Reflections on Filipino-American History Month: Learning from Filipino Trafficking Survivors
Filipino-American History Month draws to a close, and the Fil-Am community has shared and reflected upon many valuable resources, talking points, and core bodies of work on our history and identity. In particular, the history of Filipino migrant workers is indissoluble from our history as Filipino Americans, and indeed much of the conversation rightfully reflects on their narratives and continuing impact both within the community and—on a much broader scale— for the rights of workers, migrants, and people of color. Tracing their stories offers us the chance to trace the parts of ourselves we question, the roots we dig to find, the strength we wish to uphold through our own dreams and endeavors.
I’ve been delighted to see growing visibility for Filipino-American history in our communities. More young Filipino-Americans reference Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiographical America is in the Heart— a key text on the experiences of Filipino migrant workers in the US in the 1930s. Relatedly, there has also been more awareness now on the experiences of manongs and on Filipino farm workers’ contributions to labor rights. Many Filipinos like myself are part of Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) families, and seek to understand the complex phenomenon that’s formed such a large part of Filipino identity (and, in fact, its economy). I urge you not to miss these topics this month, and to explore them if you’re keen to know more.
However, I’d like to address a matter that has strikingly been absent from the month’s discourse, though it is very much interwoven with the narratives mentioned above— labor and sex trafficking.
If that suddenly seems jarring, I understand. We normally hear about trafficking as a “law and crime” topic rather than a “history and identity” one— even though the history of Filipinos being trafficked and exploited overseas is unfortunately long and geographically broad, from Comfort Women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II to the persistent and still urgently unresolved exploitation of migrant workers globally.
And perhaps that’s why it’s ever more important to view this history through the narratives of people who have lived it—people who are survivors of human trafficking. As I reference such stories below, I’d like to add a note to urge my Filipino-Americans, in particular, to include these narratives more in our community discourse because, among our communities, circles, events, gatherings, shopping centers, reunions, and restaurants, we’re in a unique position where we could closely spot the signs of trafficking and bring awareness to it. Far too often in the anti-trafficking space have we encountered survivors who had been unaware that their exploitation counted as human trafficking and that they had recourse for help. Because of this, their traffickers often exploited them with threats of arrest, deportation, legal and financial trouble. I’ll list a few US-based resources below as well that address the signs of trafficking, hotlines, and legal resources.
In 2020, Asian Journal published an article centering around the experiences of two Filipino trafficking survivors. In telling their stories, they hoped to prevent the exploitation and trafficking of other Filipinos and to prevent trafficking in the US.
“We don’t know anyone here, we don’t know where to go and sometimes you have to try to reason with yourself that, with a trafficker, at least we have a roof where we can sleep and we have food to eat,” says Angela Guanzon, one of the survivors. Jayson De Guzman, who was trafficked by the same person who exploited Angela, recalls a similar sense of helplessness “I didn’t really understand what my rights were, so I just had to depend on my trafficker and what she was telling me to do.”
The feeling of having no recourse, of being forced into dependence on one’s trafficker is common in trafficking cases, especially in labor trafficking, and one of the main ways that traffickers retain control.
The evil of trafficking goes beyond just any single trafficker as well— corruption, systems that worsen the plight of the most vulnerable communities, and greed share the blame. Unregulated and predatory recruiters and recruitment “agencies” for example often execute their crimes under the guise of legitimacy.
In 2008, for example, a fraudulent recruiter trafficked 350 Filipino teachers to Louisiana, USA. In an episode of the This Filipino American Life podcast, one of the survivors, Mairi Nunag, spoke about the recruiter’s trafficking tactics, “The recruiters really know how to manipulate loss, legal policies, into their favor. So it’s like an institutionalized… trafficking…Part of the recruiter’s scheme would be luring you to come here… because of these opportunities. But then when you come here that’s when the intimidation, the abuses…the exorbitant fees— because of those exorbitant fees, we have debt bondage.”
In the same episode, Nunag along with survivor advocates note how systemic this pattern of predatory recruiting has become. And yet, because of the convincing veneer of legitimacy as well as the promise of careers for Filipinos in dire need of jobs, labor trafficking persists. Additionally, labor trafficking may not immediately be recognizable as trafficking given the often more immediate association of trafficking with sexual exploitation.
Survivor perspectives like the ones above visibilize trafficking in hopes of raising awareness and creating impact. In doing so, they are confronting the history of exploitation against OFWs, migrant laborers, and Filipinos.
As we continue our discourse beyond Filipino-American history month, we too can contribute to bringing awareness to the stories of trafficking survivors and to trafficking prevention. Below is a non-exhaustive list of resources to get started:
- EverFree’s section on Human Trafficking
- Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking hotline and other resources
- The National Human Trafficking Hotline
- Recognizing Trafficking
- The Typology of Modern Slavery from the Polaris Project
- 2022 Trafficking in Persons Report: The Philippines
- The Wilberforce Pamphlet – Know Your Rights