Writing Ourselves Whole

Sunday Spotlight

This piece was originally published on Hella Pinay.

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When her daughter did not know a Filipino-American hero to write a report on because no such books have ever existed, Filipina writer and artist Gayle Romasanta knew what needed to be done–not just for her daughter or for her family, but for millions of Filipino-Americans in the country.  

Thus the birth of Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, the first of a series of Filipino-American history books for children. With long-time colleague and researcher Dawn Mabalon PhD and illustrator Andre Sibuyan, this book series will be the first to shed much needed light and focus on the historical contributions of Filipino-Americans in the country. It will also be the first endeavor of Bridge + Delta Publishing founded by Romasanta herself, an homage to a lineage of farm workers in the family.

“We knew that we couldn’t ask for it. We needed to do it on our own.”

Romasanta is no stranger to being a pioneer in the Filipino-American community. When she was 19 years old, she founded Kappa Psi Epsilon, a Filipino-based sorority focusing on Fil-Am history and culture currently in five universities in California. She was also an Artistic Director of Bindlestiff Studio, the only Filipino theater space in the nation. Her first foray in publishing was through Beautiful Eyes (2012), a children’s book based on motor skills and a memory game which aimed to nurture a sense of self for the Filipino baby. The book is now part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Filipino Language Program curriculum.

Born and raised in Stockton, California, Mabalon is currently an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California, a book which delves into the history of Filipino communities in the area from the early twentieth century. As she was writing her book, she came across Larry Itliong and other Filipino farm labor organizers critical in the formation of the farm labor movement, all missing from textbooks where only Cesar Chavez is mentioned.

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More than just a children’s book, Journey for Justiceis the culmination of years of oral history, community organizing and research. It is a book steeped in the forgotten truths of the farm labor movement, which employed a militant and radical approach overshadowed by many complicated factors as UFW and Chavez rose to prominence.

And while many books on Filipino-American history are accessible at the collegiate level, there aren’t many books or resource within the K-12 grade levels. In fact it was only in 2013 when the bill AB123 was passed, which required the California state curriculum to include the contributions of Filipino-Americans to the farmworker labor movement. Last year, the California Department of Education finally adopted the new curriculum standards for history and social sciences which included the roles of Filipinos during World War II and in the UFW.

Filipino-Americans have long straddled this dichotomy–for those who have immigrated (like Romasanta when she was a toddler) or for those who were born here. A hyphenated identity is always a cause for probing, an exploration and a search for understanding who we are as a people in the diaspora. This reflection is mirrored even in the relationship between the Philippines and the U.S., a relationship that has always been contentious. And while our history has been riddled with suffering, oppression and continuous displacement in the hands of the U.S., millions have called America home. And many more will.

The contradictions are endless.

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I admit that I haven’t really given what being “Filipino-American” is nary a thought, because I have always been tethered to the kind of nationalism rooted only in the place I was born in, only in the Philippines. So much so that I haven’t hyphenated my identity to include the “-American” portion, even after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2015. Apart from finding the contradiction of reaping the benefits of living as a citizen fully aware and wholly opposed to the tactics employed by the state on its people and on people around the world, I’ve found it hard to.

But in the midst of this personal struggle, perhaps, is an unexpected nugget of light. That the history of America is not just defined by its imperial, oppressive system but that it has also been shaped by many intersecting struggles of black people, Latinxs, Asians, Filipinos. That perhaps I haven’t been able to conceptualize “Filipino-American” because I didn’t see the need to ingrain myself within the system, the same system that swallows me up and spits me right back out. And it wasn’t until I spoke with Romasanta about Journey for Justicethat I started seeing the possibility of being able to claim this other part of ourselves–as active participants of history beyond our own nation’s borders–in a different kind of light. The kind of light that remembers and honors the work of those who have come before us, like Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, even all the Filipino soldiers during World War II, that those who are just growing up trying to understand what being Filipino-American means will know that their ancestors mattered. That people like them have contributed to the world they will be moving in, glorious in their own brown skin.

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Support Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong by donating to their IndieGoGo campaign which runs until November 20 and invest in creating the first ever Filipino American history books for children.

To Break the Wall Between Self and the Future, with Carlos Bulosan

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

“I will be a writer and make all of you live again in my words.”
–Carlos Bulosan

My introduction to Carlos Bulosan, perhaps one of the greatest Filipino-American writers to have ever lived, is a little late. While most of my peers learned about Bulosan and read his work in college, I finished the book just a little over a week ago.

It is the year 2017, the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency. As the month of April nears its end, many of the preparations in the community are geared towards May 1st, International Workers Day.

I think about Bulosan and his words, and the significance of May Day as I write this. How a book that was written in the 30s of the last century — which detailed the simultaneous heartbreaking and back-breaking struggle of Filipino farmworkers in the Northwest, and Bulosan’s first encounter with fascism — is still relevant to this day.

America is in the Heart (Indiebound) is presented as the autobiography of Carlos Bulosan, a Filipino peasant migrant from the Philippines to the U.S. While many facts in the book are refuted, it nonetheless stands as a testimony and a witness to the early experiences of Filipinos in the country.

The book is a sweeping account of his life, from growing up poor in the Philippines, in a small village in the northern islands. Allos, as he was referred to initially, grew up helping his father farm and his mother vend small goods. At an early age, Allos was becoming more and more aware of the conditions of people like him, which made up the majority of the Philippines — the peasantry.

Most of those who were young and able-bodied, specifically men, knew that in order for their families to survive, they had to get out and look for jobs elsewhere.

In the provinces where the poor peasants lived and toiled for the rich hacienderos, or landlords, the young men were stirring and rebelling against their heritage. Those who could no longer tolerate existing conditions adventured into the new land, for the opening of the United States to them was one of the gratifying provisions of the peace treaty that culminated the Spanish-American war.

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Early Filipino American farm workers, as in this 1936 picture of a musical get-together at Estalio’s labor camp. (Photo courtesy of Rosalie Marquez)

America became a dream for young Allos, and as soon as he was given the opportunity to board one of the ships that could potentially change his life forever, he immediately hopped on.