Saturday, August 12, 2006
RETURN OF THE NATIVES
OVERSEAS FILIPINOS DISPLACED, CROSSING OVER, MOVING ON:
RETURNING FROM THE DIASPORA, REDISCOVERING THE HOMELAND *
…my adored land, region of the sun caressed,
Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost…
--JOSE RIZAL, “Mi Ultimo Adios”
--by E. SAN JUAN, Jr. **
Director, Philippines Cultural Studies Center
I am delighted to join the alumni of the Philippine Studies Program at this time when so many events here and in the Philippines—disasters, crises, emergencies--are forcing us to think what we should do to advance social justice and equality, to make another world possible, a better world if possible. Our diverse responses will decide the direction of our lives and perhaps the future of our community. It confirms my belief that experience and social practice, not mere ideas, can precipitate change. But of course, without thought and critical reflection, we will surely leave ourselves open to the encroachment of the corporate media—FOX, DisneyWorld, MTV, the infinite glamour of images, shopping malls, commodity fetishism all around—until we have become robotized consumers of the globalized transnational market. In the spirit of collaborative exchange, I offer the following comments to provoke thought and critical reflection. What’s the end in view? To make a better world if possible.
In October 1997, I was invited to speak at the FIND (Filipino InterCollegiate Networking Dialogue) at SUNY Binghamton; the theme of the two-days conference was: “Re-examining the Filipino Diaspora.” Many students I met in passing were seriously disturbed by the image of Filipinos around the world shown as “domestics” and “servants,” if not mail-order brides, prostitutes, etc. But, on the whole, the more than a thousand delegates were more seriously engaged in exploring how to achieve “success,” or “agency” in the trendy postmodernist lexicon. They were saturated with readings about the excess or “spectral presences” of Overseas Filipinos and the “shamelessness” of the balikbayans. No wonder, the FIND Conference could not “find” a feasible direction for common action, with the Fil-Ams generally conditioned still by the decades-long neoconservative indoctrination of the Reagan and Bush regimes.
This generation of Fil-Ams, all born after the end of the Vietnam War, differ from the generation I was acquainted with. They were politicized in the mid-sixties and seventies, learning mass politics in the activities of the anti-martial law organizations, the Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), and other inter-ethnic coalitions. They supported the Manongs (such as Philip Vera Cruz) at the forefront of the farm workers’ union struggles in California and the ILWU struggles in Seattle, Hawaii, and elsewhere. While teaching in California and Connecticut, I was politicized by the Civil Rights struggles in the late Sixties and early Seventies, as well as the national-democratic struggle in the Philippines, together with these young Fil-Ams who discovered Bulosan and Bonifacio, who visited the Philippines on their own or in small groups to affiliate with the Kabataang Makabayan and other progressive sectors during the First Quarter Storm, before the declaration of martial law and after.
During the long night of the U.S.-Marcos dictatorship, a generation of Filipino Americans matured, found or lost themselves after the 1986 February Revolution. The resurgence of neoconservatism beginning with the Reagan administration in 1980, the decline of national-liberation struggles in Latin and Central America, up to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, however, produced a demoralizing effect which exacerbated the internal divisions in the organizations of Filipino-Americans and resulted in their dismantling.
We no longer have the “Manongs” as examples for young Fil-Ams to learn from. In fact, few young Fil-Ams now read Bulosan’s writings, much less the biography of Ka Philip Vera Cruz. We have “model minority” Filipinos like General Taguba, the White House cook, Lea Salonga, celebrities in TV and other media casinos, etc. What else is new? You belong to a new generation in which the ideal of becoming the model “multicultural American,” while a ruse for suppressing critical impulses, seems to have become obligatory. It has effectively sublimated any claim for collective recognition of qualities other than the acquisitive or possessive. “Identity politics” in the sense of ethnic pride, etc. has been easily coopted by Establishment charity. But given the economic difficulties faced by the post-1965 immigrants, and the refurbished ethos of “white supremacy,” Filipinos cannot so easily follow the path of the Japanese, Korean, Indian or Taiwanese technocrats, for one simple reason: the Philippines, our country of origin, remains a subordinated, dependent, neocolonized society, technologically backward (in comparison with Japan, Taiwan, China, Singapore, Malaysia or Thailand), even culturally incoherent and certainly politically disintegrated.
It is worse now because the Marcos period severely retarded the country’s development, set us back many decades from the time when we were the leading industrializing country in Asia next to Japan. Today the Philippines has one of the lowest per capita income in the region, over 75% of Filipinos are desperately impoverished. Now the largest Asian exporter of cheap labor, the Philippines relies on the remittance of more than 9 million Overseas Contract Workers, precariously dependent on the international labor market so vulnerable to crises, wars, currency fluctuations, and other unpredictable contingencies. The entire Filipino people and its territorial home have become collectively hostaged to an inherently unstable global capitalist economy driven to profit accumulation, heedless of their dignity, health, or survival.
What distinguishes your generation and the one before you is, I think, the fact of the disappearance of a radical socialist alternative now being addressed by the anti-globalization movement. The welfare state is no more. The end-of-the-century milieu was characterized by the reign of cynical neoconservatism (with strong Anglo fundamentalist contempt of other cultures) which has recently been challenged by the anti-globalization movement and jolted by the post-9/11 attack from Islamic fundamentalist extremists.
One might ask: How do you situate yourself as young Filipino-Americans (or, if you prefer, Filipinos based in the U.S.) in this current conjuncture? For those fired up by your visit and eager to contribute to transforming the social order in the Philippines by trying to change traditional practices and institutions, the urgent question is: Where are you coming from? What is your competence and capability? Understandably you feel compelled to intervene, tell folks what to do, how to do it, thereby enacting the role of the superior civilized taskmaster, a latter-day “Thomasite,” who once accompanied U.S. troops in the pacification campaigns. But there’s already an entire corps of U.S.-educated cadres of teachers and technocrats already doing that back home, reproducing their ilk everyday.
To be sure, the condition of chronic poverty, corruption, daily practices of social injustice and inequality should properly be grasped as systemic effects. They are symptoms of the decay of political and economic structures accumulated in the long history of colonialism and neocolonialism, something that cannot be done away with overnight. And since these are also processes—the process of the comprador elite doing everything to maintain the iniquitous order (with U.S. support), and the masses struggling against everyday situations of exploitation and oppression—groups, not individuals, are the actors and protagonists involved, fighting for what are long-range stakes in the fierce class war. We need to take our bearings by trying to achieve a total, in-depth picture of these complex processes, the contradictions we need to take into account, the realities and possibilities for change, in the light of local and international political alignments.
But in this task, we will not find any constructive help from the academic experts. Let me give you an example why. In Prof. Yen Le Espiritu’s recent book, Home Bound, we find this Vietnamese scholar inspired by three Fil-Am women who recently joined the Integrate-Exposure Program of the League of Filipino Students in Los Angeles. Upon their return, one felt “proud to be a Pinay.” They all rediscovered their “motherland” and their ethnic identity. They felt privileged in having participated in transnationalist border-crossing, which Espiritu claims to be “transgressive” in itself. It is as though frequent travels, remittances, and visits to the Philippines, accompanied with conspicuous balikbayan boxes now conceived as “symbolic” capital—the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is called in to lend theoretical finesse to simple acts of coping and routine survival tactics—already served as “acts of resistance” that successfully trounced he disciplinary normative regime of U.S. capital. In effect, balikbayan packages undermined the localizing regime of the U.S. Homeland Security State. Amazing! Fantastic!
Now, please don’t mistake me as indulging in personality bashing. I am interested primarily in ideological mystification and knowledge-production, or error-production. I am not the only one to suspect how this academic metaphysics of imagining resistance to racial and gendered subjugation, influenced by fashionable cult-figures such as Foucault, Derrida, Negri, and a whole slew off scholastic libertarians and anarchists in Europe and North America, has produced all kinds of wrong-headed wish-fulfillment. It has led to the temporary marginalization of the more radical critique provided by historical materialism, by critical Marxism.
Lesson One: Study Marxism and apply it to the study of U.S. history, its evolution as a class society, as a political system based on the division of its inhabitants into social classes.
Up to now, Cold War propaganda continues to caricature Marxist critical analysis as economic determinist, sexist, Eurocentric, not sensitive to personal needs, etc. Consequently, in the last three decades, the question of identity has been separated from its socio-economic and historical contexts, becoming more a question of individual psychology, sexual- affective relations, a New-Age concern with the body or matter as such. This has led to the point where any account of Philippine-American relations becomes an instance of negotiation, a power-game where colonizer and colonized are positioned on a level playing field, veritably equal combatants. Hence Stanley Karnow (author of the best-selling In Our Image) and other American experts on Filipino tutelage can diagnose Filipino backwardness as caused by the natives’ own folly, recalcitrance, ineptitude, and so on.
For her part, Espiritu believes that by postulating an alleged “multiple subject position”of the immigrant, she has thereby disrupted the U.S. state’s strategy of differential inclusion. By presuming that Filipino subjectivity acquires self-making power or agency through travel, border crossing, consumption habits, re-inventing traditional customs, etc., it has already overcome white nativistic racism, class subordination, and homogenizing imperialism.
One may ask: Isn’t this belief precisely what the whole system of neoliberal pluralism has programmed everyone into believing—namely, that we are free to do whatever we want so long as it does not subvert consumerist individualism, or white supremacist standards? You cannot talk about agency, or meaningful subjectivity, of a racialized group (such as Filipinos, who—I might emphasize--are not just an ethnic group like Italian Americans, Swedish Americans, etc.) in a system pervaded by class inequality, alienation in workplace and neighborhoods, and historic exclusions.
It is silly to denounce white supremacy and at the same time ascribe to Filipinos such wonderful virtues as disruptive border-crossers, especially now when we have witnessed hundreds of Filipinos summarily deported after 9/11 in humiliating conditions. We have seen thousands of Filipino airport workers laid off, Filipino WWII veterans still neglected and Filipinos racially profiled owing to the stigmatization of the Philippines as home to terrorist groups like the Abu Sayyaf, the New People’s Army, and so on. Ironically, this is how Filipinos are “recognized” today, despite the publicity in Filipinas magazine and other self-serving media. “Living their lives across borders”—to quote Espiritu--does not automatically render the Filipino a transgressor, a transnationalist rebel against the white-supremacist order, despite inventing her own ethnic traditions of difference. We will, as usually, only be celebrated as charming icons or spectacles, exotic curiosities for global circulation and consumption.
But what’s crucially misguided is a fundamental premise informing Espiritu’s and other studies, and this is what I want to underscore here. They assume that the Filipino nation or nation-state is truly sovereign, that Filipinos have sufficiently acquired a sense of critical wisdom and autonomy enough to understand and outgrow the crippling legacies of colonialism and white supremacy, so that we are fully responsible for our actions. The whole society is still profoundly neocolonized, the large majority still trammeled by subaltern attitudes and dispositions. (Recent opinion polls show that of all nationalities that one can choose from, Filipinos prefer to be American—what else? )
To return to Espiritu’s disabling mistake. The wrong premise of Filipino national sovereignty distorts all talk of a boundary-breaking transnationalism, together with the postmodernist babble that accuses the essentializing nationalism of Rizal, Aguinaldo, and so on, as the force that has repressed the hybrid, fragmented, vernacularizing “Filipino” identity. Wait a moment: was Aguinaldo victorious over the Americans? Did the people enjoy a sovereign truly independent nation-state after the devastation of the Filipino-American War? Who won the war, in the first place?
Who indeed can capture the essence of “Filipino-ness,” if there is one? Speaking a native language or vernacular by itself won’t do it; maybe, eating balut, bagoong and other native delicacies might help. Depending on what social class is articulating it, the term “Filipino” can be “the name of a sovereign nation” that is fictitious, or it can designate the group of Overseas Contract Workers with Philippine passports dependent on the employing state. The reason why elite Filipinos feel embarrassed when mistaken for OCWs in Singapore or Italy is the fact that they claim to represent the nation or nation-state, whereas the thousands of Filipina domestics we met in the railroad stations of Rome and Taipeh, who may be modern heroes, do not really represent what is distinctive about the “Filipino,” notwithstanding that stupid remark that we have been blessed by “intelligent design” to be super nannies. Remember those Internet-circulated lists of mannerisms and habits that supposedly identifies the Filipino?
Before we can take action, we need to grasp concrete historical reality and its contingencies. And the first thing to comprehend is the profoundly neocolonized situation of Filipino society and polity, the continuing dominance of the neoliberal ideology (with feudal encrustations) over the system, the effective hegemony of U.S. world-outlook over civil society and state. Contrary to Stuart Hall (1997) and others, it is not just culture that constitutes the terrain for producing diasporic, subaltern identity; it is the political and economic order—the class system-- that determines the cultural or ideological domain of representation, subjectivity, values, attitudes, and so on, which in turn reciprocally reinforces the sociopolitical hierarchy and reproduces its mechanisms and actors.
Throughout Espiritu’s book, as well as in dozens of recent studies of the “damaged” Filipino society and culture, you will encounter criticisms of racism, gender, intersections of this and that, even the evils of global capitalism. But you will not find a serious critical analysis of social class, the extraction of surplus value from labor-power (I need to stress here that Filipina domestics as “modern slaves” not only sell labor-power but also their personhood), which is the key to grasping the complex phenomena of racial colonial subordination of the Philippines to the United States and the neoliberal global market.
Given our neocolonial status, it goes without saying that the subordinate position of the Philippines in the international division of labor, our share in the distribution of accumulated capital (surplus value), determines our image, our identity, and our notion of our future, to a larger degree than any ethnic particularism we can boast of.
The lesson here is: We need to undergo real “brainwashing,” that is, getting rid of these poisonous beliefs and assumptions that will make us naïve if well-meaning lackeys of capitalist modernization, equipped with the program of “Benevolent Assimilation” (McKinley) and imperial philanthropic arrogance. We need to acquire a Marxist orientation. This means that if you want to help liberate the Philippines from U.S. neocolonial stranglehold, or express your solidarity with the mass struggles going on, you will want to fight the class enemy right here, in Washington and in the corporate headquarters. You will want to help destroy a parasitic class system that requires for its nourishment militarist imperialist interventions in the Philippines, Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, and throughout the world.
Our struggle here is neither primary nor secondary to the struggle for national democracy and independence in the Philippines; it is an integral part of the internationalist struggle against global capitalism. But because of our limitations as individual agents, or as members of collectivities, we need to concentrate our energies on what we can do best in our specific time and place. You decide where, which collective project, you think you can contribute your energies and skills to good effect. This resolves those perennial squabbles among Filipino American activists about which task is primary—supporting the struggle back home, or building a revolutionary vanguard party here, debates that drained their energies while their party-building dreams collapsed with that of the Soviet Union and the restoration of bourgeois rule in China.
Lesson Two: Study Philippine history from a progressive point of view, in particular the period of U.S. colonization and neocolonization of the country up to today. And connect that history with U.S. history, specifically its imperial expansion. In any case, you cannot study Philippine history conscientiously without linking it closely to U.S. history in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
The first thing I would emphasize in any historical overview of ourselves is the contemporary political conjuncture: the ascendancy of an extremely militarist and racist ruling section in the U.S. This rightist power-bloc has continued to exploit the 9/11 attack in a global war on terrorism, utilizing all its weapons of violence and coercion to produce “regime change” and impose a retooled hegemony, a “new American Century,” on the backs of millions of people of color in the South, in the underdeveloped societies that were former colonies or dependent formations. This is happening at a time when the “socialist alternative” has disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union, even while the growth of anti-imperialist forces in Latin America in general is intensifying. In short, global contradictions are sharpening to the point of regional wars, wholesale extermination of peoples, relentless destruction of the environment, and so on. There is one hopeful sign counterpointing that doomsday scenario: the birth of the anti-globalization movement which is now beginning to mobilize more forces while national liberation movements in Venezuela, Mexico, Nepal, the Philippines and elsewhere continue to gain ground in the face of U.S. state terrorism.
We who live in “the belly of the beast” need to take account of the USA Patriot Act and its elaborate regulations, a repressive legal machinery sanctioning surveillance of citizens and extra-judical torture for dissenters judged as “enemy combatants.” We are today living in a regime worse than the Cold War and the McCarthy persecutions of the fifties experienced by Bulosan, Chris Mensalvas and other Filipino union activists. The Abu Ghraibs, Guanatanamos and others are completely new decadent symptoms of the crisis of U.S. global hegemony. We need to use whatever civil liberties still exist to mobilize the broadest united front to defend and advance participatory democracy beyond formal citizenship rights. We need to defeat fundamentalist religious reactionaries fomenting a “clash of civilizations” to entrench the supremacy of global capital.
As Filipinos in the Homeland Security State, how do we enact or put into play our solidarity with our compatriots in the Philippines and in the world-wide diaspora?
Unfailingly, as in the past, the Philippines grabs the headlines when disasters, natural and/or man-made, inflict untold devastation, misery, and death on our brothers, sisters, parents, and friends back home. Just on the tail of the 71 persons killed and 500 injured at the Wowowee ABS-CBN event on Feb. 4, we soon confront the tragedy of 1,800 people killed in Guinsaugon, Leyte, with over 376 homes destroyed by a mud-slide. These repeated flooding incidents may be traced back to decades of wanton deforestation allowed, even abetted, by the local politicians and the central government. Of course, news analysis will never help us understand the historical context, much less the political and social causality, of these catastrophes. The beleaguered president Arroyo appeared in TV mainly to urge everyone to send prayers to the survivors in Leyte, while US warships and thousands of marines converged on the island as though in a repeat of General Douglas MacArthur’s 1944 landing on that island to signal the fulfillment of his vow, “I Shall Return.”
Indeed, the return of U.S. troops was marked by the approval of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during Fidel Ramos’ presidency, after the 1992 scrapping of Clark Field and Subic Naval Bases by a coalition of nationalist-democratic forces. But from Feb. 20 to March 5, the largest gathering of U.S. troops (5,500 soldiers) have landed for the 22nd RP-US Balikatan Exercise, purportedly to train 2,800 Filipino soldiers to hunt “terrorists,” mainly the Abu Sayyaf, but also of course the guerillas of the New People’s Army (which has been classified by the U.S. State Department as a “terrorist” organization). The presence of U.S. troops flagrantly mocks the putative sovereignty of the Philippines—indeed, even after formal independence in 1946, as everyone knows, the Philippines was saddled with so many treaties, obligations, contracts that made it a genuine neocolony up to today. So forget all this pretentious postcolonial babble—the Philippines is still an appendage of Washington, despite all symptoms to the contrary.
With Secretary Colin Powell’s decision to stigmatize as “terrorist” the major insurgent groups that have been fighting for forty years for popular democracy and independence—the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army, the introduction of thousands of U.S. troops, weapons, logistics, and supporting personnel has become legitimate. More is involved than simply converting the archipelago to instant military bases and facilities for the U.S. military—a bargain exchange for the strategic outposts Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base that were scrapped by a resurgent Filipino nationalism a decade ago. With the military officials practically managing the executive branch of government, the Philippine nation-state will prove to be more an appendage of the Pentagon than a humdrum neocolony administered by oligarchic compradors, which it has been since nominal independence in 1946. On the whole, Powell’s stigmatizing act is part of the New American Century Project to reaffirm a new pax Americana after the Cold War.
The telling evidence surfaced recently when a 22-year old Filipina was gang-raped by six U.S. soldiers on leave from the aircraft carrier USS Essex last November 1, 2005. The U.S. Embassy refused to surrender to the local court four of the accused on the grounds of the VFA Agreement. This would be a national scandal in Korea or Japan; but in the Philippines, it seems routine for the U.S. to lord it over their “subalterns.” After all, this follows the hallowed pattern of Filipinos beaten, raped and killed—some were suspected as “wild boards”—in or around the U.S. military bases. There is, of course, a long history of Filipino victimage, dating back to the “water cure” and other forms of torture during the Filipino-American War of 1899 lasting up to the second decade of the last century.
Allow me to encapsulate the theme of the struggle for national democracy and independence in the Philippines.
When U.S. occupation troops in Iraq continued to suffer casualties every day after the war officially ended, academics and journalists began to supply capsule histories comparing their situation with those of troops in the Philippines during the Filipino-American War (1899-1902). A New York Times essay summed up the lesson in its title, “In 1901 Philippines, Peace Cost More Lives Than Were Lost in War” (2 July 2003, B1)), while an article in the Los Angeles Times contrasted the simplicity of McKinley’s “easy” goal of annexation (though at the cost of 4,234 U.S. soldiers killed and 3,000 wounded) with George W. Bush’s ambition to “create a new working democracy as soon as possible” (20 July 2003, M2).
What is the real connection between the Philippines and the current U.S. war against terrorism? What is behind the return of the former colonizer to what was once called its “insular territory” administered then by the Bureau of Indian Affairs?
Immediately after the proclaimed defeat of the Taliban and the rout of Osama bin Laden’s forces in Afghanistan, the Philippines became the second front in the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Raymond Bonner, author of Waltzing with Dictators (1987), argues that the reason for this second front is “the desire for a quick victory over terrorism,… the wish to reassert American power in Southeast Asia….” (New York Times, 10 June 2002). As in the past, during the Huk rebellion in the Philippines in the Cold War years, the U.S. acted as “the world’s policemen,” aiding the local military in “civic action” projects to win “hearts and minds,” a rehearsal for Vietnam. Washington is evidently using the Abu Sayyaf as a cover for establishing a “forward logistics and operation base” in Mindanao and Sulu in order to be able to conduct swift pre-emptive strikes against enemies in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, China, and elsewhere.
Overall, however, the intervention of U.S. Special Forces in solving a local problem has inflamed Filipino sensibilities, its collective memory still recovering from the nightmare of the U.S.-supported brutal Marcos dictatorship. (One should note that the Abu Sayyaf phenomenon, a kidnapping-for-ransom band, is a synthetic product of recent developments involving the Philippine military, local politicians, and corrupt businessmen.)What disturbed everyone was the Cold-War practice of “Joint Combined Exchange Training” exercises. In South America and Africa, such U.S. foreign policy initiatives merged with counter-insurgency operations that chanelled military logistics and equipment to favored regimes notorious for flagrant human rights violations. During the Huk uprising in the Philippines, Col. Edward Lansdale, who later masterminded the Phoenix atrocities in Vietnam, rehearsed similar counter-insurgency techniques combined with other anticommunist tricks of the trade. Now U.S. soldiers in active combat side by side with the pupped regime will pursue the Bush-defined “terrorists”—guerillas of the New People’s Army, Moro resistance fighters, and other progressive sectors of Filipino society.
Are we seeing American troops in the boondocks (bundok, in the original Tagalog, means “mountain”) again? Are we experiencing a traumatic attack of déjà vu? A moment of reflection returns us to what Bernard Fall called “the first Vietnam.” As everyone now knows, US pacification slaughtered 1.4 million Filipinos, not counting the thousands of Moros who died in the infamous genocidal pacification campaign. The campaign to conquer the Philippines was designed in accordance with President McKinley’s policy of “Benevolent Assimilation” of the uncivilized and unchristian natives, a “civilizing mission” that Mark Twain considered worthy of the Puritan settlers and the pioneers in the proverbial “virgin land.”
Pressured by the sugar-beet lobby and persistent rural insurrections, the Philippine Commonwealth of 1935 was established, constituted with a compromise mix of laws and regulations then being tried in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hawaii. Eventually the islands became a model of a pacified neocolony complete with brown-skinned legislators, judges, policemen, tax collectors, teachers, and so on. Except for the preliminary studies of Renato Constantino, Virgilio Enriquez and others, nothing much about the revealing effects of that process of subjugation of Filipinos have registered in the Philippine Studies or American Studies archive. This is usually explained by the theory that the U.S. did not follow the old path of European colonialism, and its war against Spain was pursued to liberate the natives from Spanish tyranny. If so, that war now rescued from the dustbin of history signaled the advent of a globalizing U.S. interventionism whose latest manifestation, in a different historical register, is Bush’s “National Security Strategy” of “exercising self-defense [of the Homeland] by acting preemptively,” assuming that might is right when spreading “democracy” by military occupation and bombs.
The revolutionary upsurge in the Philippines against the Marcos dictatorship stirred up dogmatic Cold War complacency. In the course of “the culture wars,” the historical reality of U.S. imperialism (the genocide of Native Americans is replayed in the subjugation of the inhabitants of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Cuba) is finally being excavated and re-appraised. But this is, of course, a phenomenon brought about by a confluence of multifarious events, among them: the demise of the Soviet Union as a challenger to U.S. hegemony; the sublation of the Sixties in both Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Rorty’s neopragmatism; the Palestininan intifadas; the Zapatista revolt against NAFTA; the heralding of current anti-terrorism by the Gulf War and its sequels; and the fabled “clash of civilizations.”
Despite these changes, the old frames of intelligibility have not been modified or reconfigured to understand how nationalist revolutions in the colonized territories cannot be confused with the nationalist patriotism of the dominant or hegemonic metropoles, or how the mode of U.S. imperial rule in the twentieth century differs in form and content from those of the British or French in the nineteenth century. The received consensus of a technological modernizing influence from the advanced industrial powers remains deeply entrenched. Consider, for example, the observation by Paul Wong and Tania Azores that one reason why Filipino nurses emigrate to the U.S. is found in “the belief in the right of personal choice that is deeply embedded in the political ideology inherited from the United States” (1994, 174). How does this explain the poor working conditions and the lack of jobs with decent pay for nurses in the Philippines?
The demise of the independent nation-state purportedly caused by globalization has caused some demoralization among middle elements. Even postcolonial and postmodernist thinkers commit the mistake of censuring the decolonizing projects of the subjudgated peoples because these projects (in the superior gaze of these thinkers) have been damaged, or are bound to become perverted into despotic postcolonial regimes, like those in Ghana, Algeria, Vietnam, the Philippines, and elsewhere. The only alternative, it seems, is to give assent to the process of globalization under the aegis of the World Bank/IMF/WTO, and hope for a kind of “benevolent assimilation.” Without a truly independent nation-state representing the masses, not an oligarchic elite, what is the defense against predatory transnational corporations?
What remains to be carefully considered, above all, is the historical specificity or singularity of each of these projects of national liberation, their class composition, historical roots, programs, ideological tendencies, and political agendas within the context of colonial/imperial domination. It is not possible to pronounce summary judgments on the character and fate of nationalist movements in the peripheral formations without focusing on the complex manifold relations between colonizer and colonized, the dialectical interaction between their forces as well as others caught in the conflict. Otherwise, the result would be a disingenuous ethical utopianism such as that found in U.S. cosmopolitanist and postcolonialist discourse which, in the final analysis, function as an apology for the ascendancy of the corporate powers embedded in the nation-states of the North, and for the hegemonic rule of the only remaining superpower claiming to act in the name of freedom and democracy.
The case of the national-democratic struggle in the Philippines may be taken as an example of one historic singularity. Because of the historical specificity of the Philippines’ emergence as a dependent nation-state controlled by the United States in the twentieth century, nationalism as a mass movement has always been defined by events of anti-imperialist rebellion. U.S. conquest entailed long and sustained violent suppression of the Filipino revolutionary forces for decades. The central founding “event” (as the philosopher Alain Badiou would define the term) is the 1896 revolution against Spain and its sequel, the Filipino-American war of 1899-1902, and the Moro resistance (up to 1914) against U.S. colonization. Another political sequence of events is the Sakdal uprising in the thirties during the Commonwealth period followed by the Huk uprising in the forties and fifties—a sequence that is renewed in the First Quarter Storm of 1970 against the neocolonial state. While the feudal oligarchy and the comprador class under U.S. patronage utilized elements of the nationalist tradition formed in 1896-1898 as their ideological weapon for establishing moral-intellectual leadership, their attempts have never been successful. Propped by the Pentagon-supported military, the Arroyo administration today, for example, uses the U.S. slogan of democracy against terrorism and the fantasies of the neoliberal free market to legitimize its continued exploitation of workers, peasants, women and ethnic minorities.
Following a long and tested tradition of grassroots mobilization, Filipino nationalism has always remained centered on the peasantry’s demand for land closely tied to the popular-democratic demand for equality and genuine sovereignty. For over a century now, U.S.-backed modernization and neoliberal programs have utterly failed in the Philippines. The resistance against globalized capital and its neoliberal extortions is spearheaded today by a national-democratic mass movement of various ideological persuasions. We have a durable Marxist-led insurgency that seeks to articulate the “unfinished revolution” of 1896 in its demand for national self-determination against U.S. control and social justice for the majority of citizens (86 million) ten percent of whom are now migrant workers abroad.
In the wake of past defeats of peasant revolts, the Filipino culture of nationalism constantly renews its anti-imperialist vocation by mobilizing new forces (women and church people in the sixties, and the indigenous communities in the seventies and eighties). It is organically embedded in emancipatory social and political movements whose origin evokes in part the Enlightenment narrative of sovereignty as mediated by third-world nationalist movements, but whose sites of actualization are the local events of mass insurgency against continued U.S. hegemony. The Philippines as an “imagined” and actually experienced ensemble of communities, or multiplicities in motion, remains in the process of being constructed primarily through modes of political and social resistance against corporate globalization and its technologically mediated ideologies, fashioning thereby the appropriate cultural forms of dissent, resistance, and subversion worthy of its people’s history and its collective vision.
Uneven, unequal development may also illuminate the new reconfiguring of the Philippines as an Asian/Pacific formation occupying the borderline between the Orientalist imaginary and the Western racializing gaze. But its geopolitical inscription in the South makes Filipinos more akin to the inhabitants of the “Fourth World,” the aboriginal and indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Hawaiians, Maoris, and so on. The reconfiguring of the Philippines as a terrain of contestation finds its historic validity in the transitional plight of Filipinos migrating to the United States in the years before the establishment of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935: they were neither aliens nor citizens but “nationals,” denizens of the twilight zone, the borderland between the core and the periphery.
We live in a racial polity, a political order with a deep and long history of racist practice, of which the “model minority” myth is just one revealing symptom. Whether you were born here or recently arrived, you are perceived by the dominant society as someone “alien,” not quite “American, somehow a strange “other.” This is the inherent racial politics of the territory we happen to inhabit.
Contrary to what postmodernists label “transmigrants,” Filipinos in the United States are now beginning to grasp the fact that it is the invasion of the Philippines by the United States in 1898, the destruction of the revolutionary Philippine Republic, the annexation of the islands and the colonial subjugation of its people, that explains why we Filipinos are somehow tangibly present in this continent. Whether we like it or not—and here I address the emergent community of “Filipinos” in the U.S.-- Filipinos surfaced in the American public’s consciousness not as museum curiosities (indeed, the “indigenous types” exhibited at the St. Louis exposition of 1904 contributed to the fixation of a Filipino primitive stereotype, specifically“dogeaters,” in popular lore) but as a nation of resisters to U.S. colonial aggression.
We cannot go back without masochistic self-denial to the fugitives of the Spanish galleons who settled in Louisiana to reawaken us from the American dream of success. (Those interested in the antiquarian topics of the Louisiana “Manillamen” or the Indios who supposedly stumbled in California, will surely not belabor the sordid genocide of their countrymen in the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902—a nice escape for these would-be historians.) Surely if our project is the vindication of a people’s dignity and democratic empowerment, not just ethnic competition with Native Americans for precedence, we need to recover the history of resistance, of insurrection, that can resolve the problem of identity—identity is not a matter of antique relics or quaint folkways, it is a matter of the political project you are engaged with, the collective project of community vindication that you have committed to pursue.
It goes without saying, though often forgotten, that the chief distinction of Filipinos from other Asians residing in the United States is that their country of origin was the object of violent colonization and unrelenting subjugation by U.S. monopoly capital. It is this foundational process, not the settling of Filipino fugitives in Louisiana or anywhere else, that establishes the limit and potential of the Filipino lifeworld here. Without understanding the complex process of colonial subjugation and the internalization of dependency, Filipinos will not be able to define their own specific historical trajectory here as a dual or bifurcated formation—one based on the continuing struggle of Filipinos for national liberation and popular democracy in the Philippines, and the other based on the exploitation and resistance of immigrants here (from the “Manongs” in Hawaii and the West Coast to the post-1965 “brain drain” and the present diaspora worldwide). These two distinct histories, while geographically separate, flow into each other and converge into a single multilayered and mutually determining narrative that needs to be articulated around the principles of national sovereignty, social justice, and equality.
So far this has not been done because, among other reasons, the mainstream textbook approaches distort both histories across the realms of lived experience characterized by class, gender, race, nationality, and so on. In the wake of the poststructuralist trend among intellectuals, a theory of Filipinos as transnational migrants or transmigrants has been introduced to befog the atmosphere already mired by the insistence on contingency, aporia, ambivalence, indeterminacy, disjunction, liminality, and so on. To avoid the “nihilism of despair or Utopia of progress,” we are told to be transnational or transcultural, or else. But the notion of Filipinos as transnational subjects assumes that all nation-states are equal in power, status, and so on. Like assimilationism, this theory of transmigrants and transnationals obfuscates imperial domination and the imperative of rebellion. It reinforces the marginalization and dependency of “Third World” peoples. It erases what David Harvey calls historical “permanences” and aggravates the Othering of people of color into racialized minorities—cheap labor (like OFWs) for global corporations and autocratic households. It rejects their history of resistance and their agency for emancipating themselves from the laws of the market and its operational ideology of white supremacy.
Let me conclude by repeating what I submit is the central argument, the controlling vision, of my discourses on Philippines-American relations :
Filipinos in the United States possess their own historical trajectory, one with its own singular profile but always linked in a thousand ways to what is going on in the Philippines. To capture the contours of this trajectory, we need to avoid two pitfalls: first, the nostalgic essentializing nativism that surfaces in the fetishism of folk festivals and other commodified cultural products that accompany tourist spectacles, college Filipino Nights, and official rituals. To avoid this error, we need to connect folklore and such cultural practices to the conflicted lives of the Igorots, Moros, and masses of peasants and workers.
Second, more dangerous perhaps, we should guard against minstrelsy, self-denial by mimicry, the anxiety of not becoming truly “Americanized,” that is, defined by white-supremacist norms. My view is that we don’t want to be schizoid or ambidextrous performers forever, in the fashion of Bienvenido Santos’ “you lovely people.” This drive to assume a hybrid “postcolonial” identity, with all its self-ingratiating exoticism and aura of originality, only reinforces the pluralist/liberal consensus of “rational choice theory” (the utilitarian model of means and ends that promotes alienation and atomistic individualism) and fosters institutional racism. On the other hand, the submerging of one’s history into a panethnic Asian American movement or any other ethnic absolutism violates the integrity of the Filipino people’s tradition of revolutionary struggle for autonomy, our outstanding contribution to humankind’s narrative of the struggle for freedom from all modes of oppression and exploitation.
Becoming Filipino then is a process of dialectical struggle, not a matter of wish-fulfillment or mental conjuring. As I said earlier, it is ultimately a collective political project. For Filipinos to grasp who they are, more importantly what they can become—for humans, as Antonio Gramsci once said, can only be defined in terms of what they can become, in terms of possibilities that can be actualized—we need to examine again the historical circumstances that joined the trajectory of the Philippines and the United States, of Americans and Filipinos, constituting in the process the dialectical configuration we know as Filipino American in its collective or group dimension. The Filipino in the United States is thus a concrete historical phenomenon understandable neither as Filipino alone nor American alone but as an articulation of the political, social, economic and cultural forces of the two societies with their distinct but intersecting histories.
We need to grasp the dialectics of imperial conquest and anticolonial revolution, the dynamics and totality of that interaction, as the key to how, and for what ends, the Philippines and its diasporic citizenry—nearly 10 million strong, sending $10.7 billion dollars last year which made Gloria Arroyo ecstatic at the success of her neoliberalizing scheme--is being reconfigured for the next millennium.
Hall, Stuart. 1997. “Making Diasporic Identities.” In The House that Race Built, ed.
Wahneema Lubiano. New York: Pantheon.
Le Espiritu, Yen. 2003. Home Bound. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
San Juan, E. 2004. Working Through the Contradictions. Lewisburg,PA:Bucknell U. Press.
Wong, Paul and Tania Azores. 1994. “The Migration and Incorporation of Filipino Nurses.” In The New Asian Immigratin in Los Angeles and Global Restructuring, ed. Paul Ong, Edna Bonacich, and Lucie Cheng. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
*This is the text of the lecture delivered at the Second Annual Conference of Sandiwa on Feb. 25, 2006, at the University of Washington, Seattle, USA.
** Dr. E. San Juan, Jr. was recently Fulbright professor of American Studies at Leuven University, Belgium, and visiting professor of literature at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. He directs the Philippine Cultural Studies Center in Connecticut and serves as co-director of the Board of Directors, Philippine Forum, New York. Among his recent books are BEYOND POSTCOLONIAL THEORY (Palgrave), RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press), and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell U Press). He will be a fellow at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy this Fall 2006.
Posted by Sonny San Juan at 9:21 AM