Generations The Mango Missile Crisis
After her arrest, I started to understand. All the racist slights and foolish men my mother had endured. More reasons to be angry than I could count.
I was thirty-five years old when my mother was arrested.
She shot at a stranger with her BB rifle. Not at him , exactly. But close enough to do some damage. Mom says he took mangoes from the tangle of trees in her yard. The trees she planted when we were kids, to remind herself of the tangled Tagalog-speaking world she’d abandoned.
The man was piling Mom’s mangoes into the bed of his pickup, or so she says. She stormed inside to get her BB gun, the one she used to kill squirrels, her No. 1 mango-stealing nemeses. When the man saw Mom hoisting a weapon, he hopped in his truck and fled. But Mom couldn’t let him and her mangoes go. She tried to shoot out his tires. Instead, she shot out his rear window as he drove away.
The neighbors called the police.
This time, they handcuffed my mother.
During Mom’s first-appearance hearing, I sat in the courtroom with my sister wondering how our half-Filipino, half-white family had gotten to this point. I listened to the judge read Mom’s charge: firing a missile into an occupied dwelling, vehicle, building, or aircraft. Our attorney insisted this was a good thing. Even if “missile” made Mom seem like an assassin, at least the BB gun wasn’t classified as a “firearm.” Had it been, she would’ve faced a mandatory minimum of twenty years in prison.
Twenty-some years ago, that would’ve sounded nice. Twenty-some years ago, I just wanted a break from her.
Now that I’d had that break, it felt more like a fracture than a respite, like a loud, raging fissure opening up and swallowing our family whole.
“That man should be in jail! He is a thief! He is the real criminal!” Mom shouted at the judge, careful to hold back her Tagalog in this mostly white courtroom. “They won’t give me my freaking insulin pump! I am going to die in here!”
I shrunk into the courtroom’s wooden bench, closed my eyes, and counted out a long, deep breath. I listened to the judge beat his gavel against the mahogany of his desk— one two three four booms, then a fifth, and an exasperated sixth—trying to pummel my mother into order.
All I could think was: Good luck.
I spent a small but significant percentage of my childhood wishing for my mother’s arrest.
When I was thirteen, she threw a screwdriver and a steak knife at me. Not at me , exactly. But close enough for me to feel the air ripping. I listened to them dent the drywall over my shoulder as I ducked in the opposite direction, hands thrown over my head as much for protection from the projectiles as from Mom’s screams. She yelled in that mix of English and profanity-laced Tagalog that meant she was especially upset.
“Hayop ka! Going out like that, dressed like a freaking prostitute na, thinking I won’t see you!”
I looked at my outfit: the Kmart-clearance-rack jean shorts Mom had bought two years ago that were finally starting to fit, and a crop top I’d covered with a jean jacket.
“Walang hiya! My daughter, the streetwalker! Talaga naman!”
My mistakes earlier that day were threefold:
1. I forgot my house key before going to Fort Adventure to celebrate the end of the semester with a report card full of As, eager to trade it for fifty tokens and a free cup of Dippin’ Dots. In my excitement, I took my key off its hook, then left it in the bathroom as I shellacked my permed curls with another layer of Rave.
2. I lived in Southwest Florida. Even in December, it was too hot for a jean jacket.
3. I neglected to anticipate this random coupling of events would trigger my mother’s perplexing rage.
I took off the jacket while playing Skee-Ball with Stacy Davis. I set it on the chute where the wooden balls come clinking out. As I squatted to tear off my line of tickets, I saw someone grab it, then felt the same hands grab me. I didn’t have to look up. I knew it was Mom.
“You forgot your key,” she said as she pulled me away from my game, her voice low and heavy with anger. “What the Christ are you wearing?”
The screaming didn’t start till she shoved me into the passenger seat of our Mercury Sable. The car that was Dad’s car. Back when we had a Dad. Mom slammed my door, stomped to her side, then threw the jean jacket hard at my face.
“Cover yourself up, Jesus God.”
Mom thought she’d solved some great mystery. That I’d left my key behind on purpose: to dress like a slut and prance around the neighborhood arcade searching for sex. This would, of course, be unacceptable. For any thirteen-year-old. But I had more honor-roll certificates than friends. The only boy I’d ever said more than five words to was Ankit Mehta, my co-secretary in National Junior Honor Society.
The screaming hit its stride when we got home, when Mom’s lungs were in their element. When she could cuss at me in her native tongue and not be judged for it by wide-eyed onlookers.
Mom rarely spoke Tagalog. She called it useless. In Fort Myers, a town of retirees and fishermen in Robert E. Lee County, Florida, it was. Mom had moved here to escape the poverty of the Manila slum where she grew up. She’d left her islands to become an island, a speck of brown adrift in a sea of the white and elderly.
She’d left her islands to become an island, a speck of brown adrift in a sea of the white and elderly.
I remember sitting in a Publix cart with my little sister before our little brother was born, when we were still small enough to fit amid the cans of Folgers and heads of cabbage. Mom waited at the deli counter, while Dad, in flip-flops and corduroy shorts that showed off his pearly Slavic thighs, pushed us up and down the aisles. At the dairy case, an old lady stopped to stare at my sister and me.
“They’re so exotic,” she told our father. “Are they adopted?”
As Dad shook his head, Mom turned the corner, her arms laden with sliced turkey and Monterey Jack. The old lady looked at her, then Dad, then us. She gasped. She ran one index finger over the other like a potato peeler, sending imaginary wisps of her crinkly white skin onto the grocery store’s green-and-white linoleum.
“Shame on you!” she said to none of us in particular but to the idea of us in general.
“Punyeta, hayop ka na,” Mom muttered as the woman huffed off with her prunes and Canada Dry.
Mom only spoke Tagalog when she couldn’t help herself, when her blood boiled and no other words sufficed. It’s okay to call people fucking animals, as long as you don’t say fucking animals .
“Speak English, god damn it!” the old lady shot back.
When the screwdriver and steak knife bashed into the wall, I wondered if someone besides my little sister and brother would hear this fight. If maybe a neighbor would call the police, like they did when Mom found out Dad cheated on her and gave him two black eyes and a bloody nose. Somehow, that fight led to my father’s arrest and, over the course of the next few months, to him leaving us, overdosing, and dying in a cheap motel room on the beach.
Back then, Mom told us the officers were taking Dad to go cool off. I remember thinking: Maybe that’s how jail works? The police take whoever seems bigger and stronger. I looked at the steak knife, at my still-yelling mom, and at ninety-some pounds of me. I figured if the police were called back, surely they’d take her to go cool off.
The 1993 Fort Mis-Adventure episode wasn’t the only time I’d wished for my mother’s arrest. It was just the first. There was The Missing Underwire Incident of ’94 and The Dented Bumper of ’95 and The Great Out-of-State College Conflict , a veritable marathon of battles spanning mid-1997 to early ’98.
Despite my teenage wishes, none resulted in an arrest. I began to think wishes were silly. Like the skunk ape in the Everglades. Or having a loving, nurturing mother.
My mom is bold and brash and built like a bowling ball, five foot four and a solid two hundred pounds or more. She doesn’t wear makeup. Or own eye cream. She has two volume settings: loud and screaming.
When I read Anthony Christian Ocampo’s The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race in 2016, I understood more about my mom’s culture than I had in a lifetime as her half-white daughter. The title alone explained why I saw more of my mother in the mamis of my Puerto Rican and Dominican friends than I did in the mẹs and ommas of my Vietnamese and Korean friends.
Honestly, I saw more of my mother in the feisty Southern mamas of my white friends, of which there were many in Robert E. Lee County.
“Your mama’s a hoot!” I remember the neighbor saying in her Florida-by-way-of-Alabama drawl, after Mom screamed at the UPS man for running into her avocado tree. “She does not hold back, does she?”
Not at all.
Even the few Filipino friends Mom had were nothing like her. They seemed shy, demure—the Filipino stereotypes my mother always admonished me for showing. They’d listen to Mom’s stories about yelling at the doctors at the hospital where they worked. They’d gasp and clutch their hands to their hearts.
“Ate, Josie!” they’d say in disbelief. “Aren’t you worried they will fire you?”
“Talaga na?” Mom would snort. “That whole unit would crumble without me!”
My mom came to the US in 1978 the same way so many Filipinos have: nursing. “Since 1960, 150,000 Filipino nurses have come to work in the US,” Christina Thornell wrote in Vox . “It began with the US colonization of the Philippines under the guise of ‘benevolent assimilation’ and has increased due to a series of US immigration policies. It has resulted in a pipeline that allows the US to draw nurses from the Philippines every time it faces a shortage.”
Mom flowed right down that pipeline, riding it from the slums of Manila, where she raised her six younger siblings, to the prestigious College of Nursing at the University of the Philippines to sunny retiree-laden Fort Myers, a town named for a confederate colonel—in a county named for a confederate general—on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast.
Mom watched her nursing-school classmates go off to hospitals in New York and San Francisco. They urged Mom to join them. She refused. She wanted to go somewhere tropical. Mom chose heat over camaraderie. She chose a place that felt like home but that was nothing like home.
At Fort Myers Community Hospital, Mom got the shit jobs. Despite graduating at the top of her class from the best nursing school in the Philippines, she spent her first years cleaning bedpans and giving sponge baths. To be taken seriously, she had to be bold.
I recently texted my mother asking if she’d ever heard the term model minority . Her response came back quickly and in all caps.
I sent back the lol emoji.
WHY IS THAT FUNNY, she wrote.
Now that I think about it, it’s not.
Mom had to take that “benevolent assimilation” and shove it right back up the wrinkled asses she wiped. She had to march up to the charge nurses and point out their errors in the near-perfect English she’d practiced since she was a child. She had to get in doctors’ faces and insist they’d calculated the wrong dosages, failing to carry the zero, causing patients to suffer.
Mom climbed the nursing ladder and earned advanced nursing degrees. She stood up for herself when no one else would.
As a child, I counted my way through my mom’s tantrums. I was patient. Some say that’s a virtue. I’d watch the clock on the family room VCR as its glowing digits ticked through the minutes and hours of her yelling. I’d convince myself that when the numbers aligned in some magical way, things would get better. When it was 7:52 (7 − 5 = 2) or maybe 8:53.
I’d see the numbers in my head and, through them, I’d see my way out.
8 − 5 = 3. Three . The things I did wrong were threefold:
1. I dressed like a harlot.
2. I forgot my key.
3. I didn’t respect your rules.
I’d apologize, and Mom would pass me a slippery wedge of mango—from the freezer, if it was winter—then tell me to wash my hands and go do my homework.
I used to blame my mother for holding on to all this rage, for filling me with anxiety that fomented in panicky dreams and odd compulsions, like constantly adding things or numbering my thoughts and feelings in lists.
I spent much of my late twenties and early thirties avoiding my mom, even though I lived minutes away from her and the house where I grew up. I had my son in 2010 and my daughter in 2013. I wanted to shield them from the mania my mother still refused to acknowledge, let alone treat. I wanted to empty myself of her rage, so it wouldn’t spill onto them.
After her arrest, though, I started to understand. I started to add up all the racist slights and foolish men my mother had endured. I realized she had more reasons to be angry than I could count.
I realized she had more reasons to be angry than I could count.
Of course my mother didn’t know the myth of the model minority. Politeness? Niceness? Such concepts were as foreign to her as snow. But being un-model had ramifications. This my mother knew well. Her husband cheated on her. Her nursing colleagues resented her. When she defended herself against a white male fruit bandit, it was she who was jailed, tried, and convicted of a felony.
But it wasn’t simply life in the US that made my mother this way. It was life in the Philippines too. It was growing up in poverty and the generational trauma of a nation ripped to shreds by centuries of colonization. It was the guilt of Roman Catholicism and being forced to leave the tropical heat she so loved to move across the globe in order to support her parents and siblings and cousins and titas and titos.
Her own parents beat her. The nuns at her Catholic schools beat her too. When her philandering husband raised a hand to her, Mom stood up for herself. She charged him and knocked him to the ground, beating him till he screamed for her to stop and the neighbors called the police and the cops took Dad to go cool off.
It’s hard to stay mad, now that I know all these versions of my mother. If she’s taught me anything, it’s that people have layers and folds, many that can’t be neatly ironed out.
Mom has done her time for what I’ve come to call The 2015 Mango Missile Crisis : five years of probation, served in full. Five years of monthly check-ins and paperwork and random pee tests. When Mom brought up early termination, our attorney reminded her she’d have to show remorse in front of the judge, a “model” she knew she couldn’t fake.
“Punyeta ka!” she yelled in the quiet of his office. “That man owes me an apology, masamang demonyo!”
My mother is and will forever remain a convicted felon. She’ll have to fight to vote again. She’ll never own another gun, BB or otherwise.
These days, Mom seems slightly softer. Maybe because she’s almost completely deaf. I blame years of screaming; the doctors blame Ménière’s disease. Maybe because she’s seventy and a lola to four grandkids and six granddogs. Maybe because her skin is thicker and creased with even more folds.
Mom’s able to laugh about The 2015 Mango Missile Crisis now, at dinner with her grandchildren every couple weeks, or when she and I are waiting at a doctor’s appointment to keep her diabetic supplies filled.
“Why’s it taking so long?!” she said one visit.
I texted my response, knowing she couldn’t hear me: Calm down. Nobody needs to get shot today.
I did too.
I’ve learned to tuck away the old versions of my mother to try and allow this one to unfold. It doesn’t always work. Some days, I kick her out of my minivan after listening to her scream at her endocrinologist. I’ll swear this is it with her, never again. Then she’ll message me in all caps, still shouting even via text: WHEN IS PENELOPE’S SWIM MEET I WANT TO SEE HER.
I’ll acquiesce. Because my kids love their lola. Love picking mangoes from her yard each summer. Love eating her pancit and lumpia on their birthdays.
I want to invite teenage-me to these parties and picking sessions. I want her to see this side of our mother she can’t yet fathom, to see that beneath all those furious layers is a wrinkled lola who can be as sweet as her fruit trees—for five to ten minutes.
I want to go back to that thirteen-year-old dodging the projectiles, if only to tell her things will get better. I want to hug her the way her mother rarely did. I want her to be a kid and wish for kid things: world peace, ponies, love notes from crushes. Or maybe just a lightweight jean jacket suited to winters in Florida.