If ever there was one, the Philippine dream is to make it—to the United States, or so we gather from award-winning Filipino American journalist Albert Samaha’s memoir, “Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes” (Riverhead Books, New York, 2021, 400 pages).
The 32-year-old Samaha is an inequality editor at BuzzFeed News, and one of his books was adapted into the Netflix football documentary series “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints.” More than that, he is the son of a Filipino mother (Lucy, a stewardess) and a Lebanese father (Fahim, a businessman), but lived in the Philippines before growing up in Vallejo, California. He returned to the country in 2017 for a BuzzFeed story that was selected for “The Best American Travel Stories 2018.”
The critically acclaimed “Concepcion” is an extraordinary feat of personal, family and colonial history. Samaha, realizing he was now the same age as his mother when she came to the United States, decides to trace his family history in detail, all the way back to his great-great-grandmother Princess Emilia Bato Bato, running it side by side with the history of the country as well as American colonization. In particular, he focuses on how the Concepcion clan, through his grandmother Rizalina, finally establishes a beachhead in Vallejo in 1978, leaving behind comfort and affluence in the Philippines to start over in the United States.
As the years go by, more and more of the Concepcions arrive. “Our American barangay was falling into place,” he writes. “Only my mother and a few siblings had yet to follow, everybody drawn to the exceptional nation like moths barreling into blinding fluorescence.”
Samaha chronicles their travails as well as well as his own growing up. “Landing in the States, we’d stepped into a history we hadn’t fully prepared for and didn’t understand at first,” he writes. “Our elders arrived full of faith, ready to make sacrifices so that the next generation could march on, with the assurance of birthright and a familial infrastructure already in place. But that didn’t keep us from crashing into American reality.”
Samaha switches seamlessly from the epic to the extremely intimate. In particular, his bizarre, heartbreaking relationship with his mother, who becomes a Trumpist and a believer in wild right-wing conspiracies, drives a wedge between them, just as his uncles’ support for President Duterte actually leads to a trip back to the Philippines just so he can see what has happened.
“Concepcion” is a journey through the Filipino immigrants’ thrall to the myth of America, as seen through the lens of one family. It is a clear-eyed, tragic and yet self-fulfilling journey with no return, and an important book in the history of Filipinos migrating to America.
“Our stories guide and protect us,” Samaha writes. “Without their lessons, warnings and triumphs to root us to the past, we float aimlessly, taken by whatever opportunistic forces are quickest to grab, mold and exploit.”
Here are excerpts from Lifestyle’s interview with Samaha.
You wrote that the idea for ‘Concepcion’ first came to you in 2009 when your Uncle Tomas was telling you about your Mindanao roots. How did the a history of your family also become a parallel history of American colonialism and Filipino migration?
The concept for the book project came years later, in 2016, when I realized that the stories I was hearing from my elders fit into a wider global history I knew little about and rarely saw represented in the school textbooks and mainstream movies I grew up with. Before then, I had been curious about my family’s history, but it took years of learning before I began connecting the dots to the social and political conditions that shaped the experiences of so many others. From there, I hoped to use my family’s story as a vehicle to explore those wider forces. While every family’s story is unique, our experiences trace to a collective history, and as I dug into that past, I wanted to paint a deeply reported backdrop of the landscape so many of us journeyed across.
Would it surprise you to know that one of the most surprising revelations in ‘Concepcion’ is that Spanky Rigor, someone whose songs we still sing today and whose TV shows we watched growing up, is your uncle, how he vanished to become an airport baggage handler?
Growing up, I sometimes heard brief mentions that he’d been a musician in the Philippines, but I didn’t think about it much beyond that—I knew him for his warmth, his witty jokes, and his habit of savoring his food with such devotion that he was always the last one left at the table. He never boasted about his past life, never seemed to be trapped in those years. All the times we did karaoke at family gatherings, I can’t remember Uncle Spanky ever taking the mic. I didn’t hear a single one of his songs until I was in my late teens and another uncle played “Rock Baby Rock” in the car, and even then, all I thought was, “Oh wow, Uncle Spanky made good music.” Then one night in 2015 or 2016, I was at a party talking to a Filipino friend, and when I casually mentioned that my uncle was Spanky Rigor, my friend burst into a state of excitement that gave me my first glimpse into Spanky’s stature as a rock star. It was at that point that I realized how little I knew about an uncle I’d known my whole life.
Your mother stands out in ‘Concepcion’ as someone of contradictory opinions, and powerful in her beliefs. How is she doing in these months after Joe Biden’s election? Is she still the same as you reported in ‘My Mother Believes in QAnon?’
No major changes to report there. We still debate politics and policies and still disagree on certain issues, but as I noted in that essay, our relationship remains strong and loving. She’s doing well.
A significant part of ‘Concepcion’ is drawn from your 2017 BuzzFeed story ‘Looking for Right and Wrong in the Philippines.’ What was the process like ‘growing’ ‘Concepcion’ into that story?
In fact, it was the opposite of that! After I began working on the book in 2016, I embarked on the 2017 reporting trip to the Philippines with the idea that I’d do an essay to jump-start the book-writing process—to workshop ideas I was developing and test out how to structure the story. Beyond that, the election of Duterte had instilled in me an urgency to write about my ancestral homeland immediately, rather than save all my thoughts for the book. I initially imagined that essay as an opening chapter, because I knew I wanted the book to be rooted to the present. But as I did more reporting over the following years, I realized that the 2017 trip fit better near the end of the book and instead opened with events from 2018. As I planned for this project to take several years, I wanted to publish parts of the story in the meantime, so I could bounce around my thoughts with a range of editors and learn from any feedback I received. In addition to that 2017 essay, I also performed a story about my Uncle Spanky for the Pop-Up Magazine live storytelling tour, wrote about my granduncle Tomas for a BuzzFeed News series on travel, and chronicled my mom’s support for the QAnon conspiracy theory in an essay. Portions of those works all ended up in the book, as well.
As I worked on the final chapter, I realized that the essay I’d written in 2017 was not only a testing ground for the book but also a contemporaneous account of my experiences returning to the Philippines for the first time in 22 years. While I had to craft other parts of the book from interviews and memories, here I had a document that captured my thinking in real time. When I tried to write about that trip three years later, I didn’t like how distant it felt—I wanted to bring the reader along on the trip, so I decided to present it as I wrote about it at the time, weaving in additional interior monologue about my thought process as a journalist to show the reader how my understanding of the Philippines evolved from the perspective I presented during the childhood portions of the book.
‘Concepcion’ and the departure from Scout Reyes show Filipinos chasing the Philippine dream into the wall of the new American reality like a self-fulfilling prophecy. What do you think about that?
The mythology of America is strong, instilled through decades of imperial hegemony. Americans designed the curriculum and taught at the schools my grandparents attended as children in Northern Mindanao, when the Philippines was a US territory. They learned the story of America as told by white Americans, just as I did growing up in the States. Even when they enjoyed a comfortable standing in the islands, they dreamed of one day migrating to the nation they considered a promised land. But it was the potential ruin they faced during the Marcos dictatorship that turned their flight from a dream to a desperate necessity. The US supported Marcos for years, and the American and Spanish colonial occupations restricted agricultural development and created an economic dependency on the west that limited opportunities in the Philippines. The empires created the conditions that compelled so many people to leave, for overseas work or a fresh start. Because America presents itself as a sanctuary for anyone fleeing the troubles of their homeland, because America is the history book protagonist that defeated the Axis powers and exported democracy, because America promises a fair chance at attaining luxuries, many new arrivals come to navigate a country that bears little resemblance to the idealized vision broadcast around the world. Just as my granduncle Roberto landed in the 1930s to discover that the civil war hadn’t ended racist violence, my grandmother Rizalina landed in the 1970s to discover that the civil rights movement hadn’t ended racist discrimination. My elders express no regrets in their decision to come here: My cousins and I in the second generation reaped the benefits of their sacrifices, and like many immigrants, they’re quick to say that they moved to the States for us. A central question I sought to explore in my book was: Why did their sacrifice seem so necessary in the first place?
What was the most difficult part of writing ‘Concepcion?’
Crafting the structure. Weaving together the historical timeline tracing my ancestors with the more recent timeline chronicling my family’s American experience sometimes felt like trying to fit two separate puzzles into a single image. I tried several different arrangements and styles before landing on a structure I felt excited about.
I wanted to show how the events of the past rippled into the present by moving back and forth through time, while tying the timelines together with a cohesive theme. I wanted it to feel a little disorienting on occasion, to give the reader a small taste of the immigrant experience. Conveying that sense without disrupting the flow of the story was a fragile balance that I spent many hours tuning.
What did you enjoy the most about writing it?
It was immensely fulfilling to learn everything I could about my family, interviewing uncles, aunties, cousins and other kin for hours at a time. We’ve always been a close-knit family but I felt that the process deepened my relationships with my loved ones. I applied the same journalist rigor to this story as I have to any other story, and that meant regular phone calls and meetings with loved ones I should have been regularly calling and meeting with all along.
It is Filipino American History Month. What are the most important revelations that should be remembered at this point in history?
Thriving in a new country often requires assimilation, and Filipinos in the US have done that more effectively than maybe any other immigrant diaspora here. Though we are the fourth largest diaspora in the country, our presence is relatively light on the cultural stage, with few Manilatowns and movie characters to represent us to the wider public. Many of us have embraced our new country, and part of that process sometimes means keeping your eyes on the future and avoiding reflecting on the oppressive forces at the root of our exodus.
Filipinos have a long history in America because America seized the Philippines, snubbed its push for independence, and gave us special immigration status as students and laborers. It’s tempting to shy away from that history, to maybe even feel shame that we were once a colonized people. But a closer look at our history reveals that to be colonized is not to be weak but to develop a strength forged through a collective resistance against oppression and reclamation of traditions the empires tried to erase. Our fight for recognition in the global hierarchy bonds us with formerly colonized people around the world, and those of us in America now wield a growing power in the nation that has long perpetuated a white supremacist caste system.
Understanding our history means recognizing that now that we are a part of the empire, we have the choice to defend the old order or work to upend it. I look to the example set by Larry Itliong, who immigrated to the US in the 1930s, worked under horrific conditions in an Alaskan cannery, and eventually organized farm and factory worker unions that improved the livelihoods of thousands of people.
Finally, what do you want readers to take with them after reading ‘Concepcion?’
As I write in the book, my family’s story is just one thread in a vast tapestry. For so long, colonial powers kept the records, told the stories, and dictated how history is remembered. I hope that readers might be inspired to investigate their own family histories and tell the stories that chronicle experiences they haven’t seen represented.
I often joke with friends about how so many stories we encounter in mainstream western culture take place within the same 500-year period in the same regions of northern Europe—endless knights in shining armor and Victorian romances, when there is so much more history to explore.
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