So in that cell that night, I told the young boy holding the crunched-up blanket, “No hablo español.”
Quickly, I added, “Soy Filipino.”
I am Filipino, a declaration that seemed to cause him more confusion. I’m not sure he heard me when I said, almost in a whisper, like a prayer, “Pepeton ang pangalan ko.” My name is Pepeton.
It’s my nickname, combining the nicknames of Jose (Pepe) and Antonio (Ton). It’s the name of my past — what my mother and everyone in the Philippines who knows me calls me.
It’s the name I’ve avoided so I could construct a different kind of identity, not the “illegal” you see and hear about in the news, but the journalist who reports the news and became a writer so I could see my name on a piece of paper. But inside that cell, there was no place to hide, nothing to run away from, no role to play.
After I was handcuffed at the airport, I was driven alone in a white van. Upon my arrival, two agents took everything I had: my phone, my wallet, my backpack, my luggage. I was asked to take off my leather belt and the laces in my shoes. When I asked why, one of the agents answered, “We don’t want you hurting yourself.”
I wanted to laugh. I’ve always used laughter to conceal my emotions; here, to distance and detach myself from the absurdity of this ordeal. Is this really about who has the right papers and what the laws are? Is this really about who is a citizen or not? Are we talking about the same citizenship that many Americans callously take for granted?
I asked one of the guards if he spoke Spanish. He did.
“Fear,” he said. “It means fear.”