My mom almost got scammed this one time, not long ago. She'd met a guy who seemed promising, a white dude who prayed with her over the phone and talked about business deals he was making all over the world. She had been struggling for a while. She'd bounced across a half-dozen cities over the past decade, started and ended a bunch of jobs, sometimes grinding two or three gigs at a time to keep the rent paid and the lights on, and life was only getting harder. By the end of 2018, she hadn't broke even in months. Her credit card debt rose to sums she would only whisper to me, even when nobody else was around. The temp agency she was working for hadn't given her an assignment in weeks. On the last, filing papers for a property management company at a Section 8 apartment complex, a tenant had threatened to shoot up the place after learning he was getting evicted. My mom was so scared that her boss let her go home early. "OMG, what a stress," she had texted me, punctuating the message with an emoji of a frowning face with a bead of sweat dripping from its forehead.
She was living in San Francisco now, in the cramped ground-floor unit of a creaky two-story duplex that had been in our family for decades. Her landlord, her cousin-in-law, kept the rent at a family discount. The space had once been a doctor's office, and it was drafty and narrow. When I visited from New York, as I did once or twice a year, I slept on the couch bundled in a hoodie, nodding off to the Gregorian chants coming from the boom box in my mom's bedroom.
The neighborhood used to be known as the Fillmore District, or the Western Addition, but newcomers call it NoPa, for "north of the Panhandle," because the developers buying up the housing stock and the brokers writing the listings want to distance their increasingly valuable buildings from the area's reputation as a historically Black community. In recent years the area began sprouting the amenities you might expect from a place with a name like NoPa: a cafe serving seven-dollar toast, a bar decorated with surrealist art available for purchase, a three-floor entertainment center featuring vintage arcade games, one-bedroom condos going for $700,000-a world of luxury just outside my mom's door, but tauntingly out of reach. The contrast was disconcerting. As the neighborhood's prospects brightened, hers only dimmed.
She always assured me she was doing fine. She described her days to me as simple and peaceful, and as evidence sent me photos from her early morning walks on Ocean Beach-dogs splashing in the tide, jellyfish washed ashore, messages she wrote in the sand, like "Happy Birthday, Jesus!" with a heart dotting the exclamation point. She collected shells, stones, and sand dollars, some for their unusual colors, some for their smooth, perfect form, some because they bore marks in which she saw the face of Christ. My mother saw miracles everywhere.
When she was a kid back in the Philippines, her own mother would wake her and her brothers and sisters at three a.m. on each of the nine days leading up to Christmas, to walk thirty minutes in the dark to a packed church where they would pray the novenas; by the fourth or fifth day, my mom was the only one of the children who could be gotten out of bed. Anytime something good happens, my mom says, "Praise the Lord!" and anytime something bad happens, she says it's part of God's plan. She goes to church six days a week, and on Good Friday she hibernates in prayer from noon to three, the hours Christ hung on the cross. Every time she moves, she has a priest bless her new home with holy water, and when she drives, she listens to a Catholic AM radio station or Christian rock CDs. The background on her cell phone is a portrait of Jesus-not a Renaissance classic or an image of suffering, but a handsome, square-jawed, smiling white Jesus with romance-novel hair. Whenever I express concern or apprehension about anything big or small, her response is, "Don't worry, God will take care of us."
There was a time when I shared that certainty. Over the years I'd come to doubt that tribulations have greater purpose, that justice awaits the righteous, that misfortune is the product of anything but human malevolence or sheer chance. But I kept this to myself. Why undermine my mother's hope if I had no alternative to offer? Instead, I concentrated on solutions. More and more, our phone calls and texts focused on ways to address her money problems. More and more, I worried about her. Sometimes, shamefully and selfishly, I took out my frustration on her, hardening my voice as if I were the parent and she were a wayward child. Why had she quit a job that seemed stable, even if the boss was an asshole? Why had she left her purse in the backseat of her car, for someone to steal? One Christmas morning when I was back visiting her in California, I saw her put a fifty-dollar bill in the collection plate at church. I shot her a harsh look. "Dang, Mom! You don't gotta give 'em all that!" She countered my show of disapproval with an icy glare of true parental force, the one that says: Boy, you better check yourself, although all she said was, "Albert, it's Christmas."
Maybe it was her trust in a fair and merciful greater power that kept her so relentlessly optimistic. She schemed and hustled, certain she was but a winning move away from the life to which she aspired. If she could just patch together the funds to put a down payment on an investment property, or buy her mother's old coconut farm in the Philippines, or fix up her tiny living room so she could put it up on Airbnb without her landlord knowing. But the opportunities never came close enough to snatch.
So I was more relieved than anything when she told me she'd been talking to this guy who apparently had a lot of money. I wasn't surprised such good fortune had come her way. My mom sparkles with energy, carries conversations with playfulness and curiosity, her eyes big and hands like fireworks when she gets on a thread you really should know about, like the ingredients in her homemade smoothies, or the benefits of a credit union, or the Illuminati. She's a former model who dresses in pink or black chic, fully accessorized, like she's got a daily meeting with Anna Wintour, and she looks-swear to God-half of her sixty-one years. I've lost count of the times some stranger assumed she was my girlfriend or my wife, to my embarrassment and my mother's flattered, still-got-it amusement. She has never been short on suitors. The surprising thing was that she'd become enamored enough to tell me about this one; most didn't last long before she dropped them, unimpressed. The last love interest I'd heard about had turned out to be a priest, news I met with a reflexive chuckle of incredulity, less at the situation's absurdity than at how it made more sense than anything I'd ever heard. Would it be wrong, she'd asked, if this man of God relinquished his sacred vocation for her? I suggested that maybe God made him a priest so that the two of them could meet, and absolutely they should go forth and live devoutly together. Alas, they discussed the possibility but never felt comfortable with it, and the priest transferred out of the parish to escape the temptation. I think I took it harder than my mom did, or at least more than she let on.
She'd met the international developer on LinkedIn, her preferred social media platform at the time. In photos he sported short gray hair and hip glasses with red frames. He told her he lived in Los Angeles but was frequently in the Bay Area for work. I never got a chance to meet him myself. Whenever I was in town, he happened to be out of the country. My mom kept trying to get him to talk to me on the phone, but he was always running to a meeting or to catch a flight. Once, he called her while we were in the car. She put the call on the speaker system, and after some pleasantries told him I was there too. The line went silent, but not dead. My mom said "Hello?" a few times before we heard him hang up. I figured he was just embarrassed, caught off guard by the sudden prospect of chopping it up with the grown son of a woman he'd been courting for not even four months.
Some weeks later, I came back to town for the holidays. When my mom picked me up from the airport, she announced that she had wonderful news: The guy she was sort of dating had just closed a big business deal, and he wanted to use a chunk of his new cash to partner with her on a real estate investment.
"How much does he want to put in?" I asked.
"Five hundred thousand!" my mom said, giddy, holding her mouth open in exaggerated shock.
For months, she had been trying to raise money to buy, renovate, and flip a house in San Francisco. It was her latest plan to make everything right-erase the debts, pay off the car, build up some savings, pull herself back to stability in one big windfall.
"That's great, Mom."
"Praise the Lord!"
It wasn't totally implausible. I mean, what's half a mil to a truly wealthy person? Let's welcome the blessings when they come, I figured.
It hadn't always been like this for my mother. The memory of the prosperous years she'd had in this country was still so strong that she believed she could retrace her steps back up the mountain. The further behind she fell, the more certain she seemed that a turnaround was imminent, overdue. To her eyes, there were always boom times on the American horizon. She'd been raised on stories of the nation's exceptionalism and the idea of the ever-upward trajectory it fueled.
From her earliest memories, her parents, Manuel and Rizalina Concepcion, had been drawing up plans to bring their eight children to the United States. Unlike many other immigrants, they hadn't had a pressing need to come. Indeed, the family had thrived in the Philippines in the years of my mother's childhood, the mid-1960s, moving up in a fast-developing nation with the second strongest economy in Asia. As young adults, they'd left their ancestral home on the southernmost island, Mindanao, and moved to Quezon City, then a sleepy suburb just inland from Manila. Rizalina was an accountant at the Philippine Central Bank and also managed a coconut farm that her family owned back in Mindanao. Manuel was a prominent civil attorney who often defended poor tenants in land disputes.
They built a big house on an empty corner lot in a neighborhood of tall tropical thickets, grassy fields, and newly paved roads. The family called the house Scout Reyes, after the street it was on, which would not stay sleepy for much longer. As other Filipinos left the agricultural provinces over the next two decades, the population of Quezon City tripled, eventually surpassing Manila's, subdivisions sprawling where jungles had once stood. By the time my mom was four, the family had maids and a driver and a boat, and her older siblings attended top private schools. Yet even at that point, when the family's comfort seemed most secure, Rizalina and Manuel saw a brighter future away from the Islands. "They didn't want to stay there forever," my mom's oldest sister, my auntie Ging, recalled years later. "America was the dreamland."
Manuel's sister, Caridad, had migrated to the States in 1949, when her job in the U.S. Army logistics department transferred her to San Francisco, securing her a visa, a valuable ticket then available to few-that year just 1,068 people from the Philippines were admitted into the country. She married a Filipino chiropractor who'd served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and in 1957 the couple bought the Fillmore duplex and turned the bottom floor into a clinic for his practice. On her visits back to the Philippines, Caridad would parade into the Scout Reyes house to much fanfare, her nieces and nephews gathering around her and her bulging suitcase filled with pasalubong, including candies they'd never seen before and bags of caramel popcorn. She described the cable cars and jazz joints, the wide roads and giant steel bridges, the clean sidewalks and summers so temperate she didn't even own an electric fan. "Such a wonderful place to live," Ging remembers thinking. "Everyone can eat steak. If you have a job, you can eat whatever you want, buy whatever you want."
After visiting Caridad in the United States, Manuel and Rizalina returned to Scout Reyes with their own tales of wonder. More than once, Manuel recounted to his children his sidewalk encounter with a fellow Filipino, a humble elevator man just getting off work in downtown San Francisco. Catching glances in the magnetic pull of racial recognition, the men struck up a conversation as Manuel walked him to his car, which-Manuel would pause before the punch line-turned out to be a gleaming new Cadillac. My mother remembers her father saying, "In America, there is that dignity of labor."
The trouble, at first, was how to get in on that privilege. American borders, once open to all, had closed with racist fury long before my mother was born; since the 1880s, laws had severely limited which immigrants were welcome, and how many. Making it into the country was a moon shot of a dream, a lottery draw of astronomical odds, the winners arbitrary and few, an exclusivity that seemed almost fitting for a destination so desirable. Manuel and Rizalina had built the house on Scout Reyes without knowing if they'd ever have a chance to leave it for the American home they could only imagine.
Naturally, right after the family moved in, a clear path across the ocean suddenly materialized, as if the spirit of Uncle Sam was testing their faith, measuring just how much they were willing to leave behind. In 1965, when my mom was five, the United States passed a law erasing the race-based immigration quotas that had blocked new arrivals from nearly every part of the world except northern and western Europe. The old policy was "un-American in the highest sense, because it has been untrue to the faith that brought thousands to these shores even before we were a country," President Lyndon Johnson declared upon signing the bill. But under the new law, "those who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung."
Copyright © 2021 by Albert Samaha. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.