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Interview of Princess Emraida Kiram

(Editor’s note: This interview was conducted as part of Monique Brook’s primary research project for her Filipino American Studies course with Prof. Gem Daus at the University of Maryland, College Park. Interview questions and responses of both parties were through emails. See Brooks’essay in this issue.)

I did not want to identify with the Filipino community either. My intention was to keep to myself and not be active in any community. I failed.

M. BROOKS: How did you feel about coming to the US initially? What were your expectations?

P. EMRAIDA KIRAM: I initially came as Public Relations Officer of the Philippine Participation to the 1974 World's Fair in Spokane, Washington. It was just a job, and I expected to be back in the Philippines in six months. I had lived in Europe for seven years, and my family was afraid I would be away a long time again. I was single then and in school, so there was a difference.

MB: How long have you lived in the US?

PEK: Since l974

MB: Do you return home? How often?

PEK: Yes, approximately every two years.

MB: Why did you come to the US? What is your citizenship status?

PEK: I came to the US as explained above. While here, my husband who had lost his business, (he was in the security business—supplying security guards to government agencies, large warehouses, corporations and private families) to martial law, was desperate to find something else. While I was here in the US, he thought that immigrating to the US would be a good option for us. I was not interested in immigrating. His persuasion ultimately included the future of our children, at the time we had two daughters, two and three years old. He had to collect primary documentation in support of an application for citizenship, which included trips to Mindanao to get birth certificates and other documents from my parents, which was a cumbersome process. My mother is a US national, this is why my husband perceived coming to the US was an option we could pursue. I am a US citizen.

MB: What difficulties did you face when you came to the US?

PEK: I had no difficulties. My difficulties were weather and transportation related. In terms of housing: While at the World's Fair, we paid for our own apartment, four to a unit, and our food, while receiving a stipend from the government. It wasn't luxurious living, but it was comfortable. At the end of the Expo, the Phil government offered most of us, me included, jobs at the Philippine Center in New York, which just opened. Most of the staff accepted. I declined. At about this time, I had decided to apply for US citizenship, and resigned from my position at the Department of Commerce and Industry in the Philippines (DCI). Upon completion of Expo, I filed for US citizenship. I came to Milwaukee for a special assignment on behalf of my office. After that assignment was over, I found a job at Marquette University within two weeks. I signed up for a year, and after 14 months, resigned to work at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I have been here since.

Many Filipino Muslims do not stray far from their parents or homes, especially female children. I am no exception. That has now changed, Muslim Filipinos included.

MB: Did you feel more inclined to identify with the Muslim community or the Filipino community when you came to the US? By which community did you feel most accepted?

PEK: I did not want to identify with either. There was no Muslim community in Milwaukee to speak of. If there were other Muslims, I haven't heard of them or met them. This was true whether these were Filipino Muslims or Muslims in general. I did not want to identify with the Filipino community either. My intention was to keep to myself and not be active in any community. I failed.

MB: How is emigration perceived by the community in your home province?

PEK: My parents had initially resisted my coming to the US for the World's Fair, except for my assurances that it was only for six months. Many Filipino Muslims do not stray far from their parents or homes, especially female children. I am no exception. That has now changed, Muslim Filipinos included. They too, started leaving for other countries in search of a better life. I've heard young Muslims looking forward to seeking opportunities abroad even at a tender age.

MB: How long did you live in the Philippines?

PEK: All my life, except for occasional trips outside the country for vacation. Then I went to school in Madrid and in London, living in Europe for about seven (7) years when in college. I liked living in Europe, but my dad did not want to buy me a condo, because he felt that if he did, I would not return. That was probably true, except that it was hard to find jobs in Europe except if one were American. My father would have to agree to support me my entire life, which at the time was a given. It never occurred to him or to me, that I had to work to earn a living. I was not inclined to marry a foreigner either.

MB: When did you live in Philippines?

PEK: I do not understand this question.

MB: Where did you live in the Philippines?

PEK: My childhood was spent in Lanao del Norte, teen and young adult in Cotabato. My mother's family lived in an American enclave. These were American families, whose fathers came to the Philippines and then married local women. In my case, my grandather, was an engineer who helped build artesian wells around the country and the railroad. He and his friends liked the weather in Lanao—Dansalan (now Marawi) is considered the second summer capital of the country. The weather is like spring year round. They settled around the area, eventually acquiring property, and living close to each other. After my parents married, my father who was a professor at Silliman University, my parents continued to live close to my mother's family, and this is where we grew up. Eventually, my dad who was an engineer was persuaded to join the army, to help in the relocation of the huks in the Muslim province of Cotabato. My father also helped in constructing roads. We moved to Cotabato—and followed my father in his various assignments. I went to a catholic girls school. Because we were a growing family, my parents decided to settle down. We then lived and grew up in what is now known as North Cotabato.

I love the freedom of movement, the freedom of speech and expression and the things America gives people like me and what it does to the world. I love the Philippines and will continue to love it, and be concerned for its welfare.

MB: How would you describe your life in the Philippines?

PEK: Privileged. Sheltered. Not much freedom, but lots of fun.

MB: What feelings do you have about living in the US versus living in the Philippines.

PEK: Those feelings have changed through time and perhaps maturity. When I first came to the US and settled in Wisconsin in the winter of l974, I was terribly miserable. I did not have a car, had to walk three or four blocks to the bus stop and needed two bus transfers to get to work and back where I was renting a room at a private residence. The faculty and staff at Marquette University, where I worked, constantly reminded me of security. Not to take rides from strangers, not to walk alone, to be careful after dark etc. I must have cried every day for months. During all this time, it never occurred to me to tell my parents my difficulties. Years later, when my dad came to visit, and my friends told him of my early struggles, he said on the way home "why didn't you tell me all these?" to which I replied: "I guess I just grew up". This was the first time I realized that I had indeed matured. I was actually shocked. These days, although not perfectly attuned to winter, I am better adjusted. I like the change in the seasons. I know how to dress warmly. I love fall when the leaves turn green, gold, purple and wow! the colors. I will take trips to areas in Wisconsin, where the changes are more vivid and visible. I love to experience the depth and awe of that abstract admiration for the beauty that the eye perceives which fulfills the emptiness of my soul. I love the freedom of movement, the freedom of speech and expression and the things America gives people like me and what it does to the world. I love the Philippines and will continue to love it, and be concerned for its welfare. I will continue to advocate and support efforts towards its betterment. I love the Muslims and admire their struggle. I admire my Muslim friends and relatives. It pains me to be so far away, but I will always be with them in spirit and hope that one day, I can give of myself and that we can find fulfillment in peace.

MB: How common would you say emigration from ARMM provinces is? Is it any more or less common than emigration from other provinces in the Philippines.

PEK: I think it is rather more universal. I believe that Muslims are just as ambitious in achieving self sufficiency, education and advancement as the next person. With Filipinos all over the diaspora and sharing stories, of success, especially material successes, the Muslims in the ARMM are just as anxious to travel and share in this new wealth. With job opportunities in the Arab world available to other Muslims, I am distressed that many non Muslims in the Philippines have taken Muslim identities to take advantage of these opportunities. On the other hand, I am glad to know that opportunities for Muslim women are now more available, and that Muslim parents, are open to their female children traveling and working abroad.

MB: How do you feel that Filipino Muslims have been portrayed by US history and media today.

PEK: Filipino Muslims are a minority here in the US, even in larger Filipino communities. They are not portrayed separately, rather they are identified with the larger Muslim distinction of being "terrorists". Filipino Muslims are in the media only when Philippine peace and order situations are in the news, specially if the Philippine government is soliciting more grants and money from western governments. During the Marcos years, he capitalized on the "communist threat," which the US was a sucker for. Now, the Philippine government is using the "Muslim separatist" threat, or the "Muslim terrorist groups" as their justification for the lack of peace and order, the lack of stability and for the overall underdevelopment of the country.

There is also strife between families that did not exist in the past. My wish is for them to get together, to form a coalition, a forum, for these Muslim tribes to unite, to use their influence and education towards the greater good. No one will help them but themselves.

The total number of Muslims are such a minority as to be inconsequential in terms of Philippine population. They are not even a majority in Mindanao, which is their ancestral homeland. Not to mention that not all Muslims are members or sympathizers of any of the alleged terrorist groups permeating the south. So where is the threat, except in the minds of the politicians who create and sow the seeds of discontent, as their basis for government assistance.

What pains me more is that there are many historical facts about the Muslim struggle that has not been taught in Philippine schools, and therefore unknown to the many Filipinos, even to those who perceive themselves to be educated or learned. Part of these involve the slaughter and wanton killing of Muslim women and children during the American regime and thereafter. When I bring these to the fore, I am accused of "inventing" these stories to foment ill feelings and to bring sympathy to the Muslim cause. I do not intend to create sympathy, I just want to tell the truth. I am sad that the media just don't get it.

MB: Are you still a practicing Muslim?

PEK
: Yes, in a loose sense of the word.

MB: How would you describe the influence of the sultanate in Mindanao?

PEK: There are several sultanates, depending on the tribes. Each has some say within their sphere of influence, but none has the breath and scope of the golden years. The young sultans are more materialistic. They need to earn more, work more and share more. Their people continue to be poor and needy, although many more are educated. Those that are educated tend to leave and work outside their provinces, thus leaving the poor and elderly behind. There is an envidium in place. The younger sultans are also more ambitious. they want or desire to get rich—and quickly. They want the honor of being a sultan for the prestige it brings, but they do not want to serve their people in the sense that service was once understood and undertaken. There are exceptions though. Their influence has been eroded through the years, through their own neglect and self absorbtion. There is also strife between families that did not exist in the past. My wish is for them to get together, to form a coalition, a forum, for these Muslim tribes to unite, to use their influence and education towards the greater good. No one will help them but themselves. The disunity is what makes the Philippine government stronger in its desire to trample and continue its policy of disregarding the needs of this segment of the population. I see the young Muslims wanting to fulfill their destiny through politics. I do not see this as practical in the long term, but it is difficult to convince them otherwise, since the whole country is so obsessed with politics as their road to richness and wealth.

MB: How would you describe the conditions under the sultanate as compared to other parts of the Philippines you have seen?

PEK: I continue to see the sultans as being influential within their own people. I continue to see the respect and honor due them. I also see that the expectations of the people are greater, and that they are more demanding. If power is to emanate from the sultan, everything else, including their support, education and future prosperity should come from him too. This isn't any different from a constituency seeking the interference of a local politician or barangay captain, towards money and books for the education of his children, his job opportunities, the land he tills, or the money he borrows when the harvest is not sufficient to feed his family. There is a parallel here. The difference lies in the fact that the politician through corruption fulfills the needs of his constituents, the sultan has to acquire it through honest labor, and he often than not, will not have enough to share or to help the multifarious needs of his people. I wish there were more opportunities for the government to help these sultans be more affluent, more educated, offer them greater opportunities to help their people. Give them grants or subsidies for business opportunities, opportunities to work, opportunities to be better educated, opportunities to be able to have better health. Abandoning this segment of the population to their own devices and for them to continue in poverty and squalor is not going to lift them up and desire peace.

I am grateful for being able to go to the opera, the ballet, the symphony and the great abstracts in life that are more fulfilling. I have made great friends and admire the many Americans I have come in contact with. I am now whole.

MB: How would you describe conditions under the sultanates as compared to conditions you've been exposed to in the US.

PEK: I find it very similar to the way the US government treats the native Americans. With the casinos, the native Americans are starting to have the means to help their own communities. I do not wish to see gambling as a method of lifting up the Muslims, but I'd like to see something similar that would bring material prosperity to the people. Jobs, education, art, culture and a greater appreciation of a great heritage.

MB: What do you feel has been the US's influence in your life.

PEK: I am very grateful for having lived in the US. I think I have become a better person. I have greater appreciation for my heritage & culture and for the Filipino heritage and culture as well. I have better control over my power and influence (not that it was a lot to begin with). I have better control over my temperament. I am grateful for being able to go to the opera, the ballet, the symphony and the great abstracts in life that are more fulfilling. I have made great friends and admire the many Americans I have come in contact with. I am now whole.

MB: How do you feel about your treatment in US society today?

PEK: I do not draw attention to myself, not as a person, or as a Muslim, even within the Filipino community. When I first came to the US, there were hardly any Muslims around. I always wore a veil, even if it was often mistaken as a scarf. Now that Muslims are all over, and most wear the hijab, I no longer wear a veil, however, I always wear a scarf. I dress western, unless there are community events when I am to be Filipino—then I appear in a Muslim outfit. This is by choice. I admire the Americans in the way they respect a persons individual preferences, even if they may consider it weird. For instance, I do not want my photos taken. I will not make a big deal with group photographs, or when photos are taken when I am a guest speaker, but if asked, I will request privacy in this respect. I have my reasons, and they are personal. Americans that know I am Muslim, accept me for it. I do not ask and I do not offer to tell. Many Filipinos just assume that I am Christian, because I am Filipino. I do not dissuade them. I have not seen or felt treated as a "terrorist". I accept speaking engagements especially if it will help people understand the Filipino Muslim perspective.

© Monique S. Brooks

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