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Building Filipino Hawai’i (review)

Reviewed item: 

Reviewed by Shane J. Barter ( and Rayen Rooney (Soka University of America)

Roderick Labrador’s Building Filipino Hawaiʻi provides a rich, nuanced account of Filipino identities in a distinctively multicultural American context. The study confronts the tremendous diversity of Filipinos in Hawaiʻi, who vary in terms of the timing of migration, region, language, and social class. It is in this milieu that Labrador’s highly personal account unfolds, documenting efforts to develop a more united Filipino identity in the Hawaiian context.
          Labrador provides a rich account of diversity among Filipinos in ‘Oahu, charting their origins and continued experiences. With Asian migrants excluded from American territories at the turn of the century, the Philippines, located within the American empire, provided cheap labour on Hawaiian sugar plantations. Sakada plantation labourers brought to Hawaiʻi a century ago were primarily Ilocano and most were uneducated. After World War II, more educated Tagalog-speaking migrants began arriving with a new sense of Filipino identity. Today, Filipino migrants continue to arrive in Hawaiʻi for jobs ranging from nurses and maids to businesspersons and academics. Labrador outlines three primary groups of Filipinos in Hawaiʻi: Local (born in Hawaiʻi, mostly descended from sakada migrants), immigrants from the Philippines, and migrants from the continental United States. Labrador succeeds in painting a picture of Filipino diversity, noting how persons of Filipino descent manage and shift their identities over time, evolving different understandings of what it means to be Filipino.
            Labrador’s study locates Filipinos within Hawaiʻi’s rich ethnic tapestry. Filipinos have not seen the upward mobility enjoyed by Chinese, Korean, or Japanese communities. Labrador describes the jokes and stereotypes of Filipinos as being uneducated, speaking poor English, eating dogs, and being hyper-sexualized. In Chapter Two, Labrador explores how these stereotypes play out through local humor. He notes a variety of jokes and comedians that poke fun of Filipinos, jokes laughed off as part of the Hawaiian experience, but which also sustain Filipino insecurities. While it may be tempting to see Filipinos simply as marginalized, Labrador goes further, situating Filipinos in relation to indigenous Hawaiians. Filipinos are part of two colonialisms: Colonized by the United States in the Philippines, and part of US colonialism in Hawaiʻi. The Filipino Hawaiian narrative rarely mentions the appropriation of native Hawaiian lands or understands Filipinos as part of the colonial project. Labrador tackles this difficult topic rather fearlessly, locating the position of Filipinos amidst a variety of ethnic communities.
            The diversity and status of Filipinos in Hawaiʻi are important factors in local efforts to create a sense of shared identity. In many ways, this study is not about building a Filipino Hawaiʻi, but is instead about building ‘Filipinos’ in a Hawaiian context. This project is carried out in part through university organizations, where more standard narratives of Filipino nationalism and instruction in Tagalog help to construct modern Filipinos, even among those who have never set foot in Southeast Asia. The book details efforts to construct a diasporic identity, creating “born-again Filipinos” (93). Labrador reminds us that this is also a class project, with powerful business leaders creating community centers and announcing the ‘arrival’ of Filipinos as a modern community. Efforts to unite and uplift Filipinos in Hawaiʻi have not been entirely successful though. The book concludes with a glance to electoral politics, which shortly after the creation of a shared community space, laid bare the ongoing divisions among Filipinos in Hawaiʻi.
            Labrador’s accounts of Filipino diversity, status, and search for unity are compelling. This said, the book is written according to the conventions of ethnic studies, an intensely personal style that is not for everyone and which may block some avenues for analysis. The personal style is especially strange given how dated many of the accounts appear to be, with material taken mostly from the 1990s. For example, Labrador discusses a racialized Philippine Christmas song that circulated in 1994, but does not offer any recent accounts of such materials or note that this song continues to be sung today. The book’s personal approach allows Labrador to capture rich detail, but falls somewhat short in terms of providing a sense of wider context or magnitude. The linguistic and class diversity of Filipinos is clear, but Labrador then treats white, Chinese, and Japanese communities as givens. For example, Chinese migrants have also featured a stunning range of dialects, divided political allegiances, and important class divisions; it is not clear if Filipinos are exceptional here. The book almost gives the sense of entirely distinct, separate ethnic communities, as there is no mention of Chinese Filipinos or Moros, and there is only limited discussion of persons of Filipino descent who do not identify as Filipino or of persons claiming mixed descent. In terms of magnitude, it would be useful to provide a sense of the frequency of the book’s many anecdotes. Labrador mentions local greeting cards with crude jokes, but it is not clear if these were produced by hand one time, or if they are manufactured for sale in stores. Without a sense of who makes these jokes, buys these albums, and exchanges these cards, it is not clear how pervasive these anecdotes are.
            All told, Building Filipino Hawaiʻi provides a fascinating account of Filipinos in Hawaiʻi, noting their fragmentation and locating them in a broader ethnic landscape. It will be of interest to scholars of Hawaiʻi and migrant identity, as well as anyone interested in Filipino identity writ large. Although it takes place in Hawaiʻi, many of the issues are those that continue to confront the Philippines as a whole, making the discussion of Hawaiian Filipinos especially important and timely.

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