Tomás had learned some English from the three Americans who boarded the ship in Acapulco. He knew the words for oro, herramientas, río, navio, tienda, cuerda, pan, cerveza, gracias. He’d repeat them to himself at night: gold, pan and shovel, river, ship, tent, rope, bread, beer, thank you. Frankie taught Tomás a few more key words in English and directed him to talk with Zamora the waiter if he had any questions.
“What happened to that other guy?” Tomás asked.
“He was stealing. Frankie didn’t have real proof, but his instincts were correct. Doesn’t make sense anyway, you can make $80 dollars just sweeping gold dust off the floor.”
Tomás almost yelped. “There’s that much gold?”
“It’s probably why Frankie gets so many workers leaving without notice. They come down from La Veta Madre, sweep up some gold, and return to try their luck again. He’s used to it though.”
“La Veta Madre. Why don’t you go up there?”
“I did, but as they say,” switching to English, “it didn’t pan out,” back to Spanish, “and living in the camps can be dangerous, more than San Francisco. This is a better situation for me.”
Zamora then signaled for Tomás to turn around, Frankie was talking to him from the bar.
“Tommy, wipe down the dirty plates, food’s almost ready. Then ring the bell for lunch,” he said, waving his forearm up and down.
Patrons came in, drank, gambled, ate, and drank some more, and Tomás worked around them. Frankie supplied an array of foods including baked trout, curried sausages, potatoes, mutton, and stewed prunes. Tomás wiped the utensils and plates to be used again, threw out the trash in a hole out back, and performed other menial tasks. During dinner, the patrons became livelier – some were celebrating, some were disgruntled. One man just sat staring, drinking coffee, his head swaying in seeming disapproval. Frankie’s was filled with the smell of men, open whiskey bottles, burnt tobacco, and hot meat.
“Hurry up greaser.” Tomás delivered the food, too busy to care what the men called him – not that he knew what greaser meant. He got an occasional tip from others who had found their own supply of gold in the riverbeds.
As he worked Tomás compared the Yankees to the Spanish. It was hard to know what to expect from the white men here. Back home the white men were more predictable. Spanish culture seemed to fit well over the Tagalo, the Ilocano, Cebuano, and the ethnic Negrito. He remembered the old adage “be careful you don’t spit on your own face.” Distant lands had been mapped, and one’s status was already determined. As he understood it, there was little about the world not already defined. He delivered two more beers.
“Hey, hey you. You’re not a Mexican are you?”
Tomás didn’t return eye contact and didn’t know what they were saying, but he waited, smiled.
“What do you think Jasper? Maybe he’s a Kanaka.”
“Dunno John. Well, steward, where are you from, de dónde?” Jasper asked.
Tomás understood and replied, “Las Indias Orientales Españoles.”
“Indians, oriental, Espanole,” John repeated, “Oh, the Spanish East Indies. That archipelago’s detailed in some books I’ve read.” He turned to Jasper, “The Spanish control those ports still. America is eager to capitalize on the Pacific trade.”
He turned back to Tomás. “I guess we’d be seeing more of you if we were to sail west.”
A smile was the best he could offer in reply.
“So you’re a Manila Man,” Jasper said.
“Well yes or no?” John asked.
“Sí,” Tomás said, not wanting to be inhospitable. It was close enough. Tomás had noticed these men earlier, so tall and fair. They looked a little rough around the edges, but Tomás had no reason not to trust them.
“Say it with us now. Manila Man.” John gestured for him to repeat the words, “Manila Man.”
“Manila Man. Tank you,” his accent thick.
“Now he knows what to say and he won’t have to go through this whole rigmarole every time.”
“Good job, John.” As friends approached to say hello, they sent Tomás away so he could tend to other customers.
“He seems pretty docile. I wouldn’t mind having a claim next to him if he paid his tax. There wouldn’t be any trouble with claim jumping I imagine. Less corrupt than others?”
“I never jump to conclusions,” Jasper replied.
“Cheats never prosper, as they say.”
Both John Paddock and Jasper Allen had served with the New York Volunteers in the Mexican War, 2nd Regiment. They stayed in California afterwards, to pan for gold among other things. They could isolate themselves completely from foreigners if they wanted. That reality was more a reflection of demographics than privilege still. Yet the changing demographics generated new concerns. They had been through a lot for being just twenty-three and twenty-four years old.
John was six feet tall and strong from working at the family lumber mill before coming west. He had straight even features and wavy brown hair. He wore his usual wool shirt with a makeshift suspender to hold up dark brown pants. His boots were caked with mud. Wrapped around his neck was a faded handkerchief, scratched from his own scruff. He liked to go for a shave twice a month, or more if an occasion called for it. Jasper looked similar in appearance and build except his eyes were blue and his posture was always more relaxed.
Tomás felt good about earning the respect of the Yankees. Displeasing them could make things difficult and he wasn’t going to ruin what he had with Frankie. “Vengo de la nada,” he reminded himself.
How exciting it sounded, to be a Manila Man. In Tayabas the gobernadorcillo had come from Manila, so refined and tall, like the men here. Funny how in the Philippines the native born whites were called Filipinos and he was accurately called a Tagalo. In California he was the Manila Man, and those who ran the government were called Yankees. There were so many labels and categories that he had become obsessed with them all. The layers of subjugation were so complicated that he didn’t have time to reflect on the oppression it secured.
John continued his conversation with Jasper. They had a strong opinion of everyone who came to California. Just that month they helped to disband a group of squatters from the states. Lt. Governor John McDougal had summoned them for help against the land-hungry squatters. John knew you couldn’t judge a white man on phenotype alone because they were too individualistic. But you could insist they abide by an American hegemony, a common good.
Jasper noticed John deep in thought. It seemed to be his main hobby lately. Lost in thought he watched an ant crawl down the edge of his beer glass. He watched it join other ants on the trail they had made. Their little path was so efficient. Nature was that way, ordered.
“We need roads Jasper.”
“We need roads. And you know the Pacific trade was important to President Polk for the resource potential. Like that hardened sap, gutta percha, comes from those tropical trees by the Spanish East Indies. That sap can be used for cables and pistol grips. Supplies can’t be sent inland without roads heading east.”
“Yup, you’ve mentioned it before. It’ll be good to get railroads too.”
“We have to get Congress to speed things up before trade is monopolized by someone else. We’ve worked hard to secure these borders.”
“We’ll have statehood. It’s inevitable. In the meantime, you can build those roads you’re dreaming of to spur trade, and transport mail.”
“After your stint as a traveling justice of the peace expires.”
“Yes,” He kind of chuckled.
They finishing their beers and departed.
Tomás paused for them when they got up to leave, but they didn’t notice. At the end of the day, around one in the morning, Tomás finished sweeping up the floors. His mother always warned him not to sweep at night for some reason, but that superstition didn’t seem to apply in California. He sifted through the dustpan for the gold dust and gold flakes. Using the scale on the bar, he saw it was about four ounces, which he figured was $60. He rented a cot right upstairs, too tired to go the few blocks to Little Chile. Frankie allowed patrons of any race to sleep in the room upstairs as long as they could pay for it. He was nervous about the idea of sharing a room with outsiders, but money was already opening doors in this place and he chose to embrace it, meritocracy.
There were twenty men in his room, some had bunks attached to the wall, some had cots, most had the floor with a blanket and their own hats for pillows. It cost $6 – Frankie’s boasted no rats.
“Where are you from lad?” One man asked. Tomás didn’t respond at first. The man pointed to himself, “Ireland,” and then pointed inquisitively at Tomás.
“Tomás, Manila Man, en el Pacífico, sir.”
“He’s one of those Luzon Indians”, said another.
“Luzon Indios in los campos de oro?” Tomás asked.
The man paused, “Yup, I think there’s some of yous up there. Er, maybe some other type of Malay boys.”
Another Yankee spoke up. “I spent all my diggings already. Now I gotta go back. I take it you haven’t been yet.” Tomás just smiled.
“Luzon Indios in Mariposa?” He asked.
“No, well dunno, but I heard about some of’em outside Coloma. You got to man your own claim otherwise you’ll be run outta here, right back to Manila.”
“Yeah boy, check out Coloma.”
They seemed a mixed lot, mostly poor men like him. Before settling down he spoke to a few others. He may have misunderstood, but apparently a cart could cost $10 or $50. Also, all the gold was in Centerville and Sutter Creek according to some, others said it was in Oregon. He wasn’t sure how far that was but it sounded promising.
Candles went out, men settled down, and floorboards creaked on rusted nails. He was embarrassed to have a cot when others were on the floor. He didn’t have much trouble getting comfortable on the cot, but within minutes the room started to smell with a blend of hot breath and homelessness. The smell of hair that’s been sweating under hats all day was fermenting with the body odors from every race in the room. The fug penetrated his nostrils. He covered his head with the blanket and dozed off dreaming of fresh breezes back home.
Laying on a large rock near the sea, legs knocking the water like pendulums, Tomás absorbs the ocean breeze. He hears his brother breathing. He knows they are chatting about ships from China, but can’t make out the words at first. He feels there’s an errand he forgot to finish which makes him nervous.
“What did you say?” Tomás asks.
“There’s gold in California.”
“Bing-bing told me too. Pepe, let’s do it. They say you can just pick it up out of the streams.”
“Tibay, don’t be a fool. And if so, how would you get there? You’ve never been to China, you’ve never been to Mindanao, not even Manila. How would you manage getting all the way to California by yourself?”
“What do I have here? Nothing. You have status here, a good job, and more,” They’re quiet; Tomás hears the sound of birds calling.
Maricela approaches. She is wearing a white bodice with flowing sleeves exposing her shoulders, and a long cream skirt with red stripes. The breeze blows her hair and hints of coconut oil waft into the air. She lifts her skirt and tip toes barefoot to Tomás. Her older sister is not there to escort her this time. Felipe is no longer there; they are alone. She looks beautiful, and angry. He tries to feel her hair, but she pushes his arms away.
“You want gold do you? What good would it do you? You’re role is errand boy and your place is to live in a hut with your mother. Your father died on his adventure and all he wanted to do was climb Banahaw Mountain. Success is not part of your destiny.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Maricela, why are you saying this to me? I will bring you the gold I find when I return and we will be rich! Your father will let me marry you. Then you can have anything you want.”
“Ay, your half-brother Pepe can offer more to me with his blood than you ever can. I want Pepe. You’ll probably get killed before you get there.” It begins to rain and a typhoon approaches. He feels something push him into the water. The ocean is hot like tears. She calls out to him that it’s different there, that he doesn’t know what will happen, that his mother is a whore.
“You’re a slave Tomás,” Her voice thunders from the shore and she fades into the blur of consciousness.
Tomás woke up under his blanket, breathing as if he were still in the water. He heard the breathing of the man next to him and at first forgot the dream. He was sweating. She had never spoken to him like that. Did Lela want Pepe? Is that why he couldn’t find her to say goodbye? Tomás had so little to offer. Her father was a landowner. He would have to work hard to win her over. It was possible to overcome this hurdle he hoped, if he did well in California.