February 29, 2024

He remembered how hot an asphalt road felt beneath his feet on a midsummer day with his paper-thin flip-flops barely holding on to his toes. Remembered looking up at the sky with sweat trickling down his forehead and seeing the red and yellow fiesta flags stiff from the lack of wind. Could still feel the Manila paper cut-outs in his grip, know the words written on them like a prayer his mama recites before meal. He recalled the split second he’d catch his breath, plaster a hopeful smile on his face, and stretch his arm out to stop the next person passing by. “Would you like to buy a poem, sir?” 

Their sneers made his stomach sink worse than indigestion. He had to remind himself again that it was not his fault he was born at a time when the whites were gods, the rest of them trained monkeys and it was called liberation. That they were only ever gods if gods raise a generation of angry children by slaving off their fathers and calling them brothers. That stripping their culture bare was not the same thing as slow genocide. 

He remembered coming home without his pockets clinking like a tambourine meant sleeping a little hungry. It was fine. He’s got another pocket full of rhymes. At least that one doesn’t run out. He’d grab his pen again, his inkwell, and the stash of papers underneath his native banig and write until after the wax of his candle had melted off like thick, frozen teardrops on their dining table. His mama would be mad about that, make him scrape them off tomorrow morning with ink-stained hands—the only evidence of his rebellion.

Sometimes he’d walk to the rice field nearby and somewhere in its vast blanket of green that went endlessly, he’d see Manong with his hunched back, gaunt hands, and calloused fingers, years of sun damage written on his skin. 

“There’s no future in these lands, young boy,” Manong would say to him, gaze far away as if he could see where the crops ended, loved it, and at some point, grew tired of it. Manong would talk about the city like it was another world—a pipe dream he’d run off to if his limbs weren’t predestined for labor. “Go to the city. Work hard to earn yourself a name and never come back.”

“Wouldn’t it be worse?” He wondered. “The mestizos had likely owned the cities by now. I would not be their little brown brother.” 

Manong’s weary eyes held his own. “They were only ever gods because we let them think they are. We let them tie a leash around our necks and parade us like animals in a zoo. With a name for yourself, they’d see you as half an equal—a little harder to domesticate.” 

The following days, he heard that Manong had died from a stroke, due to overwork. Saddened by his death, he dedicated his words to him and eventually, learned to live the dream Manong would have wanted. Learned to earn himself a name—the Poet of the People. Learned that even through loss, he’d stood surrounded by the cheers and hoots of the crowd of his own color, at some stadium in the city, with a hundred pairs of wild eyes above smiling cheeks looking back at him when he told them, “Let them call us savages. Let them think it is an insult. Let them think we are insulted.”

For their necks would remain absent of chains. And their words would free their people. Hope was a dangerous, infectious thing but he thought perhaps they needed more of it.

 

Piece by Allyssa Ria Paz

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