As you can see, there are quite a number of things taught in school that one has to unlearn or at least correct.
– Ambeth R. Ocampo, Filipino historian, academic, journalist, and author, from Rizal without the Overcoat
On October 30th and 31st, I attended the Filipino American Educators Association of California (FAEAC) Conference, held at the Citizens Hotel in downtown Sacramento. While I am not an educator, one of the subjects of the biannual conference for 2015 was relevant for me – how to implement AB123, a bill authored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) that requires California schools to include Filipino-American contributions to the farm labor movement in their social-sciences curriculum.
Patricio Urbi, FAEAC President noted in his welcome to fellow educators: “In order for us to teach for our future, we must continue to learn about the past and the many accomplishments our forefathers and foremothers contributed to history. As Educators, we must answer the call to action, remember, tell, and write the stories.” That was an important goal of the conference.
Happily, I got to hear Mona Pasquil, Appointments Secretary under Gov. Brown, speak for the second evening in a row. She was the keynote speaker at the Philippine National Day Association’s 25th Anniversary Gala on October 29th. At the FAEAC conference, she was the opening keynote speaker. Before the evening officially began, I gave her a copy of my novel, which was exciting for me because she was genuinely excited and made sure that I autographed the copy for her. She told me she had left her speech notes in her car and didn’t think she had time to retrieve them. We got on this discussion of being accepted by a new group of Filipinos who aren’t the community you grew up with. She agreed that as a Filipino American community we oftentimes don’t come together because we stick to our immediate community or group, defined by our dialect, geographic location, and even recent immigrant versus second and third generation Filipino American! So that became the backbone of her keynote speech.
Mona Pasquil’s keynote speech: Come together
Mona grew up in nearby Walnut Grove as a third-generation Filipino American. The manongs lived on the second floor of her home. Her grandmother not only picked in the fields but was also the cook for the farm laborers. As an infant, Mona was in a box next to her family in the fields while they worked. Growing up, Mona understood from an early age that her family’s sacrifices were done so she could go to college. She faced discrimination as a child. When she told her father about being bullied, his response to her was: “Tell them who you are. Remain true to who you are.” She did; she reported that she got beaten up, but that was a small price to pay for standing up for herself. Mona went to college in the Midwest, where her mother went to school. Even there, in the 1980s, she faced discrimination and ignorance; when students asked who she was and she responded that she was Filipino, they demanded to know what that was.
When she returned to California, she said she joined every Filipino organization that she could, but she related that she still didn’t belong. She was told that she was born here and didn’t have the right accent; therefore, she wasn’t really Filipino. Mona entreated us all to put our differences aside and come together. There’s a reason, according to Mona, that we are “absent” from the table – be it in politics and other powerful positions: “Our community never came together,” she revealed. We need to “take care of each other, share our stories, and appreciate the differences in our stories,” she pointed out. She invoked the spirit of the manongs and told us to “stand up for yourself and remember who came before us – the manongs – who couldn’t speak up for themselves.”
Mona related an “ah-ha moment” she encountered when she was working on the Clinton campaign. She was at the White House and one of the valets came up to her. He was an older Filipino man. He told her how they have always been “behind the curtain.” “Nobody knew our name,” he explained to her. His mandate to her: “Make us proud.” Mona took that to heart. When the Los Angeles Jewish Community shooting occurred on August 10th, 1999, and then-Vice President Al Gore was preparing a statement to make to the press, Mona had an important request. She asked that Gore say the name of the USPS mailman who was fatally shot nine times by a white supremacist and that he was Filipino American. The killer had told authorities he shot Ileto because he “looked Latino or Asian” and was a federal employee. Gore asked her if it was important, and Mona, who told us that “this is personal,” gave him a resounding yes. When she watched him on the television monitor mention Joseph Ileto‘s name and his ethnicity, she realized what an “amazing opportunity” she had to “make a difference.” No longer did she want Filipino Americans to be invisible, to be “behind the curtain.”
But in order to do that as a community, she stressed, we have to work together. We have to “understand our story and understand the richness of our community.” She entreated all of us to “push our people forward every day.” “We will only grow in numbers if we work together,” she told us. She pointed out that there are 2,700 positions on boards and commissions and 300-500 staff positions. Few are women, few are minorities. Mona ended her inspiring keynote address with a challenge to us all: “My commitment is if you want to participate, I will help you get there.” Mona Pasquil is my new hero!
Project Welga! and AB123
FAEAC’s Saturday agenda was full and I didn’t get to attend all the afternoon breakout sessions that were of interest to me. Thankfully the morning sessions, which were under the umbrella theme of “building shared knowledge,” did not compete. Dr. Amanda Solomon Amorao, who is a professor at the University of California, San Diego, gave a workshop on the Kuya Ate Mentorship Program (KAMP), which helps mentor San Diego middle school and high school students on Filipino American culture, identity, and history. The goal is to empower students in their own learning and bring ethnic studies analyses of race, class, gender, and other issues of social different into secondary education. (It turns out that my cousin Leila Eleccion Pereira knows Amanda and her family well.) Glenn Phillip Martinez Aquino, who is a student at San Francisco State University, gave a talk on The Moving Filipino Image: Cinema and Education, the seemingly invisibility of Filipinos in mainstream American media.
What was most relevant for me was the session on AB123 and Project Welga! led by Project Welga’s Director, Dr. Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, of the University of California at Davis. Robyn read my novel pre-publication and wrote a very nice blurb for my book. As we crossed paths in the women’s bathroom before her talk, she jokingly told her newborn son that he’s seen a lot of me in his short life! So true – in Delano for Bold Step: the 50th Anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike and in San Francisco for the 3rd Filipino American International Book Festival! Robyn introduced the educators to a resource guide that draws from the materials in the digital archive that she created to support the grassroots implementation of AB123, the bill that Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) authored and was signed into law in 2013.
As Robyn pointed out, the language of AB123 states that “this act shall not be implemented unless funds are appropriated by the Legislature in the annual Budget Act.” There’s the rub! AB123 is an unfunded bill. So it is up to educators to incorporate it into their teachings. No small feat! Thanks to Robyn’s hard work, the Welga! Digital Archive aims to bring Filipinos’ leadership and engagement in the 1965 Delano grape strike to light through the acquisition and digital archiving of strike-related material, as well as the collection of oral histories of strike participants and supporters. I stumbled upon the website while searching for photos for my book cover, and I am happy to say that the two photos are from Welga! A fortuitous find for me. In turn, I donated to Welga! a letter labor leader Andy Imutan wrote to me and other materials related to the grape strike.
When Robyn brought up brainstorming, how to incorporate AB123 and cultural competency into the classroom, she cited my novel as sample literature to use. She pointed me out in the audience and generously gave a plug for my book. I was very honored that she recommended my novel for the classroom and tied it in with AB123. Perhaps this helped with the late addition of my reading an excerpt from my novel before the closing keynote by West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon that evening. At any rate, I welcome the possibility of my novel being read at the high-school level. I always knew I would be working to get the book into Asian American Studies courses at the college/university level. Given the anecdotal stories of college professors highlighting the fact that their Filipino American freshmen haven’t read any Filipino-American authors before coming to their classrooms, I welcome the opportunity and challenge. An additional goal is to make inroads with high-school students. Now that would be very exciting.
I met some great educators while at the conference. An elementary school teacher at San Francisco Unified School District asked if I would be willing to give a talk at her school. Of course! A professor from the Ethnic Studies Department at Cal Berkeley let me know that she would use my novel in her Asian American Studies class. Great! People were kind and enthusiastic as they bought my book.
It was a long, exhausting day – fittingly ending the busy Filipino American History Month of October. For every person I met and meet, potential and possibility exist. Or not. I have no way of knowing until something comes of it. What I’ve been doing these last couple of months has been part of this journey. At times, it seems as if everything that occurred in September and October happened in a stretch of half a year – that’s how compressed everything had been these past two months. I logged a tremendous amount of work that is finally catching up with me in terms of energy to keep going and time to devote. This word-of-mouth journey is labor-intensive and so necessary when one has to do the job largely alone. Thank goodness I am finding my community, and one by one, my community members are embracing me and lifting me up as I continue my way.