Monday, June 08, 2009

Pareng Barack, Filipinos in Obama's America

Lecturer: Benjamin “Boying” Pimentel

Sponsors: UP Third World Studies Center and Anvil Publishing, Inc.

Date: June 18, 2009 / 2:30-4:00pm

Venue: Third World Studies Center Conference Room

Lower Ground Floor, Palma Hall

University of the Philippines Diliman


A little over a month after Barack Obama took the oath of office, the mood and tone in Washington DC has changed dramatically. But, as many had expected, the new American president has had to do a lot of difficult juggling of competing interests in a tough time in US and world history.

The United States is still reeling from the most serious economic downturns since the Great Depression, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still raging. The Obama Administration has, at different times, baffled and angered the right and the left on its pronouncements and policy decisions when it comes to such issues as the financial rescue package and what to do with detainees at Guantanamo.

But there have been small and even significant signs of a more engaged government in both domestic issues and foreign policy.

For Filipinos in America, Obama’s ability to rebuild a battered economy is clearly important. More than two million people of Filipino descent live in the US, many of them immigrants who also send money to loved ones in the archipelago. The collapse of the economy has hurt them and their families in the Philippines, and Obama’s recovery efforts will be critical.

His administration’s stimulus bill included a benefits package for Filipino American World War II Veterans who have been fighting to receive the same privileges given to regular US military veterans. The package will be a major boost to thousands of Filipino families, although other community advocates say it is inadequate and falls short of true justice for these men.

Immigration and health care are expected to be major issues that Obama will be focusing on in his first year. Both also are of importance to Filipino Americans. Some Filipino American activists, veterans of many battles involving people of color, are gearing up for major changes.

In its dealings with the rest of the world, Obama has won praise for efforts to win over more allies, and reach out to adversaries. However, it’s unclear how much will change when it comes to American policy toward the Philippines. The Visiting Forces Agreement remains a controversial issue for many Filipinos, and the sudden release of the American serviceman convicted of raping a Filipina has angered critics of American presence.

Obama’s own attitude toward the Philippines remains vague. He’s likely to not take a dramatically different approach than the previous administration. That is, he will expect any Philippine administration to be an ally. Gloria Arroyo certainly cannot be expected to raise the issues that advocacy groups deem important to move US-Philippine relations forward.

Obama himself probably won’t pay attention to the issues that are important to segments of the Filipino American community and activist Filipinos in the Philippines – unless these groups manage to put in enough effort to be heard.

My book, Pareng Barack, Filipinos in Obama’s America, came out shortly after the historic election. It explored the reactions of Filipinos in America to his incredible campaign, Filipino American attitudes toward race and the potential impact of Obama’s presidency on both the Filipino community in the United States and the Philippines.

I hope to elaborate on my personal thoughts on how Obama’s leadership has made a difference, and on the questions that remain.

About the Lecturer

Benjamin Pimentel was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle for 14 years, and now covers technology for Marketwatch. His bestselling book UG, An Underground Tale was published in 2006. His first novel Mga Gerilya sa Powell Street was adapted for the stage by the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tanghalang Pilipino and won the National Book Award Juan C. Laya for Fiction in 2008.

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