Looking For Right And Wrong In The Philippines

Get the Full StoryI

My Uncle Pepo didn t want to take us to the farm. It was too dangerous, he said, and he didn t want me kidnapped on my first trip back to the Philippines in 22 years.Our family had owned the farm since the end of World War II, when the US government granted the land to my great-grandfather for his service as a guerrilla fighter resisting the Japanese occupation. Uncle Pepo, my mother s cousin, a dentist of modest means, was the farm s de facto manager because he lived closer to it than anyone else in the family. From his home in Iligan City, a bustling industrial town on the northern tip of Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, the farm was less than an hour's drive up the mountains and into the jungle. Yet even Uncle Pepo hadn t been there in years.With eight major languages spoken across its 7,000-plus islands, the Philippines is a fragmented place, and even the dangers vary by region. On the northern island of Luzon, communist insurgents attack from base camps hidden in the mountains. In the Visayas, a cluster of touristic islands in the center of the country, military forces recently warded off an attempted terrorist attack by Abu Sayyaf, a jihadist group pledging allegiance to ISIS. In Mindanao, the threat comes from the Islamist rebel groups determined to form an independent state for the country s Muslim minorities.These rebels carry on a war that their ancestors had waged for centuries, resisting the Spanish colonizers who arrived in 1521 and the American occupiers of the early 20th century. In 1989, the Philippine government granted the rebels partial autonomy over a crescent of land along the eastern coast of Mindanao. Today, the region is a hub of militant activity. Communist guerrillas, Muslim separatist rebels, and jihadist terrorist groups have all made base in the area. The fighting got so bad this May that President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law over the entire island of Mindanao.My Uncle Pepo and other locals consider the rebel-controlled land off-limits, and the area just outside its border a danger zone. Our farm sits 5 miles from that border.In this danger zone, and even further into the island, the rebels sometimes ambush military forces on patrol and bomb electricity towers and churches. To raise funds, they kidnap and my American-looking ass dripped with dollar signs. What they do is they kill the Filipinos to show they re serious and hold the Westerners for ransom, Uncle Pepo said to my mom and me, after we arrived in Iligan City in mid-April.But my mom, stubborn as cement, thought her cousin had inflated the risk in his mind. She had visited the farm often when she was young; her mother managed it back then. My mom didn t believe the tensions could have gotten so much worse in the years since. And, she asserted, this was our family s land! Were we simply to abandon it now, because of political tensions that had existed for hundreds of years and would maybe exist for hundreds more? She was persuasive. This might be our last chance to see the farm, she told Uncle Pepo.Our family was trying to sell it. The land yielded few crops, was barely profitable, and had become a burden. All but one of my mom s seven siblings had moved to the US, and they had little interest in dealing with the responsibilities of a struggling farm an ocean away. Her cousins who remained in the Philippines, all busy with professional careers, wanted the farm off their hands too. It was only a matter of time before Uncle Pepo found a buyer. I should check on the farm anyway, he conceded.And so, on the 10th day of our two-week journey through the Philippines, we boarded a gray van with tinted windows and headed up the mountain. At least it s safer now that Duterte is president, Uncle Pepo said.My mom nodded knowingly.

Josh Cochran for BuzzFeed News

Uncle Pepo supports Rodrigo Duterte, of course. Most Filipinos do.A year into his presidency, with nearly 8,000 extrajudicial killings linked to his war on drugs, polls showed that around 80 of Filipinos approved of Duterte this authoritarian strongman executing criminals, cleaning out corruption, cursing like an uncle, joking about rape, reviled by the West yet beloved by his countrymen.Over my two weeks in the Philippines in April, hitting more than a dozen big and small cities from the northern tip to the southern edge, I spoke to scores of people vendors, farmers, professors, drivers, politicians, cops, writers, business owners, lawyers, dentists and nearly all of them, even those who voted against him, said they believe that their president is making the country better.I struggled to understand his popularity. From the start, I thought Duterte was a madman. Under his rule, the Philippines would revert to a police state, I feared, a return to curfews and crackdowns on all who opposed. Murder as official state policy. Hadn t the country moved past this? It was only a generation ago that its people toppled a dictator, and now this new president would burn to ash the democratic freedoms established in the three decades since.I assumed my family agreed with me. Our kin were on the front lines of the 1986 revolution, when the streets of Manila filled with protesters and dictator Ferdinand Marcos fled into exile, his 20-year rule ending without a shot fired. People Power, we called it, as homemaker-turned-heroine Cory Aquino stepped into the presidency, restoring order to the nation that had been the birthplace of modern democracy in Asia.

An armored personnel carrier moves amongst stuck vehicles of residents fleeing Marawi, in the southern island of Mindanao on May 25, 2017, as fighting rages between government forces and gunmen who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Ted Aljibe AFP Getty Images

My mother raised me to despise Marcos. She and her seven siblings had grown up during his martial law years. Her uncle, Tomas Concepcion, was an activist and congressman who spoke out against the killings and torture committed by the Marcos regime. Her cousin, Joe Tale, worked as a legal aide for Cory s cabinet as they worked to repair the economic devastation wrought by Marcos s crony capitalism. Her aunt, Mary Concepcion, was an inaugural member of the committee assigned to track down the billions of dollars pilfered by the Marcos family. Her mother s best friend was the sister of Senator Ramon Mitra, a political opponent of Marcos's jailed on phony charges. Her father, Manuel Concepcion, was a lawyer and entrepreneur whose career was stifled by his refusal to pay kickbacks to the Marcos government.Our blood had been on the right side of history.But somewhere over those three decades, we had drifted. I realized that one afternoon last June, eating chicharon and drinking San Miguel beer with four of my uncles on a patio in Vallejo, California. I was in town for a nephew s baptism. The talk turned to Duterte, who had been elected president of the Philippines a month earlier; over that first month, already more than a thousand people had been killed in his drug war. Most of them were poor. Many were merely addicts. Some were innocent of even that.All four of these uncles loved Duterte. My mother and two of my aunties, in the living room a few steps away, loved Duterte too. I couldn t believe it. I decided, in that moment, that it was my responsibility to shift our family back toward righteousness. I dropped statistics on the rising death count and news reports on the human rights groups calling the president a mass murderer. I cited the commandment about not killing, the parents and children of the victims, the role our bloodline had played in defending the rule of law against authoritarian excess. I raised my voice, flailed my arms, stood from my chair. My uncles met my indignation with restraint and calm.

Our blood had been on the right side of history.

Albert, you make good points, one uncle said, but you don t understand. What s there to understand about extrajudicial killing? I said. The courts should determine guilt and punishment. The courts are corrupt, said another uncle. The judges cannot be trusted. Then the answer is to fix the courts, I said. To reform the system, not to go around it. Albert, said a third uncle, still calm, still sitting, still swirling the beer in his bottle like he had all the time in the world to hear me out. You re from America. It s different here. You don t understand what it s like in the Philippines, said the fourth uncle.

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte, poses for selfie pictures with supporters, after speaking to the media for the first time since he claimed victory in the presidential election, at a restaurant in Davao City, on the southern island of Mindanao on May 15, 2016.

Ted Aljibe AFP Getty Images

They were right. I hadn t been there since I was 6. My mom and I had lived in a condominium in Manila while she awaited her green card. My memories of the country were distant and random. I remembered a litter of kittens in a box in a yard; a Lego city sprawled across my bedroom s hardwood floor; a birthday party at Jollibee's. And I remembered my family s farm banana trees, chickens, bamboo huts with no electricity or hot water. My mom and I spent two weeks there after my kindergarten school year in Manila ended.Sitting with my uncles that June afternoon, I couldn t have told you what city the farm was in, or even which island it was on. But that farm was the setting for my most vivid memories of the Philippines. In most of those memories, I was playing with a boy named Sargento. He was a few years older than me, and he climbed the tall, thin trunks of coconut trees, chopping down the fruit with a machete. He taught me to not touch my face after touching a butterfly. He laughed when I ran screaming from a spider. He rode with me on a carabao and the photo of us small boys together on that big animal still hung on the wall of my mom s house in San Francisco.That summer, after those two weeks on the farm, my mom and I moved to the States. Over the years I often wondered what Sargento s life was like whether he was still on the farm, whether he had moved to the city, whether he had left the country, whether anything horrible had happened to him. On that afternoon in Vallejo last June, Sargento again popped into my mind: I wondered what he thought of Duterte.Several beers down and I was back in my chair, voice calm, unsure about positions I had been certain of hours earlier. The rise of Duterte had caught me off guard, exposed my distance from a culture I claimed to have pride for. Duterte is just what the Philippines needs, said my Uncle Joey, the oldest of my mom s brothers. He went on about the president and the renewed hope he felt for the country, and he had so much faith in this tyrant that soon his eyes welled with tears.It was then that I decided to go back to the Philippines. Nine months later, I landed in Manila.

Driving in the Philippines

Albert Samaha BuzzFeed News

On the third day of the trip, my mother and I sat in traffic on a bright day thick with smog and heat. I had invited her as translator and cultural guide. While I understood Tagalog fluently, I did not speak it. My mom never taught me, and I sometimes gave her a hard time about this. She reasoned that the language had no practical value in the Western world.This was true. Even in the Philippines, everybody spoke English. Teachers lectured schoolchildren in English. Street signs and food menus were in English. Language options at ATMs were limited to English and Taglish. But Tagalog was still the language of the people, the language Filipinos had preserved through 400 years of colonial rule. It was the language my mom and our taxi driver, Danilo, were speaking to each other while I was looking out the window at the traffic, and past the traffic, at the slums. These unpainted, precariously built, two-story cinderblock shacks sat just feet from the main road, a dense row of teetering shanties that seemed to go on for miles. Slums like this were all over the country, which is geographically smaller than California yet has a population that exceeds 100 million. In front of one roadside shack, a small child bathed in a plastic bucket. In front of another, a man killed a rat with a broomstick.

What is corruption but a bastard brother of the free market a drive to get all you can get from all you have to offer?

These were not merely homes. Many residents had converted their bottom floors into stores, with snacks and cheap umbrellas hanging from their windows. Hustle is woven into the fabric of the Philippines, an intersection of developing-world desperation and American-inspired commerce. Vendors in slippers shuffled through the crawling traffic, carrying bags of straw hats and bottled water. Massive billboards, maybe 30 feet tall, looked down on us. Motorbikes with side carriages zipped paying riders through gaps in the traffic, their engines squealing. Fruit sellers waved down drivers, hawking mango and durian and papaya. Skyscrapers, many of them housing call centers that employ thousands of English-speaking Filipinos, loomed in the distance.This hustle has its dark side. What is corruption but a bastard brother of the free market a drive to get all you can get from all you have to offer? I overheard Danilo tell my mom that earlier that day a police officer had pulled him over for making an illegal turn. The officer told him the ticket would cost 2,000 pesos, which is about 40. But the cop offered an out: Danilo could simply hand over the payment and avoid the inconvenience of dealing with a ticket. Danilo told the cop he didn t have that much cash on him. They negotiated until the officer agreed to 450 pesos. It was all I had, Danilo said, throwing his hands up in exasperation. That criminal cop! Danilo exclaimed. He was worked up now. I m sorry, I keep thinking about it. If I had a camera I would have filmed him and sent it to President Duterte! He d have that cop fired. My mom sucked her teeth and shook her head. So corrupt! she said to Danilo. Then she turned to me and whispered in English, See, that s why I left.

Albert's mother

Courtesy the author

My mother left the Philippines in 1983. She had been a flight attendant for Philippine Airlines, learned she could make more money with Saudia airlines, and moved to Riyadh.During those years, many Filipinos were leaving for work in Saudi Arabia, Australia, Hong Kong, the US, and elsewhere. With the economy in decline and the job market shrinking in the 1970s, Marcos had signed agreements with other countries that opened opportunities for overseas work. This became a pillar of the Philippine economy, and by 2015 nearly 2 million Filipinos were working in other countries, sending back close to 30 billion in annual remittances, 10 of the gross domestic product.On one of her flights in 1984, my mother met a Lebanese businessman: my father. They married in Las Vegas a year later and traveled the world together. After she got pregnant with me, she quit her job and went to Vallejo, where her sister lived, and in 1989 I was born. For the first few years of my life, my mom and I spent equal time at her condominium in Manila, her sister s house in Vallejo, and my dad s apartment in Paris, where his energy company was based.My mom expected that we would build our lives in Paris, but that never happened. My dad s family didn t approve of her, and he never told his parents about their marriage or me. So in 1995, she and I settled in San Francisco.I d see my dad about once a year, when business took him to California. My mom made efforts to keep me in touch with my Lebanese side; she learned to make labneh and manakish and insisted that I study French. But I always felt fully Filipino. I knew only my Filipino family, the cousins and uncles and aunties in the Bay Area with whom I spent holidays, played basketball, and watched cartoons and Super Bowls.We bounced around Northern California, following the trail of affordable housing east to Sacramento, where I went to middle school and high school. Most of my friends were white, black, or Mexican, but inevitably there d be a few Filipinos in my circle. We were drawn together by the magnet of shared culture, as if by better understanding one another we could forge a clear vision of our Filipino identity from the disjointed remnants our parents had left us, which we had cobbled into a genuine but superficial pride. We bragged about Filipino food. We dropped stray bits of Tagalog into our conversations. We convinced our white friends that we personally knew the Jabbawockeez. When Manny Pacquiao began his rise to stardom, we gathered at bars to wave Filipino flags and taunted our Mexican friends about our hero knocking out their heroes.But we were a generation bred to assimilate, just as our parents had. They had not fled their homeland out of desperation, nor had they been brought here in chains. Our parents had left middle-class lives for the glittering promises of America, to become Americans or rather their perception of what Americans were supposed to be.

Our parents had left middle-class lives for the glittering promises of America, to become Americans or rather their perception of what Americans were supposed to be.