Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Owners, the Workers...and the Street

Ever wonder why historically there have not been huge, vibrant Filipinotowns like there are Chinatowns or Koreatowns in the U.S.?

Well, the clue lies in Filipino history. As a colony of Spain for over 300 years and the U.S. for half a century (at least formally), Filipinos have historically been working people (in the socioeconomic status sense) at the service of Western economic powers.

As during the periods of colonization, Filipinos continue to provide an important source of global labor for economic powers hungry for workers. Especially with our experiences in the U.S., we have proudly labored as farmworkers, bellhops, plantation laborers, nurses, navy stewards, postal workers, airport security, caregivers, and babysitters. Simply put, Filipinos have not been given the resources and capital that other Asian groups have in order to be "owners" in the U.S. (For example, refer to the history of post-WWII Korea and bilateral U.S. foreign aid to that country, which in turn translated to Korean entrepreneurship in the U.S.). So although Filipino businesses do indeed flourish especially in dense Filipino areas such as Daly City, Carson, or Jersey City, they do not flourish nearly to the extent of Korean or Chinese businesses (and other nationalities with entrepreneurial capital). Neither do Filipinos have the extensive network of ethnic loan lenders that other Asian groups enter the U.S. with. The histories of each country are very different, and the Philippines cannot be examined without its connected history with Spain and the U.S., and the racialization and economic subordination that comes along with that history.

A cousin of mine from the East Coast recently told me a story of a panel discussion on "Asians and Hip Hop Culture" that occurred at his university. One black student mentioned the irony of East Asian (Korean, Chinese, Japanese) youth's fascination with hip hop culture, because of the sometimes antagonistic relationship between East Asian groups and blacks and Latinos. (Let's assume here for the sake of this entry that blacks and Latinos are seen as the main representatives of hip hop culture). She made the exception for Filipinos, "who seem to get along better with blacks and Latinos." Filipinos' history of colonization, their subsequent position as workers in a racially segmented U.S. society, and their unlikelihood to occupy the "owner" status in racially segregated ghettos may give us clues to how Filipinos "get along" better with blacks and Latinos.

I'm not saying that by virtue of interacting with working class people of color, that Filipinos get along with them and perhaps share cultural habits. Although this may be true for some Filipinos who work alongside people of color (many nurses, postal workers, navy stewards, etc. are black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, etc.), the bigger point I'm trying to make is that the power relationships that place workers who perform "menial" labor subordinate to bosses, owners, entrepreneurs, and "white collar" professions stratifies the economy in terms of power and prestige, especially in urban areas where race relations can be tense. This stratification has an abundant history of racialization (race being a way to differentiate, exclude, and marginalize people in society). The way we talk, shoot the shit, interact, dance, make music, make art, and identify with one another are greatly informed by the imagined relationship we have with relative groups in a racialized, stratified economy. Peep Linda Espana-Maram's look at the youth culture of Filipino farm workers in the 1920s-1950s. Filipinos vibed alongside Mexicans and blacks in the dance scenes at the time. You can watch's "Bebot Generation 1" music video to get a fictional glimpse of that scene. (Also read up on the "Zoot Suit Riots" for the violence against Mexicans, blacks, and Filipinos in that scene).

So when the panelist made the comment about Filipinos "getting along" with blacks and Latinos, that needs to be examined in the context of the culture of working people. (As a note: no matter if Filipinos live with two car garages in the 'burbs, we know Filipino parents often work their asses off with overtime to attain a level of luxury). Not so much for Filipino parents, who may harbor racial prejudice against blacks and Latinos inherited from the U.S. colony (the Philippines), but the second-generation and young Filipino immigrants must deal with the racial politics of the schoolyard and therefore may be more sensitive to their position in a highly racialized society. The nature of their parents' labor (as sons and daughters of navy stewards, nurses, postal workers, etc. who work alongside other people of color) may provide important clues to how youth imagine their racial and economic position among their East Asian peers who are more likely to be (or perceived to be) owners or "white" collar (especially in urban areas). In addition, the perception of Filipinos in the eyes of blacks and Latinos may be less antagonistic as with other Asian groups because the owner/non-owner relationship is not as severe for Filipinos in urban areas; instead, they occupy similar spaces of labor.

I know the situation is more complex than what I have written about above, but I just extend this idea as one of many explanations of Filipinos' alignment with other people of color and their cultural productions. Your thoughts...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fil Am Modern: Are You Funkier than a 5th Grader?

Check out this clip from the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC) at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro on Sunday, September 9th. These young people (ages 4-14) are from Oxnard, CA, just north of Los Angeles County.

Not to the (numerical) magnitude of the Filipino version of "Thriller" or "Sister Act," but these kids kill it with their skills and technical nuances (watch the really small ones pop the off-beat!).

Is dancing in our genes?! Well, I sometimes ask myself that when I see my 3 year old family members do coffee-grinders on the kitchen floor, but it's probably more the institution and tradition of choreographed dance at universities with a critical concentration of Filipinos. In fact, the choreographer of Undeclared (the group above) is an alum of Pac Modern at Cal State Long Beach. Also, we have to consider the long tradition of theater performance among Filipino college students: Pilipino Culture Nights (PCNs) and Barrio Fiestas are staples of Filipino community-building at colleges (that and the keg). See Anna Alves and Theo Gonsalves for more on Fil Am theater in U.S. colleges.

At all of the universities that I have attended (or teach at), Filipino students seem to dominate the choreographed dance scene. At the University of Florida, our Filipino Student Association always placed first, second, or third at the university-wide dance competitions. And it seems that my friends from various campuses across the country are extremely immersed in competitive dance. Whether it be in New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, or Georgia, young Filipinos are spending more time doing 8 counts than studying for midterms. Dance is a HUGE institution for Filipinos. (How many versions of the matrix or the puppet can you do!? How many times does the one or two b-boys gotta do a flare, somersault, or suicide front stage for audience reaction before it gets old?! Hip hop tinikling again!?)

Another interesting observation: many non-Filipinos love dancing with Filipino dance troupes. Whether your group is called Pac Modern, Samahang Modern, Kababayan, FSA Modern, what have you, as much as the troupe is "Filipinized," the reality is your group is probably very mixed ethnically. Many Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese, and Caribbeans made up the FSA dance troupe during my time. This definitely added a wonderful, interesting mix.

I'm still waiting for the day when there is a nationwide Fil Am campus dance throwdown. Does it already happen? (Of course there is World Hip Hop Championships, but is there a coast-to-coast Fil Am dance championship? West Coast universities vs. FIND campuses, man!)

So why do you think competitive, choreographed dance among Filipino youth is such a national phenomenon, even transporting itself to the Philippines and other countries?

And where do non-Filipinos, particularly other Asians, fit into the Filipino dance community? Where do Filipinos fit into the tradition of street dance? The ever elusive gradient of FUNK!