I come from a mestizo Filipino family.(1) My surname, Melo, is a signifier of my racially mixed ancestry that points to Portuguese ancestors. After a curious Google search, I discovered that “Melo” means “one who hailed from Merlo, Portugal.” Paradoxically, however, I have never set foot in Portugal, or even known anyone there. How did I, then, get my last name? How did someone like me, who grew up in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines, inherit a last name that suggests an ancestral origin that is oceans and continents away? Reading Sony Corañez Bolton’s Crip Colony: Mestizaje, US Imperialism, and the Queer Politics of Disability in the Philippines, I was reminded that my last name is a result of my family’s mixed heritage — that “Melo” is the remnant of a powerful colonial empire that colonized my people.
In Crip Colony, Corañez Bolton reveals that he is mestizo.(2) Now a Spanish studies professor at Amherst College, Corañez Bolton writes from his particular experience as someone whose family is a result of his white American father and Filipina mother’s intermixing. He notes that this mixedness is not a rare occurrence, but common among many Filipinos who “can tell a similar story of mixed heritage.”(3) But what concerns Corañez Bolton is how this mixed heritage, which he terms “mestizaje,” has been used as an ableist and masculinist class hierarchy through which Filipinos were segregated along the lines of perceived dis/ability.
To be clear, “mixed identity” itself is not the problem, but it is how lighter-skinned mestizos position themselves in relation to others, especially those with darker skin (like many Indigenous Filipinos). And even among mestizos themselves, like my family, lighter skin tends to be prized and applauded as desirable — as representing a higher status and class in society. For instance, if one travels across Metro Manila or watches Filipino TV, it will be apparent how colorism persists on billboards and commercials that advertise skin-whitening products to Filipinos. Moreover, among many mestizo families like my own, the European strand of our mestizaje is upheld over our Indigenous ancestry. According to Brown Skin, White Minds by E.J.R. David, this is the tragic result of colonialism: “white” skin has been venerated as the standard of beauty for Filipinos — a colonial mentality that we struggle to escape from.
An ad for Pond’s “white beauty cream” in the Philippines
For Corañez Bolton, there is not only anti-Blackness or colorism at play in Filipino colonial mentality, but also a racial ableism that deems darker Indigenous bodies as “disabled” and white bodies as “able-bodied/able-minded.” For instance, one of the reasons my family immigrated to the U.S. was to “become white,” and thus abandon our Indigenous roots. Because of colonial mentality, we considered the Brown Indigenous body as “backwards,” “savage,” and “barbaric,” in contrast with the able-mindedness of the white body that is “modern,” “rational,” and “civilized.” In this way, whiteness became a means to designate being Indigenous as being primitive and unevolved, and, therefore, weak, disabled, and “less-than-human.” Sadly, this colonial mentality continues to permeate the Filipino American diaspora, as they continue to yearn for the so-called “American Dream.”
As the prime example of ableist colorism, Corañez Bolton points to the Philippines’ national hero José Rizal, who, as an ilustrado or intellectual mestizo, ironically relegated indio (Indigenous) Filipinos as needing to be “assimilated” into an educated mestizaje identity. For Rizal, Spanish colonial oppression has made Filipinos into morally degraded and uneducated “brutes,” unable to intellectually contribute to “democratic self-rule.”(4) His use of the animalistic term “brute” is crucial to note; he uses it to identify colonized Filipinos as irrational beasts, or in Rizal’s own words: “a kind of humanity without a brain and without a heart.”(5)
This is most apparent in Rizal’s renowned novel Noli Me Tángere, where the mestizo protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra returns home to the Philippines, after years of study in Europe, to build a private school where Filipinos would benefit from a “modernized education.”(6) Ibarra is juxtaposed against the “brute” María Clara, whose mind has been so corrupted by colonialism that the novel ends with her going insane and confined in a convent, which for Rizal, represents an “asylum for insane women.”(7)
In Ibarra, we see the ways in which Rizal’s masculinist vision for a liberated Philippines centers around a mestizo male intellectual whose European education made him “able-minded,” unlike other Filipinos who have become brutes like María Clara. Now, the burden is on male ilustrados like Rizal and Ibarra to educate the nation and guide their fellow compatriots toward liberation and away from the bruteness that María Clara represents.
This is the profound contradiction in Rizal’s anticolonialist writings: while seeking to liberate oppressed Filipinos from their Spanish colonizers, he does so by uplifting mestizo Ibarra as the pinnacle of freedom and secluding the “mad” woman María Clara to an insane asylum. In Rizal’s social imagination, “... mestizos serve as the intermediary figure between a native past and a postcolonial future.”(8) Stated otherwise, mestizaje is Rizal’s vision for a free and independent Philippines, and all need to conform to this “enlightened” intellectualism in order to be free. Those who do not follow will become like the “demented” María Clara, confined to insanity in a convent.
This ableist masculinity that Corañez Bolton describes reminds me of the work of Black theologian Willie James Jennings, who critiques “white self-sufficient masculinity” in his work After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging. For Jennings, the tragedy of our theological spaces today is how “white self-sufficient masculinity” creates pastors, theologians, and Christian leaders who marginalize those who do not fit their white social norms. White self-sufficient masculinity is precisely a power hierarchy that has historically marginalized people of color, especially Black women, from predominantly white Bible colleges, seminaries, divinity schools, and churches. Just as “Rizal conveys for us a logic and aesthetic of mestizaje that is hewn by a patriarchal hierarchy of mental ability,”(9) Jennings reminds us to be wary of how this racial patriarchy perpetuates systems of power, especially in Christian spaces.
One way in which Corañez Bolton expounds on the notion of white self-sufficient masculinity is how this racial patriarchy is deeply rooted in ableism, or in deeming some bodies as “disabled” (crip, female, queer, not-white) while uplifting certain others as “ideal” (white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied). This intersectional understanding of racial oppression is why many Christian disability activists are, alongside issues of race and gender, also calling for the inclusion of disabled people into our churches.
Indeed, are we addressing the ableism that persists in our churches? Recounting how her pastor denied her request to install a ramp in their church for people with disabilities, disabled theologian Amy Kenny reflects on her pastor’s hypocrisy: “None of this matters to him because he claims it’s not a good use of the church’s money, all while chomping down on the stale donuts and coffee that the church purchases every Sunday.”
Just like Corañez Bolton and Jennings, Kenny recognizes the power hierarchy at play in our communities. Whether we call it “white masculinity” or “enlightened mestizaje,” this racial imagination continues to exclude people who do not fit what has been deemed “normative,” especially people with disabilities. Suddenly, the needs of people with disabilities are not even an afterthought but are ultimately ignored by many Christian leaders. For Kenny, ableism is an “idol” that remains “a core part of church spaces in the U.S.” that many Christians don’t even recognize or acknowledge. It is an invisible parasite that continues to segregate and marginalize certain people from true belonging and fellowship in the body of Christ.
While Corañez Bolton is not a theologian, nor is Crip Colony a theological work, his scholarship provides helpful insight into how Christians can build spaces of belonging. From my theological perspective, ableism is a sinful structure that is oppressively rooted in colonialism. In other words, ableism does not glorify God, nor does it honor the image of God in people with disabilities and other differences. Ableism is something many of us need to call out, struggle against, and continuously unlearn.
While Crip Colony traces the ways in which ableist and masculinist mestizaje has been used to marginalize, Corañez Bolton provides a way forward. As he critiques mestizaje, he also proposes, intriguingly, a different version of intermixed identity as the way forward — a kind of mixedness that creates “cross-racial alliances.”(10)
It is not inherently wrong to be mixed, but what matters is what you do with it. For Corañez Bolton, a Filipinx American Spanish professor, this meant learning Spanish as a means to create “affinities” between Filipinx and Latinx communities. He thus encourages his readers to learn different languages: to abandon self-sufficiency and build bridges with others through language learning and cultural translation. He writes that language learning enables one to “see oneself as caring about another collectivity to which you do not intuitively belong.”(11) Language learning facilitates the ability to communicate and share experiences, stories, and needs with one another toward an alternative way of life: the way of belonging. Indeed, to counter and resist racial ableism, empathy is the means through which we can establish affinities across lines of difference and empower one another.
As a Christian, I see this reality most distinctly in the story of Pentecost (Acts 2). After Jesus’ ascension, various disciples from every place gathered in Jerusalem and were filled by the Holy Spirit. They then began “declaring the wonders of God” in different languages — languages that were different from their mother tongues. This left many in the crowd amazed, hearing God’s Word in their own languages.
Surely, this Pentecostal reality remains true in our time today, as Jennings notes with the rise of American jazz. In the early 1900s, when the racial struggles of immigrant Jews and Blacks intermixed, it created an “immigrant improvisational space” that birthed a creative belonging of “cross-pollinated ideas” and a “hybridization of identities.”(12) In this way, jazz is a genre that artist-theologian Julian Davis Reid describes as “[having] such incredible potential for forming us to be curious about exploration, to be open, to receive the gift of having the tension between exploration and structure.”
Today, with the rise of both Black Lives Matter and Stop AAPI Hate, jazz has taken center stage as protest music for both movements. For Asian Americans particularly, jazz has become a means to reconcile their stories and cultural heritages “with their passion for jazz and improvised music, knocking down persistent racial stereotypes in the process.”
Indeed, this improvisational song — the radically creative language of jazz — embodies the beauty of being intermixed: that we are able to join ourselves to one another across lines of difference and build bridges by learning one another’s languages and improvising alternative modes of belonging, belongings that disrupt structures of oppression.
Indian American theologian Ashish Varma reminds us that the beauty of mixture requires “humility to acknowledge continued recalibration to life in Christ together and the humility to admit the riches of another church’s traditions, especially those of foreign ethnicities.” Belonging begins with humility — the willingness to be a student, to learn another’s language, and to improvise with one another. In this way, we can resist the hegemonic powers of ableism, colorism, and white self-sufficient masculinity. In this way, we can imagine alternative ways of living together, pursuing the way of belonging, and singing a different song together.