Reading the stigmata | Filipino bodies performing for the US empire

Professorial Lecturer, Polytechnic University of the Philippines

Bulosan“First Evidence of a Blunder in Drone Strike: 2 Extra Bodies”– so runs the headline of a news report in The New York Times (23 April 2015). President Obama, for the first time, apologized for the accidental killing of Warren Weinstein, an American aid worker, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian development expert, in a CIA-managed drone strike in Pakistan last January. Obama drew a lesson from the accidental sacrifice: “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur” (Mazzetti and Schmitt 2015). But how many sacrifices have been made for the sake of profit accumulation since Columbus and then Napoleon and Queen Victoria claimed the world for the mercantile and industrial bourgeoisie?

The fog of imperial war, first against recalcitrant natives of the non-Western regions of the world, and then against the subalterns in the metropolitan centers of slave traders and merchants, was invoked first with reference to the Vietnam carnage. It seems to have settled and remained stagnant since the conquest of Peru, Mexico and the Caribbean islands up to the division of the African continent in the 19th century. More extra bodies turned up in the U.S. annexation of the Philippines in the first decade of the twentieth-century, up to the present search and surveillance of “illegal” aliens within its borders. At least five bodies, cadavers, of contract workers are returned to the Philippines every day from all corners of the world.

In this brief discourse, I sketch an inventory of the U.S. imperial adventure in the Philippines as a background to the work of Carlos Bulosan, the first Filipino writer to gain canonical status, and the ordeal of Filipinos in the era of global capitalism. Today the Philippines ranks as second to Mexico in the number of contract or indentured laborers dispersed around the world, with over 12 million Filipinas functioning as symbolic and real capital of a U.S. neocolony. In this context, the now legendary figure of Jose Antonio Vargas, Filipino “undocumented” immigrant, serves as a palimpsest icon or hieroglyph for the universal predicament of all uprooted peoples, not just Filipinos, wandering for some kind of “belonging” in the era of a flat, borderless planet, as the corporate logo proclaims. Can we seriously practice this kind of hermeneutics of suspicion without us being suspect?

Where Exactly is the Philippines?

Except for horrendous natural disasters, such as the Yolanda/Haiyan storm that devastated whole provinces and killed thousands; or the other memorable eruption of Mt. Pinatubo that led to the forced abandonment of the two huge U.S. military bases in the Philippines, that island-nation scarcely merits occupying the headlines of the mass media here in North America or Europe. It’s not worth bothering about. Unless you have a Filipino friend, relative or connection, most people have difficulty locating the Philippines in the map–is it in the Caribbean or somewhere near Hawaii?

Last March 22, six thousand people marched in the white sands missile range in Alamagordo, New Mexico, commemorating the 26th anniversary of the Bataan Death March. World War II (with “Bataan” and “Corregidor” as its iconic markers) seems the live touchstone for celebrating the friendship of two peoples against the horrors of the Japanese occupation (1942-45). The welcomed “liberation” of the Philippines, for both Americans and Filipinos, wiped out the vexed origin of this relationship in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the bloody Filipino American War in 1899. The defeat of Spain led to the annexation, or “Benevolent Assimilation” (to use Pres. McKinley’s famous phrase), of the islands. The result was not so benevolent since 1.4 million Filipinos died in the ensuing carnage which lasted up to 1913. Very few people know about this episode in American history–a blip in the rise of a gllobal empire.

In his book Lies Across America, James Loewen notes that the ship Olympia, Admiral Dewey’s flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898, is on display in downtown Philadelphia. But not a word is mentioned about the war which became “a moral issue almost unparalleled in American policy and politics” (Wolff quoted by Loewen, [1999, 379]). From 1898 to 1946, the Philippines was the only Asian colony of the U.S. But when independence was granted, so many strings were attached that the new republic virtually remained a colony, more exactly a neocolony, up to now. Philippine sovereignty remains a myth, if not an invention of academic experts.

After 9/11, the U.S. sent several hundred U.S. Special Forces to the Philippines because of the presence of the Abu Sayyaf and the New People’s Army, both labelled terrorists. The kidnapping of the Burnham couple in 2001 and the circumstances surrounding the wife’s rescue and the death of the husband crystallized the reputation of the country as a haven of extremists. This became the pretext for the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, allowing deeper US military intervention, most recently evidenced in the Mamasapano tragedy under the current regime.

Historicizing Contingencies

What compelled the U.S. to be involved in these islands more than 8,000 miles away from the continent? We do not need to review the details of the Spanish-American War, nor the Filipino-American War. The expansion of the Republic into an Empire has been rehearsed in so many books. But the main reason is the need of the industrial economy to open up the China market by projecting its might into the Pacific (with the annexation of Hawaii and Guam) and its domination of the Pacific Basin zone of commerce from its Philippine base. So the geopolitical role of the Philippines at this stage of the growth of U.S. finance capital explains not only the violent seizure of the territory but also the political-ideological hegemony over the inhabitants. The Philippines today still plays the role of first-line defense against perceived threats from China and others (North Korea, Russia, Iran) from Asia up to the Middle East.

We are now in the era of globalized capital where borders seem to evaporate, Electronic communication has more or less leveled some barriers, but a century of scholarship and misinformation may take more time and will to rectify. We still have passports and immigration controls.

A recent popular history of the relations between the U.S. and the Philippines, Stanley Karnow’s In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines (1989), tried to revive the idea of a paternalist power managing tutelage of an immature people, formerly labelled savages. The anti-imperialist Samuel Gompers then described Filipinos as “semibarbaric,” “almost privimitive,” while others used the term “yellow-bellies” and “naked Sulus,” the latter referring to the Moros or Muslims residing in the Sulu Islands. But it simply reaffirmed the premise that, however earnest the colonial attempts to civilize the Filipinos, Karnow contends that they failed to break the compadrazgo system, the “coils of mutual loyalties” (quoted in San Juan 2000, 72)–in effect, the Filipinos brought upon themselves their backwardness, poverty, and even the “miseducation” that Filipino historian Renato Constantino claims we received from the putative benefactors.

Such “miseducation” may be gleaned from the functionalist Cold War scholarship of Jean Grossholtz, Alden Cutshall, Glenn May, etc. Grossholtz’s conclusion may give a clue to the way ahistorical functionalism easily resolve social disparities and inequties: “The blend of Malay, Spanish, and American cultures has resulted in a society closely tied by primary groups and preserving the warm social ties of the barangay but over-laid with a veneer of the Spanish aritocratic style and the joy in political manipulation and achievement of American politics. Filipinos accept their formal institutions but regard them as a framework for the strong personalized leadership that is their Malay heritage” (1964, 45-46). Such categories as “Malay,” “Spanish” and “American” serve to draw clean boundaries and cement ruptures, yielding a harmonious polity suspended in a prophylactic glass-case. Invisible are the tensions, conflicts and explosions of popular-democratic struggles against almost 4 centuries of colonial violence.

Respected historians such as David Joel Steinberg. Theodore Friend, Alfred McCoy and others have tried to correct the idyllic picture of a smoothly operating hierarchical system. They tried to prove that Filipinos also had “agency,” but they referred mainly to the elite bloc of oligarchic families–the propertied few–with whom the colonial administrators negotiated, whom they coopted to maintain peace and order until a semblance of formal indepence could be established in July 1946.

Sure, the country is both singular and plural, depending on which perspective or evaluative paradigm one uses to triangulate the interminable conflicts of various sectors, classes, and regions in the Philippines. William Blum’s optic finds the Philippines “America’s oldest colony” right up to the last quarter of the last century when, from the Philippine bases, “the technology and art of counter-insurgency would be imparted to the troops of America’s other allies in the Pacific,” from the Korean War to the wars in China, Vietnam and Indonesia, and the Middle East (2004, 42).

Failure in apprehending the colonial subject-hood of the Philippines from 1899 to 1946 (and neocolonial status after that) invariably leads to what I consider the cardinal error in diagnosing the actualities of U.S.-Philippines relations. I am referring to the status of Filipinos in the US mainland and Hawaii from 1898 to 1946. From 1898 to 1935, Filipinos (aside from pensionados or government scholars) who were recruited by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association in 1907 were colonial subjects, or nationals, not immigrants nor aliens. This move was forced upon the planters by the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement excluding Japanese workers; the Immigration Act of 1924 definitively barred Japanese immigration to Hawaii.

Earlier, of course, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act served as the benchmark for what Ronald Takaki would assert as the distinctively “racial and exclusionary,” not ethnic, pattern defining the history of US citizenship and suffrage. Thus while Filipinos were exempt from such exclusionary legislation, they did not enjoy citizenship rights. After the colony morphed into a “commonwealth” in 1935, only 50 Filipino bodies were allowed annual entry into the U.S,
The Filipino Menace

The sojourner Filipinos in Hawaii, however, proved recalcitrant and dangerous to capitalist agribusiness. For example, they organized a Filipino Federation of Labor in 1911 and the Filipino Unemployed Association in 1913. In January 1920, Filipino workers struck ahead of their Japanese counterparts; they were later joined by Spaniards and Puerto Ricans. When one of the Filipino labor militants, Pablo Manlapit, was arrested in September 1924, his compatriots staged protests in Hanapepe, Kauwai, where the police fired and killed 16 workers and wounded many others. This surely branded the Filipinos as trouble-makers. Manlapit was compelled to leave in 1927, but later he returned to Hawaii via California and helped revive the Filipino Federation of Labor after which he was deported to the colony (Lopez 2014).

One other Filipino worker in Hawaii, Pedro Calosa formed an association called “Beginning of Progress,” was imprisoned and deported for labor agitation in 1927. Back in Pangasinan, he organized a local group in 1929 and led the 1931 Tayug peasant insurrection. Although violently quelled, the uprising signalled a resurgence of populist, transformative energies that nourished the 1896 revolution against Spanish feudal landlordism which continues to this day (Constantino 1975). It is this action by a provincemate, a deported sojourner from Hawaii, that Carlos Bulosan (1913-1956) memorialized in Chapter 8 of his now canonical ethnic history, America is in the Heart..

Bulosan’s transformation as a canonical author epitomizes a whole history of Filipino experience in the United States in the last quarter of the 20th century. When Bulosan landed in Seattle in 1930, the global crisis of monopoly capitalism had already begun. The Depression of the thirties and forties served as the formative and catalyzing ground for his development into what Michael Denning calls a popular-front militant activist in which the impulse for national liberation of the colony intertwined with the internationalist struggle against fascism in Europe and Japanese militarism in Asia. Within this larger context, one has to situate Bulosan and his compariot’s traumatized predicament as they confronted the nativist, openly white supremacist racism of California and the West Coast in those two decades of the Depression.

Bulosan’s narrative was conceived in the middle of World War II, in the anguish over the fate of his family in occupied Philippines. It was designed to celebrate the America of his friends and ethnic kin as a bastion of democratic liberties against European and Japanese fascism. But to do that, he had to recount the hardships, pain and suffering his community endured, together with workers of other nationalities. He had to sum up what he learned, the gap between ideas and actualities.

Critics have long been puzzled by Bulosan’s authorial “double consciousness.” The contradictions found in Bulosan’s texts can be clarified as symptoms of the way the interpellated subject grappled with both the “Americanized” psyche (educated by the civilizing mission in the colony) and the politicized or pedagogical subject as part of the tremendous union mobilization that swept the workers’ organizations in which he was deeply involved. These contradictions can be indexed by the last chapter of his book which, ironically or naively, concludes a narrative of disillusionment, fear, escape from mob violence, and desperate struggle for physical survival everyday. After Corregidor fell to the Japanese, many Filipinos joined the US army. Saying goodbye to his brothers in California who had enlisted in the military, Bulosan ends America is in the Heart with a farewell to the Filipino workers in California as he caught a bus to Portland, Oregon:

Then I heard bells ringing from the hills–like the bells that had tolled in the church tower when I had left Binalonan [his birthplace in the Philippines, near Tayug, the site of the peasant uprising alluded to earlier]. I glanced out of the window again to look at the broad land I had dreamed so much about, only to discover with astonishment that the American earth was like a huge heart unfolding warmly to receive me. I felt it spreading throuogh my being, warming me with its glowing reality. It came to me that no man–no one at allo–could destroy my faith in America again. It was something that had grown out of my defeats and successes, something shaped by my struggles for a place in this vast land, digging my hands into the rich soil here and there, catching a freight to the north and to the south, seeking free meals in dingy gambling houses, reading a book that opened up worlds of heroic thoughts. It was something that grew out of the sacrifices and loneliness of my friends, of my brothers in America and my family in the Philippines–something that grew out of our desire to know America, and to become a part of her great tradition, and to contriburte something toward her final fulfillment. I knew that no man could destroy my faither in America that had sprung from all our hopes and aspirations, ever (1973, 326-327).

In his personal letters (from 1937 to 1941), Bulosan confessed that “the terrible truth in America shatters the Filipinos’ dream of fraternity” induced by over thirty years of colonial indoctrination. On the eve of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese conquest of the Philippines, he wrote to an American woman friend: “Love would only make it the harder for little guys like us to bear the unbearable terrors of life. Yes, I feel like a criminal running away from a crime I did not commit. And the crime is that I am a Filipino in America” (Bulosan 1995, 173). Cultural-studies cholar Michael Denning argues that the rhetorical excess “is a sign of the narrator’s desperate attempt to transcend a United States of violence, ‘a world of brutaity and despair’ “(1997, 274) which also infected his family and working comrades. Such rhetoric was an attempt to heal or erase the evidence of history and class politics on violated, uprooted and transplanted bodies.

Hemeneutics of Stigmata

One incident that summed up the emergency plight of Filipinos in the thirties is the Watsonville race riot, a culmination of vigilante attacks on Filipinos beginning in Yakima Valley in 1928, throughout the West Coast and up to Florida in 1932. During four nights of rioting in January 1930, about 250 men attacked 46 terror-stricken Filipinos, killing one of them, Fermin Tobera. One historian summarized the incidents thus:

At the inquest over the body of Fermin Tobera, it was decided that the person who had fired the short was unknown…When the body of Fermin Tobera…arrived in Manila, ‘thousands of Filipinos took part in orderly demonstrations.’ Tober’s body lay in state for two days. Tober was declared a national hero and for a time at least occupied a pedestal along with Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines. A member of the Philippine legislature was quoted as having said at the burial services that the bullet which killed Tober ‘was not aimed at him particularly, its principal target was the heart of our race… (Bogardus 1976, 56-57).

Pablo Manlapit, the veteran labor leader, organized a march of thoousands in Los Angeles protesting the murder. Concerning the Manila Luneta “necrological service” for Tobera, dubbed as “National Humiliation Day,” historian Paul Kramer remarked that it “vividly illustrated the mutual constitution of U.S.. colonialism and Filipino nationalism across transpacific space” (2006, 428). By “mutual constitution,” Kramer means that the nativist pogrom disproved the viability of “inclusionary racism,” finally giving independence to the U.S. from its colony. Kramer believes that “economic protectionism [by corporate power] and racist nativism” allowed “American racial insularity” the means of granting formal independence to Filipinos.

And so, contrary to the old-fashioned history books, Filipinos did participate in shaping their destiny. This is now the fashionable postmodernist theory which purports to grant agency to the poor colonized subalterns, even though the effective players in this drama remain the corporate political functionaries/officials and nativist white-racial supremacists. We are supposed to enjoy the illusion that the dispersed masses of Filipino peasants and workers exercised equal power and resources as the hegemonic bloc of wealthy landlords, businessmen and bureaucrats. In that ideal world, everyone is a free and equal moral person just like everyone else.

The irony of this tendentious revisionism and the ascription of agency to individual performative bodies of the colonized subalterns seem to be the latest twist in revising Cold War reductionisms. The intention is certainly commendable. One reviewer of the current scholarship insists that the colonized possessed individual agency equal to the colonizers by performing one’s own body, which allows “individuals the space to oppose, or perpetuate, the imperial imaginary” (Allen 2014, 221). Pursuing this methodological individualism, in contrast to the allegedly simplistic formulas of an economistic Marxism or the traditional structural-functionalist analysis dealing with anti-imperialist ideologues, the new postmodernizing scholars are devoted to exploring “the liberatory possibilities involved in the performance of one’s own body,” or of one’s own gender or race. Following this logic, Tobera and Contemplacion could have done more with their bodies beyond the confines of the police record or the autopsy report. They need a conceptualist artist like Kenneth Goldsmith, perhaps, to release the performative libidinal impulses hibernating in the bodies of “little brown brothers” and sisters working in the asparagus fields of California and pineapple plantations of Hawaii in Bulosan’s time.

In light of the recent controversy over Goldsmith’s recital of “The Body of Michael Brown,” one wonders if anyone attempted such a feat of artistic transfiguration. Of course, conceptual poetics/aesthetics was unheard of in the thirties. But a clearly analogous situation is that of the national trauma/crisis at the execution in Singapore of Flor Contemplacion, one of the ten-million OFWs/domestic workers sent abroad as a national policy of labor export implemented by the Marcos dictatorship to relieve unemployment and earn foreign currency. After being detained, tortured and tried for four years, Contemplacion was hanged and her body brought for burial in her hometown. An unprecedented spectacle of national mourning, with thousands of Filipinos lining the streeds, awed a worldwide audience. Thousands attended her funeral procession, outraged by both the Singaporean government’s straightjacket system and the Philippine politicians’ neglect of the brutal treatment of numerous OFWs for years–this time, the anger and grief released transpired in a setting more unsettled than the colonial milieu of Tobera’s time.

It is more than likely that Contemplacion’s case will be repeated–as it has been with many executions in the Middle East, and one pending in Indonesia today, Over 10 million OFWs are scattered around the planet–5,000-8,000 contractual workers leave everyday, remitting $26 to $28 billion a year, enough to pay the country’s foreign debt and keep the economy floating. Right now, there are about 7,000 Filipinos in prisons around the world, 80 in death row. Nine OFWs have been executed so far under Aquino’s tenure, the biggest number so far within less than six years. The bodies of Tobera and Contemplacion seem harbingers of what’s to come, turning in their graves with the internment of a double or postcolonial mimicry, over a hundred years since Mark Twain penned his savage satire on the “Business of Extending the Blessings of Civilization to Our Brother Who Sits in Darkness.”

Vargas as Cosmopolitan Trope?

Which brings me finally to the body of Jose Antonio Vargas, the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and self-declared undocumented immigrant. Vargas is still very much alive, but his figure serves as an exemplary symbolic icon in the long genealogy of Bulosan’s characters traversing the American heartland throughout the turbulent twentieth century. He embodies the inscription of “America” in the heart that Bulosan dreamed about.

Brought to the US illegally when he was 12 years old, Vargas was “sitting in darkness,” as it were, until at age 16 he tried to apply for a driver’s permit and was told that his documents were fake. In a 2012 TIME issue and before that, in a June 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine, Vargas and other undocumented folks came out of the shadows, in order to promote dialogue about the system and advocate for the DREAM Act, which would provide children in similar circumstances with a path to citizenship. In that same year, Obama halted deportation of undocumented immigrants age 30 and under eligible for the DREAM Act; but Vargas, who just turned 31, did not quallify and remained in limbo.

Vargas claims that the immigration system is broken, preventing many deserving candidates (who identity themselves as American) from residing in the country legally. Vargas’ campaign “Define American” is intended to document the lives of an estimated 11.5 million people without a legal claim to exist in the country (Constantini 2012). Vargas declared: “I define ‘American’ as someone who works really hard, someone who is proud to be in this country and wants to contribute to it. I’m independent. I pay taxes. I’m self-sufficient. I’m an American. I just don’t have the right papers. I take full responsibility for my actions and I’m sorry for the laws that I have broken’ (Wikipedia 2010).

Prospect of a Muticulturalist Utopia?

Since 2011, Vargas has been no longer just a Filipino but an anchored, (not floating) signifier for all undocumented (he rejects the label “illegal”) immigrants, as his 2013 autobiographical film Documented attests. On July 15, 2014, Vargas was arrested by immigration authorities while trying to leave the border town of McAllen, Texas, where he attended a vigil organized by United We Dream at a center for recently released Central American immigrants.

His arrest was due to an oversight, or felicitous negligence. In order to leave the Rio Grande Valley, Vargas had to cross through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint. He went through airport security with his Philippine passport and a copy of the US Constitutition–a trope for the double consciousness, the ambivalence of Du Bois’ body torn between the two domains of citizenship and alienation. He was cleared by the Transportation Security Administration, but a border agent took his passport, reviewed his documents, asked him some questions, placed him in handcuffs, and escorted him to the McAllen Border Patrol station for further questioning. We learn that he was released later that day due to the fact that he had no history of criminal activity. Lo and behold, being an undocumented alien is no longer a crime.

Was Bulosan wrong about being a criminal in America? Vargas is one of the 3.4 million Filipinos in the U.S. (as per 2010 census), the second largest Asian group, but actually the largest from one single homeland. But Vargas is no longer the one-dimensional Filipino; he has become multiple, a differential or bifurcated signifier of the heterogeneous wanderer. He is no longer just an expatriate, exile, possessing an in-between planetary identity. Vargas’ agency, his performative body, is now going to be awarded the 2014 Freedom to Write Award from PEN Center USA. Vargas is a free individual with agency, the transpacific Filipino-American, mutually constituting his existential predicament in the geopolitical fantasy of all persons displaced by the cataclysmic changes in the end of the 20th cenury and the beginning of this new portentous millennium.

With fear and trembling, like Kierkegaard, we wait anxiously for the denouement of Vargas’ adventure.(


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E. San Juan, Jr.
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