Monday, October 06, 2008


I am so glad to have seen “The Romance of Magno Rubio” in Stockton’s elegant Bob Hope Theater yesterday. I am guessing that many in the audience also drove hundreds of miles to attend this milestone event.

I read Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart in the late 80s. I’ve only been in the US a few years and was just beginning my graduate studies. I remember not being able to stop crying as I read this book and wondering why this history has eluded me. Why didn’t I know anything about the Filipinos in America while I was still in the Philippines? This was the beginning of my conscious decolonization process and I thank Carlos Bulosan now for his love of writing, love of life, and love for his kapwa Filipino.

In the academic corridors, over the past decade, scholars have produced prodigious amount of materials on Bulosan. I remember the discussions of literary critics about the “problems” with his work -- how he represented the Manong experience (not all Manongs are womanizers; not all Manongs went after white women, etc); or whether his book is autobiographical (this couldn’t have possibly all happened to one person); or whether the Bulosan texts obscure the other aspects of the Manong experience; or whether scholars shouldn’t move on and find other representations of the Fil Am experience aside from Bulosan’s Manongs.

At last night’s performance of Magno Rubio, I was glad to revisit Bulosan’s life and those of the Manongs. But even before the play, it was the Little Manila’s historical exhibit at the theatre lobby that made me teary eyed. The photographs came alive and just looking at one photograph brought History into focus – not just of the individual struggles of the Manongs in the photograph but the History of a people uprooted and seduced to come to America and, on the other side, the History of a people who uproot and seduce others in pursuit of a false myth about itself.

A Pablo Mendoza Salomon ID card made me wonder if I am related to him. And I thought “of course, I am!” I am related to all the Manongs on those photographs. A man standing next to me in front of the asparagus tools said: “Go ahead, touch it, hold it and feel the spirit of the hands that held this.” More tears.

I need not repeat the plot of the play here. What I want to say here is how I was moved by the genius of the script and the staging. For almost two hours, I was enrapt by the energy of the play. The music, choreography, poetry, the set, the acting was flawless.

MAgno Rubio’s romance is a many-layered thing, of course. I was glad when Magno’s relationship with Clarabelle ended the way it did. The way he took it with nonchalance and a readiness to move on with no regrets (in spite of the intensity of his passion) speaks volumes about something. This something that is also, I want to believe, very Filipino. Magno realized that his fantasy was just that and that no matter how close it came to becoming real, he knew that he didn’t deserve this white woman after all. He is more noble than his practical situation could reveal. His crazy passion for Clarabelle, in the end, seemed nothing more than a temporary permission he allowed himself to dive into but about which he had no illusions about the trap that is set before him.

It is this wisdom that I hope Filipinos could conjure as we struggle in daily life to make sense of our experience in the US. If Clarabelle represents the beguiling beauty of this country, may we also wake up to its deceptive seductions: imperial ideologies that have run their course and yet would extract more blood if it could to keep the brute alive.

There were references to illiteracy in the play and it plays the role of trickster. MAgno as the illiterate one is, in fact, the one who is literate about his own capacity to love amidst a situation that forbids him to do so. He allows himself to get intoxicated with his love for Clarabelle but he could because he had witnesses. The other Manongs play the wise role of witnesses -- providing Magno a container for his temporary insanity over Clara, but also reminded him of the truth and its consequences.

What is the truth? If you saw the play, you know.

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