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by Lydia Lum


As scholars try to get university administrators across the country to understand how distinct Filipino American studies are, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign program continues to expand.

Dr. Martin Manalansan IV once found himself wondering aloud to a West Coast colleague why Filipino diaspora scholars were flooding him with requests to review their papers or join their committees. The colleague reminded Manalansan that he was tenured, while most of the soliciting scholars weren’t. As one of a handful of tenured faculty in Filipino American studies nationally, he was automatically regarded as a mentor.

“Just as there is an old boys network to say certain things are important, we as Filipinos need to help each other by supporting each other’s research,” says Manalansan, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People such as myself need to settle into these senior roles and explain why Filipino studies is important.”

UIUC is considered one of the major hubs nationally for Filipino American studies. But the fact that its core consists of only four tenured and tenure-track faculty members, including Manalansan, illustrates a historical disparity that exists among Asian Pacific Americans at U.S. colleges. Despite the diversity in this country’s Asian Pacific American population in general, the majority of university faculty hires are of East Asian descent.

“Japanese and Chinese are often a standin for Asian and Asian Pacific American,” says Manalansan, who’s also acting director of Asian American studies at UIUC.

His UIUC colleague, Dr. Augusto Espiritu, says Filipinos are often stereotyped and even nicknamed “Black Asians.”

“We’re perceived as good dancers, that we’ve got rhythm and throw good parties,” says Espiritu, an associate professor of history. “When I was in college, many Filipinos got involved in student politics and affirmative action issues. But we got more attention for our parties, our dancing. It’s a flattering stereotype, yet a negative one for Filipinos as well as Blacks.”

Last month, UIUC hosted a rare meeting of Filipino American diaspora faculty and graduate students from around the country including Hawaii. Fewer than one-fourth of the conference-goers were tenured faculty.

For two days, the attendees discussed the history of their academic field, the cultures of the diaspora and the future of the field, among other things. Because so many universities have — at most — only one or two Filipino scholars, they network with each other primarily at large-scale annual gatherings such as those convened by the Association for Asian Studies and the Association for Asian American Studies.

Leading up to the UIUC event, “there was a lot of excitement” among the attendees, Espiritu says.

“Many of them feel isolated academically,” he adds. “Some of them are not just the only Filipino in their departments, but they’re the only Asian.”

 A Later Ascendancy

More than 2.3 million people of Filipino descent live in this country, making up more than 17 percent of Asian Pacific Americans here, according to the 2000 Census. By comparison, about 2.7 million of Chinese descent and 1.1 million Japanese were counted in the Census. One-third of Filipino Americans are U.S.-born. Two-thirds work in management, sales and professional or office occupations, according to the 2004 American Community Survey. Ninety-one percent were high school graduates and 48 percent held at least a bachelor’s, the survey showed.

More than 86,000 Filipinos live in Illinois, Census figures show, mainly in Chicago and its surrounding area. Illinois’ Filipino population trails only California and Hawaii in number.

UIUC has longstanding academic significance for Filipinos, scholars say. During the early 20th century, the U.S. colonial government in the Philippines sent government scholars known as “pensionados” to the West for higher education. The pensionados — typically young, upper-class Filipino men — would return to their homeland and occupy key social and political positions. UIUC was among the few universities in the Midwest to receive the pensionados, the first ones arriving in 1903. Not surprisingly, Illinois, especially Chicago, became synonymous in the Philippines with students and academics while the West Coast and Hawaii became known for Filipino laborers in canneries, fields and on plantations.

However, the access to higher education here, along with continued migration from the Philippines, never translated into a critical mass of Filipino diaspora scholars until this decade, says Espiritu, who has researched Filipino American protest politics.

Espiritu says that in the 1970s and ’80s, many of the U.S. Filipinos who organized and mobilized against then-Philippine president- dictator Ferdinand Marcos took lowwage, blue-collar jobs to allow themselves ample time for activism. He says the writings of these activists “often show brilliance” although hardly any of them held advanced degrees.

Some of these activists, in fact, dropped out of college. Hardly any of them considered academia a viable vehicle from which to pursue their goal of driving Marcos out of power, Espiritu says. Instead, they viewed academia as one of the many arms of the establishment they couldn’t trust. “They certainly weren’t seeking professor positions here,” he says.

Dr. Reynaldo Ileto, the keynote speaker at last month’s conference at UIUC, nearly dropped out of Cornell University during the ’70s while organizing anti-Marcos activists, Espiritu says. “If it wasn’t for a mentor stopping him, Ileto would’ve left Cornell and wouldn’t have had the career he has,” Espiritu says.

Ileto, now a professor of history and Southeast Asian studies at National University of Singapore, is considered a pioneer of Filipino diaspora study. His 1979 book, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines, is recognized as a seminal text of Southeast Asian history.

Because so few Filipinos worked as college faculty here, hardly anyone lobbied humanities and social science departments for Filipino American studies until the 1990s, Espiritu says. “It’s only now, with a core of people and a second generation of scholars emerging, that things are taking shape,” he says.

Meanwhile, Chinese and Japanese Americans were among the people of color in the late 1960s demanding ethnic study programs at universities around the country, often starting them on their own.

The struggle among Filipinos in more recent years, Manalansan says, has centered on getting university administrators to understand how distinct Filipino American studies are, when the topic is broached. He and his peers are frequently asked, “What is that?”

“The Philippines isn’t perceived as a grand civilization like India or China or Japan,” Manalansan says. “Instead, it’s seen as some sad copy of the post-colonial West. The Philippines is unlike most other Asian countries because of its colonial past.”

The academic struggle is made more difficult by social misperceptions that Filipinos don’t have a distinct culture, he says. Chinese and Japanese restaurants offer their native foods at restaurants in U.S. cities everywhere, but Filipino foods don’t touch daily American life as extensively.

“Filipinos do blend in more in the United States than some of the other Asians,” Manalansan says. “They might be immigrating with a broader cultural tool kit.”

Newcomers often speak fluent English, which is one of the official languages in the Philippines. But, historically, immigrants haven’t established as many of the freestanding business and economic organs here that those from other Asian countries have, observes Manalansan, who does ethnographic research on immigration.

“It’s more rare to see a Little Manila than a Koreatown or Chinatown,” he says. “You rarely see a Filipino American chamber of commerce or political group. Without this kind of economic base, there’s little that’s tangible for other Americans to see.”

Within academia, the historic infrastructure does not easily accommodate Filipino diaspora study either, he says. East Asian institutes and programs have increasingly collaborated with scholars specializing in Chinese American and Japanese American study.

However, the number of Southeast Asian programs are far fewer than those for East Asia. And among the Southeast Asian initiatives, refugee diaspora is a prevailing theme, he says, adding, “Our niche, as Filipinos, is narrow. But by discussing Filipino migration and history, these stories tell us more about the United States and the world itself.”

UIUC hired Manalansan in 1999. A year later came Espiritu, who also has researched Filipino intellectuals and writers born in the early 1900s.

More recently, two junior faculty have joined them. Dr. Lisa Cacho, an interdisciplinary scholar, researches the cultural and literary interface between Filipino and Mexican Americans. An assistant professor, she works in Latina/o studies, Asian American studies, gender and women’s studies and the English department. Dr. José Capino, assistant professor of English and cinema studies, examines film as a vehicle for the histories and cultures of U.S. colonialism, Filipino postcoloniality and immigration.

As the Filipino faculty core has grown and evolved, the number of graduate students studying diaspora applying to UIUC has increased too.

“We’re a product of later ascendancy and blooming, but we’re coming into our own,” Manalansan says.

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