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The prospect of traveling abroad on my own this summer was terrifying. It’s not that I haven’t traveled before—I’ve traveled to El Salvador with my family plenty of times—but the idea of going to the Philippines for two months was completely different. It’s a country I’d never been to before, where I knew no one, and where I don’t speak a word of the language.
The most shocking thing is how easy it has been to navigate this country. I set aside the Ray Bradbury collection of my teens and put down the Junot Díaz short stories that have validated me. I pick up a collection by Filipino author F. Sionil José to explore. My comfort with the italicized Tagalog floors me. When a foreign, unfamiliar Filipino protagonist shouts sin verguenza, I read it in the voice of my mother, tossing the same insult at my brother and me when we’re being wise-asses.
I crack open a local beer—a San Miguel Lite—and ask if San Miguel is a province in the Philippines. It’s a resounding yes, and I think back to sitting in the backseat of a pickup truck, driving through the San Miguel in El Salvador. The story I wrote a couple of months ago set in the Salvadoran San Miguel takes on a new meaning. I’d tried tackling colonialism in 4,521 words then, but the blue label on the glass bottle I hold in my hand reveals just how momentous conquest is.
Here, colonialism ensures my comfort. Spanish conquest, in the Philippines and in El Salvador, has converged so that my biggest discomfort has been having to explain to an Uber driver that I only speak English. People ask me if I’m half Filipino because my skin is as brown as theirs; melanin rooted in a mezito tradition started by the machismo of Spanish conquistadors.
Riding the Uber down the highway, I see graffiti emblazoned across a dull concrete wall. It begs, “Say No to U.S. Imperialism.” It’s the imperialism that broke promises of independence in 1898 and razed Manila in 1945. It’s the source of trauma, tragedy and yet I am forced to be grateful for it because it allows me to navigate Manila in my native tongue, English.
Walking in the Philippines is like walking in my motherland in a lot of ways. It is molded for me. My passport and citizenship hold power rooted in oppression. The weight of Spanish colonialism and American imperialism hold me up like a perilous scale.
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