Author in focus: Robyn Rodriguez (author of Filipino American Transnational Activism)

For the next Author in Focus, Brill was lucky to interview Professor Robyn Rodriguez. Professor Rodriguez’s research is broadly concerned with understanding how processes of globalization, particularly international migration, impact the societies that migrants leave and the societies to which they move. In this interview we talk intellectual freedom, the opening of the Buloson Center for Filipino Studies, and her forthcoming book Filipino American Transnational Activism: Diasporic Politics among the Second Generation, which will be the first book published in Brill’s new series Global Southeast Asian Diasporas.

How do you find the charged conversations that are happening across the world regarding borders, human rights, and freedom of movement?

Unfortunately, many of these conversations, especially as they are led by many political leaders (I’m thinking in particular about national political leaders in the United States) are not informed conversations. Scholarship by those with expertise on these issues is rarely consulted, certainly the experiences of people who are directly experiencing human rights abuses stemming from xenophobic and racist immigration enforcement regimes are often sidelined or silenced as well. As someone how identifies as a public intellectual or a “scholar-activist,” I am very invested in ensuring that my research circulates among non-academic audiences to help better inform policymakers and the broader public. Indeed, I believe my job is to do the work of uplifting the most marginalized voices to ensure that they get heard.

I found that the Welga Archive has the files of FBI’s surveillance on Bulosan, the namesake of your center. While it is a fascinating historical document, it is undeniably haunting. Could you describe how the Buloson Center for Filipino Studies (BCFS) came to be, as well as the hopes and goals of the center?

The Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies is focused on supporting research and education on as well as the advocacy efforts of Filipino Americans and the Filipino diaspora. The Center’s formation in 2018 was an entirely grassroots endeavor led by myself, staff members, graduate students, undergraduates and the Filipino American community more broadly. To put it simply, many in our community believe it’s high time that our stories as a community are preserved and disseminated. As one of the oldest, largest and fastest growing Asian American communities in the state of California (indeed, the nation), we believe it is important that our institution of higher learning support work on Filipino Americans. It is true that Bulosan was the target of surveillance for his searing commentary on American society and labor organizing in the 1940s, but his work in “speaking truth to power” inspires what we do.

In a review of your work, you are said to show “us the strong articulation of a business and political logic in the Filipino state’s organized export of workers.” Could you give a brief description of this dynamic, and how it effects the generations that follow?

The Philippines, as I argue in my first book is a “labor brokerage state.” It actively produces and facilitates out-flows of thousands of low-wage, gendered, migrant workers on a daily basis. “Labor brokerage” is a highly profitable neoliberal developmental strategy for the Philippine state that has roots in the colonial labor system established by the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. The effect on generations to follow is that today we have one of the largest labor diasporas in the world; Filipinos can be found in nearly every country of every continent of the planet. How Filipinos, then, relate to each other and to their erstwhile homeland becomes a significant question – one that gets more fully explored in the anthology forthcoming from Brill.

As you are a self-described minority within Academia, what do you make of the “model minority” myth? Do you find it a harmful stereotype to all minorities, and immigrants?

Yes, absolutely! There are only a very small handful of Filipino American professors who research on the Philippines or the Filipino diaspora working in “research 1” institutions at my rank (I am now a full professor) in the entire country. I also identify as a woman of color and it’s also true that the numbers of faculty who identify in this way and do research on topics that intersect with this identity are also few in number. The “model minority myth” as it applies to Asian Americans, including Filipinos, is dangerous for the ways it fails to account for the complexity and diversity of our experiences as Asians in America and thus serves to mask the prevailing inequities that some groups of Asians, including Filipinos, suffer disproportionately as compared to other Asian groups.

What are you most looking forward to with the publication of your book, Filipino American Transnational Activism: Diasporic Politics among the Second Generation? What in the book do you find the most compelling?

What’s perhaps most exciting for me is seeing the work of many of my former mentees getting the light of day. I love that I’ve had the opportunity to support the work of a new generation of Filipino Studies scholars through this book.

To learn more about Professor Rodriguez’s forthcoming anthology, click here.

To read about Brill’s new series, Global Southeast Asian Diasporas, click here.