Los Angeles

The Balikbayan Box

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In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center
18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

By Pilar Tompkins Rivas

Balikbayan boxes contain any combination of new and used items that one might find on Craigslist or eBay - shoes, clothes, magazines, toys, packaged food products, and kitchen items - but the contents of these bulk weight containers are destined for the loved ones that Filipino families in Los Angeles and beyond left behind in their homeland. These care packages generally conform to a few standard sizes of cardboard boxes. There is no weight limit to ship and they are not subject to import taxes, so for a flat rate of about $70 a box, anything and everything might go into them. Look closely at the storefronts in Eagle Rock, Torrance, Glendale, Cerritos and West Covina, to name a few locations, and you might spot a place that delivers these goods door to door from LA to Manila, ensuring that the gifts enclosed will arrive to their destination in a matter of one month.

Balikbayan Box, Los Angeles | Photo: Courtesy of Sara Schnadt.

The literal translation of balikbayan into English is "return to country." During the 1970s, there was a national campaign in the Philippines that encouraged people to go abroad for work. Subsequently, former president Ferdinand Marcos established that the Philippine Bureau of Customs Circular should allow tax-free entry of personal goods into the country from the several million Filipinos working overseas. As a result, the Filipino custom of pasalubong, bringing a gift upon returning from a trip, evolved for the Filipino diaspora into a tradition of sending numerous items by cargo to family, friends and colleagues back in the Philippines.

Balikbayan Box, Cotabato City | Photo: Courtesy of Sara Schnadt.<br />

The image of a balikbayan box appears in the new video installation Perpetual Peace by contemporary artist Michelle Dizon at 18th Street Arts Center. This eight-channel, deconstructed film is a bit like these boxes. It is an amalgamation of imagery, facts, and ideas brought together in one place to serve as a bridge between those who are there with those that are here. As part of the complex historical, and at times personal, narrative in the film, the artist traces the shipment of a balikbayan box prepared by her mother in Los Angeles to its arrival with the artist's family back in the Philippines. The box reflects a psychic, personal, and intimate economy running parallel to a macro understanding of global politics that Dizon outlines in this piece.

US Aid Sign, Cotabato City | Photo: Courtesy of Sara Schnadt.<br />

Over a period of four years beginning in 2008, Dizon traveled throughout the Philippines researching and shooting footage of sites impacted by neocolonial and neoliberal policy. She documented the ruins of former US military bases, the presence of multinational corporations profiting through the extraction of the country's natural resources, remilitarization guised as development projects by US AID, the conflict zones of the southern Philippine island Mindanao, and the displaced peoples of the region. Perpetual Peace, the resultant project, continues to develop as an artwork, taking on different iterations through editing and presentation configurations, as the artist tackles a very complex national history and present. Told from the diasporic perspective, Dizon guides us through this intricate web, elucidating the story for the viewer and ultimately, for herself.

Multiple layers of imperialism and colonialism must be traversed in order to understand contemporary circumstances. Echoing the Reconquista, Magellan's arrival in the Philippines in the 16th century brought Christianity to a region that already had a strong Islamic presence dating back to the 13th century. Since that encounter, the Bangsamoro people, ethnically Muslim and based in the southern islands of the archipelago, have struggled against foreign occupation. Not unlike the difficult legacies of usurped indigenous patrimonies and western conquest experienced in the Americas, Filipino hegemony is rooted in separate peoples with disparate traditions and identities engaged in long-term territorial disputes. Resistance in Mindanao, where Dizon's family hails from, continues today. While the island was included in the Treaty of Manila in 1946 relinquishing US sovereignty over the Philippines, the people from this region have always considered themselves autonomous through their own resistance movements. Sultanates have traditionally governed the land, and in recent generations, groups such as the Moro National Liberation Front arose in reaction to Marcos' dictatorial rule.

Mount Pinatubo | Photo: Courtesy of Sara Schnadt.

American militarization of the region remains thorny and shifting. The United States left its bases in the Philippines in 1992. It was a power transition that was punctuated by Mount Pinatubo's eruption (one of the central images in Dizon's installation) that same year. Though demilitarization talks began in 1991, the volcano actively reemerged after lying dormant for 600 years, thus showing auspicious timing in speeding up the exit of the US armed forces. Yet in the post-911 era, the afore mentioned resistance groups were labeled terrorist cells and became targets of the War on Terror, leading to a broad categorization of Muslim Filipinos as threatening, in general, under renewed conservative rhetoric.

Reconciling issues of nationalism and cultural, political and familial inheritance within this context is multifaceted and even unsettling. During the Philippine-American war at the turn of the 20th century, Mindanao was the setting in which torture techniques, such as waterboarding, were first chronicled and written about as militaristic practices. Today, warlords are present in this southern region and it is considered to be lawless and unsafe. Dizon's imagery brings the viewer front and center with signs touting new development projects funded by US AID, a covert effort to reestablish strongholds on the ground.

Perpetual Peace weaves these layered narratives together and underscores the historical content with moments from the lives of individuals that live this story. What is the human face of this transnational war novel? And for the artist, how does Dizon's examination from the perspective of the expatriate Filipino community in California shift our understanding of home and country?

Moving across the Pacific Rim, the balikbayan boxes reveal a flow of contemporary consumer culture and customs unfolding between the Filipino populations on both sides of the ocean. Filipino Americans may be repatriating something of themselves through the objects and gifts they send, now reflecting their daily experiences abroad. Although in one sense representing the workings of indomitable globalism and the economic disparity between the countries, the innocuous contents within these boxes reiterate the personal ties that are millions strong across two countries. Dizon's work encourages us to stop to examine what this on-going interplay between nations signifies for us, as we feel the passage of time and place.

While it may be argued that one can never truly return home, a quandary all immigrants and diasporas face, Dizon's work also tackles the question of not being able to bear witness to history in one's country of origin as it is being lived out in the present. This has likely driven her to return time and again to document the happenings she brings forward in Perpetual Peace, and why the evolution of this film has seen several iterations and forms. For its current installation at 18th Street Arts Center, the artist invites the viewer into a fragmented cinematic experience where they must piece together the elements of image, voice, music, text, and object. In many ways, this mirrors the inability to return to a displaced homeland, despite knowing it intuitively and intimately recognizing it within our own family heritage.

In Dizon's own words:

I am no witness to the rush of water, unleashed by a dyke deteriorated by the chemicals of the mine above. I am no witness to the bullet holes that ravage communities whose land should properly be their own. I am no witness to the heat of a thousand suns, the core of the earth spilled to cover a base. I am no witness to those displaced by the disasters of war and commerce, no witness to their stories or to their children whose youth are spent waiting for the camp to turn to ruin.

All that I can bear witness to is a tear in the fabric of time and space, where the past does not precede the present and where what we know as the present is made up of so much absence.


River, Datu Piang  | Photo: Courtesy of Sara Schnadt.

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Top Image: Ruins at Clark Air Base, Pampanga.

About the Author

Pilar Tompkins Rivas is Director of Residency Programs at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica. She has served as arts project coordinator at the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, curator of the Claremont Museum of Art and ...
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What's also interesting about the Balikbayan Box is that other immigrant cultures have adopted their own version of it; at LAX, I see passengers bound for Guatemala or El Salvador check in large cardboard cubes -- packed in packing tape and secured by rope -- onto their flights.

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