Tuesday, October 14, 2003

Whose Bells are Ringing?

Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds. Kevin Sites of MSNBC is blogging from Baghdad. One of the vignettes is his encounter with a Filipino-American soldier named Conrad Vasquez (photo included).

Crossing the border from Jordan into Iraq, I meet a young Filipino-American private named Conrad Vasquez (shown in the photo at the top of this post). He has an M-16 with 40mm grenade launcher slung over his chest. He is highly professional and remarkably good-natured considering he has been here going on eight months now. He says border duty is a vacation after a tour in the infamously hostile city of Fallujah, one point of the so-called Sunni Triangle filled with Saddam die-hards. I ask him if he wants to use my phone to call his family.

“No sir,” he says, “it’s just me and my sister and she’s serving in Baghdad.”

“What happened to your parents?”

“My mother died of a stroke and my father…well he was killed in the Philippines.”


“Well sir, have you heard of Abu Sayef.”

“Of course, the Philippine fundamentalist Islamic group with reported ties to Al Qaeda.”

“Yes. Well sir, he was a member.”

“So are you Muslim,” I ask.

“No sir. I’m Catholic. But the people around here are very respectful when they heard my father was.”

That one story encapsulates the improbabilities that every person of Filipino descent is heir to. Anglo first name, Hispanic surname, dark complexion, American infantryman with a sister in the US armed services, father killed while a member of an Islamic fundamentalist group, Roman Catholic. Yet indubitably, fighting for us all. What would you make of Conrad Vasquez?

Well, the answer that most Filipino customs officials would give is: money. Philippine officialdom, remiss in nearly all things, sedulously finds ways to shake down any person of Filipino descent returning for a visit. Is that chocolate you have in your bag? Do you mind if I have it? How about $50 as a homecoming gift?

The answer that most Filipino 'nationalists' would give, if they are ever to qualify for an interview with the BBC is: traitor. Never mind that the elite would never have admitted him into their homes or into their counsels. He has betrayed the nation in the deepest way possible: by forgetting his place, which was to serve as a menial and to obey without question the pronouncements of the graduates of the University of the Philippines.

The answer that most overseas Filipinos would give is: a man. A man who has seen the world, stands on his own two feet and is building a modest nest egg toward his future. A free man. And the Bells of Balangiga ring wherever he walks the earth.