by S. Himasha Weerappulige - Published on 14/08/2023
Migration and Agency: Subjectivity and Subjection in the Filipino Diaspora. From left: Kim Valerie Vilale, Gina Apostol, Liryc Dela Cruz. SPAZIO GRIOT at Mattatoio, June 25, 2023, Rome. COURTESY SPAZIO GRIOT. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

II have always sought the revolution, so the revolution is what I am interested in, not just as history, but as a happening, as motion,” explains Gina Apostol, a militant and a writer of Filipino origins, based in New York, who recently has also released the Italian edition of The revolution according to Raymundo Mata (La Rivoluzione Secondo Raymundo Mata, Utopia Editore, 2023), a multifaceted novel based on the diaries of a young Pinoy revolutionary. Her statement, or rather a sentiment, diametrically opposed to the stereotype of Asians that often echoes in discriminatory spaces, the stereotype of the subservient, non-politicized Asian who remains quiet, an excellent collaborator, suited for caretaking jobs. Stereotypes traceable back to the earliest colonial narratives, often used to perpetuate mechanisms of domination.

Liryc Dela Cruz, Gina Apostol, and Irma Tobias share their stories, moderated by Kim Calingsan Valerie Vilale. A conversation that traces the mechanisms through which the individual subjectivities of the Filipino diasporas have been overshadowed by a variety of socio-political forces. They discuss the strategies of challenge maintained within Filipino and Filipina communities, with the aim of reshaping the way Pinoy migration is understood both in the Philippines and in the receiving countries. From Singapore to Dubai, from Los Angeles to Rome.

Starting from home, Italy: caregivers are Romanians, Bangladeshis are flower sellers. Sri Lankans, along with Filipinos, are domestic workers. In Italy, the Filipino identity is often made invisible and reduced to a job title. The antonomasia of identifying a nationality or an ethnicity with a job, further reinforces the intimate connection between racialization and capitalism. “Let’s start with the fact that already in this room, among the speakers and the audience, there is a common thread that unites us. It’s the same thread that connects us to the Philippines as the place where we trace our origins,” says Kim Valerie Vilale, an Italian-Filipina columnist and author. It’s a thread that, however, traverses fragmented and complex subjectivities. “Irma was born in the northernmost region of the country, in Uzon. Gina, on the other hand, was born on the island of Leyte, in the central region, Visayas, while Dela Cruz was born in Tupi, in the southern region, Mindanao. This is enough to make us understand that there is a kaleidoscopic plurality of subjectivities that cannot be reduced to one, like the stereotypical equation of which we are the same perceivers, receivers, namely that of being a Filipino or Filipina equal only and solely to a caregiver, domestic worker, nanny.

Gina Apostol, Liryc Dela Cruz, Irma Tobias, and Kim Valerie Vilale reclaim this national identity, simultaneously deconstructing and regenerating it, with a craft of historical modelling, shaping official history with personal history. This notion alone unlocks and overturns a myriad of considerations. Gina Apostol highlights that in the end, even saying “Filipino” alone means nothing. “Just as in Italy, you can identify with a region or a city, within the constellation of 7,641 islands that are the Philippines, there are dozens of different ethnicities, each with internal and complex stories.”

Vilale curiously asks Dela Cruz and Apostol what factors influence their work. “The complex history of the Philippines seems to be pivotal material  for both of you” she adds. “Yes, our history is indeed marked by numerous revolutionary processes, both internal and external,” reaffirms Apostol. “I grew up under a regime, between dictatorship and disco. This is what I grew up in […] We could not not be activists, and when we were 20 years old, we overthrew a dictatorship. We didn’t even think it could happen. We thought we would die, and yet here we are […] But now we have another dictator in power, so the concept of revolution is ongoing.

Processes of political self-determination that we in Europe overlook, stories of resistance and confrontation. But the domestic worker is just a Filipino –

The conversation is part of Rifrazioni, which included the solo show Il mio Filippino: For those who Care to See and the eponimous performance. It is inspired by the artistic and performance research practices of artist and filmmaker Liryc Dela Cruz. A practice that he dedicates to his communities, and therein lies its strength. In his project, he follows how the bodies of Filipino communities have been enslaved and colonised, exploring their reconnection with the land.

The closed space is also a space of rest. Therefore, it doesn’t just explore exhaustion and pain, but also self-care, against the colonial mechanism that separates subjectivities from themselves and from pleasure. His videos presented in the exhibition grind slowly and are occupied by single subjects in a choreography of robotic, militarised labour, in which the memorised gestures of care by the individual body are incorporated with other bodies in an impersonal and aseptic structure, without dreams and visions. In another video, presented in a largest format, a sleeping woman is immersed in a silence that inspires mystical suggestions, protected by a delicate mosquito net. His audiovisual narratives insert themselves into the official and colonial narrative of the Philippines, creating cracks in it.

In addition to rest and pleasure, the film included in the performance Il Mio Filippino also channels anger, with a cascade of archival images that explore how the Philippines have been subjected to an eternal process of colonisation, starting with the rule of the Spanish empire, followed by the United States, and the Japanese occupation. A colonial hangover still perceived in the local political situation, which then created the stage for subsequent political instability and dictatorships. A series of dominations that, however, did not go unanswered by the local population.

To reclaim their own memory, to respond to its flattening from external narratives, the research focuses on dismantling official memory through the reappropriation of unofficial and personal memory. He explores the stories of his family, the shadows and glimmers that afflict any family living under systematically oppressive conditions. His practice, however, is community-oriented, and its goal is to speak to and with the people it talks about. “You know, in my practice, personal and family history are extremely important, even in my understanding of my history as a Filipino. Even my cinematic education is closely tied to my family. I didn’t go to film school because my parents wanted me to find a ‘serious job,’ a job that could solve our problems. A classic. That being said, my father had a VHS store. He didn’t know that I saw my first Tarkovsky or Ozu films because of him. My films are also immensely inspired by the women in my life, partly because all the people who saved me are women.

The conversation deepens, and the audience becomes increasingly absorbed in the stream of consciousness of the speakers. To the tapestry of intertwined personal stories recounted by Dela Cruz, Apostol, and Irma Tobias’ video intervention, some ornaments of political nature are being progressively added. Because the political is personal, and vice versa.

Migration and Agency: Subjectivity and Subjection in the Filipino Diaspora. SPAZIO GRIOT at Mattatoio, June 25, 2023, Rome. COURTESY SPAZIO GRIOT. Photo: Andrea Pizzalis

Both Tobias and Apostol have been involved in local and international political spaces, both in Italy and in the Philippines. Gina navigated the spaces of the Unione Sindacale di Base, an organisational reality frequented by people of Filipino origin. Irma is a community organiser and activist, and she has been active in the local political scenes in Rome. From 2004 to 2006, she was the first Asian councillor in the municipality of Rome, and in the 1980s, she co-founded the Kampi association, the first association of migrant workers of Filipino origin. “Moving to Rome, seeing another dimension; this is a city, it’s not a province, I saw all these people, all immigrants like me, working inside a house where they have no rights. There is no residence permit. There, we started discussing among ourselves what the real problems are for us, because we are invisible. (…) We Filipinos, workers scattered around the world, are the product of labour. Why doesn’t the government offer professionalising work to allow us to stay in our country?” Tobias elaborates.

Thus, a conversation on labour export and local gendered politics opens. That is a result of the colonial superstructures that remained standing after 1899, followed by dominations that led to the construction of a ‘migration culture’ dedicated to the export of labour. Yet, the first European who arrived in the Philippines couldn’t help but notice that “among the greatest resources of these islands, there was gold,” Kim emphasises.

This cacophony and interplay of contrasts between wealth and poverty is reflected in Dela Cruz’s film Il Mio Filippino, which presents fragmented archival images: Spanish colonial schools, sugar plantations, training schools for caregivers. These images are juxtaposed with the dynamic performance of Il Mio Filippino, where the performers navigate a variety of feelings, from anger to desire, until they claim their right to rest. Apostol adds, laconically: “This work portrays the tragedy and complexity, the desire and dream of a better life, following centuries of domination, trapped in a capitalist mechanism. It’s wonderful that you’ve managed to allow the performers to centre themselves, their own lives, their desires and dreams, within the system of horrors that we are all part of, and often complicit in, but against which we can rebel.”

“Dream, desire, nightmare”, Vilale utters these words to emphasize the contradictions of the migrant experience within a capitalist system. “What role does religion play within this mechanism?” she asks. Dela Cruz underlines how the religion exported to the colonies played an important role in legitimizing slavery, not surprisingly in the Philippines, as in many former colonies, most of the population has a Spanish surname. “At the time, the institution of the Church also served as a pseudo-employment agency connecting care workers of Filipino origins to wealthy families in Rome. It is no coincidence the Filippino community in Rome is one of the largest in Rome,” expands the artist. Apostol however, opens a further parenthesis: “As soon as I arrived to Rome, it was in the community churches that I was able to reconnect with the local communities. When it comes to desire and agency, it is interesting to note that religion is also an important space for self-determination. Their faith is an integral part of their modus of survival and also resistance, this is also an important observation to make”. Lastly, Apostol emphasises another detail. “Many of the collaborators for whom we curated this exhibition today couldn’t be here. It’s important to note that it’s Sunday, and Sunday is an incredibly precious day for a caregiver. It’s perhaps the only day when they can carve out a few hours for themselves, for rest, or at least to dream of it.

The conversation softens, and after a long process of painful yet encouraging self-awareness, the three speakers continue to share their stories. Stories of mothers, aunts and daughters. Tales of shattered families that are then reunited. Discoveries of books and films written or directed by Filipinos, recounting parts of themselves, and beyond.

An act of community care, and a reclaiming of their right to rest.


Promoted by | Assesorato alla Cultura di Roma Capitale and Azienda Speciale Palaexpo
Curated by | SPAZIO GRIOT
Co-produced and co-organized by | SPAZIO GRIOT and Azienda Speciale Palaexpo
Main Sponsor | Gucci
Supported by | British Council
In collaboration with | American Academy in Rome, Fondazione Polo del ‘900, EXP

Find out more about Gina Apostol e Liryc Dela Cruz in Refractions.

Visit Gina Apostol, Liryc Dela Cruz, Kim Valerie Vilale.

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S. Himasha Weerappulige
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Opero nel cinema, tra casting, sviluppo, ricerca archiviale e programmazione nell’ambiente festival. Il mio background è però legale, e mi ha permesso di sviluppare un metodo di analisi decoloniale che mi porto appresso nell'audiovisivo e nelle arti. Curo diverse piattaforme diasporiche, e per GRIOT sono una contributor.