The Life, Hopes, Dreams, and Death of a Filipino Pioneer

By Joe Talaugon

Joe and Margie Talaugon

As I think back over my life, I remember the hardships and poverty of a farm worker's life. I can remember the cold rainy nights in the kitchen of our old farmhouse--the wood burning stove crackling as we sat there waiting for Mom to finish cooking supper. Whatever she made was simple—maybe beans and potatoes, or rice and macaroni.

There were six of us kids. While Mom cooked, sometimes Pop would bring his rooster in the house. He would pet it and massage it for the big fight coming up on Sunday. He would say, "I think this one will win Sunday". He had said this many, many times before. My father always seemed to look for the "Pot of Gold" at the end of the rainbow. He found the rainbow, but he never found the gold. I think he took this attitude in life—he always spoke of achieving a certain "richness" in this country. When he left the Philippines as a youth, he was told that America was the land of opportunity, The Promised Land! He believed that someday he would be rewarded for his hard labor and the sacrifices he made for America.

I was thirteen years old when we moved to this particular farmhouse in 1943. It was no different from the others we lived in before—the same outhouse, makeshift bath house with its galvanized bath tub about four feet deep by six feet long and four feet wide. We had to chop wood and start the fire everyday if we wanted to take a bath. The house was small with poor lighting, no heat, and newspaper was used for wallpaper. Cardboard covered the windows for there were no glass panes, but we managed to find happiness there in the years to come.

Pop's daily ritual after a hard day's work was having a glass of wine while stroking his favorite chicken. It was as though his work was not as fulfilling as having his favorite rooster to proudly stroke at the end of the day. He would put the rooster through the exercises, practicing the deadly leaps and sparring with a young rooster or old veteran. This ritual, I found out, was common throughout the nearby ranches where Filipinos lived.

Sometimes men from the adjoining bunkhouse or camps would come over to visit. They would look over the chickens and plan for the weekend fights. They would plan to pool all their resources after checking the rooster's potential by his practice performance. When they were through discussing the "fights", they ate, drank some wine and played their guitars. They sang songs they learned in their youth and then reminisce about home. Sometimes one or two of the men would bring out a handkerchief to wipe the tears from his eyes. Most often I was present at these get together and I would feel badly whenever this special mood started amongst the men. I could not quite understand it. As soon as it affected Uncle Ben, Pop would start with his hometown humor or bring out their childhood periods of mischief, and how they were punished for it. Sometimes Pop would bring up an incident from the latest cockfights, like the time this certain Pinoy climbed a Eucalyptus tree thinking the police would not see him during a raid. Pop would say, "Goddim crazy guy, the tree got no bush, it cannot hide him! Police see him quick they catch him. Gago talaga".

There was really not much to ranch life for most of the men. They would stay in their own little bunkhouses or come over and visit with Pop. They seemed to enjoy our family. The men looked forward to the weekends whey could gamble or see all their other single friends, sit around and just talk, or stand around in the streets and pool halls.

In the old days, there were also the different groups from out of town. Sometimes there was trouble—a shooting, fight, or knifing over gambling losses or women. As kids, we heard of the incident whenever the men came over to tell Pop about it.

Pop was an outgoing person, a carefree type. He made a lot of noise but he would never do anything to hurt anyone, even in the way he disciplined us. He spoke threateningly but never took a hand on us. I guess we took his threats seriously even though we knew we would not be punished. Pop had a way of being gentle yet harsh at the same time. He always spoke of how he was raised and how his parents disciplined the children. Pop always referred to his parents with great endearment and all of us grew up the way Pop was raised. For a long time we could not understand why Pop left his family of the home he would describe as paradise.

He and Uncle Ben would describe the hillsides, the fruit trees, the beautiful ocean, and the warm climate; how they would fish with their father and swim most of the time. The description of their chores sounded more like games than work. The family had a carabao that the children would call down from the hill or take to the water to cool off. Their father used the carabao for plowing or carrying the supplies from one area to another.

Every month Pop would send whatever little money home. I remember the day Pop received a letter from home telling him his father passed away. I was about twelve years old. He and Mom read the letter aloud. For a minute he didn't speak or move. He looked as though his thoughts were far away, then, he cried like a baby. Whenever he would seem to calm down, he would say, "why did I come here? Why did I leave them, never to see them again?" Then his shoulders would start shaking and he would hold his head in his hands and cry. Uncle Ben and Pop never seemed to be the same for a long time. Instead of their usual smiles and humor, they were sad and quiet. I often wondered if I would feel the same way someday when my parents died. I could not quite understand the feeling they had. All I knew is that the sadness in their hearts lasted a long time.

One day Pop finally spoke to us kids about the death of his father. He said he had promised that someday he would return home with whatever he and Uncle Ben could make, to help his mother and father has an easier life. He explained that although he and Uncle Ben had always enjoyed their childhood and had total love and respect from their parents, they were poor people. They lived in Putat, a barrio a few miles from Tuburan, Cebu. For his father, it was a constant struggle to survive and provide for the family. That was the reason why Pop and Uncle Ben came to America. They heard they could obtain a higher level of education and that jobs were available to all Filipinos. At that point he started crying and could no longer speak. We all left the room so that he could be alone. I felt a kind of hopelessness because I could not console Pop. I could see that he also had to struggle to keep us all alive. I felt a strange pain in the pit of my stomach whenever I heard Pop sobbing from the next room.

A few years later Pop's mother died. He cried but he carried himself in a different way. He never spoke of her death, but I knew he felt it because he would look out of the window or stand on the porch and constantly sigh, the kind of sigh that was almost a shudder. I know he held all that grief inside, because he never wrote home as often after that.

As we were growing, Pop's famous words were always, "Tek esy ked!" Whenever those of us who were old enough to drive went to town with a group of kids; Pop's warning was always "Tek esy ked. Don't be folise!" He never went into detail as to why we should "Take it easy" or "What kind of foolishness" we should avoid. A lot of times when I came close to trouble his words would pop into my mind.

Pop and Uncle Ben used to dry fish (bu-wod) and during each meal Pop would always throw a couple of pieces onto the open flames so we could have it with whatever else was prepared to go with rice. Sometimes Pop would go downtown on a Saturday and buy all kinds of Oriental food from the Japanese Fish Market in Guadalupe. There was one special kind of fried fish about the size of large sardines that Pop always roasted; he called it "Kukoy Caboyo". For years we grew up thinking that was the real name of that dried fish. It wasn't until I was married that I found out what it meant. Pop laughed until he had tears in his eyes. He said, "what do you expect to call it, do you remember the smell of the plow horse's stable? Gad dim, smell like hell, but taste good no?" This was Pop, with all the sadness and humor combined into a real person: a free soul imprisoned by the harsh labor for survival.

I wonder if there is a God; maybe He heard Pop's last words. I wonder if he said, "someday" again as he had so many times before. Many times I think of that night. I see my father trying to escape the old burning farm house. I sadly wonder if he received death with anger, sorrow, or relief. There were so many unfulfilled dreams. Many times throughout my father's last years, his sons and daughters invited him to live with them. He always refused and we all understood why. We knew that he had that Filipino pride. As long as he could work, he could take care of himself. His Filipino father's pride kept him going.

As his casket was lowered into the ground, I looked around at his many friends. Filipino brothers with tear-filled eyes. I couldn't help but believe that they, too, had seen themselves in my father. Not death in a farmhouse, but death alone for an old Filipino in this country is an unwanted death. Because of the hardships and loneliness, they lived here all their lives, searching for that security and peace of mind, the unknown reward of life itself.

So, with sorrow and guilt, because I have been selfish with my own way of life, I want to teach my children and their children, that being a Filipino, they are descendants of a brave and unselfish, loving person, my father.

If there is a God, and He can hear my thoughts, I hope he tells my father that someday we will accomplish some relief or way for all Filipino Seniors Citizens to live in comfort and dignity, in their last few years in America, that for their sacrifices in this country, their descendants are working together toward a better life for all Filipinos. We are united. We will be strong.

Some Filipino Senior Citizens are dying in the camps, in the fields, in lonely hotel rooms, all over the country. With more involvement by our youth and all Filipinos, maybe my father's words will come true, yes, SOMEDAY.

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