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In the mid-twentieth century, an increase in the number of nurses and university “coeds” trained in the United States forced charged conversations about changing gender roles in the Philippines. In fact, as literature scholar Denise Cruz explains, these ongoing social changes sparked the charged question at the heart of author Bienvenido N. Santos’s celebrated 1955 short story “Scent of Apples”: “Are our Filipino women the same like they were twenty years ago?”

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As Cruz argues, the responses put forward by Santos and other Filipino intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s show that the answer to this question wasn’t a simple one. But the work of Filipino writers like Santos offers at least one “means of rethinking the gendered, sexed, raced, and classed dynamics of postwar and cold war discursive productions.” In their creative output, both fiction and nonfiction, they

stage a drama in which questions about transpacific Filipinas—and their fraught answers—are necessary to the narrative reformation of Filipina/o identities and communities, and to the imagining of Philippine-US relations.

The narrator Santos created for “Scent of Apples,” a young Filipino sent across the American Midwest on a public-relations tour for the US War Department, opts to prevaricate—claiming that, despite their outward changes, modern Filipinas remain at heart “God-fearing, faithful, modest, and nice.”

When read alongside Santos’s other short stories, this assertion begins to seem somewhat dubious, Cruz notes. Santos instead reveals “a series of anxieties, for the privilege of US university education” has led nowhere good. In several of his stories, the education of Filipinas (particularly nurses) in the US not only creates a lack of compassion but

a generation of younger, snobby women who commit multiple crimes, ranging from forgoing their national affiliation, to questioning the scripts of heterosexual femininity, to—worst of all—attempting to redefine Filipina and Filipino identities abroad.

Cruz points to his 1955 short story “Brown Coterie,” which depicts a clique of “girls” who “reeked with gray matter,” observing that “[t]he women’s participation in educational opportunities produce not models but perversions […] Advanced degrees lead to underfed, ‘primly’ dressed women, with only one who ‘looked nice enough to make a man forget that she had brains.’”

For their part, Filipina feminists, including Trinidad Tarrosa Subido and María Mendoza-Guazón, “narrated their own complicated answers” to Santos’s question. Writing around the same time as Santos, they argued that “new Filipinas” were making humanitarian contributions through their achievements in fields such as medicine and the social sciences, counterbalancing Santos’s view of transpacific women as “uncaring” and “unreasonable.”

Tarrosa Subido’s and Mendoza-Guazón’s writings “underscore the transpacific Filipina’s crucial role in the development and progress of not only the nation, but also to the Philippines’ evolving relations with other nations in the world,” Cruz writes. The new Filipina cares more about the “progress of humanity” and their contributions as national leaders than the flattery of men.

At the same time, Cruz warns that such arguments “also fall prey to and reinforce some constructions that are both familiar and troubling.” For example, Tarrosa Subido and Mendoza-Guazón romanticize the independence of precolonial Indigenous women (india) while overlooking their racial marginalization in the Philippines today. They also valorize Filipino women by contrasting their social status with orientalist tropes such as the Chinese practice of foot-binding or the Middle Eastern face veil.

By attributing Filipino women’s liberation to access to Western education, this rhetoric also acts to “carefully align Filipinas with a supposedly more liberal United States,” writes Cruz.

Ironically, styling the US educational system as “especially benevolent” for Filipinas is “deeply problematic,” since it was introduced to the Philippines “in part to justify the argument that Filipina/os, unfit for self-rule, needed the guidance of American superiors.”

In the end, the portrayal of transpacific Filipinas emphasizes how central these figures were to “how Filipina/o intellectuals were making sense of the future of the Philippines” in the mid-twentieth century, through texts that must be interpreted “[i]n all their complexities,” Cruz observes. She concludes that, “[v]exed and complicated, their responses represent neither easy defiance nor compliant acceptance.”

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American Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 1 (March 2011), pp. 1–32
The Johns Hopkins University Press