All in the Family: Maids, Migrants, and ‘Mango Brides’

Janus Isaac V. Nolasco

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Family, social class, migration—is it always greener on the other side? A breakdown of the novel The Mango Bride

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The Mango Bride
By Marivi Soliven
NAL Trade, 2013.

The family is said to be the basic unit of society, but in the Philippines, it is a vital loci of political and economic power. Some families dominate society as political dynasties; others control the economy, and much else besides. Quite several families do both.

The rich, powerful family plays so huge a role in the Philippines that it figures in attempts to imagine, critique, and transform Philippine society. The subject of many scholarly studies (Alfred McCoy’s Anarchy of Families is one), it provides the characters of several Filipino soap operas like Mara Clara and produces the contrabida in many a Filipino action movie.

The family has also served as a microcosm of Philippine society in Philippine literature (in English). Marivi Soliven’s The Mango Bride is the latest novel to do so in a long-standing literary tradition. The rich Duarte-Guerrero family represents the Filipino elite, while Clara and Marcela, their domestic workers, represent the poor. Their interactions—the scandals, the affairs, the discriminations, etc.—mirror the class antagonisms that underlie much of Philippine history. The novel, however, does not just simply see the family as a stand-in for the nation. It also attempts to symbolically grapple with it as an institutional basis of political and economic power.

Published by Penguin* earlier this year and Winner of the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel in 2011, The Mango Bride tells the intertwined stories of Amparo Duarte Guerrero, who flees the Philippines to Oakland, California to avoid a scandal; and Beverly Obejas, a wait staff who migrates to America as a mail-order bride. Beverly turns out in the end to be a Duarte herself.

Beverly is the daughter of Aldo Duarte, Amparo’s uncle, and Clara, a domestic worker who comes from a modest background and serves the Duarte family. When the affair is discovered, Clara is dismissed from service and Aldo is exiled to the United States to protect the family name. At the same time, the people who know of the affair are sworn to secrecy, the rest of the family are never told, and Beverly dies without knowing her parentage. Only in the end do all things come to light.

The Mango Bride weaves a story that speaks of social class, diaspora life, and the exploitation of women. Moving to and fro (what seems like) Forbes Park, Cubao, and Oakland, California, the novel offers a panoramic view of Philippine society and boasts of a cosmopolitan narrator that feels equally at home in the posh parties of Makati; cramped residential areas of Cubao; crowded Manila cemeteries; typhoon- and flood-ridden Manila; a rowdy karaoke bar in Malate; glitzy hotels, restaurants, and swimming pools; and quiet, lonely, and rather run-down neighborhoods in Oakland, California.

Yet all these sites are ultimately tied together by the story of a wealthy Filipino family. These disparate personalities and locations serve as extensions of the Duarte-Guerrero household or as the symbols of its oppressive power. For instance, Cubao may be a far cry from Forbes Park, but it is Beverly’s home, signifying her exclusion from the Duarte-Guerrero family (though she was given a monthly allowance for a time). Even the casket of her mother, Clara, was paid for by the clan, but at the cost of withdrawing Beverly’s allowance. Lastly, Beverly’s migration to California as a Mango Bride (what the mail-order bride agency refers to the women) is an attempt to find the good life that her kin denied her.

The power of the Duarte-Guerrero household permeates and determines Beverly’s very existence, born of her exclusion from the family that needed to protect its reputation. Yet Beverly does not know any of this; she lives a hard life, not knowing that her fate was determined by a scandal that befell a rich family. The innocent victim of a class-system that lies beyond her consciousness, Beverly is oppressed not just because she (and her mother) was expelled from the family but also because she does not know why she has to suffer her lot in life. To make matters worse, Beverly falls prey to indignities as a mail-order bride. Her fate indicts two oppressive orders—one represented by the cruel Doña Lupita and her daughter, the equally heartless Señora Concha, matriarchs of the Duarte-Guerrero household; and the other by a predatory, patriarchal system that commodifies and exploits women as mail-order brides.

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Even the rich Duarte-Guerreros in California, however, are not free from the sway and shadow of the family. Soliven portrays California less as a foreign land than a place where problems at home are displaced. Aldo and Amparo are banished there to avoid a scandal for their families. But Aldo, Amparo, and even Beverly never really find their escape. Aldo lapses into alcoholism out of shame for abandoning his family. Amparo, his niece, is haunted by her uncle’s secrets; plus, as an interpreter, she learns of the sufferings of Filipino immigrants in the US, encounters that bring back her memories in and of the Philippines; lastly, Beverly marries an abusive husband, Josiah. She never really escapes the hard life she had in the Philippines.

The Mango Bride also attempts to symbolically undermine the Duarte-Guerrero family and the class they represent in the Philippine society. The novel resorts to a much-maligned yet resonant theme in Philippine culture: the idea of a poor girl who is actually the son or daughter of a wealthy family. This motif is often dismissed as wishful thinking, but it should (also) be understood as a long-standing, albeit imaginary, solution to a persistent problem in the Philippines: the concentration of political and economic power within clans like the Duarte-Guerreros, and the resultant unequal distribution of wealth.

That the motif is a fantasy that points to the intransigence of a problem it seeks to address. Since political and economic power is firmly locked in the hands of a clan, majority of Filipinos really do need to be born into a rich family to have a share in the wealth. Since the poor are not related to the rich (and vice versa), they have to be imagined as such. Short of a revolution that would redistribute wealth, an illicit, fictional love affair—and its resultant offspring—is the only way the poor can share in the good life. The bastard child may be a scandal to the elite, but she has the blood of her rich father and thus has unassailable claim to the wealth of the family.

In The Mango Bride, this imaginary solution takes the form of the love affair between Aldo Duarte and Clara, the domestic worker of the Duarte household. They have a daughter, Beverly. Normally, the long-lost daughter from the affair undergoes much suffering before learning of her parentage and taking her rightful place in the family. This was the case in Mara ClaraThe Mango Bride, however, denies Beverly this happy resolution, which would only be granted to her daughter, Claire.

The very structure of the novel also undermines the oppressive power of the Duarte-Guerrero family. In weaving multiple locations and experiences that can all be traced back to the clan, and in moving to and fro various places, The Mango Bride conflates the boundaries between and among them. This fluidity undoes the sealed and rigid class system that the Duarte-Guerrero clan embodies. Indeed, boundaries and borders, not least class distinctions, are crossed and violated throughout The Mango Bride.

The novel’s cosmopolitan, flexible narrator who knows and feels comfortable in posh hotels and crowded cemeteries, embodies this fluidity. S/he gives each setting a detailed, sympathetic description, and opens the novel with perhaps the ultimate breach of class boundaries: Señora Concha’s stabbing by Marcela, the Guerrero’s cook, Beverly’s aunt, and Clara’s sister.

Marcela was barely thinking when she took a knife from the plate of mangoes and stabbed Señora Concha in the chest. Her thrust lacked direction, so the blade glanced off the collarbone and tore a shallow groove down her capacious bosom before coming to a stop two inches above the right nipple.

The wound was messy but hardly fatal.

Although the narrator speaks in neutral, balanced language for almost the entire novel, these opening lines betray her disdain and contempt for rich, snobbish women like Señora Concha, mother to Amparo Guerrero and brother of Aldo Duarte. The narrator provides a masterly description of the stabbing—the syntax is steady, the voice is controlled, and the act deliberate—only to casually dismiss it as “hardly fatal.” S/he plays up the incident only to deflate it.

Having mocked the señora, our narrator introduces us to the rest of the Duarte-Guerrero household and later tells of a scene that (in retrospect) foreshadows further crossings of boundaries and violations of borders. S/he portrays the world of the masa intruding on the enclave that is Forbes Park: vendors pushing carts along tree-lined streets and selling their products at the top of their voices, “Tahoooo…..” and “Puto…..” We meet a domestic helper, Marcela, who treats the rich Guerrero children as her own and who in turn consider her theirNanay, more so than their biological mother, Señora Concha.

And there is of course no greater breach of class hierarchy than the scandalous love affair between Aldo and Clara. Their daughter, Beverly, conflates boundaries. She is and is not a Duarte. She is mestiza and comes from a rich family, but lives an un-aristocratic life. And it is precisely her mestizaje features that make her so attractive as a Mango Bride and renders her more vulnerable to commodification and exploitation.  Lastly, Beverly is both damned and savior. A Duarte herself, she is made the outcast of the family, the pharmakos, but her death leads to the reunion of the Duarte-Guerrero household. A tragic figure, Beverly and her suffering bring a redemptive power in their wake, just as Oedipus’s death helps redeems the city of Athens inOedipus at Colonus.

In the end, the Duarte-Guerrero household (like the Filipino nation) is no longer divided by class differences. Marcela, the domestic worker-cum-mother to the Guerrero children, turns out to be the grandmother of Claire herself, a half-Filipino, half-American daughter of a bastard, Beverly. Claire visits the Philippines and takes her rightful place in the family. Amparo adopts her niece, taking on the role of her mother, and Aldo returns home as well to reunite with his family.

These two resolutions of the novel are not without their problems, however. First, although Beverly’s death was redemptive, one can reasonably ask why Beverly has to suffer and undergo all that in the first place. There could have been a less tragic way of reuniting the family. Perhaps the fact that it could have been prevented and was not is part of what makes Beverly’s story tragic.

Second, although the novel emphasizes the crossing of borders and the violation of class boundaries, it keeps the Duarte-Guerrero family intact.  The Mango Bride shakes up, shakes up, but does not subvert, the wealthy family. Marcela, Claire, and Beverly scandalize the elite, but only take their rightful place among them; and while we are certainly happy for Claire and Marcela, there is no literary or symbolic equivalent of doing away with the family as an institution of power. The resolution has more to do with joining, not undoing, the clan. In real-life political terms, it is about finding a way to merge with, not dismantle, the oligarchy of rich families in order to forge a more just and equitable social order.

It is quite telling that although the novel champions flexibility, fluidity, and cosmopolitanism, it still relies on a traditional, long-standing trope in Philippine culture, the poor-rich girl motif. On the one hand, this is quite understandable; since the power and influence of the wealthy clan have been so entrenched in Philippine society, it is not surprising that characters like Beverly still resonate and endure in the literary imagination. On the other hand, the motif’s very persistence perhaps indicates a limit in the way(s) we imagine a just, alternative social order. Is the (rich) family the sole foundation and symbol of Philippine society?

 

(*CORRECTION 9/22/2014: The article originally said both Penguin and Anvil published The Mango Brideearlier this year.)