Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street is actually about old men and dying in America

america is in the heart

just because i’m active against doesn’t mean i have to think of a good caption

It has been three years since I last posted anything on this blog. I recently got into thinking, and talking, about my blog, and I figured, maybe this is as good a time as any to restart it. So here we are.

Last Saturday, I went to the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale, which also tangentially reminded me of this blog; I did start it back then to write book reviews, after all. I’ve collected a lot of books since my 2015 backlog, not that it disappeared or aything; D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers is still part of that same backlog. Last December I bought a dozen books from the Ateneo Press, and now I have 9 more. Mostly textbooks, but I have some novels here and there too. One of those books was Benjamin Pimentel’s Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street, and I think that’s as fitting a book to start again on as any, if not for the personal connection.

Starting up this blog again is a sort of return to roots, like going back to college but with all the hindsight. And, since we’re talking about revivals, Powell Street is the best novel to (re)-start things with. This was a book that I started reading in our college library, but never finished. I used to spend my free time reading a few pages at a time, but I never really got past the halfway point. Come 2018, and a lot of coincidences later, I managed to get around to it and finish it in one sitting.

So I guess the narrative I’m trying to weave here is that this post, this review, and everything about it is a sort of circling back, like a homecoming. This is my homecoming post. Welcome back, me.


I’ve always liked generational sagas. Generational, in the sense that there is a continuing narrative that spans more than one character. Something like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure or The Metabarons. I like stories that transcend characters and time frames, giving it a sense of living, as it were. The story suddenly takes on this layer of realism for me, because the story becomes the world, and the characters are simply in it for the ride.

 

EGtZDEy

pictured: people who did nothing wrong

Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street barely qualifies as a generational saga, but it does create a breathing world that the characters interact in. It’s a story of Filipino veterans of World War II, and their “final mission” to get equity compensation rights for their services during the war. It’s a story with multiple layers; of the hardships they suffered during the war, of the struggles of the Fil-Am community, of martial law, of families and of America.

 

The book’s protagonist and narrator is Fidel, a veteran guerrilla who came to America to petition for the compensation promised to them by Douglas MacArthur during the Second World War. He spends his days with other veterans in Powell Street, and life for him and the other vets is painted as not being too easy, but not too hard either. At least, not as hard as being a guerrilla. The eponymous guerrillas of Powell Street come from different backgrounds, and an entire cast of characters is introduced over the course of the story. Fidel is accompanied by his close friend, Ruben, who encouraged him to go to America in the first place. He also meets people like Ciriaco, who’s totally embraced American culture with his ten gallon hat and his mink coat; Major, a former guerrilla and Army man who truly believes in the American ideal of justice, and Danny, a former NPA guerrilla who ended up being disillusioned by the cause.

The story itself has multiple themes. One of the most prevalent is the concept of “coming back whole”, i.e. buried back home in the Philippines instead of being cremated. Sending a body home to the Philippines and having it buried is costly, and for the most part, the only viable option that these veterans have is to be cremated. It’s strange, though, because when you think about it, it’s a problem they could’ve avoided easily if they simply chose not to come to America in the first place. In a way, it’s a problem that the veterans themselves created, and one the story itself addresses by asking the question, “Why don’t they just go home?”

Powell Street does not directly answer that question. It instead presents the characters as fighting for something more important than clinging on to their bodies after death. They’re presented as coming to America to help their loved ones back home, to redeem their own sense of honor, or to appeal to the American sense of justice. In the end, only one character ends up getting a burial: Major. The rest get cremated, and their consolation is that they get pretty nice urns out of it.

That Major is the only one who “succeeds” in “coming back whole” (although as a makeshift balikbayan box) is interesting to me. All the other characters who died: Victor, Fidel, Ruben, and Ciriaco, had varying faith in the concept of America. Some of them didn’t really want to come, except maybe to provide for their loved ones back home. Ruben and Ciriaco wanted to go to America to experience life in it, but only Major truly believed in America. Of all the characters in the novel, Major was the one who “believed” most in America, not just equity rights. Major wholeheartedly embraced the American ideal, and hoped for a sense of right to prevail. In the end, he gets rewarded with his burial wish. Victor, on the other hand, didn’t even want to immigrate and his reward is that his ashes were stored in a mayonnaise jar.

This bleeds into the character’s, and consequently, the novel’s political stance. Major loathes Dario, another veteran. However, where they differed was that Dario was a Huk, a communist guerrilla, while Major and the others were US guerrillas. Huks were communists, and they fought against the US-propped government after the war. Badong tries to paint a more neutral view of the Huks, justifying their rebellion as a reaction to them being cheated out of a fair electoral process, but this was a story of US-backed guerrillas, not the Huks who fought with and against them. In the end, Major got what he wanted while Dario is painted as a traitor, not just to his country for being a Huk, but even to the Huk cause itself, by virtue of being a Filipino expat.

Then we have Arnel, Olive, and Danny, who were NPA guerrillas. They provide an interesting contrast to the WWII guerrillas who also fought in much of the same mountains and jungles as the cadres. The way they were presented however, was much less romantic. The NPA had to go from town to town to rally support, while the guerrillas of Fidel’s day didn’t need to, since the people knew exactly who the enemy was and thus needed no convincing. Arnel and Olive ended up being betrayed and killed by the revolution they fought for, something that was virtually unthinkable in the veterans of Powell Street. Danny was also betrayed by the revolution, but unlike the other two, he managed to escape. The story finds him beaten, the spark gone from his eyes, and thoroughly defeated. Theirs was not a just war, unlike the guerrillas who came before them.

In the end, what Powell Street is, is a reflection of the author’s views on the relationship between the Philippines and America, and of Filipinos and Americans. Filipinos like Fidel owe a great deal to America, much like how America owes a great deal to the Filipinos for their efforts during the Second World War. But beyond that, Powell Street presents America as an ideal, as a sort of logical next step in the life of a Filipino. It presents the life of a Fil-Am, under the framing that it is better to be one that to stay in the Philippines. Coming to America is sort of the correct course of action; after all, who better to treat us than our Big White Brothers?

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