INTRODUCING E. SAN JUAN’s On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States
by Anne E. Lacsamana
Professor of Women’s Studies, Hamilton College, New York
The 2006 Centennial marking the arrival of Filipinos to the United States as laborers on Hawaiian sugar plantations serves as the backdrop for a series of four essays by E. San Juan Jr. investigating both the past and present of Filipino migration to the metropolis. Constituting the largest group within the “Asian American” category, with roughly three million Filipinos living in the United States today, they still remain a marginalized, underpaid, and exploited population when compared to other ethnic communities.
With his usual insightful analyses, San Juan’s On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States reminds readers that the contemporary situation afflicting Filipinos in the United States and throughout the diaspora is directly related to the brutal “pacification” campaign waged by the United States in the Filipino-American War (1899-1902).
Amidst a sea of intellectual pronouncements declaring Filipinos as transmigrants and/or transnationals roaming a deterritorialized world, San Juan challenges contemporary thinking by emphasizing the violence wrought by U.S. colonization and the revolutionary resistance generated by such ferocity. Making clear that “we are Filipinos uprooted and dispersed from hearth and communal habitat” (2007, 13) San Juan seizes upon the opportunity presented by the Centennial celebration to acknowledge and reflect on the rebellious and militant spirit embodied by some of the first Filipino migrants to the U.S. such as Chris Mensalves, Carlos Bulosan, Pedro Calosa, and Philip Vera Cruz among others. This historical project of remembering is a crucial component to understanding how and why Filipinos came to inhabit the United States.
In “Historicizing Carlos Bulosan: ‘Like A Criminal in America’” and “Philip Vera Cruz: Narrating Filipino Life in the Imperial Heartland” San Juan juxtaposes the lives of these two key figures to elucidate the differing ways their legacies have been interpreted over the years. Unlike Vera Cruz, whom San Juan argues has remained a virtual “unknown” for the majority of Filipina Americans “despite his being vice-president of the United Farm Workers from its founding up to 1977” (2007, 66), Bulosan has achieved canonical standing in Filipina American and Asian American studies largely due to the publication of his classic 1946 text America is in the Heart (AIH). While both men were bonded by their nationality and colonized status, they developed their own distinct trajectory based on their life experiences for mapping out a political project of liberation not only for Filipinos but for the oppressed people’s of the world.
Given Bulosan’s popularity these days, San Juan fears that Bulosan’s contributions to the struggles for national sovereignty might be “in danger of becoming inutile, trivialized, taken for granted” (2007, 30). More troubling, however, is the manner in which many literary and cultural critics have misinterpreted Bulosan’s intentions by either focusing solely on AIH at the expense of his other works (The Laughter, The Cry) or engaging in postmodern condemnations of his inattention to difference regarding gender and sexual orientation among other things.
Acknowledging that Bulosan was a “product of his time and place” (2007, 41) San Juan contends that the postmodern obsession with particularity and the “valorization of semiotic differences turns out, ironically, to be a mandate for monolithic vision and straight-jacket pronouncements” which end up obscuring the “centrality of class as a social category which Filipinos and other oppressed groups can use to understand how they can transform their condition decisively” (2007, 42-43). By urging critics to “decenter” Bulosan’s work by focusing on his other writings, San Juan offers readers a fresh perspective for interpreting his critical and radical insights for the 21st century.
In contrast to the large amount of scholarly criticism Bulosan’s work has generated over the years, very little has been written about the life of his contemporary, Philip Vera Cruz.
In his examination of the 1992 biography Philip Vera Cruz: A Personal History of Filipino Immigrants and the Farmworkers Movement San Juan utilizes philosopher Paul Ricouer’s theoretical concepts of identity, idem (self) and ipse (selfhood) to help readers understand the divergent path Vera Cruz took on his way towards political conscientization. For Ricouer the “self”/idem refers to a “permanent structure of qualities or dispositions by which a person is recognized” while “selfhood”/ipse is represented by a “self-constancy that, far from implying temporal changelessness, meets the challenge of variation in beliefs and feelings” (2007, 75).
In his application of these concepts to Vera Cruz’s narrative, San Juan illustrates the numerous qualities he had in common (idem) with other Filipino “nationals” at the time such as familial piety and pride or “the refusal failure to convey the forbidding reality of their lives to their parents and relatives back home” (2007, 76). What distinguishes Vera Cruz’s selfhood (ipse) from others, however, is the moment he chose to publicly distance himself from Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) due to Chavez’s endorsement of the Marcos dictatorship. Describing this decision as “rupture” and an “ethical choice, that defined his character from idem-sameness to ipse-selfhood” San Juan situates Vera Cruz’s narrative alongside other radical organizers who possessed an “internationalist progressive spirit of opposing capitalism as a system” (2007, 79).
The rigorous analyses of the lives and works of Carlos Bulosan and Philip Vera Cruz in On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States makes an invaluable contribution to the field of Filipino American Studies. As San Juan laments in his concluding essay, “Returning From the Diaspora, Rediscovering the Homeland”:
few young Fil-ams now read Bulosan’s writings, much less the biography of Ka Philip Vera Cruz. We have ‘model minority’ Filipinos like General Taguba, the White House Cook, Lea Salonga, celebrities in TV and other media casinos, etc. What else is new? You belong to a new generation in which the ideal of becoming the model ‘multicultural American,’ while a ruse for suppressing critical impulses, seems to have become obligatory (2007, 91).
Imploring contemporary Filipino Americans to remember their history is perhaps the greatest lesson to be gleaned from this slim volume of powerful essays. With the Philippines in a full-blown crisis characterized by electoral fraud, government corruption, and state sponsored killings and “disappearances” of over 850 political opponents of the US-backed Arroyo regime, Filipino Americans living in the imperial belly of the beast must understand how the violent colonization of their original homeland, and the continuing neo-colonial domination of the present day, has a history of collective resistance dating back to the Filipino farm workers who labored under brutal conditions on the Hawaiian sugar plantations a little over a century ago.
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