Interrogating Transnationalism by E. San Juan, Jr.

INTERROGATING TRANSNATIONALISM: The Case of the Filipino Diaspora in

the Age of Globalized Capitalism


Philippines Studies Center, Washington DC, USADSC_0405 [Desktop Resolution]

Contemporary cultural studies posit the demise of the nation as an unquestioned assumption, almost a doctrinal point of departure for speculations on the nature of the globalization process.  Are concepts such as the nation-state, national sovereignty, or nationalities, and their referents obsolete and useless?  Whatever the rumors about the demise of the nation-state, or the obsolescence of nationalism in the wake of September 11, 2001, agencies that assume its healthy existence are busy: not only the members of the United Nations, but also the metropolitan powers, with the United States as its military spearhead, have all reaffirmed their civilizing nationalism with a vengeance.

In this epoch of counter-terrorism we have entered, the local and the global find a meeting ground in the transactions among nation-states and diverse nationalities while global hegemony is negotiated among the metropolitan powers. Their instrumentalities–  the World Trade Organization, NATO, the World Bank and IMF, and other consortia–are all exerting pressures and influence everywhere.  Citizenship cards, passports, customs gatekeepers, and border patrols are still mundane regularities. Saskia Sassen has described the advent of the global city as a sign of the “incipient unbundling of the exclusive territoriality of the nation-state.”  At the same time, however, she adds that what we see looming in the horizon is the “transnational geography of centrality…consisting of multiple linkages and strategic concentrations of material infrastructure,” a “grid of sites and linkages” (1998, 214) between North and South still comprised of nation-states.

     With WTO and finance capital in the saddle, the buying and selling of labor-power moves center stage once more. What has not escaped the most pachydermous epigones of free-market apologists who have not been distracted by the Gulf War, the carnage in Bosnia and Kosovo, and now in Afghanistan, are the frequency and volume of labor migration, flows of bodies of color (including mail-order brides, children, and the syndicated traffic in prostitutes and other commodified bodies), in consonance with the flight of labor-intensive industries to far-flung industrial zones in Mexico, Thailand, the Philipines, Haiti, China, and other dependent formations. These regularities defy postmodernist concepts of contingency, ambivalence, and indeterminacy. Such bodies are of course not the performative parodists of Judith Butler in quest of pleasure or the aesthetically fashioned selves idealized by Foucault and the pragmatic patriot, Richard Rorty.

     Culture wars are being conducted by other means through the transport and exchange of bodies of color in the international bazaars. And the scaling of bodies proceeds according to corporeal differences (sex, race, age, physical capacity, etc.). Other diasporas—in addition to the historic ones of the Jews, Africans, Chinese, Irish, Palestinians, and so on—are in the making.  The editors of The South Atlantic Quarterly special issue on “diaspora and immigration” celebrate the political and cultural experiences of these nomadic cohorts who can “teach us how to think about our destiny and how to articulate the unity of science with the diversity of knowledges as we confront the politics of difference” (Mudimbe and Engel 1999, 6).  Unity, diversity, politics of difference—the contours and direction of diasporas are conceived as the arena of conflict among disparate philosophical/ideological standpoints.  Contesting the European discourse on modernity and pleading for the “inescapability and legitimate value of mutation, hybridity, and intermixture” (1993, 223), Paul Gilroy has drawn up the trope of the “Black Atlantic” on the basis of the “temporal and ontological rupture of the middle passage.”  Neither the Jewish nor the African diasporas can of course be held up as inviolable archetypes if we want to pursue an “infinite process of identity construction.”  My interest here is historically focused: to inquire into how the specific geopolitical contingencies of the Filipino diaspora-in-the-making can problematize this infinitude of identity formation in the context of “third world” principles of national liberation, given the persistent neocolonial, not postcolonial, predicament of the Philippines today (San Juan 1996).

Postmodern Cultural Studies from the counter-terrorizing North is now replicating McKinley’s gunboat policy of “Benevolent Assimilation” at the turn of the last century (Pomeroy 1992). Its missionary task is to discover how without their knowing it Filipina domestics are becoming cosmopolitans while working as maids (more exactly, domestic slaves), empowering themselves by devious tactics of evasion, accommodation, and making-do. Obviously this task of naturalizing servitude benefits the privileged few, the modern slave-masters. This is not due to a primordial irony in the nature of constructing their identity which, according to Ernesto Laclau, “presupposes the constitutive split” between the content and the function of identification as such since they—like most modern subjects—are “the empty places of an absent fullness” (1994, 36).  Signifiers of lack, these women from poverty-stricken regions in the Philippines are presumably longing for a plenitude symbolized by a stable, prosperous homeland/family that, according to postcolonial dogma, is forever deferred if not evacuated. Yet these maids (euphemized as “domestics”) possess faculties of resourcefulness, stoic boldness, and ingenuity. Despite this, it is alleged that Western experts are needed for them to acquire self-reflexive agency, to know that their very presence in such lands as Kuwait, Milan, Los Angeles, Taipeh, Singapore, and London and the cultural politics they spontaneously create are “complexly mediated and transformed by memory, fantasy and desire” (Hall 1992, 254). The time of labor has annihilated indeed the spaces of the body, home, community, and nation. The expenditure of a whole nation-people’s labor-power now confounds the narrative of individual progress on which the logic of capital and its metaphysics of rationality are hitherto founded.

Space-time particulars are needed if we want to ascertain the “power-geometry” (Massey 1993) that scales diasporic duration, the temporality of displacement. I might state at the outset an open secret: the annual remittance of billions of dollars by Filipino workers abroad, now more than eight million, 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 five or six 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; in the last three years, their annual remittance averages $5 billion (Tujan 2001).  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” (the “new heroes”),  the most famous of whom are Flor Contemplacion who was falsely accused and hanged in Singapore, and Sarah Balabagan, flogged in Saudi Arabia for defending herself against her rapist-employer.

This global marketing of Filipino labor is an unprecedented phenomenon, rivalled only by the trade of African slaves in the previous centuries. Over one thousand concerned Filipino American students made this the central topic of the 1997 FIND Conference at SUNY Binghamton where I was the invited keynote speaker. These concerned youth were bothered by the reputation of the Filipina/o as the “domestic help,” or glorified servant of the world. How did Filipinas/os come to find themselves scattered to the four corners of the earth and subjugated to the position of selling their selfhoods? What are we doing about it? In general, what is the meaning and import of this unprecedented traffic, millions of Filipinas/os in motion and in transit around the planet?

Lifting the Embargo

Of the eight million Filipinos, there are more than a million Filipina domestics (also known as OCWs or “Overseas Contract Workers”) in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan today, employed under terrible conditions. News reports of brutal and inhumane treatment, slavery, rape, suicide, and murder suffered by these workers abound. The reason for why thousands of college-educated women continue to travel to Hong Kong and other destinations even as the procession of coffins of their sisters greet them at the ports of embarkation, is not a mystery. I can only sketch here the outline of the political economy of migrant labor as a subtext to the hermeneutics of diasporic representation.

Suffice it here to spell out the context of this transmigrancy: the accelerated impoverishment of millions of Filipino citizens, the oppressive unjust system (the Philippines as a neocolonial dependency of the U.S. and the transnational corporate power-elite) managed by local compradors, landlords, and bureaucrat-capitalists who foster emigration to relieve unemployment and defuse mass unrest, combined with the economic enticements in Hong Kong and other Newly Industrializing Countries, and so on–all these comprise the parameters for this ongoing process of the marketing of bodies. The convergence of complex global factors, including the internal conditions in the Philippines, has been carefully delineated by, among others, Bridget Anderson (2000), Delia Aguilar (2000), Grace Chang (2000), and Rhacel Parrenas (2001). We may cite, in particular, the devalorization of women’s labor in global cities, the shrinking status of sovereignty for peripheral nation-states, and the new saliency of human rights in a feminist analytic of the “New World Order.”  In addition to the rampant pillage of the national treasury by corrupt Filipino compradors, bureaucrat-capitalists and feudalistic landlords, the plunder of the economy by transnational capital 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 (most from rural areas) due to forced migration because of lack of employment, recruiting appeals of governments and business agencies, and the dissolution of the homeland as psychic and physical anchorage in the vortex of the rapid depredation of finance capital.

In general, imperialism and the anarchy of the “free market” engender incongruities, non-synchronies, and shifting subject-positions of the Other inscribed in the liminal space of subjugated territory. Capital accumulation is the matrix of unequal power (Hymer 1975; Harvey 1996) between metropolis and colonies. The historical reality of uneven sociopolitical development in a U.S. colonial and, later, neocolonial society like the Philippines is evident in the systematic Americanization of schooling, mass media, sports, music, and diverse channels of mass communication (advertisements, TV and films, cyberspace). Backwardness now helps hi-tech corporate business. 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 OCWs has accentuated the discrepancy between metropolitan wealth and neocolonial poverty, with the consumerist habitus made egregiously flagrant in the conspicuous consumption of domestic returning from the Middle East, Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, and other places with balikbayan (returnee) boxes. Unbeknownst to observers of this postmodern “cargo cult,” coffins of these 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.

      Notwithstanding this massive research into the structural and historical background  of these “new heroes” (as President Corazon Aquino call them in acknowledgment of their contribution to the country’s dollar reserves), their plight remains shrouded in bureaucratic fatuities. A recent ethnographic account of the lives of Filipina domestics celebrates their new-found subjectivity within various disciplinary regimes. Deploying Foucault’s notion of “localized power,” the American anthropologist Nicole Constable seeks “to situate Filipina domestic workers within the field of power, not as equal players but as participants”(1999, 11). 

Ambivalence supposedly characterizes the narratives of these women: they resist oppression at the same time as they “participate in their own subordination.”  And how is their agency manifested? How else but in their consuming power?  Consider this spectacle: During their Sundays off, Filipina maids gather in certain places like the food restaurants of the Central District in Hong Kong and demand prompt service or complain to the managers if they are not attended to properly. They also have the option of exercising agency at McDonald’s if they ask extra condiments or napkins. Apart from these anecdotal examples, the fact that these maids were able to negotiate their way through a bewildering array of institutions in order to secure their jobs is testimony to what Constable calls “the subtler and more complex forms of power, discipline and resistance in their everyday lives” (1999, 202). According to one reviewer, this scholarly attempt to ferret out signs of tension or conflict in the routine lives of  domestics obfuscates the larger context that defines the subordination of these women and the instrumentalities that reproduce their subjugation. In short, functionalism has given way to neopositivism. To put it another way, Constable shares Foucault’s dilemma of ascribing resistance to subjects while devaluing history as “meaningless kaleidoscopic changes of shape in discourse totalities” (Habermas 1987, 277).

Nor is Constable alone in this quite trendy vocation. Donna Haraway (1992), among others, has earlier urged the practitioners of Cultural Studies to abandon the politics of representation which allegedly objectifies and disempowers whatever it represents. She wants us to choose instead local struggles for strategic articulations that are always impermanent, vulnerable, and contingent. This precept forbids the critique of ideology–how can one distinguish truth from falsehood since there are only “truth effects” contrived by power? This populist and often demagogic stance promotes “a radical skepticism” (Brantlinger 1990, 102) that cannot discriminate truth-claims, nor establish a basis for sustained and organized political action.

        The most flagrant erasure in Constable’s postmodernist inventory of episodes seems more serious. This is her discounting of the unequal relation between the Philippines and a peripheral capitalist city like Hong Kong, a relation enabled by the continuing neocolonial domination of Filipinos by Western corporate interests led by the United States (Sison and De Lima 1998). But this microphysics of learning how to survive performed by Filipino maids cannot exonerate the ethnographist from complicity with this strategy of displacing causality (a technique of inversion also found in mainstream historians of the Philippines such as Glenn May, David Steinberg, Stanley Karnow) and apologizing for the victims by oblique patronage. Anne Lacsamana pronounces a felicitous verdict on this specimen of Cultural Studies: “To dismiss the broader history of Filipino OCWs in favor of more trivial pursuits (such as watching them eat at a fast food restaurant) reenacts a Western superiority that has already created (and is responsible for) many of the social, economic, and political woes that continue to plague the country” (1998, 42).

Deracination Trauma

Now the largest constituency in the Asian American group in the United States, Filipinos have become the newest diasporic community in the whole world.  United Nations statistics indicate that Filipinos make up the newest migrant assemblage in the world: eight million Filipino migrant workers (out of eighty million citizens), mostly female domestic help and semi-skilled labor. They endure poorly paid employment under sub-standard conditions, with few or null rights, in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, North America, and elsewhere. It might be noted here that, historically, diasporic groups are 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 long been colonized by Western powers (Spain, United States) 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.  Perceived as Others, they are lumped with familiar aliens: Chinese, Mexicans, Japanese, Indonesians, and so on. Newspaper reports have cited the Philippines as the next target of the U.S. government’s global “crusade” against terrorism. Where is the nation alluded to in passports and other identification papers? How do we conceive of this “Filipino” nation or nationality, given the preemptive impact of U.S. domination and now, on top of the persistent neocolonizing pressure, the usurping force of abstractive, quantifying 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 regular remittances to their families; occasional visits and other means of communication defer the eventual homecoming. Alienation and isolation, brutal and racist treatment, and other dehumanized conditions prevent their permanent settlement in the “receiving” countries, except where they have been given legal access to obtaining citizenship status. If the return is postponed, are modes of adaptation and temporary domicile in non-native grounds the feasible alternatives for these expatriates (as they are fondly called by their compatriots in Manila)?

The reality of “foreignness” cannot be eluded. Alienation, insulting treatment, and racist violence 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 abrasive screening and tests—more stringent now in this repressive neofascist ethos. 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, and the “trans” label a chimera. This diaspora then faces the ineluctable hurdles of racism, ethnic exclusion,  inferiorization via racial profiling, and physical attacks. Can Filipino migrant labor mount a collective resistance against globalized exploitation? Can the Filipino diaspora expose also the limits of genetic and/or procedural 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?

       As a point of departure for future inquiry, we might situate the Filipino diaspora within its Asian American configuration—since the author is based here in this racial polity (San Juan 2002). His intervention proceeds from a concrete historic staging ground. First, a definition of “diaspora.” According to Milton Esman, the term refers to “a minority ethnic group of migrant origin which maintains sentimental or material links with its land of origin” (1996, 316). Either because of social exclusion, internal cohesion, and other geopolitical factors, these communities are never assimilated into the host society; but they develop in time a diasporic consciousness which carries out a collective sharing of space with others, purged of any exclusivist ethos or proprietary design. These communities will embody a peculiar sensibility enacting a caring and compassionate agenda for the whole species that thrives on cultural difference. Unlike peoples who have been conquered, annexed, enslaved or coerced in some other way, diasporas are voluntary movements of people from place to place, although such migrations may also betray symptoms of compulsion if analyzed within a global political economy of labor and inter-state political rivalries. Immanuel Wallerstein (1995) feels that these labor migrants can challenge transnational corporations by overloading the system with “free movement,” at the same time that they try to retain for themselves more of the surplus value they produce. But are such movements really free? And if they are cheap labor totally contingent on the unpredictable fortunes of business, isn’t the expectation of their rebelliousness exorbitant? Like ethnicity, diaspora which is fashioned by determinate historical causes has tended to take on “the ‘natural’ appearance of an autonomous force, a ‘principle’ capable of determining the course of social action” (Comaroff 1992). Like racism and nationalism, diaspora presents multiform physiognomies open to various interpretations and articulations. Historical precedents may provide clues of what’s to come.

Let us consider one late-modern interpretation of diaspora. For David Palumbo-Liu, the concept of “diaspora” performs a strategic function. It probably endows the slash in the rubric “Asian/American” with an uncanny performative resonance. Palumbo-Liu contends that diaspora affords a space for the reinvention of identity free from naturalized categories but (if I may underscore here) not from borders, state apparatuses, and other worldly imperatives. Although remarking that the concept of diaspora as an “enabling fiction” affords us “the ideological purchase different articulations of the term allow,” Palumbo-Liu doesn’t completely succumb to the rebarbative postcolonialist babble about contingency ruling over all. I want to quote a passage from his insightful book, Asian / American, that might afford parameters for the random reflections here apropos of the theme and discourse of Filipino diaspora:

…”diaspora” does not consist in the fact of leaving Home, but in having that factuality available to representation as such—we come to “know” diaspora only as it is psychically identified in a narrative form that discloses the various ideological investments…. It is that narrative form that locates the representation of diaspora in its particular chronotope. This spatiotemporal construct approximates a psychic experience particularly linked to material history.  It is only after the diasporic comes into contact with the material history of its new location that a particular discourse is enabled that seeks to mark a distance, a relation, both within and outside that constellation of contingency (1999, 355).

  Like the words “hybridity,” border crossing, ambivalence, subaltern, transculturation, and so on, the term “diaspora” has now become chic in polite conversations and genteel colloquia. A recent conference at the University of Minnesota on “Race, Ethnicity, and Migration” lists as first of the topics one can engage with, “Diaspora and diasporic identities,” followed by “Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and forced migration.” One indeed dreads to encounter in this context such buzzwords as “post-nation,” “alterity,” or ludic “differance” now overshadowed by “globalization” and everything prefixed with “trans-“ and assorted postalities.  In fact I myself used the word “diaspora” as part of the title of my book, From Exile to Diaspora: Versions of the Filipino Experience in the United States (1998b). Diaspora becomes oxymoronic: a particularizing universal, a local narrative which subsumes all experiences within its fold.  Diaspora enacts a mimicry of itself, dispersing its members around in a kaleidoscope of simulations and simulacras borne by the flow of goods, money, labor, and so on, in the international commodity chain.

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 cargo, unfortunately. And in my various voyages in/out, I have encountered Filipinos in many parts of the world in the course of my research. 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, Greece, Tokyo, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other places.  Have I then stumbled onto some unheard-of enigmatic scandal as a “Filipino diaspora”? Or have I surreptitiously constructed this, dare I say, “reality” and ongoing experience of about eight million Filipinos around the planet? Not to speak of millions of displaced indigenous peoples in the Philippines itself, an archipelago of 700 islands, “one of the world’s most strategically important land masses,” according to geographer George Demko (1992).

For those not familiar with my other writings critical of poststructuralist approaches (San Juan 1996; 1998a), I want to state outright that I consider such views about the Filipino diaspora half-truths closer to rumor, if not sheer mystifications. Spurious distinctions about cognition and perception concerning ethnic identity will remain vacuous if they do not take into account the reality of imperial world-systemic changes and their concrete multilayered ramifications. Lacking any dialectical materialist analysis of the dynamics of colonialism and imperialism that connect the Philippines and its peoples with the United States and the rest of the world, conventional studies on Filipino immigration and resettlement are all scholastic games, at best disingenuous exercises in chauvinist or white-supremacist apologetics. This is because they rely on concepts and methodologies that conceal unequal power relations—that is, relations of subordination and domination, racial exclusion, marginalization, sexism, gender inferiorization, as well as national subalternity, and other forms of discrimination. I want to stress in particular unequal power relations among nation-states. Lest people be misled by academic gossip, I am not proposing here an economistic and deterministic approach, nor a historicist one with a monolithic Enlightenment metanarrative, teleology, and essentialist or ethnocentric agenda. Far from it. What is intriguing are the dynamics of symbolic violence (Bourdieu 1997) and the naturalization of social constructs and beliefs which are dramatized in the plot and  figures of diasporic happenings.

Excavations in the Boondocks

The testimony of diasporic narrative may be a useful pedagogical device to ground my observations here on the experiences of Filipina migrant workers as synthesized in literary form. Prior to the disruption of the postcolonial impasse and in order to situate postcolonial difference in the Philippine context, I would like at this juncture to concretize the crisis of bourgeois metaphysics and its political implications in contemporary Filipino expression.

     In my previous works (The Philippine Temptation, History and Form, and other books), I have described the domination of U.S. symbolic capital on literary and critical discourse since the annullment of the Spanish language and the indigenous vernaculars as viable media of expression in the public sphere at the start of U.S. colonization in 1898. The ascendancy of the hegemonic discourse of liberal utilitarianism expressed in English prevailed throughout the period of formal independence and the Cold War until the martial law period (1972-1986) when an authoritarian order reinforced semi-feudal and tributary norms. Meanwhile, Pilipino (now “Filipino”) has become a genuine lingua franca with the popularity of local films and television serials, aided by the prohibitive costs of imported Western cultural fare. As already noted earlier, these cultural developments parallel the intense neocolonization, or even refeudalization, of the whole political-economic system.

     Symptomatic of a disaggregated and uneven socioeconomic formation are the literary and journalistic narratives spun around the trauma of dislocation undergone by over eight million OCWs, mostly women. I analyze one specimen of this genre below. It should be recalled that 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, youth, workers, and indigenous communities. The network of the patriarchal family and semifeudal civil society unravels when women from all sectors (except the rich minority) 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), OCWs find themselves frozen in a tributary status between serfhood and colonizing pettybourgeois households. 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.

     At this point I want to illustrate the phenomenon of neocolonial disintegration and ideological reconstitution of the “third world” subject as a symptom of uneven capitalist hegemony in a fictional account by a Filipina author who writes in Pilipino, the national language. Fanny Garcia (1994) wrote the story entitled “Arriverderci” in 1982 at the height of the Marcos-induced export of Filipina bodies to relieve widespread immiseration in all sectors of society and curb mounting resistance in city and countryside.

Garcia’s ascetic representation of this highly gendered diaspora yields a diagnostic illustration of postcolonial schizophrenia. In the opening scene, Garcia describes Filipina domestics in Rome, Italy, enjoying a weekend break in an excursion outside the city. One of these domestics, Nelly, meets a non-descript compatriot, Vicky (Vicenta), who slowly confides to Nelly her incredible experience of physical hardship, loneliness, and frustrated ambition, including her desperate background in her hometown, San Isidro. Vicky also reveals her fear that her employer might rape her, motivating her to inquire about the possibility of moving in with Nelly whose own crowded apartment cannot accommodate Vicky. Spatial confinement resembles incarceration for those who refuse the oppression of live-in contracts, the latter dramatized in Vicky’s earlier experience.

      Dialogue begets intimacy and the shock of discovery. After trust has been established between them, Nelly learns that Vicky has concealed the truth of her dire situation from her relatives back home. Like others, Vicky has invented a fantasy life to make her folks happy. After a short lapse of time, Nelly and her companions read a newspaper account of Vicky’s suicide—according to her employer, she leaped from the fifth floor of the apartment due to a broken heart caused by her sweetheart, a Filipino seaman, who was marrying another woman. Nelly of course knows the real reason: Vicky was forced to kill herself to save her honor, to refuse bodily invasion by the Italian master. Nelly and her friends manage to gather funds to send Vicky’s body back home to the Philippines. When asked how she would explain Vicky’s death to the next-of-kin, everyone agrees that they could not tell the truth.  Nelly resolves their predicament with a fictive ruse:

   “Ganito na lang,” sabi ni Nelly, “nabangga ang kotseng sinasakyan n’ya.”

    Sumang-ayon ang lahat.

    Pumunta sa kusina si Nelly.  Hawak ang bolpen at nakatitig sa blangkong putting papel na nakapatong sa mesa, naisip ni Nelly, dapat din niyang tandaan: sa San Isidro, si Vicenta at Vicky ay si Bising (1994, 334-335).

[“Let’s do it this way,” Nelly said,” she died when the car she was in crashed.”

Everyone agreed.

  Nelly entered the kitchen. Holding a ballpoint pen and staring at the blank piece of paper on the table, Nelly thought that she should also remember: in San Isidro, Vicenta and Vicky were also Bising.]

In the triple personas of Vicky nurtured in the mind of Nelly, we witness the literal and figurative diaspora of the Filipino nation in which the manifold layers of experience occuring at different localities and temporalities are reconciled. They are sutured together  not in the corpse but in the act of gendered solidarity and national empathy. Without the practices of communication and cooperation among  Filipina workers, the life of the individual OCW is suspended in thrall,  a helpless fragment in the nexus of commodity circulation. Terror in capitalist society re-inscribes boundaries and renews memory.

    What I want to highlight, however, is the historicizing power of this narrative. Marx once said that capitalism conquers space with time (Harvey 2000). The urgent question is: can its victims fight back via a counterhegemonic strategy of spatial politics? Here the time of the nationalizing imagination overcomes displacement by global capital. Fantasy becomes complicit with truth when Nelly and her friends agree to shelter Vicky’s family from the terror of patriarchal violence located in European terrain. We see that the routine life of the Filipino community is defined by bureaucratized space that seems to replicate the schedule back home; but the chronological itinerary is deceptive because while this passage lures us into a calm compromise with what exists, the plot of attempted rape and Vicky’s suicide transpires behind the semblance of the normal and the ordinary:

…Ang buhay nila sa Italia ay isang relo–hindi nagbabago ng anyo, ng direksiyon, ng mga numero.

    Kung Linggo ng umaga, nagtitipon-tipon sa loob ng Vaticano, doon sa pagitan ng malalaking haliging bato ng colonnade….

    Ang Papa’y lilitaw mula sa isang mataas na bintana ng isang gusali, at sa harap ng mikropono’y magsasalita’t magdadasal, at matapos ang kanyang basbas, sila’y magkakanya-kanyang grupo sa paglisan. Karaniwa’y sa mga parke ang tuloy. Sa damuhan, sa ilalim ng mga puno, ilalabas ang mga baon.  May paikot-ikot sa mga grupo, nagtitinda ng pansit na lemon ang pampaasim, litsong kawali na may ketsup, at iba pa.  Umpisa na ng piknik.  Magkakasama ang mga Ilokano, ang mga Batanggenyo, at iba pang hatiang batay sa wika o lugar.  O kaya’y ang mga propesyonal at di-propesyonal.  Matapos ang kainan, palilipasin ang oras sa pamamagitan ng kuwentuhan o kaya’y pagpapaunlak sa isang nagpapasugal.  Malakas ang tayaan.  Mga bandang alas-tres o alas-kuwatro ng hapon, kanya-kanyang alis na ang mga pangkat.  Pupunta sa mga simbahang pinagmimisahan ng mga paring Pinoy na iskolar ng kani-kanilang order.  Sa Ingles at Pilipino ang misa, mga awit at sermon.  Punong-puno ang simbahan, pulos Pilipino, maliban sa isa o dalawa o tatlong puti na maaring kaibigan, nobio, asawa o kabit ng ilang kababayan.

     Matapos ang misa, muling maghihiwalay ang mga pangkat-pangkat. May pupunta muli sa mga parke, may magdidisco, may magsisine.  Halos hatinggabi na kung maghiwa-hiwalay patungo sa kanya-kanyang tinutuluyan…. (329-330).

        [Their lives in Italy resembled a clock—never changing in shape, direction or numbers.

On Sunday mornings they would gather inside the Vatican, there between the huge rocky pillars of the colonnade…

The Pope would appear at a window of the tall building, and would pray and speak in front of a microphone, and after his benediction, they would all join their groups upon leaving. Usually they head for the parks. On the grass, under the trees, they will spread their packs. Some will circle around selling noodles with lemon slices, roast pork with catsup, and other viands.  The picnic begins. Ilocanos congregate among themselves, so do those from Batangas, and others gather together according to language or region.  Or they socialize according to profession or lack of it.  After eating, they will pass the time telling stories or gambling. Betting proceeds vigorously. Toward three or four in the afternoon, the cohorts begin their departure. They head toward the churches where Filipino priests, scholars of their orders, hold mass in English or in Filipino, together with songs and sermon.  The churches overflow, all Filipinos, except for one, two or three whites, who may be friends, sweethearts, wives, or partners.  After the mass, the groups will again separate. Some will return to the parks, others will go to discos or moviehouses, until around midnight they will go their separate individual ways to wherever they are staying.]

Resignation is premature. This surface regularity conceals fissures and discontinuities that will only disclose themselves when the death of Vicky shatters the peace and complicates the pathos of indentured domesticity.

Ludic Mis-Representations

     The most telling symptom of uneven development caused by the new international division of labor is the schizoid nature of the Filipina response to serflike confinement. This response has been celebrated by postcolonial critics as the exemplary act of “sly civility,” a tactic of outwitting the enemy by mimicry and ambivalent acts. We read a tabulation of this tactic in Garcia’s description of Nelly’s plans to tour Europe by touching base with friends and acquaintances throughout the continent, an escape from the pressure of responsibility or accountability to anyone.  Here is the cartography of Nelly’s “imagined community” which generates a new position: the deterritorialized citizen of global capital. The space of recreation may relieve the pressure of alienated time, but it cannot ultimately resolve the dilemma of spatiotemporal dislocation and dispersal. Asked by her friends what’s going on between her and Vicky, Nelly simply smiles and shrugs her shoulders:

Mas mahalaga sa kanya ang mga tanong ng sarili. Pulos Roma na lamang ba?  Aling sulok at kanto pa ng Roma ang hindi niya natatapakan?  Pulos pagkakatulong na lamang ba?  Hindi siya nagpunta sa Europa upang paganapin lamang ang sarili sa mga istorya ng pagliliwali kung Linggo, na kabisadong-kabisado na niya ang simula’t dulo.  Hindi siya nangibang bansa upang makinig lamang sa mga usapang nakaangkla sa mga “nanay,” ‘tatay,” “anak,” mga gawaing-bahay, hinaing at problema.  Hindi upang sundan ang buhay at kasaysayan ng isang Vicenta.

     Ipinasya niyang umpisahan na ang paglilibot sa Europa.  May sapat na siyang naiipon para sa ibang bansa.  Bibili siya ng Eurail pass, mas mura sa tren.  Unahin kaya muna niya ang France, West Germany at Netherlands?  May mga kaibigan siya doon.  Nasa Paris si Orly, may kuwartong inuupahan.  Nagpunta ito sa Paris bilang iskolar, artist-observer sa loob ng tatlong buwan, ngunit tulad niya, hindi na ito bumalik sa Pilipinas. Ngayo’y nabubuhay ito sa pamamagitan ng pagpipinta at pagiging potograpo.  Sa Frankfurt, makikituloy siya kay Nora at sa Alemang napangasawa nito, dating penpal.  Nasa Amsterdam si Angie, kahera sa department store, at ka-live-in ang isang Dutch. Sapat na marahil ang isang buwang paglalakbay.  Saka naman iplano ang mga ibang bansa.  Sinulatan niya ang tatlong kaibigan. (333)

[ More valuable for her are the questions addressed to herself.  Am I to be confined to Rome alone? What corner and crossroad of Rome has she not covered already? Am I to be tied to domestic work?  She didn’t travel to Europe in order to let herself play a role in the stories of killing time on Sundays, whose beginning and end she knew thoroughly. She didn’t go abroad only to listen to talk anchored to “mother,” “father,” “child,” domestic chores, grumblings and problems.  Nor to pursue the life and history of a certain Vicenta.

   She decided to start her travels around Europe. She already has enough savings for the trip to other countries. She’ll buy a Eurail pass, it’s cheaper by train. Should she begin with France, West Germany, and the Netherlands? She has friends there. Orly is in Paris, with a rented room. He went to Paris as a scholar, artist-observer, for three months, but like her he never returned to the Philippines.  Now he’s supporting himself by painting and photography. In Frankfurt she’ll stay with Nora and her German husband, her former penpal.  Angie is in Amsterdam, a cashier at a department store, with a live-in Dutch partner.  Perhaps a month’s journey will be enough. She’ll plan visiting other lands later. She wrote her three friends.]

In the above passage, we discern the contradictions immanent in Filipina agency as she negotiates her position in the locus between wage-labor under serflike conditions and the mobility promised by the “free market” of late capitalist Europe. This situation may provide us the source of scaling the postcolonial dilemma suffered by Filipinas, conceving scale as (in Neil Smith’s definition) “the geographical resolution of contradictory processes of competition and co-operation” (1993, 99). But the chance for an escape to resolve the contradictions is foiled for the moment when Nelly and her friends learn of Vicky’s death.

Contrary to postcolonial alibis concerning decentered subject-positions, Garcia’s narrative posits an interrogation of presumed agency: Is the charm of adventure enough to heal the trauma of dislocation and obviate the terror of rape?  Are the opportunities of consuming images and experiences offered by the wages of indentured labor enough to compensate for the nullity of citizenship and the loss of intimacy and the support of family and community? Is this postcolonial interstitiality the new name of servitude under the aegis of consumerist transnationalism where physical motion transcending fixed locality becomes a surrogate for the achievement of dignity and freedom? 

    What is clear is the dialectical unity of opposites embedded in the geopolitical predicament of OCWs captured in Garcia’s narrative. The homeland (or its internalized cartography) is cannibalized and grafted onto sites of potential reconstitution. The Filipino diaspora here is defined by the Filipinas’ social interaction and its specific differentiated geography, an interaction characterized by family/kinship linkages as well as solidarity based on recursive acts of mutual aid and struggle for survival. The political struggle over the production of scale in global capitalism is translated here in Nelly’s mapping of her coordinates as she plans her tour of Europe, a translation of abstract space into places indexed by Filipino friends and acquaintances. This is not postcolonial ambivalence or hybridity because it is centered on the organic bonds of experience with oppressed compatriots and their continuous resuscitation. Nelly’s affiliation with Vicky is tied to a web of shared stories of intimacy, dehumanization and vulnerability. The Eurocentric fabrication of Otherness is qualified if not neutralized by Nelly’s collectively assigned task of communication with Vicky’s family, a task that prefigures and recuperates even if only in symbolic terms the interrupted struggle for national autonomy and sovereignty on the face of disintegration by transnational corporate aggression.

     Postcolonial disjunctures are reproduced by acts of revolt and sustained resistance. Such acts constitute a bad example for metropolitan citizen subjects of industrialized democracies. Racism still prevents them from uniting with their victims. While it would be exorbitant to claim that global capitalism has been dealt a blow by Filipina agencies of coping and life-maintenance, I would suggest here that this mode of representation, which I would categorize as a type of allegorical realism grounded in the confluence of vernacular poetics and selective borrowings from the Western avant-garde (Brecht, Mayakovsky, Neruda), enables us to grasp the totalizing virtue of Filipino nationalism as it interpellates diasporic subjects. Perhaps this virtue manifests itself only as a potential reservoir of energies that can be mobilized in crisis situations; still, the cultural and ideological resistance of neocolonized Filipinos overseas testify to its immanent presence in what Lenin called “the weak links” of the imperialist chain around the planet, not only in the peripheral dependencies but also in the margins now transposed to the centers of empire.

Extrapolations and Reconfigurations

In summary, I venture the following theses for further discussion. My first thesis on the phenomenon of the Filipino dismemberment is this: Given that the Philippine habitat has never cohered as a genuinely independent nation—national autonomy continues to escape the nation-people in a neocolonial set-up—Filipinos are dispersed from family or kinship webs in villages, towns or provincial regions first, and loosely from an inchoate, even “refeudalized,” nation-state. This dispersal is primarily due to economic coercion and disenfranchisement 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, and other illusions of transcendence. So the origin to which one returns is not properly a nation-state but a village, a quasi-primordial community, kinship network, or even a ritual family/clan. In this context, 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 enabling a cathexis of the homeland? They derive from assorted childhood memories and folklore together with customary practices surrounding municipal 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 does not exert a commanding sway, experienced only as a nostalgic mood. Meanwhile, language, religion, kinship, the aura of family rituals, and common experiences in school or work-place function invariably as the organic bonds of community. Such bonds demarcate the boundaries of the imagination but also release energies and affects that mutate into actions—as performed by Garcia’s characters—serving ultimately national-popular emancipatory projects.

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-state. In the thirties, Carlos Bulosan once observed that “it is a crime to be a Filipino in America.” Years of union struggle and political organizing in inter-ethnic coalitions 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 multiculturalism divorced from any urge to disinvest in the “possessive investment in whiteness” (Lipsitz 1998). But compared to the Japanese or Indian Americans, Filipino Americans as a whole have not made it; the exceptions prove the rule. Andrew Cunanan (the serial killer who slew the famous Versaci) is the specter 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. Dispossession of sovereignty leads to shipwreck, natives drifting rudderless, or marooned in islands all over the planet. 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). This is the disavowed terror of globalization.

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, despair, hunger, and lack of dignity. Of course, some are forcibly returned: damaged, deported or dead. But OCWs would rather move their kins and parents to their place of employment, preferably in countries where family reunification is allowed, as in the United States, Italy, Canada, and so on. Or even in places of suffering and humiliation, provided there is some hope or illusion of future improvement. Utopian longings can mislead but also reconfigure and redirect wayward adventures.

Fifth thesis: Ongoing support for nationalist struggles at home is sporadic and intermittent during times of retrenchment and revitalized apartheid. Do we see any mass protests and collective indignation here in the United States at the Visiting Forces Agreement, for example, and the recent invasion (circa 1998-2000) of the country by several thousand U.S. Marines in joint U.S.-Philippines military exercises? Especially after September 11 and the Arroyo sycophancy to the Bush regime, the Philippines—considered by the U.S. government as the harbor of homegrown “terrorists” like the Abbu Sayyaf–will soon be transformed into the next “killing field” after Afghanistan. During the Marcos dictatorship, the politicized generation of Filipino American youth here was able to mobilize a large segment of the community to support the national-democratic mass struggles, including the armed combatants of the New People’s Army (led by the Communist Party of the Philippines), against U.S.-supported 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, the lumpen populism of Estrada, and now the mendacious Arroyo regime. This precarious balance of class forces at this conjuncture is subject to the shifts in political mobilization and calculation, hence the intervention of Filipino agencies with emancipatory goals and socialist 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 (to echo Ernest Renan) are remembered and celebrated. It is tied more to a symbolic homeland indexed by kinship or particularistic traditions and communal practices which it tries to transplant abroad 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, given the ineluctability of  differences becoming contradictions, subject to the revolutionary transformations emerging in the Philippine countryside and cities. It is susceptible also to other radical changes in the geopolitical rivalry of metropolitan powers based on nation-states.  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 and its progeny 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 OCWs who experience the repetition-compulsion of globalized trade and endure the recursive traumas of displacement and dispossession.

Caught in the cross-currents of global upheavals, I can only conclude with a very provisional and indeed temporizing epilogue—if I may beg leave from those Filipina bodies in coffins heading home: Filipinos in the United States (and elsewhere, given the still hegemonic Western dispensation amid allegations of its disappearance) 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” or flexible transmigrants because of racialized, ascribed markers (physical appearance, accent, peculiar non-white folkways, and other group idiosyncracies) that are needed to sustain and reproduce white supremacy in this racial polity. Bridget Anderson (2000) has cogently demonstrated how the international labor market consistently racializes the selling of Filipina selfhood; thus, not only gender and class but, more decisively, “racial identities” conditioned by immigrant status, inferiorized nationality, and so on, are reproduced through the combined exploitation and oppression taking place in the employer’s household. Slavery has become re-domesticated in the age of  reconfigured mercantilism—the vampires of the past continue to haunt the cyberprecinct of finance capital and its futurist hallucinations.

The trajectory of the Filipino diaspora remains unpredictable. Ultimately, the rebirth of 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 (returnees) still practice, though with increasing trepidation interrupted by fits of amnesia, the speech-acts and durable performances of pakikibaka (common struggle), pakikiramay (collective sharing), at pakikipagkapwa-tao (reciprocal esteem).  Left untranslated, those phrases from the “Filipino” vernacular address a gradually vanishing audience. Indeed, this essay itself may just be a wayward apostrophe to a vanished dreamworld—a liberated homeland, a phantasmagoric refuge—evoking the  utopias and archaic golden ages of myths and legends. But wherever it is, this locus of memories, hopes and dreams will surely be inhabited by a new collectivity as befits a new objective reality to which Susan Buck-Morss, in her elegiac paean to the catastrophe that overtook mass utopia, alludes to: “the geographical mixing of people and things, global webs that disseminate meanings, electronic prostheses of the human body, new arrangements of the human sensorium.  Such imaginings, freed from the constraints of bounded spaces and from the dictates of unilinear time, might dream of becoming, in Lenin’s words, “as radical as reality itself” (2000, 278). That was already approximated by Marx in his view that “the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice” (Fischer 1996, 170).  Or, to translate in the proverbial idiom warranted by the experience of all diasporic bodies and ventriloquized by the Angel of history (invoked by Walter Benjamin  [1969]) surveying the ruins before and after: De te fabula.


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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.
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