TO SPEAK WITH A CULTURAL VOICE
(Published in PAWA's anthology Reflections: Readings for the Young and Old, 2002)
That venerated scribe of Philippine history and culture, Nick Joaquin, was once quoted as saying, The identity of a Filipino today is of a person asking what is his identity. Joaquins statement holds enormous import for Filipino writers, and for American writers of Filipino descent, in America today. With all the wondrous diversity that characterizes their collective works, Filipino American writers have something very much in common: they are giving Filipinos an authoritative voice in determining for themselves their cultural identity in relation to the United States, a country that has exhibited unprecedented brilliance in human achievement, and yet appalling deficiency and arrogance in human understanding. What many Filipino American writers are doing in other words, is staging a literary uprising against the eclipsing of the Filipino identity by what may be termed as cultural domination.
Anthropolgist Clifford Geertzs book, After the Fact: Two Countries, Four Decades, One Anthropologist, is highly relevant to the topic of Filipino identities being overshadowed by the force of American cultural hegemony. In the book, Geertz indicts Western scholarship for being guilty of appropriating the voice of others. Geertz raises the issue of allowing non-Western cultures their inherent right to represent themselves, to liberally articulate their true cultural voice as opposed to having that freedom of self-expression suppressed by foreign powers. Geertzs book, an important signpost for post-colonial thought, figures meaningfully in the history of the U.S.-Philippine relationship, a relationship in which the values of libertarianism and equitability have rarely seen the light of day.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, the United States has imposed on Filipinos what are insular representations of their culture, turning a blind eye to indigenous self-depictions in the process. In doing so, the United States has exposed a high-handed, paternalistic stance that not only harbors imperialist designs and a belief in cultural supremacy, but that has also rendered the Filipino identity invisible to its bearers. Hence, many Filipino Americans have become culturally displaced, unable to resolve the question of their cultural identity for it has been lost in the all-consuming brightness of American culture. Alienated from their true cultural self, not a small number of Filipino Americans presume that their traditional culture is inferior to that of Americas. This colonial mentality plagues Filipinos and their brethren in America to this day, and is a crucial aspect of the United States domination over the Philippines. It is an ascendancy that has been greatly achieved by the skillful, but manipulative utilization of cultural representation. As Geertz writes:
0000Depiction is power The representation of others is not easily separable from the manipulation
0000iof them...When we speak of others in our voice do we not displace and appropriate theirs?
0000iIs a representation of others free from the play of power and domination in any way possible?
Cultures are not easily given to even the most unassuming of representations, nor should they be. A culture can never be perceived as a simplified entity, but rather, as a complicated assemblage of differences of what literary theorist Mikhail Bahktin called socio-ideological languages. These languages are the multifaceted, everyday voices of a particular society and culture. They reflect the kaleidoscope of ideas, thoughts, and perspectives of individuals and groups that circulate within that historical-cultural-social context. Therefore, it would be ludicrous of anyone, above all a haughty foreigner out of touch or unfamiliar with the society he or she is claiming to define, to reduce a culture to a superficial identity or definition. To do so is tantamount to domination. Columbia University professor Edward Said puts this notion more succinctly in the context of colonial power and the representations it begets: Imperialism is the export of identity.
A variety of respected postcolonial studies have leveled these charges of imperialistic cultural reductionism and repression of native discourses at the United States, with regard to its relationship with the Philippines. Indeed, as the former colonial master and self-proclaimed bastion of Anglo-Saxon superiority, the United States has assumed for itself almost exclusive jurisdiction in categorically defining the Filipino both in the Philippines and in America itself. Now for one to claim to have all but absolute authority to define a people and a culture that have been creatively, but perceptively compared by Filipino American poet and critic Luis Francia to a Cubist painting with blurry lines, goes beyond the pale of rational thought, until one considers the irresistible pull of power and the command it possesses over others. This historical tendency on the part of the United States to transfix Philippine culture in facile terms and concepts, and to eschew the need for fair-minded consultations with the Filipinos in order to form some kind of balanced consensus with them, has facilitated the exercise of American hegemony over the subordinate Filipino. This hegemony has silenced to a great extent, the voices of the Filipino diaspora in the United States.
But colonial cultural representations serve their creators purposes only until they elicit a forcefully-critical response by their subjects. Moving along those lines, there is much to be gathered from the steady rise of Filipino American writers and their works in the 20th, and now 21st, centuries. From the post-Depression and post-World War Two corpora of Carlos Bulosan and Bienvenido Santos respectively, to the more modern-day narratives of authors such as Jessica Hagedorn, Bino Realuyo, Peter Bacho, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, and Eric Gamalinda, Filipino American writers have shown, through the genius of their literature and by the expanding size and social consciousness of their reading audiences, that they have recouped some of what Francia referred to as the psychic territory that was annexed from their ethnic kin by the American master.
Arguably, it is becoming more and more of a bygone era when the United States could enjoy a brazen monopoly of representational power over Filipinos. The passage of time and the historical distance and hindsight it affords, the sophisticated education and cultural awareness of an increasing number of Filipino Americans, and the advent of the Information Age, have helped to make this so. But we must not forget the indispensable role of Filipino American writers as they wage an ongoing battle to end the tyranny of being depicted by those who are the least qualified or knowledgeable to represent them. Their literary voices are now being heard loud and clear amidst the chorus of reactionary sensibilities that stubbornly promote the course of cultural pre-eminence and ethnocentric triumphalism.
In spite of the excellence of their literature and the enlightening contributions that they have made to culture and society at large, Filipino American writers continue to write in relative obscurity. Tributes of their works emanating from mainstream America have come infrequently at best, and very modestly at that. What deep and consistent praise Filipino American writers have received has largely come from the margins of conventional literary and intellectual society. However, on another front, as if garnering profound acknowledgement from mainstream American readers were not enough of a struggle, Filipino American writers are also discovering that ignorance of their works is a serious impediment within their very own community. Scores of Filipino Americans from all walks of life are shockingly unacquainted with the books and other writings of Filipino American writers. Part of the problem is that they remain trapped, consciously or unconsciously, in a colonial mentality. The truth is, many Filipino Americans have become so Americanized, or have so dutifully internalized the individualist ethos of bureaucratic industrial society as Professor E. San Juan Jr. from the University of Washington laments, that they would be more likely to overlook or dismiss the possibility that any of their compatriots could forge such gifted works of literature.
These symptoms of what San Juan Jr. calls colonial dispossession, are the obstacles that Filipino American writers find themselves up against when it comes to striving to endow their people with a voice they can call their own. The legacy of Americas colonial domination of the Philippines is a painful malady that must be then done away with so that Filipino American writers can be graced, by both Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike, with the universal respect and admiration that befits them and their talents. Such a positive development would have far-reaching ramifications, for it would empower more Filipino Americans to articulate in their own words what it truly means to be a Filipino American.