FILIPINIZING THE WORLD? OR GLOBALIZING THE PINAYS/PINOYS? NOTES ON THE CENTENNIAL OF FILIPINO ARRIVAL IN HAWAII IN THE LAST CENTURY
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.
Thirty thousand Filipinos work in Lebanon today and about the same number in Israel, with thousands more in war-ravaged Iraq and Palestine, several millions in the entire Middle East. Since the bombardment of Beirut and other regions of Lebanon, several hundred Filipinos have been repatriated, thanks to the International Office of Migration. Despite billions of pesos in taxes and fees collected from these workers by their own government, the Arroyo administration has again proved completely helpless, unable to do anything to save or protect its citizens, officially designated as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). As everyone knows, their burgeoning remittances have continually saved the government from endemic bankruptcy and earned them the celebrity status of “modern heroes,” phenomenal investors to the country’s and the world’s development. Recent interviews of OFWs in Lebanon have confirmed again the bitter truth of their collective plight: many prefer to stay in their place of work at the mercy of bombs and missiles rather than return to the Philippines and die of starvation. The choice for OFWs, in almost all cases, was instant death or slow extinction. How did we reach this point of awful, unashamed desperation?
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, land at the Manila International Airport—not as famous as Flor Contemplacion or Maricris Sioson, but scandalous enough to merit attention. According to Connie Bragas-Regalado, chair of Migrante International, at least fifteen “mysterious deaths” of these government “milking cows” (her term for Filipino remittance senders) remain unsolved since 2002, with more brutalization to come in the wake of the U.S.-led war of “shock-and-awe” against anyone challenging its global superiority. Alternatively, Filipinas/Filipinos may be classified as “collateral damage,” in the lexicon of neoliberal, capitalist globalization.
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,” after thousands of Filipino nurses have served the United Kingdom’s National Health Service, or a quarter-of-a-million Filipino seafarers have sweated it out in foreign commercial ships. Not to worry; many come home alive, if bruised or brutalized; never mind, the dollars (amounting last year to $10.7 billion) of these new investors, or “bagong bayani” –as Tita Cory acclaimed them– have saved Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s skin, sustained the meretricious lives of a few oligarchic families, and glorified the Philippines as a proud supplier of skilled human power for the world’s affluent citizens in the North (Europe, North America, Japan), and in the 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 hustlers in Malacanang or the Batasan. 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, the rest as ordinary journalists, lawyers, public servants, Bayan Muna activists, and so on. Meanwhile, the notorious Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) continues its rampage of massacring Muslims, Igorots, Lumads, left and right, aside from the 700 activists already killed. We are faced with the impending total breakdown of Arroyo’s kingdom, 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 precarious, crisis-ridden globalized capitalist economy. The “war on global terrorism” threatens the smooth flow of remittance everyday, 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, North Korea, and other U.S.-declared “axes of evil” are bound to choke off, if not totally cut off, this flow of dollars to keep afloat Arroyo, her bureaucratic clique, and the comprador elite—the privileged minority who, for a century, 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 journalist put it, there might be no viable “home” to which Patricia’s compatriots can return to and spend their golden years.
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 Arroyo & her generals “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, etc. from the misery of millions of OFWs. Who cares, anyway?
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, those trickster “aliens” dodging and hiding from the “migras”), 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 everyday 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….” Or the daily bombing in Lebanon, Iraq, and elsewhere. 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? Thoreau! Darwin! Hegel! We call on the wisdom of the sages is needed; but, alas, the Hobbesian Leo Strauss and Rortyan pragmatism seem to trump everything in our born-again computerized Disneyland.
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. And 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.
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 up to 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, 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.
What follows are propositions that can be examined and debated, depending on one’s perspective. Some may appear as tired banalities, some may offer catalyzing provocations. In any case, here they are for discussion.
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 so on) 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.
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 Aquino, Ramos, Estrada and Arroyo. 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. 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 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 a self-serving family album entitled Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans, Filipinos died for “Americanism.” We are told that Filipinos wanted to be 200% Americans as they fought side by side with their colonizers in Bataan and Corregidor. Recently, Itty Abraham of 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, the U.S. Congress rescinded in 1946 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 signifies this Centennial? Could it be the rebirth of the Filipino as multicultural citizen of a borderless world, as zealous hawkers of the nomadic, multivocal, heterogeneous 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 because of 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 the Foucauldean negotiations of assimilated “model minority” 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 destructive currents. 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, Minutemen, and so on.
We are not transmigrants or transnationals, to be sure, despite the lucubrations of academic pundits and the exoticizing mantra of the patronizing 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 bourgeoisie “screwing” (to quote the idiom of some famous rappers) the masses, in the meantime, we need to “cultivate our garden,” as a French philosophe once said. 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. Confronting this arena of struggle, in Lebanon, the sweatshops of Los Angeles, or the domestic work sites in Hong Kong, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and other countries, let us join together and celebrate our fate as OFWs: Mabuhay ang sambayanang Pilipino! –
[ This is a longer version of a brief message sent originally to the Migrant Heritage Commission 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: <http://www.boondocksnet.com/centennial/sctexts/esj_returning_diaspora.html >
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
E. San Juan, Jr. , director of the Philippines Cultural Studies Center (Connecticut), received his degrees from the University of the Philippines and Harvard University. He was recently Fulbright professor of American Studies at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium, and visiting professor of literature at National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. Among his recent books are Beyond Postcolonial Theory (Palgrave), Racism and Cultural Studies (Duke U Press), Toward a People’s Literature (reissued by the University of the Philippines Press), Working through the Contradictions (Bucknell U Press), and Himagsik (De La Salle U Press). In press are Balikbayang Sinta: An E. San Juan Reader (Ateneo de Manila U Press) and From Globalization to National Liberation (U.P. Press). He was a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at the Bellagio Center, Italy, in 2006 and will be a fellow of the WEB Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, in Spring 2009.