altar of mother nature, 1988: eliseo art silva
SPECIAL ISSUE: PINAY
In London there are many Filipinos, but I don’t know as many of them as I used to know in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in any case there’s more often than not a rift between us, as I’m not only Filipina or even Filipina British but Filipina American.
The Filipinos who became my friends in London were actually Filipino Bangladeshis, born neither in the Philippines nor in Bangladesh. I had never met UK-born Filipino Bangladeshis before, but a friend assured me that there was a large community of them in this city, which was now my home. This friend also owns one of the few Filipino cafés in London, but in truth it isn’t exactly a Filipino café but advertises itself as a pan-Asian establishment, decorated with all manner of classic and contemporary Orientalist kitsch: vintage posters of Mr. Miyagi and Bruce Lee and anonymous geisha women. The menu itself features a few Filipino dishes but is mainly centered on what is called pan-Asian fare: there were dishes I recognized as vaguely Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and Cambodian. I once tentatively mentioned to my friend that it would be nice to have a few more Filipino—or indeed, Filipino Bangladeshi—dishes on the menu. He said that he didn’t think the London was ready for it. I replied: You have to make them ready for it. That’s true, he said. But as far as I know, he has no current plans to open a Filipino or Filipino Bangladeshi restaurant.
I often go there in the off hours, when there’s hardly anyone around but the kitchen workers, none of whom recognized me as Filipina until I began speaking to them in stilted Tagalog, after which point I became obligated to call everyone kuya (1); kuya, for they were all men. As is customary in the kind of Filipino establishments I’ve been most familiar with since I was a kid, I typically order one dish, and it comes to me in the company of five other dishes I have not ordered, none of which I’m permitted to pay for, all of which are delicious beyond the speaking of it. But most of the time I go there for kapeng barako (2).
On one particular visit to my Filipino Bangladeshi friend’s café, I ordered an iced kapeng barako, with condensed milk. I usually order a plain hot kapeng barako, no sugar, no milk. What I had forgotten was that, of course, the condensed milk often used in Filipino drinks and desserts is made by Nestlé. At that point, I hadn’t knowingly eaten a Nestlé product for over ten years. I watched my friend make the drink, and sure enough, it was a Nestlé can of condensed milk that he was holding aloft. He gave it to me, with a free plate of leche flan. I thanked him and drank every drop, unhappily careful not to waste anything.
For the first five or six years of my life, I was given nothing to eat but canned baby formula, usually Nestlé brand. I’ve turned this fact over and over in my head for years, and still I have trouble understanding it, or even fathoming it. It was mostly my mother who was raising me during this time; my father was still traveling back and forth between the Philippines and California and did not live permanently with us. We were still living in the first place we ever lived, a two-bedroom apartment in Milpitas, California, that we shared with my mother’s mother, two of my mother’s sisters and her younger brother, all of whom except my mother were undocumented. We were living just off Junipero Drive, on the side of the town closest to Elmwood Correctional Facility, walking distance from the Catholic elementary school I would later attend, which was almost entirely attended by Vietnamese, Filipino and Mexican students, either first-generation or immigrants themselves.
We were also close to a run-down shopping center that featured a movie theater, a dollar store, and a Vietnamese restaurant. The shopping center was named after Junipero Serra, that Spanish friar who, in 1780, advocated beating the shit out of the native Californians who were being forced to live and work in the concentration camp environments of the early Spanish missions. We learned about Junipero Serra in school: like all good inheritors of the Catholic colonizing project, we were asked to build models of missions and bring them in to class. I built mine out of very cheap clay, not intended for modeling, and I used an old Domino’s pizza box as its foundation. I remember that the whole thing collapsed in my mother’s car just as she was dropping me off at school in the morning. Nevertheless, I brought the whole thing in, as it was, and claimed that I had made it this way on purpose, to show the later destruction of the missions—either by earthquake or native attack, I left it up to the imagination of my fellow students.
This little shit, my teacher might have thought, for I did not receive a passing grade on the report.
I also learned that Junipero Serra died on my birthday and, afterwards, took great pleasure in musing aloud to my friends that maybe I killed him, wiped him off the face of the earth in order to be born myself. That’s not how it works, tanga (3), a friend replied. Why are you always like this, maarte naman talaga (4). Didn’t he die like hundreds of years before you anyway.
But it was while living near the Junipero Serra Shopping Center that I spent my early years being fed only canned baby formula, usually Nestlé brand. I was given no other type of sustenance: no mashed peas, no mashed carrots, no mashed apples, no Gerber’s baby anything. Only canned baby formula, usually Nestlé brand. Only later in college did I learn that Nestlé had orchestrated a very successful campaign in my mother’s country, as well as other countries in what is often called the Third World, dedicated to convincing expecting mothers out of breastfeeding and encouraging them to purchase Nestlé baby formula. Breastfeeding was dangerous, backwards, and nativist, the campaign implied. Nestlé baby formula, on the other hand, contained a complete—and superior—array of nutrients. If one was a good mother, if one truly cared about the welfare of one’s child, one would not hesitate to feed one’s child a steady diet of Nestlé baby formula.
My mother grew up in the heyday of this campaign and would have been of the generation of women to be instructed, in this way, on how to be a good mother. Later, international boycotts were organized against Nestlé as a result of this campaign, for many children had died as a result of being fed Nestlé formula, particularly when it was mixed with contaminated water, as formula typically required. By the time this boycott was organized, my mother had already immigrated to the States and was working as a nurse. I don’t know if she ever heard about the boycott. I know only that for the first five or six years of my life, I was fed only canned baby formula and nothing else. I don’t think it was because she was too poor to afford anything else, though she was poor; baby formula isn’t particularly cheap. I don’t think it was because she didn’t know that there were other kinds of food to feed a child. I can only think it was because she had been successfully taught by a multinational corporation that this was the greatest act of motherly love she could perform for her child—and she loved me so very, very much.
I eventually became addicted to this formula and, at the end of the five or six years, actively refused to consume anything else. My mother, in an attempt to wean me from it, began to hide the cans of formula and to fill the pantry with other kinds of food, reasoning that if I were hungry, I would find something else to eat. Little did she know how stubborn I was, how little a survival instinct I have, how attached one can become to the things one is taught to need and want, even when those things destroy more than they nourish.
I stopped eating. I only remember that late one evening I fainted, and this was different from my customary fainting spells. I was apparently ice-cold to the touch, unresponsive, gaunt as a cricket. My mother and father—now living with us—rushed me to the nearest hospital, where I was fed intravenously. It was the first time in my life I had ever eaten anything other than baby formula.
Still, long after that, and to this day, my illnesses persisted. My immune system always seemed to me to be like a kind of lace mantilla: delicate to the touch, utterly porous, a foreign thing even to myself. If I didn’t have pneumonia, I was covered in eczema; if I didn’t have eczema, I wasn’t eating; if I wasn’t starving, I had boils; if I didn’t have boils, I was spending days weeping for no reason. Only my bruha (5) grandmother could pronounce the word to make sense of it all. Engkanto.
What I didn’t know about engkantos (6) as a child, and only learned later, was that they were white. In the descriptions I heard and read, they were always described as fair-skinned, with light-colored eyes and light-colored hair. They were also taller than most human beings—which is to say, they were taller than Filipinos, more like the average height of Europeans. And indeed, there are some who believe the engkantos were an early description of the early Europeans. An engkanto was a white visitor. And when he came, people you knew caught diseases. When he came, people you knew disappeared and were never seen again. When he came, people you knew went crazy, were lost to their loved ones, and lost to themselves, even when their bodies remained. When he came, people you knew died. And when he came, fewer and fewer people you knew died of natural causes.
It was said that engkantos didn’t enjoy being looked at, that one way to arouse the fury of an engkanto was to look directly at it. What are you looking at! the engkanto would shout. How dare you raise your eyes to me! But perhaps nowadays an engkanto would say something like: Buy two cans of Carnation Good Start and get a free feeding bottle today.
I don’t begrudge my friend the tenor of his café’s aesthetic, and ultimately I would always say to him or anyone in a similar position, I know you’re on your grind, pare, do you? And yet, I cannot say it makes me happy to be in a restaurant surrounded by white people posing beneath paintings of Mr. Miyagi, texting each other about what a great pan-Asian restaurant they’ve discovered. But then, an imperial city like the one I live in now is forever obsessed with food in this manner, mostly because the inhabitants of this city are quite used to collecting and exploiting foreignhood as souvenirs, as invigorating discoveries.
Once, I came to my friend’s café in the afternoon, when it was still empty and, because I was having such a good time chatting, decided to stay for dinner. As more and more white people filled the tables, my friend and the rest of the kitchen workers—all Filipino immigrants and Filipino Bangladeshi family members of my friend—no longer came out into the front room to chat with me, or with anyone. They couldn’t be seen to be giving me special treatment. Music started playing—it was classical and European, but I couldn’t identify the composer; I don’t know European classical music all that well. I was the only woman of color in the restaurant, not to mention the only Filipina, and I realized that my presence was souring the atmosphere, at least for the white customers. They had come to this neighborhood pan-Asian restaurant for their beloved pan-Asian experience, to enjoy a faraway Fantasy, lush and fragrant with banana leaves. What they enjoyed less was being confronted with the grumpy Real, sitting there, speaking stilted Tagalog with a passing waiter or silently drinking kapeng barako and later big glasses of wine, first giving everyone the stinkeye, then, as the wine kicked in, becoming less and less silent.
But for me, souring anything, atmosphere or otherwise, was always a knotty pleasure, having grown up with a love for the sour, for that quality of asim: the tamarind, the kalamansi (7), vinegar, the shock of acid on the tongue. How many times did I over-lime a soup or continue eating a pineapple until my mouth bled, not just because I genuinely loved the taste, but to prove that I could take it? Sourness was the taste of fermentation, the taste of something preserved, marinated, saved for the future, improved with time; but it was also the taste of flesh being broken down, of something being denatured. Sourness was the thrill of knowing that a hurt could also feel, taste good; it was the reminder that something that felt and tasted good could also hurt.
And so this, I realize now, must have been the pleasure of sitting in my friend’s café that evening. This was the pleasure I took, in discovering the coincidence between my birthday and Junipero Serra’s death; this was the pleasure I took, in drinking kapeng barako sweetened with Nestlé condensed milk, in not being able to give up the formula I had become addicted to. Sour pleasure. The pleasure of asim.
There are all sorts of methods for dealing with supernatural beings like engkantos, dwende, aswang (8), and a lot of those ways have to do with seasoning. For some monsters, the only remedy is salt; for others, garlic; for yet others, the asim: exorcism through lime, vinegar, green mango. I wanted to know if the sour was how you banished an engkanto, especially given how much the taste of the sour pre-dated Spanish arrival. Maybe the white monster was some picky eater from Seville who couldn’t stomach kamias (9). The idea satisfied me; I hoped it was true.
But when I looked it up, it turned out that it wasn’t engkantos that sourness repulsed; it was the santelmo, a creature I hadn’t ever come across before. Santelmo was also St. Elmo’s fire, that natural phenomenon seen by the Italian writer Antonio Pigafetta and described in the chronicles of his expedition with Ferdinand Magellan, from Spain to South America to the Philippines.
During those storms the holy body, that is to say St. Elmo, appeared to us many times, in light—among other times on an exceedingly dark night with the brightness of a blazing torch, on the maintop, where he stayed for about two hours or more, to our consolation, for we were weeping. When that blessed light was about to leave us, so dazzling was the brightness that it cast into our eyes, that we all remained for more than an eighth of an hour, blinded and calling for mercy. And truly when we thought that we were dead men, the sea suddenly grew calm.
The Philippine mythology I came across thought the santelmo was the lost soul: the one drowned in the sea, aided by no one; the one who died before her time, and thereafter spent eternity enticing others into similar untimely deaths. What the European and Filipino accounts had in common was the vision of the santelmo as a rage of fire; it wasn’t a being as much as it was a state of being, an experience, an intervention, a revelation. It was a monster only in the sense of the mostrare and monstrum: a sign, an omen. It had something to show, something to tell. Most of all, the santelmo was particularly dangerous to people with doubt in their hearts, people who traveled alone, torn people, people in whom uncertainty outweighed faith. Those people, in order to protect themselves, were advised to pray and to throw sour things at the apparition, to aim the kalamansi-bullet right at the center of the fear.
It would have been more convenient, I suppose, if my love for the sour could have been directly connected to some obvious enemy and its obvious expulsion ceremonies. It would have been more convenient if I could point my finger to the white visitor, safely outside of myself, and anoint the border between us with acid. But it turns out sourness isn’t for the engkanto. Sourness is for the lost—five thousand miles from the Bay Area, seven thousand miles from the Philippines. Sourness is for the wronged and the wrong, the drowned and the formula-fed—and indeed, the word wrong comes from the Middle Dutch “wranc,” a word that meant sour, bitter, something that distorts the mouth. Sourness is a survival lesson: an ongoing education in how to make the bitter taste good, how an acid can also be something that feeds you, builds you up, even as it breaks you down. Sourness isn’t for the engkanto. The engkanto never had to learn how to appreciate that kind of taste.
The only thing I still can’t figure out is if I’m the santelmo herself—the one lost, the one whose history works just like a horror story, the one whose vengeful flesh will be broken down, denatured, and then, maybe, preserved. Or if I’m the witness, the one being pursued by the santelmo—the one full of questions, the one whose faith isn’t always strong enough, the one who travels alone, the one who reaches for the bitter charm, the one at risk, the one who still might have a chance.
(PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED IN CA+T APRIL 2014 ISSUE | PDF AVAILABLE HERE.)
Elaine Castillo was born in the San Francisco Bay Area and currently lives in southeast London. Her writing can be found or is forthcoming at make/shift magazine, The Rumpus, [PANK] Magazine, and Feminist Review, among others. She is also a board member of Digital Desperados, a Glasgow-based film collective for women of color. At the end of March, one of her short films was screened at The Future Weird, a Brooklyn-based film series run by Derica Shields and Megan Eardly, devoted to films exploring non-Western futurisms. She is currently at work on a novel and an essay collection.