Written by John Oliver Santiago
My grandfather’s face is full of joy and amusement as he watches a Filipino program playing on satellite television. Backscratcher in one hand and remote in another, he laughs as a comedian makes a fool of himself on the screen. I watch the old man sit in his red leather chair, contemplating the bandage on his left arm that covers dialysis holes and puzzling over the fact that he has lived through nearly three quarters of a century. The bravado, the arrogance, the swagger in his eyes give glimpses to what was the springtime of his youth — a young, brash man that was born in World War II and lived through both of the two EDSA Revolutions. But Juanito, having been in the United States for nearly ten years, now sits far removed from those times.
Juanito Geronimo was born in 1938, in a rural town in the Philippines. Gapan — now a city — is an agricultural community located on the southern tip of the Nueva Ecija province. The region is known as the “Rice Bowl of the Philippines,” for good measure. The town was filled with landowners and farmers who worked the fields from sun-up to sun-down during the ‘40s up until the ‘90s or so. Being so far away from the urban centers, they had a general disconnect with the rest of the country. But the Japanese had no regard for this disconnect when they captured the Philippines in 1942. Juanito, then only four years old, carries a few but vivid memories of that time.
“The Japanese came in and took over the town. There was a curfew. They would gore people through with a stake and put them up along the fence of the rice granary right across from my house,” Juanito said in Tagalog, his native tongue. As indifferent as his answer was, he had a tone of bitterness when he answered — as if the memories of his countrymen’s deaths were staked through his own consciousness by the Japanese themselves. Being a family with some money, the Geronimo family kept to themselves and abided by the ruling party. Always one to stay away from trouble, his parents kept him in school and kept him in some sense of normalcy, of rural easygoing and disconnect.
The United States eventually retook control over the Philippines and in 1946, when it finally won independence from the United States, the Commonwealth of the Philippines became the Third Republic of the Philippines. This however came with the installations of multiple American airfields and military bases, not to mention the imposition of the Bell Trade Act — preventing Filipinos to manufacture goods that may come into competition with American exports. With the torrent of change and nationalism, Juanito Geronimo lived his life. He didn’t care much for these things though. The tide of change and fervor generally stood ground in stalwarts of Filipino politics — Manila, Cavite, Quezon City. The calm waters of rural living stood in stark contrast.
For the next few years, Juanito Geronimo grew up comfortably. On the pocket of his parents’ money and influence, he enjoyed days marked with lounging around a street corner or walking alongside the river. As his wife had said, “He was too full of himself to even go to school. He was so arrogant, so prideful. I hated him then.” As such, he dropped out of high school. When liquor came as easy as the wind blew, Juanito was often found hanging out with some good-for-nothings drinking and smoking. As a young man, he felt invincible as his world was contained in this rural community that was disconnected from growing problems.
In 1965, a young and brilliant law student became the tenth President of the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos came onto his first term of presidency with much promise and favor. With an almost 90 percent approval rate, Ferdinand Marcos began his presidency with promises of nationwide infrastructure development. By the time his 2nd term had started, the economy had started to worsen as the cracks in the country’s economy began to grow. With the growing threat of communism from within the country, Marcos instituted martial law. With a clampdown on communism, Marcos curried the favor of then American president Ronald Reagan. In the heat of the Cold War, American foreign policy turned a blind eye to the growing nepotism and crimes against republican ideals. Marcos kept a loyal following with the rich elites of the Philippines by placing them in his payroll and establishing their dependence on him.
With martial law, the air was filled with discontent and revolution. With martial law, life for Juanito Geronimo didn’t change much. He was about thirty years old during its establishment. In retrospect, most historians criticize and antagonize the Marcos presidency. “But the only people who had problems were the ones living in the city,” exclaims Juanito, “it couldn’t have been any better for the farmers from Gapan!” According to Juanito, Marcos passed laws that shifted ownership of the farmland from the landowners to the tenant farmers. In the conservatism of rural Philippines, martial law regulations weren’t much of a problem.
“No one had a problem with the curfews and life was quiet and peaceful with military trucks rolling through the highway daily.” Whatever nepotism, corruption, or injustice Marcos might’ve committed, Juanito and his rural community remained removed. In fact, they thrived. So much so that indifference became loyalty. Juanito and Teresita aren’t afraid to call themselves “Loyalists”—loyal to the regime. Especially as local business in the community prospered — especially the Geronimo family’s chicken and livery business. The army kept order within the rural sectors of the country—where often clannish warlords marred these areas with bloodshed and corruption. Eventually though, after a snap election that was marred with rampant voter fraud and cheating, revolutionaries backed by former loyalists and the Catholic church took to the streets and ousted Marcos.
Juanito Geronimo’s life continued through all of this. He had 4 children with Teresita Geronimo. Three of the four are now here in the United States. And in 2004, he followed them and permanently immigrated to the country but not before blazing his trail of headstrong and hardheaded decisions.
Coming into his own, Juanito Geronimo came to gain the respect of the community. Known for extravagance, his home would be the centerpiece of community wide celebrations, often to honor the patron saint of the district. Juanito Geronimo came to exercise some influence in the community, as more and more people came to him for help — and as ready as he can, he’d help them. I can distinctly remember, in 2001, there was a storm that tore through the nation. Displacing many people from their homes, it left farmers and their families without a place to stay as river waters rose to eventually flood the highway and the dirt roads servicing the network of farming ghettos. With a large open space for his business, Juanito sheltered these families and fed them out of his own pocket — even though money was tight then.
Almost fitting, in 2002 he finally achieved his dream — as if almost in foresight of his emigration in 2 years. Simple yet grandiose, Juanito commissioned the building of a bamboo house on his property — a two-story achievement of unrelenting pride, a testament to his bravado and headstrong guile. With his business slowly deteriorating, Juanito unashamedly paid for the building of a bamboo house and, upon its completion, the largest party that side of town had ever seen.
It’s been almost nine years since that night. And Juanito Geronimo now lives in Long Beach. He stands as frail as the bamboo house he once proudly owned. Just as the bamboo house became infested with termites and just as the coating started peeling off, my grandfather now walks around in his weak frame covered loosely with skin showing sixty years of alcohol and tobacco.
He lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his daughter and her family. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, he has to be picked up from his house to receive dialysis. Last February, he had his first stroke. And now he mostly stays home: sleeping for sixteen hours, eating for two, and watching his Filipino shows for the rest. The only time he gets to interact with other people, outside of family, is during his dialysis sessions which only last for about 6 or so hours — including the time for wait and the drive.
At this age, he doesn’t ask much out of the community. What was a rural disconnect back in the Philippines has become communal disconnect in the United States. In Gapan, the struggle to survive was a shared pain. In Long Beach, the only thing neighbors share is the air they breathe. “The problem here is that neighbors here don’t even know each other. Back in Gapan, if there was a party, everyone in town was invited,” said Juanito.
Juanito’s vitality has left him in his old age and all he asks for is the “happiness of [his] family.” It’s funny how, once upon a time, an arrogant man with his head held higher than the clouds has become nothing but a bent droop of tired bones. He came to America, “the land of freedom and opportunity,” as an elderly first-generation immigrant and found himself further disconnected from the world around him, from the politics of it all, and the life of it completely.