Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire

Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire

Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire

Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire


Winner of the 2012 Outstanding Book Award in Cultural Studies, Association for Asian American Studies

Puro Arte explores the emergence of Filipino American theater and performance from the early 20th century to the present. It stresses the Filipino performing body's location as it conjoins colonial histories of the Philippines with U.S. race relations and discourses of globalization.

Puro arte, translated from Spanish into English, simply means "pure art." In Filipino, puro arte however performs a much more ironic function, gesturing rather to the labor of over-acting, histrionics, playfulness, and purely over-the-top dramatics. In this book, puro arte functions as an episteme, a way of approaching the Filipino/a performing body at key moments in U.S.-Philippine imperial relations, from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, early American plays about the Philippines, Filipino patrons in U.S. taxi dance halls to the phenomenon of Filipino/a actors in Miss Saigon. Using this varied archive, Puro Arte turns to performance as an object of study and as a way of understanding complex historical processes of racialization in relation to empire and colonialism.


Puro arte lang iyan” (“She’s just putting on a show”). This is a phrase I heard often as a child growing up in Olongapo City. I can still hear my aunt’s dismissive tone as she brushes aside my complaint as mere exaggeration. My protestation—she has cut my hair too short—is read as theatrical, superficial, and hyperbolic. To be called out for being puro arte is to be questioned about one’s veracity and authenticity. Another variation is “O tingnan mo, puro arte talaga” (“Just look at her put on a show”). This version highlights the attention-seeking element of puro arte, directing notice to the performing body, already perceived to be overacting. What compels the speaker’s admonition is the body’s performative extravagance, a spectacle making that must be disciplined, reined in. To be called out for being puro arte at once exposes the performing subject’s propensity for histrionics and puts her in her place for showing off. It is a complex construction that foregrounds the overdramatics of performance precisely to make light of it.

Yet, to be puro arte is to strategically refuse unmediated or clear-cut expression. the invocation of puro arte also carries an acknowledgment, almost an . . .

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