Motif in poetry refers to a recurrent or dominant thematic element in a poem. It can also refer to phrases or lines in a poem that repeated severally in various parts of the poem to enhance the themes in the poem.
In Regin Cabico’s “check one”, the motif of ‘one’ which appears in various sections of the poem expresses the recurring theme of racial segregation and racism in America. Its frequent use in the poem is important as it draws the reader’s attention to the theme that the poet intends to communicate. This poem is talking about the Filipino American people’s identity in the United States and the racial discrimination that they face. They work extra hours, work under poor working conditions and earn low wages. The persona says that his mother worked in a hospital in South-East D.C from seven to nine regardless of the problem of insecurity in the area.
In the first stanza, the persona sarcastically says,” if the governments ask me to ‘check one’ if I want money. I just laugh in their face and say, how can you ask me to be one race?” Here the use of the motif like in ‘check one’ and ‘one race’ represents the themes of racism and racial discrimination. These words link together in a way that they relate with one another to enhance the theme of racism in the poem. The Filipinos are poorly paid because of their race hence live in poverty.
When the persona says, “I could give you an epic about my ways of life or my book and you want me to fill it in one square box'”, he means that there is no way that classification of people with different colors produces the same results since each possesses unique qualities and unique identities. He even concludes the stanza by saying that “there is no ‘one kind’ to fill anyone. This is because each person is different and possesses unique qualities that are also important and all people of all races are equal.
When the persona says that “You tell me who I am, what gets me the most money and I’ll sing that song like a one-man caravan. The persona here is lamenting about his lack of enough money for him to use and he says that if anyone can tell him what his true identity is and give him enough money to sustain himself then he would sing him a song like a one-man caravan. Here, the poet criticizes the government who alienates people and subjects them to poor living conditions and still expects satisfaction from them. When the persona says that he has sung “lullabies from welfare, food stamps, and nature” illustrates how poor his living conditions are. He blames this on the government who discriminates against people based on their race and he says, “And you want me to sing one song?”He is bitter about the government who expects them to stay loyal and sing the national anthem even though they intentionally discriminate against them and hence subjecting them to poor living conditions.
The motif ‘one’ has been used to express the theme of identity by the American Filipino and the theme of racial discrimination. Through this theme, the poet manages to give voice to the underrepresented like the Filipinos in America.