Book Review of E. San Juan's ON THE PRESENCE OF FILIPINOS IN THE U.S. by Mike Viola
On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States, and other Essays. By E. San Juan, Jr. (Salinas, California: SRMNK Publishers, 2007. 114 pp. softcover, $12.50; available from Sarimanok Publishers, 104 E. Lamar Street, Salinas, CA 93906
By Mike Viola
Graduate School of Education and Communications
University of California, Los Angeles
No one is more of an expert in the areas of social theory, race studies, and on the specific subject of the history of Filipinos than Epifanio San Juan, Jr. His scholarly endeavors with their international optic undoubtedly continue the emancipatory projects of such theorists as W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Carlos Bulosan, and Paulo Freire. In his latest book, On the Presence of Filipinos in the United States: and other Essays, San Juan clearly demonstrates that history is a weapon in the ideological battle between those who want to change society and those who want to maintain its basic features. This book, a compilation of four essays (with graphics by Reev Solis), spans over 100 years beginning with the U.S. colonial conquest of the Philippine islands in 1898 and continuing to the present neocolonial moment marked by the brutality of the United States’ second front on the “global war on terror.” While these essays focus on the distinct and historic struggles of Filipinos inside the United States, San Juan connects this collective political project to the unfinished task of a liberated and nationally democratic Philippine homeland. This is the greatest strength of the book. He confirms, “ultimately Filipino agency in the era of global capitalism depends not only on the vicissitudes of social transformation in the U.S. but more crucially, on the fate of the struggle for autonomy and popular-democratic sovereignty in the homeland” (24).
Throughout his historical examination, San Juan chronicles a vast time period with an unapologetic critique of capitalism as a historical reality that necessitates exploitation. This exploitation has resulted in the reproduction of poverty for many Filipinos in the United States and the constrained development in the Philippines. The book’s introduction and first chapter are powerful reminders that the unequal international division of labor imposed by United States imperialism creates an industrial reserve army of mass unemployment, a phenomenon seen not only in the Philippines but also throughout Latin America. Therefore, San Juan’s critical analysis of Filipinos dispersed in the United States (not as a result of a romantic quest to achieve the American Dream but more accurately because of the American Nightmare created throughout the Third World) is a crucial project in light of the amplified anti-immigrant sentiments that have materialized in the United States. Such racism was most recently made visible by the Los Angeles Police Department’s indiscriminate assault of families, youth, and community organizers who peacefully gathered on May 1, 2007. The multiethnic and multigenerational calls of Los Angeles’ working class to end the absurdities of war, racism, and the militaristic raids upon their communities were answered by tear gas and rubber bullets. One hears the powerful echoes of history when Carlos Bulsoan declared in 1943, “If you want to know what we are…we are bleeding where clubs are smashing heads, where bayonets are gleaming. We are fighting where the bullet is crashing upon armorless citizens, where the tear gas is choking unprotected children.”
The influential writings of Carlos Bulosan are widely available due in large part to the research and writings of San Juan. More significantly, San Juan builds upon Bulosan’s analysis in an assessment of the irrational conditions that continue to plague Filipinos in America. In the chapter titled, “Historicizing Carlos Bulosan ‘Like a Criminal in America,’” the author requests that the reader not examine Bulosan’s writing as a sacred or finished text. Rather, he invites us to resume the unfinished project of Bulosan, which is to understand the challenges that confront the racialized and subjugated peoples of America in order to prepare for tomorrow’s struggles and victories. Furthermore, San Juan defends Bulosan from critics who “have all ganged up on this writer for ignoring gender, sexuality, difference, particularity, heterogeneity, and so on” (41). San Juan maintains that while class is not the only subject position in society, it is a unique one in the process of emancipation because all struggles against oppression take place on a terrain defined by capitalist social relations. Wonderfully stated, he explains, “The notion of class exploitation is more decisive than race or sexuality because it challenges directly the power of capital. Without a change in the mode of production, no significant change in social relations including practices of sexuality and ethnic interactions, can be realized” (43). San Juan underscores the fact that Bulosan was not an advocate for romantic stratagems for social justice. Rather, Bulosan’s approach was grounded in a historical materialist analysis of totality and the imperatives of class struggle. Therefore, to disregard Bulosan’s powerful analysis of capitalist totality risks rendering his transformative strategy inutile at best and at worse an instrument of the ruling class.
San Juan’s analysis is especially invigorating during a time when much academic scholarship in the United States, especially in the fields of area, ethnic, and cultural studies are whirling in a theoretical trajectory of indeterminancy. Consequently, the same asymmetrical economic structure that San Juan critiques throughout the book for creating the conditions of superexploitation and pillage in the Philippines has congruently created fertile soil for the academic illusions of accommodation and reform in the United States. The author argues that an analysis of the concrete conditions of class struggle is required for “Filipinos and other oppressed groups…to understand how they can transform their condition decisively” (43). Unfortunately the rendering of class into a vague, metaphysical, and unidentifiable notion of identity has achieved hegemony in the scholarship of North American universities. Through a historical materialist orientation, San Juan provides critical analysis to the theoretical escapades of postmodernism with its schemes of interruption. Throughout the book, he argues convincingly that a postmodern framework is impotent in contesting the barbarism of capitalist exploitation for Filipinos who are dispossessed, racialized, and exploited. He states that in such scholarship “you will find criticisms of racism, gender, intersections of this and that but you will not find a serious critical analysis of social class, the extraction of surplus value from labor-power.” By grounding his analysis of the various forms of oppression in the labor/capital dialectic, San Juan provides a vital means in dismantling the naturalized efficacy of racism and patriarchy. He argues that linking an analysis of such oppressions to capital accumulation and class rule is “key to grasping the complex phenomena of racial colonial subordination of the Philippines to the United States and the neoliberal global market” (97).
In the chapter titled, “Philip Vera Cruz: Narrating a Filipino Life in the Imperial Heartland,” San Juan argues that much like the widely known Bulosan, the life of Vera Cruz can serve as a valuable allegory in the ongoing projects to transcend class exploitation and the virility of racial domination. Through a careful examination of Vera Cruz’s engagement in the Civil Rights movement of the sixties and seventies, San Juan demonstrates that a historical understanding of lived experience can serve as a critical point of analysis. This is only applicable when the analysis of the individual is widened beyond the personal to examine and problematize conditions that entire groups of people are situated. San Juan maintains,
“the life-pattern of an individual like Philip Vera Cruz is unique and at the same time typical for a colonized subaltern in the U.S. Empire. But it is not idiosyncratic since he, like thousands of his compatriots from the Philippines (or other subjugated territories) was exposed to the same political, economic and ideological forces that shaped the lives of the majority of migrant workers in the U.S. in the last century” (68).
While San Juan provides an important embarkation, much more research and scholarship needs to be undertaken examining the transformative praxis of not only Vera Cruz but also other radical labor organizers of color who linked political strategy to a historical understanding of lived experience and international class struggle.
Always present in San Juan’s writing is the devotion to facts, the need to face the harshness of history, and the insistence of examining social relations in its totality. As a result, San Juan engages history in the present tense. This is especially evident in the chapter, titled “Returning from the Diaspora Rediscovering the Homeland.” San Juan provides a theoretical lens to better understand the judgments made by the Permanent People’s Tribunal (PPT), an international opinion tribunal that is independent from any State authority. On March 2007, the PPT found the presidential administrations of the Philippines and the United States guilty for military repression (i.e. extra-judicial killings, abduction, torture, etc.) and the “gross and systematic violations” of human rights towards the Filipino people. Since 2001, more than 850 workers, activists, educators, peasants, and religious leaders have “disappeared” or been murdered.
In this concluding chapter, San Juan writes with a burning sense of urgency offering recommendations for both scholars and activists motivated by their sincere desires to intervene. He calls for not only resistance but also the formation of alternative models that are united in the objective of maximizing human potential. Ultimately, this requires the transcendence of the present global economic order and the hegemony of the transnational ruling class. San Juan notes the importance of critically engaging Marxism in order to specify the process of social transformation that can potentially lead to emancipation. He maintains, “we need to acquire a Marxist orientation. This means that if you want to help liberate the Philippines from U.S. neocolonial stranglehold, or express your solidarity with the mass struggles going on, you will want to fight the class enemy right here, in Washington and in the corporate headquarters” (98). The knowledge that San Juan imparts to assist in our understanding of the capitalist mode of production as a totality is important not only for awareness but also so that we can ultimately transform the complex, historic, and unjust conditions that confront Filipinos in the United States and throughout the world. --###