I travelled far south to Albany, Georgia. I’d travelled several years ago from San Francisco to Hendersonville, North Carolina, my present home. I am still traveling, this time farther south to the smell of bagoong, pancit, adobo; to the sound of Filipino voices in a place far from where I was born. My Filipino mind moved towards Albany, through fast moving traffic that was thick at times. I remembered the thick traffic in the Philippines when I first visited in 2016. I remember being tentative, indecisive in my movements crossing the fast moving streets in Manila. I realized that in order to get from point A to point B, you had to be decisive, you had to make a decision to move your feet in order to become one with the flow of the traffic–both human and car and jeepney. I had made a decision to meet my kababayan in Albany–fellow Filipino-Americans I’d never met. Would they see themselves in me, I asked myself? I am part Filipino, part black and part Irish.
I smell the smell of bagoong, it is strong, it is in my pores and in my blood as is the songs of my African American ancestors and Irish one’s too. In Albany the Filipino community is holding a basketball tournament with teams from the local Filipino league competing. The tournament is a fundraiser for children in the Philippines, children in need of school supplies. This is one of several basketball tournaments of the Filipino basketball league in the Southern part of the US that has raised money towards providing school supplies for hundreds–perhaps thousands of children.
The tournament was held in the gymnasium of a local Baptist church. I saw many Filipinos, mostly young. The court was filled with players. The ball was bouncing, passed from hand to hand, feet moving in a dance of timing and agility in an effort to achieve cohesion–teamwork. I met the tournament organizer Ellier Gervero. He was perhaps in his 40’s. He greeted me with a smile, like a brother, a kababayan. He offered me food–pancit, adobo, lumpia, kari kari and caldereta that volunteers had kindly prepared for the fundraiser. I filled my plate and noticed a jar of bagoong–shrimp paste–close by. The smell of bagoong brought me here, the taste of bagoong and the taste of Filipino laughter and the Filipino fire in our bellies that hunger for the coming together of our communities–those things brought me here to a place called Albany.
I sat in the stands, alone, watching the teams run the court. I see the jerseys with names: Abalus, Incarnacion, Lorenzo, Balote, Carcedo, Jyari, Fuentes and others. The players are skillful; they are a variety of ages. I never played much basketball but it is an intriguing game. I am envious of the skill on display before me as my eyes travel the length of the court.
Basketball is a metaphor for community. There’s a guard, a forward and a center. A guard to guard our community, to move quickly, to defend. A forward to assure that our community moves forward and a center to make sure we are rooted and grounded–at the center of who we are as individuals and as a community. All of these parts work together to achieve a sense of Bayanihan–that is, unity and purpose through cooperation.
The Filipino basketball player is a trickster, able to contort and stretch into many shapes assuming many identities. His body moves in one direction but his mind moves in another. He is 2, 3, 4 steps ahead–mind and body calculating the sum total that becomes his spirit. He moves across the court, between 2 worlds; one in America and the one he left behind in the Philippines. He travels across the court of America, back and forth looking for an opportunity, an assist–a way to score. Watch him as his body moves and changes shape–now you see him, now you don’t.
This basketball league is the continuation of a legacy started in the 40’s and 50’s by the Mangos, a Filipino-American sports league that began in California. They competed in football and basketball. They created community through sport. The league in Albany, Georgia is a continuation of this legacy; a legacy of movement from west to east to south.
The Filipino basketball player is a trickster, able to change shape, direction. Now you see him, now you don’t. And I sit and watch from the stands as this Filipino community in Albany, Georgia takes shape before my eyes.
Note: The tournament also featured volleyball. The organizer incorporated volleyball to give an opportunity for females to compete as well.