"Benevolent Assimilation"

Quingua Monument and Mural

Battle of Quingua Mural and Monument, Plaridel, Bulacan.

By: Kat Reyes Colvert

“Finally, it should be the earnest and paramount aim of the military administration to win the confidence, respect, and affection of the inhabitants of the Philippines...by proving to them that the mission of the United States is one of benevolent assimilation.”

— President William McKinley, December 21, 1898

My mother’s eldest sister could not believe I had planned to travel to the Philippines during the rainy season. I had no idea what she had meant, and having no frame of reference, I fussed over what type of shoes to pack for weeks. I imagined heavy monsoons and flooded streets, the water quietly rushing and ankle-deep. Faraway places rarely turn out as I imagine them. They have a way of manifesting on their own terms.

Our guide brought us to Plaridel in Bulacan on the first day. He wanted to show me the Battle of Quingua mural and monument. Despite being American, or because of it, I knew nothing about the Philippine-American war other than it had happened. The trip had gotten off to an auspicious start. My guide and I had corresponded over email for at least a year. I’d had to postpone my trip several times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He had offered to serve as both guide and translator, yet something felt amiss after our initial meeting. He rarely spoke in English. In fact, he rarely spoke to me at all even though I had arranged for him to accompany us from Manila to the provinces. Rather, he addressed my mother, who had decided to come with me, in Tagalog. My mother tried her best to translate during the breaks in conversation. Initially, she looked uncomfortable being roped in to talk to this man, but it didn’t take long for her to fall back into familiarity with her surroundings. Even her English started to sound different.

My cousin had been commandeered to drive us, along with another history academic, and the somewhat aloof guide. The car ride quickly morphed into a cacophony of voices. The guide always rode shotgun, directing my cousin on where to go. Being the youngest and spriest in the group, I sat in the middle, sandwiched between my mother and the history academic. The guide spoke to my cousin, my mother conversed across me with the history academic, and I understood not a word. Every so often, I’d hear my name but without any context as if I were an apparition, which is different from being invisible.  And this setting became, in itself, a frame of reference. It’s how I fit into this story.

As I approached the monument and mural, traffic buzzed past in both directions. The dissonance of the place was immediate. An inverted cannon was cemented into a wide cylinder so that it towered above me. It memorialized an American officer killed by the Filipinos who resisted American occupation. The monument to the American dates back to the turn of the century. The mural, however, located behind the cannon, was erected in 1999. It depicts the bravery of the Filipinos. It was one of the few times the guide addressed me in English. He said to me animatedly, pointing to the faces cast in stone, “the fighting consciousness continues. Tell them about the fighting consciousness of the Philippine people.” I can only guess why he addressed me directly in that moment. It was what he had said – “tell them.” Many of the fighters portrayed in the mural were meant to illustrate the fighting spirit of the Filipino people; both against the Americans in the early 19th century and with the Americans against the Japanese in the 1940s.

McKinley’s strategy for the Philippines after the Spanish American War was what he called “benevolent assimilation.” The natives could not be trusted to govern themselves. The archipelagic nation was ripe with natural resources and uniquely situated geographically within the Asian sphere of influence. And so, the US decided to “help” the Philippines become more like them. It was meant to be well-intentioned, as all overt acts of condescension are. The revolutionaries who fought against the US for independence were recast as insurgents in American history books and almost erased from Philippine history.

I made a crucial error early on when I made the choice to undertake a massive project to write a novel set in Japanese-occupied Philippines during WWII based on a story I heard while starting my MFA — that my great-grandfather had been murdered by a Japanese sniper during the war. I assumed I would be looking back into history. I failed to see myself as part of the narrative; that I am a result, a by-product of American good intentions.  

My mother emigrated to the US in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War. Only prior to my trip did she confess to wearing sunglasses to hide her eyes when dating my American father. Or how she Americanized her name. Or how almost everyone she met assumed that she had been rescued from a war-torn country by an American GI. Bizarrely, she had always considered herself more American than Filipina. She was educated in her home country in English, which was one of the main tenets of McKinley’s policy­­­­ — the Philippines modeled the American education system.

One afternoon, while sitting in what my uncle calls “the garden,” on the last parcel of land that belonged to my mother’s family, the siblings remembered their time growing up together. They all understand English. My uncle will speak it sparingly, but my mother’s eldest sister will not. When they were children in school, they were fined ten pesos if they dared speak in their native language.

I read somewhere that there are the stories we tell ourselves and there are the stories we tell others about who we are. The story I have always told others is that I am American despite the shape of my eyes. When I’m asked where I’m from, I almost always say Texas. I speak mainly English. I know of no other home. I belong here. But this isn’t the story I tell myself. In my own story, I am sitting in a car, surrounded by people who look like me but whom I don’t understand because my mother’s language was never a gift she thought worth giving to me. It’s why the guide pointed at me and said, “tell them.” I am the dissonance. I am the inverted cannon. And none of it feels benevolent.


Kat Reyes Colvert is a 2021 fellow with the Alan Cheuse International Writers Center and a 2022 MFA graduate. Her current work in progress is a novel told from the perspective of a bi-racial Filipina living in Japanese-occupied Philippines during World War II. She traveled to the Philippines in the summer of 2022 to research the Philippine guerrilla resistance during the war.

Kat Colvert