What follows is my introduction to the reprint/re-issue of Liwanag, the 1975 Filipino American arts anthology, which I am just so honored to have written.
What happens when a group of young Pinoy and Pinay writers, artists, and students — Flips — take the means of production into their own hands.
They create a Flip-centric work of art and literature that is their collaborative artistic and political vision, and though decades out of print, it becomes legendary in the local community, its effects reaching into the following decades, and into the new century.
For many of us “youngbloods,” as Manong Al Robles called us as he encountered us in San Francisco streets, especially SoMa, especially Manilatown, Liwanag, produced in 1975 at San Francisco State University, birthplace of the 1968 Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), was a necessary object lesson in possibility and execution. In the 1990s, so few of us had never seen ourselves in print; imagining ourselves as authors of our own stories was, as gross understatement, an insurmountable challenge. If not for Liwanag, how could we have ever committed our historically, linguistically, emotionally complex stories to the page, writing ourselves in our own images, in our own languages, in our own spaces —
… in the mission & manilatown & chinatown & japantown & in central valley & stockton & vallejo & salinas & seattle & watsonville & san jose & hayward & mt. eden & centerville & sacramento & isleton & walnut grove & up & down the coast & on mountains & hills & below trees & near rivers & streams & oceans in the delano fields …
Manong Al Robles bridged the multitudes of us to a version of the people’s history which his elder, Carlos Bulosan, wrote decades earlier, in the monumental, Whitmanesque “If You Want To Know What We Are”:
We are multitudes the world over, millions everywhere;
in violent factories, sordid tenements, crowded cities;
in skies and seas and rivers, in lands everywhere;
our number increase as the wide world revolves
we are factory hands field hands mill hand everywhere,
Flips are an American presence, despite a casual, imperialist omission from canonical American History and American Literature. If you want to know who built, who continue to build California’s economy to greatness, Robles, channeling Bulosan in this relentless “a thousand pilipino songs,” will tell you.
Note that “a thousand” is not hyperbole. How many songs, and singers of those “pilipino songs” have been ignored and erased from the pages of American narratives, and from the streets of American cities. Bay Area Filipino American anthropologist Benito Vergara, Jr. wrote in Pinoy Capital, “A ‘real’ Manilatown on Kearny Street in San Francisco, with barbershops, hotels, restaurants and clubs — and, at its height, 10,000 Filipinos — did exist just south of Chinatown until 10 blocks’ worth was swallowed up by the Financial District in the late ’60s.”
Really, “a thousand” is an underestimate.
Note also Robles’s writing conventions. His use of lower case proper names and ampersands dispenses with the formalities associated with Western “high literature,” and standard English, calling to mind fellow Liwanag poet Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, and the strong influence of the Black Arts Movement and Jazz Poetry. In addition to compacting the poetic line — for the portability of a poem is one of its appeals — ampersands link parties in creative collaboration with one another. The place names are humble hence lower case spaces where Pinoys and Pinays practiced kapwa, working, community building, ubiquitous yet invisible to the “American” eye.
Countering institutional Filipino invisibility, the Flips knew to look to the political movements of other communities of color. The language of Vince Reyes’s poem, “For My Stylin’ Pinoy Brothers,” is Bay Area urban vernacular, as he points to Oakland’s Black Panther Party, across The Bay from the Flips’ cultural and political centers. Reyes addresses his Pinoy brothers:
Roomful of brown paper mache figures
With Huey Newton motors inside of them
And it’s cool
And we can all dig it.
He calls out his stylin’ brothers’ performative “blackness,” the delicate “brown paper mache figures / With Huey Newton motors inside of them,” empty of Filipino substance. He continues:
… when we emulate Third World Brothers and Sisters
It’s because it’s our style too
Man it’s all the same
So learn it Brother…
Their revolution, our makibaka, a people’s struggle for self-determination. Makibaka, the part of the people’s movement specific to Filipinos, with which we must reconnect, in which we can take pride. This difficulty of reconnection, given our history of multiple colonizations, is apparent also in Robles’s “Tagatac on Ifugao Mountain.” Whereas Robles directly names the “weird,” and “filthy,” employing evocative imagery of “monkey urine,” “carabao dung,” to underscore the historical shame of Westernized Filipinos about indigeneity, Reyes remains fixed in the Bay Area urban scene, asserting, “Our heritage is our heritage / Full of our Fathers’ Blood.” In our “Ilocano made rags,” “our style is cool too.”
Liwanag led me to the Bay Area Pilipino American Writers (BAPAW) anthology, Without Names, published by the Manilatown-born, Asian American independent publisher, Kearny Street Workshop, in 1985. This collection’s production value was literary industry standard, an aesthetically spare, curated, slim poetry volume, almost the opposite of Liwanag’s DIY zine feel. The poetry of Without Names was invocation and song, crafted from rage, lament, and contemplation. It brought me to Jaime Jacinto, Jeff Tagami, Shirley Ancheta, Virginia Cerenio, poets who took me under their wing when I was an infant in this industry.
A UC Berkeley undergraduate and aspiring poet, editing Maganda magazine in the 1990s, I came to understand that Maganda was a descendant of Liwanag, and that making space for Filipino writing was fraught. How could we come to consensus about what constituted “good” Filipino American writing. Can a poem just be a poem? Must all Filipino American writing be about Filipino culture, history, and politics? How did the editorial body of Liwanag resolve any such spirited dialogue about these things?
I look to Serafin Malay Syquia for clarity, illumination. In his manifesto, “Poetry and Politics,” he wrote:
Poetry should not nurture the symptom that created the sickness in the first place. It should help to cure the problems of the world by exposing and offering a sensitive response to the causes of the failures in society.
Syquia cuts away all the artifice, distraction, and minutiae. If you want to know who is writing the “Flip” political poem today, ask, does the work serve oppressive power structures, or does it push towards our liberation. Look to the street poets, slam poets, feminist poets, Pinayist poets, performance poets, the MCs and Hip-hop poets, code switching poets, experimental poets; in the new century, we “youngblood” diasporic F/Pilipinx and Pinxy poets must be prepared to answer.
Barbara Jane Reyes
Bulosan, Carlos, and San Juan, E. On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1995.
Vergara, Benito M. Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009.