In the world of Romeo Marquez, though, everything is ripe with a narrative.
Take the Family Loompya.
“ ‘Loompya’ is a play on words taken from lumpia, which is the equivalent of spring rolls,” he says.
As he speaks, Romeo Marquez has the manner more of a good schoolteacher than of a renegade publisher.
“Lumpia,” he says, “is one of the favorite dishes of the Philippines, just like pancit, the noodle dish you saw at the Point-Point Joint.”
Romeo now moves purposefully amid the fruits and vegetables, nodding hello to some people as they shop, avoiding others. Some wave hello. Others scowl and turn away. Might all this coming together or avoidance have something to do with José Rizal? I wonder.
Outside the Family Loompya market, I ask Romeo about these encounters.
“If you go to the other Asian communities,” he says, “they tend to speak with a unified voice. But unity is not the Filipino way. We speak in many voices. It is hard to get two people to agree on anything.”
We get in the car and drive away into the combustion of National City.
“Everyone has their own opinion,” Romeo says. “Plus, everyone wants to run the show.”
The Philippine community, he tells me, does not have a unified voice.
“Everyone wants to project him- or herself as a leader,” he goes on, expanding his observation. “Our American colonizers were very successful in implanting the divide-and-conquer strategy when they occupied the Philippines from 1898 until very recently. That tact still haunts us. Take San Diego. There are more than 200 Filipino organizations, and a large portion of those are spin-offs of bigger organizations. One organization gives birth to another and another because of personal differences, jealousy, envy, and crab mentality.”
At a traffic light I notice a sign that reads “School of Beauty.” Perhaps Romeo noticed it too.
“Filipinos may be summed up by the beauty pageant,” he declares.
Marquez explains that he’s talking about pageants that are not just for young women in bathing suits with a modicum of musical talent.
“I am talking about middle-aged beauty queens,” he says. “About old women who are beauty queens. Everywhere you look in San Diego, Filipinos are holding beauty pageants, and behind those pageants are the real politics of this community.”
“One does not need an education in beauty to become a Philippine beauty queen,” he says.
Then he continues: “You need money.”
“Money?” I ask.
“Lots of money,” Romeo answers.
“What about good looks and musical talent?”
“Every Filipino has musical talent,” he says, “so musical talent is not going to cut it. Let’s face it, there are some beautiful Philippine women. So beauty is not the answer either. No, money is what makes the difference.”
“And what does this have to do with José Rizal?” I ask rather naïvely.
Once again, Romeo gives me a look of pity, feeling sorry for my inability to make the connections with these people and events.
“Money,” he says.
Romeo Marquez came to San Diego by way of Manila in 1993. In short order, he became the editor in chief of a leading Philippine newspaper. He had had a long newspaper career in Manila, first as a stringer for the Japanese newspaper syndicate Asahi Shimbun, then as the Manila correspondent for Deutsche Presse-Agentur in Hamburg. His tenure with the German press agency began in 1983 and lasted until he moved to the United States.
Working in the newspaper business during this volatile period in Philippine history was an education in blood. Benigno Aquino, an opposition senator, had been assassinated upon returning to the country. No one knew it at the time, but this would be the beginning of the end for the longtime dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, and his extravagant wife Imelda.
Romeo Marquez’s stories for the German press agency began to be translated from English into German as well as Spanish and Arabic, among other languages. He became one of the key witnesses for the outside world of what was happening inside the Philippines.
When he came to San Diego, his newspaper experience allowed him to fit in immediately, and in no time he had become editor in chief of one of the leading newspapers in the community, the Philippine Mabuhay News.
“Filipinos are the second-largest ethnic group in San Diego,” he tells me.
“After the Mexicans,” he goes on, “we are it, 200,000 strong.”
The Philippine community is everywhere in San Diego, though the largest portion of it is probably in National City. Mira Mesa, Bonita, and Chula Vista have large Filipino populations too.
“But the more eastward you go in San Diego,” Romeo observes, “the more ethnic it seems to become.”
Not coincidentally, we are driving toward the east.
“What makes San Diego’s Filipino community so interesting are all the associations,” Romeo declares, weaving in and out of traffic. “These associations are really extensions of the typical Filipino family. That’s why you will see whole clans belonging to one association.”
But what does all of this have to do with José Rizal, the national hero whose statue was unveiled in San Diego three years ago?
“The root of these organizations is fellowship,” he says. “But over the years, these organizations have acquired new meaning. They have become political springboards to public office or to influence personal agendas in a public way.”
He tries to explain.
“What better way to capture the public’s attention than to present a beauty pageant?” he asks. “Or to unveil the statue of a national hero in a very public space?”
Without pausing, Romeo Marquez elaborates.
“San Diego is a Navy town,” he says, shaking his head, so that his ponytail does not blow in his face. “In the last 50 years, the community has evolved from what was basically a neighborhood association of Navy wives into something much bigger. Now it has structure, a set of officers, and a defined purpose. People came together because of a common culture, sharing food and music and their lives. But assimilation and acculturation take a long time and, in many cases, never take place at all.”