Sisterhood and mapping a new city

For my sister, Diosa, with love, respect, and admiration

Yesterday my sister and I drove to Oakland, California to retrace our steps when we first arrived fresh off the boat (FOB) in 1981. She was 12 and I was 14. She is celebrating her birthday and wanted to look back, to examine the character arc…what was she like at 12, what were her dreams then, what adversities did she face, and what lessons were learnt in terms of values, action, and a vision of change?

We immigrated from a quiet town, Bonuan Gueset, Dagupan City, Pangasinan, Philippines, to Oakland, living in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of 1420 Jackson Street. It was a huge change. Suddenly our new environment was urban and completely different; it was exciting but also daunting. Our mom was a single mother with five kids and three jobs, so we were pretty much left to our own to explore and navigate our new city.

As we fell in line to pick up dim sum from a restaurant in Chinatown yesterday, my sister and I reminisced about our favorite hangouts on the weekends 39 years ago: the Oakland Public Library, two blocks away from our apartment where we could borrow books and music for free, exploring Broadway, the Salvation Army, Chinatown where we did our groceries, and memories of mapping our new city as new immigrants.

My sister still remembers her milk from free lunch in public school being stolen everyday. She remembers walking with my brother and her classmates to school and talking about shootings. I remember my sister and I going on a public bus for the first time. We had no idea where the bus was going, but we just hopped on. We were curious, adventurous, and had new, unfamiliar coins that we wanted to test and see if they worked on the bus. As it turns out, the bus went very far away…we didn’t know that we also had to pay again on the return home (same bus), but we had ran out of coins, so we hid in the back of the bus, afraid we were going to get arrested (we had seen a lot of violent movies about America). Fortunately, the bus driver was kind and helped us to figure out how to get back home.

The entire building of 1420 Jackson Street was occupied by other newly arrived immigrants and refugees from Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, and other places. We thought this was “mainstream America” (with very few “white” people). It wasn’t until much later, after we left California to go to college in the East Coast, that we would get a perspective about Oakland (apparently then, one of the top 10 “most dangerous” cities in America). That was the face of America, home of the Black Panthers, that most people barely saw in the mainstream media, until Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

As my sister and I walked along Alameda beach yesterday, we traded stories we remember of mapping and navigating our new city. I remember us subsisting on salmon heads (because they were the least expensive). On our first week, I remember calling my mom at her office (Oakland Court) and asking: “Would you like us to cook the entire chicken or should I half it?” I remember my mom laughing and saying: “Go ahead and cook the entire chicken. There’s five of you and you’re all growing.” We were used to eating only half of a chicken in Pangasinan; eating a whole chicken seemed so privileged. My sister remembers her husband, an Irish-American from Massachusetts, who is a Federal Public Defender, asking her much later on in their marriage: “How come your family always only leaves me the fish-head? Don’t they like me? Is that why they only leave me the scraps?” My sister laughed: “Oh no. Trust me, they love you. It’s just that all of us get the fish-heads. There is no other part of the fish. It’s how we survived.”

I remember my mom having a handwritten list of close women friends and family and their contact numbers for support. She always had it handy and made sure we knew where it was, in case of emergency. It was one of the first things I learned from her and practiced wherever I ended up in this planet, including in Melbourne and Seoul. Later on, I would learn from another working single mother, my Ph.D. Supervisor at UC Berkeley, also from Southeast Asia (Indonesia), Professor Sylvia Tiwon:

“It is not easy to raise a child or children on your own, especially without the support of a community network. I think the idea of `single mother’ is another unfair twist on the idea of women’s responsibility. Women are quite capable of raising a child: it’s society that fails too often. Of course the presence of a father is important as well, but again here, the idea of ways in which a father is responsible for raising the child is rife with contradictory signals and demands.”

The first white person we would become close friends with was our High School Counselor, Mrs. Elaine Adams, a progressive, wealthy woman in San Francisco, married to a prominent lawyer, who dedicated herself to mentoring disadvantaged, low-income youth. She advised my sister, younger brother, and I that we should apply to the Seven Sisters (me to Wellesley College, my sister to Mount Holyoke College) and my brother to Phillips Academy, Andover. I remember thinking: “Where on earth are these schools? And why an all-women’s college? We don’t even have any money. And we don’t even know how to fill-out the forms.” When she told us that they were in Massachusetts, my sister immediately said: “Oh no, I won’t survive. Isn’t there snow there and it gets very cold? Forget it.” But Mrs. Adams wouldn’t give up on us. My sister remembers writing her college essay on Aretha Franklin and the jazz greats. Somehow, Mrs. Adams managed to get all three of us into these schools, with scholarships and financial aid. Without her, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Her example inspired my sister, late brother, and I to spend our lives working in transformative education and social work. At Mount Holyoke College, Diosa’s most vivid memory is taking a “Politics of Patriarchy” class with Professor Jean Grossholtz, who, for some reason, loved to pick on and single-out my sister in her class: “Jocelyn, what is your class, gender, race, and intersectional analysis of this?” And my sister would think to herself: “Geez, I’m just a freshwoman, this is my first year…what the hell do I know? Give me a break. And why are you picking on me?” Unbeknownst to Diosa, Professor Grossholtz was a specialist on U.S. colonialism in the Philippines, was a close friend of Cynthia Enloe (who wrote brilliant analyses of U.S. militarism and the U.S. bases in the Philippines), and had zeroed in on her in particular to challenge her. Diosa and Professor Grossholtz even went on a trip to the Philippines together, where they met the feminist organizers of Kalayaan, including Raquel and her daughter, Ria Tiglao.

My sister studied medicine and psychology, and now works as a nurse who risks her life working as an essential worker in a hospital every day. With her sense of irony, she says to me: “I’m living all the stereotypes and myths people have about Filipina nurses.” If there is anything good that has come out of Covid-19, it’s that nurses are finally getting the recognition they deserve for the contributions and risks they are making, with little access to personal protective equipment in the beginning of the pandemic.

From our humble beginnings in Oakland, my sister now volunteers to organize the Girls Scouts in her community to be empowered, run, take leadership positions (starting with her own daughter), and is active in nurses unions to fight for their rights. As we strolled along the Alameda beach yesterday, we talked about our dreams 39 years ago, and our new dreams now, envisioning new possibilities. From being scared 12 and 14 year olds, we learned how to map and navigate not just our new city, Oakland, but other cities; how to write college essays that get scholarship awards (without the help of expensive private consultants, as our single mother didn’t have the money to bribe college officials; it was also against her values); and how to build kindred spirit support networks of strong girls and women. In times of adversity, perhaps it is the survivors of social, political, economic, ecological conflict who may have meaningful insights and historical memory of how not just to survive, but envision social change and thrive.

Visual storyteller, Southeast Asian historian,

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