I had been so busy with the gala preparations, that I rushed to submit my speech a week earlier to TOFA NY (The Outstanding Filipino Americans of New York). I was told it had to be 1 minute long. I drafted 750 word document. (Eh, I talk a lot.)
At the award ceremony, I realized I had to wing my speech but decided to bring my trustful disciplinarian: my iPhone.
I placed it on the podium, set the stopwatch and had to reduce my Fish Head speech to one sentence and say it was one the most precious memories my mother ever left me.
But since I wrote the speech, I might as well publish what I meant to say. Even though I had a stopwatch, I went over by 15 seconds but lucky for me, the music never played to kick me off the stage.
Food was important to me as a child. My mother always fed me. She overfed me actually. But there’s one moment that sticks in my head: eating a fish head.
Now, I’m as American as you can possibly imagine. My mother used to say I was “bastos” and “you’re just like you’re father” and “(insert bad word in Tagalog)” when I did something “inappropriate.” The most Filipino thing I ate regularly was rice and patis (fish sauce). But eating a fish head by American standards is considered disgusting. I wouldn’t dare tell my friends I eat a fish head in fear of being tormented even more than I was.
She told me, “Boojie” (that’s my nickname), it’s good. Really, it’s the best part of the fish. (Btw, it was a salmon head.) I obliged. She dug out pieces of meat from the face, the eye, pressed some rice with it, and with her thumb pushed it in my mouth. I was maybe 9 years old at the time. It was odd to have my mom feed me with her hands but it was okay, it made me feel like a baby. We all love those moments, no?
(I know I have a minute, so I’m going to tell a story.) My mother chose my name Maya to represent both my cultures: the Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and the national bird of the Philippines. I was also named also after both my grandmothers: Katrina Ariane.
I first set foot on the island of Luzon when I was 7. My mother’s family lived near the Mother of Perpetual Church in Baclaran. I remember the smells, the ants that bit my legs, the calamine lotion, the man yelling “Balut!!!!!” I even remember the salt placed on my tongue when my mother had me baptized in that big church.
I don’t remember faces, but I remember the blind man begging outside of the church. He had no legs and flies danced around his sunburnt head. I was so frightened and asked my mom where his legs were. She said, he didn’t have any as she gave the man money in his hand. I remember her also saying, “I wish God would just give these people a break in life.”
If she saw a child begging, she pulled out her wallet. To her, it could have been her “Boojie.”
Fast forward, I moved to New York City, lived by myself, and was independent of my mother. Out of the blue, my mom was rushed to the hospital. She died 3 days later.
From that moment, I felt I had lost my family and lost my Filipino ties. No one would call me “anak” or tell me to pray to St. Anthony or Raphael. I would never eat her chicken adobo again. A year later, I went to the Philippines longing to spend Christmas with children who didn’t have a mother. Instead of being called “anak”, the children called me “Ate”. They also used to drag to me to pray the rosary and go to church, just like my mother did.
Back in NYC, my mom’s cousin invited me to dinner. She said, “you know, you remind me a lot of your Lola Januaria (Ariane).” “How so?” I didn’t know much about her. “Your lola used to feed the poor children in the neighborhood. She was so loved that when she died, they had busloads of people come to pay their respects.” I had no idea. She said “when I saw what you were doing, I thought, Maya is her Lola.”
What I realized after my mom left this world, that it didn’t matter where I lived, or who my friends were, I still had something inside of me. I was a part of my loving Filipino mother and my Lola, and later on life, I ended up going back to those same lands where they both grew up and helped kids who could have been like “Boojie.”
To this day, I haven’t eaten a salmon head, but what I wouldn’t give to have my mom feed me. Because it was in that moment, I learned what it felt like to be loved and how to share this love with others.
This award is dedicated to my mother and my Lola: Maria Milagros Cruz Rowencak and Januaria Apolinario Cruz. Maya’s Hope is inspired by my mother and Lola’s love for children. These two women are the Outstanding Filipinos.
If you’re wondering who my hot date was… it was none other than my BFF Sister Bernarda.