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What does it mean to be Filipino American?

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By Geordee Mae Corpuz (Organizing Director for CFJ Oakland) and Justine Santos (Lead Organizer for CFJ Oakland)

October is Filipino American History Month. Three decades after Carlos Bulosan published his poem, his words still resonate. With over 4 million Filipino Americans in the United States this month is a call for us to celebrate and acknowledge the ways that Filipino Americans have contributed and continue to shape United States history.

What does it mean to be Filipino American? To understand is to acknowledge centuries of U.S. imperialism and racism on the Philippines and the people. This year marks the 120th anniversary of the Philippine-American war that led to the genocide of over 1 million Filipinos, established the Philippines as the first U.S. colony, and eventually sparked the Filipino diaspora to the U.S. and other countries – where they futher experienced oppression such as forced immigration, segregation, violence and death.

Text: “KILL EVERY ONE OVER TEN” Criminals because they were born ten years before we took the Philippines. – The New York Evening Journal. This picture depicts the orders from General Jacob Smith to the U.S. army men during the Philippine-American war. From The Forbidden Book: The Philippine-American War in Political Cartoons by Enrique de la Cruz.

Regardless of this history, Filipinos are invisible in mainstream media or U.S. history books. Filipino Americans in the United States are lumped into the monolithic racial identity of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) which erases the distinctive and complex histories and experiences of different AAPI communities. Stereotypes such as the Model Minority Myth (the belief that AAPI’s are the “example” minorities) and the Perpetual Foreigner (the belief that AAPI’s are too foreign or exotic to ever be American “enough”), drive dominant narratives of AAPI’s in the United States and have been tools to pit communities against one another and further marginalize Black and Brown communities.

Despite stereotypes and convenient erasure Filipino Americans are, have been and always will be disrupters, conspirators, fighters, revolutionaries and visionaries. 

Since our arrival in the U.S. in 1587, Filipinos have been fighting racism and white supremacy, especially in California, in solidarity with other communities of color:

Delano Manongs on strike in Delano

  • Labor Movement: In the 1930s, Filipino migrant workers, who were seen as a disposable bachelor workforce, were leaders in the creation of labor unions on the West Coast, fighting for better wages and working conditions for all workers. They created the first Filipino-led union ever organized in the United States: the Cannery Workers’ and Farm Laborers’ Union Local 18257.
  • Farmworkers Movement: In the 1960s, the Delano Manongs (farmworkers) led by Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, Benjamin Gines and Pete Velasco sparked the Farmworkers Movement by starting the Delano Grape Strike. They later joined forces with Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Gilbert Padilla to create the United Farmworkers Union that prompted an international boycott of table grapes.
  • Ethnic Studies Movement: In 1968, Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE) together with the Black Students Union, the Latin American Students Organization, the Asian American Political Alliance, and El Renacimiento formed the Third World Liberation Front to fight for the creation of the first ever College of Ethnic Studies in the U.S. The fight for Ethnic Studies has continued over the last 50 years, spurring campaigns to establish Ethnic Studies as a necessary component in public education.
  • Fighting displacement and preserving cultural heritage districts: In 2000, Dr. Dawn Mabalon and Dillon Delvo created the non-profit organization Little Manila Rising (LMR) to fight against developers and saved the Little Manila Historic Site from destruction in downtown Stockton. After decades of fighting against urban redevelopment and displacement of Filipino families, SOMA (South of Market) Pilipinas is officially recognized by the City of San Francisco as SF’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District, under the leadership of the Filipino-American Development Foundation in 2016.

Teacher with Pin@y Educational Partnerships at a rally for Ethnic Studies in high schools.

Our own experiences in the United States are reminders that we cannot be erased. Our legacy is beyond what White Supremacy and imperialism set for us. From grandfathers who escaped the Bataan death march to start a new life in America; grandparents who were sakadas in Hawai’i and migrant famerworkers in California; our families are among those who dared to escape the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship, separated from their roots, and experienced white supremacist violence, all of this just to ensure a life for future generations. Now we continue the path forward, transforming the public education system and organizing towards a racially just future that centers the lives and liberation of Black and Brown peoples.

That’s why our duty as Filipino Americans is to exist loudly and let our stories be known. Just as Dawn Bohulano Mabalon said, “I also feel the hurt of a generation. It’s our story, and it demands our love, and attention and respect, and we need to tell this story.” And we must do the hard work to live and write new stories – ones that move beyond violence, fear, limitations; and instead imagine a more liberated world.

Justine Santos (pink jacket) with her grandmother, mother, aunties & cousin at San Francisco Pier 39 in 1992.

Must Reads for Filipino American History Month:

Geordee Mae Corpuz’s Grandmother Flora (left) in the 1970s. Flora supported 2 generations of children and grandchildren in the U.S.

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