by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.

Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makararating sa paroroonan.

–Filipino proverb

Now the largest cohort in the Asian American group, Filipinos have now become the newest diasporic community in the whole world: almost nine million Filipino migrant workers (OFWs), mostly female domestic help, work in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, North America, and elsewhere. Diasporic groups are historically defined not only by a homeland but also by a desire for eventual return and a collective identity centered on myths and memories of the homeland. The Filipino diaspora, however, is different. Since the homeland has been long colonized by Western powers (Spain, U.S.) and remains neocolonized despite formal or nominal independence, the Filipino identification is not with a fully defined nation but with regions, localities, and communities of languages and traditions. Where is the nation alluded to in passports and other identification papers? How do we conceive of this “Filipino” nation, given the preemptive impact of U.S. colonization and now, on top of the persistent neocolonizing pressure, the usurping force of globalized transnational capital?

According to orthodox immigration theory, “push” and “pull” factors combine to explain the phenomenon of Overseas Contract Workers. Do we resign ourselves to this easy schematic formulation? Poverty and injustice, to be sure, have driven most Filipinos to seek work abroad, sublimating the desire to return by remittances to their families; occasional visits and other means of communication defer the eventual homecoming. If the return is postponed, are modes of adaptation and temporary domicile in non-native grounds the alternatives?
The reality of “foreignness” cannot be eluded. Alienation, brutal treatment and racism prevent their permanent re-settlement in the “receiving societies,” except where Filipino communities (as in the U.S. and Canada, for example) have been given legal access to citizenship rights. Individuals, however, have to go through screening and tests.

During political crisis in the Philippines, Filipino overseas workers mobilize themselves for support of local and nationwide resistance against imperial domination and local tyranny. Because the putative “Filipino” nation is in the process of formation in the neocolony and abroad, overseas Filipino workers have been considered transnationals or transmigrants–a paradoxical turn since the existence of the nation is problematic. This diaspora then confronts the central issue of racism and ethnic exclusion or inferiorization: can Filipino migrant labor mount resistance against globalized exploitation? Can the Filipino diaspora expose also the limits of liberal notions of citizenship? In what way can the Filipino diaspora serve as a paradigm for analyzing and critically unsettling the corporate globalization of labor and the reification of identities in the new millennium? The following reflections are offered as a heuristic point of departure for further inquiry into this unprecedented historic event.

World Historic Happenstance?

Let me interject a personal note: I have lived in the U.S. for over 40 years now (the greater part of my life), with frequent visits to the Philippines without too many balikbayan boxes, unfortunately. And in my various travels I have encountered Filipinos in many parts of the world. In the early eighties I was surprised to meet compatriots at the footsteps of the Post Office in Tripoli, Libya, and later on in the streets and squares of London, Edinburgh, Spain, Italy, Tokyo, Taiwan, and other places.  Have I then stumbled onto some global enigmatic phenomenon as a “Filipino diaspora”? Or have I socially and transnationally constructed this, dare I say, “reality” and ongoing experience of about nine million Filipinos around the planet?

I might state at the outset a fact known to all observers: the annual remittance of billions of dollars by Filipino workers abroad suffices to keep the Philippine economy afloat and support the luxury and privileges of less than one percent of the people, the Filipino oligarchy. Since the seventies, Filipino bodies have been the No. 1 Filipino export, and their corpses (about 5 or 6 return in coffins daily) are becoming a serious item in the import ledger. In 1998 alone, according to the Commission on Filipinos Overseas, 755,000 Filipinos found work abroad, sending home a total of P7.5 billion.  About two thousand five hundred OFWs leave everyday. Throughout the nineties, the average total of migrant workers is about a million a year; they remit over five percent of the national GNP, not to mention the millions of pesos collected by the Philippine government in myriad taxes and fees. Hence these overseas cohorts are glorified as “modern heroes,” “mga bagong bayani,” according to Cory Aquino, the most famous of whom are Flor Contemplacion and Sarah Balabagan.

This is an unprecedented and mind-boggling phenomenon. Over one thousand concerned Filipino American students made this the central topic of the 1997 FIND CONFERENCE at SUNY Binghamton where I was a keynote speaker. These concerned youth were bothered by the reputation of the Filipina/o as the “domestic help” or servant of the world. How did Filipinos come to find themselves dispersed and scattered to the four corners of the earth? What are we doing about it? In general, what is the meaning and import of this unprecedented traffic, Filipina/os in motion and in transit around the planet?

How did We End Here?

There was no significant group of inhabitants from the Philippine Islands in the North American continent or anywhere else—except for a few student enclaves in Spain in the latter half of the 19th century–until the annexation and colonization of the Philippines by the United States in 1898 as part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War. With the exclusion of Chinese and Japanese workers by various immigration laws from 1882 to 1924, the recruitment of Filipino labor for the Hawaii plantations began in earnest in 1907 and continued without letup until 1935, when immigration was cut to 50 a year (San Juan 1998a; 1998b).

From the twenties to the thirties, Filipino contract labor in the U.S. totalled about half a million—most of these workers eventually settled in the U.S. mainland rather than return to their native villages. If there is a collective trauma or primal scenario of loss to which postcolonial scholars and cultural critics would gesture, it would be nothing else but the destruction of the institutions of Filipino sovereignty established by the Philippine revolution of 1896-1898, the suppression of Filipino revolutionary bodies by the United States military forces, in the Philippine-American War (1899-1903) that cost over a million lives. We are still living with the legacy of this defeat and occupation, this time in a neocolonial tributary dependency.

There was no real Filipino diaspora before the Marcos dictatorship in the seventies and eighties. It was only after the utter devastation of the Philippines in World War II, and the worsening of economic and political conditions in the neocolonial setup from the late sixties to the present, that Filipinos began to leave in droves. During the Marcos martial law regime, the functionality of Overseas Contract Workers was constructed and/or discovered by the elite and its hegemonic patrons as a response to both local and global conditions. From the Aquino to the present Estrada regime, OCW productivity serves to keep the rotten system afloat. Overseas Filipino Workers is now a category of citizens in the Philippines and in so-called “receiving” societies like Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Middle Eastern kingdoms, and assorted European states—including Yugoslavia.

Reinventing Filipino-ness?

It is now a banal truism that globalization has facilitated the mobility of goods, services, information, ideas, and of course people—and maybe assorted cyborgs. The postmodernist anthropologist James Clifford has invented the idea of contemporary travelling cultures—a version of the cargo cults–borne by nomadic or diasporic intellectuals. Globalization has proceeded to the extent that in our reconfigured landscapes, according to the experts in liminality and interstitial spaces, boundaries have shifted, borders disappeared, and everyone has become transculturized. Americanization, or Disneyfication, has spread physically and in cyberspace. There is also the parachuting transnationals or transmigrants that Aihwa Ong has described, as well as mutations of expatriates, refugees, and exiles—including our own Filipino TNTs (an indigenized form of hide-and-seek, according to some wits), our Filipinized version of “undocumented aliens.”

Given these transformations, the reality and idea of the nation, of national sovereignty, have become the subject of theoretical speculation. Linked to that are concepts of identity and its attendant politics of difference, notions of citizenship, nationality, cosmopolitanism, belonging, human rights, and so on. It is in this milieu of globalization, where ethnic conflicts and universal commodification coexist in a compressed time-space locus within the postmodern dispensation (Harvey 1989), that we should pose the question of the Filipino diaspora.

Instead of pronouncing here my obiter dicta on this topic, (San Juan 1996),  I would like to engage your readers briefly with questions on the historical and ideological specificity of the Filipino diaspora. One way of doing this is by interrogating certain themes and notions presented by James Clifford in his essay on “Diaspora” (1997). I offer the following “talking points” for exchange. Clifford proposes “an ideal type” of diaspora based on the Jewish paradigm. The main features of this ideal type are: 1) dispersal from an originary habitat, 2) myths and memories of the homeland, 3) alienation in the host country, 4) desire for eventual return, 5) ongoing support for the homeland, and 6) a collective identity defined by the relationship to the homeland. Responding to the globalization process I mentioned earlier, Clifford espouses a decentered or multiply centered diaspora network. He rejects teleologies of origin and return because he perceives multiple transnational connections that provide a range of experiences to diasporic communities; these experiences depend on the changing possibilities, the obstacles, openings, antagonisms, and connections in the host countries.

Given the various histories of displacements none of which coincide, diaspora is for Clifford the site of contingency par excellence. He envisages a “polythetic field of diasporic forms” articulating multiple discourses of travels, homes, memories, and transnational connections. Clifford conceives of diaspora as a “loosely coherent, adaptive constellation of responses to dwelling-in-displacement,” hence his ideal is that of a tribal cosmopolitanism, a modern version of the old cosmopolitanism of tribal groups shaped by travel, spiritual quest, trade, exploration, warfare, labor migrancy, and political alliances of all kinds. Can Filipinos be conceived of as tribal cosmopolitans in that context?

In general, imperialism and the anarchy of the “free market” engender incongruities, non-synchronies, the Other inscribed in liminal and interstitial space. Capital accumulation is the matrix of unequal power (Harvey 1989) between metropolis and colonies. The historical reality of uneven cultural development in a U.S. colonial and, later, neocolonial society like the Philippines is evident in the visible Americanization of schooling, mass media, literature in English, and diverse channels of mass communication (advertisements, TV and films, etc.). Since the seventies, globalization has concentrated on the exploitation of local tastes and idioms for niche marketing while the impact of the Filipino diaspora in the huge flow of remittances from OFWs has accentuated the discrepancy between metropolitan wealth and neocolonial poverty, with the consumerist habitus made egregiously flagrant in the conspicuous consumption of domestic helpers returning from the Middle East, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and other places with balikbayan boxes. Unbeknowst to observers of this postmodern “cargo cult,” coffins of these dead workers (one of them martyred in Singapore, Flor Contemplacion, achieved the status of national saint) arrive in Manila at the rate of five or six a day without too much fanfare.

In addition to the rampant pillage of the national treasury by corrupt Filipino compradors, bureaucrat-capitalists and landlords, the plunder of the economy by transnational companies has been worsened by the “structural conditionalities” imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Disaggregation of the economy has registered in the disintegration of ordinary Filipino lives due to forced migration because of lack of employment, recruiting appeals of governments and business agencies, and the dissolution of the national homeland as psychic and physical anchorage with the triumph of commodity-fetishism.

Symptomatic of a disaggregated and uneven socioeconomic formation are the narratives spun around the trauma of dislocation undergrone by over 9 million OFWs, mostly women.  This unprecedented hemorrhage of labor-power, the massive export of educated women whose skills have been downgraded to quasi-slavish domestic help, issues from a diseased body politic. The marks of the disease are the impoverishment of 75% of the population, widespread corruption by the minuscule oligarchy, criminality, military/police atrocities, and the intensifying insurgency of peasants, women, workers, and indigenous communities. The network of the patriarchal family and semifeudal civil society unravels when women from all sectors (except the very rich) alienate their “free labor” in the world market.  While the prime commodity remains labor-power (singularly measured here in both time and space especially for lived-in help), OFWs find themselves frozen in a tributary status between serfhood and colonizing pettybourgeois households (Aguilar and Lacsamana 2004).

Except for the carceral condition of “hospitality” women in Japan and elsewhere overseen by gangsters, most Filipinas function as indentured servants akin to those in colonial settler societies in 17th century Virginia, Australia, Jamaica, and elsewhere.  But unlike those societies, the Middle East, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore and other receiving countries operate as part of the transnationalized political economy of global capitalism. These indentured cohorts are witness to the dismemberment of the emergent Filipino nation and the scattering of its traumatized elements to state-governed territories around the planet.

Postscripts For Deliverance

Let us examine the Filipino genre of diaspora, its tendencies and idiosyncracies. My first thesis is this: Given that the Philippine homeland or habitat has never cohered as a genuinely independent nation—national autonomy continues to escape the nation-people in a neocolonial formation—Filipinos are dispersed from family or kinship webs in villages, towns or provincial regions first, and loosely from a neocolonized (some say “refeudalized”) nation-state. This dispersal is primarily due to economic coercion under the retrogressive regime of comprador-bureaucratic (not welfare-state) capitalism; migration is seen as freedom to seek one’s fortune, experience the pleasure of adventure, libidinal games of resistance, etc. So the origin to which one returns is not a nation or nation-state but a village, town, or kinship network; the state is viewed in fact as a corrupt exploiter, not representative of the masses, a comprador agent of transnational corporations and Western (specifically U.S.) powers.

Second thesis: What are the myths and memories of the homeland? They derive from assorted childhood memories and folklore together with customary practices of folk and religious celebrations; at best, there may be signs of a residual affective tie to national heroes like Rizal, Bonifacio, and latter-day celebrities like singers, movie stars, athletes, and so on. Indigenous food, dances, and music can be acquired as commodities whose presence temporarily heals the trauma of removal; family reunification can resolve the psychic damage of loss of status or alienation.  In short, rootedness in autochtonous habitat or soil does not exert a commanding influence, or it exists as a faint nostalgic trace. Meanwhile, language, religion, kinship, family rituals, and common experiences in school or work-place function invariably as the organic bonds of community.

Third thesis: Alienation in the host country is what unites Filipinos, a shared history of colonial and racial subordination, marginalization, and struggles for cultural survival through hybrid forms of resistance and political rebellion.  This is what may replace the non-existent nation/homeland, absent the liberation of the Filipino nation. In the thirties, Carlos Bulosan once observed that “it is a crime to be a Filipino in America.” Years of struggle in inter-ethnic coalitions, of union organizing, have blurred if not erased that stigma.  Accomplishments in the civil rights struggles of the sixties have provided nourishment for ethnic pride. And, on the other side, impulses of assimilationism via the “model minority” umbrella have aroused a passion for neoliberal multiculturalism. But compared to the Japanese or Indian Americans, Filipino Americans as a whole have not made it; the exceptions prove the rule. Andrew Cunanan is the spectre that continues to haunt “melting pot” Filipino Americanists who continue to blabber about the “forgotten Filipino” in the hope of being awarded a share of the obsolescent welfare-state pie.

Via strategies of community preservation and other schemes of defining the locality of the community in historical contexts of displacement, the Filipino diaspora defers its return—unless and until there is a Filipino nation that they can identify with. This will continue in places where there is no hope of permanent resettlement as citizens or bonafide residents (as in Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and elsewhere).
Fourth thesis: Some Filipinos in their old age may desire eventual return only when they are economically secure. In general, Filipinos will not return to the site of misery and oppression—to poverty, exploitation, humiliated status, unemployment, hunger, and lack of dignity. OCWs would rather move their kins and parents to their place of employment in countries where family reunification is allowed: in the United States, Italy, Canada, and so on. Or even in places of suffering provided there is some hope or illusion of future improvement.

Fifth thesis: Ongoing support for nationalist struggles at home is sporadic and intermittent. Do we see any mass protests and collective indignation here at the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), for example, and the recent invasion of the country by several thousand U.S. Marines? During the Marcos dictatorship, the politicized generation of Filipino Americans here was able to mobilize a large segment of the community to support democratic mass struggles, including the armed resistance, against the U.S.-Marcos authoritarian rule. Filipino nationalism blossomed in the late sixties and seventies, but suffered attenuation when it got rechanelled to support the populist elitism of Aquino and Ramos, and now the lumpen populism of Estrada. This aspect is subject to political organization and calculation, hence the intervention of Filipino agencies with emancipatory goals and national democratic principles is crucial and strategically necessary.

Sixth thesis:  In this time of emergency, the Filipino collective identity is in crisis and in a stage of formation and elaboration. The Filipino diasporic consciousness is an odd species, a singular genre: it is not obsessed with a physical return to roots or to land where common sacrifices are remembered and celebrated. It is tied more to a symbolic homeland indexed by kinship or particularistic traditions which it tries to reconstitute in diverse localities. So, in the moment of Babylonian captivity, dwelling in “Egypt” or its modern surrogates, building public spheres of solidarity to sustain identities outside the national time/space “in order to live inside, with a difference” may be the most viable route (or root) of  Filipinos in motion—the collectivity in transit, although this is subject to the revolutionary transformations emerging in the Philippine countryside and cities. And other radical changes in the geopolitical rivalry of metropolitan powers.  There is indeed deferral, postponement, or waiting—but history moves on in the battlefields of Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao where a people’s war rooted in a durable revolutionary tradition rages on. This drama of a national-democratic revolution will not allow the Filipino diaspora to slumber in the consumerist paradises of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, or Seattle.  It will certainly disturb the peace of those benefiting from the labor and sacrifices of Overseas Filipino Workers who experience the repetition-compulsion of globalized trade and endure the recursive trauma of displacement and dispossession.

Finally, a very provisional and indeed temporizing epilogue—if I may beg leave from those Filipina bodies (at least five a day arrive at the Manila International Airport) in coffins heading home: Filipinos in the United States (and elsewhere, given the still hegemonic Western dispensation)—if I may quote the concluding lines of my article in the cyberspace on Filipino Americans—are neither “oriental” nor “hispanic,” despite their looks and names. They might be syncretic or hybrid subjects with suspect loyalties.  They cannot be called fashionable “transnationals” because of racialized, ascribed markers (physical appearance, accent, pecular non-white folkways) that are needed to sustain and reproduce Eurocentric white supremacy every day (San Juan 2002). Ultimately, Filipino agency in the era of global capitalism depends not only on the vicissitudes of social transformation in the U.S. but, in a dialectical sense, on the fate of the struggle for autonomy and popular-democratic sovereignty in the Philippines where balikbayans still practice, though with increasing trepidation interrupted by fits of amnesia, the speech-acts and durable performances of pakikibaka, pakikiramay, at pakikipagkapwa-tao.


Aguilar, Delia and Anne Lacsamana, eds.  Women and Globalization.  Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.
Clifford, James.  1997.  “Diaspora.”  In The Ethnicity Reader.  Ed. Montserrat Guibernau and  John Rex.  Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Harvey, David.  1989.  The Condition of Postmodernity.  Oxford:
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San Juan, E.  1996.  The Philippine Temptation.  Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
—–.  1998a.  Beyond Postcolonial Theory.  New York: St
Martins Press.
—-.  1998b.  From Exile to Diaspora: Versions of the Filipino Experience in the United States.  Boulder: Westview Press.
—-.  2002.  Racism and Cultural Studies.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press.



E. SAN JUAN  heads the Philippine Cultural Studies Center in Connecticut, USA He was recently visiting professor of literature and cultural studies at the National Tsing Hua University and Academia Sinica fellow in Taiwan. He was 2003 professor of American Studies at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium and visiting professor of English and Comparative Literature, University of the Philippines. Among his recent books are RACISM AND CULTURAL STUDIES (Duke University Press) and WORKING THROUGH THE CONTRADICTIONS (Bucknell University Press),  U.S. IMPERIALISM AND REVOLUTION IN THE PHILIPPINES (Palgrave), IN THE WAKE OF TERROR (Lexington Books), BALIKBAYANG SINTA: AN E. SAN JUAN READER (Ateneo University Press0, and FROM GLOBALIZATION TO NATIONAL LIBERATION (University of the Philippines Press). He will be 2009 Fellow of the WEB Du Bois Institute, Harvard University.


About philcsc

E.SAN JUAN, Jr. directs the Philippines Cultural Studies Center, Washington DC, USA and lectures at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, Philippines.