayon, beneath whose picturesque slopes seethes a molten mass in perpetual threat of eruption. When ultranationalists violently demand that the Americans return to a country they have hardly known, for the first time they too experience (without quite appreciating) the Filipino's long-term sense of deprivation and homelessness.
In the May 1971–February 1972 issues of Solidarity, a Manila monthly, Santos serialized The Praying Man, a novel about a slum-dweller from Sulucan who becomes a multimillionaire by selling diluted drugs with the aid of government functionaries. (His wife remarks, "He has to meet, you know, the high cost of bribing.") But even though Santos implies that group-loyalty precious to Filipinos can so corrupt their feeling of community that it deteriorates into special-interest complicities, still he affirms its more positive side. What comforts the fugitive from justice is not the prospect of spending funds salted away in Swiss banks, but the trustworthiness he discovers in two persons from Sulucan, especially his best friend who is now a sculptor in Chicago. Penitent and unafraid, he returns from the States to face charges. The sculptor too is restored by that bond of friendship. He has been laboring on a cryptic memorial to a Sulucan eyesore, a man who daily lay naked and withered, "like the praying mantis," on a pallet near an open window: fatally diseased, yet refusing to die. Out of spite? Out of fear? By the end of the novel, the sculptor has recast his bronze in an attitude of courageous hope. Neither the millionaire's countless queridas nor the sculptor's affair of confused passion with Mabel, a student at Northwestern, has offered adequate "pain-killers for loneliness." However, the two men's friendship succeeds because it springs from Sulucan—symbol, in Santos, for folk loyalty and support; help from the helpless, in the absence of patrons.
The feeling of being a displaced person—of having lost or betrayed the traditional attitudes that ordered society—is inevitable in any society undergoing relatively rapid change. The reaction can be as violent as the revolutionary fervor which characterized the Sakdalista movement during the Commonwealth years, the postwar Huk uprising, and the civil unrest organized by the New Peoples' Army during the 1970s. All these had their origins partially in landlessness but just as significantly in absentee landlordism. According to both John Larkin's The Pampangans (1972) and Benedict Kerkvliet's The Huk Rebellion (1977), the paternalism of plantation owners diminished rapidly when they fled to the cities during the Japanese occupation. Class consciousness could be successfully appealed to, and then armed, only as the former familial relationship eroded. Indeed, class division has continued to increase as a result of postwar restrictions on land holdings, the sale of arable land for suburban development, reinvestment of subsequent profits in corporations clustered in high-rise Makati, and the increasing importance of industrial over agricultural portions of the gross national product. In addition, ex-tenants following ex-landlords to the metropolis have found fewer opportunities for personal services and therefore for patronage.
Changes such as these have caused a decline in the simple agrarian ideals that guaranteed cultural uniformity and stability. With diversification came a rise in expectations inadequately met by opportunities, so that large numbers of professionals who could not be absorbed by the Philippine economy or who preferred a meritocracy emigrated to the United States and Canada. After martial law was imposed late in 1972, political refugees swelled these numbers (Santos' novel-in-progress, What the Hell For You Left Your Heart in San Francisco?, uses material drawn from this group). Still more followed later, who considered regressive the autocratic rule of President/Premier Ferdinand Marcos and the rationalization of continuing "crisis government" under the guise of a New Society. By training, many of these later immigrants have been confident, self-possessed technicians, having little experience to share with earlier—and now older—Filipinos. Consequently, the "o.t.'s" (old-timers) may suffer from three kinds of distances at once: between themselves and their homeland; between themselves and their children who have known only America; and between themselves and recent arrivals whose Philippines, in some ways, is drastically different from their own.
Solomon King, in Santos' unpublished novel, The Man Who (Thought He) Looked Like Robert Taylor, feels bitterly this deterioration in the spirit of ethnic unity, which he himself will take to the grave. He has lived alone for thirty years in Chicago, surrounded by Poles and carefully preserved souvenirs of Sulucan where he was born and early orphaned. His father was a champion arnis fencer, using wooden weapons in "a silent duel of no touch." Solomon's life too has been spent in a kind of pantomime, so that he might pass unnoticed, untouched. But realizing that, like his idol Robert Taylor, he has not escaped the many little deaths that aging brings, he goes to Washington in search of whatever old friends may still be left. The lament of Solomon (a King Solomon less wise, and divided within himself) is played against a counterpoint of dialogues between anonymous Pinoys of his generation, at ease with one another but embarrassed by the better educated Filipinos now among them.
This new loneliness, this latest fear of no longer belonging to a culture which itself seems at times to be wasting away, finds expression in the rhythm of arrangement provided by the selections in Scent of Apples. "Immigration Blues" describes the still precarious situation of aliens and permanent residents, today. The segments of You Lovely People which follow are doubly retrospective, recovering incidents from Pinoy life during World War II, and folkways from a past even more remote. So receding a perspective could easily be considered nostalgic; or even elegiac; and the Pinoy characters, sentimentalists unable to adapt to the natural evolution of their dearest traditions. But the spiral motion of the final section makes it clear that Santos is offering an essentially timeless view of culture, which transcends history limited to the linear, the consecutive, and the one-dimensional.
Both "The Day the Dancers Came" and "The Contender" are contemporary accounts of how two old-timers, awkward before the beauty and surpassing sophistication of young travelers from home, recoil into one another's care for final comfort. They are poignant couples, but couples nonetheless. "Quicker with Arrows" is a tale of distraught Philippine-American lovers, in a roomful of opportunists who are planning how they will exploit the chaos in their country, just after the holocaust at Hiroshima. And in "Footnote to a Laundry List" a professor, recently returned from a ill-fated affair in the States, makes a sympathetic defense of a young female student, out of respect for what he remembers of love and innocence.
That this final sequence (present:present:remote past:recent past) is chronic, rather than chronological, suggests that Santos—throughout the entire collection—is less concerned with history perceived as ocean current or successive waves, than with culture as an entire archipelago of diverse islands in that stream. What he discerns is that any ethnic group consists of individual particles, no two of which are exactly identical (there are Filipinos, and Filipinos), but all of which have declared their commitment to participate, as if in some consummate entity. The declaration of a common bond, of course, tends to be more perfect than uneasy coexistence may actually turn out to be. Nevertheless, it provides a measure of meaning even for those who pay it lip service only.
This is the recurring theme in Santos' work: how hard it always is, yet how important, to be "Filipino" at heart, with all that that implies about human decency, good humor, and honor, consideration beyond courtesy, and putting both hands to a common burden; while at the same time trying to make a life out of being overseas Filipinos, Philippine-Americans, temporary "permanent residents" obligated to be buried "at home," or those assimilated beyond recovery of any heritage whatsoever.
As permeating as the scent of autumn apples is this single, persistent dream: the return of the Philippines to the man, whether or not a return to the Philippines is ever managed. Through dreams one presumes to distinguish the momentary from the momentous. For Santos, that ideal has too often been realized to be mocked as imaginary.
Source: Leonard Casper, "Introduction," in Scent of Apples: A Collection of Stories by Bienvenido N. Santos, University of Washington Press, 1979, pp. ix–xvi.
Bernad, Miguel A., Bamboo and the Greenwood Tree: Essays on Filipino Literature in English, Bookmark, 1961, pp. 33–41.
Blau, Zena Smith, Aging in a Changing Society, 2d ed., Franklin Watts, 1981, p. 139.
Kim, Elaine H., ed., Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings and Their Social Context, Temple University Press, 1982, pp. 265–72.
Kingston, Maxine Hong, "Precarious Lives," in New York Times Book Review, May 4, 1980, pp. 15, 28–29.
Santos, Bienvenido, Memory's Fictions: A Personal History, New Day Publishers, 1993, p. 252.
——, "Pilipino Old Timers: Fact and Fiction," in Amerasia, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1982, pp. 89–98.
Tan, Anthony, "You Lonely People: Exiles in the Stories of Bienvenido N. Santos," in Silliman Journal, Vol. 28, Nos. 1–2, 1981, pp. 43–48.
Alegre, Edilberto N., and Doreen G. Fernandez, Writers and Their Milieu: An Oral History of First Generation Writers in English, De La Salle University Press, 1984.
This book contains a wide-ranging interview with Santos in which he discusses his career and his creative methods.
Campomanes, Oscar V., "Filipinos in the United States and Their Literature of Exile," in Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Amy Ling, Temple University Press, 1992, pp. 49–78.
This scholarly article examines themes of exile, identity, and language in the literature of Filipino Americans. It includes a discussion of Santos's work, including his short stories.
Casper, Leonard, New Writing from the Philippines: A Critique and Anthology, Syracuse University Press, 1966, pp. 127–33.
Casper provides an appreciative discussion of Santos's short stories, mainly those that record the disillusioning post–World War II return to Manila of many Filipino Americans.
Santos, Tomas N., "The Pinoy in Fact and Fiction," in Solidarity, Vol. 10, Nos. 5–6, 1976, pp. 132–36.
Tomas Santos (Bienvenido Santos's son) discusses Bienvenido Santos's short stories as a continuation of the work of Carlos Bulosan in chronicling the lives of Filipino Americans.
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