A review of “Scent of Home,” a trilogy of one acts
by Yvonne Hortillo

Many Filipinos in Chicago will wonder where all the other Filipinos are. Not all of them will, but some will come looking. So it will astonish many to learn that there is one Filipino writer in English who had recorded their city, the way that Jose Garcia Villa wrote about New York City and the east coast: Bienvenido Santos, former teacher at the University of Illinois and University of Iowa, and former resident of a high rise building on Sheridan Road.

I’m only guessing that last part, about him living in an apartment on a high rise building on Sheridan Road. I wonder about that, because three of his famous short stories are set in Chicago, and at least one character in each story lives in a high rise somewhere in in the city. There are poetic renderings of Lake Michigan on a sunny, snowy day, descriptions of cramped apartments shared by one or two old-timers, walks on a snowy sidewalk to a car parked a block away.

Anyone familiar with Chicago’s inner-city geography will definitely recall images of the Uptown neighborhood at the lakefront.

And I’m guessing only someone who had actually lived in such quarters will know what it’s like to wake up to a gray, snowy morning in an apartment on Lake Michigan.

The apartments along Sheridan Road may not have been as tall in the 1950s as today, but there is one building at the corner of Sheridan and Montrose. It’s still shared by many senior citizens to this day. I wonder if this is the same building Santos wrote about, because if it is, there’s another concrete evidence that there were Filipinos in Chicago as far back as Commonwealth Philippines: That you and I aren’t the first, nor the last, Filipinos to pound the pavements of the city by the lake.

A sense of place is what I take away from CIRCA-Pintig’s latest collection of one-acts, “Scent of Home: Scent of Apples, Immigration Blues, and The Day the Dancers Came,” all prized Santos short stories adapted for the stage by Larry Leopoldo.

Pintig Cultural Group, as the theater company had been known in 2005 before merging with the Center for Immigrant Resources and Community Arts (CIRCA), had first staged this trilogy at the Chicago Cultural Center in 2005 to lukewarm response, probably because reviewers have no knowledge of the quiet desperation an immigrant feels after decades of isolation and failure.

I mean decades, not months, not years. It is a given to move to a new place and fail at just about every endeavor for several months, even the entire first year. But to constantly fail, or receive muted applause, or confused congratulations, for decades is entirely another entity.

Writer Bienvenido Santos seizes this unique pain, holds it aloft and throttles it, making it give up its secrets. This is the story that, for these round of stories by CIRCA-Pintig, the theater company repeats all throughout the three well-known stories, and does exceptionally well.

All stories are set at least 15 years after the Philippines is given independence by the U.S. in the 1930s, but it could have been telling today’s stories. The characters in all three stories are aged old men and women, past their primes and middle ages. In the land of instant gratification, their collected nonmaterial wealth and insight is nonessential, and they are all reduced to survival. The fact that the characters are all immigrants is a compounding factor, the fact that they are immigrants of the Philippines, the U.S.’s one and only colony, is yet another factor that Santos adds in the subtlest of ways, it is easy to miss.

It is this history that makes Fil yearn for connection to dancers from the homeland, and Tony indifferent to them in “The Day the Dancers Came.” It is the shame of returning to a homeland that deems immigration outside of it a success that drives the sisters Antonieta and Monica to marry for papers and not for love in “Immigration Blues.” It is homesickness for a home that was lost the moment Celestino has left it as in “Scent of Apples.”

A sense of history, shame and homesickness are all familiar shadows of love and loss, but told in the subtle way that is clearly Bienvenido Santos’ style. Add a dash of enduring solitude, and you have an unexplored aspect of the life of an immigrant that adds to the (Filipino) American experience. You will not want to miss it.