Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTES & ESSAYS - Chuck D. Smith es­say­ist and colum­nist


Un­til, one day, I was not. But, by then, it was too late to take it back.

You see, I’m adopted. It’s not hard to tell that I am. One look at my adop­tive fam­ily and you will see I don’t look like them. They have brown skin, I am white; their eyes are brown, mine is prob­a­bly hazel or green; their hair is black, I have black hair, too, but with a few strands of red. And per­haps the most telling: my last name is Smith; theirs is not. So maybe I should have eas­ily fig­ured out that these peo­ple—my fam­ily—are not ac­tu­ally my bi­o­log­i­cal fam­ily. But no. I was seven or eight years old when I found out.

A neigh­bor’s maid asked me if I was the son of the dead ’80s bold star.

“Sino ’yun?” I asked upon hear­ing the dead bold star’s name. The ques­tion evoked a feel­ing I would ex­pe­ri­ence sev­eral times more as an adult—that other peo­ple know more about me than I do.

Then I re­mem­bered all the rea­sons my par­ents gave me and other peo­ple about why I do not have their sur­name: My old­est brother and his Amer­i­can wife wanted to adopt me and be­ing a Smith would make the process eas­ier. I am my mother’s il­le­git­i­mate son with a Puti. I am my fa­ther’s il­le­git­i­mate son with his kabit na ’Kana.

So, one morn­ing, I asked my mother. “Am­pon ba ako?”

“Oo, anak,” she an­swered. There was no hes­i­ta­tion in her voice, as if she was an­tic­i­pat­ing this ques­tion all my life.

I asked if I was the son of the dead ’80s bold star.

“Chuck,” she said, paus­ing this time, “Anak ka ng Diyos.”

Her re­sponse, I learned years later, was an as­sur­ance, a guar­an­tee that I, with my white skin and Amer­i­can sur­name be­longed to their Filipinoas-a-jeep­ney fam­ily. That I was meant to be here. That this is my fate. Of course, it also meant that, yes, I am the son of a dead ’80s bold star. We al­most never talked about this “is­sue” at home. My mother— my adop­tive mother, the one who raised me—would turn melo­dra­matic ev­ery time I asked about my parent­age.

“Bakit mo tinanong, ayaw mo na ba sa amin?” she said when I asked who my bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther was. The one listed as my mother on my birth cer­tifi­cate is Delia Smith, the dead bold star’s real name. But my fa­ther? Blank. My mother claimed she did not know; no one told them and no one knew. And be­cause she had no an­swer to of­fer, she chose not to talk about it.

You can­not blame me for want­ing to know.

At the very least, I wanted to know what an­swer to give ev­ery time some­one asked for the iden­tity of my fa­ther. As a kid grow­ing up in down­town Manila, I wanted to have a de­fense against class­mates who teased me that my fa­ther left the Philippines when the US bases left the coun­try dur­ing the early ’90s in a he­li­copter. Cau­casian-look­ing kids in the Philippines dur­ing the ’90s were au­to­mat­i­cally as­sumed to be chil­dren of G.I.s.

“Chuck Chuck he­li­copter, Chuck Chuck,” they said in singsong uni­son. I hated my name; it made in­sult­ing me so much eas­ier. I hated that I do not know why I was named this way. My par­ents have four bi­o­log­i­cal chil­dren and their names all start with the let­ter R; even in this small­est of de­tails, I couldn’t be like my sib­lings. Also, the he­li­copter joke? I had no idea where that came from. And even I knew it was not true. My old­est brother was part of the U.S. Army; he did not ride a he­li­copter when he left the Philippines to serve in the Gulf War. But jokes do not need to be fac­tual in or­der to hurt you. It surely did not hurt less when my class­mates started singing “Leav­ing on a Jet Plane” by John Den­ver to me.

I did not tell my par­ents about the teas­ing. They would only worry about me. But also, they would worry that they wouldn’t be able to do any­thing about it.

Here’s what I have learned to ac­cept about be­ing the son of a dead ’80s bold star: your past is a myth, and the build­ing blocks of your ori­gin are urban leg­ends.

What I knew for ma­jor­ity of my life is mostly what you know: maybe men­tioned to you by your par­ents while you were watch­ing that TV show; or what your brother told you while you were lis­ten­ing to that song by the Eraser­heads; or—and this is a re­cent phe­nom­e­non— what you read on Twit­ter or Red­dit ev­ery time that se­na­tor would say some­thing stupid. What I know—what you may al­ready know—is that Pepsi was 16 years old (14, ac­cord­ing to some re­ports) when she en­tered show busi­ness and be­came part of a trio of star­lets called the Soft­drink Beau­ties. She made a few movies—but her most pop­u­lar was the one that came af­ter she ac­cused two TV show hosts and a co­me­dian of drug­ging and rap­ing her. She later dropped the rape com­plaint.

She killed her­self at her apart­ment in Que­zon City three years later. She was 18. I was three months old.

Ac­cord­ing to my mother, the dead ’80s bold star left me to her care a few days (a few hours, in other ver­sions of the story) be­fore she died, mak­ing her prom­ise to take care of me. They met be­cause of Rey dela Cruz, Delia’s man­ager. She was a small-time project con­trac­tor in Manila; he was a barangay chair­man in Quiapo and dis­cov­ered ac­tresses such as Rio Loc­sin, Olivia O’Hara, Mi­tos del Mundo, and Su­san Hen­son.

Rey was murdered years af­ter Delia took her life, a case that re­mains un­solved to this day.

Here’s an­other thing I learned to ac­cept about be­ing the son of a dead ’80s bold star: it can con­sume your life, be­cause ev­ery­body knows about a part of your life you do not know a lot about.

Grow­ing up, I had no idea how peo­ple found out I was Delia’s son. Later on, I re­al­ized that she was sort of fa­mous; years later, I found out that ‘fa­mous’ and ‘in­fa­mous’ mean two en­tirely dif­fer­ent things. It was prob­a­bly the fact that I look noth­ing like my par­ents; maybe a white boy play­ing on Dap­i­tan Street is one of the weird­est things you would see in Sam­paloc, Manila, dur­ing the early ’90s. But, mostly, it was the fact that peo­ple love tsis­mis. And I am gos­sip fod­der. The neigh­bor’s maid? It was my aunt who told her, and then pro­ceeded to tell my story to any­one will­ing to lis­ten. The teach­ers in el­e­men­tary school? It was prob­a­bly one of my brothers—the ones who took care of my sis­ter and I when my par­ents de­cided to go to the United States to work in or­der to sup­port their sud­den, ill-ad­vised adopted son—who told them. No one told us to keep it a se­cret any­way, and there was no harm in shar­ing a bit of fam­ily trivia.

Then there were those who just had to fig­ure it out on their own. One of my teach­ers, for in­stance, was so cu­ri­ous why my sis­ters looked so Filipino and I looked like the kid on the logo of a can of con­densed milk, that she looked at my birth cer­tifi­cate from my school file and some­how pieced it all to­gether.

Manila—and the world, even­tu­ally—is small, af­ter all. There is noth­ing you will not find out if you try hard enough.

I learned that it was eas­ier to vol­un­teer the in­for­ma­tion my­self to any­one who asked. There was no point in re­sist­ing.

When you are the son of a dead ’80s bold star, peo­ple will mostly feel two things to­wards you: curiosity and pity.

“Kawawa ka na­man,” a class­mate said when a teacher ap­proached me in the mid­dle of the class while we were tak­ing a quiz to ask me why I was a Smith. “Gusto mo am­punin ka namin?” He said this sin­cerely, with­out a hint of irony.

That’s the thing: Peo­ple will feel sorry for you even when they do not know why the feel sorry for you. And most of the time, they have no rea­son to feel sorry for you. Or, some­times, they feel sorry for you for the wrong rea­sons.

Ad­mit­tedly, telling peo­ple of my parent­age had its perks. In high school, I talked to my History teacher af­ter class be­cause I was fail­ing his sub­ject. I said I was de­pressed be­cause my par­ents did not love me— at this point, they had been in the United States for al­most a decade, sup­port­ing the 16-year-old adopted son they should not be rais­ing at their age of 65. I said: I feel bad be­cause I am adopted, I feel bad be­cause I am the son of a dead ’80s bold star, I feel bad be­cause I do not know who my fa­ther is.

I asked if I was the son of the dead ’80s bold star. “Chuck,” she said, paus­ing this time. “Anak ka ng Diyos.”

“Alam mo, ma­hal na ma­hal ka ng mga mag­u­lang mo,” my History teacher said while cry­ing. I was cry­ing too—maybe the first time I cried about be­ing adopted, about be­ing the son of Delia Smith, about be­ing an ob­scure foot­note in pop cul­ture. I was cry­ing and I did not know why, even though I knew noth­ing I told my teacher was true. I was not de­pressed! I was not sad! I didn’t care if my par­ents didn’t love me! I had no idea who my fa­ther was, but so what?

It did not mat­ter. I got pass­ing grades in History class that year. “They’re not telling you ev­ery­thing you need to know,” said an­other teacher, one who re­quested to talk to me pri­vately in­side his room dur­ing our high school re­treat be­cause he felt I “had prob­lems.” I did not cry this time; I knew what this was about. I told him what he wanted to hear—the adop­tion, the adop­tive par­ents, the dead bold star. In­side, I was fum­ing. How dare this per­son tell me I know noth­ing! How dare this per­son tell me I have prob­lems! Sure, I wrote an es­say about burn­ing the school down and clob­ber­ing my class­mates for an en­trepreneur­ship class as­sign­ment that asked us to enu­mer­ate what we can do with a log. But what’s the big deal? I did not have prob­lems; I was be­ing cre­ative! No one was sur­prised when I ended up want­ing to be­come a writer. No one ob­jected when I ended up be­com­ing a movie re­porter.

I did a bit of re­search about Delia. She had three sib­lings; she was most likely forced by her mother to be­come the bread­win­ner of her fam­ily. Her fa­ther was Amer­i­can—hence her maiden name—who left their fam­ily. She had a step­fa­ther who did not go to her wake when she died.

She al­legedly left a di­ary that de­tailed the pos­si­ble rea­sons for her sui­cide: money prob­lems, ar­gu­ments with her boyfriend, the trou­bled re­la­tion­ship with her mother. Some re­ports claimed no in­ves­ti­ga­tion was done to ver­ify that the di­ary was in­deed hers.

I re­al­ized I was not legally adopted, which ex­plains the sur­name. They’re my fam­ily, yes, but my par­ents said they could not make it of­fi­cial. My mother said it was be­cause my ma­ter­nal grand­mother wanted to have cus­tody of me, wanted to do “bad things” to me. Adop­tion meant ask­ing for her con­sent as my next of kin, some­thing she would not give.

There were tabloid re­ports that claimed I was not the dead ’80s bold star’s son. Ac­cord­ing to the re­ports, I was ei­ther the son of Delia’s best friend or the son of her younger brother. “Tanga ka ba?” my mother said in re­sponse to this. “Artista s’ya, di ba? S’yem­pre tinago

n’ya na may anak siya.” It was eas­ier to be­lieve what I had known since I was seven or eight years old.

And any­way, I was busy be­com­ing an en­ter­tain­ment jour­nal­ist. An ed­i­tor asked me dur­ing a job in­ter­view: “Why show­biz?” It was a good ques­tion I had no an­swer for. If you as­pire to be a se­ri­ous jour­nal­ist, you will want to cover pol­i­tics, cur­rent events. If you want to write about less se­ri­ous top­ics but still ex­ude an aura of im­por­tance, you will want to write for a mag­a­zine or a pub­li­ca­tion’s life­style sec­tion. Not show­biz.

“Mahilig sa show­biz ang pam­ilya ko,” I said, out of panic. It was not en­tirely a lie. “Ni­nong ko si Rey dela Cruz!”

Rey dela Cruz was my dead mother’s man­ager, the one who was murdered. I got the job.

The very first press con­fer­ence I at­tended was for Andi Ei­gen­mann. Months prior to the press con­fer­ence, I read a re­port from an ’80s tabloid about Andi’s mother Ja­clyn Jose talk­ing about Pepsi Paloma’s death.

“Sino kaya sa atin ang susunod,” Ja­clyn was quoted as to telling an­other ’80s bold star. “’Ta mo, nawala na sina Clau­dia at si Stella. Ngayon na­man, siya. Tayo, mga bold star din tayo, ’di ba? Hindi ka ba natatakot? Parang isa-isa na tay­ong kinukuha.”

Was there a ver­sion of this world where my mother didn’t die—maybe some­one else was taken away—and I am the sub­ject of this press con­fer­ence in­stead? Andi and I, we’re not too dif­fer­ent from each other; ex­cept her mother chose to live.

I am older; I knew bet­ter. I knew what not to tell peo­ple. But they still found out, and I no longer had an idea why and how.

“May itatanong ako sa iyo ha, pero h’wag mong sasabi­hin kahit kanino na tinanong

ko,” a show­biz pub­li­cist asked me af­ter a press con­fer­ence he or­ga­nized. “To­too ba’ng anak ka ni ano...”

“’Yun ang sabi sa akin ng mga mag­u­lang ko,” I replied. And it’s true. That’s what my par­ents told me. It was a safe an­swer: it com­mit­ted to noth­ing and it ad­mit­ted noth­ing.

But what it re­ally said was: I don’t know any­more.

“It’s good nga na you don’t say any­thing about it na. It might open up old wounds,” said a pop­u­lar news­pa­per ed­i­tor I wrote for af­ter ask­ing me the ques­tion over the phone one weekend.

The ques­tions were harm­less. I courted the idea that maybe my work in show busi­ness was serendipitous. Maybe I am meant to be here. Maybe I be­long here. De­spite the in­dus­try’s old wounds, I am here. De­spite be­ing the son of some­one so in­fa­mous that peo­ple talk about her in hushed tones, no one had tried to drive me out of the in­dus­try.

I like writ­ing about celebri­ties. I har­bored the fan­tasy of writ­ing about my­self, or maybe turn­ing real life into fic­tion or po­etry, as some jour­nal­ists al­ways threat­ened to do. But there’s noth­ing to say. So this was the best al­ter­na­tive: I am help­ing celebri­ties dic­tate to peo­ple the pre­ferred nar­ra­tive of their lives.

I was one of the first re­porters to write about Bela Padilla on a main­stream plat­form, af­ter her much-re­ported tiff with Mar­ian Rivera. You know, about that time Mar­ian al­legedly con­fronted Bela in­side a bath­room? Her home net­work even made a press re­lease about this, as if Bela be­ing in­ter­viewed by me was an achievement—pos­si­bly be­cause her tal­ent man­age­ment thought I was a for­eign re­porter writ­ing for a for­eign pub­li­ca­tion, be­cause of my name.

“Ang ganda ng fea­ture mo sa akin! Sala­mat, ha,” Cris­tine Reyes said af­ter I did a video in­ter­view with her for our web­site. My ed­i­tor said the in­ter­view made her look jolly and happy—and if you have met Cris­tine Reyes, you know she is, at least was at the time, never jolly and happy. That was a few months af­ter she slammed Sarah Geron­imo on Twit­ter for al­legedly flirt­ing with her boyfriend, Rayver Cruz. “It looked like she was hav­ing fun talk­ing to you,” my ed­i­tor said. “Maybe be­cause you were hav­ing fun, too?”

“Ikaw ba si God?” Gretchen Bar­retto told me and other re­porters in an am­bush in­ter­view dur­ing the award­ing cer­e­mony of the film fes­ti­val her part­ner Tony Boy used to spon­sor. We were ask­ing Gretchen about her feud with her mother, In­day and sis­ter, Clau­dine. She was not pleased—es­pe­cially when a TV re­porter asked her, “Ano na lang ang prayer mo, sa la­hat ng mga tao…”

“You’re not God. I will not pray to you. I will not share. I mean, stop it,” Gretchen an­swered. “Bakit, what for? Para masaya kayo at ba­hala na ako?

Hindi ga­nun yun, e. Pati prayers ko, pinakikiala­man ninyo? Bakit, ‘di ba?”

“Don’t you ever get tired of do­ing this over and over again?” asked Ben­jamin Alves dur­ing a prod­uct launch. By this, he meant go­ing to events and press con­fer­ences, talk­ing to—some­times down­right chas­ing—celebri­ties to ask our oc­ca­sion­ally rote ques­tions. How did you pre­pare for your new project? Do you feel pres­sure about your new movie? Nag­ing isyu ba ang billing? Are you in a re­la­tion­ship? Ku­musta na

ang love life? Break na ba kayo? He asked this while my col­leagues and I were try­ing to score an in­ter­view with Nikki Gil; ru­mor had it she just got en­gaged to her non-show­biz boyfriend.

“Of course not,” I replied. There is no job in the world where we’ll be paid to ask celebri­ties in­tru­sive ques­tions and write about their per­sonal lives ex­cept this. He smiled, con­ceded that I am right, then walked away.

We did not get to in­ter­view Nikki Gil that night; she de­clined all our at­tempts to talk to her. At the end of the event, she agreed to have us take a photo of her—our sly tac­tic to at least have proof of her wear­ing an en­gage­ment ring. She cov­ered her hand with her cue cards when we took her photo.

The very next day, she ad­mit­ted in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view that she got en­gaged to her non-show­biz boyfriend.

I got tired. A few months later, I fell into de­pres­sion.

Here’s what I have learned about be­ing the son of a dead ’80s bold star: ev­ery time your fam­ily feels you are sad or tired or de­pressed, they as­sume it is be­cause you are the son of a dead ’80s bold star. Even though it is not—al­though at some point you won’t be able to know where all these feel­ings are com­ing from.

So, one morn­ing, they de­cided to tell me that I was not the son of a dead ’80s bold star.

“Chuck,” my brother be­gan. My mother was al­ready old; she re­mem­bered lit­tle, prob­a­bly no longer ca­pa­ble of telling me any­thing. “Hindi mo ta­laga nanay si Delia.”

I am the son of the dead ’80s bold star’s fe­male best friend and her younger brother, he ex­plained. Pepsi de­cided to adopt me—by claim­ing on my birth cer­tifi­cate that she was my birth mother; a sim­u­lated birth—be­cause my bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents were too young to raise a child. Pepsi was 18 years old.

My brother said they de­cided not to tell me the truth be­cause the truth was too com­pli­cated for some­one who was seven or eight years old.

“And you think grow­ing up be­liev­ing that my mother was a dead ’80s bold star is not com­pli­cated?” I said.

“We’re sorry,” he said. “We only did what we thought was best for you.” But by then, it was too late to take it back.

I talked to my bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther for the very first time a few months af­ter I turned 30. My sis­ter found Pepsi’s sis­ter on Face­book, who in turn told her brother—my fa­ther—that my fam­ily was look­ing for him.

He called me one morn­ing. I was at the of­fice, look­ing at the blank word pro­ces­sor, maybe with a hand on my chin, slack-jawed, like a writer in a hack­neyed movie about writ­ing. My phone rang; I was told be­fore­hand to ex­pect this phone call that day, al­though I did not ex­pect it to ac­tu­ally hap­pen. Maybe I did not even want it to hap­pen. What was there to say to the per­son you have wanted to meet all your life? What was there to say to the per­son you willed your­self to be­lieve not to ex­ist?

I stepped out of the news­room. I an­swered the call.

“Hello. Ku­musta ka na?” he said, the very first words he said to me. He waited for a re­sponse, as if there was a proper way to an­swer his ques­tion. “Okay na­man,” I said. It was not en­tirely a lie.

“Alam mo, noong isang araw lang, ini­isip ka namin—” He pauses. “Nasaan na kaya ’yung anak ko.” The con­ver­sa­tion lasted about ten to fif­teen min­utes, al­though he did most of the talk­ing while I re­mained quiet, barely lis­ten­ing. He told me how he left the Philippines dur­ing the ’90s, how he went to Saudi Ara­bia, then to Aus­tralia, for work. He’s do­ing well now, he said, al­though there was some­thing about him punch­ing some­one who in­sulted him in­side a com­fort room in Syd­ney just days af­ter he ar­rived. There was some­thing about his wife, about hav­ing other chil­dren, about me hav­ing a brother some­where, about how happy he was that I’m still us­ing his last name. There was some­thing about not know­ing where my bi­o­log­i­cal mother—Delia’s best friend—was.

“Tinig­nan ko pik­tyur mo sa Face­book,” he said “Medyo lumalaki ka, ha.

Kaila­gan mag-ex­er­cise ka.” I laughed. “Oo nga po, e.”

“Alam mo ba, ip­inan­galan kita kay Chuck Nor­ris,” he con­tin­ued, ex­plain­ing I was named af­ter his fa­vorite movie ac­tor.

There were ques­tions I wanted to ask but could not. I re­mained silent. He said good­bye and promised to keep in touch.

I re­turned to the news­room, to my desk. I had work to do. I had celebri­ties to write about; sto­ries, nar­ra­tives to tell. Bea Alonzo de­nies she is preg­nant, Ger­ald An­der­son de­nies break­ing up with Maja Sal­vador, Ina Ray­mundo lashes back at bashers who said she has dark un­der­arms. But not now. I stared at my lap­top, like a cliché.

I turned my lap­top off. I grabbed my things and stepped out of the news­room.

I spent most the day do­ing any­thing but work. I sipped cof­fee at a café while look­ing at peo­ple scurry to their of­fices, to their homes, to their lives. I went to the cinema; I watched Cin­derella.

“Who are you?” Prince Kit asks Cin­derella af­ter his long search for the owner of the glass slip­per.

“I have no car­riage, no par­ents, and no dowry. I do not even know if that beau­ti­ful slip­per will fit. But if it does, will you take me as I am?” she replies.

I re­ceived a text mes­sage: my ed­i­tor was look­ing for me, where have I been, why was I not at the of­fice? The movie ended. I walked out of the the­ater. I re­turned to the of­fice, con­tin­ued work­ing.

I did not know what life would be like af­ter that first con­ver­sa­tion with my bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. But here’s what I learned: life in­vari­ably goes on. Ger­ald An­der­son broke up with Maja Sal­vador. Bea Alonzo was not preg­nant af­ter all. Nikki Gil shunned the lime­light af­ter ty­ing the knot with her non-show­biz boyfriend. Gretchen Bar­retto stopped be­rat­ing the press, but only be­cause she made her­self scarce at me­dia events; she oc­ca­sion­ally hit back against bashers on her In­sta­gram ac­count in­stead. Peo­ple stopped car­ing about Ina Ray­mundo’s al­legedly dark un­der­arms. My bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther kept his prom­ise. He would oc­ca­sion­ally call me, greet me dur­ing birth­days and Christ­mases. He al­ways ended his text mes­sages with: “Lagi kang mag-iin­gat at huwag pa­pabayaan ang sar­ili.”

“Mag-iin­gat po kayo d’yan. God bless,” I would re­ply.

And any­way, there were other celebrity in­ter­views to look for­ward to. I in­ter­viewed Pia Wurtzbach days af­ter I first talked to my bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. This was a few weeks af­ter she won the Binib­in­ing Pilip­inas pageant; she was set to com­pete in the Miss Uni­verse pageant. Pia was be­ing bashed on­line; some thought she was not “the right can­di­date” for the ti­tle.

“I see it as mo­ti­va­tion to prove them wrong,” she said. “Basta sa

akin, gi­na­gawa ko la­hat ng makakaya ko for now. Basta alam ko hindi ako nagkuku­lang. Kaya gan­ito pa lang kaaga, nagha­handa na ako.”

We ended the in­ter­view. I wished her good luck.

It’s go­ing to be a good year, Pia said.

I had a feel­ing she was right.

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