Re-learning to be a Filipino with pan de sal
December 20, 2009, 11:06 pm
Filed under: essay, food, interview | Tags: , , ,

Filipino pan de sal

Coming from a doctor’s appointment at that medical building on Broadway and Oak in Vancouver, pained in parts that have been poked, anxious to find comfort in any guise, a poster of giant pieces of pan de sal on the glass wall of a café across the lobby you’re shuffling to get out of, falls like a proverbial manna from heaven! It draws your body upright and your uncertain steps turn into a light gait as you walk into Elliz Café, but wondering whether or not it’s the pan de sal for which you’ve been craving.

Hmmm, the aroma wraps you like the warmth of a kusina where on mornings your grandmother or mom sets almusal with pan de sal on a bandejado—not newly-baked by either of them but in the neighborhood bakery, which a boy on a bicycle who had honked a horn delivered in a brown paper bag, still warm, sweetish and salty. Instantly transported, you gloss over the cafe’s glass-walls, sleek-lines yet homey feel with its earth tones and finish, and approach the counter shooting this question at the lady in the  -cash register-hardly having had time to weigh its appropriateness– “I’m expecting to have Filipino pan de sal, am I not?”

Mary Loa lights up with instant kinship and says, “Of course.” The conversation does not end there, siempre.

You have finished two pieces of pan de sal by now, dipping them on the mushroom soup your choice instead of the wonton soup—on request of Filipino customers, the café serves two kinds of soup, one a Filipino recipe—which you learn from Mary have been cooked, baked and more precisely “created” by 27-year old Joy Loa, Mary’s daughter who is baker, chef, and manager of the café.

Joy Loa of Elliz Cafe, Vancouver

The lunch crowd thinned, a sun swarming on the tables, yours lit as much as your spirit sated from the very first bite, Joy joins you as you had requested for a conversation, which focuses on the pan de sal.

“You can’t imagine how hard I worked to get the right consistency that gives the texture, aroma, and taste, you like all others who take a bite like and have been coming for more. Six months or so, that’s how long!” Joy almost rises off her chair for emphasis and her voice hits higher decibels, carrying with it her triumph on what to most Filipinos is staple bread.

At the café, regular clientele include not only Filipinos but Hispanics, who recognize it of course, yet love it better than theirs or so they confess. There’s the bollilos among Mexicans, and pan de agua among the Portuguese—who by the way introduced it to the Filipinos, according to historical notes. And why not? Fernando Magallanes, who discovered the Philippines in his explorations, is Portuguese. Canadians and other Caucasians as well, most of them doctors, their assistants and patients in the clinics within the building have since taken on the Filipino habit of asking for it to dip in their soup. A Japanese gentleman has not failed to come for more after his first bite.

Why should its crustiness yet soft insides, its saltiness yet sweetish hint be such a mystery? “I don’t know. It must be the weather, the water, the kind of flour available,” she says hinting at a less than scientific process she went through.

Her mom had sent her back to the Philippines when she finished a degree in nutrition at University of British Columbia (UBC), “to re-learn Filipino cooking.” The family had migrated 17 years ago when Joy was in the grades. Her parents had applied as investors, pulling out their business in Greenhills, San Juan, a posh suburb of Manila, and landing in Winnipeg. Joy remembers lots of trees and snow that first year. Her memories of adjusting were fun and easy except for C+ grades in Physical Education subjects. “Suddenly, I was running laps, playing soccer and basketball. We were doing gymnastics and volleyball in Manila, nothing that athletic at all,” she recalls.

Going back to the Philippines was for Joy reliving her childhood when as a 7-year old she went to the now-famed Heny Sison Culinary School. That early she learned how to bake cupcakes and muffins—today she creates muffins out of what’s fresh in the fruit market or what’s in the fridge. During that learning vacation, Joy set her hands on unraveling the secrets not only of the pan de sal but also of the chewy-but-mouth-melting ensaymada, flaky but not bread-y empanada with just the right fresh cooked taste of its filling, and the many breads Filipinos grow up with like pan de coco.

Speaking of coconut, Joy expresses her anguish, hanging her head a bit, saying, “If I could get fresh coconut cream, I could make rice cakes like biko, which is my favorite, bibingka, and yes, puto bumbong”. You agree with her as images of mornings after misa de aguinaldo, you could not resist puto bumbong that pops with a slight bang when cooked on a tubular pot with two tubes set to steam on a clay stove, so its name—this purple rice roll lathered with margarine and topped with freshly grated coconut meat cooked right at the church patio.

But Joy has not let a few frustrations faze her. Take what she considers her ensaymada challenge. “Mahirap gawin! Mahanginan lang, babagsak na ang dough. (It’s hard to make it. A whiff of air could deflate the dough.),” she reveals. Even while she recognized it as basically a “brioche” in school, making it as the Filipino ensaymada she realized was hardly in the books. It took her months to get it right.

At Christmas after she finally had pieces for tasting, she got swamped with orders—“one of them asked for 25 dozens! I must have been baking and topping these with cheese for at least three days and nights.” You do add that a Christmas table spread is hardly complete without ensaymada.

You have since taken your second bite of the sampling Mary had coaxed you to try. Indeed, it must be the ultimate yet from the many variations you had eaten—from simple town bakery sugared versions to the latest mouth-melting bite-size kind made by a chain bakeshop in Manila.

And there’s still half of the cassava cake you have hankered to taste, about which a family of Hispanic women seated at the table behind you have been hmmmm-ing about. It’s one of the items Joy has recently added when customers allergic to wheat asked for an alternative.

counter at Elliz Cafe

The sun has slipped lower from its zenith and the afternoon has signaled a new crowd which Joy expects. One of them has come in, a Filipino regular who drops by for two sometimes three dozen pieces of pan de sal to bring home. Today, she settles as well for only three of the ensaymada left on the shelf.

Joy takes me behind the counter where on a table she has spread 24 dozens of newly baked pan de sal. But it’s almost closing time, you comment. “Mauubos ‘yan. (That will all be gone.) Joy tells you.

Take-home for pasalubong, yet another enduring habit of Filipinos has worked for Joy and Elliz Cafe. “Because they also ask for it, someday soon, I’ll be serving pancit,” she says. You add, not serve but also wrap for pasalubong. With that, you walk to the counter and pay for half a dozen pan de sal to take home. But you had vowed to come back for a dozen ensaymada to share with friends on Christmas day.

Copyright © 2009 by Alegria Imperial as published in Silangan, Philippine New and Views, Vancouver, BC

Hope for the Filipina?

 (as published in Silangan, Vol. 1 No. 2, May 2009, Vancouver, BC)


Live-in ka ba?

“Yes,” is the answer to both questions; more precisely “yes,” is the answer if action, theory and analysis, and back to action were applied based on both questions. 

A new lingo in the fight for humanly and equal rights for Filipino immigrant women workers especially live-in caregivers, is it? Yes indeed, because the struggle has been laid out on a credible stage—the academe.   

Luminous like stage lights in a new play copying rebirth—the season—is how I sense the lift in her eyes as Marilou Carillo, Ph. D. (University of British Columbia) of only a few weeks, gives the gist of her doctoral thesis on Filipino women activists. We sit diagonally across from each other in her living room illumined by soft chartreuse that brush her profile spring yellow. 

The struggle: Its roots, its growth, its promise, the trampling down of its blossoms, the demise of its promise, the specter it has turned into on the ground it has been seeded and how scandals, the rawness of its wounds continues to appall has been scrutinized, analyzed and found not annihilated but transformed—yet again, another tiny seed just risen off its bed. This seed is Marilou’s thesis, which she identifies as “Socially Transformative Transnational Feminism: Filipino Women Activists at Home and Abroad”.

The kernel is in the title of the thesis. “Socially transformative” refers to our actions to change things; it could begin with our own selves, for example in our desire to improve our lives with our education and our jobs but in the end will in effect change our country. Marilou says it simply, “As we work together we are changing things, as we struggle for change we are empowered; throughout the struggle we have changed, and as we work as communities, de-colonization is happening.”

“Transnational” situates Filipina migrant workers who have crossed continents, working in 190 countries as of last count—an opportunity that came in the guise of first world nations helping the third world; from our perspective, it is a marginalized view. As Marilou puts it, “Poverty has kept us in the cycle of violence that has taken us all over the world”.

“Feminism” defines the study as gender concerns but not in the Western sense because the Filipina’s issues are anchored more on poverty and sovereignty or their rights that are suddenly denied on foreign land–“Gender, race, class—you cannot isolate these from each other,” the author emphasizes.

“Filipino Women Activists Here and Abroad” identifies the kind of work women activists have done, demonstrating how action and theory can be bridged or knowing why a protest must be staged, and that it must address systemic issues or the root of what needs to be changed in our struggle. Feminist movements in the Philippines espouse different ideologies, and are in varied stages of development; some belong to a group of women who have lived through the Marcos years and who have migrated to other countries, yet all share Filipino visions of social change.

Exactly what struggle is this we’re talking about? Marilou arcs her petite arms as if to reach the span of centuries where it all began. She says the obvious, “Racial discrimination,” in its many guises. 

Between us flashed the densely layered history of our country—300 years of Spanish colonization, half a century of American rule, four years of fierce fighting the Japanese, who was not even our own enemy, to our wallowing today in a quicksand of economic woes; too, the rebellions, insurrections, protests, demonstrations of the oppressed, the victims of injustices, and the enlightened had waged and fought. The cycle of our struggle has not changed, of course, though the enemy has taken on even more insidious guises such as economic benevolence for supremacy and opportunities for slavery.

Marilou takes off her own history from there. She came to North America in 1968 to study in Chicago and later moved to Seattle. She reveals that having left the Philippines, she had begun to think of her being a Filipino.  “When you leave family, you begin to have a sense of who you are. But when you’re young, it’s so easy to be Americanized,” she says.

But that winter she had bought her first coat, the mirror which reflected such self-image cracked the first time. She recalls, “This woman, a saleslady, looks at me and asks, ‘Do you have money?’ I told her I have enough. And then it struck me why she asked so I turned around and left.” 

That would not be the last experience that made her aware of who she really is in terms of how other races but especially the white race “labeled” her. Those five years she lived and worked in Venezuela allowed her “to rethink my frame of reference. I’m simply not a ‘Gringo’.” 

Marilou’s volunteer work with Amnesty International, where she spent her energy helping other peoples to regain their rights, drew her closer into what she would later take on. She was with the National Board of the Canada Section by the time she left the organization, saying she “outgrew Amnesty International with its strict mandate.” More possibly, her work reflected Filipino issues groaning to be met and her thoughts began veering this way: “Yes, it is important to work in solidarity but why am I not working for my own people?” By then she has also joined the BC Committee for Human Rights in the Philippines and the Philippine Women’s Center. 

In Vancouver, “a number of situations” kept snagging her focus: first, the Vietnamese or “the boat people”—so called because of their history or how they escaped turmoil in their country by scrambling onto boats. She says, “I had wondered then, what it is like to be transplanted.” 

Next, she saw “more migration waves” at her position in the Vancouver School Board as speech pathologist and her work with a children’s hospital. She remembers how they inundated the schools like flood—after the boat people, the Iranians, Africans, Indians and then, the Filipinos. In the last ten years, there has been an influx of Filipino children because of the Live-in Caregiver program.

Against this mosaic of races, Marilou experienced what seemed like a more intense scrutiny; she would be asked, “Where are you from?” Caught off guard, she would answer, “From Vancouver.” It would prove to be an unsatisfactory answer and she would be dismissed as “one of those” because “some of us are darker than others.”

She reveals that even in social gatherings since the LCP, her presence often stirs guarded hostility or uneasiness among guests especially if married to a caregiver. It is nothing new to Marilou—early on in her becoming an immigrant, she was looked on as a “nurse”, that is way back when the influx of Filipino immigrants were nurses. She says, “I realized that my identity is the history of our migration.”

The arrival of the live-in caregiver intensified Marilou’s weighing of factors around her identity not as a given of her race but by those around her. First, the issue is gender based because the work of the caregiver frees another woman, a white woman, to work for her independence and contribute to the economy both of the household and the government. Second, the issue is contradictory in the sense that Filipino women leave their own homes to do domestic chores—a role she played as a principal in her own home—to earn a wage in another country which in turn denigrates such role into a subordinate one—“the brown woman, doing low-wage jobs.” And both women “are fueling enterprises of globalization,” serving a hierarchy of economic policies formulated by men.

Marilou recalls how she literally woke up one morning and decided that the Philippine Women’s Center needs an academic degree where knowledge and discourse is patterned, where credibility is sourced. Her passion flared not just for the study but on issues Filipino women in the countries they now serve as domestic workers have unmasked to the world—“tear-jerkers scenarios” as some commentaries labeled often oppressive working conditions. Thus, in consultations with Filipino women, Marilou began to work on her thesis.

Will change ever happen? Marilou answers with an unequivocal, “Yes!” She believes “there will come a point when social change happens, when a synchronicity of factors come about.” And this is where the seed which the “Socially Transformative Transnational Feminism” of the Filipina Activist proves crucial.

“I cheated death”—An Interview


 (as published in Silangan, Philippine News and Views, Vol. I No.1, Vancouver, BC, Canada)

“I recycled my urine to drink!” 

Thus declares Col. Anselmo de la Rea, BC’s only surviving—and still “standing” at 90—veteran of the Fall of Bataan, the Death March and Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac during World War II. A founding member of the Philippine Veterans and Ex-Servicemen Society of BC, he now lives in Surrey. 

He leans his head slightly to the side as if to peer through his memories of what could still be one of the most unimaginable specters of war: the transfer of 78,000 captured Filipino and American contingent at the Bataan peninsula stronghold to the prison camp in Tarlac 100 miles up north. The Fall happened on April 9, the “march” started next day. In the Philippines, April—as T.S. Eliot wrote in the “Wasteland”—is literally the “cruelest month”; heat shots up to 38 degrees Centigrade. 

The passing sun on this spring day lends contrasting light to the grimness of his story so long ago in his youth. Yet a rueful smile passes through the colonel’s countenance; in his mind, he is holding his water canteen, which the Japanese sentries would fill with water once a day during the six-day march or more precisely, “trudge”, as other historical records describe it. 

“I would sip half of it throughout the day, and soak a hanky with the remaining half,” he says. He needed to wipe his own self with that wet hanky or his burnt skin would slough off. 

Along with the water, he and his fellow Prisoners of War (POWs) would get as the only meal for the day a fist-sized serving of salt-dipped rice and one boiled sweet potato. Stamina turned into mockery for the POWs who by the time of their Bataan surrender had been weakened by malnutrition and malaria. But for Col. De la Rea stamina is the virtue behind being poor. “Most of those who survived come from poor families; those who died or surrendered belonged to wealthy families. I survived because I grew up poor and I’m used to all that.”

According to historical records, “Their rations were reduced by half in January, and to quarter rations in March (about 800 calories a day). Mosquito nets were not available and quinine, the main drug used to treat and prevent malaria, ran out.” 

Reinforcements and rations promised in Gen. Douglas McArthur’s War Plan Orange, which moved contingents guarding Manila to Bataan took too long.  “We held our lines from Pilar to Bagac along the South China Sea for almost three months,” de la Rea recalls.

“What came instead were Japanese reinforcements,” he quips.

 Fall of Bataan

The Japanese Imperial Army that had landed in Lingayen and Mauban were massing in from opposite sides toward Manila. General Douglas MacArthur had by then moved the Commonwealth Government under Manuel Luis Quezon to Corregidor, the island fortress by the mouth of Manila Bay and ordered the move to form a main defense line in Bataan. 

Historical records note the following facts: “About 1,000 men from the 24th Pursuit Group and 19th Bombardment Group fought alongside U.S. Army soldiers, sailors, marines, and Filipino soldiers and police, to drive the Japanese out … After three weeks of bitter fighting, the Japanese positions were completely eliminated. This vigorous defense helped Bataan hold out for two more months, which brought more time to prepare Allied defenses elsewhere.”

“But all we had were Springfield bolt action rifles from WWI, some water-cooled machine guns and very few cannons,” de la Rea continues. He weaves in and out of his retelling by offering his visitors snacks his wife had prepared—aromatic brewed coffee and a slice of lemon cake. 

He moves on to the next moment of remembering that without anti-tank weapons or artillery, they were helpless to stop the Japanese in close pursuit. They fell back to establish another defensive line. Eventually, the American surrender of Bataan ended “their courageous but futile efforts.”

Maj. Gen. Edward King, Jr., commander of Bataan, told his troops, “You men remember this. You did not surrender … you had no alternative but to obey my order.”

Death March  

In the mass the Japanese assembled were about 12,000 Americans and 66,000 Filipinos. The Japanese were obviously unprepared as to how the prisoners would be moved to a camp. Their only choice was to make them walk on their own. Among them were aircraft mechanics and pilots forced to fight as infantrymen. Colonel de la Rea was then only a year past his 4-year ROTC and 2-month summer cadre training. He had just been commissioned as 3rd lieutenant with the reserve force of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and called to active duty at the outbreak of the war in the Philippines. Three months before that imminent war, Filipinos like him were inducted to the United States Armed Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).

The march began from up the east coast of Bataan. Historical notes say the POWs were unaware their destination was Camp O’Donnell, a distant north from the peninsula. On dirt roads often filled with broken stones, those who were too weak to go on would be beaten or shot. Not a few just collapsed and died. “Their ferocity grew as we marched … they were no longer content with mauling stragglers or pricking them with bayonet points. The thrusts were intended to kill,” wrote Capt. William Dyess, 21st Pursuit Squadron commander.

“We were not allowed to talk while walking,” Col. De la Rea remembers. They simply watched when as another eye witness wrote, “Japanese soldiers on passing trucks would hit some prisoners with rifle butts or savagely toyed some by dragging them behind trucks with a rope around the neck. At times, just to be cruel, the Japanese would take the water canteens from POWs and poured the water. And if some men driven mad with thirst broke through a line on seeing muddy water, he would be bayoneted or shot.”

“A few times while we were on bivouac at night, I would sneak to a swamp, where carabaos soaked, and fill my water canteen. Then using my shirt or hanky as a filter drink the water,” he says. At the small table by the window of his Surrey apartment, he had reached for a glass of water, adding a poignant contrast to the memory.

The prisoners dug pits or trenches along the way: the first to bury the dead, the second to use as toilets. For the trenches to be usable, they laid planks of wood crosswise that is if it had any use for the rest of them who relieved their own selves while walking; stopping for any emergency was not allowed.

After six days, the trudge reached San Fernando, Pampanga where the POWs were loaded on boxcars used for cargo such as coal. These were made of steel and meant to fit in only 40 men if used for human travel at all. The Japanese crammed in them 150 POWs. When they got to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac, more have died of dehydration.

Camp O’Donnell and Beyond

“Some 200 died everyday. We were ordered to roll the bodies up with army blankets, carry them on bamboo poles to open fields where we dug a pit for burial,” the colonel recalls, reciting the figures as if in passing. What he remembers most are the giant fleas, which infested their clothes. He recalls how it became a game for them to squash these with their thumbnails. 

By June 6 when the Japanese ordered amnesty and rumors that those who could walk would be among the first batch, Col. de la Rea flexed his leg muscles everyday. He now traces with his fingers on the table how he circled the camp, practicing to walk again. He reveals that by this time, he had long gotten used to the stench in the prison camp. No one had taken a bath since Bataan. Too, everyone had turned into skin and bones with big heads so much so that no one could recall how they once looked.

Around June 15, the camp started releasing the prisoners. “I walked from the camp to the train station in town,” he says, smiling now as he relives what he saw: “My father was waiting for me along with our town mayor. They gave me a biscuit and a bottle of sarsaparilla (root beer).” 

It had seemed to him like miracle food as he now enthuses, “I saw the light!”

Back home in Amadeo, Cavite, he was nursed back slowly with gruel and small portions of solid food by a girlfriend from his college years. Within fifteen days, he could eat a normal meal. “I complained at first. Why was she still starving me?” he says. 

He eventually married her. He later realized that more had died on going home because they didn’t know that food turns into poison after a long period of starvation. “My girlfriend knew what to do,” he says. 

A young Mrs. De la Rea, Thelma Marcelino, has been fussing about the untouched lemon slice on my saucer. They met after he retired and joined a security and investigation agency owned by an uncle of Thelma. They have a daughter, Irish, who works in optometry. She finished a degree in biology at UBC.

Thelma has carried old picture albums to the table. I would later pull out a group picture in sepia of a Philippine Constabulary company based in Laguna. “It’s the oldest existing photo of him in his 30-year military career,” Thelma says.

Col. De la Rea cheated death that snatched so many young men like him, totaling 11,000 on random count. He met death again, cheating it the second time during guerilla warfare. He had joined Marking’s Fil-American Guerilla in Cavite after he regained his health from the Death March. His unit was attached to the 11th Airborne Division of the US Army in Tagaytay City. While fighting the Japanese at Mt. Gonzales between Tagaytay City and Batangas, a Japanese sniper wounded him thru and thru in the neck. He sustained shattered bones on his right jaw, which an operation at the US Army Station Hospital at what was then known as Camp Murphy restored. 

When the Philippines was granted independence by the US in 1946, then junior officer of the 14th Military Police Co. de la Rea was stationed in Imus, Cavite. During the campaign against the HUKs, a nationalist guerilla unit turned rebels, he was already promoted to 1St lieutenant and assigned company commander at what would later be the 105 Philippine Constabulary Company in Cavinte, Laguna.  Under his watch, the HUKs attacked headquarters one midnight in an exchange of fire that lasted until dawn.  

By the time he retired as full colonel after 30 years of military, he had long withdrawn from field and combat duties and worked for 20 years at the PC Headquarters supply center and logistics unit among other assignments. 

His children from his first marriage live either in the US or here in Canada. It was during a visit to one of them here in Canada that he decided he rather liked to live here; he migrated in 1983. “After my first wife died, I married Thelma,” he says, finishing off his lemon cake with a relish and that half-smile that hints at his constant joy of the moment—it is a mark of peace often belonging to those who had faced death.

Col. de la Rea has begged off from attending the memorial to Bataan heroes, with him as honoree, by the Philippine Veterans and Ex-Servicemen Society of BC, of which he remains its only surviving and “still-standing” member. The memorial date coincides with his 90th birthday weekend celebration. It will be held in Las Vegas hosted by his five children, 17 grandchildren and 22 great grandchildren. 

The colonel has since stood up from his chair to answer my question about a large picture frame on a wall, a group picture I had mistaken as his family. It is but a gift from his co-workers at the last company he worked at, here in BC, where he says with a mischievous smile, his job was “touring”. Catching my quizzical brow-knit he nudges me, translating it from the dialect, “putting in screws” (tournillo in Pilipino). 

Our laughter ripples, sweeping away fragments of grim memories that this visit was all about. The ripples bubble through the patches of sunlight in his home where a life he did not count as heroic continues to ripen and bear fruit as in the ever-moving moments of his war memories he shared this morning.

Copyright (c) 2009 by Alegria Imperial