The DelCastillo women are pretty ambitious when it comes to this life.
My sister Jackie, who I’ve written about as my Storytexter, had two weeks to spend in San Diego for work. She’s a Registered Nurse, and a Lieutenant in a military branch where female officers are still a small subset group serving their country. I decided to take some time off from work to spend a few days with Jackie. We have not seen each other for a few years. She lives in Connecticut, and I live in Alaska. Our lives are filled with the constant multi-tasking of raising our children, tending to our families, working full-time jobs, and finishing up our Masters.
We decided to return to the city where many memories of our childhood resides: San Diego, California. On the one hand, California is our home state–we graduated from high school back in Fairfield, and our youthful stupid shenanigans were left in a state that we barely glanced at as we grew up into womanhood.
My Dad’s family claimed San Diego as their home. My Uncle (my Dad’s brother) also served in the Navy and raised his family in National City. My paternal grandparents lived in the same apartment complex for over 20 years until they were too old to live on their own. There are plots in the cemetery where my grandma, grandpa, uncle, and cousin are buried. My maternal grandmother considered California as one of her home bases, she visited us in Oakland when we lived there, and when she closed her eyes to an eternal sleep in the early 90s, she did so in a hospital in Los Angeles.
San Diego was the summer home base. This city is also home base to a lot of Filipinos who contribute to the overall workforce infrastructure of the city. Every place Jackie and I went, there were Filipinos to greet us, to assists us, to provide information–and were always very nice and courteous.
There was the housekeeper, Salve, to our suite who I befriended and who greeted me kindly when she entered the room. She had returned from her break, and wanted to make sure that she finished everything that needed to be done in the room, but didn’t expect me to be standing there: hair frizzy, sweaty, and standing in the middle of the living room with my luggage.
The reason behind the hot mess was because the taxi was not allowed in the Coronado Naval Amphibious Base. I had to haul my luggage to the hotel, which was two streets away. I am never the person to walk or haul my things under humid weather. All I kept thinking as I walked and the sweat trickled on my neck causing my hair to frizz is the L.L. Cool J rap “I’m going back to Cali.. to Cali… to Cali,” and “I don’t fucking think so.” Ok, so the F word was not in the lyric, but I was thinking of it as I was running out of breath.
“Are you there yet?!” Jackie texted as I hauled my luggage. “No!” I texted back. By the time I arrived at the lobby, I knew I looked a hot mess from the receptionist who (name Theresa, also a Filipina) looked at me as if I just survived a tsunami.
Salve must have taken pity at the sight before her and thought the same.
“Hello M’am. Did you have a good flight?” she asked.
I smiled at her stunned that she called me ma’am–stunned because we were raised to respect your elders and to always be mindful of how you address them. Salve must be in her early 50s. She had brown hair with highlights, and her voice had a high pitch that made her sound as if she was always happy. She could pass for my Aunt.
“Hello, Salve. I did have a nice flight, thank you for asking. It’s ok, you don’t refer to me as ma’am. It’s ok.” I felt like I said it’s ok the way Manny Pacquiao says it’s ok after he just lost boxing match.
“It’s hot out there, huh, M’am?” she asked. Well, request not be called ma’am not granted.
“Uh-huh. My taxi wasn’t allowed to drive up to the hotel so I had to walk over here.”
“Oh no, M’am! You took the wrong taxi—only Coronado taxis allowed here. Just remember when you need taxi,” she replied.
“Thank you, Salve. I’ll make sure to remember.”
“You are welcome, M’am! I’m leaving now! Have a good day!” Salve left the room, and me to my own devices.
I get this awkward social etiquette turmoil within me for every time I see a Filipino or a Filipina working at a blue-collar or pink collar jobs. Jobs that are the salt of the earth, back-breaking, manual labor–they’re bodies succumb to achy joints, pains, and yet they have no complaints. The acknowledgment of such truth it is rooted within me because reminds me of my own family who have found the means necessary to work so that the next generation could find a way to be a better versions of our parents or grandparents. I balk, in fact I flinch, when I see Filipinos in their late 50s, 60s, 70s who look like Lolas (grandmas) or Lolos (grandpas) or even my mother or father working and committed to doing a really good job.
The awkward turmoil, if I could call it that, is centered on how I want to do the work for them.
I don’t want them to do that back-breaking work because they should be enjoying life as retirees–enjoying their family, their grandchildren, and resting their feet on the couch or something.
I was tempted to take Salve’s housekeeping cart to clean the entire floor for her. I wanted to vacuum, scrub the toilets, make the beds, fold the sheets, clean the bathrooms–all of her tasks.
What stopped me was the simple fact that she may have taken her broom and popped me on the head while cursing at me in Tagalog for losing my mind.
The turmoil didn’t end with Salve.
I wanted to help the lolas processing the cash registers check-out lines at the Naval Exchange store. Jackie was on full ninja shopper mode that we returned to the NEX numerous times. All the customer service folks at the NEX were Filipinos. The lolas at the cash register provided amazing customer service, and they were efficient in ensuring that customers didn’t wait in line too long–which was a good thing.
Because the longer Jackie and I stood in line, the more I wanted to take over the cash registers.
I wanted to tell them, “it’s ok, Lola, I’ll take it from here. I used to work at a base exchange and I know how. Go ahead, take a long break. Go get your coffee, and a bibingka and I will process all of these customers” and if she refused, “No, really, it’s ok. I CAN DO THIS. Never you mind, you need to rest, you’ve been on your feet all day,” was what I would have said. If I had done that, Jackie would have abandoned me at the cash register with her items–AFTER she takes a photo of me to post on Instagram.
There were more Filipinos in customer service related field work.
Jackie and I shopped for a gift for Salve, and the nurse that Jackie was working with at the Naval hospital (yes, you guessed it, the nurse was Filipina too). The sales woman at the jewelry counter at the Naval Base Exchange (yep, also Filipina) went above and beyond to help us select a gift. She even boxed the items similar to the way Rowan Atkinson’s character in the movie Love Actually did.
On my last day departing from San Diego, I exhaled after checking my luggage in and sat down at one of those eateries, and I looked up to see my waitress. The turmoil was not over. I wanted to take over for the waitress who was catering to me. She was old enough to be my mother, and she kept looking at me like I was her daughter.
“Dear, would you like some more ice tea?” she asked.
“Oh, hindi na po. Ok lang ako,” –No, thank you, and I’m ok, I said.
“Ahh! Filipina! I didn’t realize! And, you can speak Tagalog!” she said enthusiastically.
“Yes, I get to practice every now and then, Tita,” I said.
“Nako, I’ll take good care of you, ha! Let me know if you want more water or iced tea, dear!” she walked away smiling.
I felt at that moment the desire to hurry up, stuff my face with the avocado toast, and finish my meal because the thought of Tita serving me iced tea made me want to finish her shift.
Her comment about not realizing that I am Filipina wasn’t the first on this trip. I was in an elevator back at the hotel when one of the hotel’s crew man was in the elevator with me.
“Ma’am, what floor?” he asks. There’s the ma’am again and this time by a man old enough to be my uncle.
“Oh, sir, 8th floor please. Salamat po,” I responded.
“Oh! Filipina! I thought you were Italian or half puti (white)! You’re mestiza. And, you can speak Tagalog!” he chuckled.
Mestiza is another word for light-skinned, and it’s a word that I’ve heard a great deal growing up. The mestiza comments have gotten worse throughout the years, and I chucked it up to the lack of sun during the winter time in Alaska–either that or it’s because the winters are freezing ass cold that I am slowly cyropreserving myself.
The truth is I had a revelation during my trip back to the home base.
I have, in a way, lost a sense of my cultural identity, the farther I have stayed away from the cultural interactions I grew up with have led me to become a stranger, a hybrid to the very people whose cultural practices I was raised in.
They can’t even recognize that I am Filipina, and it isn’t because of the mestiza-ness (although that’s part of it), but also the mannerism, the accent, the speech–all of it. For Jackie, it is even more so. As an officer in the Navy, she belongs in an even smaller subset of her group: a Filipina Naval Officer Registered Nurse. When she is looked upon by many Filipinos, they all feel a certain pride reserved for a daughter who has fulfilled their own dreams for a better life.
The reactions to me being Filipina was filled not by rejection, but more so surprised, and kindness. Surprised that they didn’t think I was one, however, a product of how they all want their children/grandchildren to be: a product of their hard work, and an extension of the kindness they’ve taught. At least, I hope so.
The question, though, is the price of losing a part of one’s cultural identity worth such dreams? I don’t have the answer to this question.
All I have are the people who remind me such price: my grandparents who every now and then in memory (which usually comes in through teary eyes) reminds me, that who I am, what I do, how I pursue my goals and ambitions are not of my own–they are a product of grandparents who wanted more for their family.
How I get there, on the other hand, is all on me and I can only hope that they just might approve.