Nation building in the Philippines in the early 20th century depended upon the management of leprosy. An investigation of leprosy in the Philippines from 1901 to 1941, or the period of US occupation, reveals that leprosy’s epidemiology and the racial framing of Filipinos collapsed into one another. Thus, lepers were identified as a key group through which the archipelago’s diverse inhabitants could be represented. As the leper was the template for a national subject, a close examination of the Culion Leper Colony reveals that it was the model for the nation that would become the Philippines. As a physical space that brought together individuals of varying ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds, a nascent national community was formed in and through Culion. Borne from seemingly undemocratic practices like detention and segregation, Culion residents were nonetheless governed democratically as the language of hygiene and bodily reform was translated into a discourse on civic responsibility. Practices and regimes encouraging public participation and cultivating a civic sphere were installed. Most notably, universal suffrage was instituted and every resident was encouraged to exercise their right to vote or run for elected office. Seemingly illiberal practices and techniques were used to create democratic societies. By methodically investigating how democratic sensibilities were cultivated from marginalized groups, this paper will illustrate the rehabilitative or curative potential, both literal and metaphoric, of democratic governance and how those on the periphery were essential for constituting the core of democratic projects or what Laclau and Mouffe have labeled as the “constitutive outside.” Through the leper and the Culion Leper Colony, it becomes apparent that the border of a budding American empire was uniquely expanded through medical and democratic grounds rather than conventional territorial claims achieved strictly by military force.


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