Migration and Idenity

Carlo Rey Lacsamana

© Copyright 2022 by Carlo Rey Lacsamana

Photo by Mabel Amber courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo by Mabel Amber courtesy of Pixabay.

I, who with the breeze
Had played, a green leaf on the blessed tree
Of my beloved country - nor had wished
For happier fortune than to wither there -
Now from my pleasant station was cut off,
And tossed about in whirlwinds.”

- William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1805)

Every journey begins in departure. seventeen years! I tell myself. It’s almost two decades since I left my homeland. And this word: homeland has grown, expanded, developed, and much longed for in me. Leaving the place where one had been born and nurtured is not as simple as changing one’s clothes. Migration is in itself a kind of displacement. To migrate is to be displaced from one’s habitual affections, surroundings, language, food, and from the people we love and love us. Migration entails the misalignment of one’s being.

I remember the feeling of terror, excitement, and sadness as I stepped on the plane that would stop in Hong Kong for plane transfer before setting off on the long flight to Italy: my destination. I remember the faces of fellow Filipinos who were in the same flight with me. The longing to stay, the demands of work, the fresh memories were all etched in our weary faces. It was a sad, peaceful, and calm trip. When I look back now to that day and contemplate the daily news about refugees (some of whom I met and became very close friends with) risking their lives to reach Europe I can’t help but take a deep short breath as a gesture of relief and agony. Relief: it was only by chance that I didn’t have to take a journey that takes thousands of lives each year. Agony, because the West (Europe and the US) has not yet grasped the urgency of migration.

It was December and snowing when I arrived in Italy, a couple of days to New Year. Used to the heat of the tropics my first winter season was as shocking as my first encounter with snow. The cold was so sharp it stung the skin. Dressing in winter clothes was an ordeal for someone whose dress code all his life consists of t-shirts and slippers. A loving sister and a good Italian friend provided me all the winter clothes I needed. Cold and nostalgia are the faithful companions of a migrant. Thanks to some fellow Filipinos who lightened the burden of homesickness. Their invaluable company was a sort of lifeboat without which the weight of homesickness was heavy enough to drive one to insanity. I wanted to meet the local people of my newly adopted place. I felt the need to make friends with Italians despite my inability to speak their language.

One cold afternoon in March while taking a solitary stroll in the city’s main street, Via Fillungo, I chanced upon an art exhibition held at an old church, Chiesa di S.Cristoforo. It was a photographic exhibition organized by a church organization, Comunità di Sant’Egidio. The photos in display from different parts of the third world showed the overwhelming condition of poverty. It was the theme of the exhibition. I suddenly felt the presence of my native land. The Philippines with all its beauty and magnificence could not cure itself of widespread poverty. The sensation I felt browsing through the lines of photos gave me a new sense of awareness of where I actually was, of how far and yet so near my country was. And a thought: most Europeans, at least of this generation, have a partial, detached, knowledge and experience of third world poverty. Our advantage, if one can call it that, as people of color whose history is one of colonialism and imperialism is our direct and organic knowledge of crucial matters such as poverty. Some may not have experienced the full situation of poverty but they are not withdrawn from its reality. In a daily basis we feel its presence, see it with our eyes, smell it with our nose, feel it in our skin, thus there is very little room for sentimentality, stereotyping, and romantic injunctions associated with poverty. I met the organizers of the exhibition, I introduced myself, we became friendly and started to talk. English is not so common a language in this place. Talking was an obstacle. My handful of Italian words compensated for their handful of English. Hand gestures and smiles did more of the talking. They were enthusiastic and young; they invited me to join them on their weekend activities which consisted in feeding the poor (the unemployed, the economically marginalized migrants, refugees... yes, the poor are everywhere even in the first world!), visiting the old, tutoring underprivileged children... For some months I joined them in some of their activities. It was a constructive experience. I gained my first Italian friends who taught me to speak their language.

After a couple of years, I slowly and patiently, with the help of some friends, learned a little of Italian. Learning the language was a precondition for inscribing oneself to the place. I learned the habits, tradition, interests, and the quotidian life of the Lucchesi (the people of Lucca). Despite the frequent bouts of nostalgia I taught myself to adopt to the place. Wonder, appreciation, and awe the city of Lucca made me feel again. At this period I read voraciously. What I could least afford to do in the Philippines due to lack of time and resources I did my best to do it here. Reading became my ultimate priority along with the need to feed myself. Also I started visiting museums, art exhibitions, art festivals... the world of visual art, being exposed to the works of the great artists made a lasting impression upon me. I imagine our heroes of the 19th century, the Ilustrados who landed in Europe for the first time; their curiosity, enthusiasm, and passion for knowing ignited. In Europe everything looked new, and yet so old.

Unlike the Ilustrados who journeyed to Europe for a specific purpose- to arm themselves with Western knowledge in the fight against colonialism - Filipinos today migrate in search for a better life, for a more stable material existence; such act is an expression of human dignity. I mentioned earlier the grief and difficulty of leaving one’s native land. One is not simply abandoning a geographical place but half of your being. Hearing the stories of some of my fellow countrymen how they got here: the adversities before and after the journey; the experience of those who crossed the borders illegally who literally had to traverse mountains, rivers, and woods; their experiences with bad employers who have no patience for people who could not speak well their tongue; the encounters with racism... these stories command respect and compassion. Now think of the refugees from war-torn countries of Africa and the Middle East who come here and are given no definite status as persons, unacknowledged in their diminished moral status, moreover they are looked upon as disruptive entities. For the migrant, the possibility of restructuring and reliving his past life is out of the question since one has to start his life from the scratch, one has to refind his identity.

With the help of my sister I was able to find a part time job that enabled me to provide for my basic necessities and simple luxuries. The extra money I could save I spent on books. I could eat less but read more. The number of books in my tiny room was increasing. It had always been my dream to build a personal library. I read everything, with a focus on history. What was a boring subject back then in school became a pivotal material for me. I had to cross the sea and sky to relearn and appreciate my history! I visited historical sites around Italy which have been heroically preserved by local peoples for centuries. I think of the historical sites and the ancestral homelands of the indigenous peoples in the Philippines which are neglected in cultural discourse, ignored by official policies, pushed out of the governmental budget. Such disregard is to our peril as a nation, the loss of heritage, the severance of historical attachment. Like our ancestors who fought to create and preserve their history against the annihilating machinery of colonialism it is our moral obligation to protect and preserve indigenous peoples, their culture, their land, for they are, in the words of the scientist and environmental activist, what Vandana Shiva calls, the cultural spiritual space which constitutes memory, myths, stories and songs that make the daily life of the community.”

In 2008 I decided to leave for Spain. I had three goals in mind: learn Spanish, find a job, and explore the territory. My destination was Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Legally a Spanish territory but geographically close to the African mainland. I stayed with a wonderful Ilokano family who treated me warmly as though I were a close relative. Indeed, no other people on the planet can match the hospitality of Filipinos. I would often spend my mornings at a cafe talking to the bartender and old people to improve my Spanish; at home I was taught Ilokano.

Las Palmas, like Italy, is one of the main stops for refugees or asylum seekers en route to mainland Europe. Once I visited two refugee centers. One of the volunteers at a center told me the harrowing stories of refugees who traveled on small old fishing boats just to get to Europe. I was told that some refugees had no idea where exactly they were landing, some believed they would land on America! Those refugees who were able to avoid detention ended up in refugee centers, some were accepted for asylum, some escaped and became undocumented laborers, some became vagrants. While on a bus ride for home we passed by wide acres of tomato fields where most refugees ended up working in terrible conditions.

2008. Europe was in turmoil. The onset of the economic collapse. In the island of Las Palmas the crisis was deeply felt. Hundreds released from their jobs. Tita ___, who took me in, was one of the unlucky who suddenly lost her work. I myself couldn’t find one, except for the three-day dish washing enterprise in a seaside restaurant. The anger and desperation of the people caused regular protests in the island. I am impressed by the way the Spanish fuse political seriousness with creative humor. Political protest in Spain meant approaching the experience of an experimental open theatre. Only in Spain did I experience a protest where marching bands, clowns, musicians, animals and people go hand in hand in a kind of collective political event. They marry the serious and the humorous that makes a political protest fun to participate. After two months, unable to find a job, my savings almost gone, I returned to Italy defeated, half-broke but full of lessons and memories.

Back in Italy I resumed my old part-time job. The little money I earned I spent on books and, from this period onward, on travel. The desire to travel”, Rizal said, is so innate in man that it seems that Providence has put it in each one of us... so his life [is] prolonged and renewed as he goes traveling in different countries. He lives more, because he sees, feels, enjoys, and studies more than one who has seen only the same fields and the same sky.” The quest for one’s identity is more or less a kind of traveling. To travel is to be exposed to the presence of other cultures, other historical realities, other societies- their achievements, potentialities, limitations and differences. A migrant carries a constant feeling of traveling. To be a migrant is to be in two places at the same time. The first place, the native land, the one abandoned, left behind, but not totally put out, is not felt as a topographical location but as an internal resource, a living memory, a map of love. The second place, the actual place of migration, is an uncertain land, a space of discovery, struggle, learning, and endurance; a place where the migrant’s sense of adoptability is always put into question and constantly challenged by its surroundings.

My idea of identity is informed by that reality of being in two places at the same time. My attachment with my native home is made even more inflexible by each visit I made in these ten years. A deep feeling of love for my country and its people, its follies and strengths, its beauty, grows within me as time goes by. The everyday people’s sense of endurance in the face of hardship. A mixture of intelligence, compassion, cunning, and hope is what constitutes the Filipino spirit. My journey in Europe, Italy in particular, has given me an enormous understanding of the West’s political and social culture and their connection with (and impact in) the political and social life in the Philippines and in the third world in general.

Today as the wars in some parts of Africa and the Middle East continue and the flow of refugees coming to Europe is increasing, as transnational corporations destroy and appropriate indigenous lands in Asia, as the economy collapses in Europe which then motivates right-wing political parties and effects social anxiety, the condition of displacement is the rule of the day. The West must face the consequences of its horrific past (colonialism and imperialism) if it hopes to rehabilitate its values. The quest for identity of every migrant is a process also applicable to the inhabitants of the West. By giving in to panic and racism, by overlooking the critical situation of the refugees they betray the liberal values which the democratic world is thought to aspire. By withdrawing to their narrow notion of patriotism they lose their humanistic roots. The great intellectual Edward Said remarked in his magisterial book, Culture and Imperialism:

Just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connection between things.”

No one today can claim the security and stability of one’s own group through isolation and indifference. History is a witness to the solidarity of peoples as the main catalyst for social change. In a confused world, perhaps solidarity is an important step towards one’s own identity.

Will I return to my native land for good?” is a question a migrant asks himself not infrequently. The sense of necessity that has driven him to leave is also what drives him towards returning. To answer the question of home is to attempt to solve the puzzle of identity. Once a resolute image of home is achieved an attachment to and appeasement of one’s identity becomes viable.

Carlo Rey Lacsamana is a Filipino born and raised in Manila, Philippines. Since 2005, he has been living and working in the Tuscan town of Lucca, Italy. He regularly contributes to journals in the Philippines, writing politics, culture, and art. His works have been published in magazines in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Scotland, Italy, Germany, The Netherlands, Australia, India, China, and Mexico. Visit his website or follow him on Instagram @carlo_rey_lacsamana.

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