I am spending this 2018 summer with him in the Philippines as I complete my doctoral research on the history of Philippine botany. The research has brought us to a conference of Philippine biological systematists in the city of Butuan in Agusan del Norte, to natural dye producers in Peñarubia, Abra, and to the many archive collections in Metro Manila. Through all of it, my father has been by my side.
Of course, our travels haven’t been easy. In fact, we bicker stubbornly over medical terminology, Trump, and the Philippine legal system. The emotional labor of caring for my aging father alone can be taxing. But no other colorful experience can outdo the months we’ve shared.
A provinciano from the northern province of Ilocos Norte, my father migrated to Manila to be a laboratory hand at the National Museum of the Philippines in the early 1950s. His work ethic impressed the museum’s director, who offered to finance my father’s studies in botany. In exchange, my father was his assistant in the afternoons and a security guard in the evenings. After decades of laboratory and field research, my father became one of the authorities on what’s commonly known as the Philippine mahogany.
By the late 1970s, he extended his research to include medicinal plants, which he saw as a sustainable alternative to imported pharmaceuticals. He advocated for public investment in medical botany and held the presidential administration accountable for not releasing funds earmarked for materia medica research. But, the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship posed a threat to the safety of government scientists, like my father. His materia medica work fell into ill favor with government officials, several of whom had collaborated with the largest pharmaceutical importers. After losing colleagues to political violence, my father chose to leave.
He uprooted his life in his early 50s to start anew in the United States. He left Manila in 1985, leaving his passion for plant taxonomy for a job in cargo trucking in Los Angeles. He never spoke of his past career when I was growing up. As a child, I noticed his fondness for plants from chili gardens he cultivated whenever we moved homes. I saw him applaud free political speech, voting rights, and access to inexpensive public education. Even in his 70s he attended community college classes for computer skills and Spanish-language study. I only faintly discerned his experiences in the Philippines from this patchwork of traits I found unique to him.
Little did my father and I know I would follow a path not far from the one he charted in Manila. I began my Ph.D. program in 2013, unknowing that my project would become what it is today. While taking a graduate seminar with anthropologist Laura Nader during my first semester at UC Berkeley, Laura encouraged me to investigate medical botany practices in the Philippines. I asked my father about the topic, with little knowledge of the work he completed in the Marcos era. He began to speak more descriptively about his career in plant research, and our conversations about the rich history of the discipline took off from there.
What started as a seminar paper in my first year developed into a complete dissertation project. I became inspired to write a history of Philippine botany during the Spanish-to-U.S. colonial transition at the turn of the century and to highlight, more importantly, the work of local scientists and botanical collectors who contributed to the development of a colonial science
This summer, I write this essay in honor of one such scientist, who has been a hidden gem in the field of Philippine science and who has been beside me all this time. The same man who treated me to bubble tea after orthodontist appointments is the same man who taught me how to collect and preserve herbarium-grade plant specimens.
Over the last several years, our chats have been a fun mix of recipes, romantic drama, and the latest in plant systematics. Now my 84-year-old dad has reopened his 1983 dissertation with the goal of publishing a manuscript. We are mutually motivated by our commitments to our intellectual projects. This summer, by his side, I have a friend in the archives (even if he dozes off from time to time). I walk forest paths with a man whose first love was Philippine flora.
Perhaps next summer, he’ll be my writing partner?
Kathleen Cruz Gutierrez is a doctoral candidate in the Department of South & Southeast Asian Studies.