My Family Moved To The US For A Better Life. But What Does That Really Mean?
In this excerpt from Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes, a Filipino family grapples with the meaning of the American dream.
If you’ve picked up a bag at San Francisco International Airport baggage claim sometime in the last three decades, there’s a decent chance my uncle Spanky handled it. Still strong and slim at 71, with a ponytail under his cowboy hat, thick mustache over a constant smile, tired eyes behind wraparound sunglasses, Spanky lifts and loads, lifts and loads the overstuffed suitcases, the boxes of fruit, the jangling golf bags, smooth and brisk, knowing just how to grab, just where to hold, to avoid fumbling, to minimize strain. The younger guys on his crew don’t believe him when he tells them his age. Spanky doesn’t respect supervisors who don’t haul alongside their crews. His back might lock up once in a while, but his spirit is spry, the quips come fast and corny, the joy shines bright as ever when he greets you. He carries himself the same way he eats: savoring, patient, purposeful, his plate piled the highest, the last to leave the table.
Every immigrant leaves behind a life. Three decades ago, Spanky’s own flight rolled to a stop on the tarmac where he now spends his days. He lifted his suitcase from the conveyor belt on which he now drops the bags of others. Only occasionally does he think about the paths not taken, the visions that flash to the front of his mind, tempting him with regret. Because before he was a baggage handler, before he left the Philippines and crossed the ocean, Spanky Rigor was a motherfuckin’ rock star.
The band was called VST & Company. The S stood for Spanky, who wrote and produced songs and played guitar; the V and T for Vic and Tito, the lead singers. Half a dozen or so other men — drummers, guitarists, keyboardists, and backup vocalists—made up the “& Company.” With a style that blended high-octane disco with traditional Filipino love songs, VST was part of a cultural renaissance that coalesced under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, as balm for the anxieties of martial law. The relentlessly upbeat “Manila Sound” washed the country in escapist pleasure, fueling sweaty house parties that pushed on until the curfew lifted at dawn and revelers could stumble home without getting jailed or shot. It was music that sizzled with optimism and innocence— hearts won and kisses promised, caring arms and grooving bodies, fantasies unveiled as reality.
Every immigrant leaves behind a life.
When my grandmother Rizalina began our household’s migration to the United States in 1978, VST & Company was three years old and “still figuring out our sound,” as Spanky recalls it. Then the band’s debut single, “Awitin Mo at Isasayaw Ko,” went gold, and fame arrived. The song’s title seemed to constitute a mission statement: “Sing your song and I will dance.” Spanky, Vic, and Tito rose to stardom, their shiny, sleeveless sequined vests sparking under the disco balls of sold-out shows. Adoring mobs pursued them into restaurants and hotel lobbies. Bar owners covered their tabs and kept the beer flowing long past closing time. At one gig, teenage students from a Catholic girls’ school erupted into such a frenzy that the nuns began splashing them with holy water “to drive away the hysteria that had possessed them,” recalled Spanky’s brother and bandmate, Male Rigor. They were as big as it gets in the Philippines, A‑list celebrities who’d earned themselves a rarefied path to the country’s upper-crust comforts.
In 1981, Spanky’s wife, my aunt Ging, was approved for a US visa. She landed in San Francisco with their one-year-old son, Jed. The plan was for her to help her mother establish a foundation for our American settlement, though she was unsure how long she and Jed would stay. Spanky, with television and movie contracts to fulfill, remained on the Islands. For eight years, Ging and Jed would spend their summers in the Philippines, and Spanky would visit them in San Francisco every December.
Then one hot, sticky Manila morning in the summer of 1988, Spanky sat at an airport bar wearing all white. White fedora, white linen jacket, white linen pants, white silk shirt, white leather shoes. He downed a shot of vodka, then another. The bartender recognized him and gave him an extra pour. He brought a suitcase and two big boxes. He hadn’t yet told his bandmates that he wasn’t coming back.
Ging was pregnant with their second child. Over everything loomed the question of where their children would be better off. They weren’t sure how to measure better off. Better schools, better civil institutions, better opportunities to pursue whatever success they might desire— the vision was as abstract as the impulse was clear. They didn’t so much decide that America was that place as cast their hopes in the stories they’d grown up hearing, in which America played the role of savior, and immigrant protagonists stood as shining examples of savvy and work ethic.
My elders’ earliest understanding filtered through histories written by white people in positions of authority, broadcast across the ocean in textbook tales of a democracy founded upon Christian values, the reassuring rhetoric of presidential speeches and John Wayne movies, newscasts on internal conflicts that nudged America to a better place, snippets of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words about seeing the mountaintop and the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. From across the ocean, they listened to rock and roll, watched Hollywood dramas, and played basketball. They understood the US to be a nation of well-paid jobs and wide-ranging opportunities. In another time and place, they might have sought favor from the Mayans or the Ottomans, but as it happened, they were born into the American Century, the era of capitalist democracy, and so it was the American gods that they worshipped.
Many others across the globe were steeped in the same ideas, and together they formed a wave of migration unprecedented in its scope. In the decade after the US lifted race-based immigration quotas in 1965, the majority of immigrants came from non-European countries for the first time in the country’s history. From 1970 to 1999, around 20 million immigrants arrived in the United States, 90 percent of them from Asia, Africa, Central America, and South America. Some were refugees driven from countries long ravaged by colonizing empires and convulsing amid the proxy battles of the Cold War. Some, like my family, chose to leave all they’d built in their homeland, drawn by the allure of what they believed America to be.
My mom, pregnant with me, landed in San Francisco a few months before Spanky, joining Ging, Jed, and Rizalina in their one-bedroom apartment in the city’s Richmond District. More loved ones were on the way. That year, more immigrants arrived from the Philippines than from any other country except Mexico — an exodus that had accelerated when Marcos encouraged Filipinos to find work away from the Islands, where the economy was cratering under the weight of corruption and monopoly. The exodus kept up for another three decades, and today Filipino immigrants and their American-born descendants make up the fourth-largest diaspora in the United States, though it might not seem that way at passing glance, with so few Manilatowns and movie characters to mark our presence, and so many ethnicities for people to confuse us with. Masters of assimilation, a skill honed by our ancestors for centuries, we molded ourselves into the American image to which we aspired.
Over her first decade in the States, Rizalina had been saving for a house big enough to fit our growing American settlement. But even with my mom and Auntie Ging splitting the down payment, they couldn’t find any affordable properties in the city, nor anywhere adjacent to it. A Filipino friend suggested Vallejo, an industrial suburb on wobbly legs 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. It had a burgeoning Filipino community and four-bedroom houses priced under $200,000.
In the Vallejo hills, the mansions sparkled like daytime stars; the lowland bungalows nestled anonymously in a maze of streets. It was there that Rizalina, Ging, and my mother found what they were looking for — a four-bedroom house with a two-car garage and a backyard lush with fruit trees. The house would serve as a base camp for family already migrated and those yet to arrive, as they found their feet, looked for work, saved money, and learned the ways of the new land before setting off to secure homes of their own. The three women signed the deed in January 1989. Soon the place filled with aunties, uncles, and cousins; by the mid-1990s, eleven of us were living there.
Steady work had become harder to find in the city. By the time our family moved to Vallejo, fewer than 10,000 people had jobs at the Mare Island Navy Shipyard, a fifth as many as during World War II. Unemployment in the area would continue to rise quickly, from 5 percent in 1990 to 9 percent in 1993; in 1996, the shipyards would close completely. Eroded from a three-decades-long economic backslide and excluded from the development transforming other parts of the region, Vallejo simmered with the angst of the abandoned.
It seemed intuitive to the generation that migrated that as outsiders we had to pay an entry fee, prove ourselves worthy additions to the empire, deserving of the comforts it boasted.
Auntie Ging continued to commute to her job as a first-grade teacher at a Catholic school in San Francisco's Visitacion Valley neighborhood, where students were mostly Black or children of Mexican, Chinese, or Filipino immigrants. She woke at five each morning to beat the rush-hour traffic on the drive to the city, and usually didn’t return home till nearly seven in the evening.
Uncle Spanky found work stocking airplane kitchens at San Francisco International Airport, loading and emptying as many as 180 planes a day. “It was taxing,” he said. “It was heavy. I wasn’t used to it.” Many days, he worked 16-hour double shifts. The metal drawers of the carts bit into his fingers and palms. Some nights, his hands were still bloody when he got into his car for the fifty-mile drive home to Vallejo.
More than once, Spanky thought about quitting and going back to the Islands, back to the movie sets, recording studios, adoring fans, and household help. “Sometimes while driving I’d think, why am I doing this? I’m not supposed to be doing this, but I’m doing it,” he said. “But there was a small voice in the back of my head that said: Oh yeah, you can do it. You lazy bum. It’s about time you work.”
For generations, my ancestors had navigated the wakes of distant empires, adapting to distant whims, imprinted with the knowledge that their homeland served the needs of distant people, stuck on the wrong side of the colonized world until America invited us in. It seemed intuitive to the generation that migrated that as outsiders we had to pay an entry fee, prove ourselves worthy additions to the empire, deserving of the comforts it boasted. So they put their heads down and worked, eager to prove they belonged in the new country.
Whatever struggles our elders may have whispered about in Tagalog in the kitchen, they kept us youngsters insulated from. In the evenings, as they returned from work, the living room was a din of laughter, long meals, cable TV movies, and Scrabble and Monopoly contests that trained our skills in English and capitalism. On summer weekends, we played basketball in the driveway while the uncles grilled burgers and hot dogs on the backyard patio, and when the sky turned purple and our stomachs were full, we roasted marshmallows on wooden skewers as fireworks from Marine World splashed high into the night.
The world beyond our doors had other lessons to teach.
Eight-year-old Jed soon made new friends, starting with the Viado brothers, who lived across the street—stout, swaggering Vince and charming, quick-witted Clarence. Riding their bikes around the subdivision, the brothers taught Jed the invisible boundaries of the neighborhood and showed him shortcuts through the maze of streets, pointing out which were the territory of an older teenage crew, the Crestside Crips, who would demand deference and extract tolls from anyone who trespassed through it.
“You had to scrap and shit,” Jed recalls. “Fuckin’ butterfly knives and Mace and shit.” One afternoon during his first summer there, he and the Viado brothers were playing baseball in the street when a crew of older boys demanded that Vince hand over the bat, and when Vince didn’t, the crew’s leader punched him in the face, but they didn’t take the bat. It was as if Vince had passed a test.
Vince and Clarence continued to be valuable guides as Jed navigated adolescence. Vince was a master at resolving conflict without violence, like the time he defused a confrontation with one of the biggest dudes at school by springing into a Karate Kid stance, complete with movie sound effects, which cracked up his adversary. Clarence, a skilled dancer, rapper, and graffiti artist, was a fashion trendsetter who always had the latest sneakers, but when Clarence shaved his head after several of his friends copied his long bangs and blow-dried wave, Jed realized that the thing to emulate wasn’t so much Clarence’s wardrobe or hobbies as his confidence to reinvent. Looking back years later, he realized that he’d probably learned more in Vallejo High’s hallways than in its classrooms, where teachers often seemed overwhelmed by disruptive students and assigned work that could be completed with barely any effort.
What Jed learned from the Viado brothers, he passed on to me. Being around Jed felt like getting answers to a test I’d be taking in a few years. He was the coolest person I knew. By the years of my earliest memories he was collecting Air Jordans, listening to Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and beating the final boss in Donkey Kong on Super Nintendo. He was fluent in the latest slang, sharp with wordplay, and never missed an opportunity to clown you for some act of foolishness. When he went out on the weekends, he’d emerge from his bedroom in pristine kicks and starched jeans, ball cap cocked back at just the right angle, then perfect his fit in the mirror by the front door, tongue tucked under his top lip in concentration, head bobbing like a boxer, checking all the angles, adjusting sleeves, laces, cuffs.
Jed had been the star of his middle school basketball team, a playmaking point guard with handles and a jump shot, so talented that when he’d arrive for games, the crowd in the gym would erupt in cheers. In football, where he’d been the backup tight end his sophomore year, he seemed poised to move up because the starter, a kid named CC Sabathia, had decided to focus on baseball. Sabathia would go on to be selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft, signing a $1.3 million contract with the Cleveland Indians, and another kid in Jed’s high school class, Brandon Armstrong, would get a scholarship to Pepperdine University, then go on to play in the NBA for three years.
Vallejo’s success stories, as Jed knew them, came through sports and entertainment. His high school’s notable alumni included E-40 and Sly Stone. One day, while he and his boys were sitting around a small bench press in the Viados’ garage, a new song came on KMEL 106.1, and somebody pointed out that the rapper, Mac Mall, was the kid who had punched Vince years earlier.
All over the United States, second-generation immigrants were coming of age in places excluded from the country’s promises of prosperity. Dante Basco, the Filipino American actor best known for his role as Rufio in Hook, explained his inspiration for that performance in a Gizmodo interview by recounting his childhood years in Paramount, California: "What I was bringing to the character, especially at that time in my life, I grew up in a gang neighborhood. Gangsters were around, drugs and everything. It was a tough time to grow up. It was cool, but it was a tougher neighborhood. And to a degree, the Lost Boys are a little gang. So I think I had a bit of that coming into it.”
In his songs, Jonah Deocampo, the Filipino American rapper known by the stage name Bambu, describes his South Los Angeles neighborhood as a place that made him “ready for war,” schools where he’d “never seen a single college adviser,” and police officers who “treat you like a criminal, pat you down at your school, arrest you over a quota over racist-ass rules.”
Joe Ide, the Japanese American noir novelist, grew up in Watts in the years after the 1965 riots, which were sparked when a police officer shot and killed a Black motorist he’d pulled over. Most of Ide’s friends were Black, and so were most of the characters in his books. Asked in an interview with NPR how he managed to write such vivid dialogue, Ide said, “The vernacular was my first language. I had to learn to talk like this!” He lived with his grandparents, and though his grandfather didn’t speak English and collected Samurai swords, Ide felt little connection to his ancestral culture. “I wanted to be Black, but I knew I wasn’t,” he told the New York Times. “I always felt something of an outsider. I wasn’t Black. I wasn’t white. I was way far from being Japanese. So I was a lot on the fringe. And I was a watcher. I would listen to people. Listen to the way they talk and imagine what was going on in their heads.”
The elders taught my cousins and me to pinch our noses every day so that they would end up narrow like white people’s, not flat like our genes intended. If one of the cousins was lying on the floor, our elders warned the rest of us not to step over them because doing so would stunt their growth; the Concepcions had long taken pride in being tall for our race, a blessing we credited to the Spanish blood in our mestizo veins. But unlike our Mexican and Chinese classmates, we didn’t speak our parents’ native language at home, because our parents said Tagalog was useless in America and it was English we needed to master. They taught us only the Tagalog words we needed to survive: “tabi apo” to keep the dwendes from cursing us when we stepped outside, “pwera usog” to ward off hexes from jealous observers when something good happened to us, and “pwera gaba” to block the evil spirits from turning their wrath on us when we heard about somebody’s hardship. Eventually, I picked up an intermediate understanding of Tagalog from years of eavesdropping on my mom’s late-night phone calls with her sisters.
Like many second-generation immigrants, I learned about our country from Black people.
Memories of the old country’s flaws shaped how our elders experienced their new land. They spoke of corruption and civil strife in the Philippines; they had migrated in pursuit of a place with institutions they could depend on, a civic infrastructure and social safety net that would support their efforts to pull their families to comfort, and they continued to believe in it even in the face of evidence to the contrary. As my mom and her siblings viewed the situation, most of the people who occupied the spaces we wanted to occupy and controlled the gates to those spaces were white. Every principal and all but two of my teachers at the several elementary schools I attended were white. Nearly all our local newscasters were white, and all but one of the anchors I watched on SportsCenter was white. The coaches of my favorite athletes were white, and the record executives who signed my favorite artists were white. Every pope and U.S. president, white. We had come here to succeed like white people, so who better to guide us? Rather than shifting with their experience in America, our parents’ views generally hardened over time, as if packed tight by their migrant ambition to learn the rules and climb the ranks. Unlike the ancestors of Native and Black Americans, ours had signed up of their own will, and they could not shake their belief that they had chosen well, even as the dreams and stability they chased slammed into the walls of a stubbornly stratified and segregated nation.
Jed and I continued to diverge from them in our understanding of the country – and in our path to assimilation. Like Ide, I was a kid who wanted to be Black. I didn’t think of it that way at the time. I was simply picking up cues from the influences in front of me. Kenan Thompson and Kel Mitchell on Nickelodeon. Jerry Rice and Barry Bonds in packed stadiums. Nas and Nelly in my CD case. The contours of American reality unfurled for me in songs, shows, and sports books—culture seeped faster into my childhood brain than classroom knowledge. The stories I heard were set amid unjust odds, neglectful institutions, and repressive forces. I learned about Huey Newton from a Tupac song—“two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead”—before I ever heard his name mentioned in school. I read, in the paperback on my nightstand, that Josh Gibson might’ve been better than Babe Ruth, and I watched, from the DVD spinning in our living room, the crew-cutted cop kill Radio Raheem. Like many second-generation immigrants, I learned about our country from Black people.
Born in the United States, the children of the wave didn’t have to rely on American mythology to understand their country. Black Americans had detailed these truths for centuries, and in the early ’90s the messages reached Jed and his childhood friends through the music they listened to. Hip-hop had replaced shipbuilding as Vallejo’s claim to fame, and the city that produced the most submarines during World War II now produced the most Bay Area rap superstars per capita, voices that chronicled their city’s plight, depicting scenes that Jed and his friends saw around them. “I’m from the V‑A‑double‑L‑E‑J‑O, where selling narcotics is all I know,” rapped Mac Dre, the high-energy godfather of the local rap scene, in his song “Valley Joe.” In “Practice Looking Hard,” which boomed from bass-heavy trunk speakers at stoplights across the Bay when Jed was fourteen, E‑40 paints a portrait of a distressed people with no choice but to toughen up: “A J‑O‑B in 93 consists of paper rarely,” he raps. “And then ya wonder why I’m stubborn, forever lookin’ hard, I been scarred.”
I didn’t know yet about Parchman Farm prison, or Black Wall Street, or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or the massacres of the post-Reconstruction era, or the CIA supplying the crack cocaine trade, but I was learning the language necessary to understand the magnitude of that history. From those stories in childhood—warning marks etched on the road by travelers long before us—I picked up on the fact that my family and our fellow immigrants were new arrivals not only to a nation but to a long-standing system of racial oppression, suspended somewhere between those who conquered the land by blood and those whose blood built the empire. We had come by choice but in peace, with neither the privileges of whiteness nor the weight of Blackness. Where did that leave us?
Nearly two decades into his American life, Jed was further from comfort than he’d been on the day he was born, a chunky mestizo baby in Manila’s finest hospital. Our family had arrived not as humble beginners but as proud ones knocked backward, staggered but regaining balance, suddenly aware of how much ground there was to make up. We hadn’t fled war or catastrophe. We had simply moved to America.
Jed compared the paths available to him in the States to what he could have expected in the Philippines. We’d heard about what it was like growing up there, where the children of the well-off worked only once they’d finished their schooling, moved out of the big ancestral home only once they’d gotten married, and had careers waiting for them at the threshold of adulthood. Jed still remembered his early summers among the maids and drivers, the television studios where everybody greeted his dad with glowing respect.
He found it confounding that for all the money his parents had in the Philippines, in America they couldn’t afford the brands in magazine ads and music videos. The rough exchange rate from peso to dollar existed in his mind as a scale weighing Manila comforts against Vallejo scarcity. The custom-made white crocodile loafers his dad once purchased in the Philippines cost half as much as the Nikes and Reeboks Jed coveted. The math was disheartening and disorienting. At fifteen, Jed got a job at the Burger King at the edge of the subdivision and started saving up for his first pair of Jordans. He didn’t wear them; he saved them, as investments. He worked through the summer and into the next school year, instead of playing football and basketball.
By his final year of high school, Jed was sharp enough to recognize that he was well behind his peers at the private schools that steered kids toward Berkley, UCLA, Stanford, the Ivy Leagues. His rap skills were modest on his best days, and he’d already abandoned the prerequisites to a professional basketball career. He wasn’t sure of his path forward in the States. He didn’t know if his grades were good enough to get him into a four-year college, and even if they were, he didn’t want to saddle his family with the cost. He figured he could go to a community college for two years, but he didn’t even know what he wanted to study. With little confidence any of that would work out, he crafted a backup plan.
His family name, after all, was still well-known in the Philippines. He was handsome, charming, funny, skilled at imitations and improvisation. He danced with a smooth lean and could hold a tune well enough. He could weave conversations out of thin air, and everybody seemed to like him. Jed’s backup plan was to go back to the Islands and become a megastar.
Sure, he wasn’t fluent in Tagalog, and few outside the Bay would understand the slang with which he peppered his words. It would make for an endearing story, though: Jed Rigor, the truest of balikbayans, coming back to the Philippines at just the moment when its leaders were calling for an end to the long exodus of its people, pleading for them to stay and build on the Islands rather than leave and send money home. He would be the poster boy for return, bearing tales of peril and disappointment in the so-called land of the free, blazing a trail for others of his generation. “Leaders of the new school!” he’d dub the cohort. He couldn’t tell if going back would make him a hero or a failure.●
From Concepcion by Albert Samaha, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright ©2021 by Albert Samaha.