Jean Vengua: On Stewardship and Curation

To be a Filipino American writer, whether or not one is aware of the historical and political implications, is to dip into a stream of writing and speeches produced by Filipinos from just before the beginning of the 20th century, through the 1920s and 1930s, up to and through World War II.

The authors include, for example, Sixto Lopez and Clemencia Lopez, whose passionate speeches moved the Anti-Imperialist League and New England Women’s Suffrage Association; editors and contributors to the Filipino Students Magazine, who railed against the exhibition of Filipinos at the St. Louis World’s Fair; and the publishers, editors, and writers for the myriad Filipino newspapers and magazines published on the West Coast in the 1930s, whose incisive and often angry editorial prose on labor and civil rights spurred strikes in the agricultural fields. There were many more writers than those I mention here, and their work in periodicals was published not only on the West Coast, but also in the Mid-west, in New York and Washington D.C., and likely any area to which Filipinos migrated, and stayed for any lengthy period.


Our literature has evolved from letters, editorials, essays, short stories, and poems published in periodicals, and even from testimonios, in the case of Filipinos whose personal experiences of vigilante attacks on the labor camp near Salinas were written and published in the Philippines Mail.1

The early writings of Filipinos published in the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century were in turn part of the stream of journalism and literature published in the Philippines within U.S. colonial communications and publishing infrastructures. Their work was created in an atmosphere of provisional “freedom” and constraint through surveillance which, I believe, affected the early published efforts and writing of Filipinos published in the U.S., in some cases with devastating effect. This relationship needs to be further explored.

Without the support of U.S. Filipino2 publishers and editors in the pre-WWII era who used their newspapers as venues for budding, as well as more experienced writers, Bulosan—and many other Filipino writers from that period—may never have gotten published at all. The editors were, in a sense, our first curators.

Why does it matter that many of these editors and publishers were also writers? How will our view of Filipino American literature and arts change, if we read the passionate political editorials of D.L. Marcuelo, Luis Agudo, Juan Dionisio, M.G. Alviar, Aurelio Bulosan, and youthful Filipina writers such as Helen Rillera and “L.A. Pinay”? Why do they matter, and what are the implications of this journalistic-literary genealogy? All these and other questions can only be answered if we continue stewardship and curation of the early periodicals (newspapers and magazines) published by U.S. Filipinos.

I’m referring to curation not only in its functions of preserving and archiving, but also in terms of what Lorcan Dempsey summarizes as “selection, organization, and presentation.”3 This involves the effort to find and develop audiences for texts, making sense of them in ways that will be valuable for readers, libraries, and booksellers. This can include criticism that taps into the larger literary history of Filipino writing in the U.S. and elsewhere. Unless we are involved in a continuing process of archival research and curation, we will be participating in the erasure of our early literary history in this country.

Some Filipino American researcher/curators—Alex Fabros, Dawn Mabalon, Jess Tabasa, Reme Grefalda, Lala Lacuna, among others—began years ago to collect photographs, interviews, books, and newspapers of historical significance for Filipinos in the U.S. Others, like E. San Juan, Jr., have drawn on Filipino newspapers found in university archives and individual collections in order to understand and articulate contextually certain aspects of Filipino writing in the U.S. since the 1920s, especially in relation to the work of familiar writers such as Carlos Bulosan and Jose Garcia Villa.

Still, there hasn’t been enough inquiry and excavation done to bring to light the work as writing in the early periodicals. I fear this is because there is an underlying assumption that there isn’t much there, and, if there is something, it’s “only” newspaper articles and journalism. The periodicals are seen as important historical and sociological documents, but—as “literature,” nothing of worth.

There are certainly enough U.S. Filipino newspapers and magazines catalogued in university archives and county historical societies to present a significant amount of material to be gone through. Furthermore, references to periodicals that aren’t catalogued suggest that there may be more out there hidden in personal collections and in public library newspaper archives, if they still exist at all.

Deeper research and study of these works will likely change our perspectives of Bulosan, Villa, Santos, N.V.M. Gonzalez and others, and allow us to see our contemporary writing and spoken word in a larger, richer, and more complex historical context. How many Filipino writers are aware, for example, that one of the more important critiques of Bulosan’s work before the mid-century, was written by a Filipina, Nelly X. Burgos?4

The early writers need to be taken out of the mist; their names should be spoken in classrooms, their work read, and their significance and relation to current Filipino American writing argued and discussed.

Though our contemporary writers and artists are increasingly finding ways to use the media to make their presence heard, this is not the case for early U.S. Filipino writing. Is this any surprise, given our history of invisibility in the U.S.? Part of the problem may be the “unsexiness” of “literature,” in comparison to spoken word, hip-hop, dance, or the visual arts. We may not always appreciate some of the biased opinions voiced by Filipino writers in the 1930s. And yet, how fascinating it is to read—within its historical context—of a play about Jose Rizal’s martyrdom, written and staged by a Filipino women’s club, with participation of many members of the Filipino community; how moving to read—during a period when striking laborers were harassed by vigilantes and police with impunity—that some 2000 attended and were moved to tears by the play’s symbolism of courage and sacrifice.5

“Curation” has recently become a buzzword, and its use is already being capitalized as knowledge organization for pay. In an era overwhelmed by information on the internet—much of which consists of increasingly superficial content—it’s important to approach this work with a more fundamental curatorial value: to “curate” is to manage, oversee, and even to guard and protect that which we deem valuable.

With funds disappearing and academic publishers litigating to charge fees for access to books, journals, and interlibrary loan, our ability to locate the material may become more difficult. As time goes by, more of the fragile print materials will be lost before becoming microfilmed or digitized. Printed on cheap paper stock made during the economic downturn of the 1930s, the Filipino periodicals are literally falling to pieces while archivists search for funds to purchase acid-free containers and other preservation materials—hoping, in the meantime, that each turn of the page will not cause complete disintegration.

Locating primary documents now is important, and preservation is just as important as digitization. I have seen original copies of the Philippines Mail newspaper;6 viewing the pages in full size, with ads and articles juxtaposed as the editors originally placed them is crucial to our understanding and interpretation of the early writings. While microfilm “preserves” documents, they also frame them in ways that hinder full viewing and interpretation. In a way, they even contribute to the “invisibility” of the documents.

University collections had been making inroads in collecting Filipino periodicals prior to the Bush administration (U.C. Berkeley and U. Washington are stellar examples). But as the government became more involved in the wars in the Middle East, and as the economy began its inevitable crash, funds for archiving, libraries, ethnic studies departments, teachers, and staff have been withdrawn.

Thus, while it’s important to make change happen within existing institutions, it’s also time for us to be the curators and disseminators of our own histories, literature, and arts. There is enough material out there to allow for many scholars to find their own curatorial niches. Are there more Filipino newspapers and magazines in New Orleans? Chicago? New York? Alaska? Kansas? Mexico City? Was your uncle, aunt, or grandfather an editor who boxed up old newspapers and hid them under the bed?

County historical societies, public and private collections, as well as university libraries are good places to start. Filipino curators, researchers, and writers need to meet and discuss strategies. We can’t wait for universities and other institutions to catch up with us. We are low in their list of priorities now; they have other fish to fry.

[1] I use the word in Spanish consciously, as a nod to the important scholarship that has been done on testimonios in the Americas.

[2] U.S. Filipinos: A term used several times in newspaper headlines by Filipino writers during the pre-WWII era to describe themselves.

[3] Lorcan Dempsey, “On the discrimination of curators and curations…” Lorcan Dempsey’s Weblog, http://orweblog.oclc.org/archives/002119.html. Dempsey is Vice President, OCLC Research and Chief Strategist.

[4] Nelly X. Burgos, Philippine Commonwealth Times, Sept. 25, 1941.

[5] “2000 Are Inspired By New Feature Of Salinas Rizal Fete,” Philippines Mail, Jan. 8, 1934.

[6] Accessed at the Monterey County Historical Society in Salinas, CA.

Jean Vengua has a Ph.D. in English from U.C. Berkeley. Her Ph.D. dissertation can be accessed online at ProQuest/UMI. Jean has taught at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and Gavilan College. She is the author of a collection of poetry, Prau, and a chapbook, The Aching Vicinities. With Mark Young, she co-edited the First Hay(na)ku Anthology, and The Hay(na)ku Anthology Vol. II. In the mid 1990s, Elizabeth H. Pisares and Jean Vengua formed Tulitos Press and published and edited The Debut: the Making of a Filipino American Film by Gene Cajayon and John Manal Castro, and The Flipside, by Rod Pulido. Her poetry and essays have been published in many journals and anthologies. She currently lives and works in Elkhorn, CA, near Salinas.

Find her online at http://commonwealthcafe.info, http://commonwealthcafe.wordpress.com, and http://biblioshock.wordpress.com

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7 Thoughts on “Jean Vengua: On Stewardship and Curation

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