Since its first mention in the Septuagint, the Koinie Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the term diaspora has gone through various interpretations. While it originally referred to the exile of the Jews from Israel in 607 BCE, diaspora as it is popularly understood today denotes a sense of displacement from a homeland even though it may not exist in any meaningful sense. Thus, the migration or forced migration of people for whatever reasons may result in feelings of nostalgia and hope for a return to their homeland, which are often expressed in the continuation of their cultural heritage and traditions. In extreme cases, this cultural affiliation in a diaspora may be found in the community’s resistance to language change.
For Filipinos in the global diaspora, displacement came as an aftermath of the hardships brought about by the Second World War and worsening economic and political conditions in the country, particularly from the late 1960s to the present.
During the Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, Filipinos started leaving in droves. The discovery of the usefulness of overseas workers to the local economy prompted the government and the economic elite to encourage sending them abroad to keep the rotten system afloat.
As globalization facilitated the mobility of goods, services, information and ideas, it also engendered the movement of people, which soon became our primary export to the rest of the world. It has been estimated that there are about 11 million Filipinos overseas scattered in every country in the world, or almost 12 percent of the total population of the Philippines.
In Canada, the Filipino population is expected to surpass 500,000 by 2010. Most of overseas Filipinos and Filipino Canadians live in cities and urban areas. The Greater Toronto Area alone counts for almost 200,000 residents of Filipino ancestry.
Filipinos first came to Canada after World War II, mainly women who worked as nurses, teachers and workers in the health sector.
During the 1960s, Canada recruited more Filipino professionals, mostly from the United States with some coming directly from the Philippines. Winnipeg seemed to be the destination of choice for these new Filipino immigrants.
In the late 1970s, more Filipinos came to join their relatives under the family reunification program. It was during this period that more and more Filipinos settled in Toronto where jobs were prospering.
An influx of contract workers under the Live-in Caregiver Program came in the 1980s. From 1990 onwards, a steady flow of Filipinos entered Canada, and as of December 2008, the Philippines took over China as Canada’s leading source of immigrants.
The Pinoy diaspora in Toronto, or the global Pinoy overseas, may be a unique collection of Filipino expatriates that does not fit in to the ideal type of diaspora based on the Jewish paradigm.
According to James Clifford, a history professor at the University of California, the main features of this ideal type are: 1)dispersal from an original habitat, 2)myths and memories of the homeland, 3)alienation in the host country, 4)desire for eventual return, 5)ongoing support for the homeland, and 6)a collective identity by the relationship to the homeland.
Filipinos are not technically dispersed to all “kingdoms of the earth,” although sending them overseas to work and to bring home their dollar earnings could be interpreted as another form of dispersal. We are dispersed only from our families or relatives in villages, towns and provinces, but loosely from the concept of a nation-state or an independent nation we want to re-embrace after exile. Since our migration was forced by economic circumstances, we have seen it as our freedom to seek one’s fortune and experience the pleasure of adventure.
We certainly are fond of resurrecting our myths and memories of the homeland through cultural celebrations like pistahan, santacruzan, indigenous food, dances and music, and of course, our penchant for beauty pageants. Filipinos identify themselves with celebrities like singers, movie stars, athletes and boxing idols like Manny Pacquiao. Our religious devotion and family rituals have cemented the organic bonds of community.
We have been alienated in our adopted country because of racism and its vestiges as manifested in the labour market and in the political field. But it is this alienation that may possibly unite us. Most of us have gone through marginalization in our struggle for survival. Yet, many first generation Filipinos in Canada have short memories. Whether instinctively or as an acquired reaction, they would jettison their experiences of racial victimization and rationalize this past period in their lives as a natural phenomenon that all immigrants must undergo. Good that they have succeeded, what if they have not?
But this experience of alienation does not sit well with our children, who have now assumed the burden of disentangling this awkward period of pain and suffering in our history as a community. It is our disenchanted youth who seek to understand our history and our struggles as they depict this yearning in the language of their hip poetry and rap music, in plays portraying the harsh realities of forced migration such as Maleta, The Making of St. Jerome and Future Folk, the Alunsina art exhibits and Kamalayan or consciousness workshops.
It is quite ironic that our community associations and their leaders have chosen the easy path of celebrating traditional, religious and folk festivals as a means to calm the feelings of nostalgia among our elders and senior citizens. In doing so, however, they have neglected to address the concerns of our young people who yearn to understand our history as a nation and their quest for the Filipino identity. As a result, the Filipino youth and second-generation Filipinos seem to face alienation from their elders more than they have to countenance acts of racism and discrimination from their host society. This burden of alienation from our elders becomes even more difficult to bear because they also have to continue the efforts to weed out racism and its ugly vestiges in our society as a whole.
Our desire to eventually go home is suspect, our support to our compatriots is limited to charitable acts in time of natural calamities and disasters, and our collective identity is confused between keeping our Filipino uniqueness and flaunting the newly-found equally unsure Canadian distinctiveness.
Filipinos will never return to their old homeland of misery, poverty, exploitation, unemployment, hunger and lack of human dignity. Even when they are economically secure, this yearning to go home will never materialize. After their resettlement, overseas workers such as temporary workers and live-in caregivers would rather move their families and relatives to Canada, even if it only offers an illusion of future improvement.
Another responsibility that our children and young Filipinos in Toronto have placed on their shoulder is solidarity and support for the struggles at home for a better government and more equitable society. We have witnessed members of our community march in Toronto’s streets to support programs in the Philippines which the Church endorses, but not in mass protests against the Visiting Forces Agreement, for example. Conversely, it is our young people who have demonstrated political depth and awareness in their collective indignation against extra-judicial killings and disappearances, ironically the same youths who have had no direct and personal experience of kinship to their parents’ homeland.
Our Filipino identity in Toronto and in Canada as a whole is being shaped by the yearnings and activism of our youth who apparently feel this crisis of collective identity more than their parents.
Perhaps, our Filipino diaspora in Toronto is an odd species, for it is not obsessed with returning to the physical homeland, but more to a symbolic homeland of history.
Let us simply hope that the drama of change that is happening in the Philippines will not allow the Pinoy diaspora in Toronto to slumber in the comfort and wealth of its environs. If recent artistic and cultural events spearheaded by young Filipino Canadian groups give us pause, it is that youth is not wasted on our young: our thriving communities of arts, cultural and political activists are breaking ground in all corners, and on their own terms.