Rethinking and Revisiting Ethnicity: The Case of American Filipino

Ethnicity in Context

Compared to other nations and states, the United States, because of its being “a nation of many nations,” is undoubtedly the one with the most pronounced issues about ethnicity. While Europe at this time is experiencing the burden of assimilating non-European peoples and immigrants into their own societies—with a marked degree coming from the Islamic states of the Middle East—the ethnic issues in these Islamic countries are not as pronounced as those in the United States, with its own sad history of oppression and domination of people of color in many forms. The POC in the United States have remained colored, in skin as well as in sensibilities and sensitivities and thus their continued vigilance of their human and constitutional rights is of urgency and immediacy.

To speak about Filipinos in America is to speak about something that is not easy to take hold of. The term Filipinos, for one, has resisted definition because of the varying tensions and contradictions attached to the term when it is used to categorize a people outside America. Even in the Philippines, of course, there is a running joke—and it is racist at that—about Ilokanos. The story goes:

Man 1: Filipino ka, kabagis? (Are your Filipino, brod?)
Man 2:Saan, brad. Ilokanoak. (No, brod, I am Ilokano).

And because of the inferiority complex experienced by non-Tagalogs in the Philippines when they are face to face with the Tagalogs, here we go:

Man 1, in Ilonggo accent: Tagalog pala ka?
Man 2, in Ilonggo accent: O man bay, pareho pala ta!

Of course, we have to take the jokes as they come, racist or not racist. The clue there is to make fun of our foibles and our failures. And our idiosyncrasies as well.

The concept Filipino in America is porous, fluid, malleable, unbounded: it admits of many possibilities. We can go with:

1) the Filipino tourist in America
2) the Filipino tourist whose immigration papers have lapsed
3) the Filipino on a training visa—J-1
4) the Filipino a student visa—F-1
5) the Filipino on a working visa—H-1
6) the Filipino on the process getting his permanent residency—labor certification
7) the Filipino who is a green card holder
8) the Filipino who has gotten his citizenship
9) the Filipino who is local born—the Flip
10) the Filipino who is a mestizo
11) the Filipino is who second or third generation.

From this list, we recognize that there is not one kind but many kinds of Filipinos in the United States, and their immigration status somehow marks them. This means that, while we can begin to revisit and rethink about ethnicity in all of these categories, in the proper sense that is more political and cultural because of the spaces afforded to them, we can begin to trim down the list and account ethnicity issues

1) only potentially in J-1, F-1, and H-1 visa holders—as potentially naturalized Americans
2) actually in the Permanent Residents—as potentially naturalized Americans
3) actually in the Filipino immigrant who had acquired his citizenship
4) actually in the Flip or local born (also called the First Gen Fil-Am)—as natural Americans
5) actually in the mestizo who is a natural American
6) actually in the Second Gen/Third Gen Fil-Am.

In real terms, the term Fil-Am is only referred to the Flip, the mestizo, and the 2nd/3rd gen.

The Filipinos who acquired their American citizenship by the naturalization process are not truly, Filipino Americans but Fil-immigrant Americans.

New Indenture, New Oppression

If we look at these categories again, we can see clearly the to-and-fro of self-identity in all of them.

There is a tentativeness in the first six categories and more so in the first four categories, with no promise of a future except to go through the arduous immigration process of getting on to the next logical step: apply for a permanent residency. Even then, the processes, while they do lead you to the end—the citizenship—takes so much of resources: money, and more money, good luck (is the immigration officer kind today or did he wake up on the wrong side of the bed?), and time, this last seemingly taking them in eternity.

The tourist changing immigration status might need between six to 10 years, if he is lucky, before he can ever take a hold of his green card.

I have documented many Filipinos who went through this ordeal and in the 10 years of waiting, he could not go home because while there is a provision about advance parole—meaning a permission to go out of the US for a while and then come back—that does not give the person the automatic privilege to be accepted into US soil. I have read accounts of a father who have left the Philippines 16 years ago when the youngest daughter was only 10; the father did not have the chance to see his daughters grow up. Now all the daughters have moved on and have finished college and have started their own families.

From field data I have culled in my ethnographic work in the Los Angeles and Orange counties, I have become a witness to the new form of oppression and indenture many Filipinos go through as they try to scratch out a life in the United States as tourists, as indocumentados, or even as professionals with J-1 and H-1 visas. The indocumentados are worst off: they cannot even file a complaint with labor for fear that they will be deported. And with a family back in the Philippines waiting for every dollar that they earn here, we can just imagine the suffering that they go through each day.

Also from my field data, I have known of a group of working visa holders who have filed a complaint with the Department of Labor and for two years, such a complaint has yet to be acted upon by this department.

How do your revisit and rethink of ethnicity in light of this complicated and complex state of affairs?

First, ethnicity has nothing to do with the infrastructures and structures of oppression. An oppressor is an oppressor whatever race he comes from.

Second, ethnicity may be a ground for the agency for oppression, with the structure of domination and power over others linked up with the economic power one holds over others. In certain terms, we can think about of oppression by ethnic groups over others, say the oppression of whites over the people of color—and also oppression by Filipinos in America over others Filipinos in America. Here we are getting clearer with the ugly reality that Filipinos oppress other Filipinos.

Alienation and Estrangement

Of the groups of Filipinos in the United States, there is no more alienated and estranged than these three groups:

• The Flips of all kinds: the real Filipino Americans, the first, second, and third generation who had not had any chance to eat the dirt of the homeland and breathe its air.
• The mestizos—those who share only some percentage of the Filipino blood and who do not have that totality of consciousness of what is it to become a Filipino on a first hand basis.
• The indocumentados—the tago-ng-tago, the TNT who have not way to take part in the social and cultural life—not to mention the political life—of this country
except as a spectator from the margins.

If we go by the notion of liminality—that experience that is always in the boundary, we have in mind all these Filipinos above: the Fil-Ams of all kinds, the illegals/indocumentados, and the mestizos.

Of the three, there is no way the illegal, the TNT, and the indocumentados could ever share a world with the mestizos and the Fil-Ams. All are alienated and estranged—yet the kind of alienation and estrangement are not the same.

What concerns you perhaps, are the ethnic issues related to the Fil-Ams and mestizos. Perhaps there are some of you who could belong to the Fil-Ims—those Filipino immigrants who have to go through the process of acquiring their citizenship so they will become “full-pledged Americans.”

Among Fil-Ams of the first generation, there could no more shocking than the change in the mindsets.

Here, we deal with the realities of the everyday with these everyday yoke:
Of parents who speak the language of the homeland, of relatives who do the same, of parents who eat the same cuisine as those in Manila and elsewhere, with the ubiquitous bagoong and the adobo and the tinapa in the regular menu for the week. The smell of this cuisine takes hold of the spirit of the parents of these first generation Fil-Ams but such is not shared by the younger generation who have not learned to cultivate their tongue with some other tastes, including those coming from the fastfood restos that have become a landmark in all the neighborhoods. So we have here Fil-Ams who cannot appreciate any longer the dinengdeng with its smelly bagoong to taste—and may even abhor it. I have seen in many households how domestic wars arise out of this. In one household that I have been to, the smell of young garlic leaves being cooked is sufficient to start a word war between generations. In instances like this, the mother opens all the windows and doors, sprays Glade all over the house, turn on all exhaust fans and electric fans to shoo the odor away.

Here, I am proposing to rethink of ethnicity and revisit its parameters by going back to cuisine culture and its memories—and its hold on the questions of identity and identity formation.

The smell—call it aroma—of bagoong is not universal but particular and peculiar. It does not evoke the same feeling and passion even among Filipinos, for instance, even if we can generalize that many Filipinos do share the same cuisine culture. But the say ethnicity is linked with cuisine culture, for instance, would vary depending on so many variable, including the environment. Those who are farther away from the sea would not have the same passion for bagoong as those who are closer to it—or who have the access to marine resources.

The Fil-Am and the mestizos do not display this penchant for the material culture of their forebears—or their parents. Estrangement is a logical issue here as they are exposed more and more to things American: beefsteak, the burger, the fillet, the pancake. They do not simply share the same penchant for the daing, the bibingka, the pancit canton, or the puto. I have heard some young Fil-Ams saying: I do not want starch.

Ethnicity, Fil-Am, and Urban Culture in the Mainland

I think that with the nexus between being Filipinos ( watch out for the nose and the color of the skin!) and being American at the same time, the Fil-Am is perpetually swimming in the same river with two rivulets and then eventually moving into the same sea. The rivulets speak of the ethnic factors—some kind of dialectic of being Filipino and being American in an ever-discursive and continuing sense. The sea is the synthesis, the Fil-Am coming to terms with his being a Fil-Am: Filipino in many ways, and American in many ways as well.

Vctor Viesca talks of the marginality of Filipino Americans in the urban areas of San Dieo, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and account their being marginal together with the other colored peoples such as the African Americans, the Mexican—and by extension, the Hispanic—and the Filipinos. And yet,
he says, the formation of an urban culture is linked with the mainstream hip-hop musical culture. Disc Jockey crews, he calls. He writes: “Initially these DJ crews played and mixed electro funk and ‘Latin freestyle,’ a high energy dance music related to disco.” Eventually, the hip-hop culture linked up with being Fil-Am came to include ‘manipulating turntables’ called ‘turntablism,’ funk music, and graffiti art.

The cross-cultural dynamic of being a Filipino American has had a long story beginning, at least formally, with the Filipinos in the home country getting access to public education through all the tools of American education including the use of English as the medium of instruction. With the sending of pensionados—the Filipinos who were given scholarships to study in US colleges and universities on the condition that they had to go back to the homeland to become facilitators and agent in the transfer of knowledge and technology—such cross-cultural experience paved the way to what could be termed as the first step towards the gradual Americanization of the Filipinos whether they were in the Philippines or they themselves in the United States. The logic in these excursion and exposure is that the longer they stayed in the United States, the more the Filipinos became.

This eventually paved the way to what scholars call as cross-cultural hybridity—with the bearers of such a culture, logically the cross-cultural hybrids: the Filipino Americans. The hybridity accounts the Asian in the Filipino American, the Hispanic, and the American, the last one including the white and the colored American (read: the connection with the Buffalo Soldier regiment).

Jean Gier has this to say on this hybridity: “I am pretty rooted in the U.S. because I was born here, and didn’t travel much in my youth, but even Filipino Americans can’t entirely escape this network of far-flung relations. You get to know so many Filipinos who have global, even nomadic, existence. So I got curious about how they were using the internet. Was it helping to solve certain problems? Was it creating problems? What ‘shape’ was Filipino identity and nationalism taking on the Web?”

With the influx and intrusion of the new technologies of communication, there is an intensification of this hybridity, with the boundaries of the past now clearly collapsed and diffused—and even totally destroyed such that what we have, perhaps, are only traces that are readily erasable at the opportune time. But then again, the Filipino American who has come into an awareness of himself and his place in the scheme of things in the U.S. almost always assert his ethnic identity and pride and deliberately challenges the status quo that valorizes one identity over the other. The poet Eileen Tabios says of her ethnicity as not only a Filipino American but an Asian American: “I have lived mostly in the U.S. As one who has participated in the ‘Asian American’ literary movement, I am aware of how Asian-American poetry is perceived by the majority of critics, academics and those who form the dominant literary canon. Asian American poetry, like those by many writers of color, are mostly read based on content…”

What does this tell?

It tells of the continuing exclusion of the Other—the O in capital: the strange, the non-white, the non-Western—in short, the non-American. In effect, in art as in life, the Americans of color, the Filipino Americans included, must continually produce expressions of the artistic in terns of their ethnic orientation to make a ripple, make a name, and perhaps, land on the bestseller list. This is what happened to Carlos Bulosan when he came up with a book of tragicomic stories he titled, “The Laughter of My Father.” Here, in these stories are Filipino village folks whose view of the world is light and noncommittal and thus lacking in serious mien and thus are veritably something to be laughed at—and not something that we can use to ruminate, think, meditate, contemplate. We do not have those in the laughter as what we have, for instance, is a narrative of hunger and yet the father continued to keep his rooster, feeding it with the best grains. Hungry, the mother slaughtered the rooster and made the best chicken soup ever tasted by the family. The father realized only too late that that chicken soup was his rooster he loved so dearly.

So here we see: that the ethnicity of the Filipino is reckoned through his holding on to what has held him as Filipino in the home country, to what holds him a Filipino in America, and to what holds him as Filipino American in the present and in the future.

I call this the layered identity—multilayered if you wish.

Because we have to reckon the promises of the roots of the Filipino identity: the Asian roots, the ancient roots.

Because we have to reckon the Western—Hispanic, European, and American—influences.

Because we have to look to the immigrant experience as a factor even as the Filipino American must come to terms with the reality that the United States is not a homogenous country but a nation among nations, a country of the most varied people.

Filipino American Ethnicity:
A Challenge

The challenge for the Filipino American and the Filipino immigrant in the United States is to be faithful to the requisites of ethnic identity and pride without denying their being part of a bigger body politic—the American society. The ground for such a commitment is citizenship. But citizenship does not preclude pride in one’s cultural origins but demands only a political commitment to country accepting you as its citizen.

(Note: This essay was first presented as part of my speaking tour, University of Hawai`i at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, Februrary 17, 2006; another form of this essay was published in batches by The Weekly Inquirer, USA).

A Solver Agcaoili
Honolulu, HI


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