by E. San Juan, Jr.
Farewell, my adored Land, region of the sun caressed,
Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost….
On the Asiatic coast, washed by the waves of the ocean, lie the smiling Philippines…. There, American rifles mowed down human lives in heaps.
They are even afraid of our songs of love, my brother….
This year 2006 we are celebrating the Centennial of the arrival of Filipinos to work in the sugar plantations of Hawaii. This has been interpreted as the beginning of Filipino immigration and settlement in the United States. In the light of the profound economic and political crisis in the Philippines today, what could be the import and significance of this event? Are Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) the new compradors for the Empire? Or are they harbingers of a new generation of Manlapits, Calosas, and other grassroot combatants of oppressed, beleaguered communities in scattered battlefronts, of Filipinos dispersed around the world? What is the character of this emerging Filipino diaspora?
An estimated three thousand Filipinos leave the country everyday, roughly a million every year. In 2004, 8.08 million Filipinos out of 80 million left the country. Today, with a population totaling 89.5 million, that would run to about 9-10 million, with about 3-4 million in North America, and the rest scattered around the world. About 3.5 cadavers of Overseas Filipinos (now an entry in the Wikipedia), or OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers), land every day at the Manila International Airport—not as famous as Flor Contemplacion or Maricris Sioson, but scandalous enough to merit attention.
Balikbayan cadavers? This may prove that despite the borderless world of predatory global capitalism today, as the English-speaking Pinay celebrity Patricia Evangelista once orated, Filipinos always return to their home—or “the idea of a home.” They will presumably return–thousands of Filipino nurses who have served the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, and a quarter-of-a-million Filipino seafarers who have sweated it out in foreign commercial ships. Not to worry; many come home alive, if bruised or brutalized, suffering stress syndrome of some kind. But never mind, the dollars (amounting last year to $10.7 billion; $12 billion in 2003) of these new investors, or “bagong bayani” –as Tita Cory acclaimed them– have saved the skins of trapos (traditional politicians), sustained the glamorous lives of a few oligarchic families, and glorified the Philippines as a proud supplier of skilled human labor-power for the world’s affluent citizens in the North (Europe, North America, Japan), and in developing nations (Middle East, Africa, the Asian “Tigers”).
So we are indeed extremely generous. We are investing more in the overdevelopment of Europe and petrodollar-rich Arab kingdoms than in our country where we are witnessing, in slow motion, the irreversible collapse of the health-care system. Who cares, anyway? Not the plutocratic hustlers in power. With drastic cutbacks in funding for education and other social services, with more than one billion pesos siphoned off to fund a counter-insurgency “total war” to kill dissenting Filipinos, some in the New People’s Army and in several Moro Fronts, the rest as ordinary journalists, lawyers, public servants, Bayan Muna activists, and so on. Meanwhile, death squads with tacit official backing continue their rampage of massacring ordinary workers, peasants, women, Muslims, Igorots, Lumads, left and right, aside from 700 citizens already murdered or forcibly “disappeared.” We are faced with the impending total breakdown of the illegitimate regime, confronted by disgruntled businessmen, Catholic bishops, millions of workers and peasants massing in various metropolitan centers to mount rallies before the guns of ruthless police and soldiers and hired thugs.
Keep the dollars flowing in to pay the debt, oligarchs pray, or the World Bank and financial despots will come in and pronounce doom. Can a remittance society survive in the long run? The uninterrupted flow of remittance is contingent on an inherently unstable precarious labor market, a market completely unpredictable, mortgaged to the essentially crisis-ridden globalized economy of corporate profit-making. The “war on global terrorism” threatens the smooth flow of remittance every day, the value of currency, computer servers, etc. The first and second Iraq Wars led to the dislocation of thousands of contract workers. War measures against Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other U.S.-declared “axes of evil” are bound to impede, if not totally cut off, this flow of dollars to keep afloat the entrenched bureaucratic ranks and the comprador elite—the privileged minority who, for a century now, has colluded with the U.S. and other foreign corporate interests in keeping the country an underdeveloped, dependent, subordinate appendage of the Empire. With the environment ruined, the infrastructure wasted, and most educated Filipinos abroad schlepping along with their “damaged culture,” as one American pundit labeled the malaise, there might be no viable “home” to which Patricia’s compatriots can return to and spend their golden years of retirement.
Meanwhile, the fabled ascendancy of this overseas “middle” class—a freakish diaspora of sorts mimicking the Indian and Chinese migration in modern times—has led to stagnation and near collapse. As Richard Paddock recently noted in a Los Angeles Times (April 20, 2006) report on this phenomenon, the much touted “booming economy” of the current regime “can’t create even the 1.5 million jobs a year needed to keep up with population growth.” No wonder, the Philippine health care system is in ruins, the public schools a wreck, families disintegrated, and the system corrupted thoroughly by the profits gained by bureaucrats, politicians, recruiting agencies, and other parasites from the misery of millions of OFWs. Who cares, anyway?
Escaping to the Land of Promise
Let us turn to the erstwhile land of promise, the “land of the free and home of the brave.” While there are now close to three million Filipinos in the United States (not counting the “TNT”s [literally, “dodging and hiding” as undocumented aliens]), who are either citizens or permanent residents, the majority by habit or prudent decision still consider the Philippines their real and only homeland. This unless they have opted to become Anglos by sheer self-denial, shame, or suicide by self-delusion. Even if they modify their ethnic identity as “Filipino American,” they are perceived as “Filipino” by the majoritarian optic in this racial polity governed by the ethos of white supremacy. Their country of origin, their nationality, is reproduced by the logic of cultural pluralism that underlies U.S. immigration and naturalization ideology and policy. This logic is demonstrated everyday in the immigration debate, by the proponents of a liberal “guest worker” program or by the neoconservative scheme of a heavily militarized border. To be sure, the immigration problem masks the fundamental reality of fierce class war waged every day by the corporate elite, now led by Bush and his neoconservative clique, against the majority of citizens, in particular against people of color. Did Patricia proclaim a “borderless” world where love for one’s neighbour is dutifully observed?
But Filipinos will continue to leave, according to the cliché, “come hell or high water….” Recall how many Filipinos reacted, when the government prohibited travel to Iraq on account of Angelo de la Cruz’s kidnapping, that they would rather go to Iraq to work and be killed instantly rather than die a slow death in their “beloved Philippines.” Lives of quiet desperation? Survival of the fittest by adaptation to a fixed environment, or to the pressure of changing historical circumstances?
History, however unpredictable, can be ultimately understood through our acts of intervention. Until the nature of the U.S. racial polity (founded on white supremacy/Herrenvolk Exceptionalism) is changed, the “Filipino” will survive despite assimilation or self-denial. What this “Filipino” might be, remains to be seen. The essays in this booklet intend to elicit critical thinking on this evolving “identity” and to provoke informed, constructive discussion. We want to explore the meaning of the Filipino “presence” (see aspects of this term in Theological Dictionary, 1965, by Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler) in the conflicted arena of a global ecumene in this new millennium.
Stigmata of History
Despite the unrecognized majority status of Filipinos within the Asian American category, Filipinos remain marginalized and racialized due to physical markers, accent, association by name, and other knowable reasons. One key reason is historical: the first Philippine Republic, victorious over Spanish rule, was destroyed by invading U.S. forces in the Filipino-American War of 1899-1913. Over one million Filipinos died fighting for national self-determination. We became colonial subjects, subalterns of the U.S. Empire. Throughout the twentieth century, Filipinos rebelled—via strikes, seditious theater, peasant insurrections, clandestine newspapers, guerilla actions, etc.– and fought for justice and independence. We wanted boundaries to mark and delineate the territory of the Filipino nation as well as the sovereignty of the nation-state called the Philippines.
We Filipinos are proud to have a long and durable revolutionary tradition that identifies our collective belonging. The first Filipinos recruited by the Hawaiian plantations– and, later on, by the Alaskan canneries and California agribusiness– distinguished themselves not only by diligent work but by militant resistance to exploitation. We use this occasion to pay homage to Pablo Manlapit, Pedro Calosa, Chris Mensalvas, Ernesto Mangaong, Carlos Bulosan, Philip Vera Cruz, and nameless others (in the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union; United Farm Workers, and other grassroot formations) who sacrificed their lives to uphold Filipino self-respect and autonomy. At the least, they fought for human dignity. They not only fought for principles of class, gender, and racial equality, but also for respect for their nationality and ethnic integrity. Personal honor, class identity, and nationality constituted one dialectical constellation of values and norms.
Rebirth or Resurrection?
Reality is always contradictory, and changes are never uniform and reducible to easy generalizations. Since the end of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, more than nine million Filipinos, now known as “Overseas Filipino Workers,” have been scattered around the planet. Because the homeland remains a neocolonized dependency, economic backwardness accounts for severe unemployment. In the fifties, Magsaysay promised and delivered some token homesteads to Huk surenderees, at the expense of the Moros. But that propaganda frontier, that illusory “safety valve,” is gone. After all, it was simply a Cold War “promise” designed to defeat the impatient Huk Politburo.
Today, the Philippines has been integrated into the neoliberal global market, thanks to the subservient oligarchy. This is Patricia’s borderless dreamworld of buy-and-sell, of the certain freedom of starving if no one buys your labor-power. Filipinos have to “sell” themselves in the predatory globalized market. Despite globalization, the system of nation-states and the hierarchy of international power politics will persist until genuine equality among nations and peoples becomes, via a revolutionary transformation, a reality.Can we envision Filipinos as part of a world proletariat arming themselves for a general mass strike, as Rosa Luxemburg prophesied for twentieth-century Europe? Will Filipinos participate in storming the barricades of Wall Street and other centers of corporate power? One recalls the mass demonstrations organized by MIGRANTE and other groups in Hong Kong, North America, Italy, and other countries, against President Arroyo’s Proclamation 1017 and the continuing brutalization of opponents by torture, extra-judicial killings, “disappearances,”and so on.
Once upon a time, according to an often cited family album entitled Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, Filipinos died for “Americanism,” assuming that Filipinos wanted to be 200% Americans as they fought side by side with their colonizers in Bataan and Corregidor. Recently, a reporter associated with the East-West Center in Hawaii noted how “the imperial wheel had turned full circle” when, in 1945, Filipino veterans were finally awarded full U.S. citizenship for their military service to the country.” Unfortunately, in 1946, the U.S. Congress rescinded the rights of these same veterans. Of the original 141,000, only 29,000 survive; 8,000 reside in the U.S., the rest in the Philippines. Even if the Filipino Veterans Bill is approved, benefits will not be extended to those veterans living in the Philippines. “Americanism,” anyone?
Meanwhile, immediately after 9/11, over 465 Filipinos, some already U.S. citizens, were deported as criminals, manacled during the 22-hour chartered flight to the homeland. Under the white-supremacist USA Patriot Act, according to the organization FOCUS, the entire Filipino community—not just individuals like the Cuevas family of Fremont, California– is under attack. An estimated 300,000 Filipino immigrants will be deported from the U.S., according to a Department of Foreign Affairs official in the Philippines. Whither Americanism a century hence?
What then does this Centennial signify? Could it be the rebirth of the Filipino as multicultural citizen of a borderless world, as zealous hawkers of the nomadic, multivocal, hybrid Pinoy contend? Certainly it is not the resurrection of the “Flip” or the “little brown brother” as a refurbished Stephen Fetchit in a non-stop minstrelsy ”Pilipino Cultural Night” of tinikling, kiyeme and Maganda dogeaters. In any case, it is instructive to celebrate the Centennial by noting that Filipinos in the U.S. form a decisive contingent of this evolving diaspora because of its location, not yet their collective praxis, in the metropole of the global hegemon. The ideology of “Americanism” retooled to fit the neoconservative “civilizing mission” of the “New American Century” still prevails, despite unscrupulous, opportunistic negotiations of self-serving, “model minority” assimilationist cheerleaders of the community.
Of course, location is not enough. But being dis-located is a strategic disadvantage since you need orientation to find your direction and accomplish collective goals. Otherwise, you are at the mercy of sharks, sirens, and the destructive cyclic breakdowns of imperial globalization. The pathos of the OFW’s predicament is captured powerfully by Angelo de la Cruz’s response after his release by his kidnappers in Iraq in July 2004: “They kept saying I was a hero,…a symbol of the Philippines. To this day I keep wondering what it is I have become.” What have I become? So what have we become as displaced and transported Filipinos outside our homeland, the imagined but realizable and knowable community of our fears, loves, and longings? “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, yea…” yearning for our lost Eden, singing forbidden songs under constant surveillance by the FBI, CIA. Border patrols, White Supremacist vigilantes, and so on.
We are not transmigrants or transnationals, to be sure, despite the lucubrations of academic pundits and exoticizing media. To speak plainly, we are Filipinos uprooted and dispersed from hearth and communal habitat. We will find our true home if there is a radical systemic change in the metropole and, more crucially, a popular-democratic transformation in the Philippines. Short of a world without classes and nation-states, without the propertied few exploiting the many in the name of “freedom” and “democracy,” in the meantime, we need to “cultivate our garden,” as a French philosophe once counseled. What else bears repeating? Only a free, prosperous, genuinely sovereign Philippines can give Filipinos here and Pinays/Pinays everywhere their authentic identity and empower them as creative, resourceful humans in a world of free, equal associated producers. Mabuhay ang Pilipinas, ang buong sambayanan!*
*This is a longer version of a brief message sent originally to the Migrant Heritage Commission, Washington, DC, for their Program Honoring the Filipino Migrants, June 10, 2006, at the Hyatt Regency Crystal Hotel, Arlington, Virginia.
For an elaboration of the themes and theses of this message see the author’s books: Racial Formations/Critical Transformations (Humanities Press, 1992) ; The Philippine Temptation (Temple U Press, 1996); From Exile to Diaspora (Westview, 1998); After Postcolonialism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Working Through the Contradictions (Bucknell U Press, 2004); and online articles: