The Filipino diaspora is bound by gifts. I’m reminded of this every time I walk through my grandma’s garage, where she stores the different goods she intends to ship home to loved ones in the Philippines. And I was reminded of this upon watching the Philippines women's soccer team make a brief but spirited run in the World Cup—a special moment that tied the diaspora together, a singular gift, although one that comes with plenty of baggage.
The boxes my grandmother ships are called balikbayan boxes. Folks of the Filipino diaspora like my grandmother pack up goods and send them back home to their loved ones. It’s a massive operation with about 400,000 boxes sent to the Philippines each month (and more during the holidays). And it’s an operation loaded with contradiction.
While these boxes are a testament to the resilience, resourcefulness, and care that connects members of the Filipino diaspora to their home, they are also a reminder of the extractive economic conditions that drove that diaspora, and the balikbayan box tradition. We wouldn’t be sending all these things home if we hadn’t left in the first place, looking over our shoulder at a nation bent to the will of the Marcos regime and the colonial powers seeking to draw Filipinos into their workforce.
We wouldn’t be sending all these things home if we hadn’t left in the first place, looking over our shoulder at a nation bent to the will of the Marcos regime and the colonial powers seeking to draw Filipinos into their workforce.
More than a million Filipinos leave to work overseas each year, with the total number living overseas rising into the tens of millions. Describing the centuries of colonial occupation that led to this point would exceed the word count for this story, so we can drop in around the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when he needed to rehabilitate an economy eroded by said centuries of colonial occupation followed by his own violent and corrupt tenure. Marcos’ solution was to incentivize his citizens to leave for overseas work and send home remittances. These remittances spawned the balikbayan box tradition, one that embodies the bittersweet plight of Filipinos being able to support their people, but being pushed overseas to do so.
Watching the Filipina women’s soccer team’s brief World Cup run brought these bittersweet feelings to my throat. In their first-ever World Cup appearance, the Filipinas captured a bit of global notoriety for both their play (a 1-0 victory over host country New Zealand!), as well as their unconventional roster. Of the team’s 23 women, only one was homegrown, or born in the Philippines. All the remaining players were born elsewhere, with 18 players born in the United States.
The popular media narrative that’s been told about the team follows something like your classic underdog sports tale. Fil-Am soccer fans Mark Mangune and Butchie Impelido tracked down Filipina American soccer players via online rosters and message boards, gathering the talent, support, and resources to put together a more competitive team than past teams had even come close to. A ragtag bunch is assembled and against all odds, takes a historically bad team to new heights. It’s a little Moneyball, a little Cool Runnings, a little insert-your-sports-movie-here. And all that is true, and inspiring—watching forward Sarina Bolden maneuver past three New Zealand defenders to head in the deciding goal will give any viewer goosebumps.
This Philippines World Cup moment feels like its own balikbayan box—a gift that reaches across the diaspora with resilience, resourcefulness and care, albeit a gift shaped by a bitter colonial past and present. While the Filipinas' diasporic roster is endearing and inspiring, it also demonstrates that foreign-born players’ greater access to privilege and experience contributed to their displacing homegrown players; that this accrual of privilege was facilitated by political decisions like the Hart-Cellar Act, which sought to bring skilled workers from other countries to the United States to fill professions (like nursing) where domestic workers were questioning working conditions; because, as author Angela Garbes writes, “Filipino bodies—hands, backs, knees, minds, voices—have always been viewed as economic leverage for the United States.”
We can celebrate the gift of this World Cup experience while also wondering how it might be otherwise. What are the conditions that could provide a homegrown player with the same opportunity to succeed as one born in the United States or elsewhere? What would a team look like that represents the Philippines in its joyful, messy wholeness? And what would a successful Philippines look like beyond the exploitative entanglements of empire?
Regarding being Filipino, defender Dominique Randle said, “It’s not something that can be controlled by borders. It's a part of who you are.” This statement both is and isn’t true—while Filipino identities may be a part of us that travels across the world, lived material experiences are very much tethered to place. But it does provide, in all its idealism, a goal to aim for.
It proves that donations and inspiration are not enough to make change—that meaningfully empowering young people in the Philippines to pursue soccer, or anything else, will mean imagining beyond present models that keep us tethered to a colonial past.
Balikbayan boxes were never intended to be a long-lasting tradition. The whole overseas worker plan was meant to be a short-term intervention. But they persisted because so did the political and economic exploitation that pulled Filipinos overseas. While there has been a long history of Filipino resistance and movement, the significant root changes required to build a Filipino economy centering solidarity and self-determination, to make Randle’s statement ring true, has yet to be realized.
Hopefully history can prove instructive for the soccer team. It proves that donations and inspiration are not enough to make change—that meaningfully empowering young people in the Philippines to pursue soccer, or anything else, will mean imagining beyond present models that keep us tethered to a colonial past. I am hopeful that the same gifts that helped the team reach the pinnacle of sport can also help them imagine a more just future for themselves. A nation, and a diaspora, will be rooting for them.
Published on August 16, 2023