An American Dream


Kaua’i, Hawaii, 2005
I met Feliciano (Ciano) Ruaboro trimming the hibiscus in the gardens of a condominium complex. I garden in Minnesota and had a myriad of questions about tropical plants. He was excessively polite, smiled so broadly when I asked where he was from, that I could feel forbearance – another privileged tourist satisfying her curiosity. When he told me that coming to the United States from the Philippines was his dream come true, I wondered if, perhaps, it was a story that he had learned naïve haoles like to hear.

Nevertheless, I’m a writer and he had a story. I couldn’t remember when I’d last heard anyone talk about their dreams so unabashedly. Nowadays we scoff at the idea of The American Dream – a trite expression, an idealistic idea, a myth. Immigrants present problems, not possibilities. So Ciano’s “dream” was a story I hungered to hear.

In 1969 there were few jobs available in the Philippines, so twenty-eight- year-old Ciano was working in Borneo when his brother called to ask if he would be interested in moving to Kaua’i.

Ciano says, “I was so full of joy, so full of joy. I couldn’t believe it … to live in America … to be an American … I didn’t   dare hope for the chance.”

His wife, Pilar, was at home in the Philippines, working in the rice fields to provide for their four children and to help her sister’s family.

“I promise Pilar. I will work hard. I will send for you in five years. I promise.”

Ciano found a job in Hanalei as a groundskeeper, then as a maintenance man, painting, repairing, constructing.

In three years he had saved enough money to bring Pilar and their children to Kaua’i. Pilar found work immediately as a hotel housekeeper. For the next twenty years, she cleaned rooms, proudly working herself up to supervising, checking rooms, and in charge of linens. But every time she made an upward move, the management would change or a new boss and/or a mercurial boss would be named, and she would be back to cleaning rooms.

In the 1980s Ciano found a permanent position as groundskeeper/gardener at the condominium development where we met. He has been there for over twenty years now, but that is only part of his working life.

He spread the word, “I need an extra job, yard work, give me a call.” He smiles. “They’d say, ‘Do you have a business card?’ I’d say, ‘No, but I give you my telephone number.’”

He had six yard jobs at the beginning of that venture. The yards had to be serviced twice a month – trees trimmed, lawns mowed, flower gardens cleaned, raked, and sometimes planted. He worked evenings and Saturdays with Pilar’s help.

Ciano still doesn’t have a business card, nor does he mention his business unless pressed for information. But the Ruaboro Garden Service, managed by Pilar and his youngest son, Teddy, now has contracts at fifty estate gardens.

 

A few years ago, Pilar finally felt secure enough to quit working in hotels. Her days are still long and physically tiring, but she enjoys working outside and being her own boss. Ciano works with Pilar and Teddy on Saturdays and evenings. Every day from Monday through Saturday, they mow and trim and plant in other peoples’ gardens. But on Sunday after Mass, they work in their own garden in the mountains of Waipaka.

This is the other part of Ciano’s dream. In 1990, Ciano, his two brothers, and sister, all Filipino immigrants, bought ten acres in the mountains, mauka side of the island, as Hawaiians say. Ciano and Pilar cleared the prickly, thick lantana from their 2½- acre share. They planted palms, banana and citrus trees, and papaya and Hala seedlings along their lot line.

Always “was the dream … when we have enough money, if we are healthy … build a house in the mountains and make a garden.” They spent days, weeks, and years in the yards of the affluent, working, learning, planning, saving.

Their dream was not without setbacks. Ciano had just finished building a shed on the property, and the mango trees were five feet tall when Hurricane Iniki struck in 1992. When the wind died, all that was left of the shed was the concrete foundation; the mango, banana, and citrus trees were destroyed.

They planted again, built another shed, and in 2003 they built their house in the mountains of Waipaka.

 

I pull this story of Ciano’s life, his work, and his dreams from him only with persistent questioning. No one who sees him wielding a machete on the jungle-like growth on the cliffside of the complex, or driving the yard cart around the condominiums, would suspect he has a paradise of his own in the mountains of this Garden Island.

I hang around to talk to him, but he is always looking over his shoulder to see if the condo manager is in the vicinity. He says he shouldn’t take time from his work to “talk story,” so I arrange to visit with him in the shade near the tool shed behind the swimming pool during his lunch time.

It’s a delightful half hour. Ciano’s helpers, two Filipinos young enough to be my sons, are having lunch with him. They offer me tastes of spam musabi and pork adobo, give me all kinds of information about the food they like. “The secret is in the salt,” they tell me, “you have to use a lot of Hawaiian salt to make good adobo.”

By this time, I’m onto a story, but don’t know enough, so I make another lunchtime appointment. But when I arrive, Ciano tells me the manager wants him to shorten his lunch times to get the place ship-shape for an owners’ meeting. After that two-day gathering of owners, some of whom rent their condos and fly in for the event, he will have more time to talk to me.

I suggest he come by and have coffee with my husband and me. A few days later, he does come – to the back door. He takes his working boots off outside and sits down at the table. I’m taken aback by his uneasiness and the formality that seems to descend on us. I happen to glance out the window and note that there is a funny-looking little dog running around outside. Ciano stands up immediately.

“That’s the manager’s dog, I’d better go.”

As Ciano leaves our table he says, “I can tell you better if you come to my house. You must call on Sunday morning after we go to Mass. I will give you directions. You and Monte can see my house and my garden in Waipaka. Meet my wife.”

I accept the invitation immediately. This is a privilege, a special opportunity for a resident haole, much less a snowbird.

 

Our Sunday morning visit is a gift. The trees Ciano planted along the road ten years ago create a tall, thick screen. We turn from the driveway into the tropical lushness of half an acre enclosed in green, an island unto itself.

Ciano comes from the house, rushes to greet us, exuding gladness. He says our names with an accent that warms my heart – “Nuh-oh-may… Mun-tay” – clasps my hand between his two warm hands, gives Monte the Hawaiian handshake – hands, then thumbs entwined, then hands.

Pilar joins us for a leisurely walk through their orchard – mangos, papaya, limes, oranges, bananas, and the sugar cane they planted especially for their grandchildren. They show us how to break off pieces of the cane and suck the juice.

We stroll along the path of the vegetable garden, and Pilar picks a pumpkin blossom to show me how she uses it in her cooking. She tells me how to cook the small Japanese eggplants in omelets and stir fry. Ciano points out the Ti leaves he wraps around seasoned fish before he puts it on the grill.

Pilar peels a rambutan for us to taste, fills a bag of avocado, papaya, and the small Chinese and apple bananas for us to take home. She describes banana lumpia, then takes some from the freezer and hands them to me with cooking instructions. She will make chicken papaya for us when we come next time.

We tour their home quietly because Ciano’s youngest brother is occupying a downstairs bedroom. He has terminal cancer. “Filipinos, you know, we stick together,” Ciano explains. “Taking care of family … yes … we do.” After his mother died in the Philippines, his dad came to Kaua’i and lived with Pilar and him and their five children for fourteen years until his death in 1995.

Ciano’s brothers and sister have built homes just down the road. His youngest son, Teddy (“the one born here,” he says with pride), lives at home, works in the family business, and spends every spare minute landscaping their two and a half acres.

Teddy is working especially diligently these March Sundays. “He has all kinds of ideas. He wants everything perfect,” his mother smiles. They are planning a summer housewarming party. Children and grandchildren will come from the western side of the island and from California. Sisters and brothers, nieces, nephews, and friends will gather to celebrate the completion of the house and garden in Waipaka.

 

Kaua’i, Hawaii, January, 2018

We have now been friends of Pilar and Ciano Ruaboro in Kaua’i for thirteen winters. We have spent innumerable days on their lanai eating the bounteous array of food that characterizes the island culture – tastes from the Hawaiians and the immigrant Chinese, the Japanese, the Portuguese, and the Filipinos. They pamper us with eggplant and ginger and avocados, papaya and lemons and limes from their gardens. Every winter I spend some days reveling in the soft breezes and birdsong of Pilar’s outdoor kitchen where she teaches me to make Filipino food like lumpia and chicken papaya.

Ciano retired long ago from condo gardening. When they are not working in the gardens of others, they are tending their own. A lava-rock wall fronted by ferns, Pikake, Hibiscus, colorful Ti leaves, and Red Ginger now defines the long driveway. The house and the lanai are set off from the vegetable gardens by terraces of lava-rock lush with tropical plants and flowers. Orchids drip from the trunks of the palm trees. Huge pots of Caladium and Birds of Paradise hug the double doors of the house.

 

This year for the first time, the California daughter and son, their spouses, and their children have come home to join their three island siblings for Christmas. We have been invited to a celebration and the making of tinobong, a mochi dessert. This is centuries-old Filipino Christmas tradition, and Pilar wants the younger generations to know and appreciate their culture.

The day before the tinobong bake, Ciano and his brothers with sons and grandsons jump into pickups and caravan into the mountains to collect the hollow-stemmed bamboo that will serve as containers for the tinobong. Their concession to modernity is a battery powered Sawzall instead of a hatchet to cut two-foot lengths. Meanwhile Pilar and oldest daughter, Fely, pick and grate twenty coconuts.

When we arrive at 10a.m. on Tinobong day, Fely is assembling the ingredients on tables in the garage, consulting the recipe from her cell phone on the table.

“We’ll make two batches,” she says. “Ten pounds of sugar, thirty pounds of mochiko (rice flour) in each batch.”

We dump mochiko and sugar into a tub on the floor, add butter, coconut, coconut milk, and sweetened condensed milk. We stand, taking turns, trying to stir the thick mixture with a long bamboo stick. It is arduous, requires muscle and strength. Fortunately, Fely’s husband and son arrive and take over.

Auntie Fely summons the granddaughters, ages five to fifteen, to work. She demonstrates rolling banana leaves into foil to create corks for the ends of the bamboo. Older married grandkids arrive and pour the batter into the hollow-stemmed bamboo.

There is good-natured generational conversation. “Too much sugar.” “Not enough sugar.” “Well, you have the recipe?” “You’re the expert.”

Some irreverence for the process – “Why didn’t we just rent a big mixer?” “Because that’s not the old way.” “That’s because they didn’t have mixers.” “And they baked it in bamboo because they didn’t have pans or foil.”

The Tinobong bakes on a trench-like grill long enough and wide enough for a hundred two-foot lengths of bamboo. The men work with gloves, raking the hot coals, turning and moistening the bamboo as it bakes.

The granddaughters play kickball, then hide-and-seek on the wide lawn. Their California college-age male cousins entertain them with handstands and backflips before wandering back to the grill for a beer. Aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews come and go.

Pilar and I, the kapuna wahine (grandmothers), sit aside, enjoying the activity. She reaches over and hugs me close. Puts her mouth to my ear, “all together,” she says. “The family … all together.”

“Thanks be to God,” she adds.

 

On New Year’s Eve Ciano and Pilar invite us to their last celebration of this family holiday time. Tables are laden with food – Japanese sashimi, Hawaiian poke, Filipino pancet, the usual pot of rice, fried tako (octopus) and opii (snails) fresh-caught by a son-in-law, kulua pork, sushi, veggie trays, fruit bowls and desserts – everything from the essential Asian Christmas mochi to good old American cheesecake.

The balmy weather here always assures entertaining outdoors. Seating is arranged at tables decorated with Ti leaf runners and colorful centerpieces of Red Ginger and Birds of Paradise.

A grandson grills steak. Grandkids, ages eight to twenty, run up and down the long driveway with sparklers, laughing and screaming with joy. Two-year-old great-granddaughter Bailey dances to the music booming from speakers in the garage. Fireworks crack, light up the faces around us, and reach to the top of the palms.

Ciano stands next to me. “I’m so happy … this … the family … together. So happy you can meet all the family …” He opens his arms as if to embrace them, his voice faltering. “Happy New Year, Na-o-me.”

It has been a disheartening year. Ciano’s happiness and the fulfillment of just one immigrant’s American dream is comforting.

 

 

When the lakes turn to ice and loons leave Minnesota, Niomi Rohn Phillips and her husband of 57 years fly to Kaua’i. Both places nourish multi-genre writing. Her creative nonfiction has been published by Lake’s Alive, Among Women, Online AARP, and Lake Country Journal; short stories and poetry by The Talking Stick, Dust & Fire, and Whistling Shade literary journals; gardening and travel features by Greenprints and Boomers magazines. She published a memoir, Growing Up Catholic, in 2015 and is working on a novel she hopes to finish before she turns 80.

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