This conversation brings together three emergent scholars of the Philippines and Philippine diaspora whose first books contend with different aspects of colonial world making (or competing versions of world making). These books linger on the forces, materials, and narratives that are brought to bear on this process in the contact zones and circuits of US-Philippine relations, but also how the imaginative, material, political, social, cultural world-building apparatuses of empire are met by the colonized. What’s particularly exciting about them are the different theoretical frameworks and fields they engage with and the methods and archives that are explored in each one—which speak to the richness of Filipinx studies and the rigor and innovation of work in the field today.
Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez (VG): To get started, let’s have each of you tell us about your ideal reader or the reader you had in mind when you were researching and writing your book.
Sony Coráñez Bolton (SCB): My book is interested in looking at representations of disability in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. Mestizaje in the Americas has its own eugenic history and I was curious about what a Philippine case study would bring to the global archive of mestizaje. The book argues that mestizaje is an ideology of ability, meaning Filipino mestizos preferred able-bodiedness and able-mindedness within a Western Enlightenment framework. And more globally, I’m really interested in how colonialism writ large uses disability as a hidden logic to propel and to rationalize itself as a project.
So, while one intended reader is someone who is in Latinx studies or romance studies in Spanish, another intended reader is in the joint audiences of disability studies and Filipino studies.
Genevieve Clutario (GC): My book is a history of how beauty and fashion shaped the Philippines. It takes vignettes or scenes of beauty and fashion to tell the story of empire and modernization at the everyday level. I had multiple readers in mind, but the primary reader was me! It’s what I would want to read, at the intersection of cultural analysis, political economy, beauty and fashion, diplomatic history, and US imperialism.
Josen Masangkay Diaz (JMD): My book is about ideas of Filipino America that are cohering during the Cold War, from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, especially during the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines and a period of liberal reform in the United States. In terms of the audience, I was thinking about people who are curious about, even unsettled by, Filipino America itself. I remember in graduate school an adviser asked, do you think work in Fil Am studies explores just one thing all of the time? I thought, no, actually I don’t. I’ve carried that question with me. There is something really important and powerful about the unsettledness of Filipino America that is at the heart of the book.
VG: These three amazing new books are actually quite different from one another. But perhaps what unites all of our work, and Philippine life in the diaspora, is the specter of the US empire. Can you talk a little bit about how your books grapple with US empire as a formative analytic of Filipinx studies?
GC: I wanted to approach US empire in a way that contextualized it as overlapping with the multiple empires that have existed in the Philippines. The periodization is never as neat as we might make it out to be in classes, because previous empires like the Spanish and the Japanese persisted. I’ll give an example from my book. You may think that the United States brought beauty pageants to the Philippines in the early 1900s, because the United States colonial government instituted the Manila Carnival Queen Contest as a fundraising scheme. But Filipino beauty pageants are not derivative of American beauty pageants! There are multiple genealogies of the spectacle of beauty at work. Some aspects of pageantry come from Spanish imperialism and vernacularized religious pageantry—that are, in fact, very different from the beauty pageants happening in the United States at that same period. Even though the United States founded this contest with a specific intent, that intent didn’t come to total fruition because other genealogies couldn’t be contained. That helps us understand empire as powerful, but also understand how people and communities interact with empire in a nuanced way.
JMD: I like Genevieve’s answer! And it applies to the postcolonial period as well. I’m also interested in intersecting empires and the ways that different iterations of nationalism take up the lessons or languages of empire. Dictators, autocrats, strongmen who espouse a populist nationalism often adopt decolonial rhetoric, which is a way to engage empire after the formal declaration of colonialism’s end. In some ways, my book wrestles with the complexities of Third World nationalism.
SCB: Josen has this really great turn of phrase in their book where they talk about how power doesn’t operate in a monolithic way, not within the guardrails of the nation, but that the unit of analysis ought to be multistate governmentality. Similar to Genevieve, I don’t abandon Spanish empire, my book looks at Spanish writing by Filipinos during the US period, so already we are in this very multisited archive, and then the question for me was why do we have the protraction of Spanish modernity during the period of ostensibly rapid Anglicization? The period is actually known as the golden age of Spanish writing in the Philippines. The early 20th century, not the 19th century, we can’t calcify these segments of historiography. In order to understand the Philippine historical experience of race and gender and all these different modalities of identity, we need to think beyond the nation-state, but then also across imperial projects.
VG: I really appreciate the ways that your books expand our understanding of Filipinx studies. What are the unexpected texts, fields, and genealogies that your book engages and is in conversation with?
JMD: My entrance into Filipinx studies is through Fil Am studies. Filipino American texts consistently undo ideas of race and diaspora, and I really wanted to latch onto that. Ideas of Filipinoness are shaped by ideas of race and gender that circulate well beyond the Philippines.
The book is also an attempt to engage Cold War studies without being Cold War studies. A study of the Philippines might actually offer a better understanding of the central concerns of the Cold War than what a standard focus on big power players would give because it’s a period when people are rethinking ideas of subjectivity precisely because of empire and decolonization. The racial Cold War is a key concern for me. I also hope my conversations with Asian studies and critical refugee studies feel present in the book.
SCB: The key term for me is crip colonial critique, leading the charge against Cartesian dualism and the separation of body and mind. Pointing out that disability foundationally adumbrates coloniality. In terms of unexpected fields that I’m engaging with, different types of global histories are surfaced by this approach. What constitutes exceptional embodiment is defined via the norms in the United States or in the United Kingdom, but that’s going to be really different from Southeast Asia. A limbless body is not exceptional in those spaces.
Another field that is perhaps surprising is Indigenous studies (part of the argument is that mestizo nationals navigated the intersection of Spanish humanism and US liberalism to fabricate a Philippine Indian that they could rehabilitate) and feminist disability studies. Typically, white feminists do disability and I really wanted to read against their tendency to tokenize people of color as disability thinkers. Lastly, similarly to Josen, I have found that Southeast Asian studies has been interested in this book because it is about the Philippines, but not necessarily in this Cold War–area studies way.
VG: This is such a rich discussion. I love it. Genevieve?
GC: The concept of beauty regimes came to me late in the writing process. I had already been trying to articulate what I meant by colonial power, but it was a struggle. I was in a writing group and joking about terrible titles for the book, and a friend of mine said, “Genevieve, you keep making jokes about beauty regimes, so why don’t you just call it Beauty Regimes?” When I’m nervous, I tend to make a lot of jokes without realizing that in my jokes are actually what I want to say. I don’t know how to take myself seriously sometimes. It really helped me crystallize and sync together the whole book.
I started reading more about regimes in general, including political science. I thought the stuff on Southeast Asia was so interesting, like they were talking about regimes not in the way that I had assumed, in terms of authoritarianism, but about the regime of the everyday. There was so much more work coming out of Asian American studies and in particular transnational Asian American studies on beauty, thinking about the intersections of capitalism, pop culture, and bodies. It was really powerful. I didn’t expect to be a historian of capitalism. Nor was I trained as a labor historian. I tended to run away from all of that stuff in graduate school. But I couldn’t escape what my sources told me. Like Josen and Sony, I wasn’t necessarily surprised because I always had Asian studies on my mind. There is a negotiation between Asian American studies and Asian studies that mirrors our field.
VG: How did you decide on the archive for your book, and did the archive shape the argument?
GC: I was trained as a historian. So you’re in graduate school, you get told that you have an archive, but I was not a history major as an undergrad, so I didn’t actually understand what they were saying. In my first year of coursework, nobody explained to me what an archive was, so I talked to my adviser about it and he said well, nobody explains it to you because if they actually tried, whatever they said probably wouldn’t be true, especially in Filipinx studies, where you have to be really creative about what you mean by archives. Although he was completely right, at the time that was hard for me to understand. I was like, just tell me where to go and what to do. I was so lost. I decided I was going to just cast the net really wide. A librarian asked me, well, what are you looking for? I was like, dude, anything about women, gender. They replied, you are not going to find much. I was surprised. They said, yeah, look at our folder labeled women and it was really sparse, there wasn’t much. And I thought, God, what am I going to do? So, I decided, I’m just going to look at everything. And something is going to happen. I looked at military records, financial records for colonial bureaucracy. I decided to look at Vogue magazine and Women’s Wear Daily, not expecting that they would say much about the Philippines, but looking anyway, and I ended up finding so much. It was very exhausting because I had to sift through all of that stuff. I didn’t have an argument, I was just desperate. Eventually through accumulation, these archives came up. It was treasure hunting.
I tell this story a lot, but my best friend in graduate school is also a Filipina historian, Tessa Winkelmann, and we decided, let’s divide and conquer. We are going to go to the archive together. You look at this box of this one guy, and I will look at this box of this other guy, and if we find anything for each other, we’ll exchange. We did that at the Bentley at Michigan, and I got assigned Alfred LeRoy, who is this colonial bureaucrat for William Taft. I was digging through it and I was like, Tessa, he says some really wild stuff, like here you go. But tucked in his papers I found the papers of his wife. They’re not really labeled in the finding aid, and there were these letters that are the basis of my first chapter because they were so honest, so raw. Had I not been open to looking at a colonial official who I thought would not matter to my project, I would not have found her. She writes about a lot of Filipino women who were also unnamed, so there are still erasures in the archive, but with some creativity, she and the Filipino women she writes about become really important to the research.
I was looking in the national archives at College Park. As many people know, there is no online finding aid for the Bureau of Insular Affairs papers, just giant binders, and if you are lucky enough to have an archivist who is friendly, they will help guide you through the binders. So, I was like, okay, this is what this project is about, and they were like, all right, here are some boxes and folders that might be of interest to you. One is under women’s work, and the folder is called embroidery. So, I said, all right, give me. I looked at it, and embroidery became super central to my book. I discovered Division H in Bilibid Prison, the division for women who are incarcerated who are doing embroidery work. I got this YouTube video from another colleague, Victor Mendoza, who told me there was a silent film about embroiderers and incarcerated women. It just all started coming together, but it almost felt like too much. So, on the one hand, when people say like go look for your box, go look for your archive, sometimes I envy them because it is contained. But on the other hand, if I had done that, I would not have found all of this stuff. And I wouldn’t have been able to write the book for the reader that was me. So, it is both fortuitous and exhausting.
VG: I love those stories. Sony, how about you?
SCB: I went to the University of Michigan, which has an enormous repository of Philippine studies materials. A speaker that came there said Ann Arbor is to the Philippines what London is to India, in terms of archival colonial repositories. That generates certain questions. This archive is about you and people that you are related to, you have a certain kinship to, but also the formation of that archive is actually historically dedicated to your annihilation, while also preserving it. I was too in my feelings in a lot of ways, but it really did help me think about archival methodology. My book is asking what might it mean when your own cognition is confronted with your desire to make claims about social reality on the one hand, but then also the material conditions of the archive as a colonial product of theft on the other.
JMD: I trained as a cultural studies scholar, so let me just answer that question about archives differently. There are texts in the book that I have held with me for a really long time. And those were the ones that guided me into other places. It doesn’t come up a lot in the book for a few reasons, but Dogeaters, like I’m sure it was for many of us, was such a central text for me throughout my adult life. The angel and devil on my shoulders—they are both Dogeaters.
This is to say that my own understanding of Filipinx America and the arguments that emerge in the book about it comes from a cultural archive of martial law. I write about a Zack Linmark poem that I found a long time ago, also Lino Brocka’s Insiang, the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Eric Gamalinda’s The Empire of Memory. I arrived at many of those texts during a trip to Manila that was supposed to be an archival trip, but it just ended up becoming a personal trip where I walked around all the places that I could access. An adviser once told me, culture is the work of time. So if you study culture, then you need to take that time and sit with things. And so, about the archive through this idea of time—it means spending time with the work and discovering the worlds around it and the ways my thinking shifts around that.
VG: I remember in grad school, one of my friends advising me, oh yeah, if you are going to do some grant writing for fellowships, talk about the archive because they love that shit. It is this mystified thing, but you realize over time that it is not inert. There is a weird conceptualization that we inherit, and then our work is all about exploding that idea in the end.
JMD: In graduate school, as a first-year graduate student, I would take classes where everybody kept talking about the archive and I needed to go find it. But, I kept thinking, where is it—is it in DC? Is that where it’s at? Where is it?
GC: If you study empire, there is no one place. And it’s probably not going to be in a place where the population of Filipinos are.
VG: Ultimately, your three books are really not about empire at the center, but about the colonized. I love the moments where your books really linger on their encounters with power, the ways in which the colonized push back, exist and survive, allowing us to understand those moments in beautiful, painful, nuanced ways. This idea of running amok in the colony. Could you talk a little bit about these geographies of intimacy and what they tell us about the colonial subject?
JMD: I love this question because one of my issues with Cold War studies of the Philippines is the marginalization of the Philippines within broader studies of Asia and the United States. But the Philippines can tell us something really important about these global connections. My favorite chapter is my fourth chapter because I love the text at the heart of that chapter. A teacher from the Philippine refugee processing center writes this letter in the voice of her refugee student. She is ventriloquizing what he is thinking, what he wants to say, and I’m thinking, what about her work and experiences would make her want to do that? But these forms of relationality come out in unlikely places that are so generative. Places like the refugee processing center created vertical relationships, hierarchies, that assumed where people should be situated within the center. But then people there found other ways to articulate their relationships to others that acknowledge shared experiences of war, of imperialism, that are going against the regime’s articulations of subjectivity. For me, the priority is untangling or reenvisioning the different connections and affinities that people can make with unlikely figures or places.
SCB: This is really great. That intimacy is a really great word for it, both in the macro and the micro. Who gets to have the liberal subjectivity, who gets to be a fully fledged robust political subject? My book begins in my classroom, where I’m teaching Spanish as a Filipino Spanish professor, which has a lot of misrecognition baked in. So, if my book is a critique of colonial cognition, it really is borne out by this racial recognition that happens to me quite often, and so, what I tried to do with this anecdotal moment is to say, oh, this is not an historical accident. What happens if we reverse engineer this moment? Multiple geographies have braided together our migration histories to produce this encounter, this moment of intimacy. What would happen to Filipino American studies if we took really seriously our heritage, to use a weird word, as former denizens of Spanish empire? What does that do for comparative ethnic studies? For thinking about lines of connection between Latinx studies over here, and Filipinx studies over there?
GC: For me, what makes a system are ties and connections, and that is what intimacy is—the things that are woven together whether or not they want to be. For example, early 20th-century embroidery handcrafted by a Filipino in Paco, Manila, is part of a negligee donned by an American white woman. It goes onto her body, creating a racial and imperial intimacy that is overlooked. I’m interested in an intimate geography, not of people, but contact facilitated by the materiality of empire. The general consul of Switzerland is writing back and forth with the secretary of war looking for lace samples to send back to the Philippines. And colonial subjects understand the messiness and complications of empire. My favorite chapter to write was the first chapter because it was about people gossiping. It actually was one of the hardest chapters to write. I was watching Mean Girls on repeat and I was like, oh, these are colonial mean girls! The connections and intimacies get us writing and help highlight important things to write about, often very unexpected and really fortuitous.
VG: I’m excited about the state of the field after this conversation. I’m excited to draw on your books for my next projects. The conversation has been so buoying.