I’m a terrible writer, but I do believe that everything has a story. Whether it’s a poem or a novel or a show or a long blog entry, everything has – and must have – a story. The story, to me, represents the face of an idea; it gives it a body, it gives the image the ability to speak to us. Far from being a mere construct or an instance in language, stories become voices.
Stories (or “narratives,” to use a big word), are more than just for entertainment. Stories, like dramas and fiction, are ways to frame our reality. Rather than being mere flights of fancy, a story can tell stories of other stories. Instead of being something so exclusive and so unique, people often find something in common with any story. Something they can identify with, and something they can relate to. In the case of migrant workers, so many stories have already been told. We all have a friend or relative who works in the big city or abroad, and chances are you may be a big city worker or an overseas Filipino worker.
I cannot be – and I refuse to be – the best possible spokesperson for the plight of OFWs, on account that I am not an OFW. The blogosphere has its fill of OFW advocates (like The Ca t or Reyna Elena or Tonyo Cruz or Coffee With Amee or Balikbayan Box); I’m just a lyrics translator. Yet I have a problem with the word “diaspora” when used in the context of an OFW or a migrant worker. A diaspora more accurately refers to and implies the exile, exodus, and eventual return of the Jews to Israel. “Diaspora” is not our narrative as a people; the “Philippine diaspora” is not our story. Our story is “pakikipagsapalaran.”
OK, time for those long entries. Here goes…
“Pakikipagsapalaran,” in my non-expert view, is the narrative of the Filipino in a time of globalization. Like diaspora, it is displacement; but instead of a hope of return, it is a hope for returns. “Pakikipagsapalaran” is the Filipino narrative of displacement in the search for fortune.
An overly dramatic and emotional definition of a soap opera staple? I don’t think so.
Reading This Section Is (Semi-)Optional
Some of you may think that I’m too preoccupied with semantics or technicalities; what’s the big deal if someone uses “diaspora” and if I insist on “pakikipagsapalaran?” There’s a very big deal there, and it has a lot to do with language.
Let me draw from the jargonating name-dropping theory-invoking machine and gather, draw out, and fuck up whatever memory of linguistics I have in my head. If my memory serves me right, was Edward Sapir who once said that for anything to have a rudimentary significance in language, that thing must be tied down to some measure of experience.
We have 30+ words for rice in the Philippines, for example, but we don’t have a word for snow. Benjamin Whorf, Sapir’s student, wrote that while an American would have all-encompassing words for “snow,” the Inuit (Eskimo) would think of it as unclear, or would probably see no reason behind it. As such, the Inuit have a lot of words to describe snow in their focal vocabulary. Many words are formed not only because of necessity, but because it articulates a feeling. Like many things, a word bears, as Charles Taylor writes, a certain import and a property that refers to the subject, or the subjective experience.
Two-paragraph crash course on some linguistics done… so what? Let’s move on…
Many struggles all over the world, particularly those that involve getting displaced, have a word:
- The word diaspora was appropriated by the Jews to describe their uprooting and dispersion from Israel, as a result of a history of exodus.
- The word Maafa is often used by displaced Africans to describe a cultural disconnection from the continent as a result of slavery.
- The “untouchables” in India call themselves Dalit; rather than be referred to as outcasts, the Dalit took it upon themselves to call themselves outcasted.
When you mention “diaspora” to a Jew, “Maafa” to an African, or “Dalit” to a Hindu, you elicit strong feelings. They have a connection with the words they use; it describes them, it tells their story. “Diaspora” will elicit things like the Babylonian Captivity and their exile from their homeland. “Maafa” will elicit things like the slave-ships and chains that brought the Africans to distant shores. “Dalit” will elicit feelings of displacement by people who happen to be in a different caste.
We, as a people, have a lot more in common with Jews and Africans and Hindus than we do have differences, especially that we have very similar histories of displacement, dispersion, and oppression. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t take offense to the idea of a “Philippine diaspora,” I just don’t agree with it. My (shallow and irrelevant) problem with the phrase “Philippine diaspora” is that it banks on our experiences as a mere parallelism of other peoples’ experiences, instead of a meaningful articulation of our own experiences.
Why “pakikipagsapalaran,” then? Instead of a promised land, and an eviction from a promised land, the Filipino people – represented here by OFWs – leave the homeland in the name of a promise of a better future beyond its borders. It is the narrative of “pagbabakasakali sa Maynila,” or “pakikipagsapalaran sa Maynila,” on a global scale; instead of city centers like, those seeking fortunes now turn to places like the Middle East, North America, Europe, and places beyond. The homeland still exists, the mother country is still populated, and there’s still no place like home. The difference is that the people (the OFWs) leave for better opportunities that are not found – and perhaps, never to be found – in the homeland.
In the case of city workers who get displaced from the provinces, the assumption almost always holds that the difficulty of life in the farm must be a motivation for people to leave and seek their fortunes in the big city. Education, employment, and a comfortable living are things that aren’t offered in places where schools are too far away, where the priority becomes the day-to-day struggle to survive in a farm.
That word – “pakikipagsapalaran” – should define our position and our situation. In so many ways, we are refugees and slaves, and at the same time heroes and a world-changing people. Yet note the words “sa palad:” we are a people in a constant struggle and search for fortune. The reason why we do “pakikipagsapalaran” on a much global scale is not just about seeking greener pastures, but running away from the clutches of poverty and running toward the opportunities that are not available here.
It’s the search for a better future that pretty much defines a narrative of “pakikipagsapalaran.” Circumstances like poverty and/or a lack of employment opportunities have forced our people – willingly – to leave these the homeland and seek greener pastures somewhere else. “Pakikipagsapalaran” is something negotiated; like any conversation, it is mulled upon and thought about, not a historical destiny or an epic. Yet what makes it so pervasive is that whether it’s the “Departure” area at NAIA or a bus terminal in the big city, the circumstances make people negotiate the decision to leave the homeland.
“Pakikipagsapalaran” as a People’s Story
Unlike diaspora or Maafa, “pakikipagsapalaran” to me is a resonating voice in our history; it defines our history. It’s not just about the struggles of daily life and work in the big city; all of us, in one way or another, are connected to a giant web of people who have immigrated, moved, or worked overseas or in cities. It goes beyond the Balikbayan Box, dollar remittances to The Government, or material goods; “pakikipagsapalaran” highlights the movement of the Filipino people not in the hope for eventual return, but in the hope of eventual returns. What the homeland cannot provide, or what This Government and This System cannot provide, the Filipinos look for in other places.
“Pakikipagsapalaran,” I think, should also highlight the struggle for fortune in the most dramatic sense of it. On the one hand, there are feel-good stories of people who sought fortunes, who have made it and succeeded; the rags-to-riches “probinsyanong milyonaryo” and “katas ng Saudi” stories that we want to highlight. Yet on the other end, there are the feel-bad stories of the very same people who didn’t. There are the domestic helpers who get abused, the construction workers who get underpaid, and the seafarers who get abducted. There are the everyday stories of those who beg for fare, and the stories of those who sleep on sidewalks clutching their duffel bags, hoping that they stand a chance at employment for another day. Dispersion like diaspora, disconnection like Maafa, and suppression like the Dalit. Like anything Filipino, it speaks of a combined struggle shared by many nationalities and ethnicities, but unique to us.
We can trot and drum about solutions to “OFW-ness” or “OFW-ism:” more jobs, a stable Government, a higher quality and standard of living for everyone, bridge the gap between rural and urban, the list goes on. Yet like every solution, there will always be a claim against it, and that maybe – just maybe – the journey and story that is “pakikipagsapalaran” will take place as a permanent fixture of our history as a people; as permanent as it has always been.
The least we could do, for all this pontificating and bullshitting is worth, is to give our experience a story, or at the very least of the least, a name. A name found in our history and our traditions. For whatever it’s worth, “pakikipagsapalaran” may be the story that we’re looking for. If not for us, then we must for those who are in the struggle for fortune, for whom we all are connected to.
A story that should, at the very least, have a happy ending.