Together with more than a million people in Washington DC and billions more around the world, I watched Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the US on January 20, 2009. It was a thrilling historical moment which imbued in me a sense of American-ness that I had rarely felt before.
When I am asked who my ancestors are, I readily answer Lapu-Lapu, Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, Gabriela Silang and other Philippine heroes. But now this son of a Kenyan foreign student father and a mother from Kansas who lived in Indonesia is telling me to remember that “our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.” Our Founding Fathers?
Barack is telling me and every immigrant who became a naturalized US citizen and every US-born offspring of parents who immigrated from a distant land that while we have our own ethnic ancestors, "the father of our nation", George Washington, is our common ancestor.
Barack is telling me that while we have our separate ethnic histories, we should ingrain in our collective consciousness our common history that “in the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people: "Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive ... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."
But President Obama, we come from so many cultures, religions, languages and beliefs, how can we ever hope to be really united? We are too fragmented, with too many ethnic and racial hatreds to overcome.
Barack tells us that “our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself...”
The “lines of tribe shall soon dissolve”? Is this what Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned as the “mountaintop” where people would one day be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”? Is this our collective dream?
It pains me to hear devout church-going Filipino Catholics whisper to me even now that Obama is a Muslim who will destroy this country. It pains me to still read venomous emails from Filipino Republicans who supported John McCain and Sarah Palin predicting that President Obama will surely fail when they are really hoping that he will so that they can be vindicated in their votes. “I told you so” they are ready to crow.
Millions of people are losing their jobs and their homes and their health care benefits. The US is mired in a recession and on the throes of a global depression. Can't they understand that it is in all our interests to make sure that President Obama succeeds? Their old bigoted racial fears and attitudes don’t apply anymore. As Barack points out us in his speech, “What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”
Many of these Filipinos joined the Republican Party because they believed that it was the party that valued work and not welfare and would be more prudent in taking care of our economy. But in the last eight years under GOP President George W. Bush, the US went from a $495-Billion surplus he inherited from Democratic President Bill Clinton to a $1.2-Trillion deficit which he stuck us with. They should realize that “the ground has shifted beneath them.”
These hard-working Filipino Republicans should appreciate Barack’s reminder that “our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path toward prosperity and freedom.”
Barack is telling us that among these "risk-takers" are all the immigrants who “packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.”
When 9/11 happened, President George W. Bush told Americans to go shopping. In contrast, Barack tells us that “in this winter of our hardship”, we have to all work hard and all sacrifice together, like George Washington and “our ancestors” did, to “brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”
President Obama, my family and my community pledge to you that “yes, we can!” and “yes, we will!”