Celebrating Filipino-American History Month

October is nationally recognized as Filipino-American History Month. Growing up, I never really thought about my Filipino roots because my family is quite “Americanized.” Although my mother and my grandfather’s generations immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, they never had the urgency to replicate “Filipino culture” in the U.S. When I asked my mother one day why she never taught me Tagalog, she told me it was because I never expressed an interest to learn when I was younger. Moreover, I asked her why she never talked about her immigration story. She gave me a similar answer, saying that she also thought I was not interested in those kinds of stories about the family. It seemed like my family was in the Philippines one day and then in the U.S. another day, not elaborating on or acknowledging any of the hardships that went into the immigration process.

I’ve grown up not really understanding one side of my roots, or to put it more explicitly, not really knowing what made me “Filipino.” I did not have the cultural knowledge that some of my classmates had in high school. It was only when I started school at Swarthmore that I cultivated a sense of urgency to reconnect with my Filipino heritage.

As I began doing more research about Filipinos in the U.S., I discovered the significant role that Filipinos and the Philippines played in building the U.S. empire. Firstly, the Philippines never achieved true independence even after it declared sovereignty from Spain on June 12, 1898. This is due to the fact that Spain sold the Philippines to the U.S. for 20 million dollars after losing the Spanish-American War. Right after the hand-over to the U.S., the Philippine-American War began in 1899 and lasted until 1913, leading to one million documented Filipino deaths.

Secondly, under U.S. imperialism, the Philippines became a site for intense U.S. military operations because of the country’s strategic position in Asia. The process of “benevolent assimilation” began so that the Filipino people could be indoctrinated into U.S. liberal ideology. Even today, pop culture and  the military bases and operations around the country serve as a constant reminder of continued U.S. influence in the Philippines.

In the U.S., around the 1920’s and 1930’s, a huge wave of Filipinos migrated over as laborers. This first wave of Filipinos is known as the manong (“older brother” in Ilokano) generation, and they worked mainly on farms.

The manong generation is fondly remembered during Filipino-American History Month for their courage as being the first in their families to leave the Philippines in search for better opportunities. They came to the U.S. at one of the country’s worst times: The Great Depression. Still, the manong generation persisted and laid the foundation for future Filipinos to travel to the U.S. with the same motivation of searching for better opportunities.

For that reason, Filipino-American History Month is an important event to celebrate and to remember. The U.S. empire could have only existed because of the labor of its colonized peoples. This month is about remembering the cruel history of U.S. imperialism in the Philippines as much as it is a celebration of Filipino heritage here in the U.S. We are here because they were there.

As a Filipino-American, I celebrate Filipino-American History Month by remembering how the formation of the Filipino identity is very much linked with U.S. imperialism. My family came to the U.S. because the economic conditions in the Philippines only benefit the top 1% of the nation. Every single day, more and more Filipinos leave their own country in search for better economic opportunities. Families are broken up out of the necessity to survive. Acknowledging the labor of the millions of migrant workers today is a celebration of Filipino-American history.

Furthermore, I choose to celebrate by joining the struggle in the Philippines to fight for genuine democracy. My recent visit to the Philippines showed that U.S. presence in the country actually prevents the country from ever creating better conditions for its people. So many U.S. corporations benefit from tax cuts and the U.S. military still maintains bases and conducts operations in order to maintain hold of the country.

As Filipino-American History Month continues to happen each year, I hope that more and more Filipino-Americans begin to take an interest in their own history and to consider joining a Filipino organization such as Kabataan Alliance (KA) or a chapter of Anakbayan USA (AB). These organizations fight for the rights of Filipinos in the U.S. and in the Philippines as well as provide various resources. Because of my work with these organizations, I have built up a stronger connection with my Filipino heritage through educational discussions and community organizing and I have found a community that I could rely on. Filipino-American History Month is ultimately about unity and community, so as we always say during our rallies: ang tao, ang bayan, ngayon ay lumalaban - the people united will never be defeated.