In Search of the American Dream. A Filipinio painter pays humble tribute to countrymen who dared to leave all for lives in the States
MANILA — The artist's canvas and frame are raw pine board or, more precisely, the side of a packing crate - scrap bought from an American electronics firm in the Philippines for about $15 a pound. ``The third world uses everything that is usable,'' says Santiago Bose, a Filipino artist. ``I want to reflect that in my art.''
That statement might be a byword for a series of 20 mixed-media works by Mr. Bose inspired by an early generation of Filipino immigrants to the United States who made the best of what they had to forge a new life.
In the 1920s and '30s, many workers emigrated from the Philippines - the United States' only colony. Their inexpensive labor sustained pineapple and sugar plantations, fisheries, and canneries. They went as migrant workers to Hawaii, California, Alaska - wherever jobs were to be found.
Well before Hispanic union organizer Cesar Chavez emerged in the 1960s, Filipino farm workers organized and rebelled against abuses on plantations and in factories. Many remained unmarried, since US laws before World War II discouraged immigration of Filipino women and families.
``If the American Dream happened for Filipinos,'' Bose says, ``it was this generation who paved the way. Once past the hurdles of just surviving, there was wider opportunity for the next generation,'' he says. ``I wanted to show the strength of the immigrant experience.''
Bose (pronounced BOS-sy), who was born shortly after World War II, heard childhood stories about uncles in the US. One, a plantation worker in California, returned to the Philippines after World War II, bought a car, and invested in a gas station. The uncle, Bose recalls, was ``a measure of rich.'' It was, he says, ``shameful to come home poor.''
In 1988, while in California to design a theater production, Bose interviewed old-time immigrants and researched old photos and books. ``They didn't realize their strength,'' Bose says. ``They were victims of their own divisiveness, separated by 138 different dialects and regionalism. They were not as cohesive as other immigrant groups. They assimilated faster because of long colonization by the Spanish and the US.''
Bose's works show images of harvests and strikes, pool games and men at ease. Drawn and painted on the recycled crates, they sometimes incorporate collage - fruit labels, photographic images, documents, slogans. And in ``Massa,'' a montage of workers' faces, Bose returns to a technique he used earlier in his career of burning the image with a magnifying glass onto handmade paper.
Bose does not show victims, but human beings with a tangible emotional strength, caught between two cultures and living in difficult circumstances. His works invite empathy, like photographs taken for the US Farm Security Administration in the 1930s.
The use of mixed media, of tropical colors balanced against browns and blacks, of paint, airbrushed and thinly layered so that the wood texture becomes part of the work, deepens the impact of Bose's art.
In ``Twilight of a Dream,'' an old man sits alone in a sparsely furnished room, by a window opened to an expanse of desert and a green horizon. This, says Bose, is ``a summary'' of this series of paintings - ``an old man, all trials, not rich, maybe alone, but wiser.''
In ``Penitencia II,'' a figure seen through a window carries a cross - in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, a powerful symbol of martyrdom. A sign on the wall says, ``Filipinos not allowed'' - a reminder of the discrimination the immigrants often encountered.
``Journey to the American Dream'' shows a determined young couple, dressed in their best clothes and posed for a formal portrait. Old passports and work papers are attached to the frame in a box marked ``packing list.'' ``They'll work hard all their lives,'' Bose imagines. ``They'll never make much, but their children will be doctors.''
Bose, a graduate of the University of the Philippines, worked in advertising and economic development while refining his art. In 1980, a travel grant from a Manila gallery enabled him to spend a year in New York, where he participated in a workshop with black and Hispanic artists. He then returned to the Philippines, where political repression under President Ferdinand Marcos kindled nationalism among educated Filipinos and many artists.
After the 1983 assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr., the economic, political, and artistic climate here worsened. Bose returned to New York, where, during the next two years, he exhibited in one-man and group shows at the City Gallery, the Henry Street Settlement, ZONE, and the Asian Art Institute.
Winning recognition in the US before he did in the Philippines, Bose may be least known as an artist in Baguio, his hometown, where he has lived again for the past decade.
Of the socially conscious artists exploring and affirming a Filipino identity that eroded during 400 years of Spanish and American colonialism and the Marcos regime, Bose is one of the best.
``The Philippines is a damaged culture,'' he says. ``But if people are conscious enough to ferret out bad things and incorporate good, they are better off than in a homogeneous culture.''
Colorful and simple against the unvarnished wood, Bose's work is a humble tribute to immigrant labor. Though inspired by Filipino experience, his images will strike the minor chords of memory for those who have sprung from immigrant roots and echo in the minds of newcomers in search of the American Dream.
``Each generation of immigrants has had its own set of values and ambitions,'' Bose observes. ``The generation who went in the early 1970s, after Marcos declared martial law, are a different breed - detached from their roots, but very successful.
``Many Filipinos in the US are indifferent to their origins as Filipinos; they lack a sense of belonging,'' Bose adds. ``To be able to go forward, you must know your past. You must have a sense of identity in America, or you get lost.''
This may be a timely message for stateside Filipinos, who are the fastest-growing Asian group in the US.
For some in the generation now grown old, a life that once centered on transient hotels, dance halls, barbershops, and pool halls has given way to welfare hotels, which are, in turn, falling to the wrecker's ball in urban renewal. A percentage of the income from sales of Bose's work at an Oakland, Calif., exhibition earlier this year is going to help relocate evicted people into Filipino-American communities.
``Made in USA, Fragile,'' say the warnings on the crates Bose uses as his canvas - stamped in large block letters by the manufacturer. The words might also be used to describe the American Dream as seen through the eyes of the immigrants he paints.