OPINION: The invisible Filipino, and a young man named Alphonse Areola

Jijil Jimenez

Posted at Jul 22 2018 07:44 PM

It is testimony to the power of ethnic identity to forge powerful group feeling and emotional solidarity the way we, Filipinos, spontaneously claimed a slice of global glory when France won the 2018 soccer World Cup in Moscow last week.  

Alphonse Areola, third goalie of the victorious French national squad, nicknamed Les Blues, have Filipino parents. It doesn’t matter that Alphonse was born and raised in France, and that he is a French citizen and, as far as citizenship goes, is as French as baguette or Cyrano de Bergerac, literarily or literally.

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For us, the Filipino diaspora of over 10 million, spread out in 221 countries and territories all over the world, is all-inclusive in concept, even more  in sentiment. With that number, we can find a Filipino connection to so many things. Most especially if one of ours wins something. And even if they don’t. 

When Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling beat the legendary Michael Phelps to win the gold in the 100m butterfly at the 2016 Rio Olympics, we preened with pride, too. Schooling has a Filipino nanny! Surely, that counts for something.

We are not the only one. 

Africans are claiming victory, too,  with more feelings and, perhaps, more reasons.  Almost half, or 13 of the 23-man Les Blues, are of African descent, most of them, like Pogba (Guinea) and Mbappe (Cameroon), from former French colonies, territories and protectorates. It’s an African team to them.  But it goes deeper than that.

French society, like many of parts of Europe, is recoiling under a massive inflow of immigrants from unstable societies just across the Mediterranean in Africa that has been going on for decades now. Race relations is a tinderbox that has already resulted in several violent explosions of rioting, even on the streets of Paris.

While at its core, the issues revolve bitterly around immigrant unemployment and all that it means to their welfare,  it has already metastasized into a battle for ethnic identity. This is especially true among Africans immigrants protesting a vision of a multicultural France that demands a singular Frenchness. They ask: Why can’t we be French, and Africans too?

Because of their composition, and most especially their success on the pitch,  the French soccer team are natural targets of politics. 

In the 1990s, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder and leader of the French political party National Front, caused a furor in France when he said in so many words that he can neither see France nor himself when he looks at the French soccer team. A statement that her daughter and successor as party leader, Marine, echoed long after him.

With the heightened competitions for jobs and basic social services posed by immigrants, especially during periods of economic downturns as is happening in Europe right now, rising nativists tendencies in France could hardly be brushed aside as fringe politics. It is not. 

When the elder Le Pen, running on an anti-immigrant platform, ran for the French Presidency in 2002. Francoise Mitterrand eventually won, but Le Pen garnered a significant 17 percent of the first-round votes.  That was just four years after the euphoria of France’s first, and only other World Cup victory, on French soil at that,  in 1998. 

Just last year, daughter Marine  also ran for President on the same anti-immigrant platform. She lost to Emmanuel Macron but, this time,  captured roughly a third of the votes across France. A vast improvement from 1998.

I am not sure if the National Front’s performance at the polls  means that France is getting  more intolerant  but, it sure appears that it is not getting less.

Now, what of our Alphonse? Could he be French, and Filipino, too? 

The question, perhaps, better belongs to the current debate in France which,  as a whole, may have less hang-ups about their lone “Filipino” in their World Cup squad. So,  let the French sort out the issue of Alphonse’s Frenchness. We have problems enough of our own.

To be sure, Filipinos have no  historical experience of the harsh French colonial depredations in Africa, so, there is much less for France to answer to. Besides, current French President Macron, though not without controversy, has already began to acknowledge that for Africa.  

In Southeast Asia, only the French Indochinese successor states of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and southern portions of present day China, could demand the same.

Perhaps, the more relevant question for us is: could we accept Alphonse as Filipino, despite his being French? 

Many of us, apparently, do. But quite a number have expressed rejection, or at least disappointment. Among others, we question Alphonse’s French citizenship, his choice of sporting nationality, despite the earlier invitation to join the Azkals and, in one extreme case, even by not waving the Philippine flag at the champions podium in Russia last week.

Ethnicity is a powerful forge of  identity and  value judgments based on it clearly cut both ways, depending on the choices we make on life.

Alphonse will eventually have to sort out his own identity in the end, but the question now goes beyond him. Today, he has become the poster child of the dilemma of the Filipino diaspora because of the global visibility that came with his extraordinary success. 

Make no mistake. This problem of identity plagues millions of other Filipinos, like him children of the diaspora,  but who remain invisible because they are not Alphonse.  The tragedy of their plight is little studied in scholarly circles but widely discussed informally outside. I have spoken personally to hundreds, no, thousands of them.

The plain fact is that many Filipinos have trouble assimilating, even in the Philippines, and I am not yet counting the problems of integration of our  indigenous peoples and Filipino Muslims, including the millions of our economically underprivileged,  in our national life. 

I am writing here about that segment of our underprivileged class who have made a conscious choice to reject being poor and dispossessed, in short, excluded, in their own country by trying their fortunes abroad.  And, now, having achieved a measure of success overseas, their children’s love for their own country is being questioned in the very same country that has never loved them in the first place. 

Little is known, yet, of the parents of Alphonse as appearing in mainstream and social media but that they immigrated to France, “work for a wealthy  French couple” who sent Alphonse “to the same soccer training school attended by their own son.”   My own long experience as former Labor Attaché overseas may allow me to make an intelligent guess what that job is working for a “wealthy couple.” 

However, to show that Alphonse parents belong to that underprivileged class I mentioned is not necessary. It may even be unfair to rest of the diaspora. 

Do we have to achieve global superstardom like an Alphonse, or a Wesley So, who gained the same in global chess by switching to a US sporting nationality to escape shabby treatment at home, for our lives and struggles to become visible to our own people?  What about the rest who are not Alphonse, or Wesley?

In the rules of global competitive sports, there are provisions that allow registered players to change the country they can play for, and that is their sporting nationality. It allows players, as one writer puts it, to perform acts of personal geopolitics.

Under FIFA rules, Alphonse may still, theoretically, opt to play for our flag  because his parents were born in the Philippines and he has not been capped yet at the senior’s level, including the 2018 World Cup. 

Don’t hold your breath. Philippine soccer’s renaissance man Dan Palami tried to recruit Alphonse for the Azkals long before he was called to the French national team. Dan told me we can safely forget it now. How could we ask a young man not to play for his own country, and to whom he owes everything soccer? Let Alphonse be Alphonse.

What concerns me is the personal geopolitics of the rest of the Filipino diaspora that continues to surge unabated for 40 years now because we have yet  to provide genuine assimilation for all culturally, politically, and most importantly, economically. 

The question is not whether our children and future children would want to be Filipinos because they are, but whether they would still want to despite it.

Meantime, Merci beaucoup, Alphonse! Vive Les Philippines!

(Editor's note: Aside from being a soccer fan, Atty. Angelo 'Jijil' Jimenez is an expert on Philippine labor issues and foreign relations. He served with distinction in the Department of Labor and Employment and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. He received 2 presidential citations for his efforts in safeguarding overseas Filipino workers or OFWs in Middle East flashpoints, including Kuwait and Iraq. He has also served as labor attaché in Japan. He is currently a UP Regent, the highest governing body of the UP system. Jijil now writes a regular column/blog for news.abs-cbn.com)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.