May 19, 2012

In 500 words or less #002: The Filipinos' love affair with Jessica Sanchez


With American Idol entering its final week, Jessica Sanchez-mania in the Philippines has hit fever pitch. Social networking sites have been flooded by Pinoy Pride campaigns about the AI finalist. She was the banner story in the news program State of the Nation where Jessica Soho called her as our kababayan. News about and pictures of Sanchez hogged the front pages of broadsheets. Even Malacañang jumped on the bandwagon, with Abigail Valte urging Filipinos to “please show your support in any way possible for Jessica Sanchez. This is the last stretch and we know that when Filipinos gather and put their minds into it, it will happen.”

Is Jessica Sanchez a Filipino? The legal system obviously does not distinguish her to be one. Mainstream pop culture does not recognize her as Filipino as well. She is competing as an American idol after all. But for her millions of adoring Filipino fans, these distinctions don't matter. To their mind, she is one of their own as blood and kinship lines are salient. For them, Jessica is as much a Filipino as naturalized basketball player Marcus Douthit is not, legal distinctions of citizenship notwithstanding.

Some say that this is just another expression of a Filipino penchant to reclaim foreign celebrities as one of our own. We have our love affairs with Apl.de.Ap, Nicole Scherzinger, Bruno Mars and other Hollywood celebrities with fractions of Filipino blood. The claim, however, that this is a distinctively Filipino attempt to desperately reclaim national pride is bullshit as other countries and cultures have engaged in similar reclamation projects as well. Kenya and the rest of the African continent celebrated Barack Obama's presidency as the ascent of one of their own into the height of political power. More recently, Jeremy Lin's out-of-nowhere rise to basketball stardom captured the imagination of East Asian - Taiwan and China in particular – as a fairy tale of a son that has done right to overcome the obstacles of living in a foreign land.

These various attempts by people to construct connections along ethnic lines look surprising only in the context of modernity's self-description of having overcome such “traditional” distinctions. Modern society fancies itself as rationally guided by a functional world view as opposed to the personalistic world view of traditional society. In making a choice between modalities of a social object, the modern professes using performance and achievement instead of attributes and qualities as guides to action and choice. The modern would ask, “can't we just admire Jessica Sanchez because she's a good singer and not because of some imagined transcendental connection?” But this is naive modernity, because the reality is that people still find meaning using these personalistic distinctions. Behind its rational veneer of modernity, our society still rests on foundations shaped by practices of ascription. Life chances – including one's fate in a talent contest – are shaped not just by some instrumental performance-based criteria but also by personal attributes, networks and a dose of serendipity.

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