A diligent reader might begin this absorbing journey into an immigrant family’s fortunes, made and lost, by seeking the meaning of its title, Concepcion. They would discover that, like the generations revealed in Albert Samaha’s probing account, the answer isn’t simple. Concepcion is the surname of Samaha’s ancestors, the name of one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships, a city in the Philippines and a word that aptly suggests a beginning.
Now nearing the same age as his mother, Lucy, when she first arrived in California, Samaha wants to understand what led her there. If Lucy was initially blinded by the promises of a country that held sway over her comfortable middle-class life in the Philippines, he wonders, how does she feel now? How have his other family members fared within the diaspora in the U.S., and how do they regard their ties to their homeland? Their answers are surprising and complex.
Samaha writes from the perspective of a successful, educated and skeptical American adult, declaring, “I found it easier to see what my elders could not: the height of the climb and the length of the fall.” Applying his skills as an investigative journalist to his family’s far-reaching saga, he filters their experiences as immigrants through the Philippines’ tumultuous history and the effects of their acquired American culture. It’s a deftly executed back-and-forth, and he shares his own enlightenments—and criticisms—as he goes. The role of race in the history of the National Football League and the influence of religion on political preferences are among his targets.
Samaha’s deep dive into Philippine history begins with Magellan’s colonization of the Philippines in the 1500s, flows through the centuries to Ferdinand Marcos’ long, controversial reign as the 10th president of the Philippines, and ends with Rodrigo Duterte’s current iron grip. Japan’s brutal occupation during World War II led to a U.S. takeover (the spoils of victory), and America has loomed large as a land of opportunity ever since. When U.S. immigration rules relaxed in 1965, Filipinos knew where to go.
Now, having benefited from his mother’s years of devotion and hard work, his absent father’s money and the support of their larger family in the Bay Area, Samaha is sensitive to their struggles amid what he sees as the failed promises, economic inequities and racial injustices of their adopted country. From the disadvantages of their lower paying jobs—such as his uncle’s work as an airport baggage handler after abandoning his career as a rock star in the Philippines—to their resilient, steadfast beliefs in democracy’s ideals despite its failings, Samaha plants their stories alongside his own and grows a remarkable family tree.