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Viewpoint

Colonial past can dictate the present

I’d like to share another story with you, but first some context.

The Philippines were occupied from 1565 until 1946. Spanish colonial rule lasted for 333 years and ended in 1898 when Filipino insurgents seized the entire island of Luzon except for the Spanish walled city in Manila – and when Admiral Dewey and the American navy arrived. Flush with dreams of empire, the Americans took Manila and in short order declared themselves the rulers of the Philippines.

The annexation of this vast archipelago of 7,107 islands, stretching about 1,000 miles from south to north, was sanctioned by the Treaty of Paris between the U.S. and Spain. It happened over the objections of the Filipinos, whose representative to the talks was excluded from the negotiations. It also happened over tremendous opposition from the Anti-Imperialist League, whose most famous spokesman, Mark Twain, lamented that this war betrayed the ideals of American democracy by depriving the Filipino people of the right to choose their own path.

President McKinley declared the Filipinos as “unfit for self-government.” He said, “There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.” Never mind that Spanish missionaries had been at work since 1565 turning Filipinos into Catholics, and that the Spaniards had created the first public education system in Asia in 1863, the first universities in Asia (older than Harvard), and one of the most advanced countries in Asia at that time.

The Filipino revolutionary government declared war on the U.S. in 1899. Most resistance had ended by 1902. The war cost from 200,000 to 1 million Filipino lives. Gen. Jacob Hurd Smith ordered his troops to turn the island of Samar into “a howling wilderness” and to kill everyone over the age of 10. This year I visited a museum in the Province of Cavite where I saw a photo of American troops posing proudly above a trench filled with corpses of villagers they had massacred.

The Americans occupied the Philippines until 1942, when the Japanese invaded. One year after Japan surrendered, the Philippines became an independent republic. The U.S. maintained major military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Field until 1992, when the Philippine government ended the bases agreement.

When Linda and I went to the Philippines in 1987, we were aware of this colonial history, but it didn’t come alive for me until an event in 1989.

The refugees passing through the Philippine Refugee Processing Center lived in “neighborhoods” divided between Phase I, up the road from the center of the camp where we lived and worked, and Phase II, which lay between the entrance gate and our homes and offices. Both Phase I and II had large markets where Filipino vendors sold food and dry goods.

The most volatile population in the camp was the Amerasians, young men and women fathered by Americans. Many suffered discrimination after the war ended in 1975; they did not know their fathers though many had dreams of finding them when they got to the U.S.; and they were given priority immigration status by the U.S. government. Some came with their families or with “parents” who had essentially bought them as a passport to come to the U.S. Others arrived as unaccompanied minors. Some of these young people were very angry.

One day an incident occurred at the Phase I market – perhaps a refugee accused a vendor of cheating. Before long a crowd of angry refugees had surrounded the market and some young Amerasian men were up on the roof of the market. It was a tense and dangerous situation. The staff of World Relief heard of this and we drove up to the market. Filipinos and Americans formed a double cordon of linked arms through which the vendors were escorted to vehicles to drive them to safety. Angry refugees behind us shouted at the vendors and some of our Filipino colleagues were struck from behind. No one was seriously hurt but we were all scared.

We then left the market and returned to the center of the camp. Word came then that a group of young men were marching down from above, headed for the camp center and a possible confrontation with the Philippine Police Force. I went up with other American staff to meet the marchers, to walk with them and try to keep them from hurting others or being hurt.

As we walked through the center, some of the young men dashed off to the side toward Filipino homes to try to break a window or cause other damage. We ran with them. I remember persuading a man to put down a pickaxe and return to the road. Our Filipino friends and colleagues watched from doors and windows as the march passed World Relief offices and dorms. I no longer remember how the march ended, but it was without the confrontation with armed police that we feared.

We were exhausted and shaky when we got back to our offices. Then came an even deeper shock. One of my very best friends, a Filipina woman with whom I worked closely, told me that by walking alongside the marchers, I was taking the side of the rioters. We Americans were accused of betraying our Filipino colleagues. At an emotional meeting that evening, we heard from them that they’d been hit from behind while helping the vendors to escape the market. Why hadn’t we stopped this? Why hadn’t we protected them?

At first I was simply dumbfounded. The idea that I had the power as an American to prevent blows from falling on my friends during a riot – preposterous! And how could my friends interpret my joining the march as anything but an attempt to prevent damage and injury?

Fortunately, we Filipinos and Americans cared enough about each other to stick through this very difficult place. I knew my friends had been very brave to intervene in the riot, and I respected them too much to dismiss them as crazy, however offended I was at first. They did not give up on us either. Slowly, we found our way through, and here is what I learned.

For all the deep bonds of friendship and shared work that connected us, we were unconsciously living out our colonial past. While middle management was both Filipino and American, all but one of the top positions in our agency were held by Americans. The future of our program depended on those above us in the U.S. Department of State and World Relief’s home office. However unwittingly, we Americans represented power and privilege. White privilege extended even to not being hit from behind by rioters.

Our Filipino friends, extraordinary people with great talent and dedication, also fell into a role unconsciously. In those moments of fear, I think they looked to us as powerful enough to protect them, as a child would expect a parent to shield him or her from harm. They were angry and hurt because we did not live up to this expectation.

So here we found ourselves dancing with our shadows. It was so painful and yet such a gift, for from this experience I learned to know my friends much more deeply, and also myself. I felt (not just understood) that history follows us and lives through us until we become conscious of it.

I knew I would write this story long before the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman was announced. Once again, and every day, we are challenged to confront our history and to bring our shadows into the light.

David Blair of Harrisville is the cofounder and former executive director of the Mariposa Museum & World Culture Center in Peterborough. He writes about his travels and life the Philippines.

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