I found the dark hole of the steerage and lay on my bunk for days without food, seasick and lonely. I was restless at night and many disturbing thoughts came to my mind. Why had I left home?
What would I do in America? I looked into the faces of my companions for a comforting answer, but they were as young and bewildered as I, and my only consolation was their proximity and the familiarity of their dialects. It was not until we had left Japan that I began to feel better.
One day in mid-ocean, I climbed through the narrow passageway to the deck where other steerage passengers were sunning themselves. Most of them were Illocanos, who were fishermen in the northern coastal regions of Luzon. They were talking easily and eating rice with salted fish with their bare hands, and some of them were walking, barefoot and unconcerned, in their homemade cotton shorts. The first-class passengers were annoyed, and an official of the boat came down and drove us back into the dark haven below. The small opening at the top of the iron ladder was shut tight, and we did not see the sun again until we had passed Hawaii.
But before we anchored at Honolulu and epidemic of meningitis spread throughout the boat and concentrated among the steerage passengers. The Chinese waiters stopped coming into our dining room, because so many of us had been attacked by the disease. They pushed the tin plates under the door of the kitchen and ran back to their rooms, afraid of being contaminated. Those hungry enough crawled miserably on their bellies and reached for their plates.
But somewhere in the room a peasant was playing a guitar and another was strumming a mandolin. I lay on my bunk listening and wishing I could join them. In the far corner of the dining room, crouched around the dining table, five young students were discussing the coming presidential election in the United States. Not far from them was a dying boy from Pangasinan.
One night when I could no longer stand the heat in the closed room, I screamed aloud and woke up most of the steerage passengers. The boy who had been playing the guitar came to my bed with cold water and rubbed my forehead and back with it. I was relieved of my discomfort a little and told him so.
“My name is Marcelo,” he said. “I came from San Manuel, Pangasinan.”
“San Manuel?” I said, “I used to work there – in the mongo fields. I am glad to meet you.”
“Go to sleep now,” he said. “Call for me if you need my help.”
I heard his feet pattering away from me, and I was comforted. It was enough that Marcelo had come from a familiar town. It was a bond that bound us together in our journey. And I was to discover later this same regional friendship, which developed into tribalism, obstructed all efforts toward Filipino unity in America.
There were more that two hundred of us in the steerage. A young doctor and an assistant came now and then to check the number of deaths and to examine those about to die. It was only when we reached Hawaii that the epidemic was checked, and we were allowed to go out again. Some of the stronger passengers carried their sick relatives and friends through the narrow hatch and put them in the sunlight.
I was pleasantly sunning myself one afternoon when Marcelo rolled over to his stomach and touched me. I turned and saw a young white girl wearing a brief bathing suit walking toward us with a young man. They stopped some distance away from us; then as though the girl’s moral conscience had been provoked, she put her small hand on her mouth and said in a frightened voice:
“Look at those half-naked savages from the Philippines, Roger! Haven’t they any idea of decency?”
“I don’t blame them for coming into the sun,” the young man said, “I don’t know how it is below.”
“Roger!” said the terrified girl. “Don’t tell me you have been down in that horrible place? I simply can’t believe it!”
The man said something, but they had already turned and the wind carried it away. I was to hear that girl’s voice in many ways afterward in the United States. It became no longer her voice, but an angry chorus shouting:
“Why don’t they ship those monkeys back where they came from?”
We arrived in Seattle on a June day. My first sight of the approaching land was an exhilarating experience. Everything seemed native and promising to me. It was like coming home after a long voyage, although as yet I had no home in this city. Everything seemed familiar and kind – the white faces of the buildings melting in the soft afternoon sun, the gray contours of the surrounding valleys that seemed to vanish in the last periphery of light. With a sudden surge of joy, I knew that I must find a home in this new land.
I had only twenty cents left, not even enough to take me to Chinatown where, I had been informed, a Filipino hotel and two restaurants were located. Fortunately, two oldtimers put me in a car with four others and took us to a hotel on King Street, the heart of Filipino life in Seattle. Marcelo, who was also in the car, had a cousin named Elias who came to our room with another oldtimer. Elias and his unknown friend persuaded my companions to play a strange kind of card game. In a little while Elias got up and touched his friend suggestively; then they disappeared and we never saw them again.
It was only when our two countrymen had left that my companions realized what had happened. They had taken all their money. Marcelo asked me If I had any money. I gave him my twenty cents. After collecting a few more cents from the others, he went downstairs and when he came back he told us that he had telegraphed for money to his brother in California.
All night we waited for the money to come, hungry and afraid to go out in the street. Outside we could hear shouting and singing; then a woman screamed lustily in one of the rooms down the hall. Across from our hotel a jazz band was playing noisily; it wend on until dawn. But in the morning a telegram came to Marcelo which said: YOUR BROTHER DIED AUTOMOBILE ACCIDENT LAST WEEK.
Marcelo looked at us and began to cry. His anguish stirred an aching fear in me. I knelt on the floor, looking for my suitcase under the bed. I knew that I had to go out now – alone. I put the suitcase on my shoulder and walked toward the door, stopping for a moment to look back at my friends who were still standing silently around Marcelo. Suddenly a man came into the room and announced that he was the proprietor.
“Well boys,” he said, looking at our suitcases, “where is the rent?”
“We have no money, sir,” I said, trying to impress him with my politeness.
“That is too bad,” he said quickly, glancing furtively at our suitcases again. “That is just too bad.” He walked outside and went down the hall. He came back with a short fat Filipino, who looked at us stupidly with his dull, small eyes, and spat his cigar out of the window.
“There they are, Jake,” said the proprietor.
Jake looked disappointed. “They are too young,” he said.
“You can break them in, Jake,” said the proprietor.
“They will be sending babies next,” Jake said.
“You can break them in, can’t you, Jake?” the proprietor pleaded. “This is not the first time you have broken babies in. you have done it in sugar plantations in Hawaii, Jake!”
“Hell!” Jake said, striding across the room to the proprietor. He pulled a fat roll of bills from his pocket and gave twenty-five dollars to the proprietor. Then he turned to us and said. “All right, Pinoys, you are working for me now. Get your hats and follow me.”
We were frightened to hesitate, when we lifted our suitcases the proprietor ordered us not to touch them.
“I’ll take care of them until you come back from Alaska,” he said. “Good fishing, boys!”
In this way we were sold for five dollars each to work in the fish canneries in Alaska, by a Visayan from the island of Leyte to an Illocano from the province of La Union. Both were oldtimers; both were tough. They exploited young immigrants until one of them, the hotel proprietor, was shot dead by an unknown assailant. We were forced to sign a paper which dated that each of us owed the contractor twenty dollars for bedding and another twenty for luxuries. What the luxuries were, I have never found out. The contractor turned out to be a tall, heavy-set, dark Filipino, who came to the small hold of the boat barking at us like a dog. He was drunk and saliva was running down his shirt.
“And get this, you devils!” he shouted at us. “You will never come back alive if you don’t to what I say!”
it was the beginning of my life in America, the beginning of a long flight that carried me down the years, fighting desperately to find the peace in some corner of life.