Friday, February 12, 2010

Lito Aquino Part II: American Life and Philippine Memories

Lito Aquino, first-cousin of Pilipino politician and activist Ninoy Aquino, is kind in opening up his home to me on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon in September. Him, his wife Coy, and preteen son, treat myself and their other guests (his adult daughter and son-in-law) to a large spread of of homemade Pilipino cuisine before we head into the living room to conduct our interview around a coffee table.

Left to right: Coy Aquino (wife), Andrew Aquino (son), Elizabeth Myers (daughter from previous marriage), and Lito Aquino

After speaking for nearly a half-an-hour, Coy surprises us with the traditional Pilipino desert, Halo-halo. Lito explains that Halo-halo means "mix" and that the dessert is a mix of shaved ice, ice cream, banana, jack fruit, and beans. The lavender taro ice cream is smooth and rich on my tongue, and the bits of bean and fruit make for lovely chewable surprises between crunching ice shavings. Everyone takes a break to scoop out mouth fulls. I wonder how Lito has been able to mix his Pilipino self with his American self. I wonder if this glass of swirling flavors is not unlike his journey to life in America. Or do the tastes of taro and jack fruit simply remind him of life in his home country? This is what mixes in my mind as we continue.

Immigration Project: Do you ever think about going back?

Lito Aquino: I would have to say I am too Americanized. I’ve told everybody—including Coy—her mom (gesturing to his daughter) was a great influence on me. We were married for ten years, we never quarreled. We talked civilly, and well, that is Pilipino culture too. But American culture is good because here, if you work hard, you do your job, you do good to people, you mind your own business, usually they don’t mind you. In the Philippines, when you are doing good all the necks are up—they are like this (he raises his hand to his chin and stretches his neck up and shifts his eyes like someone peering over a fence)—to find out what you are doing. They try to tell people about you. The good things about you, the bad things about you, and if they envy you, they mostly tell the bad things about you. And if they want favors from you, you really don’t know who they are. They may seem like your friends, like they would give their life for you, but you turn your back and there is a snake biting you. That’s what I didn’t like.

If I went home and they knew I was the first cousin of Ninoy, people would start asking me for favors, and maybe one day I would say yes, and then people will be coming to me expecting me to help them because I am an Aquino. I don’t want to be in that position, and that is one of the things that I learned from my family. We don’t give favors, especially to family. We were taught to help people in a [privileged] position is not right because you are taking advantage of your powers. That’s why the Philippines are always corrupt because of [favors], the old system. But in our family, and in Ninoy’s family— The Aquinos are never like that.

IP: What were some fond memories of life in the Philippines?

LA: The memories that really speak to me were how we were raised. On Saturdays and Sundays, instead of living the life a rich boy, [my father] would bring us to the hacienda and let us work the farm. At that time we didn’t have trucks, we had water buffalo that plowed the field. We had to do what the farmers were doing: ride the [water buffalo], plow the field, take out the grass. Just like the farmers. No special treatment because [my father] wanted us to know where the harvest was coming from. And he was always telling us, “Respect the farmers. Respect the farmers because what is coming to you is coming from their sweat. So respect them.” That’s how we were treated.

IP: Knowing you lived a privileged life in Philippines, would you go back to it if you could?

LA: Here it was hard at first. If someone saw me now living in this dump, they won’t believe it. They would never expect that I would live in this kind of dump and do the work that I do for [my wife], and my son.

But I cannot handle [the Philippines] anymore, especially now. People are going hungry left and right. If I go there I would want to help, but I can’t afford to help. I would rather live like this.

And you know what? I am very happy in this kind of life. I never have to think how much I will have tomorrow. How much money will I have to spend on other people? I don’t have those problems. In the Philippines, I think the richer you are the more problems you have because of the culture, and the situation there. And in the present condition, nah, I don’t think so. I think I’ll die here. I’ll die here.

IP: You mentioned that your second wife—your daughter’s mother—helped you become more Americanized? How do you mean? Can you give me an example?

LA: Like being prompt. In the Philippines if someone asks you what time you are coming for dinner, you say, “maybe seven o’clock.” When you say seven o’clock you show up around 9 or ten. That’s Pilipino time. [Coy] hates me for this because I stick to the rule that you are either 15 minutes early or 15 minutes late. So whenever I make an appointment, I’m there. I am never late. That’s Americanized.

(Coy walks into the room from the kitchen and Lito asks if she can pick out a way he is Americanized. Right away she says, “Time. He can never be late. Even for parties, we have to be early.” They joke about a party they arrived for a half-an-hour early and won a trip to Catalina for being prompt.)

IP: What were the hardest things to get used to when you first came to the U.S.?

LA: Finding a job. First of all, I was not a yet a permanent resident, I was a tourist when I came here, and people told me, “you’ll have trouble.” The hardest thing was finding a job when you don’t know how. I found a lot of tricks.

Do you want to know what they are?

IP: Sure, I need a job.

LA: When I came here I had a very high resume. I thought putting my resume for an application would do me good. Later, I found out I was rejected because—you see some high executive at Jack in the Box where I worked told me this—it’s wrong for you to tell the resume you have to the vice president because they will be afraid of you taking their place. They told me, “Say you are high school graduate.” So I said it, and I got a job.

IP: What was your first job when got here?

LA: Assistant manager for Jack in the Box (he shows a wide smile).

Lito in Los Angeles circa 1978

Oh, it was hard. You see, in the Philippines when they say “manager” you are somebody. When I saw the listing for “assistant manager” I said, “Manager, aha!”

So I interviewed and I passed the interview because I said I was a high school graduate. And I got the job as assistant manager, and low and behold, I found out that an assistant manager working with Jack in the Box at that time was just a name. The manager would assign me to the graveyard shift. But when you close they tell you a lot of things you should do because you are assistant manager. And there were always cuts I had to make by the end of the day. I had to meet the [ordered cuts], or I get fired. So I would cut the schedule for the grill person and do the grill at closing time. I cut the schedule for the maintenance person to save time and labor, and I would do the maintenance. I was cleaning everything, even the toilets and garbages, and I would get home at one and your mom (speaking to his daughter) would be so upset with me: “Why do you have to do this thing?” I said, “Because we have to have money. I have to give you something.”


  1. Beautiful story Xochitl! I love the way you describe things in your pieces.

  2. this man is a child molestor