The Labor of Representation and Narratives of Filipino Americans

The Labor of Representation and Narratives of Filipino Americans
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This post is the latest in the series “Connecting All the Dots” an ongoing discussion about and across movements. While connecting two dots only makes a simple line, connecting ALL the dots can create a completely different picture that can help provide new insight on the issues of the day.

<p>From Top Left: FANHS FB post, Jose Antonio Vargas on <a href="">MSNBC</a>, FilVetREP website</p>

From Top Left: FANHS FB post, Jose Antonio Vargas on MSNBC, FilVetREP website

As we head into the Labor Day weekend, many people complain that the original intent of the holiday has been lost. What was begun by labor unions as an effort to lift up workers in the late 19th century is now perceived by some to be an excuse circumvent work by taking a day off in order to indulge in the very excesses of corporate capitalism that labor makes possible. While it can be both of those things at the same time and more, what’s of more interest to me here is not so much how the narrative of what the holiday means has shifted, but the fact that it has shifted in the first place. Narrative achieves its power because it frames how we experience a given phenomenon.

If narrative frames our experience, representation is the lens inside that frame, showing us the subject of that narrative in a particular way to a particular end. The trope of the “hero’s journey” for example, sets up a subject (the hero) and a narrative (the journey). What becomes important then, is who gets to represent and what we understand them to represent.

While all of this may seem overly analytical, the struggle for representation is very real and has very concrete consequences. The stories of Filipino WWII veterans have by and large been lost in the broader narrative of how we here in the U.S. understand and remember the war. The cycle of neglect from a policy perspective began when the 1946 Rescission Act literally denied the existence of their service. It has since resulted in decades of red ink on denied benefits claims for these soldiers and no ink at all in our history books. Even when we are told the story of the Bataan Death March, we remember WWII through stories of General Douglas MacArthur when his “I shall return” quote marked a hero’s journey of its own, but we fail to remember the bravery of women and men like Silver Star honoree Corporal Magdalena Estoista Leones. The work of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project to lift up these stories then, is to bring new narratives to bear as different representations of WWII and ultimately, what it means not just for Filipino Americans, but for all of us.

As we think about these issues of representation and narratives today then, what is encouraging is that Filipino Americans are increasingly seen not just as side notes or side kicks, but as leaders of movements and high profile exemplars across the scope of American public life. In the heated discussions about immigration and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy that hangs in the balance this weekend, Jose Antonio Vargas is in many ways, the most visible face of undocumented immigrants as a powerful storyteller with Define American. At last week’s MTV Video Music Awards, as a response to the threat to bar transgender people from military service, a cadre of openly transgender military service members, including Filipina Americans Laila Ireland and Akira Wyatt.

LGBT Filipino Americans like Jose, Laila, and Akira are, in Jose’s words, letting us into their stories, and more importantly, expanding the narrative about who and what gets talked about in some of the most controversial topics of the day. The simple act of living in their truth, the very real threats of violence and (in Jose’s case deportation) that they face on a daily basis, become in their own way, do the work of representation. Like their manongs and manangs before them in WWII, their very existence expands the narrative of what is possible in the struggle for human rights and the preservation of our democracy.

Ben de Guzman is on the Executive Committee of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. FilVetREPs Remember, Register, Recognize campaign continues this weekend. He sends love to the Texans in his life and to the people bearing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

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