An Empire of Starbucks Cups and Steph Curry Jerseys

(Alexa Strabuk • The Student Life)

Jun. 12, 1898: red, blue, and yellow flew across Filipino skies for the first time. As Ambrosio Bautista proudly read the Philippine Declaration of Independence, over three hundred years of blood at Spanish hands came to an end.

Six months later, the Philippines—a nation of aquamarine seas, sun-kissed mountains, and warm-hearted people—was bought by the United States for twenty million dollars.  Even now, a full century later, the Philippines has yet to attain true, absolute freedom.

For many Asian countries that have encountered American intervention, "independence" comes with strings attached. While July 4, 1946 marked the end of physical American rule in the Philippines, American political and socio-cultural hegemony continues to thrive. Ultimately, this exemplifies the United States' use of neocolonialism to further its status as a global superpower.

One year after so-called Philippine 'independence,' the 1947 Military Bases Agreement enabled the United States to maintain twenty-three naval settlements within the archipelago. While military bases were eventually phased out in 1991, the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement granted American troops access to Filipino bases. American military control extends beyond the Philippines; currently, the United States holds approximately 800 bases in 70 countries.

Ubiquitous and persistent, American military presence grants the United States undue external influence over a country’s internal affairs, thus weakening its sovereignty. For example, in 2014, a United States Marine murdered Jennifer Laude—a young Filipina transgender woman—in a fit of bigotry and transphobia. However, due to a stipulation in a previous military contract, the Philippines did not have custody over the suspect and had only limited jurisdiction over the crime.

Laude was treated as a second-class citizen in her own country, whereas her American murderer was afforded special privileges. Had Laude been cisgender and a United States citizen—and her killer a Filipino officer—the case would have sparked international outrage.

Yet again, the colonizer erases the narratives of the colonized.

More importantly, due to their strategic geopolitical locations, military bases in the Philippines and Japan were used as launchpads for American intervention in the Vietnam and Korean Wars, respectively. Under the guise of benevolent global security, the United States creates nodal points from which they can enforce their global neocolonialist agenda.

Neocolonialism also manifests in less explicit forms, such as sociocultural supremacy—deference to Western-centric culture at the expense of local customs. A billion dollar skin-whitening industry conditions millions of East and Southeast Asians into thinking that whiteness is synonymous to beauty and success. A young, brown-skinned Filipina girl gazes at the television, wondering why the mestizo (half-white, half-Filipinx) actors and actresses do not look like her, her mother, or her friends.

English has become synonymous with social capital; an Americanized twang escapes Filipino lips when teenagers open up to speak, often at the expense of over one hundred native dialects. American fast food chains, sports, and clothing brands are large, relentless behemoths that trample on local Filipino businesses.

The United States has built a capitalist empire of Starbucks cups and Steph Curry jerseys, furthering its status as an economic superpower.

Yet in spite of political manipulation and cultural erasure, a study by the Pew Research Center reveals that 92 percent of Filipinos view the United States favorably—the highest worldwide. Among Asian countries, the next highest ratings come from Korea (84 percent) and Vietnam (77 percent). All three countries were sites of American proxy wars or colonization.

This begs the question: why does U.S. hegemony remain so loved? Is it because American exceptionalism—the belief that the United States, with its love of freedom and democracy, will transform the world for the better—is valid?

Or perhaps, have we been brainwashed into believing so?

To answer this question, we do not need to look further than our Claremont bubble. Of Pomona’s admitted Class of 2020, around 14 percent are domestic Asian students, 11.1 percent come from outside the United States, and a portion are of mixed Asian heritage. To differing degrees, we all have bought into the idea of American exceptionalism.

Inspired by the 'American Dream,' Asian immigrant families bravely left their homes to seek out a new life in the United States. As a Filipino international student, I was attracted by the unparalleled educational opportunities that the United States offers.

Yet in our quest for success and stability, we find ourselves in a difficult position—toeing the fine line between half-hearted acceptance from white America and complete alienation from our native roots.

Freedom continues to be an ever-elusive pursuit.

Yet someday, I want red, yellow and blue to reign over aquamarine seas and sun-kissed mountains. I want over almost five hundred years of blood—wars and scars, revolutions and constitutions—to come to its end.

I want to be free.

Jolo Labio PO '20 is from Manila, Philippines. Catch him every Monday-Thursday at 7:59 AM, furiously sprinting to his 8 a.m. at Mason.