I greatly respect Rebecca Morgan Frank’s poetry on the Filipino-American relations. Her own family has deep roots in the country. She reminds us of one of America’s first international ventures, its first war against insurgency, and its first export of the American system – for better and for worse. Her poetry is learned, well-researched, and powerful.
This poem deals with the ironies of imperialism, and its long-term results. The italicized section is a quote from United States Senator Knute Nelson of Wisconsin (1843 – 1923) on the American annexation in 1899 of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico for twenty million dollars payment to the defeated Spanish after the Spanish-American War. The Philippines at the time were almost entirely occupied by Filipino guerillas, who had allied themselves to the Americans in the hope of gaining freedom for their land. A treaty and cash payment suddenly turned freedom fighters into insurrectos, and a brutal war followed.
Payatas is the name of the slum in the opening and closing of the poem.
Poetry by Rebecca Morgan Frank
Wood, refuse and string rafts on the river
bear children fishing for trash:
tin for cash or building. Sellable glass.
Up on the mountain of debris,
adults gather cardboard and cans,
food for their pigs, a chair, a broken fan.
This is free commerce, capitalism
born by accident, such wealth dispersed
from the States’ defeat of the Spanish. First,
we came as ministering angels, not
despots who thought nothing sinister
of manifest destiny, a generous gesture
of twenty million dollars and a war
to free Guam, Puerto Rico and the collar
of it all, these islands. Like trawlers
denying they are capturing fish
while the net’s weight waves
the sea: so a colonist saves
a colony from its former master.
Now the new world comes
for the picked fruits of a people. A slum
is born a hundred years later
in its wake, a reminder
of our ministering, lingering.