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.

A Brief, Personal History with Food

Sunday Spotlight

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

I gifted Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (Amazon | Indiebound) to all my aunts and uncles one Christmas, along with a plant. The slim volume just came out a few months before that and I thought of it as the best manifesto for eating, the perfect holiday present. Since reading In Defense of Food (Amazon | Indiebound), I’ve become a huge Michael Pollan fan. I loved how he dissected the most mundane things like grocery shopping, and turned them into such internally provocative gestures which revealed a lot more about ourselves and the world we live in that we initially thought of. (I’m not sure how well the books were received though — we are a family of carnivorous folks with a penchant for rich and salty food).

 This time around, I’m back to another one of Pollan’s book: The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound). I’ll save all the details of the book for the review later this week but reading it touched on something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.

As I get older (and as what older folks used to tell me), my body is not just as receptive as it was before to food. Sure, I’ve gained a few pounds and it’s been a lot harder to shed most of it than when I was 25 (I have a really high metabolism which is a curse and a blessing at the same time, if you ask me). I’ve also never been into sweets before (even as a young kid)  but these days, a week can’t go by without a cup of milk tea with tapioca. I tend to bobafy myself pretty consistently, just check my Instagram story.

I know which food is good for me, and I know which food will make me feel like crap. After a recent trip to the Philippines, I was jet lagged and depressed for days. After waking up at 2 on a Thursday morning feeling like I need to pack my bags and move back to the homeland, I decided to make myself some food. I fried some SPAM and eggs, ate it with rice and crawled back to bed, feeling a lot more at peace. I slept like a baby.

My own trips to the grocery store (Trader Joe’s to be exact) got me coming home with a bag full of the following things: eggs, chicken sausages, spinach, kale or arugula, ground turkey or chicken, chile dried mangoes and a bag of nacho cheese chips. By the end of the week, only the eggs, chicken sausages and the bag of chips would be fully consumed. There are weeks where I end up wasting so much food that it deters me from even going to the grocery store to begin with.

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Saturday brunch at Berkeley Social Club, featuring the tastiest and crunchiest Yukon potatoes ever.

So what do I eat? I tend to go to the cafe at my workplace which is relatively healthy and cheap (with some extremely processed options) or order food for delivery which has become quite an expensive habit. I also love to eat out, another drain in my bank account. At home, the rice cooker is usually brimming with cooked, white rice. The cupboard is stocked with many, many cans of processed food and bags of chicharron (fried pork rinds). Living with my family has been incredibly nourishing but alas, also fattening.

It’s quite apparent: I have a hard-to-break predilection towards processed food. SPAM, hotdogs, sausages, corned beef. I want them all, any time, any day. All of these things tell me one thing: that food is largely emotional for me. It was only in the past few weeks that I realized I was just mimicking what I grew up with back in the Philippines: an abundance of salty, processed food (we lived about an hour away from a U.S. military base) and the instantaneous presentation of meals (I grew up with Ate Marie, our nanny and cook). All of it finally made sense.

Reading The Botany of Desire (Amazon | Indiebound) then was something special because instead of just analyzing man’s relationship with food, Pollan went deeper into man and society’s relationship with plants instead, correlated to our different desires.

This perspective just turned my head around, because it gave me an appreciation of how plants can also possibly view the world around them. Affirming the life inherent in each morsel I bite does something to me, turning what I thought I already knew into an expanded version of reality, rife with biodiversity.

As I challenge my salty and processed food-seeking tastebuds, I’ll be keeping Pollan in mind, along with the philosophy, history and politics of food, of plants.