As Albert Samaha’s memoir, Concepcion: An Immigrant Family’s Fortunes, begins, he hears from his mother that she’s being scammed by a man she met online. He and his mother view American politics very differently: she’s a Trump supporter and he’s progressive. In his narrative about Philippine history, American colonialism, immigration law, and his own family’s story, Samaha shows why this all matters. Although Filipinos are, by his count, the fourth largest diaspora group in the US, Filipino-Americans seem under-represented in everything from cuisine to popular culture and politics. His book does its part in trying to fill this large void.
The title comes from his mother’s surname and in his narrative he goes back in history to before the Philippines became a largely Catholic territory and later independent state. Before the Spanish took the Philippines, the major religion on some of the islands was Islam. Muslim Filipinos were called Moros by the Spanish and Samaha can trace Islam back to his family just before his great-great grandmother Princess Emilia Bato Bato, a daughter of one of the four sultans of Lanao, converted to Catholicism. In his book, he weaves parallel stories of his family’s history and that of the Philippines. So when he gets to the part about Moros and his great-great grandmother, he shows how the ramifications of the Spanish conquest affected his mother’s and grandmother’s generations:
As our history had it, Santo Niño’s arrival was a critical link in the chain of events that turned us Catholic, Western, and colonized, and when you follow the dominoes through the centuries, you’ll see this is the trail that leads to our exodus.
Besides narrating the history of the Philippines, which of course includes its stint as an American colony, Samaha also writes about US history, especially when it comes to immigration law directed against Asians. In several pages that take place at the turn of the last century, Samaha quotes from people like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, showing what they thought of the Philippines and Filipinos:
Teddy Roosevelt, in his letter accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for vice president in 1900, on what would happen to Filipinos if Aguinaldo ruled the country: “They would simply be put at the mercy of a syndicate of Chinese half-breeds.”
William Howard Taft, the first American governor general of the Philippines, coining a nickname for the island people who, he estimated, would need a century “to develop anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills”: “Our little brown brothers.”
Needless to say, Samaha wonders why his grandparents and mother would want to leave their mansion and status (they descended from aristocracy, after all) for a country that had these deep-rooted feelings about Filipinos. He explores this question and also, going back to the opening of the book, how his mother could support a presidential candidate who stood for everything she wasn’t.
Samaha writes about other relatives, including an uncle who was a popular rock star in the Philippines but left it all to join his family in the San Francisco Bay Area where he became a baggage handler at SFO for more than three decades. Samaha also writes extensively about Filipinos and the service industries they have been holding up around the world for decades. His mother left dental school to become a flight attendant in the late 1970s. She wasn’t the only one to leave the Philippines then.
From 1979 to 2009, some 30 million people left the Islands to work overseas. At first, most landed in the Middle East, where soaring oil prices created a growing class of wealthy families in need of nannies, drivers, and maids. In the 1980s and 1990s, they went to Malaysia, Taiwan, Italy, Australia, Canada, and the United States, sending money back home to the husbands and wives who held down the household, and to the children they rarely saw.
Samaha writes little about his Lebanese father, a passenger his mother met during her flight attendant days, although he shows up a little at the end. This is also the place in the book in which Samaha wonders again if his family was better off after leaving the Philippines. Was it really worth the sacrifices they endured? On the other hand, America is better off because their choices:
For a country founded on fictions of racial distinction, who better to jump into the mix than people of every complexion under the sun, confusing the old white order, drawing fire, joining the growing ranks of Americans pushing up against the founding caste system, stretching its seams?
While the book might have benefited from excising the minutiae that distract from the central parts of Samaha’s story, Concepcion, especially the fascinating backstory in the Philippines, goes at least some way toward highlighting the richness, and contradictions, of the Filipino-American experience.