Across the Sea, Too Close to Home


photo of a woman smiling

Thirty years ago, my parents left the Philippines in search of the America of their dreams. Their uprooting was challenging in many ways, but it allowed me the chance to grow up in privilege. I went to good schools and spent the summers with idyllic vacations camping in California’s redwoods. But despite the comfortable home my family carved out, I often felt dislocated. I longed to understand my ancestral homeland.

There’s a Filipino word for those who take the journey back from the US: balikbayan, which translates as “returning to the land.” The summer I turned 21, I made that return with an organization called Face2Face. The group coordinates solidarity delegations to give US residents an opportunity to meet communities in the Philippines and learn about their struggles for environmental justice. My balikbayan gave me a new connection to my homeland. It also connected me, in ways I didn’t expect, to a struggle for clean air, water, and land.

The trip I took with Face2Face in 2005 was the first time I had traveled to the archipelago without family, and I stepped off the plane into an embrace of humid air, heart beating fast with excitement and uncertainty. Honestly, I was unprepared for what I was about to see in Manila’s Pandacan neighborhood, where 83,000 people live right next to a massive petroleum depot.

In Pandacan, bleak metal cylinders full of oil loomed over tightly packed homes, elementary schools, churches, and bustling streets. A stone’s throw from pipelines, children played ball. Huge oil tanker trucks rumbled through the narrow streets. Some of the trucks were painted with colorful images of endangered species such as the dugong, a relative of the manatee. The gesture seemed thin, like a Band-Aid over a deep wound.

As we walked through the neighborhood, my throat started to ache from the acrid air. My head started to throb after a few hours. I wanted to hold my breath, then thought of how the Pandacan residents, the infants and the elderly who live with the toxic smell all the time, have no choice but to breathe this air.

Our host group, Advocates for Environmental and Social Justice, had organized a community forum so we could talk with the Pandacan residents. Through the neighbors’ stories, I learned of the community’s hopes to reclaim their home from a toxic depot in their midst.

“My hope is to educate people about the environment and how to fight for their rights,” one community activist said. “Our lives and our futures are at stake.”

The massive depot is owned by a consortium of oil companies including Shell, Petron, and Chevron. Air tests have found benzene, a carcinogen, in the area. In addition to the health risks of asthma and cancer, the Pandacan residents live in fear of fires and explosions. In March 2007, the Philippine Supreme Court ordered the depot’s closure for the “protection of the residents of Manila from catastrophic devastation.”

The oil companies that own the operation have not abided by the decision to close the depot. Despite the corporations’ foot-dragging, there is a strong pulse of resistance in the neighborhood. At the community forum, one woman with crinkled, smiling eyes and gray hair rose from the crowd. “What we have given in our lives, our environment, and our health is more than what the oil companies could ever repay,” she declared, her voice resonating. Soon, more voices joined hers, calling for a renewal of the people’s lives – and of the land.

After the trip, it was hard to return to the US and forget what I had witnessed. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to take action. In seeking my roots, I had found myself involved in a struggle for environmental justice.

Three years after my first trip, I returned to volunteer with Face2Face to reconnect with the people and land whose fighting spirit is in my blood. On my last day in Pandacan, I was told: “Remember, this is more than a toxic site. This is a place worth fighting for.” To me, this is a reminder of how every community’s struggles and victories are connected to each other. We are each in a place worth fighting for – from homelands to hometowns and everywhere between.

Aileen Suzara is a member of the Filipino/American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity (FACES). For more information, visit

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