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.

#GetLit, A Hella Pinay Edition

#GetLit, Fil/Lit

This post was originally written for Hella Pinay, a “space for positive representation of the diversity and complexity of Pilipina womxn, and facilitate dialogue between Pinays in the Philippines and throughout the diaspora.” I’m happy to announce that I’ll be writing a monthly column on all things literary for the site!

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To be a Filipino living in the U.S. these days means enduring affronts from both the Philippine and the U.S. governments, (seemingly) forever caught in a geopolitical crossfire that requires a skillful navigation. How can we best express our wholeness and honor our ancestors while at the same time acknowledge the painful contradictions we live in in this country?

First, we read.

Just as Jose Rizal’s books Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo were banned after successfully fomenting a Filipino national consciousness in the midst of Spanish colonization, we can turn to literature. We read to guide us to a deeper introspection of who we are / where we come from and to propel us to find critical connections within ourselves and our communities, all from the pages in our hands.

And what better time is it to dive into necessary lit than right now? October happens to be Filipino-American History/Heritage Month, first celebrated back in 1988. From the first Filipinos who set foot in Morro Bay, California in October 1587 to a current population of over 3 million in the country, our people are a force to be reckoned with.

It is also Indigenous Peoples Month in the Philippines, and I’m remembering the ongoing struggle and resistance of the Lumad people in the southern part of the country (Mindanao), as well as their incredible resilience in the face of displacement, violence and political repression.

Here are five essential reads that reflect our times, written by Pinays whose work encompasses many ways we’ve struggled and survived as a people, whose stories amplify our collective strength and resilience:

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In the Country: Stories (2016) is a collection of nine short stories by Filipina author Mia Alvar. They are stories of family, loss, love and migration. Alvar writes of overseas Filipino workers in Bahrain, of grief-stricken separated siblings, of an estranged child witnessing his father’s death. More than the characters and the stories themselves, Alvar writes about political and economic shifts in the country.

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BAYI: Stories of Lumad Women (2016) tells the stories of ten fierce Lumad women in Mindanao and their struggle to fight for their lives, land and liberation. Meet 92-year old Bai Bibiyaon Likayan Bigkay, a female Lumad tribal chieftain in a culture that has been traditionally patriarchal. Bai has been leading the fight against mining mega-corporations and their paramilitary counterparts.

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Marcos Martial Law: Never Again (2017) is the work of journalist Raissa Robles, who has been covering the Marcoses for decades. Borne out of the need to retell the story of martial law largely in part because of martial law’s omission in Filipino textbooks, Robles’s tome is a testament to the atrocities of a regime ruled by repression, disappearances and intense violence. With a a generation growing up oblivious to the terrors of ML, this is an essential book.

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Invocation to Daughters (2017) is due to be out in November this year, and already it’s been getting a lot of buzz. This is the fifth collection of poetry by Filipina poet Barbara Jane Reyes, written “in the tradition of Audre Lorde and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Invocation to Daughters is a book of prayers, psalms, and odes for Filipina girls and women trying to survive and make sense of their own situations.”

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Lola’s House: Filipino Women Living with War (2017) took 17 years to make, as M. Evelina Galang interviewed sixteen Filipino “comfort women” who were abducted, raped and tortured by the Imperial Japanese Army. Galang spent a lot of time with the Lila Pilipina women, an organization of surviving comfort women as they protested, recounted their stories and lived as survivors.

The Life & Death of Andrés Bonifacio, with Ambeth R. Ocampo

Book Reviews, Fil/Lit

“History does not repeat itself.
We repeat history.”
–Ambeth R. Ocampo

These lines from Ocampo couldn’t have been more relevant today, as the Philippines is facing yet another political crisis: on May 23rd, President Duterte declared martial law in the southern part of the Philippines (Mindanao), after terrorist groups clashed with the country’s armed forces.

What would have Andrés Bonifacio, hailed as the “Father of the Philippine Revolution” done if he were alive today?

Back when I was in the Philippines a couple of months ago, I picked up Ambeth R. Ocampo’s book Bones of Contention: The Andrés Bonifacio Lectures (Amazon) at a local bookstore. I was immediately drawn to the face of the revolutionary leader against the Spanish colonizers on the cover — austere, pensive, the look of a determined man against his oppressor.

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The book  is a compilation of lectures delivered by Ocampo, a historian and professor in the Philippines. It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized how little I knew of Bonifacio.

Other than his legacy in the revolution, I had little to no knowledge of his life. What Ocampo offered in his lectures was a closer look on not just the life of the Supremo, but on his assassination, the political atmosphere of his time, and how deeply rooted the Filipino elite has been in the country’s politics.

Boy was I in for a surprise. Reading Ocampo is a bit like reading a TMZ version of Filipino history, and a bit like watching a telenovela.

Instead of purely historical accounts, Ocampo delves into Bonifacio’s downfall within the Katipunan which eventually led to his death.  In Opening Pandora’s Box, Ocampo recounts the factions within the revolutionary secret society (KKK, and no, not the white supremacist group).

An ARKIPELAGO of You and Me: Finding Filipino Books in San Francisco

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

The South of Market district in San Francisco is home to a plethora of things — tech giants like Twitter, swanky residential hotels, studios and art spaces, the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art plus a hum drum of restaurants, clubs and bars — ideal for tourists and would-be residents to call home.

While this influx of traffic is generally seen as a boon to the district, it casts a long, dark shadow to what makes SoMa a historic and amazing place to be in: its mainstays, mostly brown and black folks.

What might be a a relatively unknown fact to most is that the SoMa is also home to a sizable Filipino population — the largest concentration in San Francisco — residents of the area since the 1900s. In April 2016, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution establishing SoMa Pilipinas marking 2nd St. to 11th St. down from Market St. to Brannan St. the Filipino cultural heritage district in the City.

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Source: Arkipelago Bookstore

And right on Mission St., between 5th and 6th, is a very special corner I’ve always loved to call home: the Arkipelago Books, a Filipino bookstore carrying titles by and of Filipinos. I first came across Arkipelago at a yearly Filipino festival called Pistahan. I met Marie in her stall back then, as I perused and tried to contain my excitement over classics I recognized plus a lot of new titles neatly stacked.

That was about six or seven years ago, and I’ve gone back to Arkipelago frequently to procure more books. A few weeks ago, I came across a friend’s post on Facebook with a fundraising link for the bookstore as it expands its services, upgrade its equipment and other services, as well as venture out into publishing.

On a sunny Friday in the City, I ventured out to the bookstore and got a chance to meet Lily Prijoles, the new owner along with her other Pinay partners Golda Sargento, Ley Ebrada and Charity Ramilo. What followed was an exploration and conversations on pre-colonial Philippines, Melinda Bobis, bookselling and Arkipelago’s future ventures.

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I first found out about Arkipelago like Pistahan, and I met Marie a couple of times. What’s unique about Arkipelago bookstore?

Lily (Arkipelago)

 

A lot of Fil-Ams, are trying to get into their pre-colonial side, the pre-colonial Philippines, because they want to discover more about it. We try to accommodate them with books but a lot of the books are very dense and academic, or if we do get books there’s not enough people writing about them. They want to know about Ifugao, Igorot and other indigenous tribes. They’re finding out something about themselves and it helps that Whang-Od is doing all these interviews, doing tattoos. But also a lot of people are looking up Eskrima and Arnis and those have hints of pre-colonial roots of the Philippines.

I finally found a book — Tahanan, which is a publisher, came out with it. They came out with Halo-Halo Histories which is a children’s book about the history of the Philippines. It has pictures and easy explanations and I get a lot of parents buying it not just for their kids, but also because they want to find out for themselves. Their warehouse in the U.S. is all gone! It’s written by these four anthropologists and they did a lot of intensive research about our history. We were colonized but how were we before that?

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Source: Arkipelago Books (Facebook)

Libromance

That’s really interesting to know, because I’ve also found books to be self-revelatory tools.

Lily (Arkipelago)

Yes, and it’s mostly Filipino women who look for these books. And if you think about it, rre-colonial Philippines is empowering to a lot of women. There was more gender equality even before the Bible came.

The creation story in the Philippines is Malakas at Maganda, who were created at the same time as opposed to Adam and Eve, wherein Eve was born out of Adam’s rib. Then you start thinking about the roles of women, and a lot of pre-colonial requests are from Pinays, and finding empowering positions of women in history.

I tell them: Don’t be a coy, just tell me what you want. I’m a sister — I got you!