Friday, September 11, 2015


Eric Gamalinda introduces FLIPPIN': Filipinos on America edited by Eric Gamalinda and Luis H. Francia
(Asian American Writers Workshop, New York, 1996)

Myth, Memory, Myopia: Or, I May Be Brown But I Hear America Singin'

Something stirred in the dark. It was the wind, miasmic and oppressive on this humid June night. Private William Grayson, a volunteer soldier from the Kansas Regiment, cocked his rifle. A group of men were coming up the bridge. He aimed his rifle and called, "Halt!" But the shadowy figures kept advancing. He fired one shot. And then, suddenly, something whizzed past him—he was being fired at! Immediately, other soldiers from the regiment scrambled to back him up. Shots rang out from both sides of the bridge. It was a brief, intense exchange. When the firing stopped, a few Filipino insurrectos lay dead on the bridge. 

Thus began the Philippine-American War in 1899, less than a year after Commodore George Dewey's fleet sank the antiquated Spanish gunboats docked at Manila Bay. One hundred years after the incident at San Juan bridge, however, the circumstances surrounding that war remain murky—even the name of the man who fired the first shot or his regiment has not been definitely established. It is not surprising, then, that the war is still largely regarded as a footnote in America's history. In fact, until recently, as far as history textbooks in both the United States and the Philippines were concerned, the Philippine-American War, which inexorably altered the destiny of this archipelago in the Pacific, never happened at all. 

There is something Borgesian about a time lapse in history such as the Philippines experienced. Within those years a surreal transmutation happened. The country leapt from feudal possession to commonwealth to fledgling democracy. It adopted a Western educational system that was available to all—unheard of under Spanish rule, when most indios (as the natives were called) were nothing more than slaves. And it changed the official language from Spanish to English. Indeed, so massive was the change and so successful the transformation that until the PC police said otherwise, for close to nine decades Filipinos believed the American moniker for them, "Little Brown Brother," was an expression of fraternity. 

For Filipinos, America is Big Brother, though not always in the Orwellian sense: it is looked up to variously as mentor, exemplar, traitor or refuge. In the Philippines, America still looms as kingpin, destiny-maker, economic manipulator, and until the last U.S. military bases were rejected by the Philippine Senate in 1991, a colonial master with a serious image problem, thanks to its support of Ferdinand Marcos' 21-year-dictatorship and the nationalist backlash that accompanied it. It is easy to see why Filipinos have viewed their stormy relationship with America as something like the popular childhood game of Jack en Poy (scissors, paper, stone—again, imported from America). American policy seemed determined by chance, and not infrequently by prevarication, and democracy came like a super value meal with all the trimmings: education, culture, rambunctious politics, a dictatorship, military bases, economic impositions, a shared war, citizenship (sort of), and even a Fourth of July independence day. 

The United States, nonetheless, is second home to close to two million Filipinos—one of the largest immigrant populations in the U.S., and predicted to become the largest Asian minority by the next millennium. And because Filipino immigrants are especially proud of being "Americanized," they assimilate as though by birthright, blending into the landscape with little effort or recalcitrance. Filipinos are everywhere, but you don't hear of Filipinotowns. Perhaps because of the fractiousness of the "community" or the regional diversities within it, you won't hear of a Filipino million man march anytime in the near future. Filipinos are America's invisible minority, a status that until recently many Filipino Americans seemed comfortable with. Only a handful of academics and students, for instance, are aware that Filipinos settled in America long before the Mayflower pilgrims did, when they abandoned Spanish galleons and settled in California or New Orleans. Not many know that one of the founders of Los Angeles was a Filipino, or that the roots of the California orange industry can be traced back to the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, when friars stationed in California grew the fruit and handed them out to sick sailors as an antidote to scurvy. 

And yet, in the Philippines, America is a presence as huge as God. Every Filipino is expected from the first day of school to acquire an exhaustive knowledge of America the Beautiful—its language, literature, history, and culture—and, irrationally, everyone expects America to reciprocate the gesture. Imagine the shock of the first-timer in the United States who is asked where in Latin America his country is. Americans have no clear knowledge of their country's relationship with the Philippines, primarily because when the U.S. was colonizing the archipelago—brutally, the way they eradicated the Native Americans—the U.S. government imposed a news blackout. Only a handful of Americans, such as Mark Twain, spoke against American imperialism. 

Today, America's multinational role is perceived only from the viewpoint of recent history: Korea and Vietnam remain vivid in the hearts and minds of U.S. war vets, but those who fought in the Philippines are as dead as Jesse James (who, incidentally, fought in the Philippine American War before he became a full-time outlaw in Missouri). As the late Alfredo Navarro Salanga, a poet who had obstinately examined the Philippines' relationship with America, succinctly put it, 

The only problem is 
they don't think much 
                               about us 
in America.

Generations of Filipino writers have questioned not only America's presence in their own country but also their people's infatuation with it. Filipinos, in fact, have a term for it: "colonial mentality," which punsters have corrupted to the more derogatory "mental colony." It's a schizophrenic love affair to begin with. American TV shows and Top 40 music are extremely popular, but to say that American culture is superior to one's own earns a special tenure in the mental colony. Yet Filipino's affection for things American runs deep, and these values are generally carried over by immigrants who take domicile in the United States. Many Filipino Americans still regard their own culture as inferior (that is, compared to America's), which further reinforces the Filipino's invisibility. It is no wonder that the second- and third- generation Filipino Americans feel they are neither here nor there, perambulating between a culture that alienates them and a culture they know nothing about, or are ashamed of. 

Filipino American literature has found itself in such a limbo. For decades Filipino writers have sporadically earned some degree of recognition in the United States. Most notable, perhaps, were Carlos Bulosan and Jose Garcia Villa. Bulosan, a migrant worker who found his calling as a writer in the United States, lived a life as though it were tailor-made for a Hollywood script: he struggled his way through California orchards to publishing success, but eventually ended up destitute, infirm, unknown. Yet his works remain valid and relevant to this day, a reminder of the unchanging conditions not only in his country but in ethnic America as well. Villa, on the other hand, has played the quintessential bohemian, living since his youth in New York's Greenwich Village, hanging with Edith Sitwell, W.H. Auden, and e.e. cummings, giving classes to generations of budding American writers, and writing poetry so rarified (and retrospectively, so experimental and groundbreaking), it could not be pinned down to a specific geography (hence his absence in this anthology). 

In recent years, more and more Filipinos have seen their works in print, and the success of writers like Jessica Hagedorn may have helped spark interest in Philipine writing. Names like Ninotchka Rosca, NVM Gonzales, Bienvenido Santos, Peter Bacho, Fatima Lim-Wilson, and M. Evelina Galang come up in current discussions of Filipino-American literature. It is perhaps inconceivable to think of a people coming from such a tiny archipelago to produce a substantial body of literature, but the fact is that Philippine writing remains one of the most vibrant in the world, an ongoing tradition that can no longer be contained by the strictures of language or even of geography: for Philippine literature is a complex, multifaceted, multilingual organism, written in various dialects (and in English) in the archipelago, in Australia, in Europe and in America, by people who have never seen America, people who have never seen the Philippines, or people who have seen one or both, but who feel continually called upon to make sense of this unique and sometimes flabbergasting culture. 

Collectively, these writers challenge preconceptions from both America and the Philippines. Through these voices, the myths about America, so rampantly propagated by mass media in the Philippines, are seen with an unflinching eye, while the myths about the Philippines—savage, ridiculous, too poor to have an interior life—are supplanted by a closer, more sympathetic and ultimately more enlightened point of view. By shattering the myths, one rearranges memory: history as a series of revelations. In this manner, a country, especially one still struggling to deal with its postcolonial identity, puts on corrective lenses to counteract the myopia which afflicts most modern histories. 

It seems significant that literature should attempt to set the record straight on a colonial relationship that may have been occasioned by the language barrier. When America decided to colonize the Philippines, the U.S. regiments had not been more than a year in the archipelago. Filipinos still spoke little English, much less understood it. According to recently available documents, the Filipinos tried as much as possible to avoid war with America, while America kept looking for an excuse to colonize the islands. The skirmish at San Juan bridge was that excuse. But would the war have been averted if Private Grayson shouted "Para"—the Spanish/Tagalog for "Halt"? 

All told, this is not a historical anthology, but as Robert Frost (not a Filipino) said, it was well worth preliminary mention. This anthology took shape on its own, after Luis H. Francia and I sent out a general call for submissions in the U.S. and in the Philippines (we also received inquiries from London). Although a few works deal with the Philippines' shared history with America, many deal with topics universal to all people, be they transplanted or not: family, relationships, nostalgia, survival, home, faith, loss, joy. These are the values that define a people, and with which they mark their place in the world—the whole gamut of human experience, but seen through the eyes of those whose lives have been shaped and defined on both sides of the earth, by cultures that have often conflicted with one another. This conflict is at the heart of every Filipino, and writers have been doubly burdened by questioning it. In the end the search for identity is also a literary quest, and the answer, or fractions of it, can be found here. 


ERIC GAMALINDA has previously published, in the Philippines, a collection of short stories, three poetry collections, and four novels, including My Sad Republic, winner of the Philippine Centennial Prize in 1998. Born and raised in Manila, where he worked as a journalist covering everything from politics to rock music, Gamalinda currently lives in New York City and teaches at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Columbia University. The Descartes Highlands is his latest novel.

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