A Political Awakening

by Jose Ma. Montelibano


I arrived in San Diego a few days ago  and was able to have my first live experience with elections in America. Partisan politics in the United States was never of great interest until Obama ran and won in 2008. I felt then, as I still do now, that Barack Obama is a specially destined person signaling a new phase in US and global politics. It was not so much about his qualifications and skills, it was more about what he represented and the new directions that he could take America – and the world it influences.

There is a more personal and impelling reason, though, why the timing of this trip is so meaningful. In a number of articles and more references, I have shared my views about the emergence of what I believe is the Filipino essence of Filipino-Americans. Among immigrant generations, the main preoccupation, aside from material progress, had been to be as American as the Joneses. The need to assimilate meant copying what was white American, from accent to value system. And indicated by that need to be as American as the Joneses was an inferiority to the Joneses.

The inferiority, though, made Filipino migrants more hard-working. In trying to prove themselves, oftentimes to themselves, as equal to the mainstream, which invariably meant White America, Filipino-Americans began to achieve. In my eyes, and in a more collective way that was unintended, they achieved more than what was necessary. The Fil-American family is now a top family earner in America, outpacing the average mainstream family. Indeed, Filipino-Americans have arrived.

The cost of that struggle, though, has not been cheap. In the effort to be more American, what was Filipino suffered attention and appreciation. There were times in the growing up of their children that many tried to hide their being Filipino, preferring to call themselves Asian or even Hawaiian. The private feeling of inferiority manifested itself in coping mechanisms that sacrificed what, after all, cannot just be discarded in one or two generations – like the color of one’s skin. Worse, many Filipinos made fun of themselves and succumbed to the temptation of bashing themselves, highlighting the very habits that did not represent what was good and beautiful about Filipino culture.

For such a long time, the need to overcome their inferiority combined with the reality of America’s work culture and the Filipino migrants buried themselves in the daily grind of life, sometimes taking on one or more extra jobs. There seemed to be no more time for anything else except that much needed rest during Saturdays and Sundays. There was no time for leisure, for socialization other than that occasional birthday or wedding. To cope with the struggle for the American dream, Filipinos in America lost their definition, lost their color, became more the Joneses than their unique ethnicity.

There had been little participation in community affairs – the Filipino community, that is. A very small percentage of Filipinos in America did become very active in establishing organizations for all possible reasons. But many of these organizations became victim to that overactive virus called divisiveness, a divisiveness so deeply conditioned into a conquered race by foreign masters who had to keep their subjects divided by their own infighting. It became the joke of the town that Filipino organizations in America never grew big, they just increased their number by splitting themselves.

Mainstream America, therefore, could hardly develop a healthy respect for the collective Filipino. Yes, the individual Filipino-American earned admiration for his or her dedication to work that included going beyond legal work hours, and did reach the coveted American dream. But as an ethnic group, there was little or no Filipino power, especially Filipino political power. Somehow, the in-fighting among the very small percentage that were involved in community affairs neutralized their strengths which too often were used against, rather than for, each other or their collective interests.

The non-involvement of most and the collective weakness of the very involved, generated by that virus of divisiveness, prompted Wikipedia to describe the Filipino-American minority as “invisible” or “silent.” By this definition, “invisible” or “silent” became sum total of decades of Filipino-American existence in the United States. It is a definition that does not define at all what the Filipino is, or more accurately, what the Filipino in America can be.

Fortunately for me, the last five years when I had been visiting the United States on a regular basis to understand better why such a talented and achieving minority does not have that collective impact that it deserves, have been years of dramatic though, as yet, unappreciated change. Younger generations, for instance, do not feel inferior in an environment that is home to them. They may wonder why they are brown, they may wonder why they are Filipino yet are in America, they do accept that they know little of their history and their motherland, but they do not see themselves as less than their counterparts.

It has not been just the younger generation that is shedding their sense of inferiority but new immigrant generations who are more comfortable in America from the very beginning because the earlier immigrant generations had paved the way for them. Nurses, doctors and medical practitioners especially have eked out a collective appreciation from the American public they have been serving. Because of that, the Filipino identity is slowly and proudly emerging, albeit without yet much deliberate intent.

The spectacular individual achievers, too, have been increasing in number and raising the value of the Filipino in America. The Manny Pacquiaos, the Jessica Sanchezes, the Charice Pempengcos, the Lea Salongas, have barged into mainstream American consciousness and bringing the higher side of the Filipino to the light. Indeed, I am most blessed that this is where the Filipino in America is today, bringing themselves and their unique ethnicity nearer to where it belongs, because I am witnessing their journey. Through sports and entertainment, the Filipino is carving a special brand in the American market. There should be more to come, much more.

And November 6, the climax of American politics, also has a special place in the journey of the Filipino-American. Though solidarity in partisan politics is one of the most difficult to achieve, recent actuation by Filipino-Americans seems to indicate that they will soon challenge the impossible. I so believe they will.

(To be continued )

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