Robert Francis Flor: Uncle Rico’s Encore was compelling reading as a fine sequel to Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart. Your very personal memoir explores the second generation – the young, often mestizo generation Filipino born to pre-World War II, immigrant parents. Would you discuss what inspired this work? Which, by the way, I think is your best.
Peter Bacho: I loved both the first generation and their American born kids. What inspired me is that the first generation is gone, and sadly, our generation is going. I felt it was time to tell the story. And yes, our generation is mostly mixed race – White, Native, Black, Mexican, etc. – but we all identified as Pinoy. No racial or linguistic purity tests. Oh, for the language purists out there, I can still speak Bisayan. I spoke it better when my folks and uncles were still alive, but I still have a sliver of capacity. And make no mistake, the old community spoke Ilocano and Bisayan, not Tagalog.
RFF: You devote chapters to Filipino propensity to unionize, organizing as early as the 1930s. The Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Local 18237 (later Local 37) formed in 1933. Pinoys initiated the California Grape Strike in the 1960s. What is it in the Filipino personality or society that galvanizes their investment in these movements?
PB: I think we tend to be cranky by nature, not prone to accepting slights or offenses or unfairness quietly. See: Chris Mensalvas, Larry Itliong among the oldtimers. See Eddie Acena and others among our generation. We saw that among our fathers. They had bad attitude, and this was passed on to their children.
RFF: You provide a unique slice of that experience where Filipinos shared common ground with the Black, Asian and other ethnic groups. How had growing up in Seattle’s Central District influenced and shaped your life?
PB: I could not have imagined a better upbringing. It spared me the types of stereotypes of others that often beset young people, including young Filipinos, raised in, for example, white suburbia.
RFF: You acknowledge failed relationships resulting from “immaturity” and also describe perilous ventures such as plunging into the Philippine jungles to interview rebels. What in your psyche and personal history do you attribute your behaviors?
PB: Yeah, well, it was immaturity and my desire to see things, to do things, I think stemmed from a limited life experience and from community and familial expectations of what my life should be. I felt at the time that my life was so conventional and safe, and I wanted a bit more. My mom once told me that of all her kids, I was the curious one, the one who had the questions that I wanted to have answered. I was the one she worried about. How I would be in such and such a situation, how I would react, etc. Well, I kinda found out…
RFF: Your memoir provides several experiences addressing race and social status. The “Fishing Man” chapter contrasts those with your father and uncle with an imaginary Ted Williams. In another “Map 4”, Uncle Vic and you converse about being labeled “a monkey.” I recall two women on seeing my father, telling the waiter they didn’t want sit near a monkey. How do you view America’s progress in addressing race and social justice?
PB: It’s better. You and I have lived long enough to witness a Black man become president of this country. Thirty years ago, did you ever think that that would ever happen? I mean, the current spasm of racist reaction should not be a surprise. It has always been there, and it will always probably be there – and must always be confronted. I mean think of the highest ideals embodied in the Declaration – we’re obviously not there yet, but if you think back to the 1960s, we are closer.
RFF: Your path was somewhat of a Hemingwayesque adventure, from rising young attorney to journalist, then novelist/screenwriter and educator. Looking back over your career, what advice would you give writers of color about a pursuing a career in writing? What writers most influenced your work?
PB: For creative writers, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, write about what you love. Let’s say this book. It’s a labor of love to record our past, our families, our neighborhoods, our powerful, unbreakable bonds. It was worth my effort to commemorate a special era, a special community. A creative work, such as a novel or a memoir, for me at least, must be a labor of love. How else to explain a two-to-three-year wrestling match? It is certainly not the money
Carlos Bulosan, of course, gives us the broad sweep of Filipino America. But Ben Santos was special. I admired his writing, the subtlety of his words, his ability to find value in the lives of ordinary, poor and blue collar Pinoys.
Author Peter Bacho talks with Robert Flor about his book Uncle Rico’s Encore: Mostly True Stories of Filipino Seattle on Wednesday, May 18, 2022 at 7:30 PM at Town Hall Seattle: townhallseattle.org for details.