Friday, November 23, 2007

Post Script

Stayed up to watch Iowa primary. Dang, did you see/hear that Obama speech?

Life In The A-List

Holiday and year-end greetings to everyone.

The last month has been difficult, what with the deluge of emails, text and video messages, letters and phone calls, asking how a woman’s organization could contend with closed-doorism threatening the very reason for which 500 women were engaged in political activism. In the midst of this was a discordant note of one, demanding to be part of the national directorate, so surprising in a gathering where women have to be strong-armed into accepting titles, the usual answer being “I’ll just do the work, give the title to someone else,” so surprising that for a moment there, we were non-plus.

Later, in New York, someone explained: “It’s always been the goal; she wants to be in the A-list.”

This past Sunday, Doris and I reached Times Square from Boston at 4 in the morning, on the coldest weekend yet; this wasn't the right place nor the right time for a woman, I can tell you. We had helped open the Greater Boston chapter of Gabriela Network. She had taken the trip out on Friday; I had to leave a day later because of another obligation and thus had to manage 8 hours on the bus out of 24, not a wink of sleep in 48. We lighted a cigarette apiece, debating whether cabs were justified instead of the subway and the long walks home. It wasn't idle debate. In this organization, paying one woman's conference fee can mean another will have to subsist on pizza slices for a week. I was the first to give up; my knees were knocking together and four of five tries the cigarette missed my lips, I was shivering that hard. Bleah! Life on the A-list, indeed.

This demand for promotion came at the end of a sequence of non-sequiturs, during which we tried to clarify or thought we were clarifying concepts/definitions of a proposed new campaign, tried to convey that interpretation was not factual history, that political categories must have objective criteria, that mere assertion of discrimination wasn't fact, that one needed concrete analysis of concrete conditions, and that if one were to ascribe machismo to imperialism, one better be able to show that link clearly, because capital’s tendency was to homogenize all into wage slavery; which meant ferreting out the contradictions that that tendency creates, and how profit maximization links gender and sexuality based oppression to class exploitation; in other words, what were the historical and material roots of the distinct category of oppression the campaign would be addressing.

Sounds complicated but NOT, since domestic workers readily understood this interplay between historical and material causes of gender exploitation. Perhaps it was too abstract when one experienced it academically, because suddenly, in an act of misdirection, the discourse was centered on why someone wasn’t taken to meet certain groups and power persons in the archipelago, who said what and why. At which point, one realized this wasn’t a discourse for clarity; either a homeland security tape recorder was hooked up to a phone line, or a hooded posse bearing rope nooses was at the other end, since an accidental immigrant with a funny accent couldn't presume to discuss political concepts with Americans.

As Roseanne Rossana-Danna would say, “it’s always something. If it’s not a toenail in a hamburger, it’s a piece of toilet paper sticking to a shoe.” Roseanne was Gilda Radner’s journalist character of non-sequiturs in Saturday Night Live; the shoe referenced her utter loss at how to tell a princess about a piece of toilet paper stuck to her heel.

Which was exactly how some of us felt this past month: at utter loss as to how to say that betrayal was the foundation of conspiracies, that already one had been vilified by gossip about some allegedly unpaid plane tickets; and that the demand to discuss things "at a higher level," rather than work on the basics of a campaign, was leading to this wish to join the alleged A-List, the trade-off being abandonment of the very cause for which National was being pilloried.

Actually, it’s easy and simple to be part of the national work team. Many without titles work on national projects as the need arises. The criteria are a steady commitment, a willingness to learn and a spirit generous enough to volunteer time, ability and sometimes, material resources. Those qualities are first displayed within the chapter, which evaluates and recommends to the national, which also evaluates and then finds a suitable task for the recommended. It is not foolproof but it is the procedure. Special project teams come and go. But no one gets to National without chapter recommendation. So if one messes up with one's chapter or if the chapter is walled off like a political harem, then no winnowing process takes place.

Some members value their commitment so much they humble us old-timers; they work without need for validation. Just a month recruited, Khara carried a heavy banner without a single word of recrimination through 50 blocks of marching; Emelyn and Carisma lugged 120 t-shirts across an ocean without a word of recrimination; Catherine, barely 20 years old, overcame extreme nervousness to give a solidarity message at a demonstration in an island she had never visited before; Ollie, last week, had to face down some right-wing Christians by herself; Vivian searches for housing, for legal, psychological and financial help for battered and sex-trafficked Filipinas; Monica does whatever she is asked to do, has done so for 11 years without even the expectation of rubbing elbows with “power women,” though she goes annually to the Philippines.

Actually, Monica is special. As she says in an open letter, she is a Caucasian trans-sexual woman, challenged about her identity by society at every step of the way. “Challenged” is a mild word; last year was a record year for attacks – as in murderous attempts, bodily harm, physical assaults, -- on her person, by men in her neighborhood, by strangers in the subway, by anyone really. Everyday, she teaches us an invaluable lesson about intersectionality, or as I prefer it, the interconnection of phenomena. On the basis of her color, she would seem to be, as the current parlance goes, “privileged;” but coming from an economic underclass deepens all risks inherent in her situation and deprives her of protection. I once rode the subway with her; the other passengers’ reaction to her presence left me badly shaken. Yet, she has never demanded we share her burden though she has always shared ours.

None of these women ever say, “if I don’t get want I want, I am taking my marbles home and kicking your sandbox as well.” Kicking sandboxes is one cause of the periodic crash-and-burn of Filipino organizations over here, a factor in our continuing "invisibility" despite a hundred years plus of activism. It's a lot less work to demolish than to build. Believe me, I know.

There is a common quality to the women who stay in GABNet, and I ascribe it to the fact that this is as well the most palpable quality of the women in the National. Consider the following:

• Annalisa shoved to the floor and cracking her knee in Venezuela to which she had flown to support a Philippine women’s delegation, her knee swollen football size but despite no medical attention, finishing the five-day conference without a word of recrimination;
• Mirk organizing a lawyers' team, lugging 5 CPUs across an ocean, despite being chronically ill, without a word of recrimination;
• Milady making thousands of copies of newsletters, brochures, statements and what-nots, without a word of recrimination;
• Jollene returning to a city again and again, relentless in her goal to see a chapter established, appearing at a meeting the day after her car turned over five times on the freeway, all without a word of recrimination;
• Agnes, chauffeuring everyone around, making sure that appointments were kept, and not wanting to impose, driving herself home from the hospital after a heart attack, again without a word of recrimination;
• Doris doing street theater for five hours during the state of national emergency,, in front of the Philippine consulate, on a Manhattan sidewalk thronged by hundreds of thousands, in the company of only one other member, without a word of recrimination.

One could go on, listing a hundred or more instances; point is, in politics, one meets all kinds, even she-hyenas which, I learned from the Animal Planet channel, make themselves attractive by rolling in their own regurgitation. So one is filled with gratitude for the selfless and quiet courage of the members, old and new, who form the gestalt of this 18-year-old organization.

Me? I think the worst for me was when, because of an impossible schedule, I had to give up Guapo, the little cocker spaniel. That wasn't much, but bursting into tears and embarrassing myself and the friend who had driven us to the animal shelter was.

Not much, really. As we say in the organization, for liberation, others have given up more. Much, much, much, much, much, much more…

Have a good one, y’all. -- ###

Thursday, November 22, 2007

a watershed

Today, for the first time, someone finally connected the name of this blog to the military term for new US bases "with small footprints" -- the cooperative security location. The concept for a new type of base came out two years ago, when the closure of several bases were being discussed in the US congress.

While I'd received many chuckles over the pun in the name -- it's close to the Tagalog word lilipad, which means "will soar" or "will fly" -- I've been waiting for someone to recognize its actual reference.

So congratulations to R, who made the connection. It is a flag as to the method of "layering" I use in writing. The name has another layer but I'll wait for its discovery.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

need your vote

I was asked to post this, from the women's organization GABNet:

The Philippine television station ABS-CBN is asking people to vote on the 2007 newsmaker of the year. The GABNet 3 has been nominated. In this post-911 era of watchlists, terror lists, blacklists and hold-order lists, it is imperative that we send a strong protest against this form of state terrorism. Remember the McCarthy Blacklists; remember how Code Pink's Medea Benjamin was refused entry into Canada because of a blacklist. The GABNet 3 was in full frontal attack against this method of intimidation and harassment used by the Philippines government, ostensibly as part of the "war on terror." The GABNet 3 were 2 women of Philippine ancestry and one Jewish-American, all activists working for genuine women's equality, rights and liberation; they were suddenly accused, WITHOUT ANY BASIS IN FACT OR FICTION, by the Philippine government of being linked to the fundamentalist Taliban.

So protest the insanity of the Macapagal-Arroyo regime! email the words "GABNET 3 is my newsmaker of the year" to or use your cellphone and text the words "GABNet 3" to 650-766-1557.

Only 15 days left to make a difference. So DO IT NOW.

Thank you.

Davao Triste

A 12-year-old girl hangs herself (allegedly) and suddenly, she is the face of a city, a province, an island, an archipelago, a country. Her death is followed by screams and yowls of denial: she couldn't have killed herself just because she was poor; she had been abused (perhaps), raped (perhaps), depressed (certainly). . . None of the latter precludes the first contention. Though all women, across the class spectrum, suffer gender violence, the risks triple when one is poor, helpless, the family subject to such tremendous economic pressure that it gets to a point members no longer see one another as human. And depression is chronic among the (unwilling) poor.

It brought back those thoughts the first time I went with some friends on an organizing foray into an urban poor area in the city of Manila. There was this girl who looked ten years old but perhaps was 12, like Davao's Mariannet Amper, hunkered down on the slat-floor of a patchwork house built over a black sewage canal, holding her brother swaddled in a blanket thin and gray with use. She looked at me with eyes so dark, so deep, they were unfathomable. It occurred to me then that were I in her position -- no possibility of escape from a poverty that was really beastly -- I would kill myself, rather than go on day after day in absolute misery.

Very strange thoughts for an activist, one could say, but I was young then and an absolutist. Jesus supposedly said: “the poor ye shall always have with you.“ He was, I think, being bitterly ironic. Mariannet, whose name so echoes the word marionette, a thing dangling powerless at the end of a preordained fate, put the lie to his words. She didn't want to be "always with you." So what happens if the poor all killed themselves? Who then will the rich exploit and brutalize? Think of how much of a huge holocaust that would be, turning cities, towns, villages, mountains and seas uninhabitable? Who would bury them? I can see why the rich and powerful are outraged.

Davao City is the largest in the archipelago in land area, a territory with soil so fertile that outside downtown proper and the bedroom communities, the terrain turns so green it brings a pang of angst over the unhappy fate of Laguna, which used to be called the emerald province, now a hodge-podge of subdivisions, choked traffic and an over-fished and polluted lake. The term emerald must now be applied to Davao; from childhood, I had known of this place as Laguna‘s competitor for the source of sweet lanzones, fabulous mangosteen (which remains my favorite), and of course, the incomparable pomelo.. Aboard a jeep traversing first the paved roads, then the dirt roads and then the mud roads, I keep thinking "emerald" as mile after mile of green unfolds, an occasional reddish-brown earth surfacing, like a gash of blood. Deng, one doesn’t see this in New York.

The air was very moist, likely 99% humidity, which explained the 360 degree riot of foliage. The place was so obviously fertile one felt sorry for it, especially at the sight of the banana plantations, sudden monochromes of dark-green, carved out of the brighter chaos of untamed wilderness. The plantations were like a huge army of Nazi soldiers, shoulder-to-shoulder, huddled in assault formation against what was natural in the landscape. I thought: multinational corporations certainly wouldn’t be able to resist destroying the province’s biodiversity, just as the biodiversity of Laguna, Negros and other locations had been destroyed for the sake of export crops. Not couldn’t, I should correct myself; are not, aren't.

Spend a night or two in the marginalized communities of this area and the idea that poverty can inspire suicide does not seem unreasonable. The communities move and move, edged out by the metastasizing banana plantations, mostly owned by internal migrants from Visayan and Tagalog provinces, who cooperate with multinationals at the despoliation of the archipelago's resources, all for just a few dollars more. They are good Christians, of course, making sure that the poor remained with us. Despite this, the residents of the marginalized communities (I won't name them, since the Philippine military tends to pour into areas where people are nice), majority of them Muslim and Moros, are generous. The conflict here is not religious, they assure me, but rather over resources, over property, over a way of life.

Bananas constitute Davao’s principal export, 60-70% going to Japan which also gobbles up 15% of banana chips. Japan has repeatedly pressured the Philippines into signing one treaty of amity, trade, navigation, etc., after another, to position itself as the country's economic overlord, in partnership with the political and military over-lordship exercised by the U.S.; Japan loves Philippine food, with the same intensity as the US love for Philippine women and labor.

You can't go any bigger business than bananas, where seven-figure amounts are mere bribes to corrupt officials. Three multinationals practically own and control the global trade: Chiquita International (formerly United Fruit, formerly United Brands), Dole (formerly Standard Fruit) and Del Monte. Entire countries, especially in Latin America, serve as the backyard gardens and greenhouses of these companies, rendering them susceptible to pressure, threats and manipulations, in accordance with the corporate profit interests. The outrage such multinationals inspire is epic, enough even to fuel great literature, like Pablo Neruda's Canto and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Nothing seems to be able to stop the multinationals, except nature itself, which created the black and yellow sigatoka fungus that often cuts a banana tree’s yield by 50% to 70%. Sigatoka is endemic to banana plantations, largely because as some Indian scientists pointed out, they are “monoclonal” -- i.e., of one variety only, in contrast to the natural state of growth, which is “polyclonal” -- i.e., diverse. To control sigatoka, for instance, banana plantations have to spray as often as 40 times a year; India, which is polyclonal, sprays only four times a year.

Some 26 chemicals are used to kill sigatoka, or at least try to control it. These chemicals belong to such WHO categories as Class 1-A (extremely hazardous), Class 1-B (hazardous) and Class 2 (moderately hazardous). Mancozeb, one of these chemicals, is listed in California’s Prop 65 carcinogenic list and is suspected to be an endocrine disruptor. These data and others are available on the Internet, with some digging, so please don’t email me asking for sources. You should know what's in the food you eat and how it is grown.

The communities which were kind enough to host friends and myself seemed under tremendous economic and social pressure. The madrasahs were little more than sheds -- corrugated iron sheets over naked posts. In-house running water was mostly absent; only darkness spared me from becoming a public spectacle when I simply had to take a bath in the rain. That means, there were no street lights either, and barely enough electricity in houses. This outward crudeness hid an inner sophistication; my first night’s host was a woman who spoke to me in English and Tagalog and Arabic to another guest, all the while swinging back and forth on a cloth hammock, flip-flops on her feet . And under the lambent twilight, a traditional kulintang band played music, the various instruments handled only by women. All spoke knowingly of social, economic and political complexities, and of course, of history, of a past deliberately obscured. They told me the story of 450 hectares of Moro land paid for in tobacco and trinkets and minimal cash, now a sprawling golf course where Koreans and other foreigners play, accompanied by girl caddies. I asked why girl caddies? The women smile.

Davao has a major prostitution and sex trafficking problem, because of the ships that dock, the business people who come, the US troops who appear occasionally, the tourists on predator trips, the Philippine troops who are not adverse to exploiting the women of what supposedly was their own people, etc., etc., and of course, because the poor is always with us, even in this region where a few (very few) are rapidly enriching themselves by selling the Moro patrimony to multinationals.

These villages nestle among bananas, some wild ones, some native ones, unlike the Cavendish single-variety of the plantations. Cavendish only became popular in the 1950s, when it replaced the Gros Michel (fat michael), which was done in the Panama fungus. And just in case you don't know, commercial banana is mutant, sterile and seedless, reproducing only through cuttings. It can be wiped out (as in extinct!) with one infestation, hence the heavy use of pesticides. The communities are in the path of the aerial spraying conducted over the plantations; the communities use ground water likely contaminated with pesticide run-offs. Asthma has become common; there are reports of birth defects as well.

The poverty is palpable and explainable, really not pre-ordained, but stemming from historical and continuing theft. Only 17 cents of every dollar consumers spend on bananas go to producing countries.

Much of the rest -- as in hundreds of billions of dollars -- is used to sustain lifestyles of greed, self-indulgence and power-madness. If you doubt the latter, check out the history of Dole; at one point, this guy "bought" the whole island of Lahaina in Hawaii, as though it were unpopulated.

At any poor community, children are ubiquitous. A teacher from the US had to point this out to me, so used was I to the sight. "Children everywhere, at all hours of the day," she said, "meaning, they are not in school."

In Compostela Valley, Davao, a nine-year-old who WAS going to school was shot dead by the Philippine military, a murder later justified by the canard that she was a "child soldier."

This is one fate for poor children in this land.

Mariannet's response to her fate was to hang herself.

This is one choice for children in this land.

Someone should work to create other fates, other choices. -- ##