CECILIA MANGUERRA BRAINARD: PHILIPPINES WRITER


Cecilia Brainard,
Photo by Jeanie MacDonald

 

FLIP GOTHIC
by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

 

ear Mama,

Thank you for agreeing to have Mindy. Jun and I just don’t know what to do with her. I’m afraid if we don’t intervene, matters will get worse. Mia, her Japanese American friend, had to be sent to a drug rehab place. You’d met her when you were here; she’s the tiny girl who got into piercing; she had a nose ring, a belly ring - and something in her tongue. Her parents are distraught; they don’t know what they’ve done, if they’re to blame for Mia’s problem. I talked to Mia’s Mom yesterday and Mia’s doing all right; she’s writing angry poetry but is getting over the drug thing, thank God.

There’s so much anger in these kids, I can’t figure it out. They have everything - all the toys, clothes, computer games and whatever else they’ve wanted. I didn’t have half the things these kids have; and Jun and I had to start from scratch in this country - you know that. That studio we had near the hospital was really tiny and I had to do secretarial work while Jun completed his residency. Everything we own - this house, our cars, our vacation house in Connecticut - we’ve had to slave for. I don’t understand it; these kids have everything served to them in a silver platter and they’re angry.

We’re sure Mindy’s not into drugs - she may have tried marijuana, but not the really bad stuff. We’re worried though that she might eventually experiment with that sort of thing. If she continues running around with these kids, it’s bound to happen. What made us decide to send her there was this business of not going to school. Despite everything, Mindy had always been a good student, but this school year, things went haywire. This was what alerted us, actually, when the principal told us she hadn’t been to school for two weeks. We thought the worst but it turned out she and her friends had been hanging out at Barnes and Noble. It’s just a bookstore; it’s not a bad place, but obviously she should have gone to school. We had to do something. Sending her to the Philippines was all I could think of.

She’ll be arriving Ubec on Wednesday, 10:45 a.m. on PAL Flight 101. Ma, don’t be shocked, but her hair is purple. Jun has been trying to convince her to dye her hair black, for your sake at least, but Mindy doesn’t even listen. Jun has had a particularly difficult time dealing with the situation. It’s not easy for him to watch his daughter "go down the drain," as he calls it. He feels he has failed not only as a father but as a doctor.

It’s true that it’s become impossible to reason with Mindy, but I’ve told him to let the hair go, to pick his battles so to speak. But he gets terribly frustrated. He can’t stand the purple hair; he can’t stand the black lipstick - yes, she uses black lipstick - and the black clothes and boots and metal. I’ve explained to him that it’s just a fad. Gothic, they call it. I personally think it looks dreadful. I can’t stand the spikes around her neck; but there are more important things, like school or her health. She’s just gotten over not-eating. That was another thing her friends got into - not eating. Why eat dead cows, Mindy would say. She was into tofu and other strange looking things. For months, she wasn’t eating and had gotten very thin, we finally had to bring her to a doctor (very humbling for Jun). The doctor suggested a therapist. One hundred seventy-five dollars an hour. She had several sessions then Mindy got bored and started eating once again. She’s back to her usual weight, but well, the hair and clothing might scare you, so I’m writing ahead of time to prepare you.

Thanks once again Ma, for everything, and I hope and pray that she doesn’t give you the kind of trouble she’s been giving us.

Your daughter,

Nelia

*

Dear Nelia,

She had blue hair, not purple. Arminda explained that she had gone out with her friends and found blue dye - obviously you were unaware of this. She brought several boxes of the dye, including bottles of peroxide. Can you just imagine--peroxide--what if the bottles broke in her suitcase? Apparently, she has to remove color from her hair before dying it blue. The whole process sounds terribly violent on the hair, but I didn’t say anything; I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot.

Arminda arrived an hour late - PAL, you know how that airline is. She was not wearing boots; she had left them in New York, she explained, and was wearing white platform shoes instead. It’s an understatement to say that operations at Ubec Airport came to a halt when people caught sight of her. People around here like to say Ubec is now so cosmopolitan, with our five-star hotels, our discos and our share of Japanese tourists, but it will always retain its provincial qualities. When I saw Arminda - blue hair, black clothes, sling bag, platform shoes - I was not sure Ubec is ready for Arminda. I had to remind myself that I survived World War Two and therefore will survive Arminda.

Indeed she is rebellious. It does no good to tell her what to do; in fact she goes out of her way to do exactly the opposite of what you say. I have placed her in your old room and have stopped entering the room because the disorder is too much for me to take. Clothes all over the bed and dresser chair, and scattered all over the floor as well. One cannot walk a straight line in that room. There was also the business of blue dye all over the bathroom. The maid Ising spent one whole afternoon scrubbing the tiles with muriatic acid to remove the stains.

Her language is foul, her behaviour appalling. I will not pretend that it’s been easy having Arminda here. I try to give her a lot of leeway because she is just fifteen and doesn’t know any better, but having her here has been purgatory.

Frankly, Nelia, I blame you and Jun for all this. If she had been trained properly, if she had been taught right or wrong from the beginning, she would not be this incorrigible brat. Forgive me, but I don’t know what else to call this willful, mouthy, and arrogant child. I have repeatedly called your attention: I have warned you that that child will bring you to your knees if you don’t discipline her. But all I heard from you and Jun was: Ma, don’t be old-fashioned; this is the American way. Here now is the result of your American experiment. My words have proved prophetic, have they not? There is some poetic justice in all this: your daughter has finally shown you the pain parents endure, as I have endured on account of you. I am still trying to figure out why you left for America when you had a good life here. You parroted all the cliches about America--freedom, equality, human rights, opportunities--well, obviously you have learned that cliches are just that.

I am not enjoying rubbing it in and pray she can still be saved. And I also pray that you and Jun can alter your ways. You two have become too American for your own good. This has contributed to the problem. You have spoiled her. You yourself admit you have given her everything. Every material thing perhaps, but not a good sense of herself. It is clear this child is terribly insecure, that she does not like herself. Coloring her hair, this outrageous get-up - she is simply hiding behind all these.

Another thing, you do not even keep an altar in your home; and even though you go to church when I visit you in New York, I am well aware that you do not always go to Mass on Sundays. Despite all your wealth your family does not have a solid foundation, so there you are. But let us drop the matter for the moment. After all, you and Jun are paying for your mistakes, and I can only hope that it is not too late.

Let me resume my report on Arminda.

Arminda has been so disagreeable, the kids of Ricardo dislike her intensely. I had hoped they would all get along and that therefore Arminda could spend time with her cousins. I am old, and my interests and hers are very different. Miriam and Oscar are close to her in age. Unfortunately things didn’t work out. In her New York accent Arminda called her cousins backward and ignorant, and therefore they boycotted her. She has only me and the servants who barely speak English. She does not really talk to me but does extend standard cordialities: good morning, Lola, good evening, Lola, at least you have taught her that much.

She is restless; she does not know what to do with herself. She roams around the house and yard. She likes helping the gardener build bonfires in the afternoon; of course her playing with fire makes me nervous so we keep a close eye on her. There is just no telling what will enter her mind. In the evening, she watches television. She is constantly flipping the channels, from Marimar to CNN, my head spins when I watch TV with her. The maids say she reads and writes when she is in her bedroom. I have suggested that she write you and Jun but she says she will never talk nor write to you.

Obviously, she cannot hang around here forever. I’ve visited schools around here so she can go to school soon. She will not do at St. Catherine’s. The nuns there are as strict today as they had been half a century ago. Ricardo suggests enrolling her in American School. Your brother says American School is more liberal, less traditional; perhaps Arminda will not be so different there.

Oh, another thing, she insists on being called Arminda, not Mindy. She said she has always hated that name; that it reminds her of some dumb television show "Mork and Mindy."

I will let you know how her schooling goes.

Love and kisses,

Mama

*

Dear Nelia,

Arminda is not in school. I had enrolled her at American School, but the night before she was supposed to go school, she shaved off her head - the whole thing except for the blue bangs. Even the liberal Americans will not have her. She hated school in New York and will never go to school again, she insists.

I was very angry but have decided not to force her. At any rate, there is no school in Ubec that will take her. The Christmas holidays are almost here, then there’s the Sinulog festival; nothing much will be happening in school any way. I have told her that she must spend a few hours reading in our library; your father had many history books and there’s the entire collection of the Encyclopedia Brittanica besides. For once she agreed to something.

Frankly I feel she is unhappy about having shaved her head. She has been wearing that black fedora hat of hers with the veil in front. When she is not in the library, she sulks in her bedroom. I have raised six children and have eleven grandchildren; I know better than to give her attention.

Mama

P.S. I forgot to mention that it had entered her head to dye the hair of my Santo Nino. Since you were an infant, that poor statue has been standing at the landing of our stairs, unmolested; we offer it flowers, we light candles in front of it; we take it out for the Sinolug parade; the artist Policarpio Lozada carved it from hard yakal wood, which is now impossible to find, and here your daughter comes along and colors its hair bright blue. It looks ridiculous, Nelia--the Child Jesus in red robes with blue hair. When she saw how upset I was, she offered to dye the hair black, but I told her to leave it that way as a reminder to all of what she has done.

I am saying the novena to the Santo Nino, patron of lost causes, for your daughter.

*

Dear Nelia,

I don’t know if the Santo Nino had something to do with it, but she has discovered the animals. I have three pigs, one enormous black female and two small males that I’ve earmarked for Christmas lechon. She releases the small ones from their pen in the morning and chases them around. Sometimes I catch her talking to them. The runt, the pink one with freckles down his back, cocks his head to one side and stares at Arminda, as if he is listening. She gets the water hose and hoses them down. The piglets root about and roll around the mud near the water tank, then afterwards, they march back to their pen.

She also plays with my two hens. Abraham had given these to me several months ago, but one day, they started laying eggs and I could not kill them. The chickens run around scot-free and they never learned to lay eggs in a regular place. I’d tried to make nests for them near the garage, but they prefer the many nooks and crannies around the yard. Arminda hunts for the eggs daily. She says the hen that lays brown eggs favors the place under the star apple tree, whereas the hen that lays white eggs lays under the grapefruit tree. She asked the cook to teach her how to prepare the eggs properly so Arminda now knows how to fry eggs, scramble them and make omelettes. This morning, she made me a cheese omelette and she arranged it on the plate with parsley garnish to make it look pretty. She was quite delighted at her creation.

She is really still just a child. I cannot help wondering if your lifestyle there has forced her to grow up too quickly. Your way of life is horrible; when I am there my blood pressure rises from all that hurly-burly. Life does not have to be such a rat race. One ought to "smell the flowers" - as your kitchen poster says.

Love and kisses,

Mama

*

Dear Nelia,

We did not have lechon for Christmas. I had seen it coming. Christmas Eve, when the man I contracted to slaughter and roast the pigs arrived, Arminda begged me not to have the pigs killed. She was in tears. She said she would grow out her hair once again; she promised to behave - anything to save the pigs. Like Solomon I weighed the matter: Christmas meal versus the pigs. I could see that the pigs meant a lot to her, that in fact, the pigs are partly responsible for her more mellow behaviour. In the end I decided to save the pigs. For the first time since her arrival, Arminda kissed me on the cheeks.

She was actually charming to her cousins. We joined them for midnight Mass at Redemptorist church, then later we gathered at home for the Noche Buena meal. Even without the lechon, there was plenty of food. It’s always that way every year, even when you were small, too many rellenos and embotidos; and Ricardo always makes his turkey with that wonderful stuffing. The desserts are another whole story: sans rival, tocino del cielo, meringue, mango chiffon cake, maja blanca, all the way to the humble sab-a bananas rolled in white sugar.

I don’t know if it was a joke but Miriam and Oscar gave her a black wig. Arminda removed her hat, tried on the wig and kept it on the whole night. I was surprised to see that she looks a lot like you.

Arminda gave everyone poems written in calligraphy on parchment paper. I do not know what mine means but it says:

I fled from you

A world away

I turn and

Find you

All around me.

As usual, she wore black, but this time it was a dress sewn by Vering. It had a nice flowing skirt, and instead of a zipper, the dress had black ribbons that criss-crossed and tied into a ribbon. She wore black net stockings and black chunky shoes. She continues to wear black lipstick but we have become used to it. Actually we have become used to Arminda and her drama; and I believe she is getting used to us.

I hope your Christmas has been as lovely as ours.

Love and kisses,

Mama

*

Dear Nelia,

Arminda wanted to know more about the Sinulog festival. People are getting ready for the Sinulog and the Christmas decorations have given way to the banners with the image of the Child Jesus. I explained that even before Christian days, Ubecans have always celebrated during harvest time. When Christianity was introduced, the statue of the Child Jesus, called the Santo Nino, became the focal point of the festivities. People dance to honor the Child Jesus. In parades, people dance to the beat of drums. Some people blacken their faces and they wear costumes and dance through the streets of Ubec. People do get drunk and it can get wild sometimes, so one must know where to go; I told her this because I could see her eyes sparkling with interest.

We visited the Child Jesus at the Santo Nino Church. I could not help myself - I pointed out to her that this original statue does not have blue hair. Embarrassed, she looked down at her shoes and mumbled that she had offered to dye my statue’s hair black. I explained that if we dye the statue’s hair from blue to black to God-knows-what-other-color, it will lose all its hair. She apologized once again for having touched my statue. She said this sincerely and I decided to let the matter go.

I related stories instead about the Santo Nino: how the Child roams the streets at night; how the Child gives gifts of food to His friends. And I told Arminda of how you were born with beri-beri and how I danced to the Child Jesus so that you would be saved.

The last item fascinated her.

"What is beri-beri, Lola?" she asked.

"A disease caused by a lack of Vitamin B," I said.

"What happened to my Mom?"

"She was born near the tail-end of the war, and I had not eat properly when I carried her. Your mother had edema and nervous disorder. Her eyes were rolled up; she was dying."

"I didn’t know my Mom almost died."

"I prayed to the Santo Nino for her life."

"She never told me she was sick when she was a baby."

"Perhaps she did and you didn’t listen."

She furrowed her brows and thought for a while before asking, "How did you pray?"

"I danced my prayer."

"Show me," Arminda said.

And so outside the Santo Nino Church, we held candles in our hands and we shuffled our dance to the Child Jesus. It was mid-day and quite hot and sweat rolled down our faces as we swayed to the right, then to the left. People gathered to watch us. I am usually shy about this matters, but this time I did not mind. Both of us were laughing when we finished.

She also wanted to see the old Spanish fort, so we drove to Fort San Pedro and later we stopped by the kiosk with Ferdinand Magellan’s cross. This got her interested and she scoured the library for information on Philippine history. She was pumping me full of questions; then this morning, she expressed interest in going back to school. After the Sinulog, I will meet with the principal of the American School.

I think, Nelia, that Arminda’s problem has been basically a question of identity. I know Jun has talked to Arminda, telling her she has Filipino blood but that she’s an American citizen. I am not sure that is enough for that child. At the hospital where he works, Jun is treated like a god; he is a doctor and is not subjected to the "looks" and the questions: where do you come from? Or worse - what are you? He doesn’t feel the discrimination, not as much as Arminda may, in your American world.

These past months, she has immersed herself in our world - granted it is not her world because one day she will return to America - but in the meantime, she has a better understanding of what it means to be Filipino. It is important for one to know where one comes from, in order to know where one is headed.

Love and kisses,

Mama

*

Dear Mom and Dad,

I need six packages of blue dye and three bottles of peroxide. If you call Mia, she can tell you where to buy them. Tell Mia, I’m glad she’s well and that I wish she were here with me. She’d like this place; it’s cool. Tito Ric has brought us to the beaches here, and he’s promised to take us to the rice terraces this summer. He said the place is very old, and there are mummies there, and there are fireflies at night. He also said some of the people there, especially the older ones, have tattoos on their bodies. (He’s already told me I can’t have a tattoo, so you don’t have to worry.) I can’t wait for the summer.

Last week we had the Sinulog. It wasn’t as fancy as the Rose Parade nor the Mardi Gras, but there were numerous parades all over the city. Day and night for a week you could hear the drums beating. People from other towns came to the city and many of them slept along the sidewalks. The city was crammed with people, celebrating and eating and dancing. I went around with Miriam and Oscar. They were such dorks before, but they’re not that bad any more.

For the main parade, we wore costumes - Lola lent Miriam and me some of her old sayas; Oscar blackened his face and wore a huge feathered hat. The three of us had blue hair. People stopped us in the streets to ask about our hair. They fingered our hair and wondered how we turned it blue. We just laughed. We did not tell them we used dye from New York. It was like a secret - our secret.

But I’ve ran out and need more. Be sure and send it; but don’t rush because the school does not allow blue hair. I’ll have to wait until summer vacation before I can dye my hair blue again.

Love,

Arminda

~end~

Copyright 1998 by Cecilia M. Brainard; all rights reserved.

Writer's Bio: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the award-winning author and editor of 8 books, including the internationally-acclaimed novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories, Philippine Woman in America, and Woman with Horns and Other Stories. Her second novel, Magdalena, will be released in 2002. She edited Fiction by Filipinos in America, Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America, and Journey of 100 Years: Reflections on the Centennial of Philippine Independence. In 1998, she received the Outstanding Individual Award from her birth city, Cebu. She has also received a California Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, a Brody Arts Fund Award, A Special Recognition Award from the Los Angeles City Board of Education for her work dealing with Asian American youths. In 2001, she received a Filipinas Magazine Award for Arts and a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate, 21st District, and others.  She teaches writing at the Writers Program, UCLA-Extension, and University of Southern California. Please visit her website at http://www.ceciliabrainard.com.

 

 

 


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