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Review of Pinoy Capital, Party IV: Questioning the Analysis on the Postcolonial

Saturday, July 3, 2010

A mural, in the Philippines, depicting the Communist Party of the Philippines, the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, and the New People's Army, chasing away the demons of colonialism.

Part I: An OverviewPart II: Landscape of Daly City, Part III: The Ambiguities of Identity Consumption

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

It’s been a while (half-a-year to be exact) since I started reviewing Benito M. Vergara’s book Pinoy Capital and it’s about time I start finishing the review (especially because Sunny [as he is called] told me he will write a response and reflection on the reviews as well).  One of the reasons, besides my very busy schedule, for taking so long to review this next section of the book is because I didn’t necesarilly want to write anything overtly critical of one of the best professors to come out of the Filipino Studies Department at San Francisco State University.

Answering that concern over some coffee not to long ago Sunny said, “Oh come on!  You should rip into my book, I’m sure there’s plenty of things to pick at.”

While I won’t be “ripping into” this next section of the book I do want to point out some concerns with it.  The section in question is from “Chapter 6: Betrayal and Belonging” which is titled “Questioning the Postcolonial” (a much needed section as I tend to be very critical of postcolonial theory myself).  It’s a very small section, only five pages, but I think its a very important one as well (whether Vergara meant it to be or not).

Vergara opens up the section, writing:

The past colonial link still haunts the present and renders the relationship of Filipinos to the United States problematic and therefore quite different form the experience of Filipinos elsewhere…Although financial reasons may ultimately be the primary impetus, Filipino migration is necessarily complicated by history and America’s lingering place in the Pinoy consciousness.  The Philippines’ historical position as a former colony of the united States, and the inculcation of “American values” through the educational and political system, are factors that must be considered in any contemporary analysis of the two countries (156).

After this Vegara goes on to tackle the questions of if

this automatically complicate ideas of home and beloning?  How does it affect the attitues of Filipino immigrants and, in turn, the attitudes of Filipinos in the Philippines toward those immigrants in the United States?  Does the past colonial link between the United States and the Philippines render the Filipino immigrant experience substantially different from that of other immigrants to the United States? (italitcs mine, ibid.).

I believe this last question is a key one that shades Vegara’s analysis in this section and its relationship to postcolonial theory and is a question that tends to be glossed over by many academics studying the Filipino Diasporara and the Filipino American community.  Part of the answer is laid about by Vegara in that same paragraph and an answer that I whole heartily agree with.  “Current Filipino immigration to the United States can be understood as less a postcolonial effect than simply part of a worldwide movement.  Filipinos may idealize and fantasize about the United States no more or less than do other immigrants” (italics mine, 157).  However, the one thing that should be pointed out is that when Vegara states “less a postcolonial effect than simply part of a worldwide movement” he seems to be confusing the terms postcolonialism and colonialism: specifically the historicity of colonialism and its present state in the Philippines.  While I’ll tackle this question latter it seems that Vegara should have stated “less an effect of historical colonialism” since by stating that it is more of a “part of a worldwide movement” he is actually acknowledging what many postcolonial scholars make: that the old colonial relationships are actually fracturing causing a new postcolonial situation of global imperialism of Western capital.

Vergara points out that there is a certain “Americanization” that takes place within Filipinos in America and Filipinos within the Philippines.  I’ve seen this myself: one of their more perverse and darkly funny of this example of obvious Americanization was watching an ABS-CBN (a broadcaster in the Philippines) show do a Christmas special with some of the hottest stars and singers at the time and the actual set-up was of some snow on the ground and a snow covered pine tree.  But, Vergara rightly points out that “[t]he late-capitalist ‘Americanization’ occurring in the Philippines is perhaps merely part of the same process overwhelming the rest of the world and not necessarily continuous with the Americanizaiton of the colonial period” (italics mine, ibid.).  Which would, unconsciously perhaps, put Vegara in a more postcolonial camp than he may think.

Another dig at contemporary Filipino scholarship on the postcolonial question that I believe is also (mostly) on the mark is the hundreds of thousands of pages (take a look at the M.A. and Ph.D. thesis and dissertations on this subject and it will indeed number in the hundreds of thousands) of ink that have been spilled on “the idea of colonial mentality–that Filipinos hold their former colonial masters (in this case, in reference only to the United States, and not, in an interesting example of historical blindness, Spain) in absurdly high regard as a result of their colonial subjugation” (ibid.).  More importantly, the author points out that “[m]uch historiography and contemporary Filipino American scholarship has directly proceeded from this assumption” (italics mine, ibid.).

Part of the problem of focusing too much on the “colonial mentality” of the Filipino (specifically Filipino American) is that it gives much to much ground toward the American imperial giant and leads to many absurd assertions, such as one in where it is claimed

that Filipinos find themselves “‘at home’ ” in the United States–that is, there is a lack of disjunction between the two places [the Philippines and the United States] at the moment of arrival–but I find it grossly insufficient as well, for it glosses over the many cultural adjustements immigrants have to make (158).

I like here how Vegara takes to task the over-reliance on this subject that leads to many scholars who tackle the subject of Filipino Studies making assumptions without basing these hypothesis on any evidence.  He uses his ample evidence of the interviews he conducted in Daly City to undercut this assumption because, indeed, many Filipino immigrants within Daly City feel a “dual unity” between the Philippines and America and some never feel truely “at home” in their country of residence.

A recent example of this for myself was in a conversation I had a few nights ago with one of my Filipina co-workers who moved to this country over 25 years ago.  “Ya know,” she told me as we were loading trailers with boxes, “even though I’ve been here so long the Philippines is still my home.”  Laughing out loud she exclaimed, “Even though I haven’t been there in over seven years!”

Another point that I take issue with, but that Vegara doesn’t delve deeply into in this section, is the fact of how this focus on “colonial mentality” is also used as a crutch to explain phenomena within the community that might actually have nothing to do with “colonial mentality” at all (or a mentality that is not unique to the Filipino migrant experience).  Issues such as lack of will to directly speak out against employer abuse or support for the United States’ mission in Iraq might have more to do with the decline of the union movement within the United States and of class consciousness or with the contemporary onslaught of propaganda being feed through the mainstream media about contemporary affairs within the United States and its imperial adventures within the Middle East and the Philippines than actually being attributed to an internalized “colonial mentality.”

Delving into subjects such as media consumption within the contemporary American context, class divides and differences within the community, and comparative studies with other immigrant communities would help many scholars get away from making “unsupportable assumptions about an entire ethnic group’s psyche and gloss[ing] over more subjective determinants of migration” (159).

One thing that is a flaw in Vergara’s analysis, however, is that by attacking the over-dependence on “colonial mentality” he tends to underplay the effects of American imperialism and capitalistic globalization on the migration of Filipinos from the Philippines.  Vegara states that “[t]here are numerous variations on the reasons for immigration.  Assertions regarding colonial mentality…are not necessarily characteristics of immigrant lives” (160).

He states that “Pinoy migrants are neither simply pulled by the call of the postcolonial nor willingly plunged headlong into the embrace of American society.  Filipinos come to the United States to live ‘better’ lives as Filipinos, even though better lives may require the loss of what they wish to preserve their Filipinoness” (italics mine, ibid.).

Indeed, it is true that not so much of a “colonial mentality” is causing Filipinos (mostly of the middle and upper class) in the Philippines to migrate to the United States but more of an aspect of “bettering” ones social situation that is causing migration.  However, this micro-level analysis is obscuring the more macro and structural levels of the causes of migration to the United States (or Ireland, or Saudi Arabia, or Hong Kong, etc.) which many postcolonial theorists are very good at explaining.

For instance, while Vegara claims that there are more personnel reasons for migrating out of the Philippines than an “internalized colonial mentality” these personnel reasons tend to come about due to the structural under development of the Philippine economy, the precarious situation of the middle class in the Philippines, and the way Western capital has been exported and has shaped the global economy.  This is something that the author underplayed in his short analysis of postcolonial theory while, rightly, attacking the over-dependence of scholars on the “colonial mentality” motif.

It would have helped if Vegara had used, more strategically, the analysis of Rhacel Salazar Parreñas who has pointed

out that United States colonialism in the Philippines resulted not only in a migration flow to the United States but also in a labor diaspora that far transcends this country in its geographic scope.  The economic turmoil caused by United States colonialism and the subsequent presence of institutions such as the World Bank in the Philippines have led to a migration flow the world over (italics mine, 2001.  Servants of Globalization: Women, Migration, and Domestic Work.  Stanford, California: Stanford University Press ,10).

Another thing that was lacking in the section on postcolonialism was any engagement with modern day postcolonial philosophers, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists.  Specifically the postcolonial theories of Gayatri Chakravotry Spivak, who is quite critical of postcolonial theory herself (1999.  A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present.  New York:  Harvard University Press.) and Homi Bhabha who would of been extremely valuable considering his work on “hybridity” and “hybrid identities” and its relationship to transnationalism (2004.  The Location of Culture.  New York: Routledge Classics).  Also, an engagement with postcolonial economists would have helped in fleshing out the intricacies of personal choice and mentality, globalized imperialism, and personal engagement with economic structures (specifically Zein-Elabdin, Eiman O. and S. Charusheela, eds.  2004.  Postcolonialism Meets Economics.  New York: Routledge) which could have helped Vegara bridge the more personal choice of “bettering” one’s situation with the structural economic realities of American imperialism and globalized imperial capital.

Engaging with these postcolonial authors could have helped tailored Vegara’s analysis as a whole on postcolonial theory and its pitfalls and strengths.  It also would have created a far more balanced section as solely focusing on the question of “colonial mentality” tends to shade the reader’s thinking that this is what much of postcolonial theory is about when it reality it is an extremely minute aspect of postcolonial theory in general.

It would have lead Vegara to recognize that “[t]he contemporary outmigration of Filipinas…is patterned under the role of the Philippines as an export-based economy in globalization; and its embedded in the specific historical phase of global restructuring” (italics mine, Parreñas 2001, 11) while also recognizing that many migrants rely on their own personal choice and need for financial security that a country such as America can provide and not so much based on a blind subservient outlook to America caused by “colonial mentality.”

Despite these flaws and only a cursory acknowledgment of the vast breadth of postcolonial theory this section helps attack the very shaky (and quite dangerous if one just solely focuses on the “self” and not the structural realities) ground that a theory of “colonial mentality” has on much of the scholarship on Filipinos and the Philippines.  While acknowledging the reality of colonialism and its legacies by focusing on other aspects of postcolonial theories and the realities of modern day global capitalism “Pinoy immigration to the United States needs to be understood as a more complex, economically pragmatic process, and not just as a ‘progression’ simply reducible or attributable to the colonial” (Vegara 2009, 160).

Which is a statement that many postcolonial academics would agree with and have been pointing out for years.

In the next one or two (final) review I will be focusing on “Chapter 7: Citizenship and Nostalgia” and the conclusions Vegara reaches in “Chapter 8: Pinoy Capital.”

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