IN THE MOTHERLAND: The American tour guide who mocked Lapu-Lapu
By Laurel Fantauzzo
This week, Laurel Fantauzzo begins a series of essays on the Philippines. She is in the country on a Fulbright scholarship to research her journalism project, “Jolli Meals: The Rise of Filipino Fast Food.”
The tour guide felt familiar to me at first. He was Midwestern American and proud of his father, who had occupied Corregidor before him as the American soldier in charge of the largest gun on the island during World War II. The guide had moved to Corregidor a few years before to tell tranvia-loads of English-speaking tourists about his father’s role there. He reminded me of my own white American father, a military veteran who always stopped to shake soldiers’ hands and had nothing but praise for America’s incursion into the Philippines.
We were passing a long-ago exploded barracks, the cement falling in on itself, when the tour guide said, “After the Spanish-American War, Cuba got independence, but the Philippines couldn’t defend itself, so the Americans took control.”
Hm. No mention of the Philippine-American War? The years-long Philippine insurgency, from which the Americans wrote its entire Iraq war playbook on how to deal with insurgents? A strange omission.
Ah. Lucky for the guide, we were traveling with a Filipino writer who’d recently completed a Philippine history book. The Filipino writer said quietly. “I’m going to say something to him.” So he spoke in low tones to the guide at one of our stops, telling him a few details about the Philippine-American War he had failed to mention.
“I’m not going to get into an argument with you about this,” the guide replied, and walked away from the Filipino writer.
We stopped at a monument to important dates in Filipino history. An enormous bust of Lapu-Lapu and his warriors lorded over the plaque labeled 1521, which proclaimed the battle against Magellan at Mactan as the first Filipino resistance against foreign invasion.
“There’s some dispute if Lapu-Lapu really killed Magellan, or if Magellan just fell over with too much armor on and drowned,” the guide said. He pronounced the name “La-poo La-poo,” and chuckled. “Anyway, since you’re Americans you won’t be too interested in this memorial, since this is really just Filipino history. It’ll probably be boring to you.”
Later, near a memorial to dead Japanese soldiers, he said, “Japanese tourists often ask for my tour instead of the Filipino guides, since the Filipinos tend to not care about accuracy.”
Okay now. I’m trying to be even-handed about this. I’m trying to be an even-keel essayist and let the man speak for himself. But the tour guide made me furious. Contempt undercut his every mention of Filipinos. Filipino history, Filipino tour-guiding, the Filipino relationship to the United States; Filipinos were, according to his anecdotes, helpless, liars and invisible. He would not cede any victory to Filipinos; he would not leave the tranvia to take us to the plaques proclaiming important dates in Filipino resistance.
As a mixed FilAm, I have no room for easy, one-sided versions of international relations, in part because easy, one-sided versions have no room for me. You cannot talk to me about American rule in the Philippines without using the words imperialism, postcolonial mentality, or, at the very least, complicated. You cannot put me on a tranvia on an island of the Philippines and proceed to belittle or ignore the Philippines altogether. But the guide made it clear that in his estimation, the Filipino story was forgettable, or laughable. At what point did his veteran father hand him a permission slip to chuckle about Lapu-Lapu on Corregidor?
I seethed, thinking of the future tranvia audiences, some of them American congressmen, who would nod and laugh along with the guide, having never picked up a history book for themselves. And then I seethed even more, remembering how few American history books gave any mention to the Philippine-American War, or Philippine history, at all.
As a guest with no map of the island, stuck on a tranvia during the hottest part of the day, I had no way to immediately mitigate all of my anger. So I sat in the front row and rolled my eyes. I turned my head all the way around to widen my eyes angrily at my classmates, who nodded in sympathetic horror with me. I said out loud, as we disembarked from the tram, “I had no idea there was no Philippine-American War, and no idea that Americans were incapable of being interested in a history other than their own.” The tour guide did not look at me.
Yes, I was taking the tour guide’s slights personally. Because they were personal. The guide’s the son of an American WWII veteran, huh? Well, I am the granddaughter of a Filipino WWII veteran. My grandfather was First Lieutenant Ysidro Flores. He wrote musicals in Manila and slipped away from rehearsals frequently to fight as a guerrilla in the tunnels under the city. He strategized alongside American soldiers like our tour guide’s father.
My grandfather died before I met him, but I suspect he may not have approved of my aggressive eye-rolling and grad-school sarcasm, even if it was in defense of his memory. Papang was, by all family accounts, a man whose soft-spokenness belied his courage. He hated direct confrontation and raised voices. But he island-hopped in Mindanao in pursuit of Japanese soldiers, carrying a pistol or a ‘bolo,’ and descended into dark Manila labyrinths to resist. He once saved a neighbor’s life like this: He made his way through the angry crowd about to hang his friend as a collaborator, said a few soft words, put his hands on the man’s noose, and lifted it away.
The tour guide made no room in his story of Corregidor for someone like my grandfather. The songwriter, the guerilla, the soldier who’d more than earned his rank and the American pension that supported my grandmother for 30 years after his death. Perhaps it was my responsibility to soften the version of history that had fossilized in the tour guide during countless tours on this island. Perhaps it was time for a direct confrontation. Time for this FilAm to remind this American of the equality and dignity of Filipinos.
Then the tour guide pointed out his wife, a white American woman who waved to us from a picnic table as we rode by. He said she was beautiful, and then, emphatically, “I am not married to a Filipina!”
My anger spiked, and then broke, like a fever.
I didn’t bother to say my grandfather’s name. This “guide” was not worthy to hear it. I didn’t bother to tell the man that I’m the 27-year-old result of a white American father and a Filipina mother. I didn’t bother to point out the four other Filipinas on our tour. I didn’t bother to remind him that this country does not belong to him or to his father. Some attitudes—I will use the words now: racism, bigotry—steeped in assumptions as violent as war, can’t be lifted away with softly spoken truths. They linger to trouble me, and tighten my throat.
Laurel Fantauzzo recommends “A History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos” by Luis Francia.