Ronald Rieger: Review of “Twenty-five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride” by Evangeline Canonizado Buell
I recently had the opportunity to read “Twenty-five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride” by the Filipina American author Evangeline Canonizado Buell, and I could not have done so at a more relevant time in all of my 46 years as a United States citizen. While racial tensions and immigration hostilities have always existed, they have been largely subdued through much of my life. However, with the recent results of our national elections, these tensions and hostilities have bubbled up to the surface with a feverish ferocity unparalleled since the 1950s. Buell’s historical retrospect documents her life growing up as the daughter of immigrant parents along with the struggles, trials and tribulations of those around her. It is a story that must be told, if for only one reason, to remind each and everyone of us of our shared humanity. I feel, however, that the stories she tells goes beyond that. More than just a collection of family stories, Buell’s work gives us new insight into much of U.S. history by exploring it from the perspective of those that were often discriminated against or seen as less than human.
I am not going to outline the whole book, but I do want to share some of my favorite parts of the it. The book starts off in a mildly dry way, focused mostly on quickly running through who the main players are in her life, and a brief synopsis of the basic timeline. She started with her Grandfather who was a United States born African-American soldier that served as a buffalo soldier in the Spanish-American War in 1898. From there, she traces her family history and immigration through to 2006. There are three sections I want discuss. The first is the chapter entitled, “Grandma as ‘Rosie the Riveter’”, because it is representative of strong family values and strong women. The second is the chapter where the author recalls the return of her father from the pacific theater in World War II. I have featured this section because it highlights the fact that immigrants also risked their lives to serve this country, and as a veteran myself, I have great respect for that. To me, it seems completely asinine that following the war, immigrants and minorities would once again be treated as second-class citizens. This point leads me to the last section entitled “Prejudice in the 1950s”. This topic is important to me because I am greatly concerned about the prospects of history repeating itself, and I would prefer that it did not happen.
One of my favorite chapters in this book is the one titled “Grandma as ‘Rosie the Riveter’”. I found it particularly heart warming because we get to experience Buell’s grandmother and caretaker’s transformation from a mainly isolated homemaker to a strong independent woman. She was unable to read or write and her english was broken at best. She shied away from social gatherings and was treated poorly by Caucasians. However, in 1943 during the thick of World War II, She had the opportunity to become a welder at the Richmond, California shipyards. Buell recalled, “Grandma loved going to work in the shipyard. Not only did it give her something to do outside the home, she also felt gratified to be able to contribute to household expenses. … She also felt proud that she was contributing toward the war effort, further boosting her self-confidence.(59)” Humorously, Buell’s uncle, who was the patriarch in the household while her father was away at war in the pacific, asked who would take care of the children (there were three children, two were 11 years old and one was nine) to which she boldly proclaimed, “You will!” Since they both worked, they worked out a schedule where Uncle worked during the day and grandma worked at night. Later in the chapter, Uncle had begun to covertly take the children to movies so that he could sneak away to gamble in Chinatown. Naturally, Grandma caught onto this (because Grandmas have a sixth sense for this sort of thing!!) and laid down the law. Buell noted, “Uncle did get into trouble with Grandma for taking us to the movies on school nights and gambling in Chinatown. After a lengthy discussion, they agreed that we could go no more than once a week to the movies and only after we had done all of our chores and homework.(61)” On the whole, this chapter shows the dynamics of Buell’s family life. It is warm and inviting, full of singing and dancing, and respect for each other.
The chapter entitled “The letter” documents Buell’s father’s return home from World War II. It starts out, “At last, the letter from my father arrived. We had been anxiously waiting to hear from him, as his letters came so seldom during the war.When they did, many were carefully censored and, sometimes, whole sections were cut out that there would not be much to read. It did not matter to me because he would always end his letter with how much he loved and missed my sister Rosita and me.(77)” This section was moving for me because I recall just how important it was when I was in Afghanistan to be able to call home or write e-mails. More important however is that I have deep respect and admiration for anyone who answers their country’s call to serve and to protect and defend our constitution. Naturally, this was a big day for the entire family. Interestingly, the perspective of the story remains Buell’s, and at the age of thirteen, she tells the story in the most intellectually honest way possible. She does not reconsider her childhood memory as if she were older at the time. What she ultimately remembered was the way they prepared for his return. From “planning the food for the welcome home dinner, shopping, decorating the house, and cooking and especially choosing the clothes we would wear for the occasion.(78)” to wondering if her Daddy would recognize her now that she is three years older than she was when he left. In the end, the cab pulled up and she recalled just how handsome he looked in his navy uniform and the mad dash she and her sister made to reunite with him.
One particularly horrifying story was told in the chapter entitled “Prejudice in the 1950s” and Buell starts the tale ominously with the recalled words of her brother-in-law Jack. Her husband Hank and she were about to depart for New Mexico for their honeymoon when Jack advised them, “For your safety and security, don’t travel without your marriage license. Keep it in the glove compartment. You never know when you might need it!(93)” The advice was well timed. While returning home and driving through the state of Nevada, they were pulled over by a local highway patrolman who subsequently instructed them to follow him to the police station in the capital city of Carson City. They were not given any legal assistance. Buell said, “From their series of questions, it appeared that they had concluded that I was a ‘prostitute’ because why else would a woman of color be traveling with a white man.(93)” After being detained for several hours, they remembered that they had their marriage licence in the glove-box. They asked for permission to retrieve it and upon presentation of the document, they were allowed to leave, but not without a close escort to the California border. Sadly, this is not the only story of prejudice in this chapter. A short summary, but I believe they are better read in the author’s own words, include the hospital staff refusing to domicile her with a Caucasian woman when she gave birth to her daughter Danni at a Berkeley hospital, multiple hospitals refusing to admit the 15 month old Danni when she was sick with a life-threatening fever of 105 degrees, and that Hank was fired after only three months on the job as a radio program director in Eureka, California for being married to a woman of color. The 1950s were not a good time to be anything other than white, and this must never be forgotten, nor ever allowed to happen again. This chapter does end on a positive note however. Hank became politically active, and “fought against injustice, discrimination, and racial prejudice.(99)” She commented on the early days of their marriage, “Hank and I were followed by the FBI because of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunting of political activists, whom he accused of being ‘communists.’(99)” I suppose that now it would be considered a badge of honor to be the proverbial thorn in Senator McCarthy’s side.
I believe that Buell’s goal in writing this memoir was to celebrate, for better or worse, the dogged determination of her family to make a better life for themselves. Even more, there is a genuine sense of pride in the way they managed to preserve and honor their cultural identity, even in the face of ridiculously demotivating discrimination. This book goes well beyond the limitations of a mere biography or autobiography. It serves quite competently as a historical record as well, to be read by future Filipino Americans as a source of inspiration, or by anyone seeking a more balanced reporting of our shared history. I enjoyed this book very much and would recommend it to anyone who values strength and tenacity coupled with warmth, compassion, and powerful family bonds.