Negotiating Identity, Part 1


Negotiating Identity, Transacting Nationhood: The Case of Philippine

Literature of Exile


By Aurelio S. Agcaoili, PhD



(Delivered February 8, 2006 at the Philippine Consulate in Honolulu as part of the commemoration of the centennial of Filipino migration to Hawaii. Co-sponsored with the Philippine Consulate, Center for Philippine Studies, Dept. of Hawaiian and Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures, National Foreign Language Resource Center, Department of Ethnic Studies, and UHM Timpuyog Student Organization.)





Drawing from the Philippine literature of exile, the talk will revisit the modes of negotiation made by Filipino immigrants/Filipino Americans as they come to terms with the realities of day-to-day exile. Characters, situations, contexts, and discourses will provide the landscape through which the literary texts are juxtaposed against the themes of alienation and estrangement, isolation and adaptation, assimilation and resistance to cultural domination. Against this backgrey, nation and nationhood as necessary fictions for the exile will also be tested against the tropes of commitment to self and society, to memory and hope, and to duty and freedom even as the immigrant-as-exile tries to find/ found home in the circle of the unfamiliar and the familiar.





The exile is a person who is always-already negotiating his identity at that same moment that he goes into exile; in the same vein, he transacts the meaning of nation and nationhood as he comes to terms with the demands, displacement, and despair that attend to a life-lived-in-exile.


Said in less abstract terms, the identity of the exile becomes open to negotiation; likewise, his sense of nation becomes open-ended, with the force of memory serving as the one last thread to the ritual cutting off of the connection to motherland, to nation, to the old community of memory and love.


I posit here the intricate connection of memory and love.


Memory is what holds the psyche of the exile to remain perpetually faithful to its obligations to a reverence and upholding of the continuity and continuum of time, including a certain resignation to its cyclicality in order to resist the linear, the analytical, and the mechanical; memory allows the exile to struggle in exile.


There is a rupture, a bursting of his old world as he tries to gets into a new world: new in its requisites, new in its concerns, new in its demands. In this rupture, in this bursting, there is wanton destruction of all that which are dear to the exile—or at the very least, these are challenged by the new way of doing things: a new way of looking at the world, a new language, a new accent, a new set of priorities, a new set of values, a mindset. Memory recovers the old and resists all the seductions of forgetting, thus allowing the exile to transit in tow worlds.


Love, that force and energy that draws the exile into a constant revisiting of the sites of memory, is what gives sense and semblance to the love or the lack of it in the land of exile. That love in memory—that love of memory and the memory of loving—is that same love that is given freely by kin and relations, by the exuberance of a life lived in what and yet lived with decency and self-respect in the old homeland, that force that is itself in the life lived simply and meaningfully precisely because there is reason to live simply and meaningfully.


Love is that life force that the exile-to-be is drawn into even as he plans ahead his next steps to go on exile and go eke out a life somewhere outside his home country because that is the most moral thing to do: to go where there is this vast promise of possibilities even if one has to go beyond the boundaries of his old nation and homeland.


To survive is first of the ethical principles and responsibilities; to ask the questions about surviving and survival comes second. This is where we can begin to ethicize the exilic experience and intentions. For when one’s home country cannot provide for the possibilities, when the pursuit of dreams and life’s purposes is impossible, one is obligated to keep the pursuit and move on from there.



Double Identity, Double Vision


Time, on July 8, 1985, wrote about the many pressing issues affecting immigrants in the United States more than 20 years ago. The life of an immigrant, Time said, is an open secret, but more of a secret- “a sense of living a secret life.” That was, of course, an assessment at that time. The issues raised, however, have not changed today.


The new immigrant of the 21st century is still living in secret, is still living in fear. The revival of this life-in-secrecy and fear is the paranoia attending the 9/11. The 9/11 is a landmark of national destruction- an insult to the superpower image of the United States as a proud country, a country that is able to police other countries ad yet was not unable to police its own homeland. This, of course, gave rise to that sweeping revisiting and a rethinking by American officials of the concept of national security, and how the “new” immigrants fall into the bigger picture, with the suicide fighters in the planes veritably falling under the loose category of “visitors, and therefore, virtually the new migrants.”


But the Time article looked at the world of the new immigrant with the eye of the new immigrant as opposed to the entitlement claims of those whose ancestors came on the Mayflower. The mode and manner by which the Time article looked at he immigrant and his experience was kind and considerate. It looked at the context of who the immigrant is and locates him in the bigger scheme of things: “Every immigrant has double identity and double vision, being suspended between an old and a new home, and old and a new self. The very notion of a new home, of course, is in a sense as impossible as the notion of new parents. Parents are who they are; home is what it is. Home is the wallpaper above the bed, the family dinner table, the church bells in the morning, the small fears that come with dusk, the streets and squares and monuments and shops tat constitute one’s first universe. Home is one’s birthplace, ratified by memory. Yet home, like parentage, must be legitimized through love; otherwise, it is only a fact of geography or biology. Most immigrants to America found their love of their old homes betrayed… They did not really abandon their countries; their countries abandoned them. In America, they found the possibility of a new love, the chance to nurture new selves.” (Time, 8 Jul 1985; also cited in Time, 6 Feb 2006)


Anywhere else in this country, this fear and secrecy- this secrecy because of fear- is a given. It has, in fact, been a given.


In California where there is an estimated millions of lemmeng-a-lemmeng/tago-ng-tago or LAL/TNT—literally, keeping on hiding and therefore “illegal” Filipino immigrants—there is a sense of urgency in putting a context to this Filipino immigrant experience in order to understand better the motivations why a Filipino leaves home and scratch out a life here in the United States.


In the Los Angeles and Orange county areas where I have lived and worked for the last three years, the nuances of rudeness under the guise of polite talk and conversation in gatherings can be easily detected when an acquaintance asks about when did you arrive and how long have you been here.


You do not tell the truth to strangers, not even to well-meaning individuals whose intentions for asking you are not too sure of.


There is a folklore in these areas that was perhaps grounded on some truth: That you can never trust your fellow Filipinos in these areas because they are the first ones to tell report of your illegal status to the immigration officials. The folklore has all the intricacies of a high Filipino who has been illegal and therefore a candidate for deportation equivalent to a $500-reward from immigration officials. For betraying your countryman you get the equivalent of P25,000. What this amounts to is a whole future of a family back in the Philippines, with the remittance of the illegal going to pay for education of the children and their daily sustenance. There is, of course, some paranoia here- and many Filipinos who have not come around fully in these games of peek-a-boo with the kababayan who preys on his kababayan avoid the suspect, the usual loud and the lousy, the smart-alecks, the braggarts, those who flaunt their connection with the immigration people. Word spreads around so easily in the counties of Los Angeles and Orange. The people who perpetuate this set-up are given names: buwaya, swapang, traidor, manggagamit (crocodile, greed, traitor, and user). A character actress, a laos-na, from the Philippines has been branded as greedy and insensitive. She reports those Filipinos who are indocumentados and people say that she gets the $500 reward for each report. If this is a kind of a systematic crackdown that makes use of the tactic of divide et tempera, then, in a way, this is some kink of a success. But then again, the whole set-up does not address the crucial issues about immigration, the whys that lead a person to become indocumentado, an illegal in this country.


In gatherings in LA and Orange counties, you simply do not ask about immigration status.


In my fieldwork, I have come across one old lady, now in her 60s, who has gotten her legal papers (read: permanent residency card) through a fixed marriage; she is now due for interview for citizenship.


This lady is into the health care industry, having passed her certified nursing assistant’s course after years of doing caregiving work.


There is a big trouble with this lady: she threatens all those who cross her, Hispanics and Filipinos alike. She would tell them that she would report them to immigration if they ever push her against the wall. She has, of course, forgotten where she came from: an indocumentado, an illegal for a long time.


The absurdity of the situation is that she does not see that she had been luckier, that the mercies of fate simply fell on her lap, and that there is brutality and oppression in the way she has looked down on others. I call her Elena Agoncillio, and I reconstruct her voice her:


Ako, pinaghirapan ko ang aking pagkuha ng papel. Taon and aking binilang na nagabalik-balik sa Amerika kaya hindi mo masasabing ibinigay lang sa bandeha ang aking pagiging legal. Noon, kada anim na buwan, umuuwi ako sa Maynila para lamang hindi magpaso ang aking visa. Kinkailangan kong kumayod. Walang pursigi and aking kabiyak at ako ang talagang nanagad ng kakayahan para lamang makaahon kami sa aming kahirapan sa Pandacan.


Dumating ang punto na tila mahirap nang makalusot sa mga istriktong reguslasyon ng imigrasyon nang mag-9/11. Wala akong pinag-aralan kaya imposible akong mabigyan ng working visa, na para lamang sa mga propesyunal. Isa lamang ang tanging paraan: magpapakasal. Kung kinakailangang magbayad, magbayad. Maaano bang paghahanap-buhayan ko ang aking pagpapakasal a magkunwaring kami talaga ay kasal. Dangan kasi’y nakakatakot din mabisto. Marami na akong alam na nabisto at pinadeport ang mga nanloloko sa imigrasyon. Alam kong sa interbiu para sa permanent residency ay sisitahin ka talaga. May nalaman akong may mga nagmamatyag pa raw sa bahay ng mag nagkukunwaring mag-aasawa, titingnan kung talaga ngang nagsasama o nagpapakitang-tao lamang. Ikinabesa ko ang mga bagay tungkol sa interbiu: anong gusting-gustong ulam nga asawa mo, ano ang kulay ng kanyang brief, saan parte ng kama siya natutulog, saan nakalagay ang mga damit sa closet, anong kulay ang kanyang gustong-gustong tuwalya, nagsisimba ba siya, ano ang pinapanood na palabas sa telebisyon, saan pumupunta kapag nagda-day-off, tumataya ba siya ng lotto, nagpupunta ba sa casino, naghuhugas ba siya ng plato. Ilan bang maseselang bagay ang aking tinandaan- at kailangan pareho kami ng sagot ng aking magiging asawa.


Dahil nalaman ko ang mga ito, natuto ako. Nag-isip ako: wala na akong babalikan sa Pilipinas kundi mga anak na pawing ang mga isip ay ditto rin ang tungo, na ayaw ding manatili sa bayan. Sabi ko, sige na, magbayad na lang ng mapapangasawa. Kailangan kasing edad para akma ang mga hakbang. Kailangan kakilala para hindi ititiklo. Kailangan mapagkakatiwalaan. Kinausap ko si Manuel, kakilala sa Pandacan ng maraming taon. Hindi dinala ang asawa sa Amerika kaya single parent ang katayuan ditto. Tulad ko, malalaki na rin ang mga anak, may kanya-kanyang pamilya na ang iba. Beinte mil, hulog-hulugan. Malaking pera yun. Pero makikita mo ang beinte il, kikitain mo nang walang takot at pangamba. Nakuha ko ang aking papel.


Ngayon ay may papel ako. Kaya di ako natatakot. Itong mga Mexicano at Pilipino sa trabaho, kapag ako ay narindi, isusumbong ko sila sa imigrasyon. Mga mayayabang sila. Akala kung umasta ay kanila ang Amerika. Masibalik sila sa Mexico. Magsibalik sila sa Pilipinas. Ano ako, nagpapatalo ng ganun-ganun lang? Manigas sila.


(I worked hard to get my legal papers. I counted years of coming back and forth to America that is why you cannot say that my having gotten my legal documents was served on a silver platter. Before I got my papers, I had to go back to Manila every six months in order not to overstay. I had to work. My husband did not have the drive nor the ambition to provide for us; I was the one figuring out and pushing had in order for us to get out of our hard-scrabble life in Pandacan.


A time came when the immigration officials became stricter with the constant coming and going to visitors like me with 9/11. I did not have a college degree which was why it was impossible for me to be granted a working visa, which was only for professionals. There was only one remedy left: to get married.


If I had to pay for the fixed marriage, I had to pay. I did not really mind working hard in order to scrimp for the money to pray for the marriage fee and pretend that we were husband and wife. The truth was, that was risky. I have known a number who had been found to have gone through a fixed marriage. Some say that immigration officials hire investigators to find out, to keep watch on the couple’s house, find out if they are indeed living together or are only pretending. I memorized all the details for the interview: what is your husband’s favorite dish, what is the color of his brief, which part of the bed does he sleep on, where are his clothes in the closet, what color is his favorite towel, does he go to church, where does he go during his day-off, does he bet in the lotto, does he go to the casino, does he wash the dishes? There were other delicate information that I had to know—and my husband in that fixed marriage had to know as well.


When I got to know all these things, I learned my lessons.


I thought hard: I had nothing to go back to in Philippines except for my children who were all contemplating on coming to America, who did not want to remain in the country.


So I told myself, ok, I would have to pay someone for that fixed marriage. The prospective husband must be of the same age as mine to be sure. I must know him so I can have some kind of a hold on him, so he would not report this fixed marriage arrangement to immigration if things get sour. I talked to Manuel, an acquaintance from Pandancan way back. He did not bring his common-law wife to the United States so he was a single parent. Like me, his children were all grown up, with the others having their own respective families. Twenty thousand dollars, on installment. That was a huge amount of money. But I thought I could earn that amount of money, I could earn it without fear and trembling. I got my papers.


Now I have my own documents. I am no longer afraid. Those Mexicans and Filipinos at work, if they piss me off, I will report them to the immigration. They are all hot air. They act as if they own America. They all go back to Mexico. They all go back to the Philippines. I won’t allow myself to be trampled upon by them. They can try me.)


Elena Agoncillo is real and her story is a composite of what could be seen as not only a double vision and a double identity but a schizophrenic view of immigrant life: essentially flawed, warped, fuzzy, and out-of-touch with the realities of immigrant life. There is entitlement here, or some claims to it because one has gotten the green card and now he is a candidate for citizenship.


The Los Angeles Country is widely known to be a haven of Elena Agoncillo. Talk to the new immigrants, those fresh-off-the boat kind going through the employment agencies of Wilshire Boulevard and you hear their stories. The Wilshire area has this reputation for having the highest concentration of Filipino owned employment agencies in the whole of the United States; the same boulevard boasts of having the highest concentration of Filipino immigration lawyers who have known for so long that Filipino professionals who come here for a visit almost always have the ulterior motive: to find a way to stay put in the country and convert the visitor’s visa into a working visa.


Here we see the reciprocity of interests linking up the employment agency, the immigration law firm, and the Filipino professional. There had been a connivance of some sort in the past but this had been corrected—or so we think. We do not know.


Talks go around in Los Angeles which law firm has this reputation, which employment agency is taking advantage of the tourists and professionals by promising them employment and the working visa. At the receiving end, of course, is the tourist, the professional, who, in desperation, has not luxury to even consider his fundamental right to ask questions about the terms of his employment, if at all there is. Many of those who have been employed by these agencies are taking in minimum wages for three years, far lower than what has been approved by the Employment and Training Administration of the Department of Labor.


The field data is uglier than the literature of exile, if and when we can really come up with a clinical split between the narratives that we collect from the field and the lieterary expressions of the same experience.


From my own end, I would look at these narratives as essentially of the testimonial kind, some form of a literature-of-witnessing that does not erase the literary rending of that same complex experience: the frantic search for options, the frenzied search for solutions to immigration worries, the pain of displacement, the tears that go with celebrating Thanksgiving Day and all the holidays alone in your cramped apartment, the betrayal that comes from the demands of family members back home to send more money and more money, the sacrifice that is required for the long ceremony and ritual of taking roots in a new and strange land. They are, therefore, complementary- the field data that assumes the form of an ethnographic narrative and the artistically rendered poems of departures and fictions of return- and they form the corpus of what I would call Philippine literature of exile.




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