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A Push-button Life

(by Carla Hancock)

My mama was the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen: perfect teeth (not gummy like mine); long eyelashes (I barely have any); and a straight nose, which is a big deal in the Philippines, because most Filipinos have what’s called a pango or pug nose. My mom’s features suggested the mestiza beauty, reflecting Spanish heritage (also suggesting the history of the Spaniards conquering the Philippines in the 1500s). It’s like belonging to aristocracy. When she was 16, a film company scouting for new talent took photos of my mom, but she got scared that they might ask her to strip, so she never went back.

In a way, my mother exacerbated my feeling of inadequacy. She would say how beautiful I was, especially in a ponytail, but she’d add, “Just don’t smile too big.” When we were kids, people would say that my younger sister and older brother looked and acted more like my mom—and they made it sound like a negative, joking that I was the “black sheep.” Although I got the bad (teeth and feet) from my dad, my mom would also say that I got the best feature from him: perfectly arched eyebrows. But here’s the thing: When she was angry, she’d rub it in my face that I also “acted” like him (and that was definitely not a compliment—he was alcoholic and irresponsible).

My mother was born in 1945, when the war just ending, and grew up in Manila, in the city of Kalookan. She swore that she would never ever live in the provinces—she was a city girl, and always said you couldn’t find things in the grocery store in rural areas. The family was poor—neither of her parents finished school because they got pregnant early. My grandma’s family owned mango and cacao plantations, but there were 12 children to feed. My granddad could not read or write; he slaughtered pigs and sold them in the wet market, which became a family business, including homemade longganisa (a Filipino pork sausage) and tocino (cured pork chops).

Both grandparents came from Pampanga, known for its cooking. Everybody knows how to cook—elaborately, no shortcuts. Home-cooked meals are not only an everyday thing, but a three-times-a-day thing. Many women still are expected to follow a traditional role, staying home to do the cooking, cleaning, and raising children. It was a big treat to have family reunions there because everything is fresh—milk from the carabao (water buffalo), eggs from the chickens. My mom often talked about the time Grandma got her to cook a chicken. She grabbed one and started plucking its feathers, not realizing she was torturing the poor animal.

My mom knew how to cook every Filipino food there is. Nowadays, even I use powdered tamarind, but my mom would use the real fruit, boiling it and smashing it in the soup. Even if we didn’t have much money, she somehow made sure we had a smorgasbord of food, which I still crave. When my dad didn’t have a job, she would go to the wet market and ask for the shrimp heads that are thrown away so we could at least have the taste in our sinigang soup. Even if we were rushing home from church, she would cook a ten-minute meal, and it still tasted good.

In the 1990s, we built a family restaurant, which was named after my parents: DingZon (Agustin and Corazon). It was open 24 hours a day—my mother hired the cooks and trained the waiters and waitresses. I still think it could have been an empire—it was known for bulalo (boiled beef bone marrow), but after eight years, it was closed because of my alcoholic dad.

The Philippine tradition is that once you’re capable of working, you have to “give back to your parents.” It’s a debt of gratitude. Mom made sure my sister and I went to an exclusive Catholic school for girls through scholarship grants, but when I finished high school, she said, “This is it. I can’t afford your college tuition. You’re on your own.” So at 17, I applied as a singer at the bar where my older brother worked. He was always with me to keep the bad guys away. I was able to attend a cheap college at the same time, but my parents were handling my money, making decisions without me. I loved helping the family but also wanted my freedom.

When I was young, my mom often talked about her aunt w