My American mother calls me up every now and then from her home in New York. Most recently, she called to ask my husband's neck circumference (She's buying him a shirt.), and I told her how our baby daughter Sage had burst into tears when a little French boy kissed her on the cheek at a neighbor's birthday party. "Good for Sage!" my mother promptly crowed, and proceeded to rant at length on the evils of all French people, since they had refused to support the U.S. war on terrorism. She went on to point out how particularly reprehensible that was since the U.S. had been instrumental in liberating France in WWII, and closed by expressing her satisfaction that French fries had now been renamed 'freedom fries', thereby eliminating, in theory, any lingering positive associations toward the French people in the American mindset.
Being nominally American myself, I was flabbergasted. I mean, I'd thought that 'freedom fries' thing was a joke! Now I wonder if that means other things are going to be renamed, like freedom vanilla ice cream, freedom-cut bikinis, and freedom kissing. It all sounds pretty funny until you comprehend the 'if you're not with us, you're against us' vibe that's behind it, and realize that even my normally sane mom has somehow been brainwashed to the point where she can now perceive a little two-year-old boy as a representative of Penultimate Evil.
Only Americans can manage to be silly and scary at the same time.
Since the concert season in Manila had just ended, Mansueta was set to stay in Cagayan for a month or so, but Emmanuel had to report for work in Baguio in a matter of days. It was just enough time for him to endear himself to her—for, to her own surprise, Mansueta found that this country boy from the back of beyond was more worldly-wise than she, having traveled out of the country; and, although he spoke no Spanish, his English was even better than her own. Moreover, he possessed certain admirable traits that the soft city boys she had known all lacked: an air of competence, a dauntlessness, a willingness to get his hands dirty if necessary to achieve his ends. Of course, it helped that he was also good-looking, manly, and, as I’ve mentioned before, cariñoso. Despite herself, Mansueta was fascinated—but not fascinated enough to actually agree to his proposal of marriage.
So Emmanuel went off to Baguio, and Mansueta, eventually, to Manila. And although they corresponded regularly in lengthy letters, for a time it seemed that the spark of attraction between them would never truly ignite into a lasting flame, stifled as it was by the problems of distance and incompatible ambition.
Until Betty, late of Ziegfield Follies fame, arrived in the Philippines, uninvited, unannounced, and unmistakably pregnant.
In the late 1930s, the American population in the Philippines was considerably smaller than it is today. Everybody knew everybody; and of course, small communities being the way that they are, everyone was absolutely avid to lend assistance to a young, unmarried American girl in the family way, if only so they could get a front-row seat to the scandalous scenes that were sure to follow.
So it was that Betty, exhausted from her flight and now far too tumescent to even consider the lengthy overland trip to Baguio, quickly found herself instead standing backstage at a concert hall, awaiting the end of the performance of the celebrated pianist known in certain circles as ‘Manny’s local girl’.
As Mansueta drifted offstage to tumultuous applause, Betty planted herself squarely in the other girl’s path, eyes narrowed, jaw set, spoiling for trouble. “So,” she snapped, in her most cutting tones, “you’re Manny’s little fling.”
Mansueta was understandably surprised at the abrupt manifestation of this garish apparition, heavy with child, yet still decked out like a dance-hall girl in too much makeup and a too-tight summer dress. “Who,” she asked, not unreasonably, “are you?”
“I’m Betty,” Betty announced combatively, “the mother of Manny’s child.”
Mansueta stared blankly at her for several long moments. Betty tilted her chin up as snidely and provokingly as she knew how.
“How very nice for you,” Mansueta said politely, and regally swept on past.
(Naturally, Betty had had no prior experience with Filipino pakitang-tao, which literally translates as ‘what you show people’. It’s often defined as hypocrisy, but it can also simply be an acute sense of privacy, the ironclad conviction that the world has neither the right nor duty to be privy to your innermost thoughts and emotions. Not all Filipinos display it, especially not nowadays. My family, however, has got it in spades.)