Biptiâ€™s father, futile with asthma, propped himself up on his string bed and said, as he always did on unhappy occasions, â€œFate. There is nothing we can do about it.â€ No one paid him any attention. Fate had brought him from India to the sugar-estate, aged him quickly and left him to die in a crumbling mud hut in the swamplands; yet he spoke of Fate often and affectionately as though, merely by surviving, he had been particularly favored.â€œ
â€“A House for Mr. Biswa, V.S. Naipaul
Itâ€™s easy to become successful in America. All it takes is a good command of English, a desperately needed skill or college degree, and a clean police record. You fly to America, pass every exam required of you to pass and in a few years, youâ€™re rolling and living the American dream, enjoying your own piece of the American pie.
Ramon is lucky to work as a US Physical Therapist. He is lucky because his Bachelorâ€™s degree was a hot commodity when he was hired first in Texas, before the US closed its doors to foreigh PTs on account of upgraded Masters entry level in the profession. Now the American PT Association is saying Physical Therapy will require a Doctorate entry level by 2020. All PTs will be addressed as Doctors by that year. He hasnâ€™t heard of a foreign-trained Therapist being hired in the US since all these changes were applied. And he is the least worried, by 2020, heâ€™s out of the profession. Heâ€™d be in a farm somewhere, cultivating crops and veggies and raising hogs and chickens (provided the avian flu is over). Or else, heâ€™d be growing orchids.
Ramon makes the sign of the cross before he steps out of his house. He remembers God who committed him to this very lucky existence. Heâ€™s got a reliable alarm clock, a membership in the gym for work-outs, a park to run for hours, a cheap soap to shower in tepid water, clean scrubs to wear, contact lenses to keep looking younger than his real age, a reliable car, and a workplace that is convenient though toxic at times.
So he comes to work with a big smile on his face. He carries a bounce in his strides. He greets everybody with a loud â€œGood Morning!â€. He feels super and even if he has to deal with very difficult patients at times, as all Physical Therapists have to at times, he is fine with it. Itâ€™s better to be dumped with difficult patients than be dumped in a dumpster. He has such a good perspective about everything. To start his work-day, he copies his list of patients, gets his gait belt and rolling walker and out of the office he goes.â€Iâ€™m here to save the world,â€ he says.
â€œGood morning Mr.____, guess what, your Doctor sent me to check you up. You know â€¦ he wants me to evaluate how you walk â€¦ of course you can walk but do you walk right? Câ€™mon Mr.____, this is such a pleasant morning to be in a foul mood â€¦ oh Iâ€™m sorry, did I wake you up? And you did not even touch your breakfast! I know hospital food ainâ€™t the best in the world but you got to eat. Câ€™mon Mr.____ itâ€™s not nice to say that â€¦ you want me to get out of your room? Now? I know you didnâ€™t mean that Mr.____. How do you think youâ€™d get back home if you havenâ€™t left your bed since you were admitted?
After sixteen years in this profession, Ramon is a veteran now in dealing with patients. He can handle anybody â€“ the malingerer, the anxious, the offensive, the defensive, the angry, the bigot, the racist, the white, the black, the whoever in-between, all genders, all languages, all cultures, fat, thin, big, small â€“ Ramon can handle them all. He smiles, threatens, talks, keeps his mouth shut, cajole,and best of all, he uses his foreign background to the max.
Americans love the exotic even when they deny it.
To see Ramon: muscular, clean-cut, confident, who can speak American English with and without accent, and then switches to Spanish and then to his national language, which everybody, even the Hispanics, are mesmerized with, renders him interesting and trustworthy. Ladies cling to every word he says. Men call him a big Brother.
Ramon will go the distance, a person who rarely says No, heâ€™s devoted and loyal to his company. As a proof, he worked every Sunday in the hospital for the last three years because his co-workers needed to spend time with their kids during week-ends. Ramon doesnâ€™t have kids. And he completes the seven day treatments of patients. This is what endears him to every employer who employs him.
He can switch his personality very fast depending on the situation. He can be sweet and cute one minute, firm and commanding the next.
So this is how Ramon is on this particular day. He is reviewing charts, consulting with Nurses and Doctors, moving from room to room, exercising and walking patients down the hallway. He manages a joke or two along the way that makes his place laugh and feel good.
Until he enters Room 562, occupied by Rafael Mendoza-Ruiz.
Being Filipino aware of his Spanish heritage, Ramon always thought he knew the Hispanic world very well. For him Latinos are the mestizo people seen in Spanish soaps. They are tenors who sing the way Pilita Corales sings Granada. They are Julio Iglesias married to the Filipino-born Spanish Isabel Preysler. Or their children who are possessing a little Filipino blood.They are the Ayalas and the Zobels and the Sorianos and San Miguel Beerand the interspersed words in his dialect: bentilador, bano, punda, puta, leche flan, casafuego, cigarillo, ventana, kobiertos, casillas, arenola, panuelo, lagrabista, almusal(almuerza), nochebuena, dama de noche and on and on and on. Spanish are his paternal grandparents who sired mestizo children. In his growing up years he heard whispers about their heritageâ€” the family clan originated from a spanish bastard from Bicol, he was deaf and mute. He was the greatest womanizer in townâ€¦Ramon heard it all but dismissed it as fanciful thinking the way a Filipino fancies having Spanish blood even if he looked like Mao Tse Tung. In his growing up years, being mestizo was a big deal, anyone who looked mestizo seemed to have all the luxuries and privileges of life. Everyone wanted to have Spanish connection. And that kind of thinking extended to the Hispanic world of Florida. Even in Florida, there are too many Dona Victorina of Rizalâ€™s novels. A Cuban is Spanish who was born in Havana. A Dominican who owns half of the lands in the island is of Spanish heritage. Even the Jamaicans claim Irish/British blood. Or Haitians French relatives. The only ones who donâ€™t claim anything are the true Spanish. Or true French. Or true British.
Only recently had Ramon notice something about him that makes him a little unique. Virtually everybody in America knows where he comes from. Just one look at him and, â€œYou are Filipino,â€ they say and there is such a smile on their faces when they say it. Like, he has no more secret to hide. And here is the worst part â€“ they always add something like, My brother is married to a Filipina. Or my neighbors are Filipinos. Or my Nurse is Filipino. Even Jewish mothers swear they have a nephew who looks just like him. You really need to worry when a Jewish mother says that.
He gets funny at times and jokes, â€œWhat are you talking about? I am Swedish.â€
Still, his affinity to Hispanics is undeniable.
He celebrates festivities the way Mexicans celebrate theirs. He reacts to things the way Hispanics do. He can be loud, romantic, passionate; he can easily get mad as fast as lightning. Yeah, he can never hide his Spanish temper. He loves Gabriel Marquez and the movies by Aldomovar. He considers dark Latin/Spanish looks as the most beautiful and handsome faces on earth. The blonde is a far second. And most of all, heâ€™s proud to be the only Asian in the world that possesses a Latin name, who can deal with Hispanics without any barrier, and to be seen in the eyes of the South and Central Americas as the long lost brother â€“ Latinos are always surprised at how parallel their universe is with those of Filipinos.
But Ramon never fails to notice how much he still doesnâ€™t know about the Latin world, how much is hidden by them from him. Maria of Colombia would jokingly say, â€œRamon, you can claim having Latin heritage all your life, but you can never never be Latino.â€ And Ramon is beginning to agree with her. The romanticized Latin world in his eyes is gradually being shattered the longer he works in the hospital where he works and the more he deals with the â€˜hiddenâ€™ Latin world.
Rafael Mendoza-Ruiz is one of them hidden Latinos.
Ramon enters the room of this 32 year old Guatemalan. Rafael beams and brightens up everytime he sees Ramon. â€œPaisano,â€ he says even if they come from different countries. â€œCompanero,â€ Ramon answers and they both smile and laugh â€“ itâ€™s amazing how their facial expressions come about so similarly and spontaneously at the same time, why it seems, both of them know what the other is saying or feeling. And the most surprising of all, why do they look like each other?
Ramon sits by the bed of Rafael who doesnâ€™t know a word in English. And Ramon can not even come up with a single decent Spanish sentence. His Spanish is considered pidgin, like Creole of Haiti. What is amazing is, in his conversation, he still can figure out what Rafael says, albeit on a basic and fundamental level. His co-workers, hearing him approach Latinos in his pidgin Spanish, think him to be smart, without knowing that where Ramon grew up, there are lots of Spanish words in his dialect. What makes him communicate with Latinos arenâ€™t the two semesters of Spanish he took in college, itâ€™s the frequent words he heard in his neighborhood. His level of Spanish is the one word Spanish â€“ which is not very far from local gringos trying to talk in Spanish. His only advantage is â€“ he looks like them. So much so that when he meets Latinos lost in the hallways of the hospital, they donâ€™t hesitate to ask him directions, in Spanish. Ramon is not mestizo, he looks like the American Indians scattered across the Americas.
When he stares at Rafael, Ramon is reminded of his hometown. Rafael looks like Ramonâ€™s neighbors and childhood friends: brown, challenged in height, almond-shaped eyes, flat nose, hairless. Rafael can easily fit into Ramonâ€™s world, he can also fit into Ramonâ€™s memory. Rafael speaks only Spanish but if you take away the Spanish from him, he can be Filipino. And this is hidden from Ramon: Like Rafael, some Guatemalans and El Salvadorans and Mexicans and Hondurans and Nicaraguans look like native Filipinos.
Ramon sees them walking or biking or huddling behind Ford trucks on their way to work to the orange groves. He sees them trimming lawns or blowing leaves with blowers. They are roofers and carpenters. They the daily laborers. They are mostly illegals. Which is their biggest problem.
They walk without permanent residences, carrying everything they got wherever they go. Because criminal elements are aware of this, they become susceptible to being beaten up and hurt and robbed and shot at both by the local criminals and of their own compatriot enemies. They are aware of this so they move about in groups. But letâ€™s face it, young men like them wonâ€™t be walking around without any desire. So they hit bars and eat, and yeah, drink. And drive. And then end in hospitals broken all over.
The hospital is where Ramon meets them. In ICU first. They are bloated, ventilated by tubes, monitored by lines, penetrated in every orifice. And chances are, they are alone.
Then they wake up. He talks to them. If non-verbal, they gesture back to him. They smile mostly. They rarely grimace or utter pain. They mouth words. They think Ramon is someone from their village. He looks like one of them. Surprised why he canâ€™t speak Spanish as fluently as they.
Their first meeting leads to Rehab placement. Ramon follows them there too. This time, Ramon becomes their closest friend. Heâ€™s got to be. No one visits them except him. All their families are outside of the USA if they can still remember them. As it is, some brain-injured people donâ€™t know anything and anybody anymore.
Rafael is one who still remembers â€“ his wifeâ€™s name is Eulalia. His little bambinos are Juan and Miguel. Juan is 9 years old. Miguel is 5 years old. Rafael wants to talk more about his family back home. But Ramon doesnâ€™t want to hear it. He doesnâ€™t want to know anything more about his wife and children receiving the sad news about his accident and not receiving remittances and probably going hungry.
Ramon grabs Rafaelâ€™s foot and gives it range of motion exercises. In his broken Spanish, he tries to complete his task:
â€œDoble su rodilla.â€
These are his commands. But that is all he can say in Spanish. No conversation goes between the two of them. Ramonâ€™s Spanish is not conversational. And he thank God for it. He does not want to be conversational.
Ramon hears Engish voices outside of Rafaelâ€™s room.
â€œHow did he get injured?â€ First voice asks.
â€œCar accidentâ€¦drunk. So stupid.â€ Second voice answers.
â€œI donâ€™t know about these migrants. They come here without papers, get drunk and then this! Who pays for their medical bills?â€ First voice asks in an angry tone.
â€œWe, taxpayers.â€ Second voice answers.
â€œGoddammit!â€ First voice cusses.
Ramon stays quiet in Rafaelâ€™s room. Good thing Rafael doesnâ€™t understand a single English word. Ramon too wonders why the migrants are so liberal in drinking, knowing they increase their risk of accidents and getting victimized in being drunk.
But how can Rafael explain himself to them? He doesnâ€™t speak English. How can he say his reasons for coming to work in America, why he took risk abandoning his young family? How can he tell them heâ€™s tired doing the jobs nobody wants to do in America, like picking apples and fixing roofs and cleaning yards and roads and landscaping the rich menâ€™s gardens? How can he say in English he has a poor family to support? How can he say heâ€™s lonely? How can he explain to them the feeling of homesickness?
How can he rationalize amnesia by getting drunk?
And Ramon knows thereâ€™s no way to stop an accident from happening, drunk or not.