I got the email half an hour into eating dinner at a Filipino restaurant in Cerritos, California, a restaurant I remember eating at since I was eight. We used to live in Aliso Viejo, a good hour away from Cerritos, and eat there; whenever we visit Southern California, we make it a point to eat there again. The wallpaper and our order of one lechon kawali, two kalamari, two pancit bihon, one sinigang, and one kare-kare is the exact same. The creak of the bathroom remains unfixed. So, whenever we eat there, it’s 2006 forever. It was the site of Papa’s birthday dinner, Tito Rommel’s birthday dinner, and now it was where I learned I got admitted into UC Berkeley.
When I gasped that I got in, Mama immediately cried and hugged me. I remember the hug coming so suddenly and so intensely that I felt my heart remember that this body used to be hers; it was one of the few times we hugged. My dad, a few days later, would stand at the threshold of my bedroom and tell me he sold our house to fund my first year at university. It was said with a casualness, in the same tone he’d used to say he was going to go to Wal-Mart for groceries. I suppose for him, it was simple. He had traded a house rooted in American soil owned by an American family for another dream: his eldest daughter’s education. As if to say, of course I’d do anything for you, what else is there to say about that?
After getting into Berkeley, my mom took it upon herself to tell her patients or coworkers that “my daughter goes to UCLA, mhm” every chance she gets, like she’s scared to forget it. She recalls to me occasionally, still in disbelief, “We’re just immigrants from Davao, can you believe it, now we have a house and you’re going to ooh-clah? Wow.” I always pray to God for my children’s success, every day, Papa mentions one time, and all the sacred whispers in the morning are clear to me now. The American Dream actualized into reality all at once, like a burning bush you run to after years of one-sided prayers. It’s luminous and beautiful in a way only a message from the divine can be. My mom would always say UC Berkeley, UCLA, immigrants, and can you believe it together like they all meant the same thing. I used to think she was being dramatic. But, later on, I realize that she was right to not believe it, to constantly pinch yourself to check if this American Dream — this burning bush — was actually real.
David Barrows, former President of the University of California system, believed that Filipinos were a backwards race. He presided over the university system from 1919 to 1923, twenty years before my grandmother was born. He writes in his 1905 book, A History of the Philippines:
“The history of these backward races began only with the coming of a historical, or more advanced race among them.… Thus, the history of the black, or negro, race begins only with the exploration of Africa by the white race, and the history of the American Indians, except perhaps of those of Peru and Mexico, begins only with the white man’s conquest of America. The white, or European, race is, above all others, the great historical race. This expansion and progress of the European race early brought it into contact with the Filipino people, and the historical life of the Philippines dates from this meeting of the two races.”
The Philippines, to Barrows, existed outside of time. While the United States progressed to civilization, the Philippines remained stagnant in barbarism and savagery. The Philippines’
induction into time depended on its relationship not with its immediate neighbors like China or Singapore, but with Europeans. In fact, in the preface of Barrows’ book, he writes:
“I will ask the general reader to bear in mind that this book was written for Filipino students seeking information not only of their own race and island home, but of the place of that race in the history of the Far East and of Europe. This accounts for the effort here made to tell the reader what was going on in the Western world during the four centuries that followed Magellan's discovery. . .”
To the Europeans, Filipinos never owned their land. The Philippines was a virgin, untouched by progress and modernity, and therefore terra nullius (“no one’s land”). So, Filipinos were instead ahistorical fixtures of their landscape, like specimens, to be discovered, written down, and promptly placed in a taxonomy.
For example: William McGee, an American anthropologist responsible for the 1904 Philippine reservation in the St. Louis World Fair, thought that, “The highest form of development was the government of the United States, [we are an] ‘enlightened civilization’ that [hopes] to achieve ‘a more and more complete conquest over lower nature.” This was no offhand comment. The reservation was spatially designed to embody this idea of Filipinos as “lower nature.“ Visitors entered the reservation and into a plaza, where at the center stood a column of Ferdinand Magellan to honor his ”discovery“ of the Philippines. Its placement as the center of the opening plaza creates a sense of arrival, which is to say, history begins here. From there, fair goers can visit the three different theme areas — Indigenous Peoples, Spanish Peoples, and American Present — through bamboo bridges. Note the interesting titles of the theme areas. Time wasn’t mentioned in the case of indigenous or Spanish Filipinos, but the reservation made it a point to highlight the United State’s ownership of the present. Architecting the reservation to allow visitors to physically walk through these three different spaces, with the end point being the American ”present,“ crystalizes the idea that Filipinos exist outside historic time. Indigenous peoples were primitive, Spanish peoples occupied the liminal space between prehistoric time and civilization, and the American present offers a glimpse into the Filipino’s future of modernity — that is, if they accept their fate as colonial subjects and integrate.
David Barrows, before he was President of the UC system, was the Superintendent of Schools in Manila under Philippine Territorial Governor William Taft (later the 27th President of the United States). He was General Superintendent of Education of the Philippine colony when the Philippine Reservation was completed and open to the public in 1904, a year before he published History of the Philippines. Could he have imagined a student like me at UCLA? At Berkeley?
When my parents found out I got into UC Berkeley, it was affirmation that the American Dream is real. Writing this, I close my eyes and imagine myself on the Berkeley campus, passing by Barrows Hall. In his History of the Philippines, the hall’s namesake writes in detail of the
Philippines’ “primitive” beginnings and Spanish conquest, offering his pity, “[Students] will nd it a study that will stimulate his thought and strengthen his judgment; but always he must search for the truth, even though the truth is sometimes humiliating and sad. . . if there are dark places in the history of our land and people [...] by trying to conceal the fact and excuses the fault, we only add to the shame.” My first reaction is to celebrate that I am everything Barrows says I am
not. From “historic ash-heaps,” dust to dust, rises the daughter of immigrants and graduate of an education system that never imagined someone like me in a cap and gown. I’m a barbarian, a savage, a head-hunter, an immigrant Filipino from a “waste space” that got admitted into his alma mater. But a part of me feels like celebrating it is consenting to his and McGee’s ideas, their conceptualization of linear time.
McGee believed in polygenesis, which theorizes that human races come from different origins (therefore, Filipinos are a different species), and that “cultural advancement [occurs] through mixing, cultural contact, and borrowing. . . progressive acculturation leading to the unification of knowledge.” Since the Philippines was successfully colonized and integrated into the American rhythm of time, a transformative process turning barbarians into model students and model Americans, then Barrows and McGee would be correct. Through American education, I had arrived at enlightenment, proving President Taft’s assertion that with enough assimilation, “our little brown brothers [after] fifty or one hundred years [could] develop [something] resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.”
For most of my life, I ran toward the American Dream, this burning bush, unaware that my shadow grew larger the closer I got to the light. I chased the external validation of awards, scholarships, internships, and leadership positions, so much so that I didn’t know who I was without it. When I thought I failed my first midterm at UCLA, I cried so hard and for days on end; the tears would come as abrupt as a nosebleed, a confused body imploding on itself. I felt like a failure to my parents, and to myself. I remember crying to my mom at a stairwell that I was wasting their money and that they sold their house for nothing. What did I fail? I failed an exam; I failed to get an A; therefore, I failed to be a model student. Failure implies purpose, and who ascribes purpose? It was not my parents, and certainly not my mom, who reassured me that as long as I tried my best, that’s all she could wish for. It must be myself. So, if it was self-imposed, where is my self-degradation coming from? Why do I feel like an imposter? An imposter to who? As I interrogated myself further and further, the burning bush seemed to warp, flames eating itself question after question until the light was gone. My shadow had been liberated, swallowing the light that kept it shackled to me, until there was nothing but darkness. With no exit in sight, I had no choice but to confront it.
I was an imposter to an idealized projection of myself. When we moved to California from Davao City, Philippines, I went from daughter to daughter of Filipino immigrants, which is to say, this destiny is hereditary. As the eldest daughter and the first child in America, my papa always told me to set an example for my younger sisters and cousins: be a good citizen, be good to America, be successful, do good in school. Growing up, he would say that I had opportunities in the United States that my parents didn’t have in the Philippines, but never clarified why. Why is it that the United States has more than the Philippines? Why is it we had to leave our family
behind and go this far across the ocean? Why did my dad have me erase animator, drawer, English teacher in favor of my pre-destiny of being a lawyer?
I was proof that we — immigrants from Davao — could make it. It being the American Dream. But with proof, comes the burden of it. Evidence requires evidence and verification. The jury and judge are white, providing the external validation: admissions officers, professors, coaches, teachers, counselors, the university. I am my own prosecutor — an omnipresent, white, voyeuristic gaze — that criticizes my evidence grain by grain until my existence is reduced to a second-rate version of the person I’m supposed to be, if I had only just worked harder. I constantly compare myself to my white American classmates who were better than me and made it seem easy, not knowing that their parents paid for an SAT/ACT tutor, that they went to a private preparatory school that trains its students to be admitted into elite universities, or that they could boost their chances of admittance just because their parents went to the same university. We were both Americans with an equal opportunity to succeed, but I was a Filipino American, which meant that I had to conquer being Filipino before I could try being American.
Albert Beveridge, a relatively progressive U.S senator, passionately argued before Congress for the colonization of the Philippines in 1900, “Mr. President. . . [God] has made us the master organizers of the world to establish a system where chaos reigns. . . He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile peoples. Were it not for such a force as this the world would relapse into barbarism and night.” Being Filipino is to be the night, darkness, savage; to be American is to be light, day, civilized. Beveridge strung these words together, just like how my mom would, like they meant the same thing. A century later, David Cameron, Britain’s Prime Minister in 2014, expressed disgust with ISIS’ tactics of terror, “Beheadings, crucifixions, the gouging out of eyes, the use of rape as a weapon, the slaughter of children. All these things belong to the Dark Ages.” When I google Dark Ages, one of the first questions that automatically pop up is, “Why do people call it the Dark Ages?” Google promptly answers that it is “a designation for [a] supposed lack of culture and advancement,” a historic reference to Medieval Europe in the 15th century that was known for its chaos and cruel and inhumane violence.
If the absence of light is the absence of modernity and humanity, then why did the American introduction of civilization to the Philippines bring death and destruction? U.S Army Brigadier General Robert P. Hughes recalls his command in the Philippine-American War in 1902, testifying before the Senate Committee on the affairs of the imperial possession of the Philippine Islands:
Sen. Rawlins: In burning towns, what would you do? Would the entire town be destroyed by fire or would only offending portions of the town be burned? Gen. Hughes: I don’t know that we ever had a case of burning what you would call a town in this country, but probably a barrio. . . [The U.S army] usually burned the village. . . every one of them.
Sen. Rawlins: If these shacks were of no consequence, what was the utility of their destruction?
General Hughes: The destruction was a punishment. They permitted these people [guerillas] to come in here and conceal themselves and they gave no sign. . . Sen. Rawlins: The punishment in that case would fall, not upon the men, who could go elsewhere, but mainly upon the women and little children.
Gen. Hughes: The women and children are part of the family. . . you can punish the man probably worse in that way than in any other.
Sen. Rawlins: But is that within the ordinary rules of civilized warfare?
Gen. Hughes: These people are not civilized.
In his testimony, General Hughes creates a connection between death and civilization that seems in stark contrast to the United States’ government’s reasons for the war, which — “because it is the power most necessary for the ruling tendency of our [white] race” — is to “revitalize decaying peoples, and plant civilized and civilizing governments over all the globe." Revitalization and death seem contradictory, but this can easily be reconciled with the idea of culling. Culling, defined by the U.S National Agriculture Library, is to remove "genetically undesirable, inferior, weak, diseased or infested plants from a planting in order to ensure [...] vitality." U.S Army General Shafter in 1899, at the onset of the Philippine-American War, likens the war to culling, “It may be necessary to kill half the Filipinos in order that the remaining half of the population may be advanced to a higher plane of life than their present semi-barbarous state affords.” Alternatively, U.S Army Veteran from Kansas says a bit more bluntly, “The country won’t be pacified until the n*ggers are killed off like the Indians, [we have to] blow every n*gger into a n*gger heaven.” Culling — just like removing a shriveled succulent, or an ignorant savage.
To be Filipino is to be lost in the darkness of time, until we are blown up — the light and shrapnel penetrating our bones and flesh — before we are brought painfully to the illuminated present. Fiat lux, “let there be light!” says both God and the University of California. The university describes the design of their seal in 1868, “A five-pointed star with rays of light streaming downward symbolizes the discovery. . . of knowledge.” I imagine being Professor Barrow’s star pupil, learning and living and talking like a conqueror. Let there be light, and I feel it explode in fractals behind my eyes. I’m Filipino American.
It’s documented that 1/3rd of the island perished during the war, whether it was through combat, famine, or through malaria and dengue fever in the detention camps, but there is no official count. My Lola Bella was born when the Philippines was still a “commonwealth,” a euphemism for an American colony, forty years after the Philippine-American War. I am four generations removed from the war, and in all of the interviews I’ve conducted with my family members, no one remembers it. Instead, they lovingly recall the Chocolate Joes, the American “G.I Joes” soldiers that kindly gave the children American candies. Presented with these two separate and distinct histories, I wondered if American colonization was actually as benevolent as they said it was. But even in the absence of memory, we still embodied it — as the descendants of the 2/3rds that survived. To be Filipino American is to be perpetually embroiled in a war for
independence and sovereignty, even within your own mind. Our minds, like our motherland, is terra nullius (“nobody’s land”), instead waiting to be claimed by whiteness. Even now, there is a white supremacist sedimented in me, calling me “treacherous, arrogant, stupid and vindictive, impervious to gratitude, [and] incapable of recognizing obligations” for not being thankful of the opportunities the United States has given me by my being here, for criticizing the universities and schools that have educated me.
Funnily enough, UC President Barrows could imagine a student like me in his class. Pensionados were elite Filipinos sponsored by the government to study in the United States to eventually return to the islands to fulfill positions as colonial bureaucrats. They were even exhibition guides at the Philippine Reservation in the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, representing “American Present.” I read that part a little hatefully, embarrassed it’s not too far off from myself — a middle class Filipino American writing about identity from a “subaltern“ lens in the middle of a global pandemic, studying and eventually graduating from the UC system. Emilio Aguinaldo, known as the revolutionary that defied American colonization of the Philippines, while not a pensionado, was an upper middle class intellectual. Images of him portray him in a finely tailored suit and a regal expression. Yet, President Theodore Roosevelt referred to Aguinaldo as a “typical representative of savagery, the typical foe of civilization of the American people,” invoking imagery of the “White Man’s Burden'' political cartoon in Literary Digest portraying Filipinos as a simian-like being in a grass skirt and hoop earrings. I think of the man at the antique shop that thought I bore a resemblance to the Native Americans on an old cover of Life Magazine, who wore loincloths and were drawn to kneel at the feet of the white missionary who consecrated their land by presence alone. In spite of everything, the idea of time and progress remained the exact same, and racism unfixed. For all the parts of myself I had sacrificed and repressed, for him and many other white Americans, it was still the dark ages forever.
I wrote this piece in the summer of 2020.
I return, two seasons later, to finish it with an excerpt from a paper I submitted to a research seminar at the University of California, Los Angeles:
Trying to be an A student within the same institution that justified the violence that now lives hereditary within every survivor of the Philippine American War is consenting to David Barrows’ idea that Filipinos can be “civilized” — but only if we fit within the parameters of his rubric. The history of research, to me, is an archive of injuries. I am no longer interested in playing dead by removing myself from research that is inherently intimate to me as a product of the brutality of research. I would instead like to be wholly alive in my research. Anything else is acoustic violence.
This paper revolts thunderously against the violence that asks of me to sedate myself and pretend that this research is not so close to my heart. In the museum of political depression, where I am a mannequin of my people that are dying at the frontlines (including my father, a Filipino immigrant registered nurse assigned to a COVID-designated dialysis center, because the economic fuel of American colonization is death), I wrote this paper uncaged.
It received an A-.