Albert Samaha’s memoir, Concepcion: Conquest, Colonialism, and an Immigrant Family’s Fate, is an exceedingly readable work of nonfiction that weaves together intimate family history with a macro-view of world history. That Samaha is an investigative journalist is apparent in thoroughly researched work and in the way each chapter of Concepcion hooks the reader, transitioning with ease between historical context, intimate family portraits, and incisive social commentary.
Concepcion, alongside the long list of texts Samaha cites in his author’s note, should be required reading for any study of American Imperialism, especially given how invisible the Philippines and Filipinx/a/o folks are within the teaching and general conversation of US history, despite how intertwined the trajectories of both countries are. As Samaha writes, “Filipino immigrants and their American-born descendants make up the fourth largest diaspora in the United States, though it might not seem that way at passing glance, with so few Manilatowns and movie characters to mark our presence, and so many ethnicities for people to confuse us with. To be of this place—that was the hope.”
Samaha’s chapters tell the story of his family’s history as footholds along the larger scope of the history of colonization of the Philippines and of Filipinos in America. He eloquently writes: “History ripples into perpetuity. Perhaps it’s the generation a step removed from exodus, but close enough to hear the stories firsthand, who are best positioned to chronicle the migrations that came before us.”
Concepcion incorporates the history of early Filipino Americans as they became Americans, the history of Vallejo, where Samaha’s family, his “barangay” first settled, and the history of American football; all these larger histories tie into his familial and personal history, his prose transitioning seamlessly from literal playground and neighborhood anecdotes to commentary on gentrification and financial crisis to meditations on race and in America.
Though it is a big book, ambitious in the scope of what it wants to recover, examine, and navigate, Concepcion reads quickly and easily—Samaha is a gifted storyteller, the linkages of his storytelling cinematic in scope. Samaha crafts immersive stories about his family members and their migrations; I genuinely enjoyed his nuanced portraits of his loved ones.
Some of my favorite family members: His great-aunt Caridad, who joined the resistance movement and kept her cool so well during Japanese occupation of the Philippines during WWII, she earned a rep as a “slick chick” when she served as third Lieutenant of the Live of Die Unit; his Uncle Spanky, who was an actual rockstar in the Philippines, and became a baggage handler at SFO when he immigrated to the US; his granduncle Tomas, actor in Fellini films, sculptor, activist, and world citizen.
As a reader, I found myself underlining sentences and drawing stars next to so many paragraphs. Samaha precisely names many things I’ve often shied away from talking about with my family: politics, yes, but also the past, the failings of the American Dream and the costs of assimilation, as that naming and questioning can sometimes feel tantamount to, at best, impoliteness or unnecessary unpleasantness, at worst, sacrilege. I appreciated the way that Concepcion names systemic racism, oppression and injustice throughout U.S. history as well in our present; I especially appreciated the way Samaha broaches these conversations with his family, and the way he writes the scenes of those conversations—from debating with his mother, a Trump supporter, to conversations with his uncles who love Duterte—portraying his family’s complex and conflicting worldviews in conjunction with the history and reality of so much love. Some of the dialogue of Samaha’s debates with his mother, Lucy, felt as though they could’ve been almost identical to some of my own conversations with family. I felt seen reading those moments as an American-born child of Filipino immigrants.
I felt a lot of recognition, in general, despite the many differences in our familial and individual circumstances, in reading the portrayals of determination, sacrifice, resignation, sense of humor, and fierce love of Samaha’s family. All his family’s stories struck me as so very Filipino: the drama, the historical and international scope, the wide range in individuals’ modes of ways of being and living, the ability to adapt and endure. Samaha’s estimation, too—“My family’s story doesn’t show the whole picture but unspools as a single thread within a vast tapestry. Some threads have vanished forever. We salvage what we can,”—strikes me as a particularly second-generation, child-of-immigrants need: the need to contextualize ourselves and our loved ones, to understand the larger picture of our lives and place in history, to understand the costs of migration, and to know that there is so much we won’t ever know. The salvaging, the work we feel compelled to do.