Do you ever make imaginary friends with a character from a book? I do all the time. These are often characters I have made up in my own mind—and yet I still need to get to get acquainted with them from scratch like they’re strangers. If I have done my job right, by the time the book is ready to print, the hero and heroine are my family. I love them.
Sometimes a character does not wait for her own book. She steals the show from the first moment she is introduced. Such a character is Allegra Alazas, the fiercely loyal cousin of Javier Altarejos, and the woman who plays his matchmaker in Under the Sugar Sun.
Sugar Sun‘s heroine Georgina Potter first meets Allegra in a store on the Escolta, in Manila. As she tells it:
Señorita Allegra was perfectly happy to keep the conversation going all on her own, just as she had done for the past half hour. They had met by chance at a dry goods store, and Georgie had not been able to shake the woman since. Allegra could not believe that any American would walk the Escolta without shopping, so Georgie now found herself unfolding a delicate slip of lace, pretending to consider it despite its prohibitive price. Even though Georgie was supposed to be getting married soon, she did not feel sentimental enough about the occasion to plunge into debt over it. This treasure was not for her.
Allegra kept talking. “I have to sew my flowers on dresses now, though Hermana Teresa will jump off the Puente de España before she believes it. Yesterday she says I will fail domestic labors class. Fail! So I say it is okay—one day I will hire her as my costurera. Do you hear nuns curse before? Very quiet, but they do.”
No doubt nuns cursed around this young woman a lot, Georgie thought. Allegra looked demure but was really quite untamed. Black, roguish eyes set off her fair, delicate skin. Her pink lips were small but curvy, as exaggerated as the outlandish words that came from them.
She sounds like fun, doesn’t she? Allegra—or Allie, as she will soon be known—was inspired by the lantern slide photo above. True story. It was the look on this woman’s face that won me over. I thought her story had to be written.
If I had to cast a movie version of Sugar Moon (and I am open to offers), I would love to see Maine Mendoza in the role:
You see the resemblance, don’t you? It is all about the attitude.
Well, I’d better get back to it, or else you will never get to read Allie’s story. I had to do a massive rewrite this past winter, and I’m about 40% through the Big Edit now. There are some complicating factors that make this book tough. The history is real, and I do not want to skim over that fact. (As author Elizabeth Kingston pointed out recently, colonialism needs to be critically examined, even in romance. Actually, especially in romance. I have tried to do this, and I will keep trying—which to me means not ignoring the difficult stuff.) Also, Ben Potter has to be carefully transformed into hero material; he was not likable in the previous book. But he will be, I promise. Barring major problems, I am gunning for a September release. Fingers crossed.
While I was drafting Under the Sugar Sun,I made character sketches and background briefers on the whole Altarejos and Romero family tree. Before I even knew the end of my book, I knew who this family was.
Let’s look at Javier’s household a little more closely, in the center lower portion of the family tree. Wait, you’re thinking, isn’t Javier an only child? If you remember, he is the only surviving child. Lourdes’s other three died at birth or in infancy—a tragedy that would have been all too common at this time. In Sugar Moon, we learn a little more:
The last delivery had been so traumatic that it almost killed the doña, too. Left with only one healthy son for all her effort, Lourdes had spoiled him with indiscriminate love until young Javier was hustled off to boarding school to grow up. When Javier returned home for his first vacation, he found a new little “sister” in the bedroom next to his.
That “little sister” is really his cousin, Allegra, the heroine of Sugar Moon. Her true story is not really even on this tree:
Early in Under the Sugar Sun, while Javier was flirting with Georgina at the Luneta, he explained that Allegra’s real father was a Spanish friar:
“My aunt never made a public accusation, of course. And my grandparents managed to marry their daughter off to a respectable, if not terribly intelligent, man. Unfortunately, even he could add. My aunt named the baby Allegra, hoping her husband would believe the child a miracle of rapid gestation. As you might imagine, their marriage was not a happy one.”
In fact, the marriage was so unhappy that Allegra’s mother, Raquel, ran off with a Spanish soldier. Horatio Alazas returned the child that wasn’t his to the Romeros—he had given Allegra a last name, and he believed his duty done. Lourdes took her sister’s child as her own, and that is how Allie ended up at Hacienda Altarejos. This whole backstory was inspired by a real Filipina friend of mine who raised not only her sister’s children, but one of their children, as well. Anything for family.
And then, of course, we have Padre Andrés. In Tempting Hymnit explains:
The biggest secret of the Altarejos clan, though, stood at the front of the nave: Padre Andrés was the late patriarch’s bastard son. Since the priest’s legitimacy was never openly questioned, neither was his ordination—but no one who looked at Don Javier and Padre Andrés side-by-side could miss the fact that they were brothers.
More about Andrés’s family will be coming in the upcoming Sugar Communion (expected 2018). I know this is eagerly anticipated by a few readers. I promise that I’m working on it!
One day I might tell more about Lourdes and Lázaro’s marriage, but suffice it to say that Lázaro Altarejos came by adultery honestly. From Under the Sugar Sun:
[Javier] sat in the heavy wooden chair in his office and examined a painted miniature of his grandfather, the first Altarejos hacendero—though Altarejos was not even the Spaniard’s true name. When Capitan Hilario Vélez y Perales resigned his Army commission in Manila, he had balked at the idea of returning to his sowish wife and homely children in rural Altarejos, Spain, so he reinvented himself as an eligible feudal lord on the new frontier of sugar. Hilario “de Altarejos” eventually dropped the preposition from his nickname, won himself a thousand acres of virgin soil for saving the life of the alcalde-mayor, “married” a lovely mestiza who never knew that she was only a mistress, and planted himself a legacy.
That’s the Altarejos clan. Soon I will be making family trees for Javier and Georgina’s children…and more! I can’t wait.
When I started my research for Under the Sugar Sun, I spent a lot of time in the microfiche room at Ateneo de Manila looking through the Manila Times. At first, I did not know what I was looking for. Inspiration, I suppose—and I found it in a real article entitled, “Sister Hunting for Brother: His Name Is E.L. Evans and He Is Supposed to Be in the Philippines.” The sister’s letter had been misdelivered, and the recipient sent it on to the newspaper as a last-ditch effort to find the missing brother. And thus the Ben Potter and Balangiga storyline was born. (And I know you don’t like him yet. You are not supposed to. But just wait. Sugar Moon is coming, and I think Ben will change your mind.)
Back in 2011, I rewrote the original article for Georgina and Ben. Yes, I was writing the book that long.
Now, you cannot totally blame Georgie for being worried. These were the real headlines from the Boston Daily Globeabout what happened to his unit:
Disaster in Samar. American Troops Surprised at Balangiga. Forty Officers and Men Killed by Insurgents. Company C 9th Attacked While at Breakfast.
Death List. Names of Those Lost at Balangiga, Samar. Five of the Number Went from Boston to Philippines. Thirty-Five Killed and Died of Wounds. Eight Missing.
Nine Boston Men. Seven of Them Were Enlisted Men, and It Is Feared They were All Among the Lost at Balangiga.
Wounded at Balangiga: Boston Loses One More.
Enlisted men’s families were not sent a telegram when their loved ones died. Only officers’ next of kin were offered that peace of mind. Georgie would have combed these articles and found all sorts of discrepancies, as you can read above. This is based on the truth. When I compared the newspaper lists against the Company C roster, there were lots and lots of errors. Even the early Army reports had errors—no surprise, since they were the ones who gave names to the reporters. It was enough to drive a confused family crazy.
And it did not help to read letters like the one below. This is a real letter by a private at Balangiga who, before he died, wrote to his family in Boston about the worsening conditions of his unit. His family let the newspaper print the letter in full, and I can just imagine what Georgina and her mother thought. I recreated the article so that I could edit it down to its most salient points, but it is taken from a real article on this date and in this newspaper.
This letter really defines Georgina’s obsession with finding and, ultimately, returning her brother to Boston. She didn’t know she was a romance heroine, after all. She thought her life more Gothic-style mystery, I suppose. But she will figure out the truth—after a calesa ride or two!
The Philippine-American War (1899-1913) is one reason why the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has announced his “separation from the United States” and his dependence on China. “America has one too many [misdeeds] to answer for,” Duterte said. Which misdeeds? And why have we not heard of them before?
The Philippine-American War was America’s first great-power conquest and our first overseas insurgency. It was first time we tried to exert American authority and values abroad. (See my previous post on New Imperialism.) And this war was not a small one. It was your great-great grandparents’ Vietnam. As a percentage of the contemporary population, three times as many American soldiers died in the Philippine-American War as did in the recent Iraq War. More than three-quarters of a million Filipinos died from war and related causes, nearly 10% of the population.
And there were some good aspects to American rule, some of which were the inspiration behind my own fiction writing. For example, the Americans sent 1000 schoolteachers to the islands—and not just to Manila, but to the boondocks, too. (By the way, the word boondocks comes from the Filipino (Tagalog) word bundok, or mountain.) These teachers were regarded as the best American import of all, especially by the women of the islands who had been only sparingly educated by the Spanish—and that only if they were wealthy enough to afford it. In my novel Under the Sugar Sun, I reimagined one of these teachers as a Boston schoolmarm named Georgina Potter. Georgie is sent to the boondocks of Bais only to find her fiancé straying, her soldier brother missing, and the local sugar baron flirting. Adventures (and love) ensue.
There were other investments in infrastructure and human capital made by the Americans, from ports to the development of the Philippine Supreme Court. Philippine universities founded in this era have become regional attractions, particularly for their science and medical educations. (American sanitation and medical teaching in the colonial period was generally good, but sometimes things went awry.)
But it was not all bailes and basketball—though basketball is still wildly popular. There was also a down side to imperialism, and this appears in my books, too. The second book of the Sugar Sun series, Sugar Moon, will feature a character who survived a surprise attack at a town named Balangiga in 1901. Forty-eight Americans died there, the biggest loss for the Army since Little Big Horn. The Americans retaliated disproportionately. General Jacob “Hell Roaring Jake” Smith told his men to turn the whole island of Samar into a “howling wilderness”:
I want no prisoners. I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.
When asked the limit of age to respect, General Smith said “Ten years.” Smith declared the coasts of Samar to be “safe zones,” but anyone inland was assumed hostile to the United States and therefore a valid target. The entire island was embargoed. Cities grew crowded and diseased, and many starved. There is still a lot of debate about the number of Samareños who died in this period, with figures ranging from 2500 to 50,000. Either way, a lot.
Samar was the My Lai—or the Abu Ghraib—of the Philippine-American War. Your counterpart in 1901-1902 would have read daily reports on General Smith’s court-martial. (Yes, he was court-martialed, but only after a round-about investigation of a totally different incident.) With the advent of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, people could follow events with an immediacy that had been previously impossible. As a result, even though General Smith received only a slap on the wrist, popular outcry in the US later forced President Roosevelt to demand the general’s retirement. Why so light still? The dirty secret was that Smith’s commanding officers wanted this “chastisement” policy because they agreed with him that “short, severe wars are the most humane in the end. No civilized war…can be carried on on a humanitarian basis.” And the leaders of the insurgency in Samar did surrender in April 1902, only seven months after the attack at Balangiga. The Americans thought the ends justified the means.
The incident that Duterte likes to talk about the most was not in Samar, though. The president is from the island of Mindanao, where the United States fought its first war against Muslim separatism. Islam was the primary Filipino religion before the arrival of the Catholic Spanish, and still today about five percent of Filipinos are Muslim. Ninety-four percent of Filipino Muslims, dubbed Moros by Spanish, still live the large southern island of Mindanao. When the Americans first arrived in the Philippines in 1898, they had enough problems on their hands with the Filipino Christians, so they made a “live and let live” agreement with the Moros. Once the rest of the islands were pacified, though, the Americans tried to extend their rule over Mindanao. They wanted to issue identity cards, collect taxes, outlaw slavery, and disarm the population.
Not all of these are bad things—I’m thinking mostly of the abolition of slavery—but to the Moros these laws struck at the heart of local autonomy. In the resulting fight, young warriors attacked anyone considered an enemy of Islam—and though they were not specifically bent on suicide, they were not afraid of death, either. (They attacked soldiers, not civilians, though. They were not terrorists.) But they were so relentless that the American Army had to requisition a whole new firearm, the .45-caliber—the only pistol with enough stopping power to fight Moros armed only with knives. This pistol, named the 1911 after the year it was adopted, was a standard-issue firearm until 1985, and it still remains a favorite of many in the military today.
Americans fought their largest engagements against the Moros, and this meant some of the worst massacres happened against the Moros, as well. At Bud Dajo in 1906, the Moros had retreated to the interior of an extinct volcano and were surrounded by American forces who had the high ground. Instead of a slow siege, the Americans fired down into the crater and killed 900 Moros, including women and children. Reports of the event shocked Americans at home, but it did not stop the war, which would rage on for seven more years, until 1913.
Part of the reason the Moro War stretched on so long was that it was all “chastisement” and relatively little “attraction.” In other words, there was a lot less “benevolent assimilation” here—fewer hospitals, almost no teachers, less infrastructure, and so on. Today, the Moros have the same complaint against the majority Catholic government of the Philippines—they are not getting the public works and development projects they see in the rest of the islands, but they cannot run their own affairs, either. Though part of Mindanao has been made an autonomous region, such a compromise has not brought an end to the violence. Some groups aim for legitimate political goals, some groups are professional kidnappers-for-hire, and a few are eager hangers-on of the latest Islamist terror organizations, including al Qaeda and ISIS.
Yep, those guys. Did you know the dress rehearsal for 9/11 was in the Philippines? Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Muhammad, masterminds of the 1993 and 2001 World Trade Center attacks, respectively, both operated out of the Philippines in the 1990s. The Philippine National Police thwarted an attempt of these men to fly a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. This is why, only ten years after the Philippine Congress evicted the Americans from leased naval and air force bases in the islands, the Yanks were back. Special Forces operated continuously out of Mindanao from 2001 until 2016. Now Duterte wants the US Army out. He claims this is for the Americans’ protection, but it may also be that he wants to tone down the fighting in order to put forward a federalist plan. (There is a lot of irony in the fact that a politician known for encouraging vigilante squads wants to pursue a peaceful political solution to this conflict, but Mindanao is his home, so we’ll see.)
Rest assured: Duterte has not cut off ties with the United States. According to the Agence France-Press:
A frequent pattern following Duterte’s explosive remarks against the United States, the crime war and other hot-button issues has been for his aides or cabinet ministers to try to downplay, clarify or otherwise interpret them.
And within a few hours of Duterte’s separation remarks, his finance and economic planning secretaries released a joint statement saying the Philippines would not break ties with Western nations.
Moreover, the White House insists no one has officially asked for a change in relations. The real test will be to see if the Philippines really buys weapons from China and Russia, settles its legal dispute with China over the Spratly Islands bilaterally (cutting out the United States and United Nations), and ceases joint exercises with the US military in the South China Sea. None of these things are good for the strategic interests of the United States—but to many in the Philippines, this is exactly what they like about Duterte.
None of this is happening in a vacuum. It is more like a family dispute, where discussions and disagreements today are affected by the baggage of our shared history over the last 120 years. If we approach the news only with an eye on today and ignore the way that relationships have developed over time, we miss all the important subtext.
As Lydia San Andres pointed out last week, there is a whole century—and a whole globe—of American intervention to study. I will leave the Caribbean to her talented pen (and keyboard), but if you would like to know more about how the Philippine-American War launched the American Century, you should know that I take this show on the road!
I have an illustrated talk—“America in the Philippines: Our First Empire”—that shows how our experience in Asia fundamentally changed the U.S. role in the world and launched some of our best known political and military figures, to boot. I will tell you more about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how Americans ruled—and why, despite it all, the Filipino-American friendship has been so strong for so long. I will also show how recent stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and national security are actually reprises from the turn of the century. Finally, I have a few stories of my own from living in the fabulous Philippines, many of which have shaped what and how I write. Read more and find my contact information here.
Tell your local librarian, community college, high school, veterans group, historical society, book club, or other non-profit. My talk is free to these groups…as long as I can get there. I’m not traveling by carabao, though…