Monday, April 19, 2021



Marcelina by Jean Vengua

(Paloma Press, 2020)



Now They Cannot Touch Her

In July of 1932, a 28-year-old Filipina named Celine Navarro (also known as Cecilia or Celing) was buried alive in Stockton by members of her own community—specifically, 7 men of the Caballeros de Dimas-Alang (CDA), a fraternal organization whose rules and rituals derived from Masonic practice. Celine had left the Philippines in 1918 with her mother and sisters. She eventually married a farmworker named Ignacio Navarro in 1924; the couple had 4 children. Ignacio was stricken with tuberculosis, and the children were sent to the Philippines to be cared for by their grandparents. Celine rented a room in a boardinghouse so she could be close to the medical facility where her husband was confined. 


That’s when the accusations of adultery started coming out of the community—though it is also conjectured that such rumors may have been started to teach Celine a lesson. She’d gone to the police to report how two men were badly beaten for sheltering a woman who’d fled from her abusive husband (a member of the CDA). Months after the conviction of those responsible, she was kidnapped twice by men believed to be CDA members. She escaped to Ventura, where her sisters tried to help her leave the country with her husband and return to the Philippines. However, she was taken again by the same people; beaten, thrown face-down and alive into an open grave on Jersey Island in the San Joaquin river; then covered over with soil until she suffocated and died:


                                    And they dug the grave by flashlight.

                                                                                                            (p. 16)


Nearly a year after, a man named Pablo Bustamante went to the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office to report the crime, which a gravedigger corroborated. They said there were even some women members of the Maria Clara Lodge (a CDA-affiliated organization) who actively participated in the murder of Celine. Her body was dug up on April 4, 1933. There were no convictions.


This is the narrative at the heart of poet and visual artist Jean Vengua’s lyric tribute and meditation Marcelina—It is a 31-page sequence weaving Vengua’s own visits to Stockton and the Jersey Island delta, with rumors of the crime, ghost stories circulating in the community, and fragments of news reports from 1933 that also capture the economic and social tensions seething under the surface:


                                    Slack Work and Low Pay Blamed for Move by

                                    Laborers to Return to Families and Old Friends.


                                    Paying                         .35/hr — Whites

                                                                        .25/hr — Japs

                                                                        .15/hr — Filipinos

                                                                                                            (p. 21)

What strikes me most in this reading of Marcelina, however, is the careful way Vengua gathers inchoate bits of story like someone panning for clearer residue. Her eye is sure as the hand that describes how, in this flood-prone area, the silt and mud bring in evidence of life, of lives; Celine’s life:


                                    …push mud from basements and kitchens
                                                before it hardens, holds fast to bones, pianos,
                                    mementos. pan to a close-up: woman crying. here, an old
                                                photograph under cracked glass; scour off  
                                    the mud. buried. was buried. unearthed or maybe returned
                                                home, face down, river grass pressed
                                 against the banks, color leached out, brown hyacinths
                                           choke the shallow irrigation ditch

                                                                                                                (p. 7)

If you lean your ear toward the “inward current, saline infusion/ of blood, silent sweep of the outward current” (p. 8), you find that what washes up from “history” (which we only think means “the past”) is no ghost but the re-embodied one insisting on the materiality of who she was/is. Materiality, as in connected to matter. Not just the dross items—

                        …the black earth, pear blossomings
                                     manure and fresh hay; …the morning
                        paper, steam on the windows                                                                                    

but also her brave intelligence, her generous concern for others. 

                        I am all right, so far, how are you all? Will I send for tatay
                                    first and then nanay, then Boy, the youngest,

                        and the children? …the grass …
                                    is not the same grass, the rice not the same

                        rice, the wind and the crops all different…


Moreover, her maternality comes to meet us, anonymous readers who open these pages and exhume her from the grave:

                        I am your daughter, your mother, your sister,
                        grandmother, great grandmother

                                                                                                (p. 11)

I recall that Dimasalang (or Dimas-Alang) is one of the pen names ascribed to Philippine national hero Jose P. Rizal. It means “one that cannot be touched.” It isn’t a stretch to see how it might also mean one who is so peerless that their authority cannot be questioned. In Celine Navarro’s case, it was an authority that decided she should be punished and not allowed to live because of her alleged transgressions against patriarchy and community. But thanks to Jean Vengua’s reclamation, we can embrace a woman whose significance is more lucid than a rumor, larger than the fate to which she was unjustly consigned.



Luisa A. Igloria is the author of Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020), The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), and 12 other books. Luisa was the inaugural recipient of the 2015 Resurgence Poetry Prize (UK) for ecopoetry, and is a Louis I. Jaffe Professor of English and Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Old Dominion University. She also leads workshops for The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk. In July 2020, she was appointed Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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