Friday, August 5, 2011

Defining the Filipino American (FilAm Star, July 29, 2011)

Mention the term “Filipino-American” and you prompt a flurry of definitions and representations that are widely-accepted among members of that group and by mainstream American society, but that are also subject to reassessment. The very use of the hyphen in the term “Filipino-American” is itself packed with aspects that require reevaluation as it is eyed by some as a form of racial discrimination.

Having been historically pressed up against the power of others to define their self-identity as a people, the more than two million Filipinos (notice I left out the hyphen here) living across the United States have grown tired of having someone else tell them who they are. It’s only fair that Filipino Americans turn to one of their own to ask, “What is the Filipino American”?

This is what Filipino journalist Jose Ma. Montelibano asked over three separate columns which appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in June of this year. Titled “What is the Filipino-American?” Montelibano’s conclusions are sobering in their sensible content but more so in their inaccuracies and generalizations.

I realize that Montelibano offered his articles with a noble cause in mind, a cause that viewed Filipino Americans in what should be their rightful place in the human social and existential order. While it would be considered perfectly acceptable for Montelibano, who does not reside in the US, to express his opinion on Filipino Americans even though he brackets much of it in perishable conclusions, he draws the wrong sort of attention to them because at the end of day, the socio-political and cultural spread of Filipino American history has demonstrated how closely their identity is tied to the perpetual struggle of “becoming”.

Filipino Americans cannot be essentially defined or understood. There is no such thing as “the” Filipino American. Rather, when trying to arrive at what a Filipino American is, there is a congregation of social, historical, cultural, political, and economic factors to consider. This is how nuanced and complicated the Filipino American identity is. However, Montelibano would lead you to believe that he has read them like a book.

Montelibano writes that what “makes it difficult to realize that Filipinos in America are now Americans and not Filipinos is the fact that they keep identifying themselves as Filipinos by using the word ‘Filipino’ in the term ‘Filipino-American.’” Since when did Filipino Americans become “not Filipinos”? Just because Filipinos in America are Americans does not mean they automatically surrender their Filipino self-identity.

Montelibano goes on to compound his fallacy by stating “If there is no strong attachment to one’s race and one’s motherland, there is no reason or benefit to continue identifying oneself as “Filipino” when one is already an American.” For one thing, Montelibano is guilty of shoveling us a tubload of cursory generalizations here. By inviting us to think, as Filipinos by birth, that we have forfeited––or that we should forfeit–our Filipino identity by sheer virtue of becoming American green card holders or American citizens is really after all, a way of reducing all Filipino Americans into a one-size-fits-all model. Why does Montelibano find it particular for any Filipino American to identify with their dual Filipino and American identities? Yes, you do have your Filipino American “coconuts” (brown on the outside, white on the inside) who are ashamed of being Filipino. But I would bet in a heartbeat that the vast majority of Filipino Americans would instantaneously identify with and be proud of their Filipino background.

Montelibano’s either/or approach in understanding Filipino Americans doesn’t belong in our world today, a world where the multiplicity of ethnic, cultural, and national identities is becoming more of the pivot on which people around the globe are forging a progressive degree of unity.

Montelibano’s trio of articles on Filipino Americans does take on valid Filipino American concerns like, as he describes it, the tendency among many of them “to put personal interests, including pride, ahead of the common good.” Or their “passivity” in dealing with their relative invisibility in American society.

But as the saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. In Montelibano’s three articles, there are enough wrongs––more than I had space to discuss here––to warrant criticism. Furthermore, being a frequent visitor to the US–which Montelibano says he is––doesn’t come close to fitting the bill for claiming to know what the answer is to the daunting question “What is the Filipino American?”


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