Stuck in what the reading community calls a serious “reading slump” I decided to reset my reading progress and pick out a paperback from the Philippine Literature section of my book shelf.
Majority of the books were unread poetry collections and novels I acquired and received as gifts over the years. One such gift is The Mango Bride by Palanca awardee Marivi Soliven, who won the grand prize for the Novel category and taught creative writing at numerous universities, including the University of California.
The title and the Golden Gate bridge on the book cover promise a story about the Filipino in diaspora and the woman’s experience as a bride/wife living away from home. I grew curious as I read the blurb at the back:
Like Amparo, Beverly Obejas—an impoverished Filipina waitress—forsakes Manila and comes to Oakland as a mail-order bride in search of a better life. Yet even in the land of plenty, Beverly fails to find the happiness and prosperity she envisioned.
Aware of the stigma yet ignorant of the plight of the mail-order bride, I was disappointed to know upfront that the character Beverly had already lost the battle.
Nevertheless I needed to know what their perspective was like. I’ve always been curious about the stories of Filipinas as companions and wives to foreigners, their struggles, and how they managed to survive while clinging to what most assume to be the promise of a good life. If this book could offer a window to that perspective, I’m taking it.
The Third Woman
The book primarily explores the lives of two Filipina women who come from differing backgrounds yet share the same origins. Amparo Guerrero grew up as the darling unica hija of the Guerrero clan—three generations that long-held a seat in Philippine high society. Her college boyfriend eventually disgraces her with reckless sex and unsafe abortion, the consequence of which is exile to the States to let the rumours die down.
Beverly Obejas is a waitress who caters at many of these rich families’ grand celebrations, dreaming of the better life her late mother promised her since childhood. Beverly eventually grabs the first opportunity presented to her: marriage to an American.
What ties these two girls together is the love and sacrifice of one woman—Marcela Obejas. The head cook and surrogate mother to the Guerrero children, Marcela has raised both Amparo and Beverly, her niece, with the strength and dedication only a mother could possess.
I consider Marcela to be the best character in Soliven’s novel, a colorful and rounded mosaic against 2D shades of blue and gray. She sustained herself against her employer’s cruelty, yet still sympathized with the latter as she tries so hard to cover up her failures and insecurities. She has a heart wide enough to envelope her niece and the three Guerrero children, yet falters and cries as all humans do. Her ultimate rise from servitude and secrecy proves that one is willing to do everything and anything for what matters the most. The novel begins with her and ends with her, a triumph that never needed a wealthy husband or greener pastures.
The Realities of Life Abroad
After being exiled to Oakland, Amparo took a job as a work-from-home Tagalog interpreter for clients who needed someone to translate conversations with Filipino clients.
These phone calls are direct lines to the many narratives of the immigrant life. Amparo listens and translates for her kababayan who came to America seeking the good life, only to end up cornered under the thwacks and punches of their foreign spouses.
“How did you get away from him?”
“It was that ring. He was going to punch me again, but when he saw blood all over his precious ring, he stopped to rinse it under the kitchen faucet. I ran and locked myself in the bathroom. Takot na takot ako—I was terrified…” (37)
For others, it is the loneliness and abandonment they must face after living in a country where family and companionship are necessary to everyday life.
“I am alone today. Alone, all alone, only myself here alone! My wife, Monica, she left me last night. We were married ten months only, but last week she say she does not love me anymore. She say we do not have good future together, she ay better she go home to Minneapolis, her parents have a bigger house there. Ay bakit naman ganyan siya—why is she like that?” (284)
The idea that those who choose to live in America have nothing to lose is a recurring irony that permeates throughout the book. A lot of these immigrants are where they are because of what’s at stake—their families back home, their children, their dreams and aspirations.
Beverly’s final hours were spent salvaging what was left of her dream jar, her last chance of returning to the life and the people she realized she had always been happy with.
The Reading Experience
Zooming into the reading experiencing, it was overall sympathetic, dramatic, and rich in imagery and sentiment only someone from these two countries could write about. Having lived in Manila for six years, I saw the dark skies as the city submerges under torrential rains, hotel guests and the stereotypes they pin to Filipinas with their foreign partners, the drenched children on the streets knocking on car windows as they beg for alms.
The English translations, however, constantly jolt me back to reality, and it feels jarring and disruptive. Each Filipino line of dialogue follows after an em dash and the English translation. Strangely enough, this doesn’t carry over to other languages in the novel—Spanish, French, and even slight mentions on Ilonggo—where Soliven leaves these lines either in their intended language or in English.
Straightening up, Richard smirked at his younger brother, muttering in French, “That the new flavor of the month?” (94)
This probably wouldn’t be an issue to readers who don’t understand Tagalog. It certainly makes the novel accessible to a wide range of readers. But as someone who does understand the language, the translations create this experience of riding through traffic, having to slow down or stop abruptly before moving on to the next sentence.
The ironies and the events foreshadowing what was to come were just as noticeable. They pepper major scenes in the book in such a way that it felt like watching after-dinner soap operas on screen. The fact that the characters themselves realize they’re witnessing a soap opera of their own makes me wonder if these were intended as a commentary of how Filipinos feast and can relate to stories about family drama, hardship, and sacrifice in the pursuit of happiness.
As a whole, the book paints a painful but enlightening picture of the circumstances that lead people to make huge, life-changing decisions, whether that’s exiling one’s child for wealth and reputation, or fleeing poverty by clinging to the arms of a man they know nothing about. The important things need to be said, and I’m glad this book was written to tell the stories we don’t always remember or care to stop and listen to.