What does your tattoo mean?

By Niki Esko

[she hid her arms in the photograph, she knew shame in them, was taught shame]

"Rolled Sleeves"

The photographs captured her

shame. History echoes in the memory of ta-tak, ta-tak

the calling of her forearms, the calling

of a past she remembered only

when she saw my back.

Old Woman, Old Wind from the North,

she traced the green-black lines that spell

in a downward, falling action:

Rage— or the times I knew nothing of my own blood,


of the entrapment of pineapple silk against brown skin,

of blacklists, dark oaths, privilege,

of the superiority of shades within 7,107 islands;

burnt being at the bottom,

of my two siblings who died

of the cold

and the measles,

of the missing peasant farmers and their teachers;

of their deserving disappearance

and reappearance in black water rivers.

These times were easy

on my ears and boiled questions

to just the right temperature.

Rebellion—or the times I found out that bamboo

was more useful than oak trees,

that my parents were helping me by not showing me

how to think in their language; an American accent grew brain


that middle school teachers could kick me out of class

for commenting on the presidents or

refusing to bake a red velvet cake or

laughing in the face of the (F)ilipino instructor who claimed to have

saved lives while serving in the marines. the marines

that tried to cover up Daniel Smith’s carpool ride—

the Visiting Forces

of the master’s helping hands.

These times were hard

on my back and charged questions

in every direction.

Reason— or the times mentors from the Filipino Youth Coalition sat by my side

and told me stories of konquistador killers

from my island; men and women who took pieces

of Magellan and wore them out

side during momentary celebration,

and my parents knew nothing about these savages

and only read about them in books

and that they were extinct,

and that if they did still roam the mountains…

then they were not Pilipinos,

and that they were to be studied. my parents

also told me of promises written on yellow paper

with blood from Katipunero wrists, men and women

who changed their last names from Du-ku-we to Es-co-bar

to escape

only to find themselves

in America.

These times are easy

on my feet and make yelling questions effortless.

Redemption— or the times I spent with my birth family

the first and second times

and heard my language and dialect

in the form of slurred Waray cries and proud begging and

in wide eyes,

sometimes pointed down

when I looked back. pieces of me were left there,

in the torn nike t-shirts and coca-cola advertisements

in Tagalog,

in the folgers breakfast for four year olds,

in the furious fight to find fish,

in trafficking attempts disguised as modeling jobs

in the poorest provinces.

and pieces were found here

in the diverse campus of San Francisco, my second home to education

not always offered every semester,

in the literature that is unsearchable online and unknowable at borders

or barnes & nobles,

in the megaphoned fists of young students informed

of more than one way to absorb

the world.

These times are hard

on my eyes and the questions keep me awake at night.

[does she know shame]

Stomach Pains

By Niki Esko

[use your voice]

"Nixim Matahum
or Splendid thing that sprouts from the earth and blooms in the air"

She comes to me in s p e c k s of dust trail i n g
behind green moths
of inexperienced choices
that led me to her

miraculous fluttering.


I found her name in a dream
about war,
and resilience.
A path dips and twists before me.
It is layered with black thorns, ditches, grey mud,
whips, rosaries, and chains.

I welcome it
on both knees.

A seed sprouting two sets of roots
needs twice as much good soil
and so I will give it
in the marvelous bullets of Ricardo Flores Magon,
Praxedis Guerrero's callous free and dustless knees,
the quick breaths of Jose Garcia Villa,
and the fist of Sixto Lopez.

She will know the curly tongues of invasive insects,
feel the emerald beating of hummingbird wings,
endure the burn of red suns and
the unstoppable unraveling of winter--
frost on her leaves.
For her
protection: the poetry of Hagedorn, Villanueva, the
pidgin artillery of Linmark,
the feet of Ninotchka,
Sandra Cisneros' never
marry a Mexican,
and Moraga's lessons on
Loving in the War Years
because that is when it's needed most.

As her petals close for the night,
stories of the epic Battle of Mactan
and Lapu-Lapu will sweeten her

or a folktale of why mango trees laugh
as one passes will open more possibilities
for sleep
and for mourning.