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by Maria Romero

PMS 16 | 2017

The shock of learning that your mother is on Facebook is tripled when she is an immigrant. The equation starts early on and doesn’t add up. This was the woman who picked dirty underwear off the floor of our bedroom with her feet, ate chicken and rice with her hands, threw pennies into the corners of our house to keep evil spirits away, and sent us to school with scrambled-egg-and-ketchup sandwiches. She didn’t stop perming her hair until 2002. The woman who stomped all over my pleas to attend sleepovers, birthday parties, or any social event between kindergarten and tenth grade, was on Facebook. And, it turns out, she listens to Kelly Clarkson.

When you are the child of an immigrant the only thing you want is to be is understood. You don’t want a mother who stinks up the garage by frying inkfish or forces you to take folkdance lessons or drags you to the Filipino Community Center every weekend. My mother didn’t understand what it was like to be an American kid. It was hard to make the case for a new pair of Nikes every school year because she didn’t own shoes as a child. It was hard to argue for anything material when the standard retort was, “When I was five I had to walk three miles barefoot through the jungle in the dark to get a bucket of clean water for my family.”

I was ashamed of my mother because she was different:; short, brown, foreign, and perpetually yelling “Animala ka!” or “Ay-sus-mariajosep!” We’d go to K-Mart or Pay-N-Pak where I would do my best to separate myself from her in public. At K-Mart I would check to see if my hand-painted Madonna mole had smudged in the mirrors of the cosmetics section. At Pay-N-Pak I’d pick out paint samples for each room of the house I was going to live in sometime after the age of 13. I was most embarrassed when she called me in places like Value Village. Why did she name me Maria if she couldn’t pronounce it? Somewhere near the clearance rack I would hear, “Mar-ya! Hoy! Come try this on!” which meant, “Stand in front of me while I measure the waistband of these jeans against the circumference of your neck.”

In some household far from mine there was a mom who made chocolate chip cookies, not bibingka, and listened to her daughter agonize over her 6th grade crush on Gavin Graves. That mom sent her daughter to Barbizon and let her daughter walk the runway in fashion shows at Nordstrom on Saturdays. That mom gave her daughter a hug and “the talk” when she got her period instead of bursting unexpectedly through the bathroom door and yelling, “Don’t get pregnant!” before stomping away.

My plan to achieve total independence by thirteen was delayed. I moved into a studio apartment immediately after high school. I took illustration classes in community college. I wrote plays. I was as foreign to my mother as she was to me. A year later I bought a one way ticket to Atlanta. In her stubbornness, my mother refused to believe I was leaving. I showed up on the porch of her house one rainy spring morning to say goodbye. “Ay-sus-mariajosep, stay here!” she bellowed.

“Mom, I told you, I bought my ticket months ago,” I said angrily. “You just didn’t listen.”

“Stay here, I told you,” she growled.

“My plane leaves in two hours,” I said. “I’m going.”

Enraged, she let out a long string of curses in Tagalog as she found her purse. “Be careful, okay?” she said gruffly as she shoved fifty dollars into my hand. Then she gave me a hug and pushed me out the door.

When you are the child of an immigrant you don’t appreciate her until you grow up. As an adult, I understand why my mother lived in an acrimonious skin. She was a single working mother with an absent ex and two young, precocious daughters. Most days she was just trying to make it through.

My mother grew up in Palompon, Leyte, a place that still takes three planes, a ferry, and several hours in a Jeepney over choppy jungle roads to reach. Her parents couldn’t afford her education past the fifth grade but somehow she made it to Manila to work in a Planters Peanut factory. She left a young son and her entire family in the Philippines when she decided to follow my dad to America but I never saw her cry out of loneliness or self-pity. I saw her cry twice in my early life: when she learned her father died and couldn’t afford to return to the Philippines, and when my sister and I drove her to hysteria by fighting in the backseat of her 1970 baby blue Chevy Impala on the way home from Grandma’s apartment.

When I was thirteen my father took me to dinner and said, “I want you to know my side of the story with your mother. I was a nineteen-year-old kid in the Marines. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was in ‘Nam, then I was stationed in the Philippines. One day I saw this beautiful girl—the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen—standing in an open-air market and I wanted to marry her. We came back to the States, had you and your sister. The problem was I was just a dumb kid when I left Seattle. Then I went to war and when I came back home I saw all my friends who never left and they were acting like they should—like dumb kids. They didn’t have a wife or, a three-year-old and a three-month-old to take care of, and at that point I didn’t want a wife and kids to take care of either. I did a lot of stupid stuff and that’s why your mom and I aren’t together anymore.”

The “stupid stuff ”stuff” involved Rainier beer, weed, and women. When the drinking and drugs got out of control, when my mom found her blouses in the corner of their bedroom, saw that her lipstick had been sampled, she kicked him out.

Her life had not turned out the way she thought it would. My mother loved my father deeply and sacrificed her life in the Philippines for him, but he chose his teenage lifestyle over her. She was alone in 1980 in a strange new country with kids who were foreign to her; two daughters who fought like feral cats and made fun of her accent.

One day she was so sick of my sister and I screaming at each other that she tore out of the kitchen with a machete in her hand. “Animasa ka! Take it!” she bellowed, shoving the machete towards us. “One of you kill the other so I don’t have to hear you fighting all the time!”

We burst into tears, scared. “I don’t want to kill her!” I cried.

“Michelle—” My mother shoved the knife in my sister’s direction but she screamed and shrunk away from it.

“Why don’t you want to kill each other?” she demanded.

“Because,” we sobbed in unison. “She’s m-my s-sister!”

“Then stop it!” she thundered as she stomped back into the kitchen.

The fighting ceased for fifteen minutes, about as long as my mother muttered curses to herself in Visayan.

Despite our behavior, despite the challenges of being a single immigrant parent, when my mom and dad divorced my mother put herself through trade school, held a job at the phone company, bought a house and two cars, and was remarried by 1987. My baby sister, Tanya, was born the same year.

When I found out my mother was on Facebook all the old feelings came back. It would be like Value Village all over again, I thought. Except, instead of a handful of people witnessing the measurement of jeans around my neck in the clearance aisle everything would be laid bare for the entire online world to see. She’d shame me by calling me out for something I didn’t want my friends to know or embarrass me with her abominable spelling. There would be visual proof of the accent I was ashamed of in elementary school. Maybe she’d comment about something I posted against the GOP or in support of women’s rights. Or maybe she’d publicly admonish me about how I spent my money. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.

When I commented on a friend’s video, the post showed up in her feed. “Maria, I can’t figure out what this is,” she wrote.

“Mom, this is the introduction to my friend’s musical artist,” I responded.

“Oh!!okay,ididn’tknowthanksMom,” she replied.

The exchange made me cringe. It brought back the shame of a mother who didn’t understand; not elementary school, not social mores, not even Facebook. Later she tagged me in a picture of herself with my nephew. Her comments were like her text messages to me: “Maria, I didn ‘t know ho, what happened i put Q’s name before i tag it. Can u chng. It. I tryed but i can’t do it. Mom.”

The same year my mother joined Facebook she came to visit me. Tanya, now in her twenties, came with her, and together we lectured our mother on Facebook 101. We explained news feeds, likes and sharing, confirmed her friend requests, and suffered through her attempts to post pictures of the flowers in her garden. “Who are all the people who’ve been friending me?” I asked, “Like Phet Boyles Jr. and Maryfe Villamor and Imelda Barreda Apolinar?”

“Shhht,” she exclaimed, a standard nonsensical utterance that meant we should pay attention. “Are you friends with them?”

“Some of them are your friends and some of them are Auntie Betty’s friends,” I said.

“Some of them I don’t know. Some are your cousins, your Uncle Turing and Auntie Alice’s kids. Why did you accept if you don’t know who they are?” she demanded. Then she lowered her voice as if they were all listening. “Don’t accept if you don’t know them.”

I laughed hysterically as Tanya rolled her eyes in annoyance. “They’re our cousins, Mom, oh-my-God,” she said.

Tanya is a Millennial. She hasn’t outgrown frequent frustration with my mother. Perhaps I haven’t either; I just live far enough away that it’s a non-issue. Two weeks ago when I told Tanya I was writing about our mom on Facebook she said, “Did I tell you about the mini-horse?”

Hearing my sister recount stories about our mother is like watching my own private episode of Parks & Rec in which my sister, as April Ludgate, is the narrator. “Oh-my-God, Maria,” she saidys in her racing deadpan voice. “She spent like an hour showing me pictures on Facebook of these people who were supposedly our cousins but I’ve never seen before. I kept asking, ‘Mom, how are these people our cousins?’ and you know Mom, she never gives a straight answer. One photo album was of this wedding in Dubai that would’ve been like a Kardashian wedding here. And the other photo album was of a baby shower and it seriously was like the most expensive baby shower I’ve ever seen. They had a minihorse, Maria. A mini-horse.”

“You mean, like a Shetland pony?” I asked.

“I think it was definitely smaller than a Shetland pony,” she said.

I really wanted to see a picture of that magical Dubaian mini-horse. “Can you ask her to tag me on the pictures?” I begged Tanya.

The next day Tanya called in a huff. “I don’t understand her!” she ranted. “She spent like an hour showing me those pictures! And when I asked her to show them to me again she said, ‘What pictures, Tanya?’ She knows what pictures I’m talking about! But I tried to explain to her, ‘You know, the ones you spent an hour showing me the other day?’ and all she said was, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’.”

It’s hard to get information out of my mother. When I texted her to ask about working at the Planters Peanut Factory she texted back, “Who told you that?” It’s as if she’s an operative for the Philippine government and we’re on a need-to-know basis. My mother’s date with Tom Selleck at Klahanie, her pride in my academic excellence from Kindergarten through high school, her talkative nature in the checkout line at Seafood City—all hearsay. My grandmother once told me that my middle name was a combination of my mom’s first name, my dad’s first name, and the word “together.” When I asked my dad about this he said, “Ask your mom. She’s the one who picked it out. I had nothin’ to do with that.” When I asked my mother she impatiently responded, “Ay, I don’t know. Ask your father.”

My mom’s presence on Facebook reminds me of a story by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat in which she secretly follows her mother through New York City and is shocked to see her buy a hot dog from a street vendor. The shock is not just from seeing her mother interact with the world as a single immigrant woman but also because she’s never seen her eat a hot dog. My mother doesn’t realize that I cyber stalk her, reading her comments and looking at her pictures, always full of curiosity about the woman I don’t know.

We have seventeen mutual friends on Facebook. I approve every friend request from women and men I don’t know with names like Cording So and Melyn Capalac Tero. I have no idea who these people are but I know they found me through my mother. I look at her feed and her profile and frequently roll my eyes and smirk at her comments and likes. Aside from Kelly Clarkson, she likes an entertainer named Carson Dean and the groups Catholic and Proud and Our Mother of Perpetual Help. More than once I’ve seen pictures of Santo Domingo or Mary Magdalene in my feed with Tagalog captions and her comment of “Amen.”

She goes through spurts of activity, comments a lot but posts rarely. When she does, there are pictures of my niece and nephews or smiling selfies in the yard before she leaves for the casino. She posts pictures of pictures, cell phone captures of the old framed photos on the walls of our house. Her writing is hardly worse than some of my friends’ texting shorthand. I’m still shocked that she knows how to tag people and use emoticons.

Sometimes I’ll see a post from her and miss that fried inkfish or wish I was rolling lumpia in her kitchen. On Mother’s Day I tagged her in a post:

Happy Mother’s day, Linda Asbill! The older I get the larger my appreciation and gratitude for you grow. We always had a roof over our heads and food on the table. It wasn’t always an easy road as a single mother with two young girls but we made the trip anyway—and survived. I love you and I can’t wait to hang out with you in Boise.

Her reply was typical.


When you are the child of an immigrant mother, you learn to give up on dreams of June Cleaver. Love, acceptance and understanding are just inspirational words painted on reclaimed wood at Pottery Barn until you grow and learn. If you listen closely and uncover the clues, you can translate what your mother means. For instance, when I posted the picture of a professor’s note that said, “Do you plan to be a writing teacher? I think maybe it’s your fate,” my mother commented, “Good do it. Or write a story book. u always been like to write. Even when u r at u r highschool. Love u Mom,” which I took to mean, “Go for it. I’m proud of you. I accept you and love you unconditionally.”

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