Our Theme “A Pinoy State of Mind: Building with Our Roots” was chosen because we wanted to recognize that as Filipino Americans become more visible and successful across all sectors (e.g., academia, arts and entertainment, law and government, etc.) that we always remember where we came from, as well as the struggles of those who came before us.
– Kevin L. Nadal, PhD, FANHS National Trustee, FANHS 2016 Conference Coordinator, Associate Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) celebrated its 16th Biennial Conference, June 22-25, in New York at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (524 W 59th St, New York, NY 10019). While I have been a member of the Stockton chapter of FANHS since 2004 (I joined the East Bay chapter in 2015), this was my first FANHS conference. I heard one of the FANHS National trustees declare that this conference was the best ever – and she’s attended all 16 of them – so I think I picked the best one to attend as my first. It didn’t hurt that the venue was in my favorite city in the country.
My oldest sister, Heidi, met up with me in New York, after my family went back home following a week of being tourists. My sister isn’t a member of FANHS, but she was intrigued by the various sessions being offered with such topics as genealogy, Filipinos in the military, oral histories, the Filipino Food Movement, cultural and historical preservation, WWII and Vietnam veterans, storytelling, and advocacy and organizing. We didn’t join the bus tour Wednesday afternoon that took conference attendees to various landmarks around the city, but I do regret not learning more about Filipino Americans in New York and seeing where Jose Rizal stayed during his visit in 1888 and where authors Jose Garcia Villa and Carlos Bulosan stayed when they came here. That Wednesday evening, the conference began with an opening reception and singing, dancing, and dramatic interpretation performances, all showcasing the vast talent of Filipino Americans in New York.
Telling our stories
Thursday morning, FANHS 2016 Conference Coordinator Kevin Nadal gave a warm welcome and was followed by Broadway actress (“Here Lies Love,” “School of Rock”) Jaygee Macapugay’s spirited rendition of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, an ode to the city that never sleeps. The opening panel featured Dorothy Laigo Cordova, founder and executive director of FANHS, and Ambassador Mario Lopez de Leon, Jr., Philippine Consul General to New York.
One of the themes that this panel stressed was the importance of telling our stories. They entreated us to tell our stories to other immigrants and other groups. We must “make our numbers count” and realize that we do matter and that we can influence what’s happening to us and around us. Ambassador Lopez de Leon, Jr. instructed us to “make our presence felt.” He concluded, “We have excelled. Our next step is to assume a position of influence and leadership.”
Nadal moderated the next session, the opening Plenary appropriately titled “A Pinoyorker Renaissance,” which featured Joe Bataan, King of Latin Soul; Ernabel Demillo, four-time Emmy nominated journalist and television news reporter who used to work in Sacramento; Rachelle Ocampo, host of Makilala TV Health; actress Jaygee Macapugay; and DJ Neil Armstrong, Jay-Z’s tour DJ and President Obama’s Inauguration DJ. While I knew who Joe Bataan – Afro Filipino King of Latin Soul, originator of the New York Latin Soul style that fuses Latin-African beats with Soul and Doo wop – was, I had never heard his music. He related that he grew up in Spanish Harlem, got in trouble at an early age, and then had an epiphany that he had better do something with his life before it spiraled out of control. He got involved in music and he’s been entertaining audiences and serving as mentor to many musicians for decades. He is an inductee into the Musicians Hall of Fame, a recent inductee into the Smithsonian Institute, and his portrait was unveiled in The National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in October 2013. I was honored to hear and see him.
On a personal note, I have to say that I was relieved to hear Ocampo and Demillo openly admit that they don’t know the language, although Rachelle is taking Tagalog lessons. It’s interesting to learn that while, through the years, the older generation berated my sisters and me for not knowing the language, the practice of our first-generation parents not teaching their native language – Ilocano, Tagalog, Visayan, etc. – to their children, was widespread. Therefore, our parents and many first-generation parents either were pressured by society or concluded on their own that assimilation would prevent their children from facing discrimination and was the path to surviving and thriving in their new country. Unfortunately, our parents and the first generation didn’t realize that assimilation meant for some or many the subtle or outright rejection of one’s heritage and ethnicity. It’s really up to the second and succeeding generations to embrace their heritage and continue to pass on that love and appreciation.
History lessons of the Philippine Revolution
I was most interested in the Thursday morning session on “Revisiting Aguinaldo, Rizal, Bonifacio and Antonio Luna: A Filipino American Perspective,” which was led by Oscar Peneranda, well-known San Francisco Bay Area writer, educator, and activist, and Tony Santa Ana, community organizer, artist, and educator at De Anza Community College in the San Francisco Bay Area. For those who don’t know these names in the title session, they are national heroes and figures who contributed to the fight for freedom from Spanish rule.
What I appreciated the most was the fact that those who attended were knowledgeable about these Filipino leaders and engaged in a spirited discussion about the Philippine-American War, which is the subject of my second novel-in-progress. Among the things I learned is that the U.S. Bureau of Printing published a book of surveys and maps that the Navy had completed in the 1840s, which is evidence, according to one academic in attendance, that the United States had its eyes on the Philippines decades before events in 1898 led to the Philippine-American War. The Philippines, as someone pointed out, was a victim of geography because it was seen as the gateway to the rich markets in China. As you can imagine, I took many notes and picked up a handful of business cards.
Defining what is American
Thursday afternoon, before Jose Antonio Vargas took the podium as Thursday’s keynote speaker, news broke out that the Supreme Court deadlocked – 4-4 – on reviving President Obama’s plan to prevent deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants and instead give them the right to work legally in the country. A tangential aside: Understand that this is a sad consequence of not allowing President Obama to appoint a justice for the seat vacant since Antonin Scalia passed away in mid-February. Vargas, who is a journalist, filmmaker, and immigration rights activist, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and founded Define American, “a nonprofit media and culture organization that seeks to elevate the conversation around immigration and citizenship in America.” He is also the founder, editor, and publisher of #EmergingUS, “a digital platform that lives at the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America.” Vargas “came out” in 2011 when wrote about his experiences as an undocumented immigrant in the United States, and penned a front-cover article in the June 25, 2012, issue of Time magazine. He produced the documentary “Documented” and was nominated for an Emmy for his MTV documentary “White People.”
This is the first time I’ve heard him speak, and I was truly honored. Vargas is a courageous, impassioned, inspirational human being. Because of the freshness of the Supreme Court ruling announcement and his raw emotions, Vargas asked that no one in the audience stream or record his keynote. That said, he was in control of his emotions, even throwing out liberal doses of humor and sarcasm. No doubt bolstered by having to deal with the wrath of many anti-immigration foes – from politicians and policymakers to people on the street – he showed tremendous restraint and reason in the face of ignorance and hatred. He talked about lessons learned and observations of other movements – specifically gay marriage – and noted that we have to “change culture before we can change politics.” Vargas explained, “You have to change the culture in which people talk about issues.”
“It’s important to control and frame our own narrative,” he went on. Vargas was brimming with surprising statistics, such as 1 out of 7 Koreans in this country is undocumented. So it’s not an issue of undocumented workers from Mexico, as most people would assume. Multiple nationalities are under that umbrella. Therefore, we must all work together and not look at this issue as another immigrant group’s problem. We need to remind those who seek to build walls or fences or shut the gate that our country was founded by immigrants.
One of my favorite lines that he quoted was from his MTV film “White People”: “White is not a country.” I tweeted that because so many people in this country need to be reminded of that phenomenon that seems to be treated as fact in the U.S. Vargas is thick-skinned, which I admire greatly. He has faced this question so many times – “Why are you here? Why are there so many of you here?” He formulated a brilliant comeback: “We are here because you were there.”
His conclusion may well have been the call to action to us in the audience. Many of us – especially those of us who are second generation and beyond – are privileged in myriad ways. “With privilege comes responsibility,” Vargas pointed out. “What are you doing with yours?” While the ruling was a big blow, he emphasized, disappointment must lead to positive action.
Author, author: Immigrant stories around the country
Later in the afternoon, I participated in the second of two author panels. Metro New York chapter member (who grew up in the Sacramento area, I found out via my cousin Leila Eleccion Pereira) Brenda Gambol moderated the panels. The second panel featured four authors whose works shared a common theme – immigrant stories representing various parts of the country – California, Hawaii, Alaska, and Illinois. Dr. Patricia Rosarnio-DeGuzman Brown, psychologist, educator, researcher, and author, read from Filipinas: Voices from the Daughters and Descendants of Hawaii’s Plantation Era. Dr. Brown is a FANHS trustee and founder and executive administrator of FANHS Hawai’i State chapter. Victoria Santos, president of FANHS East Bay, co-authored a book with her 94-year-old mother, who lives in Chicago. Memoirs of a Manang: The Story of a Filipina American Pioneer chronicles Vicky’s mother’s life as an immigrant and activist in America. Lastly, FANHS Seattle Chapter member Robert Francis Flor, PhD, read from his recently published book of poems, Alaskero Memories, an ode to the Filipino Americans who worked in Alaska’s canneries and fisheries.
In the evening, we were treated to a panel discussing Mia Alvar and her New York Times best-selling book, In the Country, a collection of nine fictional short stories about the Filipino diaspora inspired by her own transnational experience. I had her sign my copy of her book and had our picture taken. Of course, excited, I tweeted that I was honored to meet her, and she was kind enough to tweet a similar sentiment. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of her stories. I am halfway through the collection. The first story, “The Contrabida,” is as unsettling a story as it is beautifully rendered. My favorite thus far is “Esmeralda,” in which Alvar beautifully captures the shock, surrealism and heartache of 9/11 told in the perfect-pitch second person point of view.
Part II will be published on Monday, July 25.