On Jonathan Okamura’s “The Global Filipino Diaspora as Imagined Community”

August 4, 2009

Global Diasporas, Imagined Communities

In his essay, Jonathan Okamura[1] argues that the global Filipino diaspora constitutes the kind of “imagined community” that Benedict Anderson once famously conceptualized. That is, Filipinos all over the world actively imagine themselve to be part of a similar, united experience, “aware of one another’s presence”, and sharing the same sense of “culture, national identiy, custom and tradition”.

Okamura begins by discussing the notion of diaspora, and how, while not a new notion, the diaspora (which continues to resist complete assimilation into the host country, and retain strong, often sentimental links with their homelands) have challenged traditional models of community (or enclave, usually bounded in space and ontological coherence). The Fordist platitude of “time is money” is, as Okamura points out, interpellated by the mechanisms of the processes of globalization that define contemporary society. With the increasing ubiquity of affordable telecommunications and information networks, along with the expontentially developing sophistication of their conduits and technological grids, time, in the late capitalist sense, has been deprioritized, and has more or less found itself into a snug industrial efficacy. Today, “space is money” is more apt, as the shrinking of the world renders urgent the need for more efficiency, more power, and more usefulness within each singular embeddedness. It is at these interstices (which Okamura relates to the notion of “borderland”) that the notion of diaspora becomes a component of social understanding that is pregnant with possibility. The plasticity of the diaspora — that is, their malleability, part of which Anderson refers to as “style” of imagining — becomes more than just a consequence of the contexts and conditions of contemporary mobility; it also becomes an empowering tool of identity politics against repressive essentialism and reductionist insularism.

To support his thesis, Okamura outlines the various ways that the Filipino diaspora, through the various conduits of transnationalism/globalization, actively imagines itself.

First there is the very real, material reality of dislocation and deracination, and the notion of “returning” to the Philippines. Here, Okamura discusses the notion of pilgrimage, and how the (oft-ceremonious) encounters of and between “balikbayans” (“returnee to the nation”) in both public (airports, festivals) and private (barrio/hometown news) spaces help reinforce the diaspora’s imaginings. This relationship is further expanded to non-members, who, once exposed to the variety of exotic locales, tales of newly-acquired wealth, and elevated social statures of the balikbayans, “start to consider going overseas themselves”. It might be important here to bring up Oscar Campomanes’s notion of the “reverse telos”[2], a unique concept amongst Filipino literature in Asian-American studies. While most other Asian-American narratives (say, Japanese or Korean) find their formal conclusions (the “telos”) within the United States, Filipino American narratives, often driven by the spectral phantasm of the homeland, seek a “reverse telos”, a “going back” to the Philippines. The balikbayan, then, can be thought of as more than just an illustration of the powerful longing for a homeland that continues despite the globalization-induced necessitations of outbound mobility; we can argue here that one of the most powerful bonds of the diasporic imagination is the persistence of returning as as a kind of redemptive force (however futile or fictive that redemption may actually be) — not necessarily a shallow vindication, but as an understanding of the consequence of dislocation, and of the emotional tethering to a particular space in the world that one calls “home”.

The capital that these migrants accumulate and send home — their Philippine-bound remittances, the materiel occupying the balikbayan box freight, etc.  — constitute Okamura’s second consideration. Here, consumer items and money, and the ways that these things are transferred, became universal tokens that Filipinos abroad imagine themselves to send, in an effort to actively participate in the lives of their families and loved ones back home. New telecommunication technologies have made it more affordable, as well as easier than ever, for members of the diaspora and their Philippine-based kinship networks to remain in constant contact, despite the distinct geographical distance, and subtle emotional and cultural changes inherent in being and living abroad. The ever-increasing accomodations on the part of corporations, towards a specified market segment (in this case, Filipinos in America) evinces not just the existence of this population, but the viability and potency of such a population.

The third consideration is the role of the Philippine state in the mitigation of this unprecedented historical phenomenon of bodily movement. Since the floodgates were first opened by the Marcos regime (initially as a temporary, stop-gap measure to quell local unrest caused by rapidly-rising unemployment rates) in the 1970’s, subsequent presidents and their administrations would take even greater and farther-reaching steps in bureaucratically stream-lining the exportation of their new “national resource”. Alongside informal institutions encouraging work abroad, the government has helped to facilitate migration by instigating labor agencies and programmes to expand the contract labor force, maintaining legal and civil rights to Filipinos abroad (even extending them to those who have gained new citizenships), as well as official gestures of acknowledgment, such as referring to these migrants as being the “new heroes” of the Philippine state, declaring national holidays in their honor, etc.

Historical Slippages: The Role of the State

There are several things to consider when reading Okamura’s paper. Firstly, the problem with the diaspora as an imagined community is that, unlike the traditional nation-state, the diasporic population often fails to constitute a viable body politic;  more than just difficulty in imagining itself as possessing real political power, the Filipino diaspora also has a historical susceptibility to marginalization, either in the home country or the adopted one. This sense of liminality often creates dangerous slippages. The Flor Contemplacion episode is one such instance. Here, the Philippines’s attempts to secure mercy on one of its citizens (a domestic helper), accused of murder and sentenced to death, in Singapore in the mid-1990’s offers the grossest example of the discrepancy between the home country’s ability to extend ancillary support to its migrant population(s) and the material reality of dislocation that puts the OFW subject beyond the tentacles of the State. Similarly, the reports of employer abuse, sexual harassment, and discrimination puts the OFW in a curious, and dangerous, position — one in which the State is both responsible and helpless.

There is also a problem with the nature of the state’s role and complicity in this facilitation. As the state needs an influx of liquid foreign currency reserves to keep the economy afloat (and to stabilize the value of the historically susceptible Philippine peso), the Filipino diaspora’s continued remittances should, in theory, be helpful to any development economic programme the state might employ; in reality, these remittances are in themselves the development programme, as well as helping to sustain a dangerous economic trap, susceptible to corruption and graft while the Philippine economy continues to teeter on collapse. In order to guarantee the maintenance of this system, the state uses the mythologizing of Philippine foreign workers a strategem for pacifying (by deception) latent civil unrest all the while dampening the state’s responsibility to publicly address the social inequities that breed migration in the first place.

As David Lloyd once pointed out[3], in reference to 19th-century Irish displacement to the United States, mass immigration is a material consequence of the failure of the (post)colonial state. Though Okamura might not necessarily agree with this entirely, I interpret this to mean that the efficacy of a state’s ability to maintain its own citizenry (which Okamura conditions as a “right” to work/live in one’s home country) within its own boundaries is a measuring tool for questioning the state’s very constitution, and indeed, its legitimacy.

Ethnicity, Race, and the Limitations of Diaspora Blocs

Additionally Okamura is not attentive to the role of colonialism in the persistence of migration. More than merely the introduction of particular flows of people — in this case, from the colonies to the metropole — the role of colonialism is also most evident within the mindset of the populations that tend to opt for migration as a way out of their institutionally-ordained poverty. Okamura, unfortunately, is not sensitive to the impact of American colonialism when he remarks that the “historical particularities” of the American occupation did not explain why Filipinos continued to migrate en masse to the United States specifically, long after their sovereignty was declared. As has been argued elsewhere, the benevolent assimilation tactics employed by the American colonial administration had a more profound effect on the colonial Filipino psyche than the Spanish stratagem of containment (focusing on keeping Filipino subjects ignorant). As B. A. Roley points out[4], the consequence of the American colonial project is the discrepancy between the American and Filipino imaginings of their relationship; that is, the latter continues to believe that across an ocean there exists a country that cares for them out of some historical fraternal bond (the “little brown brothers” rhetoric of American pro-colonial propaganda is apropos here). Additionally, the mythos of America as the pinnacle of accomplishment within the global capitalist rubric (the mostly fictional “American Dream”) that was propagated in the Cold War — of which the Philippines would serve as a proxy-war fulcrum in the Pacific region — continues to haunt many.

Largely because it is a sensitive issue for me (as it is part of my background), I am also pushing forth more interrogations about the role of race — not just in the encounters of the diaspora with other societies, but with the diaspora within itself. Though, like many Asian societies, the Philippine juridical structure is heavily engineered around blood relations (oft-used in ethnocentric agendas), nonetheless the impact of the Spanish/American colonial projects as well as miscegenation as a consequence of  migrant “contact” with host country populations has radically transformed the nature of Philippine populations. Unlike, say, the Chinese diasporas around the world, which prioritizes to retention of its relative homogeneity, the Philippine diasporas are relatively open and willing to allow outside cultures, peoples, and traditions mold in with their own. What is missing from Okamura’s analysis is exactly what constitutes membership of this diaspora, and how this dynamic concept is itself challenged and reshaped and reconstituted by various forces. How does the diaspora continue to imagine itself given the historical hybridization and “open-ness” on the part of Filipinos regarding their culture? The danger of accepting the notion of a “global Filipino diaspora” (in the singular) is that it presupposes a monolithic, static, stable notion of “Filipino” identity to begin with.

How does one confront the ethnolinguistic, racial, and religious cleavages that are themselves real, viable sociopolitical issues in the Philippines? Ilocanos in Hawai’i, the various Aeta and Igorot enclaves in New Jersey and in cities in Central Europe, and other “factions” whose presence seem to bleed outside the parameters of a singular “Global Filipino” diasporice identity. A personal example of this would be my own experiences with a Filipino student group as an undergraduate. Despite attempts to diversify its membership, the student group was entirely composed of what F. N. Zialcita would refer to as the “lowland, Hispanized, Christian” Filipino[5] — the ones historically most shaped by colonial forces. When an outreach was attempted to the Muslim Filipino students at our university, the offers of membership and camaraderie were rejected, on the basis of fundamental cultural dissimilarity. The Muslim students did not want to participate in an advocacy group run by students whose heritage came from a country known to marginalize its Muslim members; nor did they want to appear connected to an identity politics group based on ethnicity alone: they didn’t want to join in a fraternity of people constantly asking themselves “Who or what is the Filipino?”. They knew who they were and what their place in the world was. Many of them were members of other groups, including the Muslim Students Association and various groups campaigning for various publicly Islam-oriented causes (Palestinian liberation, for instance).

There is also the historical discrepancy of different societies that Filipinos go to, and surely this must challenge the notion of a singular global diaspora. For instance, how does a Filipino in the Middle East imagine themselves — their bodies, the way they are materially tethered to their part of the Earth — alongside the imaginings of Filipinos in Nigeria, the Caribbean, Germany, or New Zealand? Though they all indeed participate in the act of imagining, how, broadly speaking, are these imaginings enforced, shaped, or directed by their present contexts? Additionally how do permanent immigrants of such countries– those who married spouses from abroad, or were otherwise independent of the state administration’s programmes of migrant facilitation — imagine themselves vis-a-vis overseas contract workers, whose very presence abroad is temporary?

Though we can not fault Okamura completely (the paper was clearly written in the early 1990’s), it is nonetheless curious for its lack of any nuanced recognition of the impact that gender has in the development of the Filipino diaspora. Much has since been written to address the issue regarding the “feminization” of labor. Besides the Flor Contemplacion episode, whose hype amplified her almost to a suffering “inangbayan” archetype, numerous other female workers, many of them domestic help, have come forward to newspapers and popular chroniclers with their own tales of despair and oppression. The Philippine media industry milks these narratives in many popular films and television operas. Academics have also been particularly aware of the nature of gender in Philippine migration. Rolando Tolentino[6], for instance, refers to the “vaginal economy” of the Philippines , in which the Philippines is not only feminized due to the labor capital it is notorious for exporting — generally non-professional, traditionally female jobs, such as domestic care, hospitality and entertainment, etc. — but also for its position in the world economy as a “receptacle” for the “penetration” of Western capitalist initiatives (the kind of neo-liberal agenda embodied in the IMF/World Bank institutions). Additionally, one anthropologist has argued that social capital circulating throughout the world — based on structural racism, transnational gossip, circulating “common knowledge” discourse, etc. — is a powerful determinant in the nature of labor available to migrants of different countries[7]. In her study of migrant, female labor in Mediterranean societies, she found that due to the social capital of women from Eastern European countries such as Romania and Russia as being “beautiful” and “sexy”, migrants from these countries often found sexy dancing, “companionship” and prostitution as the job sectors available to them; Filipinas were not known for these same qualities, as their social capital rested on their quality as housemaids, domestic help, etc., and were, respectively, mainly found in these provinces of employment. As time goes on, the literature addressing gender and its implications in the Filipino migrant system is growing closer and closer to comprehensiveness.


[1] Okamura, Jonathan Y. “The Global Filipino Diaspora as an Imagined Community”. Accessed here: http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/CMTS/MonoPaper3-6.html

[2] Campomanes, Oscar. “Filipinos in the United States and Their Literature of Exile”from the Lim & Ling-edited collection, “Reading the Literatures of Asian America”, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1992.

[3] From David Lloyd’s “The Recovery of Kitsch”. Accessible here: http://www.zonezero.com/magazine/essays/distant/zrecu2.html

[4] From Brian A. Roley’s short story, “Unacknowledged”, included in “Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience”, W.W. Norton & Co., 2006.

[5] Zialcita, Fernando N.  “Authentic, Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity”. Manila: Ateneo University Press, 2005.

[6] Tolentino, Rolando. “Vaginal Economy of Images: Philippine Cinema and Globalization in the Post-Marcos Post-Brocka Era”. (unpublished manuscript)

[7] Anna M. Agathangelou’s “‘Sexing’ Globalization in International Relations: Migrant Sex and Domestic Workers in Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey”, from the Chowdhry & Nair-edited volume “Power, Postcolonialism and International Relations: Reading Race, Gender and Class”, Routledge Press, 2002.

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One Response to “On Jonathan Okamura’s “The Global Filipino Diaspora as Imagined Community””

  1. Karel said

    Please write more about Filipino diaspora and related topics. It makes sense. Thank you so much. 🙂

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