Monday, January 22, 2007

Bigotry's Logic

Whenever a Filipino in the US commits or is accused of a crime, fear and trembling rattle the cages of insecure members of our Filipino American community who worry that somehow mainstream Americans will view all Filipinos in a negative light because of it. Even if they were not involved in the crime a Filipino suspect committed or is accused of committing, they nonetheless feel a sense of collective guilt because the alleged perpetrator of the offense is Filipino.

Even secure members of our community fear tarring from the same brush. A decade ago, from April to July 1997, a Filipino American named Andrew Phillip Cunanan went on a cross-country killing spree, taking the lives of five people, including the famous fashion designer Gianni Versace. To find this Filipino killer, the FBI interviewed as many Cunanans as they could locate to see if they were related to Andrew and if they knew where he was hiding. For a time it seemed all Cunanans were suspect. And many Americans viewed all Filipinos as potential serial killers.

It's akin to going to a party where all the guests are white and the one other Filipino in that party, whom you’ve never met, breaks a vase (or kills the host). There is the fear that since you and the vase breaker are the only two Filipinos in the party, the other guests will naturally assume that you were somehow involved as a cohort.

Last week, a popular Filipino Catholic priest in the commonwealth of Louisa, Virginia was charged with embezzling $600,000 from two rural parishes. The charge came as a total shock to the people of Louisa whose District Attorney, Don Short, had known the Filipino priest for a decade.

"It has come as a great shock to folks in the community, and I include myself in that," Short said. "It's someone I've known in the community for 10 years or more as the Catholic priest. He is held in a high level of esteem—he had a following, people liked him."

What will the Americans in that parish, in that county, in that state, in the US think of Filipinos now? Will we be tarred with the same brush because we share a common cultural and ethnic heritage with the accused priest?

What makes this case of particular interest to me, personally, is the name of the accused priest: Fr. Rodney L. Rodis. Within days of the news of his arrest, I received dozens of e-mails and phone calls asking me if I am related to the priest. I responded that I do not know him nor had even heard of him until the news of his arrest. But because Rodis is not a common surname, it is quite possible we share a common ancestor somewhere up the line.

I was uncomfortable with having to dissociate myself from him because it already assumed that he was guilty of what he was charged with and that I wanted to have no connection to him. But he may be innocent and I may be related to him.

Over the years, I have learned that the Rodis clan originated in Indang, Cavite. However, because my grandfather (Arsenio Rodis) grew up in Cebu, where he met and married my grandmother (Asuncion Velez). All the Rodises I have ever known were from Cebu.

About 10 years ago, my mother in San Francisco received a phone call from a Greek sailor who was in town for a visit. He told my mother that he checked out the white pages to see if he had any relatives in town and saw one name that matched his. He wanted to know if we were related.

My mother identified herself as a Filipino and the Greek sailor apologized for taking up her time but did tell her that Rodis was a common surname in Greece. My mother’s account of this call led me to speculate that perhaps some Greek sailor in the 1700s jumped ship in Sangley Point, in Cavite, and decided to live permanently in the Philippines, marrying a local woman and having kids. Perhaps this Fr. Rodney L. Rodis and I share the same Greek sailor as the common ancestor.

About two months ago, a Walnut Creek Superior Court judge asked me about my surname, opining that it sounded Greek to him. When I told that I’m Filipino, he said that I must be a Filipino Greek, a Fil-Greek, a Freak. He laughed at his wit.

Over the weekend, I was awakened by a phone call from a columnist from another newspaper who inquired if I was related to Fr. Rodney L. Rodis. He said a muckraker from Los Angeles was spreading the rumor on the Internet that Fr. Rodis was my brother and that this incident was proof positive that all Rodises are crooks.

I thanked the columnist for checking on his facts first, something that the guy from L.A. has obviously never been accused of doing. The logic that if one Rodis is a crook, then all Rodises are crooks extends to all Filipinos (“if one Filipino is a crook, then all Filipinos are crooks”) and to all Catholic priests, most especially Filipino Catholic priests.

Bigotry has its own logic.

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