Fabulous Voyager: Greg S. Castilla’s “Learnings”

This is the story of a man, one who was never at a loss. He had travelled far in the world, after the sack of Troy, the virgin fortress; he saw many cities of men, and learnt their minds; he endured many troubles and hardships in the struggle to save his own life and to bring back his men safe to their homes.

--Homer, The Odyssey (translated by W.H.D. Rouse, 1937)

One of the books that have fallen on my lap these lockdown days is Learnings by Greg S. Castilla (“Goyo” to us in high school). To say that it is a reader’s delight and a discovery is an understatement. Learnings is a collection of articles previously published in Seattle, Sydney, and Naga.

Truth to tell, for a fairly long time, I had wished there’d emerge a writer who could articulate the storm and stress experienced by my fellow Bicolanos in a foreign land, the way Bulosan and Bienvenido Santos did in their generation.

Today, I am happy to announce the end of my search: this book I am holding now is that voice I had been waiting for. And it is Goyo who speaks out loud and bold.

First of all, the book’s cover -- a seafarer’s map of the world -- is already a giveaway to the extended metaphor of travel. As soon as I read the contents, I felt like Keats who in his famous sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” experienced the thrill akin to that of discovering a new realm, and in my case, the realm of Goyo.

It stands to reason. The journey motif (forthgoing-initiation-return) has always been archetypal in all literatures from Homer down to Joseph Campbell and the mythos of the Hero’s Journey. This is the universal odyssey entrenched in all classical works from Homer’s Odyssey to Jason’s Search of the Golden Fleece, all the way to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Wizard of Oz, Moby Dick, and a host of other world classics, including in our time Star Wars.

Those who like reflections will find them enough in Goyo’s book, for this is essentially a collection of gentle reflections on real people, real events.

Those who love Bicol culture will find nothing better than the article on the legendary Father James O’Brien and his love of and for Bicol, and whose memory is kept alive not only in the James J. O’Brien, S. J. Library but also in “OBikoliana.” How we loved, how we miss Father OB.

Those who value true friendship will find in “Qualities in a Friend” a list of ten qualities of a true friend.

I pause and reflect as I read Goyo’s statement: he says if he were to choose between honesty and friendship, he’d choose friendship. I resonate with that. I am always uncomfortable with the “brutally frank” stance by others--and myself. Extreme honesty, like exaggerated idealism, does not take human nature into consideration. It leaves no room for human imperfection, weaknesses, and needs. To be brutally frank is to show a lack of the humility necessary for learning. Goyo hit the nail in the head. This book, after all, is about learnings.

Those who respond to stories of filial piety will find in “Final Goodbye” one of the most moving writings I have ever encountered. In that piece, the author had to face the most painful thing he’d ever told his beloved mother on her deathbed: “If you’re tired, let go. We’re okay.” She passed away a week after he had left for the US. Honestly, I could not read it with a dry eye.

Predictably for a major writer like Castilla, there is none of the affectations of fine writing. Castilla uses the easy, reader-friendly style to bring out the best in the people he writes about so well.

From the comparative ease of “Ernie Verdadero--Bikolano Crusader” to the more profound treatment in “Chito Perez: Death is Really No big Deal,” all these are variations of the author’s favorite themes of honor and celebrations, reawakening and discovery, remembering and understanding. Indeed the author wrote one major work in several articles, each of which is connected with the others. Consider:

Ernie Verdadero, “Bicolano Crusader,” and his four-day visit to Seattle-- Ernie, whose grasp of contemporary Bicol history is “close to impeccable.”

“Betrayed by Your Own Dream” chronicles his first taste of American “hospitality” at Seattle airport under the scrutinizing eyes of immigration watchdogs. It is a chronicle of the America that he was awed by, the dream that did not turn out as expected.

Joe Quimpo, who died at 24, who gave up a life of comfort to choose to work for the poor that would cost him his life.

My face lights up as I see the names of Rolando Federis, Ghia Vergel de Dios, Dolly Quintos, Carlos Abesamis, Andy Villanueva and many others grace the pages of the book.

For the author, as for Alexander Pope, the proper study is mankind, or in his study, the Bicolano in the US, a Bicolano that has become in Goyo’s pen Everyman everywhere, every time.

Now, who can ever forget the saintly Father Jack Phelan, S. J., the ideal role model of humility. In our youth, we were awed that Father Jack was stationed in Germany during World War II as a young soldier, but like Ignatius of Loyola, became a priest. Father Jack, how we loved and miss him, Father Jack with a ready smile for every one of us.

In the meantime, “English Only as a Form of Linguicism” is a perceptive look at ideological undercurrents that address the issue of institutionalized racism behind phrases like “cultural assimilation” and “national unity.”

“Being a Catholic” anticipates “Religion and Corruption,” and “My Life During Martial Law” returns to the matter of social awareness in “Two Rebels and a Mass.”

I could go on and on with the selections, but I would like to pause and reflect every now and than, and besides I have to turn in this piece now to the Bicol Mail in the middle of my reading. I can only exclaim like Samuel Beckett’s Jacques Moran of Molloy: “Here is something I can read all my life,and never plumb completely.” That is the beauty of a good book.

Ultimately, these discoveries are episodes of autobiography. And that the obstacles to discovery are also part of the learning. From the battles Goyo had to struggle against the odds in the face of an entrenched American culture to the “twists and turns” of living, this is Goyo the man, the writer, the reputation.

For this Sipocot-born Atenista ex-seminarian whose passion for teaching and writing also happens to be the Dr. Goyo who hold a Doctorate Degree in multicultural education from the University of Washington in Seattle and the author of four other books, including “Carlos Bulosan: Precursor of Multicultural Education.”

Indeed, the author of Learnings is a great admirer of Carlos Bulosan, who in Goyo’s words captured “the Zeitgeist of generations of Filipino migrant workers in the United States.” This description might as well apply to Goyo himself, for Dr. Greg S. Castilla, fabulous voyager of our time, has not only captured our generation’s Zeitgeist but become as well the major voice and spokesperson of our era.