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I don’t understand what it means to be Filipino: Navigating Pilipinx American History Month

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NOVEMBER 03, 2018

I was told growing up that my great-grandfather was the first member of my family to come to the United States. He arrived in 1930 after a monthlong journey by boat, first setting foot in San Francisco, just across the Bay from where his great-grandson is now pursuing a college degree. He worked for Coca-Cola but eventually moved back to the Philippines, where he stayed until he passed at the age of 106. We don’t know why he moved back.

Despite knowing his story for years, I had never thought of the members of my family as immigrants before coming to UC Berkeley. I grew up in a conservative community that never discussed race, and while I was a statistical minority, there were enough Pilipinx people in my life that I was never made to feel like a minority in any tangible sense, so I never thought critically about that component of my identity.

When I found out via Snapchat filter this year that October is Pilipinx American History Month, I was confused, so I looked it up on Wikipedia to find a brutally short entry. What does it mean to have a month dedicated to my history? I understand that my people have faced — and continue to face — systemic social inequality from the model minority myth to a lack of representation in film, but I didn’t understand what claiming a month to discuss our history accomplished. I didn’t think this was a feasible way to bring minority concerns into the mainstream conversation. I was worried that the safe spaces the Pilipinx community creates would never evolve beyond being an echo chamber where its members lament the injustices against our community without accomplishing anything.

I spent the month talking to my friends — both inside and outside the UC Berkeley Pilipinx community — to figure out what it means to be Pilipinx American and what the purpose of this month is. I found that we were all confused about what it means to be Pilipinx American in this time and place in history. I went to rallies and workshops looking for black and white answers to my grayscale questions.  

What does it mean to have a month dedicated to my history?

On Oct. 24, I attended Sproul Visibility Day, a four-hour collaboration between the eight Pilipinx student organizations held on the Mario Savio Steps. I watched as groups performed cultural dances and speakers, including UC Berkeley lecturers Chat Aban, Joi Barrios-LeBlanc and Karen Llagas — affectionately referred to as Tita Chat, Tita Joi and Tita Karen by the Pilipinx community — spoke about social justice issues plaguing the Pilipinx community both here and in the Philippines. There was so much energy, and many people stopped to listen — but they were all members of the Pilipinx community. From my perspective, these efforts weren’t reaching anyone new. I watched as the diverse population of students bustled along across Upper Sproul, ignoring the urgent calls of my people to be heard.

I spoke with Jillian Perez, campus sophomore and member of PASS, or Pilipinx Academic Student Services, one of the eight Pilipinx student organizations on campus. The purpose of PASS, a completely student-run organization, is “to address the educational concerns of Pilipinx students in pursuit of higher education” through “various informational resources, support, and referral services,” according to its website.  

Perez is this year’s PASO (Pilipinx-American Student Orientation) Coordinator, tasked with running both the Pilipinx-American Student Orientation at the beginning of the year and the fall semester PASOC DeCal, a class that “serves as a safe space for growth through conversation as well as exploration.” The DeCal holds workshops on topics ranging from professional development to issues concerning Pilipinx narratives.   

I started with the most basic question: Why do we have Pilipinx American History Month, and what does it mean to have a month dedicated to our history? She said it was about taking space as a community and reclaiming our voice — a common sentiment I’ve heard echoed in many communities, but she elaborated further.

“Living in America, in public education, our culture tends to be viewed as savages, people who were saved by the West,” Perez said. “For example, in public school, when it came to world history, from my experience, I’ve only talked about the Philippines once. … You never get into the rich and gruesome details.”

Perez referenced the student-led movement to rename Barrows Hall, the campus building named after a former UC President and proponent of “a system of colonial education” with the intent of “civilizing” Pilipinx people. She questioned why public schools never discussed figures such as Barrows or the injustices they committed.

I watched as the diverse population of students bustled along across Upper Sproul, ignoring the urgent calls of my people to be heard.

I brought up my concern about the Pilipinx community being an echo chamber. I acknowledged that education and awareness are essential but not enough. Given the diversity of the university, I questioned how we could include non-Pil identifying people in the conversation while simultaneously claiming this month as “ours.” Perez offered an analogy.

“It’s kind of like being on a stage — like when you’re out there performing on a stage, your audience is not made of people that just think like you, but those that think separately or those that identify differently as you.”

This month challenged me to rethink my place in the UC Berkeley Pil community, despite not formally being a part of it. At the beginning of my freshman year, I chose not to be formally involved with any of UC Berkeley’s eight Pil student organizations. I don’t regret my decision, but even now, I feel something inside me unfulfilled. Perez reassured me that I don’t have to earn my heritage, that I am no less Pilipinx for choosing not to be involved. But at the same time, I know that I bear a responsibility to the Pilipinx community at large, and I have struggled with how I could fulfill this moral obligation.

“I’ve only talked about the Philippines once. … You never get into the rich and gruesome details.” — Jillian Perez

Awareness is important, yes, but I had worried that Pilipinx American History Month only sought to educate, not motivate. My mind turned to the Third World Liberation Front strikes in 1968 and 1969, and how the calls for equality made by students of color 50 years ago have yet to be fully realized, including the demand for a Third World College run by peoples of color. I was afraid that the work of the Pil community only benefited those who were part of the student organizations and that Pilipinx students like me wouldn’t know how to live out our history in our day-to-day lives. I was afraid that no one within the Pil community was demanding that we do more to prepare all Pilipinx-identifying students for postgraduation life, where we won’t have access to campus resources. Perez reassured me that that was not the case.

“There’s no growth if you just stay with people that are like-minded. … I would say: (Welcome) different ideas, (welcome) these devil’s advocates that might say, ‘We’re not doing enough,’ ” Perez said.“It’s easy for people to be in routines, to be like, ‘Oh, this happened last year — let’s do it again,’ but that’s not growth.

The main takeaway that I got from our conversation was that the work of UC Berkeley’s Pilipinx community is not yet done. I made peace with the fact that, even though my questions have no easy answers, there are people in the community such as Perez who are working toward progress, people who are channeling the community’s energy from monologue to dialogue.

I still don’t fully understand my place in the Pil community — both at the university and in the world at large. But that’s OK. For now, it is enough to demand answers to my questions and seek them out. Now, at the end of this monthlong journey, I am left to wonder what responsibility — if any — I inherited from my culture and my family.

I wonder if my great-grandfather liked it here. I wonder what his Bay Area looked like without the Golden Gate Bridge. I wonder if the early-morning fog took his breath away the way it does for me. I wonder if he felt like an outsider, if he longed to move back to his native country. I wonder if he ever envisioned the possibility of a whole month dedicated to his people’s history. I wonder if he’d think that I am living up to the history we now both share. I wonder if he’d think that I am doing enough.


Contact Edrick Sabalburo at [email protected]

NOVEMBER 03, 2018