Diaspora Mobilization in Democracy Struggles

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Filipinos in the U.S. and the Netherlands became key players in international efforts to overthrow an oppressive regime, institute democracy, and shape the direction of the Philippine political system. When Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law on September 21, 1972, Filipino student and political organizations in the U.S. immediately convened in San Francisco and launched a national campaign to oppose authoritarian rule. In less than a year, the movement spread as new organizations of diverse political orientations emerged and took root in long-established Filipino communities in the U.S. Activists focused on lobbying Congress for the withdrawal of military and economic support to Marcos and on politicizing Filipino national and cultural events. In the Netherlands, the movement was launched later. In response to Marcos’s intensified repression, Filipino exile and solidarity organizations in Europe organized the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the Philippines in 1980 in Belgium. The purpose of the tribunal was to expose and isolate the Marcos dictatorship and recognize the national liberation movements as the genuine representatives of the Filipino people. It also brought the Philippine revolutionary struggle to the community of Filipino temporary workers in the Netherlands.

Filipino mobilization in the U.S. and the Netherlands raises three questions: How do organizations in migrant communities mobilize to oppose authoritarian rule and institute democracy in their homeland? How does mobilization vary across different countries of settlement and time periods? What accounts for the differences across national contexts and junctures? Using comparative case study of mobilization of Filipinos in the U.S. and the Netherlands from the period of authoritarian rule (1965-1986) to the early years of democratic transition (1986-1992) in the Philippines, I explore the conditions and mechanisms through which migrants become involved in political struggles in their homelands. I do this by analyzing how political structures in both the host and home societies, resources in the migrant community, and construction of diaspora consciousness influence diaspora mobilization.

My dissertation bridges a gap in existing efforts to explain how migrant communities become involved in politics in their homelands. Using a “long-distance nationalism” perspective, scholars in international and area studies attribute the continued participation in homeland politics among migrants and subsequent generations to the persistence of affective ties and national loyalty to their ancestral land. They focus on migrants’ membership in diaspora communities and the articulation of a diasporic identity during periods of heightened political contention in their homeland. This perspective, however, takes identity as a starting point and thus essentializes and reifies socially constructed categories such as ethnicity and nationality.

Scholars in migration and transnationalism studies argue that migrants’ involvement in homeland politics can best be explained as a process by which migrants forge and sustain social relations that link together where they live and where they are from. Their membership in dense economic, political, and social networks points to the malleability and permeability of borders and rootedness that have been central to theories on nationalism. However, question remains as to why, through their activism in homeland issues, migrants continue to narrowly frame and express their identities in terms of parochial loyalties.

Lastly, sociologists and political scientists have turned to social movement theories to explain how migrants actually become engaged in homeland political and social struggles. They investigate how migrant organizations strategically deploy resources to make claims about homeland political issues. Yet, they focus mostly on the political environment and the constellation of actors in the host society. They overlook how political conditions and organizational resources in the homeland affect cross-border activism.

I overcome the limitations of each approach by drawing on their respective strengths to explain the process of homeland-oriented migrant mobilization. I use social movement theory to examine how the combination of resources, opportunities, and threats at particular time periods shape diaspora activism. From the field of transnationalism, I apply ideas about overlapping boundaries of membership in geographically separate polities. I examine how the interaction of political structures in the homeland and host countries impact on activism. I also analyze how organizational resources and community infrastructure that are formed transnationally influence mobilization. Lastly, I look at the construction and transformation of Filipino migrant identities. I employ the framework of long-distance nationalism from international and area studies to explain how diaspora consciousness emerges and how activists define, question, and re-interpret ethnicity, nationalism, and democracy through mobilization. I have published an article on a social movement approach to migrant mobilization for homeland politics in Sociology Compass.

In my empirical chapters, I trace the concatenation of events and processes in the home and host societies that led to the mobilization of Filipinos and provide nuanced historical interpretation of my cases. The first chapter focuses on the U.S., where I argue that the movement against the dictatorship in the Philippines grew from the convergence of three activist streams in the 1960s among Filipinos and Filipino-Americans. First, the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movement introduced Filipino youth to activism. The second was the identity movement among Third World peoples. It organized strikes for ethnic studies in universities in the San Francisco Bay Area and participated in the struggle of migrant communities against gentrification and urban renewal projects in the West Coast. The third stream involved union organizing among farmworkers in Northern California and among cannery workers in Washington and Alaska. The wave of Filipino immigration after the passage of the 1965 U.S. Immigration Act changed the composition of existing communities and fueled the incipient anti-Marcos movement, as students and middle-class professionals who were active in and exposed to radical activism in the Philippines moved to the U.S. I show how the U.S. government’s support of the Marcos dictatorship was both an opportunity and a threat for mobilization that defined the strategic frames and collective identity of the activists.

The next chapter examines mobilization in the Netherlands, where Filipinos lacked the advantages of organization and community embeddedness compared to their counterparts in the U.S. I argue that in cases where migrants lack pre-existing economic, political, and social ties in the host society, established social movements serve as migration bridges and movement incubators. I develop a theory of social movement incubation, wherein solidarity groups provide a legitimating base for challenging the status quo to migrant groups until the latter is organizationally ready, political opportunities have become available, and collective consciousness has developed. I show how the dominance of the Christian Democrats in Dutch politics, the extensive network of religious groups in the solidarity movement, and the chain migration of exiles with the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front combined to advance Filipino mobilization in the Netherlands.

My dissertation contributes to humanities and social sciences methodologically and theoretically. First, by focusing on organizations and communities, my project eschews the naturalization of the nation-state as the unquestioned unit of analysis in social sciences. By emphasizing activists’ own definition of being a Filipino, we allow the possibility of other identifying categories to emerge and possibly supersede the privileging of nation-state identity. Second, my research is comparative and multi-sited, an approach essential to the study of migrant transnationalism. My project links three different regions and compares Europe and North America as spaces for diaspora mobilization. Thus, I am able to describe the interconnections of locations at particular conjunctures. Lastly, my dissertation extends existing theoretical formulations in the social movement literature to new or different social categories (diasporas), contexts (migrant communities), or processes (construction of diaspora consciousness).

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