Essays    Reportage    Marginalia    Interviews    Poetry    Fiction    Videos    Everything   
The Difficulties of George Gardaya

Gardaya’s letters offer glimpses into his fruitless search for love and acceptance in America

His Son’s Friendly Enemy is not, by any estimation, a great novel. Written by an obscure Filipino writer named George Gardaya in the early 1930s, it is a tale of star-crossed lovers set in the Philippines at the dawn of American colonial rule. The plot is convoluted, the characters one-dimensional, the allegorical references heavy-handed and predictable. Yet for all of its faults, His Son’s Friendly Enemy has a unique case for inclusion into the Asian American canon: it is one of the first novels written by a Filipino migrant in the United States. 

George Gardaya never achieved much fame as an author. His Son’s Friendly Enemy was never published, nor did it receive an iota of attention from literature scholars or historians. Gardaya’s papers survive in two gray file boxes in the Special Collections Library at Stanford University. The boxes are stuffed with letters, drafts, schoolwork, and poetry from Gardaya’s young adulthood. How they got there remains a mystery. Stanford bought the collection from a Philadelphia-based rare books dealer in 2015, but the trail goes cold from there. Gardaya’s own children learned of their father’s literary career only when they stumbled upon Stanford’s collection guide online.

His Son’s Friendly Enemy provides a unique window into the psyche of the manongs, the single men who constituted the first major wave of Filipino migrants to Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. In some ways, Gardaya might be thought of as atypical of this generation. He lived in New York City and acquired a master’s degree from Columbia University. But despite his air of refinement and dreams of mainstream literary success, Gardaya remained subject to the same forms of racism and exploitation that constricted the lives of other Filipino migrants. He wrote most of his poems and stories while working as a waiter and a laundryman. Gardaya channeled his rage and frustration into His Son’s Friendly Enemy. Equal parts Shakespearean tragedy, pulp melodrama, and colonial revenge fantasy, the novel reveals Gardaya’s bitter disillusionment with the promises of American empire. 

“Difficulties, Difficulties”

Gardaya’s early life coincided with the first decades of American rule in the Philippines. When he was born in 1902, the Americans had violently crushed Filipino armed resistance and began to rule the islands as a colonial possession. As a young man, he became one of the thousands of Filipinos who boarded steamships bound for California, lured by promises of abundant work. He arrived in San Francisco in 1925 and likely spent his first years in America toiling in the hot sun of California’s truck farms. By 1930, he made his way east and enrolled at Cornell University. He stayed in Ithaca for a year before moving to New York City, where he completed his bachelor’s degree at Columbia. He returned to Columbia for his master’s degree in agriculture, submitting a thesis on “Progress in the Treatment of Plant Diseases” in 1937. 

Gardaya’s Ivy League education did not take him as far as he would have hoped. Whether due to the racism of employers or his status as a U.S. national ineligible for citizenship, he was unable to find work as an agronomist. Gardaya scraped by in New York. “I leave the house at seven in the morning for work and get back [at] seven or even later at night. You see, I don’t even have enough time to change or wash up before my classes,” he wrote in a letter to his brother. 

He was not alone: many Filipino students who came to the U.S. found themselves in menial service jobs. “I have seen many of the boys with college degrees from Columbia University. . .picking up dishes and working like horses,” read one disgruntled editorial in New York’s Filipino Student Bulletin

It was during this time, in the early 1930s, that Gardaya produced most of the poems and stories that make up his literary oeuvre. Some of his early stories were written as film treatments, including Tongues of Despair, a cautionary tale about a “gold-digging” woman. Gardaya’s poetry, written both in English and Ilocano, explore conventional romantic and religious themes. In a typical poem, entitled “Struggle,” he commented on the nature of love:

The world of romance and dreams is full of stories

Of success and failures on earth, skies and seas; 

But keep this in mind, 

That love is divine. 

What is remarkable about a poem like “Struggle” is not its trite message, but its purported authorship. To make his work more palatable to American publishers, Gardaya wrote under a pseudonym, “Gregory Francis D’Mayo,” and listed his address as the posh Parkside Hotel in Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. Occasionally, he wrote letters on the hotel’s stationery. Perhaps believing that he would not be taken seriously as a Filipino migrant, Gardaya tried to enter the literary world by posing as a wealthy white New Yorker. 

Gardaya’s letters offer glimpses into his fruitless search for love and acceptance in America, painting an intimate portrait of a lonely and ambitious young man with an intensity bordering on mania. He expressed constant frustration with his personal life, where he experienced a series of stinging romantic rejections. He wrote dozens of desperate, agonized pleas to women who had spurned his advances. “Don’t drive a desperate man too far,” he wrote to a woman named Emily, asking, “will it hurt you to give me a minute or two? Are you entirely heartless?” 

To another, he compared himself to a withering plant, “head downward, with a feeling of dead hope.” In at least one case, a woman rejected him because of his “color,” leading him to lament to a friend that “it is God’s mistake to create so many different races, because it is only for that reason that I’m always denied.”

In the face of rejection from employers, publishers, and love interests, Gardaya found solace and companionship with other men. Gardaya usually lived in shared quarters with other single Filipinos,, including his brother Victor. In 1940, he lived with a Filipino dishwasher named Peter Martinez, who was listed as Gardaya’s “partner” on the census. The census designation “partner” does not necessarily indicate a sexual relationship, but it is an important reminder that early Filipino American communities were tied together through intimate relationships between men. When Gardaya’s roommate Toribio Duldalao went to the hospital, Gardaya paid his medical bills and wrote to Duldalao’s sister to explain that “Tobi and I are so attached to one another that what concerns him affects me.” Some of these relationships may have become queer romances. In 1936, Gardaya received a Christmas card from a friend named “Magdaleno,” offering “very friendly felicitations for the holiday season for the one I love.”

In his poems, Gardaya spoke of a life full of challenges. He wrote draft after draft of a poem called “Difficulties, Difficulties:”

Because the task is difficult don’t quickly let it go

The harder is the thing to do the greater joy they know

Who stick it out and see it through

Who try and fail and try anew

And work it over, bit by bit, until they so accomplish it

Gardaya’s invocation of perseverance in the face of struggle belies his own feelings of bitterness and despair. Writing as “Gregory Francis D’Mayo,” his work was restrained, seeking to imitate the voice of a detached, well-to-do author. In his poetry, he never revealed what he came to understand were the source of his “difficulties”: his status as a working-class Filipino migrant. In this respect, his novel, His Son’s Friendly Enemy, with its unsubtle provocations and clear anticolonial critique, is distinct from the rest of his work. 

Photo courtesy of Raymundo Gardaya

“His Son’s Friendly Enemy”

His Son’s Friendly Enemy begins with Juan de la Cruz, national martyr and patriot of the Philippines, lying on his deathbed. The Spanish-American War has just ended, and Filipinos are on the streets celebrating the defeat of Spain and hailing their American liberators. Before his death, de la Cruz entrusts his young son, Federico, to the care of Amerigo del Pierro, a wealthy foreign capitalist who has aided the Filipinos in their fight against Spain. 

The main characters of His Son’s Friendly Enemy are allegorical figures, placing Gardaya’s work within a longer tradition of Filipino anti-colonial satire. Juan de la Cruz, for example, is a stand-in for the Philippine nation and in this particular novel, a metonym for Jose Rizal, the Filipino author and propagandist whose martyrdom at the hands of Spanish authorities catalyzed the Filipino revolution. Amerigo, the capitalist, is a thinly veiled representation of the United States, whose promises to educate and care for Federico mirror Americans’ depiction of colonialism as a benevolent paternal relationship. 

Enemy may have been inspired by Tagalog nationalist plays such as Hindi Aco Patay and Tanikalang Ginto, which used symbolic allusions to evade censorship from American authorities. Another likely influence is Rizal, whose anti-colonial novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, also combine melodrama with allegorical satire. Just as Rizal uses depictions of lecherous Catholic friars to portray the excesses of Spanish rule, Gardaya uses Amerigo to portray the United States as a greedy, duplicitous colonizer. 

Federico grows up to become the ruler of the Christian Filipinos, with Amerigo serving as a trusted advisor. Unbeknownst to Federico, Amerigo travels to Mindanao and visits Sultan Sakir Ihab, the leader of the Filipino Muslims. Federico is engaged to the Sultan’s daughter, Trinidad, but Amerigo turns the Sultan against Federico and convinces him to betroth Trinidad to Lieutenant Thomas, an American soldier. 

“Our country. . .is in danger under the hands of a military intruder and a foreign capitalist,” declares the Sultan’s son, Kiram. After hearing rumors of unrest, Federico arrives at the Sultan’s palace to make peace and rescue his sweetheart. A series of dramatic confrontations and surreptitious schemes ensues. In the end, Federico wins back Trinidad, defeats Lieutenant Thomas, and prevents war between the Christian and Muslim Filipinos. It is then that he discovers who has been trying to bring him to ruin: his friendly enemy, Amerigo del Pierro. 

Amid the novel’s frenetic plot and ham-fisted dialogue, Gardaya condemns Western colonialism with macabre imagery and visceral language. In the novel’s opening scene, Juan de la Cruz shows Federico his chest, which has been scarred and deformed by “the rods, whips, and cutlasses of my Spanish masters, the tyrants who martyred me and my kinsmen as slaves.” Later, Kiram cautions his father against trusting members of the “Caucasian race,” describing them as “slanderers, liars, and calumniators of Philippine manhood and womanhood.” 

Gardaya ends the novel with a chaotic supernatural flourish. When Amerigo is revealed to be the story’s villain, he flees to a garden outside the Sultan’s palace, where he encounters “a hostile stuttering figure of a skeleton with [a] robe of tattering and gushing flames awaiting him.” It is the ghost of Juan de la Cruz, who accosts Amerigo before shoving him down a well to his death. In a story with no other paranormal elements, the arrival of a flaming ghost in the novel’s final paragraph is an offbeat, but ultimately satisfying, surprise. If the Filipino diaspora is said to be haunted by the ghosts of the Philippine-American War, Gardaya projects a fantasy of the reverse: American capitalism haunted by the vengeful spirit of the Filipino revolution.

“I’m Trying To Piece It All Together”

Gardaya’s writing career seems to have ended by the late 1930s, when he moved to The Bronx and worked as a clothes-washer at St. Francis Hospital. In the 1940s, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a clerk for the Veterans Administration and made maps for the Army. He married Rose Harvey Ballard, a white woman from West Virginia, and they raised three sons together. He died of a heart attack in Washington in 1968. 

Gardaya’s son, Raymundo, was shocked when he first learned of his father’s surviving letters and youthful literary experiments. “The old man never told us anything,” he said. Raymundo remembered his father as an angry man who subjected his sons to harsh physical punishment. But he was also “a mentor, and we had to pick up on what he was doing so that we could survive.” Raymundo lives in a small town in southeastern Australia, where he is a fixture in his local folk music scene. He sees his own life of migration and creative expression as his father’s unconscious legacy. “I’m trying to piece it all together, like you,” he told me.

His Son’s Friendly Enemy will certainly not replace Carlos Bulosan’s autobiographical novel, America is in the Heart (1946) as the defining artistic chronicle of the manong generation. But it does provide insight into the mind of a passionate, if idiosyncratic, Filipino man in an era when few Asian American migrants left written records in their own voice. 

George Gardaya understood his quotidian humiliations to be a product of history, a lasting legacy of the Philippine-American War and the colonial regime it inaugurated. After decades of obscurity, his work should be recognized as one of the important antecedents of modern Filipino American literature.