Like most American tales, this one begins with baseball. The unusual sight of an entirely left-handed battery on an otherwise empty diamond; father catching son. A splitter—fast and cutting—fools the father as the bottom drops out of its trajectory and right onto his toe, causing a small amount of blood to pool under the nail. After some hobbling and a few muttered curse words in Tagalog, he turns to the son and apologetically calls it a day.
“That was a good pitch, anak,” he says. “But, to save my body, we better head back.”
I think about my father often. I think about days like that at the park, or when he pulled me out of bed to catch Kirk Gibson hit that home run in ’88. I was fresh from the Philippines, having only immigrated a few months prior with my mother and sister—my brother, only an infant then, would follow shortly, to finally unite our family in our small slice of South Los Angeles. My father was our gateway to America. I think about how he came here first, learned aspects of the culture (sports especially), and worked to pass them on to us. I think about how he worked the graveyard shift, got laid-off, then was rehired but only for jobs out of state—away from our home in Los Angeles. I think about how that crushing loneliness would have defeated me, and how he never complained about it to any of us. I think often of how he loved us.
I also think about his many demons: alcoholism and gambling among them. I think about the cigarette smoke still curling in the air as my mother, sister, brother, and I frantically combed an empty apartment for personal effects before he returned, drunk and angry. I think about how the nobility in being separated from family to provide for them is tempered by his absence in our lives. How he was unable to fully articulate his sense of care. And how that care, often, felt prickly and uncertain. This, too, is how he loved us.
Reflecting on the state of America for people of color, I think about that love; I think about loving the oppressor.
Patriotism in America has long been marked by a vein of blind and unceasing fealty to the country. A strange corruption of unconditional love, this strain would have citizens follow its leadership and laws to all ends without question or regard. Never mind that the founders of this country used as a guiding principle that this nation was, is, and implicitly always will be, an imperfect union. Nor that this nation was founded on a set of contradictions: laws and documents codifying into legal practice centuries of race-based oppression, exclusion, and discrimination all bleed into our modern world. As a Filipino-American, I cannot explain the plight against my immigrant community without acknowledging the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Land Law, the internment of Japanese-Americans, and anti-miscegenation laws. There is a direct thread linking this nation’s abysmal history on race and its oblique deflections regarding critiques on it, to the continued proliferation of white supremacist activity today. Love of country, for people of color, has always meant acknowledging the sins of America.
The myth of this nation is rooted in benign stories of discovery and adventure. Of pious journeys set on noble ideals. There is no lasting grapple with the tensions in our history. That the beauty of California’s missions along El Camino Real also ravaged local indigenous communities with disease, while exploiting the bodies of the newly converted by forcing them into labor. That those missions are gilded in the blood and sweat of that cheap labor force, maintained through brutal forms of punishment, rarely registers. Our pilgrims to the east were hardly more noble, as religious refugees persecuted their own in the Salem witch trials, an early example of North American misogyny. From a Constitution that enumerated African-Americans as less than human, to an extermination campaign by government under a seemingly benign sense of duty to gentrify “savages,” tragedy and devastation were a part of your American Dream, unless you were white and male.
Love of country, some argue. With their boots firmly planted in my chest as I struggle to protest. No, that is not love, but blindness.
The blindness that these patriots would will on to others—a malady not random and loaded with cruelty—is what I’d come to know as patriotism. It presents itself in arguments of a post-racial America under President Barack Obama. Or in the whitewashing of Japanese internment as an act of mercy and protection for those stripped of their possessions, liberty, and, ultimately, humanity. It is in the lack of engagement over the meaning of Southern states fighting more vehemently for the retention of monuments on behalf of Confederate soldiers than in the civil rights protections of people of color in their own communities.
The ultimate hope of this blindness is not only to avoid the discomfiting feelings of guilt or complicity, but to obtain absolution without penance. To be made innocent without justice. This trick—this falsehood—only serves those desiring to avoid an internal reckoning.
And for a nation laboring under the stresses of its contradictions, it is not love that marks the silence or obstruction to the remedies proposed over history. It is not love that caused Confederate secession or the ambush of the Freedom Riders. It is not love that refused the huddled masses on the MS St. Louis. It is not love that suggests my humanity is tied to my passport.
Love, you see, looks unflinchingly into the morass and calls on hope. It does not disavow the wreckage or avoid it. True love is a wise change agent that leans on the better angels without naivety.
If patriotism is love, then, maybe the point is to reclaim the narrow definition of that love from those that would have us believe that thin, flimsy version they peddle. Theirs is the kind of love that would allow this nation to continue its dark path of hypocrisy, proclaiming to be a light set on a hill, while cloaking many of its citizens in shadow. No, let our generation be the last that accepts this imposter as love and, instead, turn a steely eye inward at the illnesses plaguing us today: racism, ableism, xenophobia, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, and Islamaphobia. For in order to move forward, we must first acknowledge where we’ve been. And where we’ve been as a nation—as a people—is steeped in violence, exploitation, and inequality.
Love is restorative. Love is healing. Love carries with it a real hope of reconciliation. But love does not exist exclusively apart from these tensions. The love that I have for my father is complex and messy. I’ve long circled how I might reconcile a love for the person that worked his hands raw to provide for me, and who was often quick with encouragement, with the memory of my twenty-one-year-old-self demanding he never return home. The icy silence of the car ride taking him to the airport is as vivid as the memory of that day at the park.
It is a similar reflection of love for this problematic nation that I’ve come to know. As an expecting father myself, I’ve seen my work imbued with new urgency and purpose: I am raising my voice to prepare this world for the arrival of my precious joy. This world, undoubtedly, will not be ready for their ebullient spirit. Their brown skin and Asiatic features will mark them as foreign to many, despite their being as American as, well, apple pie. Birthed in this nation, they will still be made to feel as The Other and my heart has broken over and over for the past few months with that knowledge. It is one thing to strain against the yoke of inequality myself. It is another to feel complicit in burdening my child with that same yoke.
But love is nothing if not hopeful. And hopeful love has long animated the movements that grind against the further cementing of the untiring machine of inequality that is America. This hopeful love filled Fredrick Douglass and protected Harriet Tubman. This hopeful love moved Rosa Parks, Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez, and Dorothy Day to hold this nation to the truths it proclaims are self-evident. This hopeful love has not had a linear trajectory, but it has always aimed for the zenith that is Justice.
It is that love, then, that has allowed people of color to resist by simply existing. In the communities left for dead due to the suburban/segregated housing boom: the Comptons, the Detroits, the Bronxs, the Hawthornes. Little acts of rebellion emerge every day and black and brown people thrive. Singing a posada is rebellion. Wearing a Barong Tagalog is rebellion. Attaining a university education is rebellion. Love is tenacious, and our communities are emblematic of that enduring fight.
It honors our spirit to continually push back against the factions that peddle a false love—that seek to inoculate the masses with their blindness. It is an act of love to work to remove the veil and loosen the bonds of hate and iniquity that have bound our nation from before its founding. Let us march on and not go weary in our search for justice. This is an act of fealty, worthy of patriots.
Rumpus original art by Eva Azenaro Acero.