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Epifanio San Juan, Jr. of the Dancing Mind

First Posted 15:41:00 07/01/2008

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The writings of this internationally renowned Filipino literary scholar, cultural critic and public intellectual have been translated into German, Russian, French, Italian and Chinese. They reveal the magnificent workings of a ?dancing mind,? to borrow a phrase from the black American writer Toni Morrison.

Excavating radical possibilities for transformation in the collective consciousness of the Filipino Diaspora in both English and Filipino, this mind simultaneously listens for new sounds and rhythms of a possible alternative world that can emerge only through the struggle of oppressed and exploited peoples everywhere.

The name is Epifanio San Juan, Jr., a Filipino who?s a major influence on the academic world. He?s currently director of the Philippines Cultural Studies Center in Storrs, Connecticut.

To begin at the relative beginning, San Juan was a magna cum laude humanities graduate of the University of the Philippines in 1958, who went on to a Ph.D. in Harvard University in 1965. From there he?s traveled the university world teaching English, Comparative Literature, Ethnic Studies, American Studies and Cultural Studies in the U.S., Europe, the Philippines and Taiwan.

The list of his way stations in academe is long ? the University of California at Davis, University of Connecticut at Storrs, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila, Bowling Green State University, Wesleyan University, the Universities of Leuven and Antwerp and the National Tsing Hua University, Republic of China (Taiwan).

Committed and prolific

San Juan?s prolific body of work over the past four decades has been generated by ?remarkable commitment to literature and culture as vital areas of contemporary social life,? writes the literary and cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. Partnering this has been his ?unwavering commitment to combating multiple forms of oppression and exploitation wherever they occur.?

Global in scope, his radical imagination has also been practical ? ?firmly anchored in specific, unfolding and dynamic relationships between Filipino movements for self-determination? in the U.S., the Philippines and all over the planet, where there are now 10 million Filipino Overseas Contract Workers.

The activism has been consistent. When San Juan chaired the Department of Comparative American Cultures in Washington State University, Pullman from 1998 to 2001, he published cutting-edge essays in Cultural Studies and Ethnic Studies as executive editor of the Working Papers Series. In his international advisory board were personages like the high-profile black feminist Angela Davis.

Deep compassion is also visible between San Juan?s lines. Reviewing his collection of poems, Balikbayang Mahal: Passages of Exile (2007), the literary critic and artist John Streamas highlighted its ?sorrows of migration and exile,? but also its ?hope of connections.?

Sorrow and compassion have consistently shaded into activism for San Juan. Of late, his recent media pieces articulate new, imaginative connections in our current political landscape, while exposing the human rights abuses (close to 900 extrajudicial killings) under the Arroyo administration.

?Moved ever more by the unmitigated misery, suffering, and injustice in the global South, E. San Juan, Jr. exhorts fellow intellectuals and activists to pay attention to the havoc wreaked by corporate-led globalization of the global North, now compounded by the post-9/11 self-proclaimed U.S. ?national security state? in its declared war on terror,? adds the historian and Ethnic Studies scholar Evelyn Hu-Dehart.

?Among his many concerns is the global mechanism of racialization and its severe impact on immigrant workers of the global South. He challenges glib postcolonial theorists by exposing the clear contours of an American empire resurrected.?

For my generation, E. San Juan, Jr. is regarded not only as a formidable scholar, but also as a generous mentor and courageous Filipino-American insurgent intellectual. His ability to engage a new generation of activists and cultural workers is evident in a 2003 interview by Michael Pozo for the graduate student publication SJU Humanities Review in New York.

Titled ?A Conversation by E. San Juan Jr.,? that interview touched on the limitations of postcolonial theory, suggesting more critical Cultural Studies. It has been widely circulated on the Postcolonial Web of the National University of Singapore.

Speaking to the Young

In an interview at Oberlin College in 1996, later published in the Asian American student journal AS I AM, San Juan and the Filipina feminist scholar Delia D. Aguilar advised undergraduate students to challenge the limits of identity politics in an academic system run like corporations. He also reminded young scholars of the necessity of intellectual work in the struggle for social justice:

?Your position, because you?ve been a student, is one who has devoted most of your time trying to criticize? and to understand all the ideas that you have gathered? What Gramsci is saying is that the task of the intellectual ? and you are an intellectual whether you are engaging books or not, so long as you are [engaged with] ideas ? is to provide some kind of inventory or critical awareness? especially among Filipinos with all the colonial experiences we have?The racial dimension of the colonial experience is something that Filipinos [must] understand. You have? to somehow find a way of explaining that.?

Young Filipino Americans with a tremendous task of critiquing and challenging the U.S. racial polity from within are fortunate that San Juan continues to provide them with many analytical tools. As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of rebellions and organized resistance for social justice around the globe ? from the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State College to the student and worker revolts in France in the ?60s; from the Asian American Movement to the international anti-war movement ?this is an opportune moment to acknowledge his groundbreaking contributions to interdisciplinary fields born and/or radicalized in the social movements of the 1960s and ?70s ?Filipino and Asian American Studies, Philippine Studies, Ethnic Studies, Cultural Studies and American Studies.

San Juan has been addressing two generations, in effect ?the national student movement in the ?60s and ?70s and those involved in Asian American and Ethnic Studies in the ?90s.

Ka Amado and Carlos Bulosan

It was back in 1966 that he translated the poems of Filipino labor organizer and writer Amado Hernandez, Rice Grains: Selected Poems of Amado V. Hernandez (International Publishers). Nine years later in 1975, he introduced the radical literary imagination of Carlos Bulosan, a labor organizer and writer like Hernandez, but a member of the older manong generation in the U.S.

San Juan?s Carlos Bulosan and the Imagination of the Class Struggle (University of the Philippines Press) was the first full-length critical assessment of Bulosan?s writings, but that would not be the end of it. Two decades later, he edited and introduced two Bulosan texts ? On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings by Carlos Bulosan and The Cry and the Dedication published in 1995 by Temple University Press.

For these and many other contributions to Philippine/ Filipino American Studies, E. San Juan, Jr. received the 1999 Centennial Award for Achievement in Literature from the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Intellectual Departures and More Awards

Back in the U.S., hisRacial Formations/Critical Transformations: Articulations of Power in Ethnic and Racial Studies in the United States in 1992 is now considered a classic in Ethnic and Asian American Studies. It received the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in the United States that year, followed by a National Book Award in Cultural Studies from the Association for Asian American Studies in 1993.

Literary scholar Joseph Urgo considers Racial Formations/Critical Transformations a major ?contribution to the groundwork for the next civil rights movement.? San Juan?s succeeding After Post-colonialism: Remapping Philippines-United States Confrontations also won the Outstanding Book Award on Human Rights from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2001.

In 2007, both the U.S. and the Philippines saw a bumper crop of San Juan books: In the Wake of Terror: Class, Race, Nation, Ethnicity in the Postmodern World; Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines; Balikbayang Sinta: An E. San Juan Reader; and From Globalization to National Liberation: Essays.

When San Juan takes on a fellowship in Harvard University?s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research in the spring of 2009, it will be the latest way station with a line running back to one of his earliest contributions to global intellectual history ? the editing and introductory essay for Marxism and Human Liberation in 1973.

It was the first collection in English translation of essays by Georg Lukacs, the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic most scholars consider the founder of the Western Marxist tradition.

Meanwhile E. San Juan, Jr.?s mind continues to dance for the world. His latest critical essays on race, class, subalternity, the U.S. Empire and Filipino Diaspora, his new poems, spoken word performances in Filipino, his recent experimental videos all demonstrate how history can be renewed and advanced in multiple ways by an activist intellectual/writer/scholar while he remains connected to movements for justice at the grassroots.

Jeffrey Arellano Cabusao is an Assistant Professor of English and Cultural Studies at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island


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