Four Sparrows, Chapter 2, Scenes 2+3

Felipe tipped him off about ships sailing east, allowing him to rendezvous with a ship that still had space. Would they take him with so little money? He could barely afford steerage with what he had, in addition to the coins Pepe provided. The ship had docked in Batangas Bay before sailing up to Manila. If it had gone to Manila first there wouldn’t be any room left.

Tomás had to work on the ship as they sailed across. He told himself he didn’t care as long as he got there. He didn’t have a cot either. He consented to it, as he consented to similar treatment by others. He was just a poor son of an indigenous widow. He didn’t want to risk not being able to go at all. Otherwise he’d never get what he wanted. He never spoke to the captain but received orders from one of the other men in charge. He was assigned various tasks depending on the mood of the sailors. Tomás stood out, not just because he was pure Tagalo, an indio, but also he was handsome. This caused some of the men to be harder on him while it swayed others to be more kind.

The clipper ship he sailed on was Chilean, according to her flag and its pulpy-gummed crew. She had been afloat only a few years, but looked old having slapped across the seas non-stop since her christening. Clipper ships were well established by 1850. The three masts with square rigging helped these vessels clip away at the time across the ocean.

The crew of fourteen was older but mainly from experience, many without family or obligations. They filled Tomás’ mind with stories from their Chilean homeland and rumors of California. Their Spanish was sprinkled with their regional accent, which he secretly struggled to understand.

All fifty passengers were men along with six pigs, a cow and the captain’s two dogs. The captain was a criollo, fighting to maintain his economic position. Regardless of his European culture and heritage, one needed to make a living somehow. Most others were Chinese or mestizos looking to expand their horizons to match that of their global parentage. Tomás was alone in this regard. He took this as a good sign. And his older brother was too busy rising up the ranks in Batangas Bay, due to his own newfound heritage.

Both crew and passengers had a lot of time to do nothing en route. They tied knots, sang songs, played with the dogs. One sailor named Vicente had a guitar, which Tomás never got to play. Other times, they’d watch an hourglass empty itself only to turn it over to count the hours of boredom. Rum was rationed. A saltwater bath was a highlight. It consisted of getting dropped overboard in calm waters.

Their trip had consisted of pork in brine with hardtack. Seasonings consisted of salt and sometimes ginger. They finished off the pigs faster than expected. At one point for some variety they broke into a small shipment of cinnamon they were transporting. They had eaten the cow a month ago, forcing its owner to sell it for food rather than hold onto it for milk.

They sailed east along the northern Pacific gyre but had to land in Acapulco before heading up to California. They carried indigo to sell in Acapulco in exchange for fresh supplies. As the journey across the Pacific approached its end, Tomás was assigned the task of watching for land from the rigging. Off shift, he’d hang out on deck searching for flotsam, seaweed or other signs of land. So he was the first to spot the shoreline. As they entered port they found a covey of windjammers crowding the coast.

There weren’t any other men from Tayabas as most had boarded in Manila. One of them was Miguel who befriended Tomás. When they stopped off in Acapulco, Miguel sought out his buddy Ronaldo who would gain passage for the last part of the journey. Tomás wanted to stay with them once they got to California. He was more comfortable in a group, and was uncertain how to succeed once there. He didn’t speak English – he didn’t know there were English speakers in California until the Chileans said so. He trailed behind Miguel.

Miguel called out to Ronaldo.

Before Ronaldo could respond, Tomás jumped in, “Hi Ronaldo. I’m Tibay.” Ronaldo looked at Tomás, then Miguel, and then back to Tomás.

“Where are you from?”

“Tayabas.”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. We’re going to California Miguel, under European control again. We can’t bring a darkie with us.”

“I’m no Negrito.”

“Still, Tibay, I wasn’t looking to share my profits.”

“But it’s better to be in a group. We don’t know what to expect,” Miguel said.

Ronaldo hesitated, “Okay, fine.”

Tomás took the opportunity to ask more questions. “So don’t the Spanish rule California?”

“The rebels of New Spain, wrested control away from the Spanish,” Ronaldo sighed.

Tomás didn’t know what to make of this. How would anyone succeed by destroying a government? How would they protect themselves? “You mean the natives rebelled?”

“No, the criollos and mestizos. Then the Americans took it, but they have failed to put a government in place for now.

“That makes the opportunity even better,” Miguel added.

“And they speak English?”

“Yes, Tibay, they speak English.”

“Oh.” Tomás was patient, convinced his loyalty and skill would win Ronaldo’s trust.

In addition to Ronaldo, the ship picked up three Americans, who said they had crashed in Acapulco while coming up from Valparaiso. Having replenished supplies and nearing their destination, the crew broke open the stores of rum and scotch still remaining. The trip had taken over three months, including the stops they made. Antsy, drunk and some red-faced, they sang and fought for fun as they slapped up the California coast.

The ship reached San Francisco in August of 1850. They anchored while Tomás slept; he had drunk too much. He rarely drank and hadn’t built up any resistance. He passed out at some point after celebrating their imminent arrival. It was after the ship was abandoned that Tomás even opened his eyes.

He could hear the water lapping against the boat. No one bothered to wake him, but he wasn’t surprised based on the eagerness of his shipmates.

“I’m sorry for being drunk,” he said aloud to Heaven. He grabbed his few belongings and put them into his abaca bag. This was it, the moment he was waiting for all his life. Now he had something he could conquer.

He recalled the moment he left months earlier. His mother was there to see him off along with his younger sister and two cousins. His mother embraced him. She patted his face. She made sure he had the small peanut cakes she made for him. Finally, she gave a last ditch effort to change his mind.

“Tibay don’t leave. I gave birth to you the same moment the sun rose on the horizon. So I knew from that moment, you were meant to stay with me because you bring light to my life. That’s why we christened you Tomás Apoy. Fame and riches is one thing, but they will not bring you peace, justice, or happiness.” She then made a reference to both her and her husband’s past. It was the most direct she would be about these tragedies. “Self-worth will lead to true happiness, which an assault or even death cannot destroy.”

“Thank you Mama. I love you too,” he replied, distracted by his own anticipation and the hugs of his little cousins. Despite the expectations that he stay with his family, he believed this venture, if profitable, would help them as well. This was his one chance he told himself. San Francisco was to be his battleground.

The ship creaked as he climbed on deck. The shimmer of the moon and the lights on shore began to draw out details of his figure. He wore brown pants, which were a little too short and tied at the waist with a thin rope. He wore a beige barong shirt, which was white once. The shirt wasn’t tucked into his pants; to do so was illegal back home. His sleeves were rolled up onto his forearms. He had a slim but muscular build, easy for someone nineteen years old. The light reflecting off the water illuminated his sleek black hair and dark face. His nose was straight but soft and rounded at the end. He was agile and resilient. His square shoulders and fit frame made him look taller than he was.

He took a deep breath of cold air, and watched his breath turn to fog as he exhaled. The sea smelled different. The water was murky from the mix of mud and sand. He could see the town on shore, bustling through the night, just like Miguel had foretold.

He heard music from various directions now buzzing amidst a background of shouts, laughter, and people not seen but heard. He stepped off the plank and paused on the pier, or rather the series of boards used at low tide. He looked on either side and saw over a hundred ships huddled in the cove. Most were abandoned, but a few seemed to be serving as various sorts of business down the way, the kinds that usually take place at night.

The ships varied in design, but what really distinguished each were the leftover flags from their ports of origin, flapping in the wind. His gaze went from mast to mast. He knew the former flag of New Spain, a red jagged crisscross on a white background. Then he eyed the American flag, stars and stripes. Next to that was a Chinese vessel, with a bright red triangular flag, though they had no standard flag from what he had seen. It was flying on top of a multiple battened sail typical of Chinese junks back home. Further down he spotted another flag from Chile with its red bottom and blue and white top. Then a few flags he didn’t know so well, a tricolor of blue, white, and red, and others he couldn’t make out in the dark. The ships seemed to go on forever into the foggy distance.

“The whole world’s here,” he whispered.

Distracted by attempts to make out the sights on shore and the other piers, he didn’t see the man approach from the side. The man had a full beard and wore an oilcloth hat, that’s all Tomás saw in the blink of an eye.

“How about it Chileno!” the man shouted and hit Tomás over the head, knocking him into the shoal. The man smelled of liquor and heat. He took the small bit of coin Tomás had in his bag, and made off in the night. Tomás was left in the muck, not unconscious, but dazed.

“What was that about?” he said to the night. He recalled the warnings from shipmates on the voyage. He just never thought his first night in San Francisco would start like this, or that he looked Chilean. The blow made him realize he was hung-over. Once he got his bearings again he knew there would be no way to recover the money.

“Wait until Miguel hears I’ve already sustained an attack,” he told himself. He laughed out loud, a coping mechanism.

Money was hard to come by back home. He had proved himself useful to government officials, and he figured it would work with Miguel and Ronaldo too. He was called Tibay after all, durable.

He got up and went ashore to find his shipmates. They must have disembarked shortly before him because he found them at the first place he looked. He entered the makeshift saloon. The smell of alcohol and turpentine lamps excited his nostrils. The bar was built out of splintered wood with rope and layers of denim sails. It was warm from the plethora of men.

“Hey Vicente, why did you all leave without waking me?”

“You seemed content where you were,” the Chilean muffed. The sailors were always blunt with him.

“Are you trying to poke fun at me again? I’ve been wanting this for months, for years.”

“For years huh?”

Tomás had grown weary of this, but he knew how to suppress his anger. He noticed a fresh cut over Vicente’s eye and didn’t think much of it at the time; injuries were common over the course of their journey.

Vicente pulled him aside. “How well did you know the three Americans who boarded in Acapulco?” His eyes were looking for hesitation.

“I didn’t. What do you mean?” he asked. Vicente waited, looking him over. “I was trying to learn English from them. That’s all. Why?” Tomás repeated.

“Never mind. Just stay away.” Vicente seemed satisfied with his answer. “Now the real adventure begins,” he said turning around.

“Where are you going?”

“You got here with us, but we’re on different paths. I don’t survive based blindly on the approval of those in charge. You thrive when controlled by others, like a Chinaman’s herb garden.” Tomás didn’t argue. Vicente told him Miguel and Ronaldo planned to return to the ship later. Tomás decided to sleep on the ship and wait for them. He would bury himself under used blankets and sleep in the fog-chilled harbor.

Tomás was trustworthy, physically strong, full of endurance. His best skill became obvious on the ship. He was good with his hands. On the turbulent seas he turned to working knots for the sails. He’d dream of gold nuggets lopping down the rivers into his hands. Now docked in San Francisco Bay, he tried to think of his family instead; thoughts of gold made it hard to sleep. He thought of splurging for gifts for his little sister like he did back home, when he could. She didn’t remember their father and he wanted to be there for her. Her name was Maria but everyone called her Mimi.

One year he taught her to make her very own parol. He attached the translucent paper to bamboo sticks, forming a three-dimensional star. Inside they attached a tin holder for the candle. He bought tassels from a Chinese merchant to hang from each of the points. As they worked on it, he explained how he paid for it with money he earned running secret errands for the Spanish. Mimi was so proud as she got to carry the parol on her way to Simbang Gabi, the pre-dawn masses during Advent.

It would continue to be lit each night up to the Epiphany. She would never have trouble rising early for Christmas masses again. Even after the parol wore out and new parols were made, the memories would be there. That was important to Tomás. He felt bad to leave her, but his quest for gold would make it all worth it. Tomás clung to this thought because his trust in his shipmates was in doubt. They were mestizos, at least half Spanish, and they treated him differently. He was determined to make it, alone if needed.

 

*

In the morning Tomás woke up shaking, even his hair was cold. His head was hurting from where the robber hit him, or the alcohol, he wasn’t sure. He was alone and felt duped again. He opened his bag and accounted for his remaining belongings. He felt the thick lock of Maricela’s black hair, tied with ribbons to keep it bound. He saw his father’s pocketknife used for whittling wood and ivory statuettes. It must have been missed in the night. At the bottom was the small wooden de bulto statue, but that’s all. This meant the robber got the two coveted reales he managed to sock away.

He wished his attacker took the knife and left the reales. The whittling knife was more handle than blade. He didn’t know until he was en route from Acapulco that it was another three or four days from San Francisco to the various gold fields. He looked at his father’s knife, dropped it back in the bag, and left to find Miguel and Ronaldo.

The pier was more bustling compared to the night before. Scows were unloading cargo across the murky water from ships sunk at their moorings. The fog lingered while the sunlight glared its way through the misty sky. Wild mint quivered in the breeze releasing its planty scent.

He heard the gold fields were in a place called Mariposa, but he needed directions. He headed to the main plaza, Portsmouth, just a couple of blocks up on Washington and Kearney Streets. There was no sign of anyone from his ship. Tomás entered one of the dining halls and noticed a Chilean. It was good to find someone who spoke Spanish. Tomás asked if he had seen any of his shipmates.

“You’re a Chino,” the Chilean said. All Pacific Islanders and Asians were labeled Chino in the emerging Latin American nations. Tomás was confused; first he was taken for a Chilean and now Chinese?

“Um, I’m Tagalo.”

“My name’s Jacinto, Tagalo.”

“No, my name is Tomás. I’m an Indio.” He gave his formal name in front of whites. Some thought nicknames were deceptive.

“Oh, Tomás, okay.” Jacinto had calloused hands, a thick black mustache, a fair face, and an oilcloth hat. A cigarillo rested in his mouth, faint smoke floated above their heads.

“I’m looking for my friends who were with a group of Chileans that disembarked last night.”

“Oh those Chileans caused a bit of a raucous at the El Dorado and some of them were shot.”

“Ha? Were they killed?”

“Only three, three Chileans. I don’t know about the rest of them. They weren’t welcome in Little Chile. We didn’t want to be the brunt of the retaliation.” Tomás knew they were a rambunctious group of sailors. There had been fights on the ship. None of them had died until now. Tomás looked down, distracted by the smell of food in front of Jacinto. His mouth salivated and it must have showed.

“Waiter, a meal for my friend here.” Jacinto pulled out a small cloth purse from his coat and broke off an equivalent of an eighth, about a dollar and fifty cents. Tomás was starving and couldn’t say no to his generosity, even if it obligated him in some way.

“Thank you. Whatever you feel is sufficient is more than enough for me.”

“Steward, give my friend here the roast rabbit stew and coffee”, Jacinto ordered in English and handed over the gold bit. In a short while the food arrived. Tomás ate it all while trying to hold a conversation.

“Never had this before. I love it. What is it?”

“Rabbit stew with buttered potatoes and carrot greens.”

“It’s delicious.”

“Good, ‘cause you’ll have to get used to stews if you’re headed to the hills to look for gold. But if you just stay here in San Francisco you’ll get more variety, French food and the like.”

While Tomás licked the shallow wooden bowl, people began shouting outside. At first no one took notice, but the sound of an angry animal got people’s attention. Soon, everyone was looking out onto the plaza. A wild bull had broken free and a number of vaqueros were attempting to kill it off. The bull kicked a cart, obliterating it to pieces. Eyes widened. The animal was encouraged by the emotion. The vaqueros lanced the bull with their lariats. Tomás was captivated.

“Does this happen often?” Tomás leaned out the window next to Jacinto.

“It’s never the same show twice in this place. Last week they hung a man. The week before, a sick horse went mad and pulverized its master before anyone could save him. People just stared until there was no way of recognizing who the horse’s owner was. You wouldn’t have been able to eat your lunch then.”

The men lassoed the bull by the horns and feet, tripping it to the ground. People cheered and Tomás did as well. They dragged off the injured bull to be slaughtered. He wondered if life was like this in Manila.

“They’ll charge extra to feast on that bull.” This was too tempting for Tomás. He decided to explore San Francisco awhile and just hope to run into Miguel and Ronaldo on the way. Hope was his best ally.

Jacinto didn’t require anything in return for the meal except to heed some words of advice.

“Things are different here Tomás. You know how things work where you’re from, well things are a little extreme here, and people die very easily.” He leaned in a bit, “These Yankees, some are fair to a fault, but others will kill you if you have something they want, be it a claim, your gold, your pride, or your life.”

Tomás believed him. He knew how things worked, how his father tried to resist, and what happened to his own mother. Tomás didn’t say anything about being robbed. Jacinto told him to forget about any injustices he endures.

“The white Americans were always proven right in the courts of law in California.” Tomás listened as he watched men gamble. The tables were full of men from around the globe and gold was everywhere.

“So all the white men are called Yankees here?”

“The white Americans are Yankees. And they’re rude – they travel on holidays and wear their hats in church. At least, at least the Yankees stopped the Hounds. Those men were the worst, setting out to destroy my people entirely. Last year the Hounds, after parading around to the beat of fife and drum, they ravaged us horribly, assaulting our women, burning our homes and killing our neighbors. The Americans formed a committee because even they were outraged, and they raised money for us to rebuild. Nice people, one of the few good memories I have of this place.”

Tomás wondered why he stayed if he was so unhappy, but he didn’t want to pry. He figured Jacinto, though generous, wasn’t so smart. Of course the courts aren’t equal. How could they be when there’s only one court. The courts are the Yankee’s law and that doesn’t concern him. If anything, government creates rights, and that wasn’t bad at all. Back in Chile it may have made a difference to Jacinto; maybe that’s why he was so disgruntled in California. Tomás knew better. He didn’t need the court system any more than a civet cat needed gills to run and splash along the water’s shore.

“You can find lodging easily for the night in Little Chile.”

“Thank you, sir.” Little Chile was located on top of the hill just northeast of the plaza, on Broad Way. Tomás thanked him again and decided to be on his way and explore the city.

Walking along the plaza he saw gambling hall after gambling hall. He had never gambled himself, but had seen others on the ship making bets, dealing cards, and rolling dice. The games he saw here were different in the details, but the gist of it was the same. He was amazed at the antes put up with each game, an ounce of gold, four ounces of gold, six ounces. That could have bought him forty meals. He continued exploring other dining halls and saloons, then west to the customs house. Further north in Little Chile he saw a Catholic church. He entered, but did not see Miguel or Ronaldo.

The church was small and simple. The light dusted through the windows onto makeshift pews. A crucifix hung above a wooden altar. The church had no apse, transept, or even a tabernacle, meaning it was a box with no designated place for Christ. If it weren’t for the animated cross, it could have been a Protestant church, not that he had ever seen one. He stopped to pray. It was the closest thing to home. He thanked Christ for His sacrifice and favors. It made his problems seems small.

.

.

.

Tomás continued past some bagnios and more gambling halls, south to Sacramento Street where he saw the Chinese part of town and a Presbyterian Church, then back up to the plaza.

The city was growing like a happy youth, energetic but ill proportioned. Almost no grading of the streets had occurred and the population expanded by the hundreds each day. Improvised homes sat on earthy crests adjacent to other plots twenty feet below. The hills looked like an angry giant had stomped up plots of earth. Despite his meandering, he couldn’t find anyone from his ship, and he didn’t have any money to get to the gold fields on his own.

Turning a corner he stumbled upon a scuffle and saw a Mexican man hurled from the entrance of a dining hall.

“Get out of here or I’ll kill you!” an Irish man shouted. The Mexican got up and ran past Tomás.

Frankie Sheehan eyed Tomás. “You, you want to make some money?” Tomás didn’t understand him. Frankie repeated in broken Spanish. He needed someone to serve and sweep in his dining hall.

“Sí señor”, Tomás replied. He never said no to a white man. Frankie gestured for Tomás to follow and showed him what he wanted done. He was feeling lucky already. He could earn enough to get across the bay and over to Mariposa. Perhaps Miguel and Ronaldo had gone ahead after their scuffle the night before. He would find them, he was certain.

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About Daniel Roddick

Daniel has a B.A. in American History with minors in both Ethnic Studies and Sociology. He also has an M.Ed. in College Administration and Counseling. Daniel has worked in the financial aid industry for over a decade. He has presented all over the country on financial aid issues related to equity, inclusion, and access to education. He is also a writer of poetry, fiction, and this blog, all of which touch on identity.
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