Transnationalism and the Politics of "Home" for Philippine Domestic Workers

By Barber, Pauline G. | Anthropologica, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Transnationalism and the Politics of "Home" for Philippine Domestic Workers

Barber, Pauline G., Anthropologica

Abstract: Gendered labour migration and transnationalism have become part of the ideological fabric of Filipino culture and nationhood. Local livelihoods and the meanings of "home" are being socially, politically and spatially recast through the unprecedented scale of women's migration. This article explores the cultural politics of Philippine labour migration and offers a critique of victimizing representations of Filipina. Homogenizing cultural idioms portray Filipina as dutiful daughters in families and of the nation, yet migrants' narratives reveal their agency and indicate their differences. Questions are also raised about whether the idea of a travelling culture accommodates the contradictory experiences of migrants. From their perspective, political aspects of travel, culture and economy are elided through a discourse of travelling, flux and the fetishization of the in-between mode.


Dependence upon Philippine labour migration is sufficiently important to the Canadian economy and imprinted on middle-class urban Canadian consciousness that a recent column in The Globe and Mail (September 18, 1997) included having a Filipina nanny, along with the gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive, as one of the status symbols associated with the "thirtysomethings of the world." In the Philippines there is also an emergent taken-for-grantedness that women -- young and old, poor and middle class -- might, could and even should seek work overseas. In this work I discuss some of the processes which underlie the scale and form of what is best viewed as the exporting of Philippine gendered labour from the Philippines, how labour migration is constituted in the Philippine development policy and the gender and cultural politics that sustain migration. My main concern is to examine some of the implications of the globalization of "home" for Filipinos, or what can be called Philippine "ethnoscapes" in Appardurai's sense.

This article has four main parts. First, I discuss ethnoscapes and transnationalism which comprise part of my theoretical argument for how labour migration is transforming gendered cultural politics in Phillipine society and, indeed Philippine transnationalism. Next, I discuss the contours of Philippine labour migration and its gendered qualities. Then, I provide examples of the negotiation of gendered femininity in Philippine social spaces and most importantly, how labour migration narratives reflect agency and the changing politics of place in migrants' homes. In conclusion, I draw from the circumstances of Filipina cultural politics of travel and place to direct some critical questions to the literature on travelling.

My research in the Philippines to date spans five years and has been based in the Visayas. Most important was my initial research on gender and livelihood in Bais, a coastal community outside of Dumaguete, the capital city of Negros Oriental in the central Visayas. There, I first encountered remittances from overseas labour migration as one aspect of household livelihood.(f.1) Subsequently I have commenced preliminary research (in 1996) on gendered identities and the cultural politics of Philippine transnationalism building upon my research in Bais and by conducting interviews on university campuses and in communities near the city of Iloilo, Panay in the western Visayas.(f.2) I also draw upon several interviews conducted in Canada with Filipina from the Visayas who are working in Nova Scotia.

Transnationalism as Theory and Practice

I use a transnational perspective to analyze how gendered Philippine labour migration is shaped through the forces of global capitalism, the gendered cultural and class processes negotiated by migrants both within the Philippines and in the countries of destination, and through the "social fields" created by migration flows. Anthropologist Roger Rouse (1995) argues that transnational capital formation has transformed cultural and class identities in the U.

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Transnationalism and the Politics of "Home" for Philippine Domestic Workers


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