Aesthetic Distance started in January 2015 by Eliza Romero, a fashion photographer. Since the beginning, Eliza used her blog to showcase her fashion editorials and outfits and each post was accompanied by her musings on pop culture, race-related issues and social justice.
With the star of the evening, author Gina Apostol, at the launch event of Decolonize Your Bookshelves.
Last night’s launch event for Decolonize Your Bookshelves was a success! Turnout was better than expected and I woke up this morning to SO MANY positive messages in my inbox. Seeing people post photos and testimonies about their experience at the event on social media was incredible. Thank you so much to everyone, especially GINA APOSTOL and Enoch Pratt!
Filipino authors are often overlooked within the Asian American genre of literature. A lot more attention is given to East Asian authors. Think of the most mainstream Asian American authors: I’ll bet they’re all Chinese (Amy Tan and Celeste Ng to mind), Korean (Mary HK Choi) or Japanese (of course, Murakami comes to mind).
Filipinos are one of the largest groups of Asian Americans now. We come in as the third biggest, behind Chinese and Indians, but if the U.S. census correctly separated Chinese from Taiwanese, we actually have a larger population than Chinese Americans. We are everywhere, and yet we’re so invisible. So little is known about us. For example — did you know that Filipinos were the first Asians to step foot on American soil? We landed in Morro Bay, California in the 1500s. The first permanent Filipino American settlement was in Louisiana in the 1700s. And did you know that the Colt .45 was created specifically to be able to kill Filipinos?? It’s because the Colt .38 proved too ineffective. Colt manufacturers had to create a whole new gun just to bring us down. I could go on but you get the point. Our history with the U.S. is complicated and dark (and that’s putting it lightly).
Filipinos mistakenly get lumped in with today’s East Asian struggles and issues in America, which is inaccurate because we have a completely different experience and culture. We actually have a lot more in common with Latin Americans. I’ll admit, it’s hard to understand if you’re not Filipino American.
Decolonize Your Bookshelves is not just about diversifying your reads to include more Filipino authors. No, it’s about making our own voices dominant. It’s also about the intersection of literature and activism. In addition to being the launch of this series, last night was also the launch of Malaya Movement Baltimore. It’s no surprise to me that so many Filipino American authors are also activists: Gina Apostol (a fellow convener of Malaya Movement), Carlos Bulosan, the late, great Dawn Mabalon, Gayle Romasanta, Randy Ribay, and Al Robles, just to name a few.
Humans are born to love stories. They are instant generators of interest, empathy, emotion, and intrigue. Stories are one of the best ways to make people care about a cause. They allow us to walk in someone else’s shoes and we can imagine what it’s like to actually be that person. There was a study done that found that literary fiction -- as opposed to non-fiction and sci-fi -- enhanced a skill known as theory of mind, which is the ability to imagine what’s going on in someone else’s head. They found that literary fiction focuses more on the characters’ interior lives than nonfiction does. For example, when people read a novel about a Muslim American woman, they become less likely to make broad assumptions based on race.
Great literature intrinsically holds hope and the possibility of change. No matter how dark the topic might be—and some of civilization’s most important works are dark indeed—great literature is about hope. By asking to be read, literature assumes human potential.
Reading a book (and especially writing one) means believing in openness to change and the possibility of change.
Last night’s event was just the beginning. Because of the great turnout, Enoch Pratt has already approved funding for two more events in this series! I hope to spread this message to more Filipino Americans and that they may start similar book clubs and literary events in their cities. Let’s make this a movement!
Jhong of Malaya Movement, Bayan DMV and Migrante USA opens the program by giving a talk on the situation in the Philippines and the continuing existence of America’s colonialism and interference there. We also showed a video about Malaya Movement’s mission and accomplishments.
Gina Apostol doing a reading from her novel, Insurrecto.
Malaya Movement kasamas and Gina Apostol.
Photo credit: Kelly Dement.
The next confirmed Decolonize Your Bookshelves event is on October 22nd. Grace Talusan is the featured author and will be doing a reading from her latest book, The Body Papers, a memoir about Filipino American identity and sexual abuse.
That’s glitter on my face in case you’re wondering!
I need to keep reminding myself to post my events recaps or upcoming events more often. If you follow me on social media like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, you know that I’m constantly providing updates about anything I’m a part of or hosting. Apologies for falling behind and not posting here on my blog but this girl has been BUSY!
Here is a brief recap of some of the events I was part of this month but didn’t post about (there are literally too many events to post now).
Philippine American Foundation for Charities 2019 PInoy Graduation Showcase. Here I am with my good friend and cohost, Brian Marana.
I cohosted the Philippine American Foundation for Charities 2019 PInoy Graduation Showcase at the University of Maryland - College Park with my good friend, Brian Marana. Graduation showcases are a big thing in the Filipino community and around the country, different cities will host their own showcase. It’s a way to honor all of the year’s graduating middle schoolers, high schoolers, undergraduates, and grad school students. At our showcase, we honored graduates from DC, Baltimore and Anne Arundel County.
At the Philippine Embassy in D.C. for Embassy Day.
In early May, my family and I participated in Embassy Day at the Philippine Embassy in D.C. along with Mabuhay Cultural School, where my kids take Filipino language and dance lessons every Saturday. The event was a display of traditional Filipino folk dancing, food, music, martial arts, and some of the clothing of our indigenous tribes.
The Katipunan Filipino Cultural School
The Katipunan Filipino Cultural School is still going strong! We will be celebrating our three year anniversary this summer (can you believe that??). A few weeks ago, we held our quarterly school session, where we demonstrated how to roll lumpia, how to cook chicken adobo, and how to make Filipino fruit salad. Afterwards, we had an Eskrima demo and lesson from the folks at Kick Connection.
Here are all the events I have coming up in June…
Pilipino Americans for Unity and Progress (UniPro) Summit X - YouTube
On June 1st, I will be speaking at the Pilipino Americans for Unity in Progress (UniPro) Summit in NYC, which celebrates ten years of UniPro history, community, and progress. The summit, which is a multinational forum for Pilipino Young Professionals, Students, and Youth, is an annual conference to congregate Pilipino community leaders. The purpose is to provide a safe space for honest dialogue among young Pilipinos from throughout the world. I’ll be speaking on the Storytelling Panel along with Kristian Kabuay and Ricky Agustin.
On June 2nd, my family and I will be marching with Malaya Movement at the Philippine Independence Day Parade in NYC. The Philippine Independence Day Parade takes place annually along Madison Avenue in NYC. Its main purpose is to create awareness of Philippine culture and to raise funds for charity projects in the Philippines and the U.S.
Philippine Independence Day is widely celebrated among Filipinos in the U.S. and is now a major event for many in our community to rekindle their roots and heritage. The parade in New York City attracts over 100,000 people.
Because Malaya means “free,” our Reyna ng Kalayaan will carry the Philippine Independence Day Parade’s theme and showcase the Philippines’ proud history and future of resisting colonization and defending our people’s freedom.
This is the BIG EVENT. This is the very first Aesthetic Distance live event — the launch of my book club, Decolonize Your Bookshelves! This series of events will focus on Asian American writers who tell stories of struggle and triumph, and explore themes of civil unrest, assimilation, racism, and profound alienation. Because a disproportionate number East Asian writers are represented in the American mainstream compared with other Asians, the club will delve into the works of South and Southeast Asian authors, especially Filipino authors. My goal: thought-provoking discourse that reveal the absolute necessity of these works to the American collective identity.
The initiative will officially launch on June 6th at the Maryland State Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped (415 Park Ave, Baltimore, MD 21201). The first book we will discuss is Insurrecto by Gina Apostol, who is the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award winner and whose works have been reviewed by The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy and others. She is a fellow convener for the Malaya Movement along with me! Gina will be the guest of honor at the launch and in conversation with me about her novel and modern-day American colonialism in the Philippines. This event is in partnership with the Enoch Pratt Library. Greedy Reads will also be on hand to sell copies of the novel, which you can get signed by Gina after her talk.
Literature is a very powerful form of activism. It is an empathy machine but it requires an intersection of a multitude of different forms of activism to create real change. Which is why this event is also the official launch of Malaya Movement Baltimore!
On June 8th, it’s the annual Katipunan Filipino Festival! Since it’s our 50th anniversary, this is going to be an extra special year. We have over 25 food vendors, all selling Filipino food and crowd favorites like halo-halo. We also have 2 stages — an outdoor stage for our DJs and rock bands and an indoor stage for cultural performances, our annual Santacruzan, and the Filipino martial arts demo. We also have a beer garden which will be serving up Filipino beer like San Miguel, Red Horse and Gold Eagle and a fully staffed kids zone with moonbounces, games, arts and crafts, and prizes.
I’m curating the art exhibit at the festival. The title of the exhibit is Our Immigrant Voices and each piece will tell the story of its creator, a Filipino immigrant. One artist is a spoken word artist and she’ll be performing a few pieces that are based on her journey here to the states. Another is a series of photographs about the process of naturalization. Another artist is a painter who came here to the states back in the 1950s at the end of the Jim Crow era in the South, when the bathrooms were labeled for blacks and whites and she didn’t know which bathroom to use. The exhibit is part of a project called Our Immigrant Voices: Locating Filipino Migrants in Maryland, which is directed by Dr. Maryanne Alabanza-Akers and funded by a grant through Maryland Humanities.
On June 22nd, Philippine American Foundation for Charities, along with one of my FAVORITE Filipino restaurants, Kaliwa DC, are putting on the first D.C. Filipino Food Festival! This event will be held at the District Pier at the Wharf in Southwest D.C. There will be Filipino cultural performances, martial arts demos, music, giveaways, prizes, and tons of activities for kids.
*These are just the events that I’m involved in. There are many, many more Filipino events in the Baltimore/DC area. There are Filipino chef pop-ups, kamayan feasts (kamayan means “eating with your hands,” which is the traditional way that Filipinos eat their food), band performances, cultural performances, film festivals, cultural festivals, music festivals, summits and conferences (Filipinos LOVE organizations and holding conferences), and educational events like seminars, lectures, discussion groups, panels, and cultural schools.
We are in an amazing era for Filipino culture now that so many Filipino Americans are coming of age and hungry to reconnect with their heritage and ancestral homeland. Just because I’m not directly involved in an event doesn’t mean I won’t be attending. If you see me around this summer, please come say hi!!
Some of my parents’ immigration and citizenship documents.
Few things motivate me more than anger. While obtaining my dual citizenship in the Philippines has been on my to-do list for the past few years, it was the result of the most recent Philippine midterm elections that really put this project of mine into motion. I felt helpless and that feeling made me angry.
There was some good news though. As of this writing, only 50% of the overseas absentee votes from the U.S. were counted but it was enough to push Kabataan Partylist and Bayan Muna Partylist (two progressive partylists in opposition to the current administration) to the winning margin. It shows how much collective power we Filipinos have, even if we’re outside of the Philippines. Our votes do matter and could swing an election.
My anger quickly turned to hope.
Since The Philippine Dual Citizenship Law, otherwise known as the Citizenship Retention Act of 2003 (Republic Act 9225), was passed by Congress principally as a means to open up the Philippine economy to former Filipinos who are willing to contribute to its growth and development. Once this law was passed, the number of registered overseas voters in the U.S. skyrocketed.
“There are some anecdotes that some [Filipino Americans who are US citizens] would come to the consulate to apply for dual citizenship because they want to vote,’ says deputy consul general Jaime Ramon Ascalon. ‘We have a lot of those. And we only observed that this  registration cycle.” (Maynette Federis, PRI)
Before writing this blog post, my dad and I spent the day looking through his files in order to get all the required documents so that I could proceed. Thanks to his meticulous record-keeping, all of his and my mom’s birth, marriage, immigration and citizenship documents were in one place and intact. Side note: I learned from an affidavit that my mom’s birth name was different from her current one because she was sickly as a child so my grandparents changed her name to hide her from the demons who were making her ill (this was in an actual, notarized, legal document!). I also learned that my dad was baptized by a Canadian priest in Cotabato, a province of Mindanao in the Philippines, and his parents had to get an affidavit to replace his baptism certificate because when he applied for a marriage license decades later, the priest was nowhere to be found and the church where he was baptized was completely destroyed in World War II (the affidavit said the church was destroyed “in the last globacide.”).
It also helps that I found an organization dedicated to helping Filipino-Americans like me get their dual citizenship by claiming our birthright — if at least one of your parents was still a Philippine citizen at the time of your birth, then you can claim jus sanguinis. What this means is that the Philippine government considers you a natural-born Filipino whose parents just failed to report your birth to the authorities.
Since neither of my parents was naturalized at the time of my birth (my mom wasn’t even naturalized until 1994), this makes me eligible. When a friend of mine posted a question about the application process on Facebook, I turned on my notifications so I could follow the replies. One of them came from a woman in NYC who founded the Filipino American Dual Citizenship Initiative (FADCI).
What are the benefits of dual citizenship in the Philippines?
Dual citizenship allows you to vote and be elected or run for public office. Filipino American voters in the U.S. are not at risk of voter suppression and extrajudicial killing as Filipinos are in the Philippines.
You’ll have the ability to stay in the Philippines for as long as you want without a visa or fees. Without a dual citizenship, you can only stay in the country for 1 month before having to apply for a visa & applicable fees.
You can extend all benefits and rights of Philippine citizenship onto your children. For this, your kids need to be under the age of 18 and unmarried. If you miss out on this chance, that window is closed for your kids.
You’ll have the ability to own property. Aside from the opportunity to own your own vacation home (#goals!!!), you may also use it for the future when it is time to retire (more #goals!!!).
The ability to work, do research and/or own a business in the Philippines. This is more for my kids, to be honest. It means if they chose to, they can study in the Philippines without having to pay international student taxes.
You can travel to any ASEAN countries without a visa. These countries include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. Your Philippine passport will actually be better than your U.S. passport when traveling around in Southeast Asia.
The sooner you do it, the better. One of the documents required is an affidavit explaining why your birth wasn’t reported to the Philippine authorities. The older you get, the more it is at the discretion of the government. There are a few rare instances of Filipino Americans getting denied even though their parents are natural-born Filipinos. Fingers crossed that I get approved!
For me, it’s about more than voting rights. It’s about my personal ties to the Philippines and how much I want to strengthen them. Most of my paternal and maternal family is still there. And I want my kids to be Filipino both in ethnicity AND nationality.
I’ll write a follow-up post once I’ve completed the process.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, after criticizing the United States (on literally ANYTHING): “If America is so bad, then how come so many people want to come here?”
Record needle screeeeeeeeeeeech.
It’s time to set the story straight. Not everyone who immigrated to the U.S. actually wanted to come here. My parents didn’t. Naturally, they wanted to stay put in the Philippines with their families and their friends. So why did they move here? It’s time for a history lesson…
After Spain colonized the Philippines for 300 years, there was a huge war in 1898 between the U.S. and Spain. Filipinos fought the Spanish alongside the Americans. This war ended with the Treaty of Paris in which the Philippines, along with Cuba and Guam, were ceded to the United States. The people of the Philippines didn’t welcome the American occupation because they realized they had just been traded from one ruler to another and they (rightfully) wanted their own independence. This led to the absolutely BRUTAL, 3-year-long Philippine American War which set the template for how the United States went on to ruin (oh sorry, democratize and occupy) other nations. All in the name of capitalism and U.S. imperialism (and let’s not forget — the U.S. hatred for all brown people). United States President William McKinley called the war a "benevolent assimilation" but in truth, it was a genocide of our people.
The Philippine American War resulted in the death of over 4,200 American and over 20,000 Filipino combatants. As many as 200,000 Filipino civilians died from violence, famine, and disease. Depending on which account you read, the death toll of Filipinos is sometimes reported to be as high as 1-2 million. It also resulted in the Philippines becoming a colony of the U.S.
The reasons your history books glossed over this war is because it contradicts everything that the U.S. says it stands for when it comes to foreign policy. It also paints the U.S. in an extremely poor light.
After this came what Filipino historian Renato Constantino described as the great "miseducation" of the Filipino people. The U.S. created a public school system in the Philippines and recruited legions of American teachers to teach Filipino children about U.S. history, politics and culture. Academically gifted Filipino men were sent to college in the U.S. In exchange, these pensionados were required to return to the Philippines and serve as teachers, engineers and civil servants.
From a very young age, Filipinos were schooled to admire the U.S. and to think of themselves as Americans. Filipino students were conditioned to equate the United States with civilization, righteousness, and opportunity. Filipino culture, on the other hand, was given little value. With this, a culture of migration took root. When Filipinos arrived in the U.S., they found themselves subject to rampant prejudice and discrimination.
Why did the U.S. do this? Easy answer. Colonial exploitation. The U.S. wanted to get their hands on our cash crops, such as sugarcane. American companies and owners bought farmland to use for export crops. By the twentieth century, the Philippines was exporting so many of its agricultural products and natural resources that it could no longer feed its own inhabitants.
The U.S. also wanted to expand their consumer base by forcing millions of Filipinos to purchase U.S. goods. It was a one-way economic relationship that benefited only the U.S. This, coupled with the U.S.-aided dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, had a direct effect on the underdevelopment of the Philippines that we still see to his day.
The American government supported Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship from 1965 to 1986 so that they could maintain their military bases in the Philippines and prevent another communist government in the region, since this was during the Cold War.
When Reagan took power in 1980, Marcos had already been ruling the Philippines under martial law for eight years, with the full support of former Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. Reagan’s support for an additional six years meant Marcos and his military could rack up more human rights abuses with impunity. (Rhonda Ramiro, Huffington Post)
Marcos’ regime is one of the reasons many Filipinos fled and immigrated here to the U.S.. He looted and economically wrecked the Philippines. Before Marcos took power in 1965, The Philippines was very full of natural resources and its population was English proficient in a time when most Asian nations were not. The Philippines was tipped to become the Japan of Southeast Asia. Marcos spent the next 21 years turning it into a kleptocratic backwater.
So where are we now? Roughly 40% of Filipinos live on $2 a day, while 10% of the nation’s 105 million people work overseas to send money home to an economy lacking in employment opportunities. This is why the Philippines’ biggest export is its human capital. Overseas remittances contributed US$31.29 billion to the Philippine economy in 2017 alone. That’s one-tenth of the country’s entire GDP.
Not surprisingly, the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is an open supporter of Marcos.
In order to understand the reasons for Filipino migration the U.S., you need to understand first that America’s relationship with the Philippines is unequal and much more beneficial to the U.S. economy. It could even be called a labor contract, which is why Filipino immigrants are overrepresented in agriculture and nursing.
Long story short, the reason so many Filipinos immigrate here is because U.S. foreign policy made it necessary to the country’s survival. It has nothing to do with actually “wanting to come here.”
OUR IMMIGRANT JOURNEYS
On Saturday, June 8th, I’m curating an exhibit featuring the works of Filipino and Filipino-American artists who will explore the theme of immigration and tell their own stories through their work. It will take place at the annual Katipunan Filipino Fiesta in Timonium, MD from 11 AM - 6 PM. There will be a spoken word performance by Jenny Lares of the Baltimore Asian Pacific Arts Collective (BAPAC) at 1 PM.
The exhibit is brought to you through a partnership between Katipunan of MD and the MD Humanities Council. Our Immigration Journeys is a project directed by Dr. Maryanne Alabanze-Akers, a dean at Morgan State University and board member of the Katipunan of MD.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
Listen to episode 13 of my podcast. Alvin Camba and I discuss modern day American colonialism in the Philippines. "American imperialism" is seen as an insult, especially to Americans. Americans don't like to think of themselves as imperialists or colonizers because the country was founded after an anti-imperialist revolt. The United States calls itself a republic, but let’s be real — how is it any different?
Episode 13: Modern Day American Colonialism in the Philippines - SoundCloud (1766 secs long, 149 plays)Play in SoundCloud
Here is a great video that explains why there are so many Filipino nurses in the U.S.
Why Are There So Many Filipino Nurses In The U.S.? | AJ+ - YouTube
You can also read these books to delve deeper. #DecolonizeYourBookshelves
Photo c/o Bayan USA. If you’re the photographer or know who is, please let me know so I can give them proper credit.
Gut instinct, I knew that the 2019 Philippine midterm elections that took place on Monday, May 13th would be a shitshow. But I hoped for the best anyway. The day after the elections, I woke up to check social media and was disappointed and angry but worse…I wasn’t at all surprised.
WHY WERE THE MIDTERM ELECTIONS SO IMPORTANT?
These elections were a crucial battleground because the Senate is one of the only governing bodies that President Rodrigo Duterte didn't have control over (he already has Congress and the Supreme Court). And 12 of the 24 seats were decided. Even though these elections had no effect on the national leadership, they were considered a referendum to his administration. The big fear is that with Duterte winning two-thirds vote in the Senate, he will be able to consolidate his power and gain complete control of the government.
The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) recently put out a list of reasons why the elections were so important to the Philippines and they included:
the possibility of another dictatorship and nationwide martial law
the possibility of charter change, which is another way of saying constitutional reform (e.g. doing away with term limits for politicians)
the possibility of federalism, like the removal of an anti-political dynasty law and more foreign control of the country’s many natural resources
more anti-poor, anti-people policies getting passed
CHEATING, ELECTION CODE VIOLATIONS, TECHNICAL MALFUNCTIONS, AND VOTER DISENFRANCHISEMENT
The midterm election's credibility is now at stake. Below are the most egregious examples of fraud and cheating that took place all over the country on Monday, May 13th. Let it be known: these were the complete opposite of free and honest elections.
Election watchdog group known as Kontra Daya received reports of death threats, harassment and red-tagging all over the country. The watchdog also reported more than 288 incidents and according to them, the violations this time are even worse than the 2016 elections. The most common complaints were vote counting machine failures and errors.
The Commission on Elections (COMELEC) has just admitted that 600 machines have been replaced because of malfunction. COMELEC is being called on to explain why their transparency server, which is supposed to provide election results to the public in real time wasn't updated for several hours. This is different from the elections in 2013 and 2016 when vote results were provided to the public all day long as they came in. Now, the government has spent billions of taxpayer money to automate the voting process, which is supposed to be the quick and transparent way of counting votes. They had 3 years to work on this process, which is plenty of time for them to get it right. So, the added problem to this lack of transparency in vote counting is that it creates disenfranchisement and discouragement of voters due to widespread delays and machine errors.
Philippine National Police or the PNP, passed out fake newspapers, which they called tabloids, that vilified progressive party-list groups by saying that they were fronts for communism. This took place at Geronimo Elementary School in Sampaloc, Manila, Siquijor, Palawan and Cebu.
Death threats were sent to members and supporters of opposition candidates in the form of text messages.
In Caloocan City, Makabayan volunteer Manuel Ferrer received death threats and was tagged as a supporter of the NPA.
In Quirino, Isabela and Cagayan Valley provinces, Makabayan coordinators received death threats from four cell phone numbers, and those numbers were reported in The Northern Dispatch and Bulatlat.
Agnes Mesina, who is a regional coordinator and national council member of Makabayan, said their leaders and members received messages threatening them not to vote or something bad would happen to their families.
Duterte spent government funds to support candidates that are loyal to his administration and then went on record to say that buying votes is an integral part of Philippine elections.
Voting machines were rigged. When several people voted for progressive party-list candidates, their receipts showed a different name.
There was intimidation of voters at several polling centers. These include telling voters in BayBay and Leyte that the receipts can reveal who voted for progressive party-list groups. Supporters were then told they could be tailed to their homes and become targets of the Synchronized Enhanced Management Police Operations (SEMPO), which is the operation responsible for the deaths of the Negros 14.
In Baguio City, police station 5 shared false information on its Facebook page about the supposed disqualification of Makabayan Party-lists.
Anakpawis Regional Coordinator Isabelo Adviento said that elements of 17th Infantry Battalion of the Philippine Army openly campaigned against Neri Colmenares and other party-list members of the progressive Makabayan bloc.
In Cagayan Valley, poll watchers of Colmenares were barred from entering the precinct.
In Metro Manila, it was reported that almost 300 people had been arrested due to vote-selling and buying in five different cities leading up to the actual election day.
"Let the mistakes of this election season serve as lessons on how we assess the political landscape in our society. With issues such as federalism, tax reform, environmental degradation, and the country’s relationship with China poised to become even hotter in the next 3 years, we need to be even more vigilant than ever. We need to hold our government officials accountable for their actions." (John Leo, Rappler)
Take a selfie with a message: “I support democracy in the Philippines. No to electoral fraud!!” “Fight electoral fraud! I stand for transparency and democracy!” Make sure to tag @malayamovement.
Make phone calls to the Philippine Consulate/Embassy. Express your concerns on fraudulent elections and demand and end to political repression. See the list of actions for details, including a detailed script for your phone call.
If you are in the DC/Baltimore area on May 17th, join us at the Embassy of the Philippines in D.C. at 6:30 PM.
Panelists (L-R): Chris Jesu Lee, Sharon Tran, Marissa Rodriguez, Mekita Rivas, Fran Del Rosario, Eliza Romero, Gem Daus. CityLit Festival 2019.
This past weekend was the 16th annual CityLit Festival in Baltimore, MD. I was in charge of choosing the topic for a discussion panel, finding panelists, and then moderating the panel. My panel was “Your Classics Aren’t My Classics! Deconstructing Literary Canon for Asian Americans.” If you missed it, I was also on NPR’s On the Record talking about my hopes for the panel along with CityLit Project executive director, Carla DuPree.
At the NPR studio with Carla DuPree and Sheilah Kast, host of On the Record.
What we consider classics combined with the lack of representation in academia and publishing has made it so that only white writers are ever considered canon. I grew up thinking that the most important books were written by white men. I mean, it only makes sense, right? The books assigned in American schools run the gamut from Shakespearean dramas to Victorian romances. We learn about the punishments of Puritan society, lovesick Jazz Age tycoons and the plight of white migrant farmers in the American southwest.
But how many migrant farmers are white anymore? What about the fact that the first Filipinos arrived on U.S. soil in the 1500s? And did you know that 1 in 7 Asian Americans is undocumented? Where are their stories?
It's not unusual. White men have always been the ones defining American culture. And the message they've been sending us for centuries is that Great Literature is White Literature. In my discussion panel, we deconstructed that idea — for Asian Americans, especially. And it wasn’t just about diversifying our own literary canon, we talked about making our own voices dominant.
When I was growing up, it was almost impossible to find a book written by an Asian American. The 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner, Viet Thanh Nguyen, wrote in the New York Times about how white literary critics basically erased Asian American literary canon by saying that authors like him are “finally giving voice to the voiceless.” To him, Asian Americans were never voiceless, we just weren't being heard.
Racism in literature manifests itself in myriad ways: characters whose personalities are reduced to their accents, cultural dress or foods; brown or black characters “rescued” by white saviors; the “surprising” friendship between a white character and a character of color; or, a white character’s journey to a “foreign” or “third world” country in search of enlightenment. These narratives, some of the most common and enduring in literature, exist mainly to service and conform to the white gaze. And yet they are rarely deemed problematic in book reviews. The reason why has everything to do with who is writing those reviews.
The western or white gaze is unimaginative, misrepresentative, and often harmful. Unfortunately, most white critics, if they recognize it at all, will attempt to disguise its presence in reviews with race-neutral language. This is bad for both author and reader, because it excuses and perpetuates racial stereotypes and racist narratives. Such devices, which serve only to create emotional and intellectual distance, are ultimately failures of craft.
Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere. For example, poverty enlightenment, a popular theme in narratives about white people traveling to brown or black countries, is similarly problematic when looked at through an anti-colonialist lens. Soniah Kamal, in a review of the Julie Feldon’s Karma Gone Bad (a memoir that proudly evinces its colonialist gaze in the title), notes that the author “sees beauty in the world after meeting a slum family, interacting with an orphan girl, and seeing a little barefoot errand boy. Does Feldon experience the same beauty when witnessing poverty in the US?
Marie G. Lee’s 1992, Finding My Voice, was the first Asian American young adult ever published. Her road to publication was filled with struggle and white liberal hypocrisy.
Young Adult (YA) literature is an often overlooked but important genre. For a lot of young people, this is the age when they really start to discover a love of reading. They also turn to books to explore some of the topics that they might not necessarily feel comfortable talking to their parents or friends about. Like romance. This is why a lot of YA involves some sort of first love theme in their coming of age stories.
This is the story of Finding My Voice, the first Asian American young adult novel ever published:
In 1992, the first teen novel was released by a major publisher with a contemporary Asian American protagonist by an Asian American author. It was called Finding My Voice and it was written by Marie Myung-Ok Lee, also known as Marie G. Lee. If her name sounds familiar, she's also the founder of the nonprofit, Asian American Writers Workshop (AAWW). Her road to publication was a major struggle. Her agent sent it out over and over again over the course of a year and it kept getting rejected. Back then, everyone's idea of diversity was basically really superficial, an all white cast of characters but throw in an Asian person or a black person for color. And if a novel did focus on a character's race or ethnicity, it was only done in the form of historical fiction, It was made absolutely clear that publishers were rejecting her manuscript not because of genre, but because of race. Because of her very blunt treatment of race, particularly Asian American, literary agents found it off-putting. The book deals with the main character, Ellen Sung, and her abuse by small town white racists and a lot of other tough issues. It's strange for us to think about because a YA novel like that would probably be in high demand in today's market and the search for authenticity and “our own voices.”
When you think about that kind of bias in the entire publishing industry, that is the reason why you barely ever saw any novels that focused on being a person of color in contemporary America. You know, there are a few generations that were completely erased and had no representation at all. It wasn't because nobody was writing these stories. There were lots of authors like Marie G. Lee who were doing it. They were straight up rejected.
In retrospect, Marie G .Lee's novel has faced criticism about it being way too stereotypical. It's very much like the unfair treatment of Joy Luck Club. Breaking ground meant being everything to everyone. Everyone wants to attack it. It's impossible to meet everyone's expectations.
Marie G. Lee is a pioneer in Asian American literature. She also wrote one of the first YA novels that explored the traumatic and often negative effects of transracial adoption -- specifically, Korean adoptees into white families. Her work is some of the first to straddle that line between YA and prestigious literature.
(Special thanks to Gabrielle Moss for telling Marie G. Lee’s story in her book, Paperback Crush.)
At the end of the panel, I opened up the floor so the audience could ask questions and comment on the discussion. One man in the back said that he grew up in a very bookish family and that his parents were very dedicated to making sure all voices were represented in the stories they read together — Black, Native, Latino, LGBT, etc. But not once did they read a book by an Asian or Asian American author. He said looking back, his experience spoke volumes about the erasure and invisibility of Asians in not just literature, but all forms of media. We just weren’t even part of the conversation.
I really hope that the takeaways from my discussion panel are an understanding of why there historically have been no Asian American stories in literature and I hope everyone understands their own power as consumers of books and literature. There is a ton of collective influence on the demand side. I also hope that the educators in the audience were able to come away with an understanding of how important it is to assign more Asian American nonfiction and fiction works to their students and not just at the college level -- at the elementary school, middle school and high school levels.
Racial mirroring is everything to a child and sets the stage for a healthy relationship with their race and ethnic identity. After all, literature is one of the most powerful forms of activism.
Me and Chris Jesu Lee (Oxford Kondo) listening intently during the discussion panel.
There are so many ways to engage in social justice and activism. Some are splashy and fast and will get lots of attention. Others require meticulous organizing and planning and long-term commitments. I’m interested in both. At the end of the day, all that hard work and hope also bring joy. Joy isn’t the same thing as fun. Joy in being part of a movement, joy in the sense of belonging to a caring community, joy in living your life with purpose, joy in the knowledge that the world will be a better place because of your efforts, passion and commitment.
Last weekend, more than 350 people from various organizations and individuals came from different cities from across the United States to participate in one of the largest political summits gathering Filipinos in the U.S. at the National Summit for Human Rights and Democracy in Philippines in Washington D.C. to unite against the fascist Duterte administration.
“This was the largest gathering of Filipinos in the U.S. against a fascist dictatorship of a President of the Philippines since the Marcos Martial Law era, this time against the rising dictatorship of President Rodrigo Duterte.” said Roger Rigor, a Malaya National Convener and Marcos era anti-martial law activist. “There are too many similarities, too many deaths in such a short amount of time. The people are scared and angry and want to take action. We saw this great opportunity to unite with people from across political differences against our one common enemy.”
President Duterte’s death toll from the infamous drug war has swiftly risen to reach 30,000 deaths in nearly three years.
“In fact, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism and insurgency have converged upon the poor, lumad, and peasant communities. In Compostela Valley they have killed peasant and Lumad leaders in the name of the War on Drugs. Independent sources put the figure at 30,000 including killings from vigilantes. Today the government admits failure of the drug war and so the killing shall continue, almost every day in Cebu there is a killing,” stated Father Ben Alforque the Keynote Speaker for the Summit and a leading convener of the church-based Filipino group, Rise Up for Life and for Rights, a network of advocates and families of victims of drug-related killings in the Philippines.
Unfortunately, Rappler CEO and Time Person of the Year Maria Ressa was unable to deliver her keynote speech in person due to Duterte’s attacks on press freedom arresting her upon returning to the Philippines from the U.S. on March 29th, 2019, making that her eighth charge as well as a conflict in her schedule. She was able to send a video statement on how the Duterte government has attacked press freedom and her own experience at Rappler:
“The Philippines is a country where we can win this battle for truth, we can continue to strengthen our democracy, but we cannot do this alone. It begins first with news groups coming together to protect the facts, it’s important that we stand for the principles of a free press that we defend press freedom that not only should we be able to speak and to write what we see but that that should be done without repercussion.”
Activists defend Philippine press freedom, protest President Duterte at Malaya Movement summit - YouTube
The Summit provided 10 different panel workshops on topics such as: the human rights crisis in the Philippines, the impacts of Duterte’s economic policies on Filipino migrants and workers, defending press freedom, the rights of Indigenous and Moro people under martial law in Mindanao, Philippine Sovereignty and the West Philippine Sea, the #BabaeAko movement in resisting Duterte’s attacks on women, the youth-led Rise 4 Rights campaign, faith in action against dictatorship, and films bridging stories for social change, and the people’s resistance.
“Planning this summit, we knew we wanted to gather people from across the country against the fascist Duterte government, and we knew we wanted people to move together even beyond attending, so that it’s both educational, engaging, participatory and action oriented.” commented Malaya Arevalo, Malaya Movement National Secretariat member.
Following the panel workshops there was a plenary titled, “What can we do? What is the alternative?” featuring Dr. Dante Simbulan, Dr. Alma Trinidad (National Convenor of the MALAYA Movement), Eric Lachica (Washington DC Coordinator of US Filipinos for Good Governance), and Father Ben Alforque (Convenor of Rise Up for Life and for Rights), Bernadette Ellorin (National Spokesperson of BAYAN USA, an overseas chapter of BAYAN Philippines, and an alliance of 29 progressive and anti-imperialist Filipino organizations).
The closing of the Summit culminated in discussing and uniting on a Declaration of Unity amongst the organizations and participants to first and foremost “Oust President Duterte!” to “End all U.S. Aid to the Philippines” to “Stop the Killings in the Philippines” to “End Contractualization” to “Uphold the Freedom of Press” to “Defend Philippine Sovereignty Against all Foreign Powers,” among other resolutions on demands and actions moving forward beyond the Summit.
At the end of the first day of the Summit, they then mobilized in full force to the Philippine Embassy and Consulate to join the BAYAN USA-led action against the murder of 14 farmers in Negros Philippines this week and called for the ousting of President Duterte.