Mexico in Manila, Manila in Mexico
New York — Most people I know don’t usually associate being Asian with being Latino. This applies, surprisingly, to I would say a majority of Filipino-Americans, as well as to quite a number of Filipinos, the distinction being that the latter were born and lived long enough in the Philippines to form a distinct Filipino-ness even though they may possess U.S. citizenship. The passport one holds is not always an accurate guide to one’s cultural background.
And yet, more than the influence of Anglo-American culture on the cultural sense of Filipinos, that of the Hispanic world has played a greater role. Just the very name of the country, and our names, already point to the centuries of Hispanicization the archipelago has undergone, with some of the indices being religion, language, and temperament. Or as I half-jokingly tell acquaintances, Hispanic influence can be summed up in three words: fiesta, siesta, and iglesia, the last being of the Roman Catholic persuasion, the least desirable factor, in my view, in how the country has evolved over the centuries.
In so many ways, the Philippines is a displaced Latino country that is at the same time Asian (specifically Southeast Asian). Here I distinguish between a sense of Latino-ness and the older sense of being Hispanic, i.e., looking to Spain as the primary source of the Hispanicized strata in the hybrid that is Filipino culture and identity. It seems to me that we should also look, and more intensely, to south of the border, to Mexico and try and discern Mexico in the Philippines, and the Philippines in Mexico. An object emblematic of the former is Quiapo’s Black Nazarene, while for the latter we have the silky mango.
After all, Las Islas Filipinas was administered through the colonial apparatus established in Mexico until the latter won its independence in 1821. And the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco—begun in 1572, and not in 1565, by the way—was of course the main conduit for the cultural interaction between the two colonies, joined together rather than separated by the Pacific Ocean. On those galleons came Mexico-based military and civilian officials, following the pattern set by the conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who had lived in Mexico and prospered there when he was ordered by the Spanish Crown to head the fourth and most successful expedition to the islands in 1564.
To those accustomed to certain standard and usually stereotypical images of the Asian, all too often predicated on East Asian appearances, Filipinos are often deemed to not be Asian at all. I’ve even heard Filipinos referred to as the blacks of Asia. During the 1899 war with the United States, the “N” word was used by U.S. soldiers to refer to Filipino revolutionary fighters. Perhaps this is why so many middle-aged Filipinos living here emphatically comport themselves as “white” in the narrow sense of not being black—one reason why a number of them are birthers, i.e., why they insist against all reason that President Obama, an African American, is not a legitimate president, as he was, according to these misguided souls, not born on U.S. soil.
I’ve always been fascinated (and bothered) by how the emphasis on the U.S., whenever the term Filipino-American is used, is interpreted almost exclusively to mean North America, a/k/a Norteños, or white America, rather than being a more encompassing term that would then include Latin America. One can say Filipino-Latino-American, a mouthful, I know, but a designation that more accurately reflects the tangle that is the postmodern/postcolonial Filipino/a. Why should we compartmentalize what and who we are? In the next census, it makes complete sense for Filipinos to check both Asian and Latino, wherever these categories are listed.
By the way, politically savvy Latinos and others point out that “America” refers to both North and South, that inhabitants of the two continents are American, and thus to limit the term to just the United States is both inaccurate and unfair, and reflective of the way the United States has viewed and treated Latin America as its “backyard.”
At any rate, these perspectives and dimensions of the Filipino experience and diaspora have become hugely interesting to me, more so than before. It is an area that seems to me to be under-explored, particularly in academe and even in Asian-American studies. Filipino migration to Spanish-speaking countries didn’t begin and end with the ilustrados; it is a migration that continues today. In my own fashion I have started to look at the history of Filipinos in Mexico. Whether much has been written on this or not, beyond studies of the galleon trade, remains to be seen.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2014
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