Big People, Big Heart


POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

Tony Robles
Thursday, October 8, 2009;

I’m at work sitting across the desk from my co-worker Solo. His eyes are tired and watery. He leans back in his chair awash in the overhead florescent light. “I want to go back home”, he says. He speaks of the tsunami that hit his homeland on Sept. 29th and the image he saw of a slipper floating on water on TV. Four 15-foot waves triggered by an undersea earthquake hit the island of American Samoa, waves crashing into everything in its wake a mile inland. We sat and watched the images together, images of wrecked boats, cars, destroyed houses. The reports indicated that the tsunami had destroyed all low-lying areas and struck too rapidly for a full evacuation. He pointed out places he knew, like the local fishery and parking lot. “I want to go back and help my people”.

I met Solo a few months ago. I remember when he walked through the door for the swing shift. I thought he was Filipino. He was about 6 foot 2, 220 lbs. I’m Filipino. Sometimes I wish I was 6’4”, 220. We work as security guards at an apartment complex in the city. Our uniforms are the same—jacket with fur collar, polyester shirt, badge and shoulder patch with some kind of Celtic symbol. We worked a few days when I asked him, “What are you?” “I’m Samoan”, he said. Some of the residents at the complex tell him he looks like the wrestler known as “The Rock”. That makes him laugh. I don’t respond. We spend our shift communicating on a 2-way radio. Lots of static on that radio.

A couple weeks ago I was drinking coffee. The TV was on and the coffee fumed as the images passed over the screen: people in water, neck deep; children and elders hovered together on buildings, people wading through mud and debris; elders and mothers looking up to the sky amidst the destruction of their communities, their homes. Typhoon Ondoy hit the Philippines on September 26th bringing a month’s worth of rain in just 6 hours. Manila was covered in water. I’ve never been to the Philippines. My grandparents left our indigenous homeland in the 1920’s. I speak no Filipino but I feel Filipino. I recall my cousin saying to me, “You couldn’t make it in the P.I.”. He used to be in the Navy.

Solo sits across from me, the light reflecting on a desk that cannot hide its scratches. We take our break in the guard office. On the wall to the left is a map of San Francisco; in back is a map of the world.

“Eat” Solo says in a way that reminds me of family. He brings food in Tupperware containers: ham, pineapple, chicken, rice and fish. “Eat” he says again, gesturing for me to take as much as I want. The way he shares is food is Filipino. He lets me take a helping first. Then he serves himself. He then walks to the soda machine and buys drinks for both of us. I tell him he eats like a Filipino. He puts the rice in his mouth and we share our laughter. I wonder if he thinks I laugh like a Samoan.

“Back home I go fishing”, Solo says. With a spear and snorkel and flashlight”. He talks about catching lobster and fish. He says that when the fish are caught, he first shares it with his neighbors, then brings the rest home to his family. Solo is from a big family of 8—5 boys and 3 girls. To share is part of Samoan culture. “Back in Samoa, if you walk in front of another person’s house, they call you in to eat. We are a sharing people, a giving people. In Samoa, people respect the elders, here they don’t care”.

We finish eating and walk around the apartment complex we are hired to guard. It’s time to close the swimming pool. Many folks in the pool are young, many are white and from Orange county, among other places. They sometimes sneak into the pool, their form of entitlement. We tell them that the pool is closed. Through the trees we can see the moon. Solo looks at the blue water of the pool. “Back home in Samoa, the water is deeper than this”, he says.

Solo works 2 jobs. He’s tired much of the time. He sends money back home to his wife. His other job is doing security at a hotel. He sees young girls, drunk, late at night during all night parties. Where are their mothers, he asks. Back home in Samoa, the young do not leave their parents. The families stay together.

Solo came to the US 3 years ago from American Samoa. His uncle is pastor of a church in the city. Solo came to help with the church. He is the Sunday school coordinator, plays guitar and serves breakfast to the elders in the congregation (oatmeal, hot bread and cocoa rice). He loves to sing. His baritone is rich. He’ll sometimes sing that old song, “The Green Grass of Home”. I asked him why his homeland is called American Samoa. He paused and said he didn’t know. There are 2 Samoa’s he says, Western (Independent) and American Samoa. Sometimes he and his friends ponder the question but those moments come and go. It is a legacy similar to the Filipino experience: colonization and displacement from lands. American Samoa is considered an American territory (it is the size of Washington DC), land that was divided between the Germany and the US. There was an indigenous resistance movement to the colonization but was suppressed by the US Navy. A committee was sent to “investigate” the status of American Samoa, a committee made up of the same people involved in the overthrowing of the Kingdom of Hawaii.

We sometimes sit in his car and he’ll play music from back home. The songs are in Samoan and praise the creator. I went home and found a Samoan radio station online called, “Showers of Blessings”. I think of the downfall in the Philippines, one month’s worth of rain in 6 hours. The music is beautiful like the music in Solo’s car.

We go back to the security guard office and sit at the desk. We talk about the typhoons that have hit the Philippines and Samoa, and Indonesia. He wants to go back home more than anything. On the radio a commercial for the California lottery comes on. “If I won the lottery, I’d take the money and rebuild all the houses”, he says. His family moved to high ground on the island. Many have died. The airport was shut down and roads and communication have been severely damaged.

He told me the story of an old woman in a wheelchair. The younger one’s were trying to move her to safety. The woman told them, “Leave me, just go. I know that it is God’s love. That water is God’s love touching me”. A field supervisor for the Security Company that employs us, also Samoan, told me that the Samoan people survive because of their love for and faith in God. Big people, big heart, she said. We sat for a while, not saying anything. Then we got up and went on our patrol.

To help our brothers and sisters in Samoa, send your contributions to POOR Magazine, 2940 16th Street #301, San Francisco, CA 94103

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