In the days leading up to the fight of the century, pint-size fighter and Filipino national Manny Pacquiao was hailed as the “People’s Hero,” the “People’s Champ,” and even, the “Island Messiah.” While it’s not uncommon to cheer for celebrities during massive consumer events, I was boxed into an unforgiving cultural corner with no chance to break free for being one of the few Filipino-Canadians in Vancouver who consciously chose NOT to watch the fight.
“Well, I’m working tonight” I told my co-worker, a recent Filipino-Australian transplant a few hours before the fight. “And even if I wasn’t,” I continued, “I wouldn’t because Manny Pacquiao’s against gay marriage and the reproductive rights of women.” Before I could say anything else, my co-worker slapped my arm and hissed, don’t say that. You’re Filipino, she reminded me. Manny Pacquiao is one of US.
I want to say that I’m surprised with the excessive glorification of the “Island Messiah” especially by second and even third generation Canadian, American and Australians of Filipino ancestry—but I’m not. I’m not surprised that the boxer and hooky-playing politician’s anti-gay marriage views, anti-reproductive rights position and tax evasion problems would be overlooked because he’s one of us, the 12 million transnational* Filipinos scattered around the world. But in a strange way, Pacquiao isn’t one of us: the self-proclaimed “Man of the Masses” has been deified as a God that he’s beyond the reach of criticism. His exorbitant lifestyle and rumours of illegitimate children could easily be forgiven, because unlike Typhoon Yolanda who pulverized the Philippines in the fall of 2013, Pacquiao is a sparkling beacon of hope, the little guy who ushered the island nation not only into the international sports arena, but into this millennia, extolling to the world, that see, Filipinos ARE champions—a far cry from the nannies, maids, janitors, construction workers, seafarers, prostitutes and shoe addicts most associated with the archipelago.
It’s easy to conflate the “heroism” in Pacquiao’s rags-to-riches story: being the fourth of six children born into poverty, the “Fighter of the Decade” has come a long way, winning eight-division championships and amassing a net worth of approximately $300 million dollars. However, his actions and statements outside the ring don’t measure up to his monikers. I’m not trying to knock his hard work and brawling talent, but as a transnational Filipino, I’m dubious about his top spot as a hero of the Filipino nation. It’s not wrong to define a hero as someone who possesses superior physical strength and skills, but in the continuing, crucial process of decolonization, a hero’s particular strength and skills should go towards the betterment and progress of society.
In his essay, The Roots of Subservience, esteemed Filipino historian Renato Constantino points out that,
A hero need not be perfect…It is his heroic acts and decisions that make him a hero. But these acts and decisions are not per se heroic, they only become so when they are in correspondence with the people’s interests and desires…[he] may be a symbol of a national event, but if some of his actions negate the ideals of which he is a symbol, he does not qualify for membership in the national pantheon.
While the Mayweather-Pacquiao showdown was jokingly considered a “national event” that united Filipinos all over the world, I found it peculiar that even after stories about Pacquiao’s shoulder deceit broke out shortly after his loss, support and shout-outs for the brawler intensified from prominent transnational Filipinos, some with activist backgrounds and left-leaning politics. #WESTILLLOVEYOUMANNY, #ONEFORPACMAN and demands for a rematch exploded across social media sites—overblown reactions for the congressman with the worse senate attendant record.
The lionization of Pacquiao reflects the Philippines’ heritage of colonial mentality, a psychology that will be demonstrated this weekend through the pomp of food, dance, beauty pageants and Filipiniana fashion shows during Philippine Independence Day celebrations taking place globally. A parade of Filipino heroes will be honoured and without question, Pacquiao will be included in this summery, sparkly fanfare. Aside from chowing down on lechon and gulping cups of fruity halo-halo desserts, transnational Filipinos should use this weekend to reflect and re-evaluate our constitution of heroes within the ongoing and crucial practice of decolonization.
In the context and practice of decolonization, Manny Pacquiao is better classified as a “colonial hero” whose values and character traits have been shaped through over 500 years of colonialism and education by two colonizers, and one military occupier**. Likewise, the preoccupation of the lives of colonial heroes is a bi-product of a colonial educational system where critical and creative thinking are not central to the curriculum. Rather, the acquisition of sterile facts and events aimed to simplify social problems and world views is paramount to colonial education. Heroism in the collective Filipino psychology is less about leadership for social change, than it is about entertainment and fantasy.
The rapid implementation of a colonial educational system in the Philippines by American soldiers in the early 20th century was “the most effective means of subjugating a people [in order] to capture their minds. Military victory does not necessarily signify conquest. As long as feelings of resistance remain in the hearts of the vanquished, no conqueror is secure… Education, therefore, serves as a weapon in wars of colonial conquest.”
In 1901, approximately 600 volunteer American soldiers sailed to the Philippines on the USS Thomas, serving as the island nation’s first teachers, thus establishing an education system with an American slant. A year later, almost 2000 American school teachers were stationed throughout the Philippines spreading American history and the virtues of American democracy in order to produce, what Constantino describes as, “a new generation of ‘Filipino-Americans’” who would be able to articulate and defend American colonial goals under the guise of a modern, Westernized, Filipino nation.
With American English as the official medium of instruction from kindergarten right up to university graduate studies, “the success of education as a colonial weapon was complete and permanent…The stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln made us forget our nationalism,” writes Constantino in The Miseducation of the Filipino.
With American textbooks, Filipinos started learning not only a new language but also a new way of life, alien to their traditions and yet a caricature of their model. This was the beginning of their education. At the same time, it was the beginning of their miseducation, for they learned they were no longer Filipinos but colonials.
With an American stronghold on education, the shaping of ideology, the re-fashioning, re-ordering and systemic forgetting of Philippine historical events and periods marked the dawning of Filipino colonial mentality. A manifest example of systemic forgetting is the distortion of the Philippine-American War that started in 1899 and ended in 1903. The Philippine-American War, a direct impact of the Spanish-American War; America’s first bloody invasion into Asia; a war that killed nearly a million Filipino civilians; a war whose practices of torture were first introduced and later on perfected in Vietnam; a war that has been called the “First Vietnam” is practically written out of history books.
Constantino points out that America’s “splendid little war” has been peddled as an “insurrection” despite the fact that “the Philippine-American War was planned and deliberately provoked by the McKinley administration” during trade negotiations wherein Spain would hand over the Philippines to the United States shortly after the end of the Spanish-American War.
“[T]he generations of Filipinos who learned their Philippine history in American colonial schools did not see the war as the US suppression of their cherished revolutionary and nationalist dreams,” Reynaldo Ileto discusses in his essay, The Philippine-American War: Friendship and Forgetting.
Instead it was more of a misguided, even stupid, rejection of a gift of further enlightenment. The fact that many Filipino officers who had fought against the Americans came to hold public office under colonial rule, only reinforced the view that the war of resistance was a waste of effort, an event that was best forgotten.
The quelling of critical thinking and twisting of Filipino revolutionary events and actions helped to fulfill the goals of the burgeoning American Empire at the beginning of the 20th century. Historical amnesia enabled the Filipino nation to habitually escape into passive reveries while rendering their rights and destinies into the powerful hands of their colonial master.
The escapist confusion of fame for heroism made Filipinos susceptible to fairy-tales narratives and archetypes. The last seven decades has crafted an array of colourful colonial heroes who sashayed and even swindled their way into powerful positions: Joseph Estrada used his former film persona to seduce the masses and get himself elected into presidency in 1999. Cory Aquino became president just a few short years after the assassination of her husband, Ninoy Aquino; her grieving widow story was central to her presidential campaign. Almost 50 years after her family looted the Philippine national treasury and her late Dictator-husband, Ferdinand Marcos imposed Martial Law, Imelda Marcos—who ran for president in 1998—is not only a regular TV personality, but a Filipino pop cultural icon in the archipelago and abroad. So potent is Marcos’ fame that Here Lies Love, an off-Broadway rock musical produced by legendary composer David Byrne and DJ Fat Boy Slim with an original soundtrack boasting the talents of Florence Welch, Cyndi Lauper, Natalie Merchant and Tori Amos among others, was created in her honour. Although it’s impossible to dismiss her husband’s bloody human rights violations during the 14-year period of Martial Law, the producers of Here Lies Love were said to have been inspired by Marcos’ Cinderella story more than anything else.
“I am my little people’s star and slave,” Imelda Marcos said in a 1980 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “When I go out into the barrios, I get dressed [up] because I know my little people want to see a star…People want someone they can love, someone to set an example.”
Quite an example indeed.
The cult of celebrity hero-worship, a striking and farcical practice of colonial mentality, has kept many Filipinos uncritical of their leaders, apathetic towards government corruption, and indifferent to the rule of powerful family Dynasties such as the Aquino’s, the Ayala’s, the Macapagal’s. Though Dynasties conjure allusions of strength and conviction, the reign of only a handful of families in the post-colonial era is a hallmark of an archaic system, a weak democracy, and the infantilization of the Filipino nation divorced from reality.
The heritage of colonial mentality afflicts the children of the diaspora. A similar forgetfulness is pervasive among transnational Filipino communities around the world, whose sense of belonging is soldered by identity crises frustrated by institutional racism, displacement and marginalization.
“The people in these fixed and migratory spaces must come to peace with layers of internal and external forms of colonization that have become naturalized,” writes Filipino-American filmmaker and professor, Angel Velasco Shaw in her essay, Exquisite Betrayal.
American-born Filipinos…are betrayed by the American dream’s attainability and by the naïve belief that their lives are easier because they were born in the United States. Alienation from their own cultural heritage, history, and knowledge about the relations between the Philippines and the United States often causes displacement, fragmentation, and an intense hunger to know more about who they are.
The United States is culpable of miseducating and misleading Americans about their history of colonialism, slavery, and empire-building. The mere fact that the Philippine-American war, a pivotal event for both countries, is considered only a historical footnote is a measure of the colonial education systems on both sides of the Pacific.
For Filipino-Americans, their history of labour migration to the United States since the 16th century is largely ignored, a void felt by Christine Peralta, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Even though she grew up in Houston, Texas, a city that boasts a large Asian-American population, Peralta recalls,
“The closest thing I remember reading that spoke to the Filipina diaspora was How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents [by Julia Alvarez] about second generation sisters from the Dominican Republic. [An] English teacher let me read that book for a final report in AP English….[I]t wasn’t even assigned to the whole class…It’s kind of funny how many Asian people are in the Houston area, you would not know by the school curriculum at all.”
The lack of not learning about her history led Peralta to “having a real hunger to learn anything about any people of color, particularly Asian people,” she tells me over email.
“It’s weird how certain things even if they are right in front of your face like Filipino nurses, Filipino care workers, Filipino service industry people, can be so invisible to U.S. mainstream culture. And I think having that experience has really informed the scholarship that I do. I am always thinking about who is at the margins? Who is invisible? [This] makes you rethink human value, like who gets to count and doesn’t get to count? Even though my great-grandfather was recruited to come and work in the U.S. in the 1920’s, I do not think my family’s story and what my family has contributed, ‘still counts.’ ”
The distortion of Canada’s colonial history, especially its denial of colonization and slavery, has contributed to the marginalization and alienation of Filipino-Canadians, Indigenous peoples and other communities of colour across the country. The silencing of Canada’s racist history rumbles throughout the Canadian educational system where students are often taught, for example, that the French and British harmoniously traded with the Indigenous people along the Hudson River, giving way to commercial exchange, progress, friendship, and eventually, the building of the Canadian nation.
Throughout elementary and high school studies, stories of Indigenous residential schools, Chinese labourers who constructed the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Komagatu Maru, the internment of Japanese-Canadians are taught superficially that they seem to account so little in the historical and contemporary cultural landscape in Canada. It’s only in post-secondary education that students have the opportunity to scratch the surface of coloured narratives, but by then, ideologies and attitudes have been formed.
“I have yet to encounter the Canadian student who comes into [my] class, knowing that slavery happened in Canada,” said Charmaine Nelson, an associate professor of art history at McGill—the only black art historian in all of Canada—at a February panel organized by McGill University’s Black Students’ Network in honour of Black History Month.
“Much of Canada’s Black history is not in education curriculums before university. And even at the postsecondary level, there is little space taken in Canadian academia on the subject,” Nelson said.
For 16-year old Filipino-Canadian Michael Vince Ledesma, a 10th grader from Toronto, Ontario, learning about the Philippines and the history of Filipinos in Canada was next to nothing.
“We’ve only talked about the contribution of the Philippines to WWII, that’s about it,” Ledesma tells me over email.
Institutional racism and the polite avoidance of Canada’s racist legacy by way of vapid, multicultural celebrations such as dance recitals and ethnic cuisine potlucks have prompted Canadians to a “‘holier than thou’ orientation towards the United States,” Rick Ponting writes, in his essay, Racial Conflict: Turning the Heat Up. “However, such smugness is quite ill-founded, for racism has been a long-standing feature of Canadian society.”
The combination of institutional racism and the indifference towards the history of Filipinos in Canada drives many Filipino-Canadians to look to their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland to complete their fragmented identity and to anchor themselves within the slippery ether of the diaspora. It’s a matter of existing: if immigrant and migrant stories don’t exist in historical documents, and their contributions are deemed not important enough to be taught in classrooms, then certainly, immigrant and migrant communities don’t matter enough to exist. It’s no wonder that many transnational Filipinos choose to idolize Pacquiao whose world-wide visibility and charisma is enough to qualify him as a hero. Sadly, this idolization reveals more of our desperation for representation than anything else.
Moreover, the perpetuation of Filipino machismo through the veneration of Pacquiao is troublesome. It’s understandable that men of colour would roll-out the red carpet for Pacquiao and declare him a role model since athletes embody physical prowess, fame, and wealth, all primary attributes of masculinity. Institutional racism, racial profiling, criminalization and marginalization disempowers men of colour who must navigate and negotiate each day in a racist and patriarchal society that demands them to constantly assert and prove their masculinity. While Pacquiao is an obvious hero for some men of colour, his masculine values rests on vehemently rejecting gay marriage and denying women their reproductive rights. This is a poor and dangerous model for masculinity.
There’s no doubt that while our cultural and ethnic heritage comforts us, we have to confront the uncomfortable reality that many aspects our heritage is backward and may even hold us back from progress. In short, not everything from the Philippines ought to be regarded as “good” or “better” since Philippine culture is not static. We have to remember that, as Constantino put it, “Filipinos…are Filipinos [only] in the cultural, racial sense…[The] Filipino [is] a developing concept” and in the context of shifting social conditions, it’s imperative to understand that “the true Filipino [is] one who is consciously striving for decolonization and independence,” and not for the preservation of antiquated, romanticized ideals.
So what to do with the hero/champ/Island Messiah conundrum?
Well, I won’t dismiss Pacquiao’s mass appeal, because like many celebrities, notorious or otherwise, his fame is too big, so let’s call him what he is: an athlete. To be more specific, a boxer. I’ll even go the extra round and call him a singer, an entertainer, politician, a showman, a some-time actor, a pop culture personality, a public servant, and a God-fearing conservative born-again Christian.
But a hero? Try anti-hero.
That being said, I also can’t deny that Pacquiao is one of us, that is, the millions of transnational Filipinos trying to make sense of a messy nationhood. And since he is one of us, then I can certainly criticize Pacquiao, and even demand for his ouster from the pantheon of heroes. After all, it is up to us to decide who best represents us, and the criteria for heroes should entail more than a fairy-tale story and lavish mansions in Manila and Beverly Hills as markers of heroic triumphs. It’s not to say that Pacquiao can’t be proud about his wealth or even his ability to take care of his family with his boxing money, but these are individual, personal achievements, none of which, among other concerns, have concretely uplifted the Philippines from poverty.
It seems that Pacquiao could use some advice from fellow boxer, Muhammad Ali, also known as “the Greatest,” who, in 1967 refused to be drafted into the US Army and go to war in Vietnam.
“My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali famously declared. Unlike “the Greatest,” Pacquiao has yet to exercise his public platform to influence world affairs, address government corruption, push for gender equality in the Philippines, raise wages and lower tuition fees.
With a foreign debt of $77 billion US dollars and with 4000 Filipinos leaving the Philippines each day to work abroad, the island nation brimming with towers of sugar cane and vibrant rice terraces, must still contend with an unequal and ruinous foreign trade and military relationship with the United States. Thus, Philippine Independence Day is an opportunity to not only celebrate the accomplishments of our ancestors who fought against Spain for the independence of the Philippines, but is a sober reminder that the long haul towards decolonization and liberation is not yet over. The process of freeing ourselves from colonial mentality requires a serious reclassification of current heroes in concert with a diligent and critical investigation of Philippine history—a history that includes a thorough evaluation of Filipino and American colonial relations and the aftermath.
But at the end of day, is all of this really necessary?
Yes, if for no other reason than we deserve it.
We deserve better heroes and leaders who represent and work towards the interests and highest aspirations of the Filipino nation—these are the values and freedoms our ancestors fought and died for over a hundred years ago and it’s grievous to dishonour their memory by apotheosizing cult personalities who forbid the rights of half the nation. Our leaders speak volumes of who we are as a people and we can’t afford to be haphazard about what they do and they stand for.
So while our heritage is one of colonial mentality and colonial heroes, it’s also one of revolutions and revolutionaries, and in the spirit of true independence, let’s aim higher and fight for a new generation of genuine heroes in the Philippines and abroad. It’s what real champs do.
*A member of migrating, immigrant nations who have no permanent home; nations who move from country to another for work and economic opportunities.
**Spanish colonialism, 1521-1896; American colonialism, 1899-1941; Japanese military occupation, 1941-1945.
Charlene Sayo is a Montreal-born, Vancouver-based blogger and commentator. She is the co-author of Canada: The New Frontier for Filipino Mail-Order Brides and the host of the MsRepresent podcast. Find her online at CharleneSayo.com.