Filipino-Americans

By

A BYPRODUCT of the US news media's focus on the Philippine presidential election was the unusual degree of attention on Filipino-Americans. Such attention was brought by journalists, desperate for insight, who interviewed Filipinos, seemingly at random, about their views on developments in Manila. What is striking in the meteoric rise of Filipino-Americans' cachet with journalists is the foreign implication that it carries. Yet, of all of this country's ethnic groups, the foreign appellation is both ahistorical and inappropriate. During America's colonial tenure in the Philippines (1899-1946), Filipinos were American nationals, traveled with US passports, and, for most of that period, had unrestricted access to the United States.

Despite the long and continuous historical link, Filipino-Americans remain strangers to their fellow citizens.

For years Hollywood, with its deep stock of reliable stereotypes, slandered Asians in general. Alternatively seen as aggressive and malicious, or passive and supplicant, Asian characters, just as Asian-Americans, were indelibly stamped as ``foreign.''

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Although Hollywood's most famous figures were not Filipino -- ``Mr. Moto'' was ostensibly Japanese and ``Fu Manchu'' and ``Charlie Chan'' were Chinese caricatures -- such distinctions were without differences. For most Americans, Asians were a generic aggregate, sharing traits and values invisible to the public's eyes, save through the interpretive view of a Hollywood lens.

Though movies have not changed much -- ``Rambo'' and ``Year of the Dragon'' are recent films replete with stock Asian characters -- the same cannot be said of Asians in America. Particularly since 1968, when US laws restricting immigration from Asia were liberalized, the Asian-American presence has grown dramatically, a phenomenon particularly evident in the Filipino community. In little more than a decade and a half, the Filipino-American population has jumped from 343,000 (1970) to an estimated million and a half.

The change is more than numerical; since 1970, thousands have settled outside traditional population centers like Hawaii and California.

In part, this increase is due to recent history; the Philippine economy, devastated by Ferdinand Marcos, has spurred emigration. For 'emigr'es, the first choice has usually been the US, a decision prompted by a perception of greater opportunity and the lingering emotional bond to ``Mother America.''

Among the new arrivals have been a large number of skilled professionals -- doctors, engineers, teachers -- unable to find work at home. While this ``brain drain'' has enriched both the Filipino-American community and the adopted homeland, such skills are badly needed in the Philippines. Despite the change of government, however, and the promise of greater stability, most have shown little inclination to return to their former homeland.

The reason is simple: Most Filipinos come to the US to become Americans. Once here, their primary concern, contrary to the misperception of journalists, is not Philippine politics. Their obsession -- survival -- is far more ordinary, and although many do survive, success is far from guaranteed. Discrimination continues to trouble even those who are highly trained. Many professionals find that educational credentials and work experience earned in the Philippines are dismissed in America.

Still, for Filipinos both here and in the Philippines, America is an indelible idea, first described by US teachers in the islands decades ago. Universal education was an integral part of this nation's ``democratic experiment.'' And although the experiment is over and the teachers are gone, strong vestiges of that era and its lessons remain.

More than 40 years ago, Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino immigrant and a writer, described this sentiment best:

``America is not merely a land or an institution. America is in the hearts of men that died for freedom; it is also in the eyes of men that are building a new world. America is a prophecy of a new society . . . that knows no sorrow or strife or suffering.''

Peter Bacho is a lawyer who teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

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