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What Filipino American history makes visible

October 27, 2016

On October 26, 2016, Pilipino American student organizations hosted Sproul Visibility Day, an event that honors Filipino American History Month and makes visible the presence of Filipino Americans at UC Berkeley. They invited me to be a speaker at this event. The following is the transcript of my speech:

October is Filipino American History Month. Those of you who know me, even a little, know that I am passionate about the subject of Filipino American history. I am the daughter of Filipino immigrants, the author of the book Empire of Care about the history of Filipino nurse migration to the United States, and a professor of ethnic studies and Asian American and Asian Diaspora studies at UC Berkeley who specializes in and teaches Filipino American history.

The Filipino American community is diverse across socioeconomic status and across generations. Our community is diverse because of our mixed racial and ethnic origins. But we are united by Filipino American history, a history of struggle against colonialism and racism, a history of resilience in the face of grave injustice and a history of advocacy for equality.


Filipino American history makes me think of the writer Carlos Bulosan, who after growing up in poverty in a rural farming village in the town of Binalonan in the Philippines, migrated to the United States in 1930, and toiled as a laborer in the fields, hotels and canneries of California and the Pacific Northwest, along with tens of thousands of predominantly Filipino men, but also Filipino women. From a background of poverty and minimal education, Bulosan would become a prolific writer and one of the most important social critics of the 20th century during a time, the 1930s, when Filipinos were treated worse than dogs, during a time when “it was a crime to be a Filipino in California.” And yet he wrote in his seminal work, America Is in the Heart:

“America is not a land of one race or one class of men. We are all Americans that have toiled and suffered and known oppression and defeat, from the first Indian that offered peace in Manhattan to the last Filipino pea pickers. . . . America is also the nameless foreigner, the homeless refugee, the hungry boy begging for a job and the black body dangling from a tree. America is the illiterate immigrant who is ashamed that the world of books and intellectual opportunities is closed to him. We are that nameless foreigner, that homeless refugee, that hungry boy, that illiterate immigrant and that lynched black body. All of us, from the first Adams to the last Filipino, native born or alien, educated or illiterate — We are America!”

Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart was published many decades ago in 1946. But its message that black lives matter and that brown lives matter, and its message that indigenous peoples, refugees and immigrants are at the heart of America’s promise and that all of us are integral to America’s greatness are relevant now more than ever.

tmp9c0e-283Filipino American history makes me think about the story of Olympic diver Victoria Manalo Draves, who reminds us to never underestimate the strength of a Filipina American woman. Born and raised in San Francisco in 1924 to an English mother and Filipino father, Manalo Draves encountered the racism of her diving club when it insisted that she drop her father’s Filipino name, Manalo, and use her mother’s English maiden name, Taylor.  Manalo Draves reclaimed her father’s name and, at the 1948 Olympics in London, she became the first woman in Olympic history to win springboard and platform gold medals. In 2006, the Filipino American community celebrated the naming of a South of Market neighborhood park in Victoria Manalo Draves’ name.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, there are approximately 3.4 million Filipino Americans in the United States, making our community the second largest Asian American group in the country. But just as important as these contemporary demographics is the knowledge that we share a history with those Filipino agricultural migrant workers of the 1920s and 1930s who were crucial to the development of California’s economy, and who together with Mexican American farmworkers formed the UFW and set in motion the 1965 Delano Grape Strike.

We are historically connected with those Filipinos in the Philippines and Filipino Americans in the United States who fought alongside Americans during World War II, who liberated POW death camps in the Philippines and who made vital contributions to Allied forces’ rescue operations in different parts of the Pacific.

We share a culture of migration with those Filipino nurses who started migrating to the United States in large numbers beginning in the 1950s to alleviate critical nursing shortages in primarily public hospitals.

We share the inclusive vision of those Filipino American students who participated in the Third World strikes and helped establish an Ethnic Studies curriculum at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley in the late 1960s.

And we share a work ethic that values health and care with those Filipino migrant physicians who worked on the front lines of American inner city hospitals during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Learning about Filipino American history is at times painful because it involves confronting histories of inequality and injustice. But knowledge of Filipino American history also inspires us, and reminds us that we are not alone.

And so, if we are not alone, what can we do together?

One. Together we can honor those who came before us by learning about Filipino American history. You can enroll in my class! If you can’t, ask me for my syllabus and study Filipino American history with your family or in a student group.

Two. Together we can preserve Filipino American history for future generations. Leaders of Pilipino American student organizations, please preserve your organizational records by donating these materials to a library, such as the Ethnic Studies Library.

Three. We may not have the skills of a nurse or a physician, but we can contribute to the health of our communities by being an organ, tissue, and bone marrow donor. There is a great need in the broader Asian Pacific Islander community, especially those of mixed race backgrounds, for donors. You can find out more from organizations like Asian American Donor Program and the Association for Multicultural Affairs in Transplantation.

Four. Finally, we can make our voice heard in our political system. According to a recent study by the Oakland-based community organization Filipino Advocates for Justice, “approximately 50 percent of Filipinos capable of voting in the Bay are not registered to vote.” We can encourage one another to vote, and we can urge others to register to vote. Our vote in this election and future elections is Filipino American history in the making.