Essay | Wretched

As a child, when I found out that the Philippines was a former colony of the United States, my first thought was, "Cool." They don't teach you what colony means or what colonialism is in school. Your frame of reference is the American Revolution - you think it means a distant governorship, maybe some taxes charged, but otherwise, everything remains unmolested. Colonialism doesn't mean violence, it doesn't mean the manipulation and systematic molding of people. In school, "colony" is just an empty term meaning, "part of."

So it was "cool." Cool, because it meant I wasn't really an Other anymore. It meant that I didn't have to represent this strange, foreign outside image and that I fit in to the mainstream like everyone else. That I should be accepted as one of them. I was glad. I felt normal.

This was the outcome of a one hundred year plan. The stage is set like this: There was a random smattering of islands in Southeast Asia. Seven thousand, give or take, populated with different peoples, different ethnic groups, different languages and tribes and religions. Spanish explorer Magellan tries to sail across the world, but crashes into one of the islands and gets a dagger the liver for his trouble. Trade goes through with the Chinese, with Muslims, with their neighbors, and various parts of the island show the influence.

Fast forward. A guy (well, a king) named Philip sees thousands of islands and over 70 different languages and decides to draw a border around all of them and call them his own. With no regard for their own ethnic borders and unique culture, the Spanish forced the creation of a single nation out of many. King Philip decides to name the nation, and thus the people, after himself. Their message was Catholicism. The fever caught on everywhere except in the very north and the very south.

Fast forward, again, this time roughly 500 years. The people have taken the name Pilipino, or Filipino, derived from Philip, or Felipe. They finally fight off the colonizers. A revolutionary and polymath named Jose Rizal uses the term Pilipino as a personal identity, to much controversy. In some ways, it's an inspiring call to unity, a call for one people with the singular purpose of fighting off their oppressors. In other ways, it's an acceptance of the colonialist structure forced upon them.

The waning power of Spain is worried. They hand over the rebelling islands to a rising power: The United States. At this point in history, power means obvious domination over other nations. It sets up a hierarchy of "greater" and "lesser" people. A short war is enacted over a short time span. There's a perception that this was a face-saving farce, that the few casualties were accidents, but the resulting narrative is the same. Tto the world it looks like the US, the great liberator, fought off the strong Spanish to free the Cubans and the Filipinos.

Freedom was promised, because promises are easy. What followed was a national debate that raged across oceans and no one seems to remember it anymore. It was America's great question of benevolent warmaking, before Vietnam, before Iraq. At the turn of the century, the Philippines was still a colony, but this time under America. Their message was capitalism. The argument in favor of keeping the Philippines under American heels was this: They are a savage people, uncivilized, incapable of self-governance. They do not fight in a line with uniforms as we do. They hide in mountains and trees and kill us when we're not ready. It was standard dehumanization to make killing seem like an inconvenient side effect, to make conquest an act of charity.

The Philippines had a population of about seven million, and the Americans were at war with all of them. They weren't all fighting for the same thing. The resistance we are most familiar with, the Andres Bonifacios and Emilio Aguinaldos, were more or less self-appointed faces of the resistance. They enforced the same idea of a singular nation that the Spanish enforced so many years ago. Because the Moro in the south didn't necessarily want to be part of the Philippines. They identified and yearned for a closer identification with the Arab world where their religion took root. The indigenous in the northern mountains remained untouched, resistant to both the Americans and the Filipinos. The revolution had many sides.

So what do you when you're at war with an entire population? For the Americans, the answer was depopulation. They went into Batangas and they pillaged and burned without remorse. They killed families during weddings, reduced villages to ash, murdered women and children in their homes. Whenever they found one of their own killed by bolo knife, they amped up the violence. They used the water cure to torture, they killed everyone in Samar over the age of ten. They went through a lot of trouble to make sure there was suffering.

They had a capitalist plan: With the Philippines, you would have a market for to unload your goods as well as a source of resources. But perhaps more importantly, it was a good stepping stone and base of operations to the Pacific and to Asia. Whether it's military operations or access to the market of China, the Philippines was part of that bigger plan.

But in order to make a country go along with your whims like that, you can't just dominate them and expect them to comply. They have to be manipulated, trained, and coerced. Their culture has to be molded. So they did it, and with stunning success. First they brought in American teachers on the USS Thomas to teach American values and history to the uncivilized. Key among this re-education was the enforcement of English. It was positioned as the universal language to facilitate inter-ethnic dialogue. All other languages were punished or killed off, and more are still dying today.

There's this document that records senate hearings. If you have a government publications section in your library, you can probably find it. Senate session number 57, document number 331. It's a 3,000 page long transcipt of Senators talking about the war, information tables about war crimes and reports, and even a few letters and journals. It spans three books.

In it, Senator Carmack makes their plan clear: "Would it be best to uneducate them in their language and impose upon them another one?" (Vol. 1, 694) In a moment of historical irony, Apolinario Mabini of the Philippines remarks, "No Filipino would seek employment or social distinction in the United States, only concerned with how they are treated in the archipelago," (Vol. 2, 877) as a way to assuage fears that the primitive Filipinos might start hanging out in pure, white America. Grover Flint testifies to at least 20 cases of water torture on Filipinos. (Vol. 2, 1765-1767) (There are charges of wartime atrocities including rape, with varying degrees of punishments filling up 30 pages of tables (Vol. 3, 2070 - 2096). Entire cities were burned to the ground, with populations ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 (Vol. 3, 2328).

It is a wholly remarkable, unsettling document. By conservative estimates, one million Filipinos died. That's one in seven people on the islands. That's why some call it genocide - because clear intent to exterminate a group doesn't really matter when the results are so gruesome. Native Americans understand that the their identity is scarred by genocidal violence. Black Americans understand that their identity is rooted in enslavement. Filipino Americans barely know there was a war for self-determination. They begin with farm workers in California, not the scorched earth campaigns in the Philippines.

But so what, right? Bad things happen in the past. Things are better now, let the past be past, let's all get over it and move on to the bright new future in America?

But that was part of the plan, too. It's relevant today because that's exactly how they wanted us to end up. If they killed enough Filipinos, only the ones that like us will be left. They wanted to replace their langauges, to define their culture, to homogenize the people and to make them subordinates to the United States. The values have been engrained into the cultural psyche: America as the savior, as the protective older brother, as a prize to obtain through westernization, modernization and disavowal of history. Not as an oppressor or a deceiver or even a former enemy.

They wanted our languages dead, and sure enough, they're all being replaced by English and Filipino, the official Tagalog-like amalgam of languages brought about in the 80's. They wanted us to adore them, and sure enough, July 4 is Philippine-American friendship day. All is not just forgiven, but completely forgotten. Now people are grateful. "Thank you," the culture seems to say, "for the opportunity to be colonized by you, as we now have the comforts of white modernity, for we could not have achieved it without your aggressive depopulation. Thank you."

Now, the Philippines is the nation builder, inheriting the position of oppressor from the United States. Now they work to subordinate the Moro south and pacify the indigenous north. The Filipinos, abroad and at home, work daily to manufacture a unifying culture built from a thousand pieces that don't really fit. A singular culture from a country that wasn't going to exist in the first place.

It's tall order, but give it a few hundred years. Soon everyone will forget that. Soon people will smile and assume all these dances and heroes and colors are authentic. Soon people will assimilate to the idea of Philippine culture that has been manufactured out of colonialism as a means of control and pacification and giving an illusion of self-determination. Because even though the corporations of foreign nations still control the country and perpetuate poverty, you can still feel like you own the country if you have a national dance.

Today, the spoils of the war look like this:  a complicated diverse and contradictory Filipino people grow up in an extreme class divide that presents America as the benevolent older brother. They move to America where the money is better, and send the money back to the family that got left behind. They start families and raise kids and hope for their success. Because success means English, America and forgetting the anchor that is the Philippines or how any of this even started in the first place.

The end result is a generation of young people who have several options: To ignore the perplexing nature of their ethnicity completely and not really identify as Filipino, or even anything ethnic. Or, they can wholly and blindly embrace the idea of culture as it has been artifically created over a hundred years to fill that void created by cultural genocide and conditioning. A third option exists, but it is a cold, vacant, and broken state. The only thing it has in its favor is truth.

We can understand that these are all happy illusions from a broken culture and violent history, but this understanding is all we really have. We were born from a condition of violence, and as a result, the truth is that there is no authenticity, no saving, and no solution. There is no decolonization, because the very nature of colonialism leaves an indelible mark. We're as blank as slates get, and while that thought leaves me on the outside once again, maybe it's better out here. Identities are soft, and we've never really had a home at all.