In her 2002 State of the Nation Address, Philippine president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo pronounced, “As a result of our decisive action after September 11, the Philippines is now a recognized player in world affairs. The president of the Philippines was the first head of government to emphasize the interconnection between the war against terrorism and the war against poverty. Now, nations large and small now embrace this interconnection. We have gained powerful allies in our domestic war against terrorism. I am certain that our increased international visibility will continue generating capital inflows for the Philippines.”1
In Macapagal-Arroyo’s terms, the Philippine government’s “decisive action” to support the US-led global “war on terror” established an important “interconnection” between the battle against terrorism and the economic strength of the Philippines. For Macapagal-Arroyo, this dual-pronged “war against terrorism” and “war against poverty” would generate “capital inflows” for the Philippines. She did not mention—aside from her assurance of “increased international visibility”—the ways that connection would be made. In this aspirational presentation of national success, she delineated the imagined “we” from the enemies of the state against whom these wars are waged. By presenting terror and poverty as two sides of the same coin of national threat, she constructed the external figure of the terrorist and the internal figure of the poor as the necessary objects of state-sanctioned violence. Moreover, by the time Macapagal-Arroyo delivered her address, more than one million Filipinos worked and lived outside the nation.2 More insidious than a casual oversight, Macapagal-Arroyo’s elision of the materiality of Filipina labor in particular presented the state and not the workers as the guarantor of national sovereignty, economic prosperity, and liberal freedom. In doing so, she obfuscated the value and creative energies of Filipina work—what Neferti Tadiar has described as “the creative, libidinal forces that produce the world . . . the living aspect, an aspect which nationalist accounts of the crisis of Philippine culture as a product of the entry of Filipinas in the world market ignore in their preferred focus on exchange.”3
In Mia Alvar’s short story “Esmeralda,” Filipina reproductive labor is the work that connects terror and capital. The titular character of the story is a Filipina domestic worker in New York City who cleans homes during the day and World Trade Center offices at night. Narrated in the second-person voice, the story veers between memories of Esmeralda’s life in an unnamed province in the Philippines, her earliest days in the United States, and the present circumstances of her work in the city. Esmeralda eventually meets and begins an affair with John, a man whose sick wife remains in the hospital and whose office she cleans. The narrative begins on the morning of September 11, 2001, and follows Esmeralda as she races to ground zero to search for John after two planes have crashed into the World Trade Center.
The short story is part of Alvar’s 2015 short story collection In the Country, which explores the routes of Filipino labor migrants. More than an allegory for the subjugation of the migrant, the collection captures the regrets, longings, complicities, and futures that characterize migrant lives.4 Alvar, whose own migratory pathways between the Philippines, Bahrain, and the United States have informed her writing, explains that “the histories of record and the messier private dramas people contend with every day feels as central as the geographical settings and emigrant narratives. So many characters in the book are contending not only with that gap but also with how attractive the official version can be, how much simpler and easier it is to label people saints or heroes or villains than to deal with the messy particulars.”5 The collection challenges “the histories of record” through its exploration of the boundaries that define place and subjectivity, both of which fail to contain the “messy particulars” of migrant experiences. Throughout the collection, Filipino migrant subjectivity—or Filipino displacement as a mode of being—explores the Filipino’s position within the ongoing struggle between national sovereignty and globalization.
I turn to “Esmeralda” in this article to argue that overlapping Philippine and US governmentalities simplify the complexity of Filipino subjectivity into cohesive forms of recognition that adhere to the multistate programs that condemn state-defined terror and advance war.6 Focusing on the story’s treatment of language, memory, intimacy, and affiliation, I argue that Alvar critically disembodies Filipino migrant subjectivity from Filipina reproductive labor as a way to reframe the political and discursive bounds that define place, politics, and personhood. Esmeralda’s domestic and affective work is the living labor of reproduction as well as the creative energy expended to illuminate the conjunctions and disjunctures that characterize the historical present. In this way, I contend that the story situates Filipina reproductive labor as a genealogy of multistate collaboration that reimagines relations across national borders and neoliberal institutions in order to challenge the colonial discourses and geopolitics of the global “war on terror.”
Mistranslation and Other Modes of Being
In “Esmeralda,” Alvar treats subjectivity as a nexus of political and discursive struggle between postindependence Philippine sovereignty and the mechanics of late twentieth-century globalization. Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos’s paradigm of nationalism in the 1970s, in particular, articulated the realization of sovereignty through the rehabilitation of the Filipino who, he argued, languished in the shadows of modernity.7 In much Filipino and Filipino American scholarship, the quandary of subjectivity has served as an arena for making sense of the Filipino American historical experience. For example, Renato Constantino’s interrogation of the “miseducation of the Filipino” warned that the Filipino functioned as a composite of decades of colonial education.8 Dylan Rodriguez describes the Filipino as an “ontological vessel rather than a given identity category . . . a social identity constituted by the racial, gender, sexual, and nationalist logics of a Philippine modernity that is itself paradigmatically formed by a genocidal American racial colonialist modernity.”9 Neferti Tadiar writes that “Filipina subjectivity consists of modes of experience—that is, modes of understanding, feeling, and relating—through which women make themselves into Filipinas.”10 And in his study of a Filipino American “literature of exile,” Oscar Campomanes asks, “What are the intersections between historical experience and literary history, between subjection and subject positions?”11
Following these provocations, I insist that Filipina labor threads historical experience and literary history, subjection, and subject position. Specifically, Alvar’s treatment of subjectivity decenters Filipinoness as a primary mode of identification to draw attention to other modalities of life-making that highlight the intricacies of colonial and state violence and reimagine ontologies for other worlds. Tadiar has noted that this “social reproduction . . . is neither tethered to nor constrained by continuity, succession, lineage, or consistency of sociality as subject.”12 It instead “consists of those generative associations and acts, social capacities and aspirations, agencies of imagination and practice, that can also act in fugitive, dispersive, and insurgent fashion.”13 For Campomanes, it is precisely these complex renditions of Filipino identity that reveal “the institution of creative genealogies, mythic reinterpretations of colonial history, and reevaluations of the linguistic and cultural losses caused by colonialism.”14 For both Tadiar and Campomanes, the recognition of subjectivity is not an end in itself but instead a modality for considering the colonial and postcolonial national paradigms that advance subjection as a nexus of multistate power. The literary makes possible other modes of being borne from the contradictions of this power.
Indeed, the quandary of Filipino subjectivity has facilitated literary expressions that trace the emergence of forms of national sovereignty that are the residues of colonialism.15 The postcolonial novel and its protagonist, as Frederic Jameson theorized, often articulate the postcolonial condition: the literary hero embodies the national story to legitimize the formation of the nation and its attendant canon.16 Alvar’s story, however, adopts a different function in relation to the nation. In it, Filipino subjectivity serves not to legitimize the nation but rather to articulate its discontents, to describe in precise terms the ways that the nation fails to comprehend and hold the movements and complexities of Filipino life. For example, rather than uphold Filipino subjectivity as a mode of national recognition, the interplay between Esmeralda’s social visibility and invisibility throughout the story illuminates the contradictions inherent in the position of Filipina workers within the global economy.
In the story, Esmeralda experiences several moments of mistranslation and disconnect: she mistakes “closeness” for proximity, pauses at the accusation that she is “stealing time” (“how strange to imagine you could hold minutes in your hand and hide them in your pocket”),17 fails to understand the insult that people outside of the city do not walk and instead “live in their cars,” and cannot distinguish the difference between “tall” and “high.” Esmeralda’s misinterpretation of these idiomatic phrases blunts the force of their meanings, illustrating the failure of language’s transmission. Rather than focus on Esmeralda’s inability to understand, this failure explores the politics of recognition and labor instead. It reveals the parts and processes that make possible the culture behind the language. No longer a simple transaction, Esmeralda’s misunderstanding invokes another set of questions: How does migrant labor create intimacies across borders? To whom does time belong? And how can one steal it if it belongs to no one? The answers to such questions point to the ways that labor generates value: it is migrant work that establishes intimacy, the global capitalist market that constructs time, and the labor of some that produces capital and leisure for others. Throughout the story, mistranslation characterizes Esmeralda’s relationship to her employers. Such dissonance challenges the state’s simple saturation of the immigrant within dominant discourses of US multicultural inclusion and global citizenship.
The Philippines’ system of labor export makes Esmeralda legible within the parameters of globalization. This system is what Robyn Rodriguez describes as the Philippines’ “labor brokerage state,” which “shapes the orientation of Philippine officials and government agencies toward overseas employment [and] reveals the extent to which Philippine citizens have become reduced to mere commodities to be bartered and traded globally.”18 For nineteen years, “you [Esmeralda] pray by heart the way that you plow a field of soil, the way you push across a floor. One foot before the other.”19 This work has “given you a bad back, bad knees, and bad feet.”20 It is the specificity of this work that Anna Romina Guevarra terms “vulnerabilities,” which delineate “unregulated work hours and duties, close surveillance from employers, and debt . . . incurred to various actors in order to pay for numerous overseas employment processing fees, including recruitment agency and training fees.”21 Meanwhile, as an undocumented worker in the United States, Esmeralda has “cleaned for other people, one-time deals—after a party, or before somebody sells or rents out their apartment, or as a gift from one friend to another—never saying no to an assignment.”
When Esmeralda becomes a “registered alien,” she finds that she remains unprotected from the precarity that has long characterized her labor in the United States. Esmeralda’s green card functions not as an end but as a medium by which to facilitate the continuation of her work. In other words, reproductive labor exceeds the limits of legality even as migrant workers themselves are punished for doing so. While the mandates that govern the transnational exchange of migrant labor function through the logic of flexibility, workers themselves are disciplined for crossing borders and breaching the limits of national jurisdiction. The realities of detention, conviction, and execution of Filipinas like Sarah Balabagan in the United Arab Emirates, Flor Contemplacion in Singapore, and Mary Jane Veloso in Indonesia illustrate the paradoxical terms that constitute Filipina lives within the global economy and make clear the “distinction between life worth living, that is, life with the capacity to yield value as living labor, and life worth expending, that is, life with the capacity to yield value as disposable existence.”22
Filipino Subjectivity, National Sovereignty, and the US “War on Terror”
The story’s treatment of memory and time insists upon an interrogation of the nineteen years during which Esmeralda has lived in New York City. Esmeralda recalls the year 1982 as the moment of her departure from the Philippines to the United States, pinpointing both the authoritarian and immediate postauthoritarian period in the Philippines as the era that facilitated her migration. Ferdinand Marcos reigned over the archipelagic nation for twenty-one years from 1965 to 1986. Ascending to the presidency in 1986 in the wake of the People Power Revolution that toppled Marcos, the Corazon Aquino presidency concerned itself with reversing the policies of the authoritarian regime and returning the nation to a system of republican democracy. The Aquino administration enacted a new constitution in 1987, marking a historical rupture between the dictatorship and the “return” to democratic order. In her speech on the new constitution, Aquino explained that the “work of recovery will still be long and hard; the damage we inherited was that great. There can be no shortcuts. No instant solutions. No manna from heaven, no Marshall plan, mini or maxi. We shall rise only as high as our feet will take us up the steps that we must build with our own hands.”23
The Aquino administration’s liberal reforms, however departing from the strongman policies of Marcos’s regime, succeeded not in the eradication of Marcos’s legacy but in the reorganization of Marcosian policies into different forms. While Marcos, in the 1970s, established the parameters for the construction of a labor export program (including the passage of the Labor Code of 1974, which formally defined migrant workers as a distinct category), the Aquino administration solidified the program, intensifying the export of Filipino migrant labor to the rest of the world.24 Under the direction of new president Fidel Ramos in 1992, US military operations at its bases in the Philippines officially closed. For this reason, the period is often heralded as the rise of a newly unencumbered Philippine nation and the formation of different political and economic partnerships based not on colonial subjection but on a rearticulated Philippine sovereignty within a new global order defined by the end of the Cold War.25
Under neocolonial and neoliberal restructuring, the US government continued to impinge upon Philippine independence through shared military programs invested in the maintenance of counterinsurgency in the archipelago and geopolitical control in Asia and the Pacific Islands. The formation of Balikatan (literally, “side by side”) training exercises continued Philippine-US military endeavors.26 This new national sovereignty, as well as the US partnership that undergirded it, operated through a masculinized discourse of postcoloniality. This is to say that the terms and conditions of this sovereignty materialized as the ongoing excision of a Filipino populace from the bounds of the nation itself. As Roland B. Tolentino, Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, and others have lucidly argued, Philippine sovereignty under the terms of neoliberalism constructed a political economy that depended precisely upon the feminization of Filipino labor within the nation and in conjunction with the increased export of Filipina domestic and service workers abroad.27 While employers in the United States, Canada, Italy, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Dubai employ Filipina migrants as domestic workers and caregivers, sex workers also labor in and around military bases in the Philippines that, while no longer under the authority of the United States, continue to service Philippine-US military programs.28
Esmeralda’s narrative juxtaposes 1982 with 2001, navigating nearly two decades worth of postauthoritarian liberal reform in the Philippines. In the wake of September 11, 2001, Macapagal-Arroyo promised US president George W. Bush the Philippines’ unfailing commitment to the global “war on terror.” In his analysis of Bush’s post–September 11 address to the Philippine Congress, Reynaldo C. Ileto interrogates the inextricability of US war and Philippine national historiography. Ileto writes that the “image of a joint struggle . . . rests uncomfortably on the historical residues of a conflict that the U.S. colonial state, and to some extent its Filipino offspring, have sought to expunge from the collective memory.”29 For Ileto, the “special relationship” between the Philippines and the United States is organized by a historical narrative that obfuscates the continuity of US colonial war in the Philippines as well as the neocolonial occupation that followed national independence. Bush’s employment of the Philippines—the United States’ longest ally in Asia—in the “war on terror” furthered the US military deployment of the archipelago as an arm of US imperialist programs. Moreover, as Macapagal-Arroyo promised Philippine support for Bush’s antiterror campaigns, she simultaneously celebrated the contributions of overseas migrant workers as bagong bayani (new national heroes).
Aquino had previously used the term bagong bayani during her administration to describe the Filipino workers whose remittances had become imperative to the function of the Philippine economy. Here, Macapagal-Arroyo recuperates and weaponizes Aquino’s postauthoritarian platform for a new political moment to reconfigure these national heroes as the vehicles by which the Philippines might participate in the global “war on terror.” Declaring national sovereignty through both an adherence to US empire and a celebration of Filipino labor migrants, Macapagal-Arroyo effectively enlisted these heroes in the service of war. The historical obfuscation that Ileto identifies also establishes the parameters of recognition for Filipino labor migrants, where the forgetting of colonial war makes possible the remembering of the bagong bayani.
Macapagal-Arroyo’s unsurprisingly aggressive allegiance to the “war on terror” is rooted in the Philippines’ own continuous war against declared insurgents at home. Her commitment to battle terror was a familiar refrain, continuing a half-century war against leftists, radicals, and communists as well as Muslim and Indigenous peoples within the archipelago. Macapagal-Arroyo’s promise, however, enlivened a cold war paradigm that strived to reconsolidate the nation around a politics of sovereignty set against minoritized people in the Philippines. During the Marcos presidency, the regime advanced a national assault on the Moros as part of a counterinsurgency campaign in Mindanao. The assault on “Islamic fundamentalism” in the Philippines often occurred alongside programs for development and modernization, especially in the regime’s efforts to lay claim to the land. Gladys Nubla has argued that “the Moro identity has historically been set against Philippine national identity, socially, politically, and culturally, and it could be argued that Philippine nationalism was actually founded on this very marginalization, exclusion, and criminalization of Muslim and Indigenous peoples.”30 The state’s commitment to the systematization of labor export, as well as its heralding of overseas Filipino workers as national heroes, emerged in contradistinction to the conceptualization of Moros outside the parameters of national belonging and as enemies of the state. Even in spite of this discursive framing, both the overseas Filipino worker and the radical Moro insurgent are rendered in excess of the nation. The former is usurped within the framework of national citizenship yet lies undeniably outside its geographic borders, and the latter is rendered incommensurable within the terms of national culture and identity even as the insurgent lies within the literal bounds of the nation. Both excessive yet integral to the nation, each plays a distinct role in legitimizing state politics and policies.
In her 2002 national address, Macapagal-Arroyo lauded her own role in resolving the nation’s “immediate crises” of terror and poverty, where the latter was “aggravated by the tensions generated by the global war against terrorism.”31 She positioned the success of the “war on terror” as the necessary precursor for a victory against poverty: “We cannot afford to lose. . . . For what is at stake is our country as a viable proposition in the world economy. And we must be viable if we are to win the most fundamental war, the war against poverty.”32 As Macapagal-Arroyo eagerly consented to the terms of the new global consensus, she absented the Filipino migrant worker from the discourse of global exchange and alliance. The worker is at once celebrated and obfuscated, responsible for accumulating the overseas remittances that buttress the national economy amid the president’s declared war against poverty and elided by a speech about national progress. In other words, the heroism that outlined the state’s provocation of the bagong bayani also determined her movement in and out of recognition within this globality.
The global “war on terror” presents a different frame for conceptualizing the ways that Filipino labor migrants inhabit the overlapping conditions of recognition and precarity as they navigate the material and discursive bounds of Philippine and US borders.33 In the United States, the “war on terror” reasserted the urgency of a global alliance while also fortifying the borders of the national security state. Within this interplay between cooperation and eradication, migrant workers straddle the line between visibility and invisibility, between recognition and deportation, according to the terms of this war. A. Naomi Paik describes the neoliberal criminalization of migrants as part of the policies and ideologies by which “the state deals with the fallout of its organized abandonment of the social good (like the dismantling of the welfare state) by deploying law-and-order tactics to discipline those left behind and suppress those who resist widening inequalities.”34 Indeed, the paradox of neoliberalism under war emerges in the overdetermination of the migrant worker as both a global commodity within the free market as well as a threat to the discourses of racial multiculturalism.35 Rodriguez writes that “there is something quintessentially neoliberal about labor brokerage as a technology of government. It requires the responsibilization of Philippine citizens who are to directly bear the costs of neoliberal restructuring as their remittances go to debt servicing.”36
In the story, Esmeralda’s transition from undocumented worker to registered alien expresses this move in and out of national and global recognition and legibility. Philippine-US collaborations between the Macapagal-Arroyo and Bush administrations, for instance, structure Esmeralda’s recognition as a good immigrant according to the terms of national development and US multiculturalism. Yet numerous accounts of Filipino labor migrants in the United States deported to the Philippines in the wake of September 11, 2001, articulate the complexities of this contradiction: rendered both visible and invisible within this new global arrangement, the state of emergency defined by the “war on terror” makes clear the failure of the bagong bayani narrative to materialize the kind of Philippine sovereignty asserted by Macapagal-Arroyo.37 Paik describes this contradiction as a process of “enfranchis[ing] undocumented people” and “also la[ying] the groundwork on which a massive detention and expulsion infrastructure has been built.”38
Overseas Filipino workers are often positioned in this way, in between multistate conflicts as the incommensurable figures of global war. The Gulf War, for example, exposed the vulnerabilities of overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East, resulting in the repatriation of nearly thirty thousand Filipinos from Kuwait and Iraq.39 As the global “war on terror” reframed the terms and urgencies of the political present by reasserting an American exceptionalism through the Manichean discourse of us versus them, Washington and Malacañang folded overseas Filipino workers into this framework. Their dislocation rendered them illegible between the figure of the patriot and the terrorist. At the same time, Esmeralda’s legibility as such is also predicated upon the illegibility of other migrant communities, especially those migrating from nations defined as the post-9/11/2001 enemies of the United States.40
Global Labor, US Racialization, and Undocumented Affiliations
During one of Esmeralda’s shifts in John’s office, John asks Esmeralda about her origins. When she confirms to him that she is Filipina, he excitedly responds that his guess was right because his wife’s nurses are also Filipina. John’s recognition of Esmeralda is tied explicitly to her labor; her work conjures a familiarity to him, a form of recognition that marks the legibility of migrant workers within the discourses of US raciality. Using his familiarity with Filipina medical care work as his point of reference, John situates Esmeralda within time and place, eliminating confusion and ambivalence by geographically emplacing her. As Martin Manalansan has written, such a question is often “posed to the foreigner, the non-citizen, the queer. It is a question that comes from a power-laden state-centered vantage that demands a fixed reference, origin, or provenance from anyone seeking recognition.”41
Reproductive labor positions Esmeralda as distinctly Filipina, and it is this work that structures intimacies between Filipinas and the rest of the world; it is this work that organizes Filipina recognition within global capitalism. This dual recognition of overseas Filipina workers by the Philippine state, on the one hand, and the rest of the world, on the other, constitutes the Filipino labor migrant’s possibility. Conversely, the relationship between Esmeralda and John is multifaceted: their intimacy allows Esmeralda to untether herself from past attachments. This relationship, according to Alvar, operates as “the flip side of all my migrant narratives about alienation and estrangement: the fact that sometimes unlikely connections are forged between strangers thrown together in a strange place.”42 John “was the closest [she] had ever come to an addiction,” a relationship that paused, if even for a little while, the daily routine of her work and interrupted an obligation defined by the duty and indebtedness that often characterizes Filipino labor migrant sensibilities.43 Moving away from a responsibility to others that has constituted her self, Esmeralda’s desire for John allows her to gesture toward an each other. This relationship of mutual care allows Esmeralda to, if only momentarily, forego her work for her desire.
This is to argue that while John’s recognition of Esmeralda as Filipina illustrates the distinct global position of Filipinas, Esmeralda also travels between places to form other relations in this movement. Esmeralda reminisces about her arrival to the city when the “Guzman family brought you with them from Manila to New York, only to send you back. . . . She handed you a one-way ticket back to Manila and the number of a good family there who needed a maid.”44 Refusing the one-way ticket back to Manila and instead, “[finding] a way to stay,” Esmeralda refuses both the unidirectional telos of the assimilationist US immigrant narrative as well as the legal mandate to leave. This treatment of migrancy unsettles what Eithne Luibhéid describes as the US state “attempt to transform legally admitted immigrants into ‘good’ subjects of neoliberal capitalist democracy.”45 Instead, her undocumented status weaves together other routes and affiliations that redraw the borders of a neoliberal geopolitics as well as the boundaries of migrant subjectivities mandated by those politics. Esmeralda’s move in and out of recognition and legibility establishes another relation that challenges the origin of place and rejects the boundaries of location in order to draw into the frame other people, places, and times. To that end, it makes visible the lines and demarcations that organize the period of neoliberalism and terror.
As Esmeralda races to ground zero, she hears chatter all around her. While she cannot understand the conversations, she “know[s] some words in Spanish: you know trabajar and nunca and mañana.”46 These words for work, never, and tomorrow mark an affiliation between Filipina and Latinx migrant communities in New York City. This mutual understanding of work, never, and tomorrow bring together a collective of migrant workers, threaded together by a shared experience of both temporary and precarious work as well as an elision from the protections of US citizenship.47 Esmeralda then hears the phrases la segunda torre, toro avion, and ocurrio otra vez.48 These truncated statements, left untranslated for the reader, narrate global war through the suspended symbols of the tower and the plane. This reconceptualization of global catastrophe through both linguistic defamiliarization (for the non-Spanish-speaking reader) and synecdoche reorganizes the coalitions of global war to center instead the lives of migrant workers and the forms of reproductive labor that sustain the programs of war. In other words, this portion of the story deconstructs the “war on terror” not as a defensive foreign policy platform but as a vehicle for advancing an imperialist geopolitics in the Middle East, North Africa, and West and South Asia that also strengthens the militarization of the US-Mexico border and neocolonial operations in the Philippines.
In her analysis of the ways that the “war on terror” advanced new mechanisms for policing citizenship, Alicia Schmidt Camacho explains that “the vigilante demand to declare the Mexico-U.S. boundary a new front in the war on terror brought the protocols of U.S. imperialism full circle after 2001” and that “the ideologies and practices of national defense (such as preemptive war) were in part the products of the nation’s historical interventions in Latin America.”49 Following Schmidt Camacho, these passing moments in Esmeralda’s sprint to ground zero broaden the frame of US war to reveal its historical ties to an early twentieth-century politics of empire, which established the shape and scope of US global ascendancy. The recognition of Filipino and Latinx labor migrants within the discourses of globalization obfuscates the historical circuits that ignited their migration. They are the historical antecedents of the targeted Muslim and Arab casualties of war in the global “war on terror.”50
Up until this point in the story, Esmeralda’s thought process is entirely in English. English speaks to both the residues of colonial instruction in the Philippines as well as the language of global market exchange, a vehicle of global capitalist integration. The language of migrancy presented above, on the other hand, interrupts the narrative here to remind Esmeralda “of carabao back home, who’d snort and stamp and know to head inland before a storm.”51 Such literary gestures chart other geopolitical connections that, as Tadiar writes, serve to “differentiate Filipino social formations from and put them in relation with other peoples in struggle . . . Afghanis, Iraqis, Palestinians.”52 These affiliations not only weave Esmeralda in and out of the city and home but also warn of a future to come. This articulation of danger, this storm, is distinct from that which organizes the state’s claim of threat and terror; instead, it centers those who are rendered expendable within the global war. Gesturing toward “back home,” Esmeralda brings into focus not only a literal homeland but also the geopolitical other, the terrorist, the object of the “war on terror,” who, alongside the migrant communities of New York City, must differentially bear the burden of global catastrophe.53
The Literary Possibilities of Filipina Reproductive Labor
Alvar treats subjectivity as a literary quandary, wherein the circumstances of Filipino migrancy are a politics of condition. That is, Filipino subjectivity is a struggle “over the construction of effective cultural subjects,” one that illuminates the ways that reproductive labor holds creative potential for storytelling.54 It deconstructs subjectivity to highlight the ways that Filipinas carry “the weight of the world.”55 Where the protagonist in the postcolonial novel often represents a figuration of the realized nation, Esmeralda exists within the story as a critical disembodiment. At the opening, she awakens from a dream in which she has died and turned to dust. She is swept away by the vacuum of a plane: “In last night’s dream, you died; your body crumbled into ash.”56 Against discourses of national heroism and racialized multiculturalism, Esmeralda’s figurative decomposition into dust offers another way to tackle histories of migrant labor, militarized neocolonialism, and the global “war on terror.”
The September 11, 2001, events provoke a “moment of danger,” wherein Esmeralda understands the present political catastrophe through memories of her labor.57 With these recollections, Esmeralda’s subjectivity materializes as a life for others.58 Esmeralda’s work, in other words, sustains the households and the offices for which she works; at the same time, the accumulated force of migrant work buttresses the multiple economies of which those households and offices are a part. Esmeralda’s memories—from her arrival to New York City, to her childhood years in the Philippines, to the day she becomes a registered alien, to the day she meets John, to the day she searches for John in the rubble of ground zero—chart a genealogy of the present.59 In some ways, the story is a list of these memories. She recalls that her cousin sells her to the Guzmans, who then plan to pass her to another family in the Philippines. When she refuses the Guzmans’ one-way ticket, her livelihood in the city then depends upon her capacity to work for other families. Her relationship to her own family is shaped by duty and remittance. These remittances pay for the construction of a family house, the cost of college, and the efforts to rehabilitate her brother, Pepe. When Esmeralda meets John, she helps him emotionally navigate the slow death of his wife. As Esmeralda contextualizes the September 11, 2001, crisis through a recollection of her work in both the Philippines and in the United States, she broadens the frame of global war to account for the migrant work that maintains both locations.
This genealogy of migrant labor follows no beginning or end but offers what Manalansan might describe as an archive “that involves not a cleaning up but rather a spoiling and cluttering of the neat normative configurations and patterns that seek to calcify lives and experiences.”60 Esmeralda’s work is not only the labor to make home but also the efforts to illustrate the circuits and processes that constitute any invocation of home as such. This genealogy narrates the story of global war differently, not as a new phenomenon, counterinsurgency campaign, or cultural war, but as a different iteration of the past, the longue durée of the “colonial present.”61 Through Esmeralda’s memories, the globality of 2001 is the reemergence of the conflicts and tensions left unresolved in 1982. Not constitutive of racial subjectivity alone, these memories reorganize subjectivity as a connected yet disparate set of events and circumstances.
Against the Philippine state’s use of Filipino migrant subjectivity as a modality for representing and validating this new global landscape, the story seeks instead to reconceptualize this subjectivity as connected to but not constitutive of a purely racial ontology. Narrated in the second-person voice, the “you” disconnects Esmeralda from herself. It makes a critical distinction between a person and the memories and work that constitute this person. In their work on the affective labor of call center workers, Purnima Mankekar and Akhil Gupta describe the alienation that characterizes call center labor, noting that the “work of call center agents foregrounds how affective labor itself produces intimate encounters and, in the process, is generative of particular kinds of laboring subjects, thus blurring the boundaries between ‘pre-alienated’ and alienated self-hood.”62 Never only in one place at one time, Esmeralda is here and everywhere, right now and another time.
Allan Isaac notes that “social and temporal precarity applies to migrant subjects who are not necessarily in sync with the homogenous empty time of a single nation, but are continually compelled to conform to capital demands and social histories of two or more nation-states” and that “these temporary migrants may be understood as living at the intersections of more than one national space and national time.”63 The “you” of the short story interrogates a subjectivity embodied by this alienation. It also, according to Alvar, brings the reader into an uneasy identification with the protagonist, a way to deconstruct individual subjectivity and gesture toward other social formations—in this case, between Esmeralda and the reader. Alvar’s use of the “you” here is not an attempt to establish a universality with which the reader can identify; instead, the reader’s identification with the labor migrant forces an affiliation with a distinct experience of migrancy.64 Against neoliberal terms of community, where community establishes one’s relation to capital—community grounded in the productivity of work, community sutured by a shared experience of commodity fetishism and consumption—this affiliation is rooted in other proximities that trouble individualized conceptions of selfhood.
As Esmeralda and her employer, Doris, watch the first plane crash into the first tower, Doris tells Esmeralda that she has “been spared.” The story pauses here as Esmeralda thinks about what this might mean. In the wake of immense death and suffering, in the aftermaths of catastrophe, what does it mean to be spared? To be left behind? For Esmeralda, to be spared means to bear witness to catastrophe. As Esmeralda searches for John in the rubble of the collapse, she picks up everything that she can find—“shoes, computer part, and paper . . . shoe, shoe, battered keyboard, paper, paper, paper.”65 Surely, Esmeralda’s work to “clean up” the disaster is an instinctive response to more than two decades of domestic work, having been “trained to help and be of use no matter what.”66 Yet, in the act of cleaning up, Esmeralda’s labor responds to the disassociation between the object left behind and the person who is no longer there to lay claim to it.
As Esmeralda searches through the rubble, she finds a shoe that holds the severed ankle of a woman lost to the disaster: “You cross yourself. Start digging through the rubble. You’ll bear any sight—a bone, a face—to close her lids for her. In case she left this world with her eyes open.”67 Esmeralda notices that the woman was “dressed in nylon panty hose like yours.” While this affinity between Esmeralda and the lost woman is rendered possible only by the circuits of migration that constitute global capitalism—the ones that bring Esmeralda into proximity with the World Trade Center—it also illustrates the gendered labor that is central to global capitalism. It is perhaps this affinity that feeds Esmeralda’s determination to put this stranger to rest. While she attempts to bring closure for this woman, this search—which may not come to any conclusive end—is a struggle to enact justice for the dead. This is work, to be sure, but it is a reckoning too. Esmeralda’s labor charts the scope of destruction, picks up all that cannot be named, the nuances and intimacies of life that constitute the abandoned and found object.
In contrast to the memorialization of victims of war, this is not an act of enumeration. It is not the task of calculation, one often used to justify an act of revenge. One might recall, for instance, that US memorials are often explicit in their detail of the number of dead, lost to the terrorist enemy at home while abstract in the articulation of war’s destruction elsewhere. This work to pick up the detritus of war is the creative work to reconceptualize the boundaries of politics and history to pay attention to those that politics and history forget or will not name—a way to make sense of the present. Picking up these objects and stuffing them into her tote bag, Esmeralda’s reproductive labor turns into something other than that which she is trained to do—not the maintenance of a home or office but an effort to showcase different casualties of global war. As people flee the site of disaster, Esmeralda moves toward it “as if this wave of people walking toward [her] has just left the party.” Herein lies the dialectic of global catastrophe, the point at which the seemingly opposing movements of historical materialism and historical reckoning come to a head: “So much turns up that you unzip your tote to carry it. It’s possible that you look crazy, heading straight toward disaster, scavenging for scraps, but you don’t care. The heaps grow higher the closer you get.”68 Esmeralda pauses in the middle of the rubble:
The world grows quiet inside you, and outside time, slow as the center of a storm. You hear only your breath against the mask, the way John must have heard his on your dress, that night.
You clutch the shoes and papers to your chest like things you love, as if they’re what you came to save. The bodies running past you, left and right, are a commotion you’re not part of. You’re prepared to let the monster swallow you.
And now you know why saints crave suffering, invite all kinds of pain so they can feel in some small way what Christ, whom they love, felt.69
Rather than have the world continue to bear upon Esmeralda, Esmeralda holds the world within her body, if only for a moment, existing beyond the time and space of the global calculus of market exchange. Indeed, gesturing beyond this globality itself, Esmeralda feels a kinship with saints, whose power emerges from a connection with the otherworldly. This is what Deirdre de la Cruz has theorized as a “preemptive power [that] should not be reduced to a mere providentialist orientation, nor worse, to the culturalist assertion that Filipinos simply believe in a highly interventionist God. It is, rather, a deeply social and politically concocted claim for oneself and one’s community.”70 Filipino subjectivity—as it has come to be defined by the parameters of national sovereignty, neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and the global “war on terror”—crumbles to give way to the ephemerality of breath. Here, experience is shaped not by the moral order of a liberal humanity or the political conditions of the citizen-subject but by a structure of feeling of collectivity and coalition, of faith, hope, and possibility. Moved by shared intimacy, it is this feeling that goads Esmeralda to move further into a search. Not part of the commotion but right in the center of it, this passage gestures toward another relation to the world.
The Long “War on Terror”
I write this in 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic and within a political landscape that is contending with the effects and the inescapability of global connection. I write this in 2020, nineteen years after the September 11 events, the same amount of time it took Esmeralda to depart the plane from Manila, step into New York City, and find herself racing to Ground Zero amid the rubble. In those nineteen years, the global “war on terror,” with its takeovers in Afghanistan and Iraq, has taken another shape. With fervent calls to “Make America Great Again” and to “Put Britain First,” the insidious rise of a new global right identifies, in some cases, different enemies than the ones that justified the earlier war. The current political landscape reveals an unraveling of the threads that sutured neoliberalism’s facade of global connection and prosperity. To be clear, it does not signal the failure of neoliberalism. Instead, it calls for neoliberalism’s reorganization by other means to situate people, communities, and nations differently as the heroes and villains of national liberty and prosperity.
Published one year before the elections of both Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and US president Donald Trump, “Esmeralda” might have foreseen the emergence of the present. In 2016, newly elected Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte gained notoriety in the United States for insulting outgoing US president Barack Obama as a “son of a bitch” and for criticizing the United States for its colonial war in the Philippines. Duterte has organized his presidency around his bloody war on drugs against the Filipino people. At the same time, the rise of strongman politics often reveals the inextricability between nationalism and gendered violence. In 2018, after Filipina migrant worker Joanna Demafelis was found dead in a freezer in Kuwait, Duterte urged overseas Filipino workers in Kuwait to “come home” and banned further migration to the country.71 A few months after Demafelis was laid to rest in the Philippines and after reaching an agreement with Kuwaiti officials, Duterte declared that he would lift the ban on Filipino migration to the country. The agreement would afford more protections for Filipino migrants living and working in the country. The year before the agreement, in a struggle against Islamic State (ISIS) forces, Duterte declared martial law over the city of Marawi in Mindanao, Philippines. Most recently, in July 2020, he signed into law an antiterrorism bill that arms his administration with the power to “initiate actions” against any persons suspected of terrorism, broadly defined. As critics note, the deliberate vagueness of the bill gives Duterte the authority to punish his critics and condemn a wide range of activities deemed threatening to national security.72
These events signal the ways that Duterte’s exertion of political power has materialized through his control over the movement and migration of multiple groups within and outside the Philippines. This power determines and polices the bounds of national citizenship. In the present, Filipina migrant workers continue to function as vehicles through which the Philippine state envisions its sovereignty on a global stage, a tentative sovereignty that always depends upon military alliances and the consistent elision of Muslim and Indigenous peoples from the bounds of the nation. In the United States, migrant workers continue to sustain the nation’s political economy while lying outside the framework of national citizenship. Donald Trump’s vociferous and rabid calls to “build the wall” and the administration’s policies of migrant detention illustrate the ways that migrant workers function as figurations of shifting political policies that aim to both manufacture threat and construct the means by which to assess, identify, and manage it. They operate as the vehicles for the US expression of political power both within the nation and abroad. Most recently, the administration’s response to the migrant caravan and the coronavirus was a mandate to further militarize the Mexican border and to criminalize migrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.
Trump, elected a few months after Duterte, once commended the Philippine president on his drug war, and the two have expressed a mutual admiration for each other. While Duterte has signaled his plans to pivot Philippine foreign policy away from the United States and toward Asia (the Philippine government has, for some time, been establishing political and economic alliances with China and South Korea, for instance), this admiration reflects the reorganization of the global “war on terror,” the reformation of political alliances, and the reconfiguration of borders, all of which rely upon the continuity of colonial pasts. The discourses that surround the rising political ascendancy of China and the stirrings of US war against Syria, Iran, and North Korea reflect the reemergence of US Cold War counterinsurgency as a program for consolidating military power in the aftermaths of decolonization. The formation of right-wing political regimes in India, Brazil, and other nations are the authoritarian formations that materialize at the intersections of postcolonial nationalism and neoliberalism. Migrants and refugees from Syria, Ethiopia, Haiti, El Salvador, and elsewhere spur new global movements while remaining the objects of US force and exclusion. Meanwhile, Filipino and Latinx labor migrants continue to illustrate the legacies of US empire.
In the present, the migrant worker remains a figure of contradiction, reflective of both the mythology of US racial multiculturalism and neoliberal economic possibility and the impossibilities of those narratives. This is to say that even as regimes violently solidify the rigidity of national borders, migrant workers elucidate their permeability, their movement and labor elaborating in critical ways the extent to which such conceptualizations of borders are always susceptible to the exigencies of colonial occupation and global capital. Yet, as “Esmeralda” showcases, there is a language of and to migrancy, one that reveals the intricate connections between the politics of terror and capital in the face of state efforts to treat them as separate from each other. Alvar’s narrativization of migrant subjectivity is never simply a question about Filipinoness in and of itself but Filipinoness as a point of organization within a wider constellation of power. Alvar’s literary exploration provokes questions about mobility, labor, citizenship, and crises that encourage if not model for us affinities and solidarities across borders. In this way, the literary is an entryway for engaging the inextricability of movement and movement building, as Camilla Hawthorne and Jennifer Lynn Kelly help us theorize. It charts for us the multiple routes that define Filipinoness and the coalitions that these routes engender. The language to and of migrancy offers creative potential for reorganizing the terms of belonging, broadly construed, and in doing so, imagine and insist upon a different world.
Josen Masangkay Diaz is assistant professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies and affiliated faculty in the program in women’s and gender studies at the University of San Diego. Her research interrogates race, gender, colonialism, authoritarianism, and the politics of Filipino America. Her work has been published in Kritika Kultura, the Journal of Asian American Studies, and Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
“Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Second State of the Nation Address, July 22, 2002,” Official Gazette, July 22, 2002, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/2002/07/22/gloria-macapagal-arroyo-second-state-of-the-nation-address-july-22-2002/.
“2002 Survey on Overseas Filipinos (SOF),” Philippine Statistics Authority, April 23, 2003, https://psa.gov.ph/content/2002-survey-overseas-filipinos-sof.
Neferti Tadiar, Things Fall Away: Philippine Historical Experience and the Makings of Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 53–54.
I credit Joo Ok Kim here for helping me think through the complexity of Alvar’s protagonists.
Jonathan Lee, “What’s Lost and What’s Gained, a Conversation with Mia Alvar, Author of In the Country,” Electric Lit (blog), June 24, 2015, https://electricliterature.com/whats-lost-and-whats-gained-a-conversation-with-mia-alvar-author-of-in-the-country/.
Throughout the essay, I use Filipino subjectivity, in tension with Filipinx, as a general term to describe diasporic Filipino social formations as they are constituted through national and global discourses. I also use Filipina to denote the distinct ways that such discourses bear on the gendered division of labor.
“Ferdinand E. Marcos, Fourth State of the Nation Address, January 27, 1969,” Official Gazette, January 27, 1969, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1969/01/27/ferdinand-e-marcos-fourth-state-of-the-nation-address-january-27-1969/.
Renato Constantino, “The Mis-education of the Filipino,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 1, no. 1 (1970): 20–36.
Dylan Rodriguez, “‘Not Classifiable as Orientals or Caucasians or Negroes’: Filipino Racial Ontology and the Stalking Presence of the ‘Insane Filipino Soldier,’” in Filipino Studies: Palimpsests of Nation and Diaspora, ed. Martin F. Manalansan IV and Augusto F. Espiritu (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 155.
Neferti Tadiar, “Filipinas ‘Living in a Time of War,’” in Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Theory, ed. Melinda L. de Jesús (New York: Routledge, 2005), 377.
Oscar Campomanes, “Filipinos in the United States and Their Literature of Exile,” in A Companion to Asian American Studies, ed. Kent A. Ono (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004), 301.
Neferti Tadiar, “Decolonization, ‘Race,’ and Remaindered Life under Empire,” Qui Parle 23, no. 2 (2015): 147.
Campomanes, “Filipinos in the United States,” 303.
Raymond Williams has written, “Thus certain experiences, meanings, and values which cannot be expressed or substantially verified in terms of the dominant culture, are nevertheless lived and practiced on the basis of the residue—cultural as well as social—of some previous social and cultural institution or formation. It is crucial to distinguish this aspect of the residual, which may have an alternative or even oppositional relation to the dominant culture, from that active manifestation of the residual (this being its distinction from the archaic) which has been wholly or largely incorporated into the dominant culture.” Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 122.
Jameson explained that “the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.” “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (1986): 69. Moreover, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s discussion of the novel continues to be useful: “As a genre, the novel was particularly suited to aiding in the reproduction of a general and generalizing sentiment while preserving and nurturing the idea of the individual and private. Its techniques of verisimilitude promoted a sense of the particular, while at the same time creating a vision of the general.” Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 142.
Mia Alvar, “Esmeralda,” in In the Country (New York: Vintage, 2015), 181.
Robyn Rodriguez, Migrants for Export: How the Philippine State Brokers Labor to the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 27.
Alvar, “Esmeralda,” 156.
Anna Romina Guevarra, “Managing ‘Vulnerabilities’ and ‘Empowering’ Migrant Filipina Workers: The Philippines’ Overseas Employment Program,” Social Identities 12, no. 5 (2006): 531.
Tadiar, “Decolonization,” 140. A United Arab Emirates court jailed Sarah Balabagan in 1994 for murdering her employer in self-defense. She was eventually released. The Singaporean government hanged Filipina domestic worker Flor Contemplacion in 1995 for the murders of Delia Maga, another Filipina worker, and Nicholas Huang, the child assigned to Maga’s care. Indonesian officials sentenced Mary Jane Veloso in 2010 to death for the possession of heroin. Philippine officials convicted several people for illegally recruiting Veloso into their drug trafficking scheme. While she was granted a reprieve from execution in 2015, she remains on death row in Indonesia. See Carlos M. Piocos III, “Why Mourning Matters: The Politics of Grief in Southeast Asian Narratives of Women’s Migration,” Kritika Kultura 33/34 (2019–20): 806–58.
“Speech of President Corazon Aquino on the 1987 Constitution,” Official Gazette, February 18, 1988, https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1988/02/18/speech-of-president-corazon-aquino-on-the-1987-constitution/.
Anna Romina Guevarra, Marketing Dreams and Manufacturing Heroes: The Transnational Labor Brokering of Filipino Workers (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2011), 33.
William Branigin, “U.S. Military Ends Role in Philippines,” Washington Post, November 24, 1992.
See Victoria Reyes, Global Borderlands: Fantasy, Violence, and Empire in Subic Bay, Philippines (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); Roland G. Simbulan, “People’s Movement Responses to Evolving U.S. Military Activities in the Philippines,” in The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle against U.S. Military Posts, ed. Catherine Lutz (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 145–80; and Cynthia Enloe, Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
See Roland B. Tolentino, “Bodies, Letters, Catalogs: Filipinas in Transnational Space,” Social Text 48 (1996): 49–76; and Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez, Securing Paradise: Tourism and Militarism in Hawai’i and the Philippines (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).
After the closures of the US military bases in Angeles and Olongapo in the early 1990s, Balikatan and other binational “mutual defense” treaties continued under the direction of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The VFA allows for the extradition of US military personnel to the United States even if they commit crimes in the Philippines. Such a measure has protected and perpetuated US soldiers’ sexual assault and killing of Filipina women. See, for instance, the cases of Suzette Nicolas and Jennifer Laude.
Reynaldo C. Ileto, “Philippine Wars and the Politics of Memory,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 13, no. 1 (2005): 216.
Gladys Nubla, “Managing the ‘Moro Problem,’” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 19, no. 2 (2011): 305.
Camilla Hawthorne and Jennifer Lynn Kelly, “Borderland Regimes and Resistance in Global Perspective,” in this volume.
A. Naomi Paik, Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding U.S. Immigration for the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2020), 13.
See Leti Volpp, “The Citizen and the Terrorist,” Immigration and Nationality Law Review 23 (2002): 561–86.
Rodriguez, Migrants for Export, xix.
See Robyn Rodriguez, “Toward a Critical Filipino Studies Approach to Philippine Migration,” in Manalansan and Espiritu, Filipino Studies, 33–55.
Paik, Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary, 57.
“Protection of Overseas Filipino Workers in Countries in Conflict: Focus on Syria,” Center for Migrant Advocacy, April 2014, https://centerformigrantadvocacy.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/protection-of-overseas-filipino-workers-in-countries-in-conflict-april-21-2014-edited-1.pdf.
See Sunaina Maira, “Youth Culture, Citizenship and Globalization: South Asian Muslim Youth in the United States after September 11th,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, no. 1 (2004): 219–31; and Leisy J. Abrego, “Central American Refugees Reveal the Crisis of the State,” in The Oxford Handbook of Migration Crises, ed. Cecilia Menjívar, Marie Ruiz, and Immanuel Ness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 213–28.
Martin F. Manalansan IV, “The ‘Stuff’ of Archives: Mess, Migration, and Queer Lives,” Radical History Review 120 (2014): 103–4.
Lee, “What’s Lost and What’s Gained.”
Alvar, “Esmeralda,” 178.
Eithne Luibhéid, “Sexuality, Migration, and the Shifting Line between Legal and Illegal Status,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 14, nos. 2–3 (2008): 297.
Robyn Rodriguez writes that “if 9/11 produced public anxieties toward Arabs and Muslims, it also exacerbated already existing tensions around Mexican immigration.” “(Dis)unity and Diversity in Post-9/11 America,” Sociological Forum 23, no. 2 (2008): 379–89.
Schmidt Camacho, Migrant Imaginaries: Latino Cultural Politics in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 296–97.
Mahmood Mamdani’s analysis of the formation of US policies on terror during the Cold War is instructive here:
In retrospect, it is clear that  was also the year that the center of gravity of the Cold War shifted from Southeast Asia to southern Africa. The strategic question was this: Who would pick up the pieces of the Portuguese empire in Africa, the United States or the Soviet Union? As the focal point of the Cold War shifted, there was a corresponding shift in U.S. strategy based on two key influences. First, the closing years of the Vietnam War saw the forging of a Nixon Doctrine, which held that “Asian boys must fight Asian wars.” The Nixon doctrine was one lesson that the United States brought from the Vietnam debacle. Even if the hour was late to implement it in Indochina, the Nixon Doctrine guided U.S. initiatives in southern Africa. In the post-Vietnam world, the United States looked for more than local proxies; it needed regional powers as junior partners. In southern Africa, that role was fulfilled by apartheid South Africa. (Mamdani, “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 : 768)
Alvar, “Esmeralda,” 163.
Neferti Tadiar, “Challenges for Cultural Studies under the Rule of Global War,” Kritika Kultura 4 (2004): 48.
I point to the work of the Critical Filipino and Filipina Studies Collective as one instance of this act of solidarity. In 2003, the collective organized an Association for Asian American Studies resolution that stated, “As Filipino and Filipina American academics, activists, organizers and allies, the CFFSC stands with all people resisting colonial domination, violent occupation, and dehumanizing racism. While the histories of the Philippines and Palestine are in no way equivalent, Filipino people have also experienced the denial of sovereignty and self-determination as exemplified throughout history in particular to Philippine (neo)colonial relationship with the United States” (Critical Filipino and Filipina Studies Collective, “The Critical Filipino and Filipina Studies Collective Supports the AAAS Boycott Resolution,” US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, 2013, https://usacbi.org/2013/09/the-critical-filipino-and-filipina-studies-collective-supports-the-aaas-boycott-resolution/).
Tadiar, “Challenges for Cultural Studies,” 43.
Alvar, “Esmeralda,” 166.
Kalindi Vora’s notion of creative potential is useful here. Vora writes of call center labor that “service work is not typically understood as connected to a worker’s creative capacity. However, the harnessing of the agent’s efforts to produce a call center persona and the directing of this energy away from subjective self-renewal is an important component of the value of call center work.” Life Support: Biocapital and the New History of Outsourced Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
Tadiar, “Filipinas,” 374.
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1977), 31.
Manalansan, “‘Stuff’ of Archives,” 99.
Alyosha Goldstein has written that the colonial present is “the ways in which the current moment is shaped by fraught historical accumulation and shifting disposition of colonial processes, relations, and practices.” “Toward a Genealogy of the U.S. Colonial Present,” in Formations of United States Colonialism, ed. Alyosha Goldstein (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 6–7.
Purnima Mankekar and Akhil Gupta, “Intimate Encounters: Affective Labor in Call Centers,” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 24, no. 1 (2006): 28.
Allan Isaac, “In a Precarious Time and Place: The Refusal to Wallow and Other Migratory Temporal Investments in Care Divas, the Musical,” Journal of Asian American Studies 19, no. 1 (2016): 7.
Mia Alvar explains, “I did try rewriting ‘Esmeralda’ in the third person, but then I changed it back. I decided I didn’t mind having an imperative, slightly more aggressive relationship with the reader in that particular story. I was happy to point and insist that ‘you’ imagine yourself into Esmeralda’s life, to risk refusal on the reader’s part. It seemed like a useful way to call attention to both the necessity and the difficulty of truly identifying with someone you don’t know.” Lee, “What’s Lost and What’s Gained.”
Alvar, “Esmeralda,” 180.
Deirdre de la Cruz, “Coincidence and Consequence: Marianism and the Mass Media in Global Philippines,” Cultural Anthropology 24, no. 3 (2009): 477.
After about two years working in Kuwait, Joanna Demafelis’s employers murdered her and left her remains in an abandoned freezer. The case, much like that of Balabagan, Contemplacion, Veloso, and many others, exemplified both the violent conditions of overseas migrant labor as well as the Philippine policies that make workers especially vulnerable to such abuse. See Rambo Talabong, “‘A National Shame’: The Death and Homecoming of Joanna Demafelis,” Rappler, March 4, 2018, https://rappler.com/newsbreak/in-depth/death-homecoming-joanna-demafelis-ofw-kuwait.
Pia Rinada, “Duterte Signs ‘Dangerous’ Anti-terror Bill into Law,” Rappler, July 3, 2020, https://rappler.com/nation/duterte-signs-dangerous-anti-terror-bill-into-law.
I thank Emily Hue and Davorn Sisavath for their unfailing camaraderie in thinking and writing. I am also grateful to Camilla Hawthorne and Jennifer Lynn Kelly for their tremendous work to imagine and usher into being this issue as well as Christine Hong and two anonymous reviewers who offered insights that significantly shaped this essay. All errors are mine.