The tipping point of the Filipino diaspora
In his iconic book, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference”, Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” As the Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora convenes this week at the Philippine International Convention Center in Manila, the question delegates will be asking is: has the Filipino Diaspora reached its tipping point?
While Diaspora is generally used to describe historic mass dispersions of people with common roots, it is also defined as a “transnational community” with a shared identity as a singular ethnic group created by a forced or induced historical emigration from an original homeland.
The “shared identity as a singular ethnic group” is not always true. As Prof. E. San Juan, Jr. noted in his essay, “The Trajectories of the Filipino Diaspora”, “since the homeland has been long colonized by Western powers (Spain, United States) and remains neo-colonized despite formal or nominal independence, the Filipino identification is not with a fully defined nation but with regions, localities, and communities of languages and traditions.”
But regardless of how individual Filipinos may view their self-identity (Ilocanos, Visayans), they are united by how they are collectively viewed and treated by the people in the host countries they live in.
In his book, “Imagining the Filipino American Diaspora: Transnational Relations, Identities, and Communities”,” Prof. Jonathan Y. Okamura from the University of Hawaii views the global Filipino Diaspora as an imagined community where Filipinos, wherever they may be in the world, “are aware of one another’s presence and of the bonds of culture, national identity, custom and tradition that they share”.
The Information Age has also made domicile in particular land area boundaries obsolete. As former Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban noted, “Interactive news websites, cable TV programs, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, cell phones, Skype, Magic Jack, e-mails, teleconferencing and other electronic wonders no longer require actual physical presence to acquire thorough knowledge of Philippine political life.”
Unlike African Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and other “ethnic and racial minorities” in the US, Prof. Okamura contends that the Filipino Diaspora community maintains such “strong sentimental and material links” to the Philippines that it has more in common with Cuban Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Jewish Americans, Armenian Americans” — all strongly connected to the politics and policies of their homeland — than it has with its Asian American counterparts.
But the Filipino American community cannot be pigeonholed into either being a “racial/ethnic minority” or a “diaspora community” as Okamura suggests. The active involvement of Filipino farm workers in the American labor movement of the 1930s and their leading role in the formation of the United Farmworkers Union point to a consciousness as a “racial /ethnic minority” while our involvement in overthrowing the Marcos dictatorship reflects our “diaspora community” character.
Sorbonne French Prof. David Camroux recognized the hybrid nature of this dynamic in his essay, “The Philippine State and the Filipino Diaspora”, where he examined the “sense of varied and diverse rootedness that the diasporic communities experience.” Prof. Camroux asked: “Does a dual citizenship Filipino-American, for example, feel a sense of dual loyalties and allegiances, a kind of dual nationalism, concomitant with his/her dual citizenship?”
Camroux introduced the concept of binary nationalism to better understand the Filipino Diaspora. “It is a double mirrored identity in which a sense of one identity is contingent on a sense of the other, leading to dual – and indeed multiple – senses of non-exclusive loyalties”.
Filipinos have been “diasporic” ever since the first Filipino mariners were recruited to work on international commercial ships that docked in Manila in the 16th century. In an 1892 editorial in La Solidaridad published in Barcelona, Spain, editor Graciano Lopez Jaena wrote of the presence of Filipino mariner colonies in cities throughout Europe and in the American cities of Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans. The New Orleans mariners set up Filipino communities in the marshlands of Barataria Bay, Louisiana that became the subject of Lafcadio Hearn’s Harper’s 1885 magazine essay “The Mahogany-Colored Manilamen of Louisiana.”
After the Philippines was annexed by the US in 1901, starting from 1906 through 1925, more than 125,000 Filipino workers were brought to the U.S. by the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association to work on the sugar cane fields of Hawaii and later in the farm valleys of the mainland.
After WW II, and through the 50s and 60s, large numbers of Filipinos were recruited to work on US Navy ships as stewards. After the liberalization of US immigration laws in 1965, at least 50,000 Filipinos annually immigrated to the US.
Much later, after martial law was declared in the Philippines in 1972, Filipinos were encouraged to work abroad — especially in the Middle East — in order to remit their salaries back to the Philippines to prop up the fragile economy. A new term entered the Philippine vocabulary — Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). By 2005, more than one million Filipinos annually were leaving the Philippines to work abroad.
Now, with approximately 11 million Filipinos living and work abroad, the “moment of critical mass” has arrived. Will the Filipino Diaspora exercise the political clout that goes with its demographics and economics?
There are three areas to examine the trend to see where the Filipino Diaspora leads to: 1) our influence on the homeland’s domestic policies; 2) the exercise of our domestic political rights within our host countries; and 3) our independent involvement at the international level.
Our influence on the homeland’s domestic policies can be seen in our successful lobbying for passage of the Dual Citizenship Law and the Overseas Absentee Voting (OAV) Act in 2003 and in our current efforts to remove the onerous “affidavit to return” provision in the OAV law. We lobbied successfully for the non-burial of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani.
Our domestic political rights within our host countries has been exercised fully with the election of more Filipino Americans to positions of power and influence and with the passage by Congress of bills that provided US citizenship to WW II veterans and to providing them with the benefits they are entitled to.
Our independent involvement at the international level is reflected by our active protest demonstrations against all the China Consulates in the US and Canada on July 6 and our holding of Day of Prayer for Peace in the Spratlys on August 21 in 175 cities throughout North America and in the Middle East and Australia.
It is also reflected in the objections we filed with the Federal Reserve Board to block approval of the sale of the Bank of East Asia to the government-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) as a result of its involvement in the financing of the oil rig that China plans to set up in the West Philippine Sea.
Reaching the tipping point of our Filipino Diaspora where we take off, as Gladwell wrote, like an “epidemic” happens through the indefatigable efforts of a small number of people with very specific talents, what Gladwell calls “connectors” (social networkers), “mavens” (information specialists), and “salesman” (persuaders).
As Margaret Mead once wrote, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
If something illuminating is spread by the right motivated people, if it’s “sticky” enough to compel attention, and if it’s delivered in the proper context, it reaches a tipping point.
The Filipino Diaspora has reached that tipping point.
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