MAILEEN DUMELOD HAMTO Reviews
MARCELINA: A meditation on the murder of Cecilia “Celing” Navarro by Jean Vengua
(Paloma Press, San Mateo, 2020)
Whispers of hauntings always bring back stories of near-forgotten suffering, trauma buried deep into a community’s collective memory. Jean Vengua’s chapbook, Marcelina: A Meditation on the Murder of Cecilia “Celing” Navarro,” is the vessel of remembering for a new generation of Filipino-Americans to revisit an agonizing chapter in our history.
In 1932, Marcelina Navarro was 26 years old when she was brutally murdered – reportedly buried alive – by fellow Filipinos for the alleged crime of adultery. Celine’s murder was sensationalized by local and national media, with white journalists frothing at the mouth to depict the barbaric “voodoo rites” of a primitive Brown people living and working in the San Joaquin River Delta.
Vengua’s long poem was written during the author’s visits to California’s Central Valley, the site of a burgeoning Filipino community in the 1930s and tragically, Celine’s burial grounds. The poem was first published in a poetry anthology more than 20 years ago. Renewed interest in the case of Celine is fueled by a documentary film The Celine Archives by film scholar and filmmaker Dr. Celine Shimizu Parrenas.
Cecile, Celina, Celing, Marcelina: she went by many names, perhaps an indication of dehumanization. In Vengua’s poem, the story of Celine’s life and death is told in a soul-stirring mood, as the poem mixes personal reflections, news clips and Celing’s voice to depict an atmosphere of hazy yet steady revelation of facts, memory and imagination. Vengua brings together divergent narratives to tell a story of betrayal, jealousy, and suffering. While dates are listed, the news accounts are not displayed chronologically to create a rigid timeline. Vengua pieces together time, place and occurrences, as she infuses observations of color, of smells, of how the valley feels. In doing so, she evolves the tactics of archive-sleuthing to uncover the desires and frustrations of a homesick Filipina, living among a community of migrant workers. The intensity of Vengua’s words can only come from someone who was present, in the moment, taking in the verdant hues of grass and earth.
There is only one way to experience Vengua’s meditation, breathing in her words on the page, with utmost reverence to early Filipinos who struggled to assert their humanity in an inhospitable land. Belonging and inclusion remained elusive for a community welcomed in the United States to do one thing: to work. Filipinos were at the bottom rung of the labor hierarchy that paid Japanese and Whites significantly more for the same work. The poet’s meditation reveals the texture of Celina’s aspirations as a young woman who planned to send for her parents, even as she struggled to raise young children with little support. The poem offers a glimpse into the lives and hopes of a new community. They found comfort in place names that honored Catholic saints in their new home in California. The Filipino emigres’ affinity with remnants of California’s Spanish colonial history was afforded by three centuries of subjugation under Spanish colonization. Ironically, in Celine’s tragic death, the trauma of othering and torment manifested in the act of interring one of their own, subsumed in the heart of the empire, denied of the dignity of last rites.
Originally from Sampaloc and Tondo, Maynila, Maileen Dumelod Hamto works as an equity and inclusion leader in the ancestral lands of the Ute, Arapahoe and Cheyenne. She is pursuing doctoral studies in Leadership for Educational Equity at the University of Colorado Denver, focusing her inquiry on advancing social and organizational change through praxis that centers critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, decoloniality, and liberatory pedagogy.