Thursday, December 13, 2018



(Northwestern University Press, 2016)

Was the hero’s sacrifice all in vain? I found myself asking this question as I read Brian Ascalon Roley’s The Last Mistress of Jose Rizal, a collection of short stories that captures the agony of the Filipino immigrant experience in finding home, identity and belonging in America: oftentimes indifferent and unaware, sometimes downright inhospitable an unwelcoming.

The stories depict the dysfunctions of newcomers from a former American colony still reeling from the burdens of classism, misogyny and internalized racism. A country and its people haunted by unrelenting aftershocks brought on by centuries of colonization. In sunny California, Filipina women hide from the sun, lest they get too dark. Living among Blacks and Mexicans, mothers all but forbid their precious half-White sons from dating women of color.  

The gaping irony is that these newcomers are not ordinary folk; they descended from royalty, in the Philippine-revolution sense of the word. Bearing the blood of the martyred hero, Jose Rizal, who inspired a bloody revolution against centuries of foreign subjugation. However, in America, Rizal’s descendants must contend with everyday reminders and reinforcements of belittlement and shame, of their lowly places in the U.S. social strata.

Many of the stories were too painful to read, not because they were not well-written, but because they are too close to heartaches shared by many in the vast global Filipino diaspora. I forgive myself for my inability to read outside my social location: a Philippine-borne and raised ManileƱa who grew up in poverty. In all honesty, I had to put the book down a while, and try again. I struggled with understanding the characters, because they were all too familiar, yet distant and unrecognizable at the same time.

Life is difficult and complex, even for the descendants of the hero who was schooled in Europe, fluent in multiple languages, an accomplished ophthalmologist. Those who carry his blood live in a cramped apartment in Los Angeles, dependent on the school teacher’s salary of the White American breadwinner. I struggled to find humanity in Dina, who cared for his injured Veteran brother Pepe, but refused to allow her White husband to include him in their health insurance coverage. 

The most memorable part of The Last Mistress… overlays the idiosyncracies of Philippine life with the faulty expectations of rugged individualism in the American psyche. Incongruence of Philippine values of service to family and respect for elders create constant friction in how an interracial couple navigates their combined destinies.

Antipathies abound. When Rizal published Noli and Fili, documenting the abuses of the Spanish colonizers against the Indios, I’d bet that he did not foresee that several generations hence, his great-great-grand nephew would be dyeing his hair blonde, chasing White women, and seeking refuge in a Jewish synagogue?  Of course, Rizal’s affection for and dalliances with European women was no secret, so perhaps poetic justice is served.

While Rizal provided medical services free of charge to townspeople of Dapitan, his progeny spends many hours in long lines at the Veterans Administration, only to be denied access to health coverage because of clerical issues. Despite their proximity to Whiteness, Filipino-American boys – sons of White American men – are emasculated, diminished and reduced to less-than by constant bullying.

As I sharpen my critical lens of White supremacy in my personal journey of decolonization, I’m also developing heightened “protective” instincts for the dignity of our people. When I encounter depictions of the ugly side of Filipino culture and psyche, I ask: What’s the point? What does the author get out of reinforcing stereotypes about Filipino women? Who benefits from putting our prejudices on display? How do these deficit-focused narratives help or hinder our people in overcoming structural and institutional racism?

It’s difficult to answer these questions without important context regarding the roots of colonial mentality and its strong links to the worship of Whiteness in the Filipino mind.  However, Roley’s brutally honest stories shine the light on how Filipino society undermines and devalues women’s work. There’s commentary about how newcomers internalize racial oppression and in so doing, electively lose pride in their skin. There’s tragedy in the collective amnesia about wartime casualties, about America’s responsibility to the forgotten Brown people who fought in World War II’s Pacific theatre.      

In the annals of a country’s revolutionary history, Rizal died a martyr. He never saw brown-skinned people prevail over sinful and corrupt Spanish friars. Perhaps Rizal never imagined that his people would continue to struggle under the ruthless pressure of Western colonial rule and influence, psychically, mentally and morally. The hero never anticipated the seemingly incurable disease of self-disgust that is deep in our bones. There are no caricatures of joyful and hopeful endings here.


Maileen Hamto was born and raised in Manila, Philippines during Martial Law.  She was 10 years old during the first People Power Revolution (Edsa 1) that overthrew the dictator. A highlight of her fourth-grade experience is memorizing the Preamble to the country’s newly drafted Constitution. She attended Esteban Abada High School in working-class Sampaloc. Her family arrived to the U.S. in the 1990s by virtue of their matriarch’s career in nursing. And so began the lifelong journey toward decolonization, toward making sense of racial stratification in the U.S., always sharpening the proverbial bolo knives. 

(She could include details about three academic degrees earned in the U.S. and how she pays the bills, but there’s LinkedIn for that.)

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