Professor Salamanca and the prospect of American Studies in the Philippines

Bonifacio Salamanca’s profile in American Studies International.

One of the articles I unearthed while researching for my literature review last semester was Professor Bonifacio Salamanca’s article on the attempt to institute a Department of American Studies at the University of the Philippines. Salamanca received his Ph.D. in American Studies in the early 1950s from Yale University where he was a scholar of both the Fulbright and Rockefeller Foundations. His article was published in American Studies International in 1977 at the height of the Marcos dictatorship and student activism in Manila. His justification for the establishment of an American Studies department at the state university intrigued me: the necessity for a critique of the educational system left behind by the Americans. He begins his article with the argument that basically everything that was taught in schools in the Philippines was “American” except for “Math and Sciences which were universal.” He writes that during the surge of nationalism and decolonization, what Filipino scholars did was merely drop the term “American” from course titles. What I get from Professor Salamanca is that as a graduate of the University of the Philippines, who took courses in English Literature with electives in Fine Arts and the Social Sciences, I was practically primed for American Studies because I was in fact given “a large dose of courses in American civilization”. 

Most of my professors were U.S.-educated  which I assumed back then was a requisite; as if being closer to the source would make the study of literature more “authentic”. Until now, the most coveted and (much maligned) milestone for a Filipino writer in English is to be chosen to participate in the Iowa Writers Workshop. My identification with the field of American Studies started when I met Professor Oscar Campomanes who studied American Civilization in the late eighties. Through countless encounters on campus and beerhouses, he regaled me with stories of his life and ingrained in me the ambition to pursue an education in the United States. This mentorship meant that my identification with American Studies is deeply sentimental and also a source of contradiction. Like Professor Salamanca, I realized that the involvement of the American empire in the Philippines came through an interface with the Filipino elite and that the institution of public universities in the Philippines during the colonial era was primarily for the reproduction of a schizophrenic social class. 

I speculate on the scenario of having a Department American Studies in the University of the Philippines, which largely failed except for the establishment of an undergraduate degree in American Studies in the early 1960s. Professor Vicente Sinco, the president of the University of the Philippines during that time, originally proposed a Center of American Studies at the graduate level which strangely resembles the structure and operations of CSER at Columbia University but he was prevailed upon by a committee composed of Deans and operatives of the United States Embassy to create an undergraduate program instead. In the initial years, professors from the University of Washington were imported to teach in Manila but the presence of white professors on campus only marginally enticed the heavily Americanized Filipino college student to enroll in a program of study. Leftists saw it as tantamount to training for positions in the US State Department. Conservatives simply wanted a traditional major such as English or Comparative Literature. Soon the committee found out that there was no real enthusiasm among Filipino undergraduates to major in American Studies. And when the enrollment dwindled, along with it went the funding of philanthropic agencies like Asia Society.

Had the Department existed as Salamanca envisioned it during the time I was an undergrad, I would have not spent the last ten years trying to fit my researcher profile into a single discipline and I wouldn’t have had so many false starts before I set myself on running the PhD marathon. The direction I see myself taking is a study of education, specifically visual art education, and how the Cold War cultural policies of the American empire affected the cultural-critical formation of Filipino artists. Like Amy Kaplan who dedicated her speech to Edward Said, I would want to dedicate my speculative, and dare I say it, future, American Studies Association presidential address to Professor Bonifacio Salamanca who in the heavily politicized climate of the Philippines under the Marcos regime probably saw himself alone in his crusade.

Further reading

Salamanca, Bonifacio S. “American Studies in the Philippines.” American Studies International 15, no. 3 (1977): 29-36. Accessed April 13, 2021.