ON THE SITUATION OF FILIPINOS IN THE UNITED STATES
A Review Essay of: ON THE PRESENCE OF FILIPINOS IN THE UNITED STATES AND OTHER ESSAYS. By E. SAN JUAN, Jr. (Salinas, California: SRMNK Publishers, 2007. 114 pp., $12.50 from
by Prof. Jeffrey Arellano Cabusao
Dept of English
Bryant University, Smithfield, RI
Toward the end of their 2005 dialogue homegrown: engaged cultural criticism, African American feminist bell hooks and Chicana artist Amalia Mesa-Bains argue that the reality of post 9/11 forms of racism within the United States (specifically, the role of white racism in the national debate around immigration) and its connection with the U.S. occupation of Iraq “call into question all of our academic theories about postcoloniality” (132). Mesa-Bains states, “… we’re not ‘over’ colonialism. Just think about the undocumented workers who died on 9/11; their names were never added to any lists, and their families were never given any reparation” (132). If these undocumented workers could be added to a list, it would be one that speaks to a long genocidal history of racist violence committed against peoples of color in the United States and well as in the Global South. The invisibility of undocumented workers, which has recently been challenged by hundreds of thousands of immigrants who rallied across the nation in April 2006, is a condition of racial “otherness” that is shared with other communities of color within and without the U.S. nation-state.
E. San Juan, Jr., an internationally renowned Filipino cultural critic and literary scholar located in the United States, offers a thorough rethinking of the very methodological approaches and ideological assumptions that undergird the idea that we’re “over” colonialism in his new book On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States (2007). Today, Filipinos in the United States constitute the largest Asian Pacific American group; they “number nearly three million, with over 70,000 coming every year” (San Juan, 22). Given these numbers, how do we account for the complete ignorance in contemporary U.S. society with regard to the formation of Filipino American communities? How do we account for the indeterminate otherness of the Filipino in the United States?
San Juan encourages us to understand the historical development of the Filipino American community as inextricably interconnected with the unfolding of Philippine society, the Filipino Diaspora, and the history of U.S. Empire. With the brutal and bloody U.S. suppression of Filipino national sovereignty in which one million Filipinos were slaughtered (Filipino-American War, 1898-1902), the Philippines became a possession of the United States. Filipinos, in turn, became “colonial subjects, subalterns of the U.S. Empire” (San Juan, 10). From 1907-1949, Filipino migrant workers, many of whom originated from the Philippine peasantry, were exploited within the United States: “Over one hundred thousand ‘Pinoys/Pinays’ and ‘Manongs’ (affectionate terms of address) helped to build the infrastructure of U.S. industrial capitalism as the major labor force in agribusiness in Hawaii and the West Coast” (San Juan, 20).
The post-1965 immigration patterns (the movement of professionals from the Global South to the North) did not do much to change the material conditions of Filipinos in the United States. San Juan explains why the “model minority” category cannot be applied to the (now) largest segment of Asian Pacific America:
The post-1965 contingent of Filipinos decisively altered the character of the Filipino community: 85 percent were high school graduates, most were professionals and highly skilled personnel who fitted the demands of the U.S. economy. But because of race- biased licensing and hiring practices, they found themselves underemployed or marginalized… Although highly educated, with professional, military or technical backgrounds, fluent in English and nestled in large relatively stable families (average households include 5.4 persons of which two at least are employed), Filipinos in general earn less than whites and all other Asian groups, except the Vietnamese. With women workers in the majority, Filipinos are invisible or absent in the prestigious managerial positions… Labor market segmentation, cultural assimilation under U.S. neocolonial hegemony, and persistent institutional racism explain the inferior status of Filipinos. (22-23).
Racism is ingrained and embedded not only within the social and cultural life of the United States, but also within its very economic structures and its asymmetrical global relations of power.
The exploitation of Filipino labor in the United States is part of a larger historical narrative of the development of U.S. industrial capitalism and the U.S. nation-state as a racial polity: the exploitation of Filipino labor and the U.S. colonization of the Philippines cannot be separated from the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, the exploitation of Chicanos/Latinos, Asian workers, etc. Today, the dispersal of 9-10 million Filipino Overseas Contract Workers (OCWs) around the globe is continuation of this historical narrative, specifically of U.S.-Philippine relations within our “new times” of corporate globalization/U.S. Empire. 70 percent of OCWs are women hired for domestic work. Their labor is exploited around the globe in order to sustain the Philippines as a semi-feudal remittance society.
A population of 89.5 million is attempting to survive within a Philippine society in shambles due to U.S. neocolonial economic control, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and various Structural Adjustment Programs (San Juan, 6; Aguilar, 2007). Each day about three OCWs, whom President Arroyo would like to market to the world as “supermaids,” return in coffins to an increasingly militarized Philippines that has witnessed, over several years, the return of U.S. troops under the Visiting Forces Agreement and the global “war on terrorism” (San Juan, 6; Aguilar, 2007). The militarization of the Philippines is connected to other forms of violence, especially against women. This is evident with the recent Subic Rape case. In 2005, a young Filipina (Nicole) in her early twenties “was gang-raped by four U.S. military servicemen; one of the soldiers was found guilty in a trial last December, only to be whisked away from a local prison by the U.S. Embassy in the middle of the night” (Aguilar, 2007; Lacsamana, 2007). Massive abuses (from imprisonment to death) of progressive human rights activists from various sectors of Philippine society (youth and students, teachers, lawyers, clergy, indigenous communities, workers and peasants) occur daily under the Bush supported Arroyo administration, especially during the presidential elections this past spring. Since 2001, over 850 lives have been claimed by extrajudicial violence in the Philippines (People’s IOM, 2007).
Returning to the other side of the Diaspora, we find that Filipino Americans live a contradictory existence as the largest Asian Pacific American group; yet, their history, culture, and identities are rendered almost invisible. Oftentimes, young Filipino Americans (as was my experience) yearn for the slightest representation of Filipinos in the media, in U.S. culture. Lest we become obsessed over the possibility of celebrities such as Enrique Iglesia, Prince, Foxy Brown, Jessica Alba, or Jay Z as being half, part, or even a fraction Filipino, we must sustain a critical awareness beyond the reification of identity, beyond the limitations of the insipid, mind-numbing morass of a corporatized media that obfuscates, for Filipino Americans, the connection between the creation of identity and the creation of a genuinely independent Philippines (complex process of becoming). For example, very little media attention has been given to the fact that approximately 30,000 Filipinos have been targeted for deportation at this moment of intensified racial profiling under the USA Patriot Act (San Juan, 12). Multiculti celebrations of difference located within the realm of consumption can only leave us with indigestion, bloated with heartburn, precisely because this “politics of difference” is not able to help us come to grips with (develop a systemic analysis of) our condition of exile within the United States.
Fortunately, as San Juan notes, over the past two decades a new generation of Filipino American intellectuals and cultural workers have created an incisive critical sensibility that connects grassroots struggles of Filipinos residing in the United States and in the Philippines (23-24). Here I think of the Critical Filipina and Filipino Studies Collectives and young intellectuals such as Anne Lacsamana (Women’s Studies, Hamilton College) and Michael Viola (Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, UCLA). Today, the anti-globalization and anti-war movements are sites where Filipino American youth are addressing issues of exile, identity, and home. Recent underground hip hop groups such as the Native Guns (California) and the Blue Scholars (Seattle, Washington) have rearticulated the originary emancipatory vision of hip hop to critique the U.S. occupation of Iraq and to shed light on the implications of U.S. Empire for people of color and the working class, especially the Filipino American community and Filipino Diaspora (Viola, 2006).
The publication of On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States comes at an opportune moment not only because of our current global crisis, but also because of the emergence of a new generation of Filipino Americans that yearns to create alternative narratives for their lives. San Juan explores how the invisibility and marginalization of Filipinos within the United States is linked with the neocolonial status of the Philippines. The denial of Filipino identity and history in U.S. society (media, education, etc.) cannot be separated from the historic denial (U.S. imperialism) of the right of Filipinos to determine the future of their country. Far from advocating a “politics of victimization” (one that denies agency to the subaltern), San Juan calls for a “renewal of critical practice” that draws from “a long and durable revolutionary tradition that identifies our collective belonging” (10, 39). This renewal of critical practice can come about by learning how to engage history from the perspective of those committed to breaking the silence of subalternity. San Juan states that history, “however unpredictable, can be ultimately understood through our acts of intervention” (9). The latest book from San Juan explores and exquisitely analyzes the ways in which Filipinos in the United States have created alternative narratives that sustain the dialectical relationship between Filipino subaltern resistance in the United States and in Philippine society.
On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States brings together five insightful essays that illustrate the notion that history can be “understood through… acts of intervention.” Accompanying the essays is a collection of photographs that reveal how Filipinos have been categorized, racialized (from the 1904 St. Louis Exposition to the plantations of the West Coast) as well as the ways in which Filipinos have organized themselves and created solidarity across the boundaries of race, gender, and class (unions of agricultural and cannery workers, ethnic communities and clubs in San Francisco and Louisiana, organization of Filipino Veterans, organizations of indigenous Filipinos in the United States and the Philippines, workers in the Philippines, etc.). San Juan offers a genealogy of Filipino radicalism in the United States that, from its inception, has contextualized the local (labor organizing, multiethnic solidarity in U.S. society) within the context of the global (U.S.-Philippine relations). In addition to this unique international perspective that informs Filipino radicalism, the book highlights other major contributions of Filipino Americans to U.S. and “Third World” movements for social justice such as an analysis of the dynamic role of cultural production within the process of waging class struggle as well as a critique of race/racism in the historical development of U.S. Empire. A main goal of the collection is to provide analytical tools for a new generation of Filipino Americans to confront the condition of exile in the U.S. nation-state.
The introduction is a revision of San Juan’s message of solidarity for a 2006 Program Honoring Filipino Migrants sponsored by the Migrant Heritage Commission (Washington, DC). In this piece, San Juan reflects upon the significance of the year 2006 as the centennial of “the arrival of Filipinos to work in the sugar plantations of Hawaii” (5). Using the centennial as a point of departure, San Juan provides a panoramic view of the current Filipino Diaspora and explores the shared material conditions of Filipino Overseas Contract Workers (9-10 million) around the globe in relation to the state of Philippine society and Filipinos in the United States.
The next four chapters focus specifically on the history of Filipinos in the United States. Instead of viewing Filipinos as “transmigrants or transnationals” (the prefix “trans” ultimately flattens unequal power relations between nation-states and silences the explanatory power of the category of class), San Juan encourages Filipino Americans to come to terms with our collective experience of exile. Chapter one provides a detailed overview of the Filipino community in the United States – its historical development and current conditions within this era of global “war on terrorism.” If confronting history is necessary for Filipino Americans to break free from the paralysis of multiculti forms of identity politics, then San Juan provides examples of how to engage history in the next two chapters.
In chapter two, San Juan re-assesses the life and work of Filipino American writer and labor organizer Carlos Bulosan (1911-1956). Bulosan’s America is in the Heart (1946) is now required reading in Ethnic, Asian American, and American Studies college courses across the country. Three decades earlier, in solidarity with social movements around the globe, San Juan unearthed Bulosan’s radical literary imagination with the publication of Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle (1972). Today, San Juan proposes a rethinking of the Bulosan canon by centering the posthumously published The Cry and the Dedication and other lesser known writings (short stories, correspondence, poems, etc.). Focusing on the relationship between Bulosan’s literary production and political commitment can provide fresh insight into the kinds of genres created by subaltern writers, such as “minor literature” (Deleuze and Guattari) and critical realism (San Juan, 48). One of the tasks that must be addressed when exploring Bulosan’s alternative canon is that of historicizing: how did Bulosan become a writer? San Juan provides a stunning genealogy of Bulosan’s radical literary imagination, which is divided into three categories: gestation (1911-1930, emergence (1930-1946), and breakthrough (1946-1956). For senior scholars and for those who are new to Bulosan, this outline will be useful for future research and scholarship as well as for activist engagement with Bulosan’s large body of writing.
Chapter three focuses on Philip Vera Cruz (1904-1994), the once vice-president of the United Farm Workers (UFW). While Bulosan may be canonized within various interdisciplinary fields of study, Vera Cruz has been virtually forgotten despite the fact that his memoir was published in 1992 by the Labor Center and the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA. San Juan attempts to open new spaces for re-assessment of Vera Cruz’s memoir – to approach it as a testimonio (to borrow from Rigoberta Menchu) that moves beyond “personal confession” and toward an exploration of the social forces that distort the lives of people of color in the United States as well as a documentation of the multiple ways in which the colonized subaltern in U.S. society has spoken against injustice (forging lines of solidarity with other ethnic groups, sustaining a commitment to fusing class struggle in the metropole with national sovereignty struggles in the Global South). What is dramatized in Bulosan’s writings (development of subaltern agency and international solidarity) from 1930-1950s is advanced by Vera Cruz’s life as he assumed a leadership position in the UFW (an organization that can trace its roots to the interventions of militant Filipino migrant workers). Vera Cruz’s commitment to multiethnic class struggle (the dialectical relationship between the politics of representation and the politics of distribution) beyond narrow identity politics (representation removed from distribution) is illustrated in his decision to critique Cesar Chavez’s “support of the Marcos dictatorship… [while remaining] supportive of the UFW and the entire unionizing movement” (San Juan, 78-79).
The final chapter of the collection is a revised version of a keynote speech addressed to Filipino American youth and students. San Juan encourages our youth and students to meditate on the unique contributions of the Manong generation (Bulosan and Vera Cruz) -- those who engaged their local struggles within the context of international solidarity with oppressed peoples around the globe. As a way to combat the severe forms of marginalization and painful invisibility within mainstream U.S. culture, Filipino Americans must embrace the ways in which an earlier generation played an integral and very visible role in the creation of history, in the collective struggle for human dignity and freedom. On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States reflects upon this history by paying homage to labor organizers such as Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo as well as:
Pablo Manlapit, Pedro Calosa, Chris Mensalvas, Ernesto Mangaong, Carlos Bulosan, Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and nameless others in the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU); Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), and other grassroot formations who sacrificed their lives to uphold Filipino self-respect and autonomy (10).
Instead of romanticizing the past, San Juan extracts lessons from the Manong generation for young Filipino Americans. The first lesson is to 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” (94). The second is to 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” (99).
If we remember the protagonist (Allos/Carlos) of Bulosan’s America is in the Heart, we’ll recognize that these are the very lessons that he learns in his own development as an organic intellectual. His maturation as a member of the U.S. working class enabled Allos/Carlos to bridge peasant insurgencies in the Philippines (part one of the narrative) and Filipino American working class militancy. Rather than straddling borders transnationally, the Manong generation focused on contributing to a long history of international class struggle and developed methods for creating history. Due to our location (local and global subject positions) and our history within the United States, our task as young Filipino Americans is to sustain this memory as a site of resistance as we attempt to speak out and organize against our condition of exile.
On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States on one hand, documents our past; on the other, it documents the author’s contributions to the on-going vibrant Filipino struggle for social justice and freedom. San Juan, who has been an insurgent intellectual for over four decades, provides analytical tools, methodological approaches for us to renew our critical practice. His writing, while speaking to the specificity of the Filipino experience, is imbued with a steadfast commitment to social justice for all oppressed and exploited peoples. San Juan, in his own praxis, is advancing the contributions of Carlos Bulosan and the other Manongs for my generation. As I finished reading On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States, my mind returned to the following lines of one my favorite Bulosan poems (“To My Countrymen”) that illustrates the depth of commitment to social change felt by Filipinos of an earlier generation:
And across the flaming darkness of life,
I flung a sword of defiance to give you freedom:
Here in the seven-pillared wisdom-house of truth,
Where I knelt, where I wept, where I lived
To change the course of history; because I love you.
San Juan’s passion for justice provides much needed encouragement for young Filipino Americans to develop new ways of being, knowing, and feeling that can only develop through struggle -- by learning that we can understand history and imagine that new worlds are possible through our collective acts of intervention. --##
Aguilar, Delia D. “Class Considerations in a Globalized Economic Order.” Keynote address at the 22-23 March 2007 Pacific Northwest Regional Conference of the National Association for Chicana/o Studies, University of Washington: "Class Dismissed? Reintegrating Critical Studies of Class into Chicana and Chicano Studies." 29/05/07. MRZine. http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrzine/aguilar290507.html
Bulosan, Carlos. On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writing of Carlos Bulosan. ed. E. San Juan, Jr., Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1995.
hooks, bell and Amalia Mesa-Bains. homegrown: engaged cultural criticism. Boston, MA: South End Press, 2005.
People’s IOM (International Observers’ Mission) 2007. “Collation of Findings and Initial Recommendations.” Document on national elections in the Philippines (May 2007).
Lacsamana, Anne. “Why Nationalism Matters: Confronting Empire in Filipina American Feminist Thought.” Forthcoming 2007.
Viola, Michael. “Filipino American Hip-Hop and Class Consciousness: Renewing the Spirit of Carlos Bulosan.” 15/04/06. MRZine. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/viola150406.html