Upon first pondering a subject, I often turn to the dictionary to search out all the various definitions of a concept and to swim through etymology—I feel moored by the origins of our naming and the development and history of our meanings. Sometimes, a narrative emerges. Something cryptic. Or, I find something archetypal. Something metaphoric.
The dictionary defines a HERO as a person, typically a man, admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities: a war hero.
In 1996, Muhammed Ali was my hero.
The events of Ali’s life ring like myth. He threw his Olympic gold medal into the river after being refused service in a segregated diner in Kentucky. He bought his mother a pink Cadillac after he signed his first pro contract. At twenty-two, he became the heavyweight champion of the world.
In 1996, I was thirteen and in the 8th grade. I had braces, long hair, and a few friends. I read voraciously and especially loved the stories of survivors, outsiders and underdogs: Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins, Annemarie from Number the Stars, and Claudia from The Babysitters' Club.
Muhammed Ali was my hero.
I was assigned an essay in which I had to research a figure I admired. Even now, I am not exactly sure where this admiration of Ali began. I could maybe trace it back to seeing him at Hudson’s, selling his cologne. I was five and at Westland Mall with my mother. Ali was taking pictures with the long line of folks waiting to meet him. Perhaps, this admiring throng of people stayed in my mind. Who knows? Only, I did choose him. Even as my friends chose Kerri Strug and Alanis Morissette, I chose Ali. As I began my research, I knew little about him, but grew fonder of him as read, as fond as I was of Karana or Claudia.
I loved Ali's language, first. He was courageous, audacious, obnoxious, and unafraid.
He had style.
He antagonized his opponents with unparalleled taunts (in verse!):
“I've done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick."
His insults had distinct flair:
“If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, then they can sure make something out of you.”
And, dammit, he believed in himself. And he would make you believe, too:
“I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
The dictionary defines a HERO, in mythology and folklore, as a person of superhuman qualities and often semidivine origin. In particular, one of those whose exploits and dealings with the gods were the subject of ancient Greek myths and legends.
In 1996, after his night shift—installing injection molding to the interior of sedans for ten hours—my father stopped by the store on his way home to buy my mother flowers for Mother's Day morning.
The legal documentation of that night's incident reads:
The state’s proof revealed that on May 12, 1996, R______ Peñaloza, the victim, was shopping at Kroger grocery store in Franklin when he noticed a man watching him. The man, later identified as the defendant, began following him in the store. Penaloza turned to face the defendant and said, “How are you doing, sir?” Suddenly, without provocation, and much to the surprise of Peñaloza, the defendant kicked him in the groin. Predictably, Penaloza perceived prodigious pain.
When the victim asked defendant why he would do such a thing, defendant reached into his coat and responded that he would kill the victim. Peñaloza, fearing that defendant was reaching for a weapon, went to tell the store clerk to call the police. Defendant replied, “I am the police.” One of the clerks then watched defendant leave the store from a side exit.
The incident was witnessed by another Kroger customer, K_____Vaughn who testified that Peñaloza did nothing to provoke defendant’s actions. He also feared that defendant was grabbing a weapon when defendant reached into his coat.
Police apprehended the defendant in front of the store and were unable to locate any kind of weapon on his person. Defendant denied any involvement in the incident to the police. When asked why Peñaloza would fabricate the incident, defendant referred to the victim using a racial slur.
My mother told me:
“Dad's not coming to church with us this morning. He's not feeling well. Don't give him a hard time about it.”
My father never said anything about it to me.
My father testified as a witness at the trial. He told my mother not to tell me much, if anything, about it. He told her that he should go to the trial alone.
The events of Ali’s life ring like myth.
Born Cassius Clay, he became Cassius X and then Muhammed Ali when he joined the Nation of Islam, a group despised and feared by mainstream white America. He talked about black pride and resistance to white domination. He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, found guilty of refusing induction into the armed forces and stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three and a half years. His major bouts—“Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila”—are still the stuff of sports’ epics.
What does it mean for your father to be assaulted in the Kroger where you and your mother go shopping for your Capri-Suns and the cans of Spam your father cooks you for breakfast on his days off? What does it do to a family to continue to shop there? To know the person bagging your lettuce witnessed what your father holds in silence, what he will not tell you, his daughter?
In 1996, no one had called me a chink or gook to my face in a long time. Years.
That December we went to the Philippines—my first time ever and for my parents the first time in 25 years since they left for the U.S.
Even without the words gook and chink, I'd been told plenty of times to go back to where I came from, even as I retorted or explained that I was born in Dearborn Heights, MI. So, I was excited to go to the Philippines. I would meet family I’d never met before. I would return to where I had come from. I would belong.
Quickly, I learned that belonging was tricky business everywhere.
My cousins were troubled by how much I loved the sun. They'd cry, chasing me with parasols, “Cover yourself! You'll get so dark!”
My Tagalog was spotty, at best. The first time we went to the palengke, one of my titas said, “Now, try to blend in. Be sure you don't talk at all when we're buying things. They'll know you're American. They'll raise the price of everything!”
My parents came to the U.S. in the seventies, immigrants who met, not in their home country of the Philippines, but working at a dental manufacturing company in Detroit. My father worked the line, my mother worked in the lab as a chemist. My father worked in several factories, mostly auto plants—The Big Three: Ford, GM, Chrysler. For many years, he existed in various states of employed and laid off; my mother was the steady breadwinner. When he wasn’t working, my father would cook me breakfast, throw my hair up in crooked pigtails, take me to school. When he got a good job working on the line at Saturn, which was supposed to be a different kind of car company, we moved to Tennessee. My father was a proud UAW member. My father made sure we shopped American and checked labels and tags to ensure things were “Made in the U.S.A.”
The word HERO comes from Latin heros, “man of superhuman strength or courage,” from Greek heroe, “demi-god.”
My parents never talked about the Kroger incident. Even now, my father dead fifteen years, I don’t think my mother and I have ever discussed it. Maybe I asked questions, but if I did I don't remember their answers. There are details in my memory, but I don't know if they are real or if I made them up to fill in the blanks of their silence—
My father was scared that the man who attacked him would know what my mother and I looked like if we went to the trial. That's why he wanted to go alone.
The man who attacked my father was a Vietnam Vet with PTSD. Or else he was crazy. Or else he was the manifestation of the feeling in my gut every time someone asked me where I was really from.
The Kroger employees present during my father's assault didn't call the police right away. None of them testified. Were they in shock? Were they scared for themselves? Or were they indifferent? Or were they in agreement?
We kept shopping at that Kroger for many years. I thought everyone in that store always looked at us funny after that. Did they? Did they do that before?
In 1996, as a 13-year-old Filipino American girl, I found comfort and courage in admiring a man who defied categorization. I found courage in a man who was black and beautiful and boisterous and brazen, who sang his insults in verse, who fought in a ring but wouldn’t fight in a war. I found comfort in a man whose contradictions made him human and fascinating and noble. I found courage in a man who would say, “I am America. I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” A man who would shout I'M THE GREATEST, I'M THE GREATEST, I'M THE GREATEST to the world when it refused to believe him.
Michelle Peñaloza grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Her poetry appears or is forthcoming in The Asian American Literary Review, The New England Review, TriQuarterly, Pleiades, Pinwheel, and INCH. She is the recipient of fellowships and awards from the University of Oregon, Kundiman, Artist Trust, Jack Straw, the Richard Hugo House, and Literary Arts, as well as scholarships from VONA Voices, PAWA (Philippine American Writers and Artists), Vermont Studio Center, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Napa Valley Writers' Conference. Her chapbook, landscape / heartbreak, is forthcoming from Two Sylvias Press on Valentine's Day, 2015.