I am walking down Haight Street in San Francisco, the birth place of the hippie movement. And I am trying to figure out what the word “hippie” means.
Hippie is what I would have called myself as a 12-year-old in 1969 in Manila. But that is not how Joan Didion describes in her now classic essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”, the time she spent in the Haight Ashbury district in 1967. Her description of the scene was dark:
The center was not holding. It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misplaced even the four-letter words they scrawled. It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers. Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together. People were missing. Children were missing. Parents were missing. Those left behind filed desultory missing persons reports, then moved on themselves. It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves "hippies".
Didion’s essay goes on to describe a scene of children and adolescents tuned out of reality on acid and other drugs. They couldn’t themselves explain what it was they were doing. Reasons, ideas, and plans floated around until the next drug trip. Traditional figures of authority were derided and rejected. There emerged among the hippies a few leaders whose names Didion heard of but couldn’t meet. She couldn’t quite figure out either why some names seemed to stand out.
Certainly this is not the hippie I was as a pre-adolescent in the former US colony called the Philippines. I doubt whether any of the people Didion met would even know the country existed. And yet as I walk along Haight street, a 60-year-old in the fall of 2017, I am bop-bop-bopping to the songs that pour out LOUD (!) from the stores. I am pointing out murals of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. I am worshipping at the park where the musicians of my youth performed during the “Summer of Love”.
The shop owners seem more in tune here. Kinder, more authentic. (What do I know, I am a gullible tourist from a country where “service” means “lower status”.) But there are resin pendants that will purify energies at the earth store and I buy several with the iconic peace signs as pasalubongs. It looks like these are made in China and plastic, rather than hand made and resin. But hey, I don’t want to give anyone a bad trip, man. Least of all myself.
I sit in front of the organic market in the sunshine and have the ultimate experience: a man walks by completely naked except for a penis sheath. I am a hippie and not a Filipina. I look straight at his balls and wonder why they aren’t shriveled in the cold.
I tell my youngest son, “I used to be a hippie.” He gets only the part about the music of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell. He is amused by my insistence that it takes an artistic eye to make a beautiful tie-dyed shirt. But he senses too my lack of authenticity. “You were a hippie until you got real old,” he said. And that seemed funny too because Didion notes that as a 33-year-old in 1967 she was considered old.
From Kerouac to Marx
And I did get old indeed. My hippie ways would quickly end. By 14, I was a radicalized high school student. Karl Marx had replaced Jack Kerouac as my reading material. Political power now grew out of the barrel of a gun and not from flowers. The Summer of Love became the First Quarter Storm. In 1972, when I was 15 years old, all innocence ended for me when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and started imprisoning my neighbors and the parents of my friends. Marcos would go on to imprison and kill kids as young as those hippies too.
For a long time I looked at my hippie days as a clear sign of my colonial and bourgeois mentality. Something to be ashamed of. Something to be rooted out and confessed in endless rounds of criticism and self-criticism. Something to be repudiated on the way to being a cadre and a proletariat.
But then, I grew even older and had kids. Kids who would later dust off my original Jimi Hendrix albums with admiration at the 12-year-old me that had bought these.
These days millennials talk to me abut Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and seem surprised that I know of these guys. I meet them in rallies against the revival of the Marcoses. Some of them I talk to in the halls of the college where I teach. And they ask me of yet other cultural products of the colonial power: Gloria Steinem and Shulamith Firestone; Harvey Milk and the pride marches.
“Don’t forget to go to Castro street,” my young colleague reminded me the day before I left for San Francisco. I went there from Haight Ashbury and made sure I took pictures of the rainbow street signs. I am interested in all those other greats they have enshrined on the sidewalks with markers. I do special homage to Gertrude Stein whose work I have liked. “Cool,” say the millennials of my pictures. “Groovy," I answer.
Just an ordinary subaltern
These days I wonder at how some of our intellectuals are trapped in the boxes of approved thinking. In a previous trip I met with Philippine Studies scholars in Berkeley who nuanced terms like “colonial” or “imperialism” with more hip terms like “subaltern” and the “empire”.
Many asked me about the liberation army back home as if somehow my association with it guaranteed my authenticity as a social activist. And what I wanted to tell them was that maybe we should stop talking about my authentic Third World, woman-of-color status because it has become an identity I do not recognize. Even if these are terms my generation also invented in the struggle for national liberation and identity.
Because I think I made a mistake in forgetting I was once a hippie, a feminist influenced by white liberalism, a budding gender scholar who would feel like she was coming home when she finally hit Castro street in the fall of 2017.
You see, the hippie that I was, was a Third World hippie. The liberal feminist I started out as was never a white one. And if the actors from Castro had not influenced me earlier, I would still be a bigoted anti-imperialist today. If I wasn’t the groupie of Judy Collins and Bob Dylan I would not be able to recognize the social critique of the childhood ditty “Leron, Leron, Sinta.”
There is a common thread in rebellion and the urge to social transformation wherever else it may start in the world. Most of us are born into some sort of privilege (of class, race, caste, sexual orientation, sex, and so on). It is foolhardy to think we can cast off these parts of our being and thereby find some form of revolutionary authenticity.
In his book, “Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination”, Benedict Anderson documents the flow of exchanges between the anarchists of Europe and the revolutionaries of the Spanish colonies, including the illustrados like Jose Rizal. My personal history validates the idea that the voice of the subaltern is not necessarily coopted by access to the idioms of the empire. That, to use another current term, would mistake the nature of agency completely.
And so, this woman of color, who lives in the former colony, is unashamed when she goes bop-bop-bopping in Haight Ashbury.
It is still, all so groovy. – Rappler.com
Sylvia Estrada Claudio is a Professor of Women and Development Studies at the College of Social Work and Community Development. She is in San Francisco for a week to attend the wedding of her eldest son.