“I Am Not Your Mail-Order Bride:” Filipinas Online and the Search for Authenticity

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When I first started “Sampaguita Girl,” I had a vision of creating an online resource for Pinays. I wanted to create a site with critical articles that interrogated what it meant to be Pinay, that would tackle topics that were unspoken and taboo in our communities. I wanted to celebrate being Filipina/American, and to highlight the many contributions Filipino women have made for our liberation. But since starting graduate school, I have ceased blogging. Part of it is because of my workload—I had a difficult time balancing my academic assignments with my personal writing, and I found I needed to prioritize my schoolwork over maintaining my online presence. Another reason was because I began to think critically about the impact of blogging, and what I myself as a Filipina/American was attempting to build by sharing my story and writing posts that attempted to define what it meant to be a Pinay. That’s the thing: what does it mean to be a Pinay? Why was I working so hard to construct a definition? Why am I and countless other Pinays so preoccupied with this question?

As a Filipina/American online, you learn to search for authenticity. And it is completely understandable: we grew up bombarded with not-so-positive images, whether it was advertisements of paper white Filipinas with thin limbs or typing “Filipina” on Google and seeing websites dedicated to sex work and mail-order brides, you begin to realize that being “Filipina” is fraught with negative representations and the wounds of (neo)colonialism. I myself internalized these representations, to the point where I began to feel horrible about my identity, my body, and how others might perceive me. In many ways, I began this blog to fight for more positive representations of Pinays, to show others that there was more to being Filipina/American than beauty queens or being marketed as the passive ideal wife.

But by doing so, I was producing universal truth claims. Albus Dumbledore once said, “The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.” My blogging experience has shown me how limited my “truths” have been, and why it is necessary for me to contest them, challenge them, and extract far more productive tensions from them. I blogged because I wanted to find and create more “authentic” and “true” representations of myself. I blogged because I wanted to exclaim, “THIS IS WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO BE A PINAY. I am NOT that mail-order bride and I refuse to succumb to colonial beauty standards and become as white as a ghost!” I wanted to denounce those previous representations but by doing so, I was not acknowledging how the search for authenticity and truth is fraught with struggles over power and meaning. I am not here to create a universal definition of what it means to be a Pinay. By doing so, I am unknowingly creating similar hierarchies and exclusions that have been instituted by multiple colonialisms. I’ve learned that negative representations should not just be tackled down, but should also have their historical and structural contexts deconstructed. With this, how can blogging become a more critical platform for Pinays? How can we use blogging to further contest (neo)colonialism?

The search for authenticity is also inextricably tied to identity politics, and identity politics is tied to erasure and (in)visibility. It’s not just negative representations that are an issue in our community. I did not read my first Pinay novel until I was in college, and I had no idea there was such a thing as Filipino/American history until I took my first Asian American Studies class. But even within Filipino/American history and Filipino/American literary studies, there are events, issues, and narratives that remain shrouded, ignored, and unacknowledged. Despite the formation of a Filipino/American identity, there are still various tensions within our community.

In his essay “Identity in Action: A Filipino American’s Perspective,” Steven De Castro explores identity politics amongst Filipino/Americans, and the ways finding identity should lead to social change. He states, “We always say: Paghahanap, pagtuklas, at pagbawi: search, discover, and reclaim. We search for our true story, our collective story, and our story teaches us our duty. Our identity leads us to action” (295).

Our identity should lead us to action. But who decides what our identity is? Who decides which stories are “true,” that are representative of us as a collective? Who gets to decide our all-encompassing Filipino/American story?

Whoever has power decides. Those in power decided to print the Philippine-American War as “the Philippine Insurrection” in our high school textbooks. Those in power decided that Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart are the most representative texts of Filipino/Americans. And it was those in power who decided that (in)visibility was a main issue in our community, that we Filipino/Americans need to work hard to make ourselves visible and viable to the rest of society.

Thus, we can see that power takes the shape of many forms and circulates through many hands. Filipino/American-ness is not so much the search for identity and visibility, but to make sense of these significant struggles over power. The term “Filipino/American” is fraught with this power struggle. In his book Beyond the Nation, Martin Joseph Ponce explores the usage of “Filipino American,” “Filipino-American,” “Filipino/American,” etc., stating that the emergence of these different terms “is an effect of multiple colonialisms…and the manifold differences produced by migration, gender, generationality, class, and political disposition” (12). With this, we can see the only thing that can surely encompass a Filipino/American identity are the “manifold differences” informing our community. Our community is brimming with difference, so why are we so invested in finding sameness?

Angela Davis once articulated that our politics should not be defined by our identities, but our identities should be defined by our politics. As a Pinay blogger, how can my writing be defined not by my Pinay-ness, but by unraveling the hierarchal structures of power that are inflected in the Pinay experience? I am no longer interested in reclaiming the image of the Filipina. Instead, I want to contest the Filipina image: what were the conditions of possibility that led to its construction? What does the formation of the “Pinay” say about our history of multiple colonialisms? How can blogging move from producing dichotomous recovery projects?

By dichotomous recovery projects, I am referring to my attempt at reclaiming the image of the Pinay. By denouncing the image of the Pinay as a mail-order bride and producing universal truth claims of what a Pinay really is, I am not truly interrogating the conditions of possibility that led to the formation of mail-order brides. In addition, I am also excluding the mail-order bride from the definition of “Pinay.” Although I believe no one wants to be a mail-order bride, there’s no denying that various Pinays seek the profession* because poverty and globalization have composed it into a viable option. By stating that a mail-order bride is “not what it means to be a Pinay,” I am not sufficiently addressing the violence of U.S. empire. By excluding the mail-order bride from “Pinay,” I deny the legibility of these workers and the complex space they embody in the building of U.S. empire. I also reinforce the virgin/whore dichotomy by locating the mail-order bride as a “whore,” and unconsciously placing my authentic definition of the Pinay as the “virgin,” the truthful, modest image. Thus, moving from these dichotomous formations and examining these conditions of possibility are important, because they can point to the ways (neo)colonialism has not only exploited the Philippine economy, but has inextricably tied Filipina bodies and sexualities to the global market. Through this, we can acknowledge the role of the mail-order bride in the formation of “Pinay,” in contributing to the creation of a feminist identity and movement intent on liberation and revolutionary action.

A performance group called the Mail Order Brides (M.O.B.) further interrogates these conditions of possibility in their work. In her essay, “Performing the Filipina ‘Mail-Order Bride:’ Queer Neoliberalism, Affective Labor, and Homonationalism,” Gina Velasco explores M.O.B.’s performance work and the ways M.O.B. “use[s] humor to address the broader racialized and gendered discourses through which Filipina bodies are constituted and made visible under global capitalism” (3). In their video “Mail Order Bride of Frankenstein,” M.O.B. uses the terrain of visual culture to demonstrate that a critical analysis of U.S. neoliberalism can be made by not rejecting the mail-order bride. By using feminist camp and ethnic drag, M.O.B. is able to “make visible the role of affective labor” and “critique the forms of gendered and racialized labor performed by third-world women” (3).

In many ways, the mail-order bride points us to the ways neoliberalism has commoditized affective and reproductive labor. Although it is important to show how Filipinas are more than mail-order brides, we must not forget to examine why the mail-order bride emerged, and why her existence continues to be demanded in the global market. We must not only acknowledge U.S. (neo)colonialism, but critically contest it and make moves to take action.

With this, I will be taking new directions in my blogging and writing. My work is still heavily informed by Pinayism, but I now wish to locate the intersections of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, etc. in these struggles over power, in the material and discursive ways power circulates and is facilitated by U.S. imperialism. Although there are many bloggers, as Denise Cruz explores in Transpacific Femininities, who “‘use the online image to affirm the authentic presence of the Filipina,’” these “cycles of representation” are also “a call to address” on how “globalized economic flows and inequities…rely on the labor of Filipina bodies” (233). However, we cannot stop there. I believe blogging can do more than present an “authentic” feminist imaginary. By moving beyond the search for authenticity, I believe we can redirect these hierarchal circuits of power and show how “Pinay” functions more than a formation of identity. It is, as Denise Cruz puts it, “the rupture of imperial forgetting…the ongoing search for untraveled routes and unmapped connections in our archives, theories, critical practices, and pedagogies” (235).

*In his essay “Bodies, Letters, and Catalogs,” Rolando Tolentino argues how mail order brides are connected to affective, care, and service labor, such as maids, nurses, and hospitality girls. By thinking of the mail-order bride as a laboring body, we can further contest how Filipina bodies, sexualities, and femininities are crucial to the expansion of U.S. empire.

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Guest Post #2: “And I Remember: the (De-)Sexualization of My Pinay Body”

by Kristin

I have a game for you all.

(Don’t worry. No one is judging you. I have a feeling you will be answering partly based off of your own experiences. There won’t be any form of shaming done around here.)

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And now for the answers! Starting with #1:

Playing pretend with my Barbie dolls was definitely one of my top pastimes as a kid. Nothing challenged my sense of creativity more than using pogs to line the imaginary walls of my doll’s home or using my Fisher Price record player as a car. My imagination didn’t stop there. Occasionally, it would get pretty heated in Barbie’s house. In particular, I remember my 9-year-old self pressing Barbie and Ken up against each other, twisting and turning their bodies in a crude interpretation of sex. I do not know exactly what prompted me to play with Barbie and Ken in such a manner. My guess is that I observed a similar action from TV or copied my older siblings doing something similar with the dolls.

No matter what the explanation is, I observed images of sex early on in my life.

Growing up, I had many closets to browse through. In middle school, I wore print leggings I borrowed from my 6-year-old cousin before they became a trend. For Picture Day in high school, I once wore a colorful flower print coat I took from my sister’s closet. I simply loved putting outfits together with any clothing I could find in my family’s closets.  So when I got a detention in the 9th grade for my bra strap showing from the armhole of my tank top and my dad’s vest, I couldn’t understand what the problem was.

I was sexualized when I was not trying to be sexual.

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Me in the 9th grade, obviously ahead of everyone else in terms of fashion.

As aforementioned with my 4th grade experience, I was exposed to some degree about sex at an early age, but in high school, sex became an explicit conversation topic. In the 10th grade, I was hanging out with one of my best friends when she brought up my boyfriend at the time. The two of them had been talking, and it seemed that I was “blue-balling” him. She said, “Why don’t you just have sex with him once?” Did you guess 10th grade for first time having sex? It was actually in 12th grade when I first had sex (with a different boyfriend).

I did not give into the peer pressure to engage in sexual behavior in 10th grade. Regardless, I felt its ubiquity throughout high school from some of my most important interpersonal relationships.

That leaves us with the first time I masturbated.

After 12th grade, I had sex with other people, sometimes doing it safely using condoms or birth control pills and a few times being risky using emergency contraception. I did my own research online and went to Planned Parenthood to get resources on my own. I did all of this before I discovered that I could find pleasure from and for myself. It was not until my 3rd year in college that I masturbated.

Despite my prepubescent perception of sex and the gradual gain of consciousness surrounding my sexuality in high school, it took me much longer to place my pleasure as a priority.

So, why I am picking these particular moments in my life to share?

I am sharing these moments with you now because I want you to see how:

  • I observed images of sex early on in my life.
  • I was sexualized when I was not trying to be sexual.
  • I felt the ubiquitous pressure to be sexual from some of my most important interpersonal relationships.
  • It took me forever to learn my pleasure is a priority.

I am sharing these moments with you now because it was not easy to then.

I never had a sex talk from my family before. The closest my mom and I have gotten to talking about sex was when I told her I had been living with my partner and she asked if we shared a bed. That conversation did not go well. The closest my dad and I have gotten to talk about sex are the times when he emphasizes how important it is for me to finish my education while I am still young so that I can get married right after. “It is hard to go to school when you’re older,” he said, “And it’s hard for women to marry when they’re older too.” With my siblings, sex is either an awkward joke or not a topic at all.

At least I could talk about sex with friends? Refer back to my 10th grade experience. Not all the information I received from friends was free from inaccuracy or from judgment. But since high school, it has gotten better. However, I know this may not be the circumstances for everyone and I acknowledge my privilege of—and am forever grateful for—having met empowered individuals from transformative organizations in college.

With large institutions, I am part of the model minority. Asian Americans follow the rules, they get good grades, they have many talents, they do not make any mistakes. Wrong. In fact, Asian Americans engage in HIV risk behaviors at similar levels of other ethnic groups, challenging the idea that Asian Americans are a model minority. From 2004 to 2007, while the API population had the lowest overall prevalence of HIV, it witnessed a 48% increase in cases of HIV/AIDS, the highest percentage increase among the ethnic groups followed by a 29% increase in the Native American population. Additionally, API women are four times more likely than API men to have had an STD by the age of 27. Regardless of the many lived API experiences that challenge the model minority myth, our need for access to sexual health is not being met.

After years of being oblivious to amnesia (1) induced by simultaneous opposing forces to both sexualize (2) and desexualize me, I am trying to remember. With help from decolonial thinkers and scholars, I now recognize that I have been living the past 20+ years receiving mixed messages from everyone, be it from an institutional level, interpersonal level, or internalized level. I recall the times my siblings called me a “hoochie” for wearing clothes that rode above mid-thigh, the times walking down the sidewalk when men told me “You’re too pretty to not smile,” the times playing “Never Have I Ever” and hoping to be neither the most nor the least sexually experienced, the times when I felt awkward to ask him to put on a condom. I remember the moments when I should have been real with myself and with others rather than feel ashamed and conflicted.

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Comparison of the most popular definitions of “pinay” and “pinoy,” respectively, on Urban Dictionary.

Ironically, despite the messages that bombarded me from all directions on a daily basis, my sexual health was never truly talked about out in the open. At many moments in my life, I felt like my sexual health was something I had to figure out on my own. Menstruation, anatomy, sex—whether solo or with partner(s), etc. I had to seek the answers to my own questions without really knowing where to start. I could not go to my family and sometimes my peers (and as a young adult, where was I going to find help from people if they were not where I spent most of my time, that is, school and home?) because being candid about my sexual health was a stigma. When I spoke up about my sexual health, I encountered “Awkward” or “TMI (Too Much Information).” My attempts at starting conversations were brushed off while leaving me embarrassed. Along with the embarrassment, I became conditioned to be silent about my sexual health. As an adult, when I now choose to not be silenced, I consequently feel my character and integrity defined entirely by the “immorality” of my definition of being sexually healthy.

For the sake of the holistic health of Pinays, we—and I am referring to mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, health care professionals, educators, Pinays ourselves—need to stop denying the reality that Pinays are going to encounter moments where they are pressured, knowingly or unknowingly, to be sexual beings (or objects). One study found that young API women who were more acculturated were four times more likely than those who were less acculturated to have sexual experience. In another study, lesbian and bisexual API women were two to three times more likely than exclusively heterosexual women to engage in HIV risk behaviors. We need to stop thinking that Pinays will remain María Clara (3) virgins until marriage and realize that they need to be given comprehensive, non-judgmental sexual health education so that when the time comes, they can make their own smart, safe decisions.

Request for Readers

In what ways were you sexualized or desexualized without your consent? Please share your experiences with your sexual health in the Comments section or start a conversation with me at kr4qu1170@gmail.com. We’ve only heard about some of mine, but my experiences are not the only Pinay experiences. This universe is made up of too many beautiful individuals for their truths to not be heard.

Acknowledgements

To Sampaguita Girl: Thank you for asking me to write a post and thank you for putting light to this phenomenon of being simultaneously sexualized and desexualized as a Pinay. Writing this post has been both challenging and rewarding in ways I cannot fully express.

To all the Pinays out there: John Rechy, a gay/queer Chicano novelist, once wrote, “Truth changes with new memories. We do not move into the past, we bring it forward with new life.” I believe that you all have the courage to recall the past and, when you do, the strength to see it as a validation of your right to self-expression of your body and soul. You are not alone in this struggle. Find community. Call back the past and discover the truths that ground you on this earth.


(1) Amnesia, in this article,  is defined as “forgetting, whether voluntary or involuntary,  due to trauma.”

(2) Google Image search “pinay” or find the definition on Urban Dictionary. Now, do the same for “pinoy.”

(3) María Clara is the love interest of protagonist in José Rizal’s Noli Me Tángere. She represents the ideal Pilipina woman: dainty, graceful, charming, demure. In Queering Mestizaje: Transculturation and Performance, Alicia Arrizón describes María Clara as an example of the “colonial legacy of Filipino culture.”

5 Pinay Writers You Need to Check Out

This is the last segment I’ll be posting for Womxn’s Herstory Month. The following are 5 amazing Pinays who are not only writers, but educators. Their poems, novels, and short stories have empowered the next generation of Pinays to produce their own works of art as well as contextualize and construct their own personal and political narratives.

1. Joi Barrios was Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of the Philippines and is now a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. At the age of 21, she was a founding member of GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership, and Action). Her book Bulaklak sa Tubig: Mga Tula ng Pag-ibig at Himagsik (Flowers in Water: Poems of Love and Revolt) won the 2012 Gintong Aklat (Golden Book) Award from the Book Development Association in Manila.

2. M. Evelina Galang is the author of Her Wild American Self, a collection of short stories, and Angel de la Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery, a young adult novel. She teaches in and directs the Creative Writing program at the University of Miami and is core faculty for VONA/Voices: Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation. She has also been named one of the 100 most influential Filipinas in the United States by the Filipina Women’s Network.

3. Jessica Hagedorn is a playwright, poet, novelist, and performance artist. She is based in New York City and has published a number of notable books, such as Dogeaters, The Gangster of Love, Dream Jungle, and, most recently, Toxicology. She has taught playwriting at the Yale School of Drama and at the M.F.A. Creative Writing programs of New York University and Columbia.

4. Barbara Jane Reyes is a poet based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her book of poetry, Diwata, received the Global Filipino Literary Award for Poetry and was also a finalist for the California Book Award. She teaches Filipin@/American literature at the University of San Francisco and San Francisco Sate University. She also sits on the board of Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA).

5. Eileen Tabios is an award-winning poet and fiction writer. She received the Philippines’ National Book Award for Poetry, the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, the Portero Nuevo Fund Prize, and many more. Her new poetry collection, Sculpting Reproductions of Emptiness, is forthcoming in 2014. She is also the founder of Meritage Press, a multidisciplinary literary and arts press based in St. Helena, CA.

5 Pinay Anthologies You Need to Read

Last week we honored five awesome Pinay scholars. This week, here is a list of five of the most groundbreaking Pinay anthologies. These anthologies have transformed how we think about Filipin@ literature and culture, and have inspired countless Pinays to become writers, researchers, and leaders in their communities.

1. Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers ed. by Nick Carbo and Eileen Tabios is the first international anthology of Filipina writers published in the United States. 60 Filipina/American writers contributed, showing the diasporic transformation and the ongoing strength of Filipina voices in literature.

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2. Body Politics: Essays on Cultural Representations of Women’s Bodies ed. by Odine De Guzman contains pieces written by prominent Filipina scholars, such as Joi Barrios, Neferti Tadiar, and Caroline Hau. These essays explore reproductive health, gender, social conditions in the Philippines, and challenges and interrogates how we think and perceive womxn’s bodies.

3. Forbidden Fruit: Women Write the Erotic ed. by Tina Cuyugan is a landmark anthology published in 1992, featuring writers such as Jessica Hagedorn, Marra Lanot, Cecilia Branard, and many more. In pages of poetry and prose, Filipinas reclaim, redefine, and challenge how we write and perceive the erotic, while representing the beauty and diversity of Filipina sexuality.

4. Pinay Power: Peminist Critical Theory ed. by Melinda L. de Jesus is the first anthology of its kind containing critical essays and narratives (de)constructing Pinay feminist thought from Pinays of different generations, backgrounds, and experiences. It is an exceptional scholarly achievement and expands our understanding of Filipina/American lives.

5. Walang Hiya: Literature Taking Risks Toward Liberatory Practice ed. by Lolan Buhain Sevilla and Roseli Ilano is the most recent Filipin@ literary anthology published, and includes poetry and short fiction by 32 emerging Filipin@/American writers. “Walang hiya” is a Filipin@ term traditionally used to convey shame. Filipin@s in this anthology have reclaimed “walang hiya” by examining the many taboos in Filipin@/American communities through their brave, honest, and revolutionary voices.

If you want to see a more comprehensive list of Pinay lit, please check out the Literature page!

5 Pinay Scholars You Need to Know

This post is in celebration of Womxn’s Herstory Month! It is by no means a complete list, but here are 5 Pinay scholars who are interrogating, challenging, and decolonizing the world with their groundbreaking research and activism.

1. Nerissa Balce is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Her research interests include postcolonial theory, feminist epistemologies, Asian American literature and culture, American visual culture, etc. Her book Body Parts of an Empire: Abjection, Filipino Images and the American Archive is forthcoming under the University of Michigan Press.

2. Robyn Rodriguez is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis. In addition to being a scholar, Professor Rodriguez is also an activist, who has organized with BAYAN USA and other grassroots organizations. Her research interests include globalization, migration, and the Filipin@/American experience.

3. Sarita See is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Professor See’s Book, The Decolonized Eye: Filipino American Art and Performance, examines how Filipin@ artists have engaged with the aftermath of U.S. colonialism and how these artists have produced a challenging and creative movement through art, performance, and visual culture. She is also executive director of the Center For Art and Thought, an online space dedicated to providing dialogue and convergence for artists and scholars.

4. Neferti Tadiar is a Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College. Her research interests include transnational and third world feminisms, postcolonial and Marxist theory, Philippine studies, etc. She has produced books and articles interrogating the Filipina/American body, such as Fantasy Production: Sexual Economies and Other Philippine Consequences for the New World Older and “Filipinas ‘Living in a Time of War,'” an article featured in the Body Politics: Essays on Cultural Representations of Women’s Bodies anthology.

5. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales is an Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University. She is also the founder and director of Pin@y Educational Partnerships, a Filipin@ American Studies curriculum and teaching pipeline. Professor Tintiangco-Cubales is most notable for coining “Pinayism,” a Pinay feminist consciousness and praxis combining a multitude of theories and philosophies that aims to put the Pinay at the center of dialogue and instigate revolutionary action.