Dear Charlie,

Last week, your Tita Olly sent me a video of you dealing cards for a poker game with the family. For several minutes, things were hushed. Suddenly, at the end of the round, everyone yelled, some in pretend agony, some, like you, in pure joy. They all complimented you on how fast you were learning the tricks and strategies of the game. You looked so alive.

I’ve since watched that video many times and it has convinced me this:  you have the makings of a hustler.

A hustler, according to several dictionaries, is a person who tries to “earn money or gain an advantage from situations they are in by using dishonest or illegal methods” (Collins), or by “fraud or deceit” (Webster) or is “someone who tries to deceive people into giving them money” (Cambridge).

The above definitions, however, are not actually reflective of my experience of the word and therefore not what I have in mind when I think of you as a hustler.

Ginikanan_CharlieHustler

(You learning poker at a family party. With your new BFF, the Iphone (sigh…))

When I was a child, the hustler that I knew was my older brother, your Tito Erwin. With his sharp eye, steady fingers, and a sure aim, no one could beat him at playing Iskul Bukul. (I don’t recall the rules of this game other than that if you lose the round, you have to put your fist on the ground and let everybody have a shot at your knuckles with their marbles.) Your Tito Erwin was hustler kaayo sa jolen, excellent at his game, and owner of hundreds of marbles, mostly winnings, to back his hustler status up.

There were as many hustlers as there were games: spider fights, rubber bands wars, pitik, gira-gira, riskate, patintero, tumba-lata…And all these hustlers were boys. Anywhere, anytime, you would see them, your Tito Erwin and all his friends, gather loudly, gallivant all over town and to their hearts’ desires. They would hammer together their own guns with wood scrap, bottle caps, and rubber bands and then spend entire afternoons going to war against each other, each team strategizing how best to capture an enemy of the other team or rescue a team member.  They would go to the Sawaga River and dare each other to jump from boulder to boulder and swim in the deep parts of the river, the stronger swimmers tasked with rescuing, if necessary. They would stay up late on full moon nights playing patintero, chasing away with their boisterous laughter scary shadows that looked like kapres or tikbalangs ready to pounce on naughty children.

Later, as we grew older, these same boys continued to exist in packs. They became young men who gathered at the corner drinking beer, sharpening their storytelling and debating skills on each other. During school days, when the confines of the school became intolerable, they would escapo and hitch-hike their way to the falls for a refreshing afternoon frolic. At night, with their guitars and full of hope, and despite the threat of being feasted upon by the aswang, they would help each other find the courage to harana their sweethearts and provide each other the necessary back-up vocal harmony.

Throughout their young lives, through misery and joy, these boys had each other’s backs. And it was with the support and camaraderie of their brotherhood that they learned to excel in their individual hustle.

What about me, your mama, you might ask. For the record, I played well, too. Although I wasn’t the fastest runner, I was light on my feet and could dodge and swerve and was therefore hard to catch in the games of riskate and patintero. Because I was small, I could catapult myself pretty easily and could high jump a good distance. I could climb trees with my nimble feet and was not afraid of heights because of my good sense of balance. I could also hold my own in Iskul Bukol and wasn’t always the one whose knuckles were a target. But sadly, I was not deemed to be a hustler.

Cleary, it wasn’t because I was not good. I was. So were many of my girl friends. However, the unspoken rule was that girls just are not meant to be hustlers. It is pretty telling that the word we use to encourage someone to go forth, do their best, achieve and hustle, pakalaki, contains the word laki, which means male/man. To hustle is to be manly. Even in our Bisaya language, women are already excluded from the glory of hustle.

This was how that word manifested in my childhood. Unlike my two kuyas, your Tito Erwin and Tito Eric, I did not run with other girls to roam the streets just for the pleasure of feeling our feet kick up dust on the ground.  I did not gather at the corner of the streets with other girls, drink bottles of beer to loosen my tongue and wax poetic about my latest adventure. I didn’t hitch-hike on a logging truck and feel the wind whip my hair while I stood next to my girl friends, all of us high on the power of being wild and feeling that we belong with each other and the world.

Where was I? I was indoors, reading and writing. Sometimes, in the privacy of a friend’s room, we’d trade stationeries or answer questions on each other’s autographs, questions like “Who is your crush?” and “What is your favorite color?”. I don’t have anything against all these. I am a voracious reader and writer because of the times I spent inside my own brain, learning English grammar, conjunctions and participles. But I will be the first to admit that I missed out. As a result, I did not learn how to enjoy the company of others in a big group setting, especially the company of other women. I did not learn to ask for their support, to offer them support. I did not learn how to practice my hustle within the bonds of sisterhood.

But here lies the irony. If I really think about who it was that was hustling really hard when I was growing up, it was the women. They were the ones who hustled, who created and operated outside of the box, the ones who survived and thrived despite the rules meant to keep them down. They were the dressmakers, the banana cue vendors, and the ones who made the ultimate sacrifice of leaving their loved ones to work at different countries as nurses, domestic workers, teachers. Destinies changed because of the hustle of these women.

The ultimate hustler in my life is my Mom, your Lola.

Ginikanan_Lola_Younger

(Your Lola when she was younger, probably in her late 40s or maybe early 50s here)

I don’t have the space here in this letter to tell you all about her hustle but I will provide a summed up version of her resume that will eclipse any man’s. Your Lola: operated a sari-sari store in front of their home; sold tupperware; made and sold big barrels of nata de coco; raised and sold ducks and pigs; made and sold salted and century eggs; made and sold soriso, spicy and regular; financed operations to smuggle goods from international ships; sold chinese gold jewelry; copied betamax tapes and rented them out in our living room; photographed school events and sold photos; loaned out small amounts of money. Even when she came to the US and worked daily 12 hour shifts as a caregiver, she schemed to start a day care in our house.

Here’s what gets me: Though hustling really hard for their families and communities, the women were hardly supported. My mom was always a one-woman band. She had no hustle partner, no financier, no employee. (I am, of course, willing to accede that maybe there were systems of support that weren’t clear to me as a child. I have read articles on how the Filipino society has matriarchal roots in the pre-colonial times. I’m willing to be convinced but my memory, for now, tells me she hustled on her own.)

Imagine the heights of excellence and power your Lola could have achieved had there been a wellspring of sisterhood support that she could have drawn from!

This brings me to my hopes for you…and me. (Yes, I, too, am a hustler in the making like you. I never thought of myself as a hustler. And yet here I am, in my middle-aged years, hustling a small press and law office. What can I say? I’m a lifelong learner.)

Although I am a little worried about you being initiated into this family fun that could be a gateway to gambling, I also know that you are most alive when you are with family and friends, all having a good time doing whatever it is that gives us all joy. I do not know yet what your hustle will be, Charlie, but I know that your strength is your love for the collective. Forget the very individualistic Webster and Cambridge and Collins Dictionary definitions. Hustling does not have to be about gaining something solely for the self and via fraudulent means or trickery. Redefine hustler-hood, Charlie! Go forth and hustle, powered by the love of our community, for the good of our community.

And I will be right here with you, learning something I did not quite learn in my childhood: building sisterhood in the hustle.