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Review of Pinoy Capital, Part III: The Ambiguities of Identity and Consumption

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Part I: An Overview, Part II: Landscape of Daly City

Vergara Jr., Benito M.  2009.  Pinoy Capital: The Filipino Nation in Daly City.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Where as the last few chapters was placing the Filipino population within the context of Daly City, and Daly City in the context of California and the San Francisco Bay Area, this next chapter analyzes transnationality on the pages of the Philippine News and the issues in brings up for Filipino “identity” and transnational theory.

The complexities of transnational theory (of identity, migration, situation, and the like) are brought to the fore in Chapter Four by analyzing the content of Philippine News and the questions it raises and the light it shines upon the Filipino community and the complex streams of identity that flow through it.

Throughout Chapter Four Vergara talks about the struggles that the reporters and editors had over “good news” and “bad news” and which news segments should dominate the front pages.  Often times, “bad news” (election fraud, floods, violent crime, etc.) would dominate the front page of the paper and would cause some of the editors to bemoan the fact that there was just too much “bad news” coming from the Philippines.  In certain instances, it seemed, the editors and reporters were trying to represent an image of Filipinos to “an ‘imaginary’ outside reader” (94) and that too much “bad news” would make the community look bad to the mainstream (white) audience that was reading the newspaper.  This aspect “raises the question whether an ethnic newspaper is perhaps more sensitive to someone looking over its shoulder” (94-95) then to actually serving the community with the hard tough facts that it would want to show (which the paper has done, as Vergara points out, on numerous occasions).

While there was much debate over “good” and “bad” news “there was little debate on whether there was a balance between North American news and Philippine news” (95).  This analysis ties into his previous comments on transnationality and identity.  How does a paper (or a person) truly represent a transnational identity when it is mostly fixed upon the nation other then the one it is based?  And, also, if a paper focuses more heavily on its “adopted” nation at the expense of its homeland how does the paper account for its apparent lack of “concern” for its homeland?  The answers are not neat and tidy and lies in ambiguity.

“As a newspaper, Philippine News could be seen as a clear manifestation of a desire to be transnational, to transcend national boundaries” (108) but a true transnationality might be an impossibility as many people (even second and third generation children of immigrants) hold onto rigid beliefs of what “identity” is; plus, national borders aren’t as fluid as certain transnational theorists have thought them to be.

Conflicts between identity, homeland, politics, and culture are confronted head on in one of the more provocative segments of the entire book in a section titled “Consumption and Resistance?”  This section analysis certain transnational theories and how they are played out within the Filipino community in the Bay Area and on the pages of Philippine News.

What Vergara takes issue with is the “needlessly generous” (106) analysis of Yen Le Espiritu’s book Home Bound: Filipino American Lives Across Cultures, Communities, and Countries.  In the book Espiritu argues that Filipino transnational actions between the borders of America and the Philippines “are fundamentally grounded in resistance” (105) and that transnational activity must be understood as a “deep dissatisfaction with and anger at the contradictions between official state ideals of equal citizenship and state-sanctioned forms of subordination” (105-106).

Over the past few decades a lot of ink has been spilt by Filipino academics (in America and the Philippines) on issues of identity, culture, and resistance and Vergara dives into the fray, head first, and doesn’t seem to afraid to point out some of the contradictions that certain academics have made on these issues.  While it is true that displaying alternative cultures within this white supremacist society is extremely valuable in the fight against white supremacy and in shoring up a healthy identity of the self, Vergara points out that “Pinoy immigrants do, after all, purchase” products of transnationality and that this purchasing, rooted in global capitalist domination, “is a paradoxical mix of both assimilation and an assertion of ethnic identity” (106).

Latter on, in Chapter Seven “Citizenship and Nostalgia,” the author points out that cultural celebrations in the forms of festivals, such as the popular Pistahan in San Francisco, “manifest an interestingly static view of Filipino culture” and that the performances resemble “the same bland performances held in the Philippines for visiting tourists” (183-184).  The same can be said about the much beloved and celebrated “Pilipino Cultural Night” that is put on by multiple four-year and junior colleges around the Bay Area (and beyond).  While the Cultural Night can be seen as “the successful carving out of a particular Filipino space” it tends to be “done at the expense of an engaged and critical cultural discourse.  As one might expect, there is little or no mention of homeland politics—‘bad news’—and politics is brought up, if at all, in the domesticated form of comedians’ patter” (184).  (There are numerous instances which I can bring up from memory of this not being the case, however, these instances have practically been completely ignored by academics in the field, which is why Vergara isn’t necessarily bringing them up in his book as he is engaging with his fellow academics)

(More analysis on this, however, will be brought up when I specifically analyze that chapter).

This paradox of capitalist consumption, identity, and transnationalism which are “incorporated into marketing strategies” (177) are shown in full display on the “Motoring section” of Philippine News.  Whereas scholars like Espiritu can see certain forms of transnational actions (and consumption) as forms of resistance Vergara tends to see some of these same forms as “proof of Filipino materialism” (107) (which are obviously not unique to any one community within the U.S. as we are all living within the capitalist system, which I’m no doubt sure Vergara would point out).

Upon the pages of the Motoring section “is a regular column called ‘FilAm On Board,’ where readers send in snapshots of themselves and their cars, describing what makes their cars distinctly Filipino” (106).

While one may characterize this analysis of popular culture as the extreme (which in some ways it is and some ways it isn’t) it can be seen as represented of other, lesser, forms of this very paradox in which the ambiguities of transnational identity and culture, and the unease in which all of these aspects, play out within life.

Vergara states that participants are encouraged to tell the newspaper what it is about their own car that “gives away your Filipino-ness” (107) which in turn creates more, uncomfortable, analysis of the subjects this brings up.  For Vergara the car is a kind of “universal symbol” for the success of immigrants (ibid.).  While a person’s car may somehow “give away” their Filipino identity, ultimately “the car itself [is] a symbol of assimilation, one unrecognizable as Filipino unless the connection was pointed out” (ibid.) which creates further problems for academics such as Espiritu and Theo Gonzalves (who has argued much of the same).

While this analysis might seem harsh, it appears to me that Vergara isn’t “condemning” his fellow Filipinos in America but more as issuing a corrective to the trajectory certain academics have taken in the scholarship of Filipino identity in American and in the global context.

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