Negotiating Identity, Transacting Nationhood




By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD


(Read at the 2005 Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities, Waikiki Sheraton Hotel, Honolulu, Hawai’i, USA, Jan. 13-16, 2005)

Key Questions

The question of identity and nation in the aesthetic consciousness of “migrants who write the migrant experience” is a question that strikes at the core of being and becoming of every migrant. This question is borne by the undeniable fact that the migrant—in his being “transplanted” from the land of his birth to a land that is both welcoming and accommodating and yet posing challenges in all fronts—is, at the minimum, being forced to “take root” soon. The metaphors for this phenomenon are agricultural; the case of migrant life seems to be anchored on the circumstances that pertain to the nurturing of life in the land where the migrant finds himself. It is necessary to identify the recurring themes, topics, and tropes that attend to the migrant experience; they give color and configuration to the poetic and literary discourse of migrant literature that is self-conscious and committed to contemplating on the prospects and possibilities of migrant life.

My concern is to bring to the surface the kind of contestation, interpellation, and negotiation that migrant writers do in their textual materials as they come face-to-face with the facts and fantasies of that are linked up with the migrant experience. My more immediate concern is how the contestation, interpellation, and negotiation of the realities of everyday life gain their immediacy and urgency in the literary works. I do not know if this particular sense of urgency and immediacy has something to do with that fact that the migrant—or every migrant, for that matter—has to face his being in the margins, his being part of the bordered existence. I submit that the literary works and the act of writing grounding the production of “work of exile by exiles” include both a conscious and unconscious energies and efforts. Conscious or not, there is an amazing dynamic involved in the representation and imagination in the poetic and literary practices of migrant Ilokano writers of the State of Hawai’i as is the case of all writings that have that element of self-reflection, essentially a social cognition that pre-shapes and pre-forms the epistemological import of all literatures of exile by exiles.

Representation and Imagination

I will look closely at these twin phenomena of representation and imagination from a hermeneutic sense. In particular I will look at this representation as a fuzzy and opaque concept by laying bare the problems that attend to the way the writers conceive of the migrant experience especially those that pertain to the concept of nation and the concept of identity. Likewise, I will revisit the dynamic in the play of the imagination of the writers as this imagination hints at certain problems of representation, for instance, those problems that bring about a heightening of the migrant experience and yet mask, at the same time, the ugly truths about how to succeed in making a better life in the adoptive land.

The choice of writers included in this essay has been guided by: (a) my familiarity of the body of work of each writer, a familiarity that also takes into account a critical concern for the literary history of Ilokano migrant writing; (b) the heightened awareness of the texts of the contradictions that are ever-present in the of critical contemplation of the migrant experience, and (c) and the perceived standing of these writers in the Ilokano writing community in the State of Hawai’i and the Ilokano writing community in the Philippines.

I need to bring out into the open some biases that have provided direction to interpretive scheme that I have utilized for this essay. First, I go for the need to critically look into the texts from a hermeneutic perspective. By hermeneutic, I refer to that attitude of the mind—necessarily an attitude towards human understanding—that looks at texts as essentially mediated articulations of a human experience begging aesthetic rendering into forms that are familiar, more or less, to their intended reader. Second, I look at texts as a play of both the linguistic and cultural—the play requiring a “to-and-fro” of traditions, origins, practices, discursive possibilities, commitments to causes, and intentions.

I must note here that from an organizational standpoint, the Gumil Filipinas has provided some élan vital to the continuing commitment of Iluko writing to the appreciation, development, and preservation of what I call under under a catchall phrase “the Ilokano ethos.” The Gumil Filipinas is the umbrella organization of a number of other Gumil organizations spread across the Philippines particularly in the Northwestern Luzon area and in Metropolitan Manila, and in some parts of the world where there is a pronounced number of “practicing” Ilokano writers, to wit, Italy, Greece, Hawai’i, and California. The problem with the aesthetic practice of Gumil Filipinas is that it has, unwittingly, established some kind of an unruly canon for what constitutes good writing and what differentiates it from bad writing. There has been a certain aestheticism in this practice—but this aestheticism lacks a critical perspective and self-reflexivity. It has not, for instance, engaged itself in a systematic and well-thought out criticism of the works produced by its writers and has not, as of today, drawn up a critical program. The problem here is that it has not pushed its writers to aim for what I would call a poetic and literary consciousness that counts.

This “Ilokano ethos” captures the weltanschauung of the Ilokano communities and virtual societies that assume a variety of social, political, cultural, and economic forms. These communities and virtual societies take on what can be loosely understood as an imagined nation linked largely by a linguistic identity, the language and its dialects and jargons giving an imprimatur to its ethnic solidity and an imagined permanence of the Ilokano anywhere. This is the reason why Ilokano writing must be understood mainly as writing in the Iluko language. In saying this, I am discounting the fact that the formation of a critically conscious community of writers must exclude those who do not write in the language. This prejudice is strategic in terms of cultural advocacy work.

Representative Works and Writers

Dean Jorge Bocobo frames his understanding of the experience of exile from the frame of the Jewish diaspora but does not stop there. He wrests the diaspora concept away from the Jews and applies it to the Filipinos who have been scattered all over the world in search of the good life. He says in a column from the Philippine Daily Inquirer: “Now ‘diaspora’ applies to millions of Filipinos, dispersed by poverty and injustice from their own land to every corner of the planet. Estimates say that up to eight million Filipinos, (one in ten of 80 million) work or live abroad. Their experiences as émigrés are largely invisible and often ignored by the society they have departed, almost as if they have died. We see only the sharpest promontories of our countrymen’s migrations into every corner of the global arena.” At the present estimate, these Filipinos outside the country are remitting about US $3.8B. The amount represents the sacrifices and sufferings of Filipinos who are eking it our in other lands, sending a big chunk of their earnings to the Philippines. These remittances, in turn, help prop up the economy that is getting more bankrupt each year with its huge deficits and the deterioration of its infrastructure and social services.

The exportation of warm bodies, as social critics would say, continues unabated. With the failure of the government to provide employment opportunities to the growing number of able and competent workforce, this workforce looks to the opportunities offered by foreign lands. Immigration has also become a permanent option, albeit a better one for those who have the means and the luxury of going through the difficult process of getting an employer that vouches for the prospective immigrant’s professional skills and then signing the petition papers. Immigration to Canada and the United States as permanent residents provides a window of opportunities to Filipinos who, in turn, are given the chance to petition their immediate families; of late, the Unites States also opened its H-1B working visa program, another avenue through which, in the end, a specialty professional can work towards the permanent residency and then to citizenship.

It is within this context that we view Ilokano migrant writing in Hawaii. Of those whose works have been included in this present study, all of them have come to Hawaii on the basis of the petition filed for them by their family members. We have to look to Ilokano writing in the United States to be able to identify writers who were, initially, on a specialty occupation working visa. This distinction of the immigration status including the circumstances for coming over to the United States as immigrant workers is important because it colors the kind of reflections the writers writing in Iluko make and infuse in their body of works on migrant life. For Canada, there is not this clear distinction of visas. The Ilokano writers writing in and from Iluko are all migrant workers and thus are entitles to the same privileges of those other permanent residents. With a point-system for immigration of professionals, Canada is getting many of the best brains the country has; so also with the United States with its increasingly stringent requirements for immigrant and/or working visa.

Why is this background information necessary? Why is this need to look into a detail like this in accounting the migrant discourses in the diaspora literature of Ilokanos writing in and from Iluko? The raising of the circumstances of immigration is necessary because the topics, themes, and tropes in the writings would tend to differ in intensity when the discourses of those who went to the more difficult process of the working visa than those who came into the US with the immigrant visa. It is not the purpose of this essay to elaborate the differences at this time but simply to post a warning to the readers that these minute details do provide a certain trajectory to clearing up the fuzzy areas.

From here, we can then provide a model by which we can locate the textual materials produced by Filipinos, the texts largely defined according to the language and themes contained in the texts. I propose a heuristics of four-models, related but not totally independent of each other: (1) Fil-Am writings, produced by the “local borns,” the second or third-generation children of immigrants; their body of works is largely English but with a heightened sense of the old country of their parents and families; (2) Fil-Im writings, produced by those born in the old country, and write in English and other Philippine languages; (3) OFW writings, with Fil-Im components, for those with an intention to become Fil-Ims; and, (4) OFW/OCW writings, for those who provide contracted labor, but with no intention nor opportunity to become Fil-Ims. I submit that these distinctions are threading on technicalities. But these are necessary to provide a heuristics for a thorough because sensitive analysis on the themes, topics, and tropes of literature of exile produced by those who have chosen to leave the country whether permanently or temporarily.

The concern of this essay is Model 2—Fil-Im Writings. In particular, I revisit the works of the following writers writing in and from Iluko: (1) Ricarte Agnes; (2) Pacita Saludes; (3) Amado Yoro; and Lorenzo Tabin. Pacita Saludes overarching theme is on the search for roots and for the urgent need of taking root in a new land; Ricarte Agnes and Amado Yoro are committed to reconstructing the historical drama in which the ancestors of the present-day Fil-Ims are implicated; and Lorenzo Tabin is concerned with the ardent desire to be sustained by the roots of the Fil-Ims’ sense of being and becoming in a new land.

Pacita Saludes is perhaps one of the visionaries of Iluko literature of exile. For many years, Saludes served as one of leading stalwarts of the annual literary writing seminars and workshops held in the Philippines for over last 30 years. Upon immigrating to Hawaii, she put together the first ever off-shore unit of the Gumil, the Gumil Hawaii. For many years after its founding, Gumil Hawaii provided a model through which other out-of-country Gumil organizations could start to band and put forward a cultural, linguistic and literary advocacy projects and programs. The Gumil Hawaii, and through the force of other circumstances, gave impetus to the organization of other autonomous Gumil chapters, to name, the Gumil Oahu, Gumil Hawaii Grande, Gumil Maui, and Gumil California. Of these chapters, only Gumil Hawaii and Gumil Oahu have graduated from their parochial concerns, with Gumil Hawaii producing during the last 15 years many anthologies highlighting the works of writers of Hawaii including those who are not members of this organization. Gumil Oahu has taken on a more intellectual and scholarly approaches to cultural advocacy work with its tie-up with the Ilokano Language and Literature Program of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and with its holding of the first-ever international conference on the Ilokano language and literature in 2002.

Saludes’ body of work takes in context this historical dynamics. But always, the contribution of Saludes to Iluko literature advocacy work stems from her organizational capability to bring together the otherwise busy immigrant writers who had to take on any available jobs in order to start off their life in a new land. She was responsible for putting out many of the anthologies of Iluko writing in Hawaii together with some of the other more productive members: Amado Yoro, Mario Albalos, and Carlo Laforga, and Ric Agnes.

*Serialized in the Inquirer beginning August 5, 2005.

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