Cascadia Critical Geographies Conference – The Filipino Migrant in Spaces of Liberal Tolerance: Peter Bacho’s Cebu

The Cascadia Critical Geographies Conference was comfortably unapologetic in its political critiques.

Cascadia is the name of the politically alike region of the Pacific Northwest, which reaches from Oregon to British Columbia. Yet the term now has often been used to invoke scenic passes and temperate forest aesthetic. The corporate use of the term, and criticism of the name as erasing indigenous knowledge of the region led one discussant to insist that we rename the conference “Cascading Critical Geographies.”

The conference began on Friday with a panel on Neoliberalization, and ended with an open discussion on the theoretical underpinnings to Occupy. In the meantime I was on the “race” panel, as we called it, since we were the only panel with “race” in our title (we were, therefore, racy).

My talk came in two parts. First I explored the history of the Pacific Northwest as a constructed space of liberal tolerance. In the second, I offered a satirical reading of Peter Bacho’s novel Cebu to show how this Asian American novel can reveal new ways of seeing ideologies of liberal tolerance form the point of view of the Filipino migrant. Ultimately, I tried to investigate how spaces of liberal tolerance are constructed in a way that represses political involvement, co-opts Asian American cultural production, and normalizes an imperialist attitude towards “intolerable” communities and peoples.

 I have excerpted the claim of my paper below.


The Filipino Migrant in Spaces of Liberal Tolerance: Peter Bacho’s Cebu

In Peter Bacho’s 1991 novel Cebu, Ben Lucero, a Filipino American priest living in Seattle, makes his first trip to the Philippines to bury his deceased mother. While discovering his “roots” in Cebu and Manila, Ben witnesses surges of religious and political violence that prompt his quick retreat from the poverty and corruption of his homeland back to the “order” and “sanctuary” of Seattle (Bacho 133). While some scholars have seen Ben’s retreat as an escape from his social debt toward his homeland,[1] Ben’s return can also be seen as a way of paying off a different social debt: a debt to the Pacific Northwest for providing a space of liberal tolerance. Throughout the novel, Ben shows gratitude toward Seattle for providing a space where violence, corruption and poverty are distanced into the history and geography of the Filipino homeland. To pay off this debt to the host country, Ben performs as the good, Asian American citizen, and encourages his Filipino congregation to do the same by abandoning their “intolerable” cultural practices, such as loyalty to their barkada, their peer group and community.

When violence erupts in Seattle’s International District and migrant Filipinos are thrown into a cycle of murder and robbery, Ben identifies the violence as a Filipino cultural aberration, discovering “something in [Filipino] culture, however diluted it was by life in America, that allowed wild swings in cruelty and compassion, that…tolerated, even glorified, violence” (149). For Ben, Filipino culture withholds an authentic kernel of violence and “wild swings” that “life in America” must “dilute.” When the violence becomes so overwhelming that Ben cannot escape into his “aesthetic afternoon” at the Cascade mountain range (165), his impulse is to interpret the violence as a remnant of the Filipino homeland:  “Ben wondered how many more would die before the killing would run its course. He feared the worst. He knew how Filipinos could nurture hatred, black and seemingly eternal, treating it like a pet sore to be scratched routinely to keep it from healing” (157). “Hatred” and “killing” here become innate characteristics of the Filipino “fresh off the boat” migrant, a diasporic instability that might affect or infect other Asian Americans such as Ben. As he says of his Filipino friend Teddy, “Teddy was like [the Filipinos], and Ben was afraid that, at his own deepest core, he was too.” Though other possible causes for the violence are depicted in the novel such as police indifference and South Seattle segregation, Ben ignores these and instead blames the migrants themselves for retaining intolerable versions of their culture. In order to continue a narrative of liberal tolerance that always posits itself as the bastion of multiculturalism, freedom and order, Ben must locate violence within a cultural realm, rather than within the political sphere, putting it upon the individual Filipino to overcome their “intolerable” way of life. Bacho’s portrayal of Ben as a “good Asian American” provides readers with an understanding of liberal tolerance as a de-radicalizing ideology, one that Ben accepts wholeheartedly.

This talk investigates how Peter Bacho’s Cebu allows us to read liberal tolerance as an ideological formation that sees violence as an infectious cultural practice, and thus allows the tolerant subject to blame all instances of racial tension on the individual who chooses to retain an intolerable version of the culture. In this talk I read Cebu as a social satire to expose the gaze of the liberal, tolerant reader, and open up new ways of seeing how diasporic ties to reciprocity and social debt affect the Asian migrant in spaces of liberal tolerance. For Cebu, a concept of “diaspora” as the representation of a foreign culture compels the Asian American protagonist to represent an authentic homeland always in contrast to Seattle, a technologically advanced and liberally progressive city. Bacho’s novel exposes ideologies of liberal tolerance from the point of view of the migrant subject, where social affects of reciprocity, such as guilt, shame and debt, reinforce notions of the host country as a place of tolerance, and secure acts of racism and violence within a diaspora’s homogenized, re-imagined culture.

[1] See Elisabeth Pisare’s “Payback Time: Neocolonial Discourses in Peter Bacho’s ‘Cebu,’”

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