I recently gave a speech at the New Holly Gathering Hall for the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. The event was a community forum regarding the hidden educational opportunity gaps with API students in Washington State. There were community members, educators, students, and policy makers in attendance.
Walking into the venue, it was quite noticeable that these were movers and shakers within the API community. I was selected to be one of the two young people to share our experiences, background, and how the educational opportunity gap has impacted our lives. No short order in itself. Not to mention, we were both allocated a four-minute time frame to reveal our relationship to such heavy topics. Upon finding out the strict time parameters and how stringent the organizers emphasized remaining on schedule, I was experiencing a slight internal skirmish. On one hand, I didn’t feel as if four minutes would do justice to explaining my life experiences and background that led me up to this point within my life’s journey. I mean who really could? On the other hand, it’s nearly impossible for me to pass up on a speaking engagement, regardless of location, event, or length of time allotted to me. It’s an urge deep in my soul to speak at any and every place I can, even if that means consolidating 28 years of my life into 240 seconds. If it’s for the people, so be it.
Crafting out the speech brought up a few personal issues that I occasionally still go toe to toe with. As most mixed or multi-racial people will tell you, throughout the course of their life, the subject of identity and being enough has visited their minds multiple times. Growing up, I felt like Filipinos were always quick to remind me that I was part white and white folks would always treat me differently because I was part Filipino. This was quite the conundrum to be placed in.
Something else that was brought up to the surface during my brain storming session was how my Filipina mother (like many Filipino parents in the United States) decided it was best to have my sister and me be completely assimilated into American culture and not really teach us about our Filipino culture. She didn’t speak to us in Tagalog. We weren’t part of the Filipino community. Outside of eating chicken adobo, sinigang, and pansit on my birthday, my concept of being Filipino was my mother’s accent. What I found when speaking to many of my Filipino American peers that have experienced a similar fate, was a disconnect with our people. The question of authenticity arises. Who is actually Filipino and who is faking the funk? Who can lay claim to being Filipino and who is just one in theory but not one in practice?
This four minute speech brought up some deep-seeded emotions within me. It was somewhat cathartic to revisit my childhood from the perspective that I have now. My lens is completely fixed to the Social Justice setting and this context brings a new vantage point for me to explore old subjects. With my militancy in full bloom, my critique was twofold. First, the colonial mentality that many Filipino parents bring along with them when immigrating to the United States certainly impacts their children as well. If many of our Filipino parents have been inculcated since they were children with images, ideas, and distorted glimpses of the United States, which places the American culture on a pedestal, all the while juxtaposing their own culture as something inferior, then of course the subsequent result will be a devaluing of self, our culture and anything related to our people—if not consciously then definitely below on the subconscious level. From this perspective, if you value the culture you’re hoping to assimilate into more than the one your ancestors had, then what is the motivation to pass your culture down to your children? Although I can understand this reasoning, the many years I spent in the dark lacking a knowledge of self being a direct result from this decision doesn’t make it excusable. Secondly, the (mis)education system I spent my formative years in, did next to nothing to help me learn more about Asian Americans in general and Filipino Americans specifically. I did not learn anything about the contributions Filipino Americans have made to the United States. I learned nothing of significance about people that looked like me from this country doing anything worth noting in the mainstream history books. We were rendered invisible. This lack of representation in school in conjunction with the lack of cultural influence at home, left a void in my heart and a dark cloud hovering over my mind. I had no idea who I was. I felt embarrassed and ashamed to be Filipino.
But then all of it changed.
After finally deciding to return to college after spending a three-year hiatus in Lakewood, I was introduced to American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, as well as, becoming exposed to the ideas about Social Justice. From these classes, I finally learned about Filipino history both in the United States and also abroad. I learned about the structural inequities in this country, the violence committed onto people of color and the subsequent turbulent history experienced by people of color ever since the English set foot on this land in what would later be called Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. Each book I read, each lecture I attended gave me a strength deep in my soul. I finally felt empowered, I finally filled that void, the dark cloud dissipated over my mind. Then I started giving back and doing everything I could to help the Filipino community and also all marginalized communities in Seattle and Tacoma. At this moment was when my life changed. No longer was I some lost teenager feeling ashamed for who I was. Now I was a young adult feeling empowered about myself and ready to change the world. And ever since I’ve never looked back.
While I was up there on stage and speaking a-mile-a-minute, a questioned I asked the audience was, “If we’re talking about an opportunity gap, what opportunity are we looking to help provide to these students? Do we want them to have a better chance at just assimilating into the dominant culture and losing their identity and sense of self in the process? Or do we want to provide them with more opportunities to learn about their history, to learn about people that looked like them and most importantly for these students to gain a knowledge of self?”
At about 3 minutes and 28 seconds in, I reached my conclusion which was this:
“More and more young people, specifically young people of color, are being exposed to their history that they have been deprived of. They are being introduce to Social Justice and once that fire is lit, it can never be extinguished. I’m just one example of what’s happening all over the country and the planet as well. You have young people becoming more and more militant and radical as the days go on. What you will find is that they won’t just be demanding change within our society, they will be out taking action to ensure that this transformation manifests itself. And if you’re not ready or willing to support this movement, then I suggest you get out of the way because you cannot stop the tide from coming into the shore.”
And with that I walked off stage.