Sunday, May 04, 2003

Why the Filipino Upper Class Hates America

When the Filipina author Linda Ty-Casper received an email from Manila saying that "that text messages were asking Bush to liberate the Philippines along with Iraq", she wasn't listening hard enough. Otherwise, she would have known it was the key to answering the question she implicitly posed in her talk given at the University of Connecticut on April 9, 2003: 'why have Americans forgotten a country whose citizens cannot forget them?'

After all, the Indonesians have forgotten the Netherlands and there is no hankering in Macao  for a return to Portugal. So why does the image of America loom so large in the Philippines? The answer in part, is because America is not Holland or Portugal. These two former colonial powers have fallen from their old estate as part of the 19th century wave of European world domination to their true stature as small, inconsequential powers on the fringes of the Atlantic. America, on the other hand, has grown from a country which Britain still thought it could bombard into submission in the late 1800s, to a power greater than any in the long history of the world. America looms large because it is large.

The answer to what America represents depends on on the class of Filipino you ask. To the elite, America is the ancient enemy. To the middle and lower classes, it is the opportunity denied.

The First Philippine Republic, represents, above all, the lost chance of the local elite to run the plantation hastily abandoned by the retreating Spaniards, which they reckoned theirs by hereditary right. McKinley's decision to seize the islands put an end to that. An army of resistance was fielded and the local elite was prepared to dazzle the American officers in charge of the expeditionary force, inviting them to their glittering social gatherings, no doubt to impress upon the newcomers their natural superiority and to gain by charm what they might lose by arms, only to discover that they consisted largely of rough  veterans of the Indian Wars, upon whom piano-playing and fine clothes made no impression. Claro M. Recto, recorded with horror how American officers had calloused palms, a fact which made dancing with them, if their ponderous galumphing across the floor could be so described, most unpleasant for the belles of Manila.

Yet worse was to follow. In the years after Aguinaldo's defeat, the American-sponsored public school system gave the poor access, for the first time, to education at par or superior to that provided in convent schools for the children of the elite. It threatened, in effect if not in intent, to not only to undermine the class system but also to disestablish the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines. In the years before the Second World war, a large number of Filipinos, almost exclusively from the middle and lower classes, emigrated to America to work as agricultural or manual laborers, in that segregated age. Even then, and even under those onerous conditions, emigration to America offered what an American passport offers today to the low-born Filipino: instant and effective escape from the class system to which he would otherwise be doomed for the rest of his life. Emigration to America held no attractions to the high-born. They were waiting to come into their own. The day of the American sailing was earnestly awaited, for the Filipino elite knew that US rule, continued long enough, would eliminate them just as surely as it eventually did the Chamorro and Hawaiian aristocrats.

Yet neither the formal departure of American government in 1946, nor the withdrawal of United States bases in 1989 could wholly undo the damage.  Even the immediate neglect of public education after Independence and the reestablishment of two tier class credentialism could not restore the elite to its former glory. For as long as the United States existed, the Filipino elite could never return the country to the paradaisal state of 1898, a land of peasants eager to be governed by illustrados, both convinced it was the natural order of things. The elephant had been descried, and the Filipino aristocracy would always be cheapened by comparison to America and the poor ever beguiled by what it had glimpsed.

To this day, there is nothing more ambiguous in a Manila social gathering than the presence of a dark-skinned, flat-nosed person with an American passport, with all perfumed princes present simultaneously trying to mentally regard that person as inferior and knowing he is not. Yet this is nothing as to the dilemma of an upper class Filipino émigré in America, who must desperately search for an affirmation of specialness in a land where his former social inferiors may be driving better cars and living in bigger houses than he does. Here, in the depths the continent, near the throbbing forges of American power, the incantation "hindi mo ba alam kung sino ako?" will have lost all of its virtue to compel. Then to him and those like him, will come with horror, the realization that there is no escape from the presence of America, except in memory.

The text messages "asking Bush to liberate the Philippines" were never written by a member of the Philippine elite, but they might have been written by a Filipino, probably a jobless one. There are two messages on the base of the Statue of Liberty. One is well known, and is what the jobless man is eager to hear:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

The other, less famous, is it's dual:

"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!"

Illustrados, hear.