Many Filipino professionals in Toronto, at least those I know from my alumni association, lament some of the experiences told by Filipino newcomers to Canada about other people mistaking them for nannies. The newcomers recount how they had been asked if they could clean their co-workers’ homes after work or if their parents had also come to Canada as nannies. Somehow this gave the impression that being a nanny is degrading, especially if this is attributed to an entire ethnic group.
What’s wrong with being a nanny?
To many socially-mobile Filipinos in Toronto, it has become a stigma to be identified with the Filipino nanny, the lowest of jobs in this affluent metropolis. Strange but true, these professionals who’ve made it big in their job careers don’t want to be associated with their poor country cousins. Instead, they want to be identified as the new Filipinos: professional, competent, who dress and speak like Whites, and are a vital part of mainstream Canada. As one so-called professional and leader of his alumni association said, “There is more to Filipinos here in Canada than caregiving.”
To counter such image, of being identified with a nanny, some Filipino professionals have suggested that Filipinos should try not to talk, nor think or dress like a nanny. That they should integrate themselves into the mainstream, learn about hockey so they can easily assimilate in group conversations in this hockey-crazed city.
Almost instantly, the nanny has become the new leper, and it is quite tragic that this perception is being engendered by fellow Filipinos. Perhaps, we need a drastic makeover or plastic surgery so we can alter the way we look or speak in order to conform to the dominant image of the superior race perpetrated by centuries of Spanish and American colonialism. A by-product of racism, colonial rule has ingrained a colonial mentality among Filipinos that “white skin is better.” More than 60 per cent of Filipinos today believe that life in North America or Europe is a lot superior to their own culture and country. Economically speaking, that makes sense, but do we have to look down on our own?
This reminds me of how Filipinos were portrayed in early Hollywood films as the proverbial maid or valet, such as in Reflections on the Golden Eye where Marlon Brando had a conversation with his wife’s (played by Elizabeth Taylor) servant Procopio. Or that Filipino wife of an Australian from the outback in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, who had a special knack for spitting ping pong balls from between her thighs. We have been racially stereotyped in the past as lowly servants and this tragic image continues in the present, thanks to the help of members from our own ethnic community.
Integrating in mainstream activities has been bandied as the most effective way we can earn a respectable identity that truly reflects our educational and professional background, that we are not merely a nanny population. The word “mainstream” seems to be the magic word. Everywhere and every time mainstream is spoken as if it were a synonym for society.
Perhaps, this is a failure of the policy of multiculturalism that promises every ethnic community to retain its culture and tradition in the larger Canadian mosaic. What multiculturalism has accomplished is to push minority groups to the fringes of political and economic power. It only helped establish and fund organizations that single out the promotion of the cultural elements of their ethnic origins to dressing in traditional costumes, showcasing their traditional dances, and serving their exotic culinary feasts. Yet ethnic communities in Canada still lag far behind the circles of power in politics, business, and social life.
Filipino organizations in Toronto, whether community or grassroots-oriented or professional associations, are essentially inward looking. We continue to serve our parochial interests and fail to attract the mainstream’s involvement in our activities. Thus, we continue to hold beauty pageants and singing contests, invite talents from the Philippines to perform in concerts, profess our religious devotion in pilgrimages and processions, or hold annual festivals featuring and promoting our local businesses but only to ourselves.
When a group invited Miguel Syjuco, award-winning author of Ilustrado, those in attendance felt an affinity to our historical ilustrado of the Spanish colonial period, affirming what Syjuco has said in one interview that overseas Filipinos are the new ilustrados. Truth is, most of us here in Canada or even in the United States are not born from wealthy and privileged families.
In Toronto alone, more than half of the 250,000 population of Filipino origin are former nannies and their families. More than ten per cent of the Filipino population live overseas, about 8 million souls, not because they are escaping from their rich and landowning Filipino families but from the lack of opportunities in our homeland. They are the face of the new Filipino diaspora, voluntarily exiled to foreign lands in search of better-paying jobs and a better life.
Interestingly different and much more intellectually refreshing was a small forum organized recently by our young people at the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture. The forum, part of the Kamalayan Konsciousness Series, was about the role of the ilustrados in our history and their relevance today, especially to émigrés like us in Toronto. A consensus was arrived by the young group that we could be the “new propagandists,” like the Propaganda movement’s Rizal, del Pilar and Lopez Jaena during the Spanish colonial times, in spreading a better understanding of the present conditions in the Philippines to our kababayans in Toronto. There was no false pretence of kinship to the historical ilustrado because most, if not all of them, hail from working class families.
A more worthwhile event also happened recently in Toronto at the launching of Gawad Kalinga Canada, with GK founder Tony Meloto as guest. Even if this was for the particular benefit of Filipinos in the Philippines, the launch engaged the participation of Canadian companies in building sustainable communities for the poor in the Philippines. Canadian companies led by Telus and Sun Life Canada as well as the Toronto-based Canadian Urban Institute—already involved in building communities in the Philippines—were present, along with Filipino-Canadians who have rallied to the cause of our poor countrymen.
A few nights later, a Philippine alumni association held its bash to pay tribute to its past leaders, as if being chosen as the organization’s president was not enough recognition by itself. This is an archetypal Filipino social gathering in Toronto, with self-serving speeches, pats in the back, and dancing until the clock strikes midnight. Yet, these are the very same people who would challenge Filipinos to join the mainstream and be an active part of the Canadian social fabric and not to be insular yet ending up catering to their own tribal and trivial preoccupations.
Last November 15, my wife and I attended a forum sponsored by the Literary Review of Canada (LRC) on “Our Green Economy” at the Gardiner Museum. The forum invited Andrew Heintzman, author of The New Entrepreneurs: Building a Green Economy for the Future, to speak on how green venture capitalists are reconciling the need to protect environment from the demands of a high-growth economy. Heintzman’s thesis is that green capitalists can save the world. It was refreshing to hear questions and answers on oil sands, global warming, carbon tax, cap and trade, and other matters ordinarily heard in big debates between the Conservatives, the Liberals, and social activists on Canada’s hot issues of the day. Heintzman concluded that today’s green tycoons are showing the way on how to make money and at the same time save the planet.
Not one of those Filipino professionals we often hear enjoining fellow Filipinos to mix and be part of the mainstream was in the audience that night. Was it hockey night in Canada? Or perhaps they were still celebrating Manny Paquiao’s victory in his last fight toward establishing himself as boxing’s greatest of all time?
The condescending attitude of some Filipino professionals to look down on the plight of nannies only reveals their utter ignorance of why our women are leaving the Philippines to take on jobs beneath their qualifications. Maybe these same professionals are so besot of their own success that they have become oblivious of their own past struggles to be where they are now.