PHGLA Logo


Ugly Balikbayans and Heroic OCWs

by Vicente L. Rafael
© 1997 by Vicente L. Rafael
All rights reserved

(Excerpted from "Your Grief Is Our Gossip: Overseas Filipinos and Other Spectral Presences")


A recent article in the Los Angeles Times described overseas Filipinos as follows:

Distinctive among the huddled masses of global economic migration, overseas Filipinos represent the elite, high end of the labor market. They are generally well-educated and usually accomplished speakers of English. But like other itinerant workers, they lack opportunities in the dysfunctional Philippine economy. So women with college degrees serve as maids in Tokyo and Hongkong... Semi-skilled laborers toil in Kuwait while Filipino seamen ply the oceans on the world's ships. Filipino business graduates dominate the mid-level management ranks of many multinational corporations in Southeast Asia, earning wages they couldn't dream of at home.1
Filipinos abroad simultaneously signify the failure of the nation-state to contain its excess population and the success of global capitalism in absorbing and accommodating this failure. They can best be regarded as both the product and producers of surplus: sheer labor power immediately translatable into the universally understood form of value-- money. Though they have left the Philippines, they can now return in an abstract form that is exterior to it. As Filipino-American newspaper publisher, Alex Esclamado put it, "Remittances by overseas Filipinos [estimated in 1995 to be about $6 billion annually] to their families are now considered direct foreign aid... that can have a radical effect on people's lives-- building houses in depressed rural villages, paying off medical bills, sending little brothers and sister and cousins to school."2

As "foreign" sources of "aid," overseas Filipinos come to occupy ambiguous positions. Neither inside nor wholly outside the nation-state, they hover on the edges of its consciousness. They take on the semblance of spectral presence whose labor takes place somewhere else but whose effects command, through money, a place in the nation-state.

While Filipinos have had a long history of migration, it was only in the last twenty-five years that massive movement of workers became part of the nation's everyday life.3

There are two terms for designating these workers in the Philippines: balikbayan, or immigrant Filipinos primarily from North America who periodically visit the motherland, and OCW, overseas contract workers who are employed on a contractual basis in such places as the Middle East, Europe, East and Southeast Asia.


Nationalism Deferred

It was the Marcos regime in the mid-1970s that coined the term balikbayan by joining the Tagalog words balik, to return, with bayan, meaning town and nation. A balikbayan's relationship to the Philippines is construed in terms of his sentimental attachments to his hometown and extended family rather than his loyalty to the nation-state. At the same time, being a balikbayan depends on one's permanent residence abroad. It means that one lives somewhere else and that one's appearance in the Philippines is temporary and intermittent, as if one were a tourist.

Indeed, the Marcos regime's interest in overseas Filipinos was part of its plan to spur the tourist industry both as a generator of foreign exchange and a showcase for its putative accomplishments. Offering a combination of bargain airfares, tax breaks and other incentives, the Philippine government encouraged dollar-earning Filipinos, especially from North America, to visit the country and see for themselves the frruits of Martial Law. Living in close proximity to sources of capital, balikbayans were treated like tourists in their land of origin. As consumers, balikbayans, like other foreign visitors, were accorded deference and generously accommodated by local officials.

That the state succeeded in domesticating balikbayans into tourists can in part be seen in Filipino nationalist unease about them. Nationalist writers often distinguish those who return from working temporary jobs in the Middle East and Asia from those who visit from the U.S. Whereas overseas contract workers are seen to return from conditions of near abjection, balikbayans are often viewed to be steeped in their own sense of superiority, serving only to fill others with a sense of envy. The well known journalist Conrado de Quiros, for example, writes of

th[ose] balikbayans from America, who force us each year to make an apologia for the indolence of the Filipinos.

They're the ones who sally forth to bedazzle the natives. They queue up in East or West Coast airports with tons and tons of baggage, many of them containing groceries for relatives who can't wait to have a taste of America...4

They bring us stories about how much life in America has proved what the Reader's Digest says it is. They also bring us homilies, delivered with the proselytizing zeal of Thomasites, which are forceful for their use of contrasts. It's too hot in the Philippines. It's nice to snuggle by the hearth in America. There's grime and smog in our streets. You can't drive without anti-pollutants in the States. Filipino drivers are maniacs. American drivers follow traffic rules... You defer too much to authority here. You can talk man-to-man even with the president of the United States.5

Quiros compares the balikbayans to the Thomasites, the first group of American school teachers who arrived in the Philippines at the beginning of this century and who figure in nationalist narratives not as benevolent instructors but as purveyors of the "mis-education" of the Filipinos. Thanks to them, Filipinos started to think of themselves as Americans.6 Balikbayans as Thomasites are thus positioned as neo-colonizers whose ambitions lie in setting themselves apart from the rest of the "natives" rather than affiliating with them. In that sense, balikbayans emerge as figures to be envied.

Their easy association with Western consumer products and their access to a powerful North American state apparatus mark them as different: they represent the fulfillment of Filipino desires realizable only outside of the Philippines. However, what adds to their difference is this: that they are unable to respond to the envy of others with a show of empathy. While they seem to possess everything, they in fact lack a sense of humility as shown by their inability to defer to those who lack what they have. Indeed, they do nothing else but point out what the Philippines lacks, thereby appearing shameless and arrogant.

Yet, that shamelessness, or what in Tagalog is commonly referred to as walang hiya,7 is less a "cultural trait" as it is part of a historical legacy. Quiros continues:

And then you realize that the physical fact of Filipinos migrating abroad is really just the tip of the iceberg... Most of us are expatriates right here in our own land. America is our heartland whether we get to go there or not.

Nothing demonstrates this better than that the balikbayan does succeed in bedazzling the natives. If he flaunts his wares, it's simply because he knows the audience will lap it up...

It's the lack of any sense of nationhood, of being Filipino, among us that makes expatriation the most preferred option of all... But surely there's a tragedy in seeing the fundamental question of one's life as nothing more than which country can provide a better living? Surely there must be more to life than this?

The shamelessness of the balikbayan turns out to be the "tragedy" that is shared by the majority of Filipinos still caught up in colonial delusions. Balikbayans are disconcerting not only because they seem to corroborate the terms of colonial hegemony; they also mirror the "failure" of nationalism to retain and control the excess known as overseas Filipinos. For the nationalist writer, balikbayans seem to escape rather than confirm the hope that Filipinos would choose to "belong to this particular earth, this particular time"; that rather than leave this "benighted life," they would instead "do something about our benightedness." Not only are balikbayans akin to American colonizers; even more dismaying is their similarity to the collaborators of the past. Their departure amounts to a kind of betrayal of national particularity. Yet, the fact that they are merely enacting a historical role laid out before them makes them far more intimate with the people who they leave behind. Proof of this is the fact that balikbayans are envied. They are recognized for what they are. It isn't the case then that their interests diverge from the people, but rather they, rather than nationalist intellectuals, set the terms for the articulation of those interests. It is this negative insight that haunts Quiros' essay.


The "New Heroes"

By the early 1980s, changes in the global economy increased the demand for skilled and semi-skilled Filipino workers in many parts of the Middle East, Asia and Western Europe. Unlike the earlier groups of Filipino-Americans, this later group of workers were bound by temporary contracts to foreign employers in international locales. They came to be known in the Philippines by a particular name: OCW's or overseas contract workers.

Unlike Filipinos in the U.S. who generally tended to assimilate either as professional middle class suburbanites or, as in the case of second generation Filipino-Americans as ethnicized, hyphenated Americans,8 OCW's rarely ever expect to remain permanently in their host country. Forever consigned to positions of relative subservience and marginality by the terms of their contract and by virtue of their exclusion from the linguistic and religious communities of their employers, OCW's could only exist as sheer labor power, supplementary formations to the imagined communities of their bosses. Rather than ask for the rights of citizenship, as Filipino immigrants in North America are wont to do, OCW's tend instead to seek good earnings within maximally safe and minimally abusive environments. They are thus less interested in influencing legislation or the terms of political representation within the country of their employ-- they leave that up to the activist NGO's and Church organizations to which they have occasional recourse-- as they are with securing the material and symbolic means with which to maintain ties of reciprocity and obligatory exchanges with their extended kin groups at home.9

It is perhaps for this reason that OCW's often refer to their travels as a kind of "adventure," or in Tagalog as pakikipagsapalaran and pagbabakasakali.10 To go abroad is to find one's fortune (palad), as well as to take risks (magbakasakali). One seeks to convert the products of one's labor into "gifts" with which to endow one's kin at home and thereby gain their respect and recognition. At the same time, one also risks uncertain conditions and the prospect of becoming alienated abroad and at home.

Subject to the daily pressures and exploitative demands of an alien working environment and taxed by their efforts to negotiate with or, more commonly, evade the apparatus of a state hostile or indifferent to their situation, OCW's often relate lives of loneliness, deprivation and abuse. It isn't surprising then that they should be accorded a status distinct from that of balikbayans. Rather than regarded as tourists for whom the Philippines can only exist as a set of commodified objects or as failed versions of nationalist aspirations, OCW's are recognized as "national heroes." It was in fact President Cory Aquino, whose administration was major beneficiary of dollar remittances by OCW's, who first referred to these overseas Filipinos as heroes in a speech she gave in 1988 to a group of domestic helpers in Hongkong, telling them that, "Kayo po ang mga bagong bayani." (You are the new heroes).11

To understand how it is that OCW's rather than Filipino immigrants to North America came to be considered "heroes," it is necessary to ask about the ways by which heroism has historically been construed in the Philippines. As with all modern nation-states, the Philippines traces its official genealogy to a line of male founders, beginning with the "first Filipino," the Chinese-mestizo Jose Rizal. As the historian Reynaldo Ileto has convincingly demonstrated, much of the history of Filipino nationalism in the twentieth century has been articulated with reference as much to the purported life of Rizal as to his suffering and death at the hands of Spanish colonial rulers. Invested with a messianic aura, Rizal proved to be far more potent in his death than he was when alive. Numerous revolutionary groups-- from Andres Bonifacio's Katipunan to the peasant armies and rebel churches in the Southern Tagalog regions-- rallied around his name.12

Rizal's potency rested on his ability to evoke populist visions of Utopic communities held together by an ethos of mutual caring, the sharing of obligations (damayan) and the exchange of pity (awa). These notions were reminiscent of the great themes set by the widely popular narrative of Jesus Christ's passion translated into various vernaculars (collectively known as Pasyon) since the eighteenth century. Recognizing the power of Rizal's memory, Americans and the Filipino elite collaborated in monumentalizing his absence-- e.g., the erection in 1912 of the Rizal monument at the place of his execution-- as they sought to regulate both the sites and occasions of its commemoration.

It was this image of Rizal in conjunction with the suffering Christ-figures at once pathetic and prophetic- that was mobilized to explain the events that began with the assassination of Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino in 1983 and ended with the "People Power" revolt in 1986 that ousted the Marcoses from power. Ninoy and Rizal seemed to merge into a single narrative frame that harked back to the themes of the Pasyon: of innocent lives forced to undergo humiliation at the hands of alien forces; of unjustified deaths both shocking and public; of massive responses of pity and prayer that would, in mobilizing alternative communities of resistance, finally drive away the forces of oppression and pave the way for some kind of liberation. In place of the class-based militancy of the National Democratic Front and the Communist Party of the Philippines, this particular narrative drew on cross-class religiosity, positing a sacred hierarchy within which all other hierarchies would be subsumed and reordered.

Predicated on the logic of suffering and sacrifice, the political culture of "People Power" and the subsequent regime of Cory Aquino thrived on the notion of pity rather than equal rights to legitimize its claims to power and moral certainty. Where the Marcoses depicted themselves as secular modernists presiding over expansive and monumental national projects, Cory Aquino came across as the stoic widow given to prayer, repeatedly turning to her dead husband and her Savior in the midst of right-wing coup attempts and the rampages of anti-Communist death squads. On bended knees she asked only to be an instrument of a Higher will. Her obedience was the basis of her power. It was precisely during this moment in Philippine history that OCW's, increasingly made up by the mid-1980s of women going abroad as domestic helpers, "mail order" brides and sex workers came to be known as "the new heroes."


The Economy of Pity

By encoding OCW's as "national heroes," Aquino and her successor, Fidel Ramos, have sought to contain the anxieties attendant upon the flow of migrant labor, including the emotional distress over the separation of families and the everyday exploitation of migrants by job contractors, travel agents and foreign employers. Such conditions point to the inability of the state to provide for its people. Repeatedly, Philippine embassies abroad have come under criticism from OCW advocates, especially women's groups such as GABRIELA for their failure to safeguard the security of Filipinos abroad. Rather than become a source of national pride, embassies have become national embarrassments.

Such embarrassment (in Tagalog, hiya) periodically surfaces in the Philippine press which exists primarily to record the voices of the Filipino middle class and national elite. Anecdotes are retailed about the Europeans equating the word "Filipino" with domestic helpers, or Filipino tourists being asked by OCW's in Singapore shopping malls or Madrid parks if they, too, were on their day off. In these stories, Filipino elite as well as nationalists feel themselves incapable of maintaining the boundaries of class differences as they are associated with an ethnically marked group of service workers. Embarrassment arises from their inability to keep social lines from blurring (thereby rendering problematic their position as privileged representatives of the nation) and maintaining a distinction between "Filipino" as the name of a sovereign people and "Filipino" as the generic term for designating a subservient class dependent on foreign economies.


Endnotes:

  1. Karl Schoenberger, "Living Off Expatriate Labor,"Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1994, 1.
  2. Quoted in Schoenberger, ibid., p.A16.
  3. See Jonathan Okamura, "The Filipino American Diaspora: Sites of Space, Time and Ethnicity," in Gary Y. Okihiro, ed., Privileging Sites: Positions in Asian American Studies, Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, forthcoming; Su Cheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History, Boston: Twayne Publishing, 1991; and Yen Le Espiritu, "The Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, and Class: The Multiple Identities of Second-Generation Filipinos," Identities, v.1, no. 2, 1-25, and Filipino-American Lives, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995. See also the brilliant essay by Neferti X. Tadiar, "The Alimentary Struggle of Dogeaters," forthcoming in positions
  4. Among the "tons and tons of baggage" that Quiros refers to are large boxes commonly known as "balikbayan boxes" which have been staple features of balikbayan identity for the last twenty five years. Supplanting the discarded boxes of computer equipment, canned goods and Pampers diapers that were used in the 1970s and early 1980s to pack gifts (pasalubongs) that visiting immigrants felt obliged to bring back to their relatives in the Philippines, standardized cardboard boxes marked "balikbayan box" began to be manufactured by enterprising Filipino-American entrepreneurs in the mid-1980s. As with the found boxes used in an earlier period, balikbayan boxes conform to airline regulations on the maximum allowable size of checked-in baggage. Large enough to contain the quantities and variety of pasalubongs, balikbayan boxes are also cheap and disposable alternatives to more costly suitcases.
          Such boxes are the material evidence of immigrant success as much as they are symbolic of the promise of immigration itself. Thus do they constitute the materialization of a desire realizable only outside of the nation, yet recognizable only within its borders. The balikbayan box is thus a kind of social hieroglyph indexing a Filipino-American immigrant social formation predicated on the improvisation and subsequent standardization of a hybrid "type": a subject at once neo-colonial and national. I thank Rudy and Cecile Martija, Bayani Rafael and Rosemary Rafael for shedding light on the matter of balikbayan boxes.
  5. Conrado de Quiros, "Bracing for Balikbayans," in Flowers from the Rubble, Pasig, Metro Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 1990, 139-141. All references to this text will appear in the main body of the essay.
  6. See Constantino for classic formulation of this, Mis-Education of the Filipino, Manila: 1966.
  7. For discussions of the historical importance of walang hiya see Reynaldo Ileto, Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Uprisings in the Philippines, 1840-1940, Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 1980; Vicente L. Rafael, Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Society Under Early Spanish Rule, Durham: Duke University Pres, 1993.
  8. See Yen Espiritu, "the Intersection of Race, Ethnicity, and Class: The Multiple Identities of Second-Generation Filipinos," in Identities, v.1, no.2, 1994, 1-25 for a lucid account of the cultural transformations of "Filipino-ness" in late twentieth century U.S.
  9. See for example the riveting accounts of OCW's in Japan in Rey Ventura, Underground in Japan, London: Jonathan Cape, 1992 and Maria Rosario P. Ballescas, Filipino Entertainers in Japan: An Introduction, Quezon City: The Foundation for Nationalist Studies, 1992. Also instructive are the collected letters from OCW's in Justino Dormiendo, Nagmamahal, Flor: Mga Liham Mula sa Mga OCW, Pasig: Anvil Publishing, 1995.
          See also The Labor Trade: Filipino Migrant Workers Around the World, London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1987; and Jane Margold, "Narratives of Masculinity and Transnational Migration: Filipino Workers in the Middle East," in Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, ed. by Aihwa Ong and Michael Peletz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 274-298.
  10. See for example the letters of OCW's in Justino Dormiendo, Nagmamahal, Flor: Mga Sulat Mula sa OCW, Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc., 1995.
  11. Jo-Ann Maglipon, "DH in HK," in Primed: Selected Stories, 1972-1992, Pasig, Metro Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1993, 45-53.
  12. See Reynaldo Ileto, "Rizal and the Underside of Philippine History," in David Wyatt and Alexander Woodside, editors, Moral Order and The Question of Change: Essays on Southeast Asian Thought, New Haven: Yale Southeast Asia Program Series, 1982, 274-337; "Tagalog Poetry and the Perception of the Past in the War Against Spain," in Perceptions of the Past in Southeast Asia, ed. by David Marr and Anthony Reid, Singapore: Heineman, 1979, 374-400; "The Unfinished Revolution in Philippine Political Discourse," in Tonan Ajia Kenkyu, (Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto), v.31, n.1, June 1993, 62-82; "The Past in the Present Crisis," in The Philippines After Marcos, ed. by Ron May and Francisco Nemenzo, London: Croom Helm, 1985, 7-16; "Orators and the Crowd: Philippine Independence Politics, 1910-1941," in Reappraising an Empire, ed. by Peter Stanley, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984, 85-114; and his book Pasyon and Revolution.
Click here to download the full article "Your Grief Is Our Gossip: Overseas Filipinos and Other Spectral Presences" by Vicente L. Rafael which appeared in Public Culture, 9: 2 (Spring 1997).

Rafael teaches at the Department of Communication, University of California at San Diego. He has recently edited Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures, (Philadelphia, 1995) and is the author of Contracting Colonialism (Durham, 1993) as well as several other essays on Philippine political culture.

To cite:
Rafael, Vicente L. "Ugly Balikbayans and Heroic OCWs" in Hector Santos, ed., Philippine History and Culture Series; at http://www.bibingka.com/phg/balikbayan/. US, 19 June 1997.

PHGLA Logo The Philippine History Group of Los Angeles invites you to send your comments to the author, Vicente L. Rafael, or the editor of this Philippine History and Culture Series, Hector Santos.

Return to Articles Menu.