MAILEEN DUMELOD HAMTO Reviews
PAGPAG: The Dictator's Aftermath in the Diaspora by Eileen R. Tabios
(Paloma Press, San Mateo, 2020)
It’s an unfortunate and ugly reality that many people in the homeland are so destitute, so poor, that they make a necessary living out of garbage. The practice of “pagpag” involves going through mountains of trash to salvage food and anything else than can be saved to be resold, reused, or traded for other goods. Eileen Tabios’ explains that her latest short story collection, PAGPAG, is so named to shed light on the ever-increasing economic inequities among the urban poor in the Philippines, casualties of decades-long theft, graft and corruption among elected officials and their cronies.
The stories in PAGPAG offer insights to the process of reconstituting a salvaged and made-new life after expulsion, making the most out of the refuse of life in the diaspora. In the book’s introduction, Tabios specifically calls out the Marcos dictatorship for the harms caused to Filipinos who fled the country to escape the violence and turmoil of the Martial Law era (1972-1986), as well as the torment endured by millions of Filipinos who had little choice but stay behind. The author was a child when her family escaped the talons of martial law under the Marcos regime. She draws a link between the damages wrought by the Marcos regime to the renewed clamor for strongman-style leadership that led to the election of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. The dictator not only ransacked the treasury, he also drove away the collective memory about the painful truths of those difficult and repressive years.
Reading the stories of PAGPAG was a cathartic experience: I was born under Martial Law, and was in elementary school when the first “People Power” toppled the Marcos regime in 1986. My family was among the urban poor in Manila’s working-class section of Sampaloc. I personally observed my parents struggle through finding and keeping jobs. I experienced the ineptitude of government in providing basic needs, such as access to potable water and electricity. Brownouts and water shortages were all-too-common. Criticisms of the government were often shared in hushed tones; one can never be certain about whose ears are listening.
PAGPAG's stories are important in countering the infuriating and disheartening trend of revisionist history of the Marcos legacy among millennials in the homeland. The author reminds us of a time when the Philippines was the shining star of Asia, when Filipinos and the rest of the world believed that the Philippines would soon rival Japan in economic production and technological prowess. These aspirations were left unrealized due to the true legacy of the Marcoses: driving up international debt for their own gain, looting public coffers, silencing dissent through extrajudicial killings of the administration’s critics. Tabios’ characters embody the near-schizophrenic duality of how Filipinos in exile made sense of the tumultuous Marcos years. We see Marites, a daughter of the country’s elites, nonchalantly brushing off the hardships endured by the common folk, conveniently justifying her family’s focus on continuing to make money, in order to survive. Elmo, on the other hand, risked it all – in his indigenous garb, no less – to take his grievances about the United States’ government complicity in allowing the Marcos dictatorship to flourish despite condemnation from the international community.
Filipinos love a good ghost story, and PAGPAG delivers the frights. Where would we be as a people without messages from beyond the grave, with departed loved ones sending requests on behalf of the living. Yet another distinct characteristic of the Filipino culture is our penchant for humor. There’s plenty of humor and hauntings in PAGPAG's stories; perhaps lightness is necessary to jolt back the reader to a place of hope, family and warmth. Indeed, that’s how many Filipinos survived those ill-fated years of the Marcos regime in the homeland and throughout the diaspora: we relied on family, our love and concern for each other. In PAGPAG, scenes depicting culturally Filipino attitudes toward (sometimes unscrupulous) ways of making a living or helping distant relatives carry the heaviness of guilt, the burden of obligation. Humor and love of each other are what gets us through each moral dilemma.
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.