(Prepared for the University of Hawaii at Hilo, February 23, 2006. Sponsored by the Ilokano Program, Dept. of Hawaiian and Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures, Dept. of English, Center for Philippine Studies, Dept. of Ethnic Studies, and the National Foreign Language Resource Center).
THE IDENTITY OF THE FILIPINO AMERICAN IS THAT OF A NECESSARY EXILE AND A NECESSARY FICTION—AND THIS IDENTITY IS NECESSARILY PLURAL
Who am I? This question of identity is always a question that is as fluid as the watery vastness separating the Philippines from the United States.
A Filipino American—the Flip, the local born—might not have the same answer as the rest of the immigrants from the home country. He has lost the memory—or he has no memory of the home country that could have made the question of identity different, perhaps more complex and more complicated than the way his elders would frame that same question.
Ask that of the one who had to scratch out a life from the uneven terrain of trying and trying it out some more just to survive the first days and first years in the United States and the question is transformed into some kind of trope memorializing the long wait, the arduous struggle, the persistence of the spirit, and the numerous prayers that went with the dream to pursue good life. He is your Filipino immigrant through and through—the one who has seen it all: the ugly and the beautiful in immigrant life, the opportunity and opportunism, the consistency and contradiction, the reality and the illusion. Because all these ground the immigrant experience that has touched base with the primal passion and faith that goes with eking out a new life in a new land under totally new circumstances.
Ask that of the bagong salta—the newly arrived—and the answer could be between estrangement and welcome, between wandering and wondering, between self-redemption and self-destruction. The days are long for the bagong salta, the tears generous, the sorrowing equally so. The colorful wall calendar announcing a vacation in an island paradise called Boracay becomes a mute witness to the thousand circles of questioning-and-answering with the lonely and isolated soul that longs for home, for the fiesta and Friday devotion in Quiapo, for the coronation night in Gumamugam, for the carefree life on the shores of Tagbilaran, with the bald mountains giving you the stage to mount your imagination of what is it to live in exile. The bagong salta tries to bury deep in his heart the betrayal of People Power I and People Power II and think of the dire days in the homeland as some kind of a cheap moro-moro or comedia or vaudeville for the retarded leaders with their stunted mindsets about how to build a nation from the dreams of those citizens who have decided to stay put and love the motherland the way the revolutionaries had loved her.
For here, the question “Who am I?” is a question that strikes at the core of being of anyone asking whether one is a Flip, a Filipino American, a Filipino immigrant, or a bagong salta.
The question is a difficult text—it is, in truth and in fact, a question of difficulty: the difficult days in the past and the difficult days of the present, the difficult dream and the difficult pursuit of that dream.
The difficulty is as real as the tenuousness of luck, the uncertainty of the coming years even as the one asking wrestles with the terrors and surprises of the answer. But even here, even with the promise of the future, the divide between terror and surprise may be as unclear as the foggy skies in the foothills of the mountain ranges that drop to the sea that connects you to home. For in the imagination, that other side of the vastness is the country that has promised nurture and sustenance and yet failed to deliver.
This is why the Filipino immigrant asking that identity question now ran away.
Because somewhere in his mind, there is something that is profoundly missing. It is the lost memory. It is the memory of a people coming alive and kicking and needing remembering.
Because somewhere in his soul, there is something that begs to be heard. It is the song of a country the ancestors had vowed to love in eternity, the song begging to be sung again and again until it becomes the song of the immigrant’s everyday life, until it becomes the mantra that links him up with a past that is now as fuzzy as the answer to that question “Who am I?”
Because somewhere in his spirit, there is something that commands him to stop, to look, and to listen. It is the crossroads, the multiple crossroads that the immigrant has to trod on, delicately at first, delicately because the steps, initially are uncertain even as he keeps on asking that question about him whether he is American or Filipino, whether he is Filipino-American, whether he is American-Filipino—or whether he settles for a compromise and simply accept that he is as ethnic as the person next to him.
Because somewhere in his body, in that material body, there is something that makes him go back to the topography of the land and memory that he left behind—or the land and memory of his heritage. It is the movement of limbs, the sway of the hips, the taut action and reaction of the torso as he imagines himself communing with the community of rallyists and protesters challenging the powers-that-be in the land of overseas contract workers, in the land where many exiles come from, in the land where the delicate dance of self and society has to be learned. That delicate dance of self and society has something to do with, on one hand, the obligation to the everyday, to self and family, to self and kin and, on the other, the obligation to pursue the bigger causes beyond the self like the obligation to do justice to others, the obligation to do what is right and fair, the obligation to build a community of morally upright citizens and people.
The mind, the soul, the spirit, the body—these are sources of the response to the question posed by the immigrant asking that question “Who am I?” The question begins with the inner resources of the person and goes outward, ending in that difficult answer that says, you immigrant are two nations in one.
He closes his eyes and he sees the hollowed hills of the Hollywood and sacred spaces of the American Indians in the Rancho San Pedro that lead to the endless sea. He imagines the question—he imagines the answer: You are two nations in one now.
The answer continues—but the immigrant knows that the answer contains the genesis of new questions. You are a necessary exile now. The song comes in, the memory revisits, the contours of the homeland appear in a mirage, and the words of the ancestors come to bless your wandering heart, mind, body, soul.
You are a necessary fiction now—a construct, a contract, a negotiated identity, a negotiated self. But the construction has not ended: it will go on and on and on—and it will go on and on and even as you have begotten you own children and their own. For this is the circle of life of an immigrant: to begin to negotiate an identity from so many nations, so many cultures, so many selves, so many identities, so many memories and out of them form his own in a tentative way, exploring the limits of the possible and going beyond those limits, transcending the boundaries in order to create a new and a renewed self, a new and a renewed identity. You call this the plural selves becoming one—and yet this self generating others, having in it the kernel of life, of lives, of ever-new questions, and ever-new answers. The circle does not end but expands in order to account life as it is lived in earnest even if lived in exile—exiled from old selves, old identities, old country, old memory, old loves, old stories, and old song.
Because the question “Who am I?” renews the narrative of life in the pursuit of the better life elsewhere, in this bosom of the America of the dreams of the many who have been left behind in the home country.
Because the question “Who am I?” itself hints at the answer—and that answer is the contract: That you are, indeed, two-nations-in one—and by that you are always already plural.