Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The invisible Pinoy

“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?,” Ralph Elllison wrote at the end of his novel, Invisible Man.
It’s difficult enough to be noticed in a world of diversity. Yet, in Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility, its editors and contributors seriously lament the exclusion of Filipinos in Canada’s circles of public policy, academic faculty lists, and the public culture.
In this new volume of essays, University of Toronto Professor Roland Sintos Coloma, book co-editor and his fellow contributors are challenging Filipino migrants in Canada to underscore various facets of their lives that have remained largely invisible to the Canadian mainstream. This new cohort of academic scholars hopes their work will add to the growing discussion on social exclusion. But they may come up short of being “scholars as advocates for” if and when their ideas are put to the task outside the confines of the academe and in the rough-and-tumble world of policy and culture.
A new book, Filipinos in Canada: Disturbing Invisibility, edited by Roland Sintos
Coloma, et al. Click link to view "Filipinos in Canada, the Book, Launched in Toronto,"
courtesy of FilipinoWebChannel,
Presently the largest migrant group in Canada, Filipino-Canadians find it hard to shine in the multicultural limelight of myriad visible ethnic minorities. Let alone that their Filipino-American cousins in the South have for so long struggled in the past to define and conquer their own painful invisibility.
At least the works of Filipino academics in the United States which preceded this recent work by Prof. Coloma et al have clearly identified the legacy of American colonization on the invisibility of early Filipino migrants in the American public. More particularly, these early works pointed out the harmful impact of the U.S. project of “benevolent assimilation” that brought American institutions and popular culture to the islands.
In explaining the Filipino’s “incommensurable sense of nonbeing,” Oscar V. Campomanes called this invisibility as both symptom and mechanism of a culture of U.S. imperialism. Antonio Tiongson et al, In Positively No Filipinos Allowed: Building Communities and Discourse, explained that the prevailing American culture and politics at the time tended to deny the presence of neocolonial subjects, such as immigrant Filipinos, to maintain the U.S. historical and moral alibis for its empire abroad.
The early Filipino works on social exclusion in America did not merely expound on the absence of Filipinos in American public policy and culture, they also touched on grievances against other Asian Americans who had harboured a denigrating view of Filipinos, ranging from their institutional exclusion and marginalization to events that promoted inequality to outright bigotry.
Not surprisingly, there is no comparable depth in analysis in Prof. Coloma’s book although it continues the pioneering work of the early Filipino-American academics. The very obvious reason for this is the lack of history of colonial relationship between Canada and the Philippines, and, to some extent, the tendency to ignore the achievements of some Filipinos, no matter how small, in making themselves noticed. At the very least, too, its contributors could have attempted to relate the invisibility of Filipinos and other ethnic minorities in Canada to the legacy of colonization in their respective cultures inasmuch as majority of Canadian immigrants are also from former colonies of Western powers.
Viewed in the present context of racial discourse in Canada, the book correctly identified that being visible may not be the easiest or most practical solution to invisibility. Especially when framed within Canada’s multicultural society where minorities remain visible within their ethnic groups but missing in the larger Canadian picture.
This reminds me of a line in the movie Maid in Manhattan (admittedly not a very good academic analogy) wherein Jennifer Lopez, referring to her character as a Latina hotel housekeeper, says to Christopher Marshall, an aspiring New York senator played by Ralph Fiennes: “Half of the town is laughing at me now, and the other half thinks I’m invisible.”
Citing Thobani’s earlier work, Prof. Coloma and his co-editors reiterate that Canadian multiculturalism has enabled the material integration of immigrants and at the same time their exclusion from the nation as a whole. But isn’t this the natural outcome of migration from a Third World condition to a society dominated by the powerful and dominant white population?
Why do we complain too much, or, as Filipinos, too little?
Where we come from, more than 80 percent of the population is largely invisible on account of their poverty. Here, after nearly more than 50 years of migration to Canada, it is hardly inconceivable that in a short span of time, Filipinos could have shattered the glass ceiling and made themselves visible. Perhaps, it is a self-defeating notion for Filipinos, being both a visible ethnic minority and an invisible member of the larger Canadian society, to rise so fast to the level of recognition that marks the dominant culture.
The volume of complaint about our invisibility reaches its highest decibel mostly in academic studies, and this is why it is doubtful whether Prof. Coloma’s book could actually translate into the empowerment of our invisible community.
For example, when the book ignores the works of genuine artists in our midst but gives recognition to lesser literary lights, there must be something wrong with the way we perceive things or the way the book editors and contributors define who are poets and artists. Or perhaps, they consider as artists only those who perform in the limited spaces of the Kapisanan Centre (Santa Guerilla and Future Folk), or Magkaisa Centre (Maleta).
There are some Filipino-Canadians whose poetry collections have been published by mainstream Canadian publishers and in Canadian literary journals, and a number of more established local playwrights whose works have also been staged in Canadian theatres. Unlike the crappy poem selected for inclusion in the book and the works of others that promote the spoken word, hip-hop or rap, we have genuine artists in our community who can express their works through creative writing comparable to mainstream literature. Unfortunately, they’re the ones invisible in the book. And if this were not enough, Prof. Coloma and his fellow editors would even denigrate these true artists by saying that the rigours of academic scholarship are much more demanding than the creativity that artists must unleash to articulate their vision whether in essays, poems, stories, novels, paintings or music.
One area that Prof. Coloma’s book completely missed investigating is the pathetic role of current Filipino community organizations in civic engagement, especially in promoting political representation of Filipino immigrants. Judging by how these various organizations come out of the woodshed every summer to celebrate traditional Philippine events such as Independence Day and other entertainment festivities, one would be led to believe that indeed Filipinos are a very visible community in Canada. Except that these celebrations are annual charades with a limited lifespan, with many of them lacking any genuine motivation to raise the visibility of Filipinos in public spaces that matter, i.e., real achievements in the arts and the sciences. While these organizations can be effective platforms in facilitating integration into the mainstream and in giving their constituents political voice and power, they have become either apathetic or have prevented their members from participating in the larger Canadian body politic.
Why is this so?
Perhaps the government’s policy of multiculturalism could be the root cause for our social exclusion. However sanguine, multiculturalism has a lulling effect that satisfies the desire of ethnic community organizations and groups to celebrate their cultural heritage without giving them access to opportunities in the corridors of political and economic power. In short, our community organizations have become instruments of social exclusion, albeit for a sham multiculturalist aspiration of equality.
Prof. Coloma and his co-editors have neglected to address and reconcile this apparent contradiction between multiculturalism and social exclusion. If their purpose was really to disturb, question and challenge the Filipinos’ invisibility in the Canadian public policy and culture, this issue is worth academically probing.
As “scholars as advocates for,” Prof. Coloma and his collective group have a monumental task to bridge the vast divide between academic information and knowledge and the real world that their subjects live in. It is not enough to discuss the invisibility of Filipinos among like-minded people inside the walls of the academe while at the same time turning a blind eye to those Pinoys who continue to disappear in society’s blindspot. There are legitimate and visible bodies out there, if they just care to look. It will be a disservice to those who have struggled for many years to belong to the Canadian mainstream to continue to remain invisible because, judged by even their own compatriots such as Dr. Coloma et al, they are not worth a second look, and much like Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, cannot account for their nonbeing.

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