Friday, June 13, 2008

Deconstructing a sense of community

Geographical unity was perhaps the most valuable heritage the Spaniards left to Filipinos after almost 400 years of colonial rule. Before becoming a Spanish colony, the Philippines as a geographical unit never existed. It was just a collection of thousands of islands ruled by their respective chieftains without an overall chieftain responsible for all the islands.

Under Spanish colonial rule, a central government was organized for the whole country. This central government was responsible for lawmaking and its enforcement throughout the country; all the various provinces and towns obeyed the same laws, except for the Moslem areas which remained opposed to Spanish colonial rule.

It is no wonder that overseas Filipinos who settled in America, either in the United States or Canada, and even elsewhere outside the Philippines, have somehow lost this concept of unity and have resorted to the island mentality of several organizations existing autonomously and independently of each other.

Because of the absence of a central authority, say an effective national umbrella organization, every overseas Filipino organization in the diaspora exists and operates on its own like the little islands in the homeland. There is no interdependence among organizations, and solidarity is only incidental, depending on the cause of the moment. This organizational independence is further exacerbated by members' allegiance to the school where they graduated, or the town or province where they come from. Thus, those who studied in the University of the Philippines would band together, as others coming from other universities would similarly organize themselves into their schools’ alumni organizations. Those who come from the province of Batangas, for example, would have their provincial organization, just as those coming from other provinces would rally behind their respective province-based organizations. It's back to the past, to the pre-colonial island mindset as a basis for organizational unity.

Among nonprofit or charitable community organizations such as those involved with the resettlement of new immigrants, the basis for unity may transcend differences in hometown origin or school. What has emerged as a common denominator for the leaders of these organizations to coalesce has now shifted to similar class status, whether in economic or socio-educational terms.

A striking example is the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT), whose leadership is predominantly composed of those who studied at the University of the Philippines and have moved upward in the economic and social ladder in their adopted country. This brings a new element into the politics of community organizations, as these new leaders abandon their island mentality and assert their social and economic status as a leadership leverage. While they may generally exude respect from those in the lower economic stratum or those who continue to struggle between jobs, they are also viewed by some with suspicion, and sometimes, even allegations of abuse of power or authority.

The recent FCT leadership crisis is a testament to the fractious relationship between its leaders and some of its disgruntled members. Although its present crop of leaders was vindicated by their reelection to the FCT board of directors, it came at the hefty price of an expensive court intervention, a very unnatural and divisive way to resolve crises at the community or grassroots level.

This apparent lack of a sense of community among Filipinos in the diaspora explains why many transplanted Filipinos have remained in the margins of power, both in politics and business. Although the number of overseas Filipinos has increased over the years, their political or business leverage has been sporadic or marginal at best, unlike those who have come from other Asian nations such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.

Because of their pre-colonial island mindset, overseas Filipino organizations appear to be always at a state-of-war with each other, whether cornering the most media attention in local community newspapers or sourcing for funds from foundations or government agencies. They behave like those ancient tribes of the past, defending their turf against invasion or intrusion by people outside their clan.

Expatriates from Europe and South Asia can easily coalesce and be united for long periods of time. It seems easier for them to find common ground. On the other hand, Filipinos in their stalwart defence of their separate fiefdoms seem to be closer with emigres from Latin American countries who are just as divided, and with whom they share no common ideals except for having a common colonizer.

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