In the large painting They Dreamed in English (fig. 1) by Maia Cruz Palileo (b.1979), a brightly lit classroom stands vacant. An easel on the teacher’s desk, scattered books, and friezes of illustrated flora and fauna suggest that art is learned here. Dark wall panels reveal silhouettes of students, suggesting the interstitial time between class periods when these spaces—typically full of chatter and energy—are eerily quiet. The emptiness is thick with references to prior inhabitation and the room’s own spatial fictions: the ceiling opens to a yellow-teal sky, the timber framing following an inchoate structural logic; the floor, a radiant and colorful hallucination of pinks, oranges, and aquamarine, reveals an alternative world of dark-faced figures that loosely mirrors that of the classroom. This dreamlike space brings us back to the work’s title, They Dreamed in English, wherein something learned, often foreign, eventually seeps into the unconscious.
“The most effective means of subjugating a people,” wrote historian Renato Constantino in 1970, “is to capture their minds. Military victory does not necessarily signify conquest.”1 Restructuring the public education system was central to colonial policy in the aftermath of the Philippine-American War of 1899. US forces confronted a recalcitrant people who had resisted Spanish colonial rule for the better part of a century. What we do not know about the war—the exact number of Filipino soldiers and civilians killed, maimed, or tortured—haunts the archival record.2 The relative invisibility of the war in American public memory is surprising given its foundational role in the US imperial era, and it represents a crucial and inescapable aporia within which Filipino American culture has been forged. Educational reform—instilling American values and language—was an effective tool of colonial domination because it worked from the inside out, producing learned inferiority and cultural indoctrination that could shape generations. Homi Bhabha later theorized this “colonial mimicry,” or “the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other” as “constructed around an ambivalence; in order to be effective, mimicry must continually produce its slippage, its excess, its difference.”3 Returning to Palileo’s painting, we understand the past tense of the title, the disciplinary appearance of the room, and its melancholic tone as signs of a colonial education well underway. Its figures may not be silhouettes but rather shadowy refractions of the miseducated.