Koboys and Kumadres

I am excited to be part of this year’s Association for Asian American Studies Annual Conference. The theme, “Unsettling Transpacific Ecologies,” sounded perfect for my current research, so I submitted a paper I have been working on. Entitled “Koboys and Kumadres: Rethinking kinship and agency in early Filipina migration narratives in Hawaiʻi,” it will be part of the “Alternative Pacific Histories” panel on Saturday, April 10th, 5:00 pm PST.

Two kumadres, Rosalia Algaso Sua and Pilar Masecampo Sua, wearing baro’t saya, from Filipinos in Hawaii: Economic and Social Conditions by Roman Cariaga (1936)

Conventional Filipino American labor histories trace the beginnings of Filipino migration to the occupation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, and its incorporation within the transpacific U.S. empire as a steady source of cheap, docile labor. These histories often depict a “bachelor society” of restless migrant laborers, perhaps best exemplified in Carlos Bulosan’s book, America is in the Heart (1946). Though a smaller percentage of these intra-imperial migrants were women, they played an outsized role in the burgeoning Filipino communities in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere in the continental U.S. They married, re-married, worked in the plantations and canneries while maintaining households, raised their own children and other people’s children. They were culture-bearers that innovated and adapted in the face of migration and displacement.

Their value and significance in these gender-imbalanced migrant communities brought about the phenomenon of koboy-koboy (from the word ‘cowboy’) wherein Filipino men would forcibly abduct Filipinas to make them their wives. At first glance, this seems to be just one of the many perils of being a woman in transit. However, a closer look at first-hand accounts from Filipina women themselves suggest a different interpretation: that Filipinas may also have strategically escaped from marriages to live with other men as a survival strategy or to find better prospects for themselves. By looking at their letters, oral histories, and memoirs, this study attempts to reveal the agency of Filipinas as they negotiated their place between motherland and empire and transgressed social, cultural, and gendered borders.

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