Asian Pacific American History Month: Personal Reflections

By: Allan Aquino

1) APAHM 2016: Opening Thoughts on Identity, Along with Some Fundamental Info

The origin of Asian Pacific Heritage Month (APAHM) can be traced to the late 70s when, under the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the first week of May was recognized by Congress as a special Heritage Week in honor of the history and contributions of Asian Pacific Islander Americans (APIs). The month of May was selected in honor two key events in American history: first, the earliest documented presence of Japanese immigrants in the U.S. in May of 1843, and, second, the completion of the transcontinental railroad by Chinese Americans in May of 1869. By the early 1990s, this celebration was expanded to a month-long celebration under the administration of President George Bush, Sr.

As far back as I can remember I’ve been asked the question, “What are you?” by curious strangers. I have an ambiguous phenotype and have been mistaken as Latino, Samoan, American Indian, African American, or multiracial. Curiosity is natural, and most of those scenarios have mostly been innocuous though, on some occasions, microaggressive and disconcerting. Most people, if asked that question, might instinctively reply by declaring their ethnic background. I, for instance, usually say, “I’m Filipino”. Like most people, I wouldn’t necessarily offer “Asian American” as my first answer. But if one were to ask me, “Are you Asian American?”, or, “Do you consider yourself Asian Pacific American?” I’d say yes. Absolutely, yes. And yet, as per the complex rule-breaking dynamics of Filipino American racial and ethnic identity, I might clarify that “my people”, depending upon social context, may also plausibly be considered Pacific Islanders or Latinos. (More on that later.)

Now, I am an Asian American Studies professor, not an Asian Studies professor. I am by no means an expert on any one Asian culture. And this is (what I call) my five-second summary of Asian history: hundreds of years of Asians trying to kill each other. But despite that history, descendants of various Asian cultures whose ancestors may well have been historic enemies find a common foundation as Asian Americans. What defines an Asian American identity is not a matter of ancestral national origins, it’s not ethnic backgrounds, it’s not a homogenous “Asian culture”, or race, or physical experience.

Asian Americans are defined by common social and historical experiences in America. We are all descendants of transnational immigrants, our families came to America in search of opportunities and a better life, we’ve all faced enormous odds – all the many layers and intersections of marginalization and overt oppression. Yet, despite it all, we’ve settled here, we built lives and communities here, and we’ve accomplished all this in solidarity with one another. We are not, to quote Prof. Ronald Takaki, “strangers from a different shore”. We’ve been here since the 1500s. We helped build this society. We are
everywhere. We are everything.

2) “Latinos of Asia”: What Makes the Pinoy (Filipina/o American) Identity Unique

My parents emigrated from the Philippines in 1971. I was born in Chicago in 1974 and moved to the Los Angeles area around 1979. Growing up, I always had a large extended family comprised of Filipino American and Chicano elders; during my earliest years, I had a fundamental consciousness of that common value in Pinoy and Chicano culture: everyone within reach is a potential relative, and whether or not they’re blood relatives is incidental. It is common knowledge to both communities that family is not a matter of race or DNA – it’s all about whom you love and share your life with most.

Like many brown-skinned kids raised in L.A. what I wanted most was to belong. I was educated in a largely Eurocentric school system that had little regard for the histories and cultures of nonwhite peoples. My sense of ethnic identity was so compromised that by the time I was six I was already a self-hating Filipino. I insisted to my parents that I was American (code for honorary white), and I was overtly ashamed of my family and my dominantly Filipino and Mexican immigrant neighborhood. The stories and experiences of Filipinos, much like our Chicano gente, have always been ignored in histories and pop culture as if we didn’t matter or were best kept invisible. Even in today’s Asian American paradigm Filipinos are referred to as the “forgotten Asians” (despite the fact that there’s so damn many of us!). When people think “Asian”, they often think Chinese, Japanese, or Korean; and, on top of that, many non-Filipinos even consider us more geographically displaced Latinos than “Asians”.

I was awakened to my sense of identity and ethnic pride when I began my life at Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN). I was an incoming freshman in the Fall of 1992. I made quick friends with classmates affiliated with student groups like the Filipino American Student Association, MEChA and, later on, the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP). During that first semester I made my first connection with the CSUN Asian American Studies Department, who brought as a distinguished guest speaker Philip Vera Cruz, the former Vice President and highest-ranking Filipino member of the United Farm Workers. That particular experience defined my life and my destiny.

Through pure storytelling Manong Philip, as we called him, told me about Filipinos who’d immigrated to America in the early 20th century, working in agricultural fields and providing domestic services, essentially taking on the kinds of jobs and livelihoods the average U.S. citizen didn’t want. Alongside their Mexican neighbors and extended family relatives, I learned that brown kids like me were not a simple by-product of aliens from a foreign culture. My Filipino and Mexican family communities, since the earliest decades of U.S. history, built this society. We have always been an integral part of it. We deserve dignity and respect as much as anyone.

Manong Philip Vera Cruz told me about his contemporaries like the great militant Larry Itliong, who began organizing Filipino and Mexican laborers by way of strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations as early as the 1920s. And even amidst the Great Depression, Pinoys and Chicanos struggled and fought for a better life for their community families; interestingly, while the rest of America starved, there were no Pinoys or Chicanos in the bread lines begging for assistance. As our communities know, no matter how poor we are, no matter how much we struggle, what’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine, and as long as we stick together as a family we’ll not only survive, we will live rich and joyful lives.

Inspired by Manong Philip I got into Ethnic Studies at CSUN. In 1995 I declared a Special Major in Comparative Ethnic Histories, and though most of my classes were based in the Asian American Studies Department, I took classes in American Indian Studies, what was then known as Pan-African Studies and, of course, Chicano Studies. I was fortunate to take courses on the history of Mexico and Chicano history, most notably with our community father and elder statesman Prof. Rodolfo Acuna. Now, prior to taking Rudy’s class I’d studied Filipino American history and culture quite extensively and was already an assistant in the Asian American Studies Department’s Filipino American Experience class. When I took Rudy’s class, I was amazed at how easily and effortlessly I empathized with and wholly appreciated Chicano social and historical experiences. I felt as if I was studying Filipino American history all over again, and it was a most awesome experience.

On that note, let me geek out over my fascinations with history and culture. Allow me to articulate how Pinoys and Chicanos share so much more of a common and singular history and culture than we realize. I’ve been teaching the Filipino American Experience class for 15 years, and though I’ve always had Chicano students, one of the first things I tell the Filipino kids is, “If you claim Pinoy pride, you’ve got a lot of Mexican in you and you probably don’t know it!”

Most of us know that the Philippines and Mexico were occupied by the Spanish Catholic empire since the 1500s. We know that Pinoys and Chicanos share common Spanish surnames and cultural traditions anchored in everyday things like religion, special holidays, culinary traditions, and vocabulary words. When I talk about the Spanish occupation of the Philippines, I clarify that statement by insisting we were occupied by Spain by way of Mexico and Central America. When it came to key economic and military decisions in the Philippines, the Viceroy of Mexico called the shots, and not so much the Spanish emperor. Beginning in the 1500s the Spanish empire established the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade in order to enslave the Philippines and import goods from China and India to the Spanish imperial territories. Filipino slaves, Christianized indigenous Malayo-Polynesian people, were called “indios” along with all other indigenous peoples of the Americas. Filipino indios played a key role in physically building Spanish territories in California, Mexico, and Central America. Likewise, enslaved indigenous peoples of Mexico, referred to in Nahuatl as “Huachinangos” were “exported” out of cities like Guadalajara and Acapulco as slaves in the Philippines. So as early as the 1500s there were Filipinos in Mexico, there were Mexicans in the Philippines, and all through time we’ve contributed to one another’s cultures and, ultimately, to a shared culture, a shared history, and a shared identity. Filipinos undeniably have Southeast Asian and Malayo-Polynesian roots; we got some Chinese and Indian and Arabian heritage in us. But our Mexican roots are key to defining what makes us unique as well as more in common with our Chicano gente than most people realize.

Throughout our lives in the United States, Pinoys and Chicanos lived out loud and side by side: boxing is a common sport and martial art in our communities; Pachuco culture and the Zoot Suit aesthetic, which some call West Coast hip-hop or urban fashion, is another commonality; many ingredients in our diet are mutual – Filipino food employs annatto seeds from the Yucatan, while Philippine mangos are grown in Mexico and ultimately imported to Chicano produce markets. Though Filipinos born in the twentieth century are not as fluent in Spanish as our forebears (my grandparents and eldest aunts and uncles were Spanish-fluent), we literally share elements of common language. For example, in Filipino language we call our aunties Tita; in Mexican, we say Tia. We call our mothers Nanay; in Mexican, we might say Nana. Both languages say Lola, which comes from abujuela, when referring to our grandmothers. Most of my life I assumed those were Tagalog words; only through Ethnic Studies did I learn those words are from Nahuatl – ergo, to listen to a conversation in Filipino language is to listen to wondrous inflections of Mexican culture. It is also through Ethnic Studies, even beyond my initial experience with Philip Vera Cruz, that I studied and eventually shared a working knowledge of the common history and culture of Pinoys and Chicanos upon which our common struggle was always built.

Around 1996, in a casual conversation I had with Prof. Acuna we came to talk about the UFW. With his trademark charm and enthusiasm Rudy said to me, “You Filipinos were the crazy ones!”, which he meant with tremendous respect and affection. As he himself wrote about in his landmark book Occupied America, Larry Itliong and the Filipinos of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) had physically battled the police and corrupt agribusiness officials well before they began collaborating with Dolores Huerta, ultimately reaching out Cesar Chavez and the NFWA to form the United Farm Workers movement that changed American labor history forever. Let us not forget the very reason it’s called the United Farm Workers movement is because 5,000 Chicanos united with 2,000 Pinoys.

It is obvious why, to quote my colleague Prof. Anthony Ocampo, many Pinoys and Chicanos alike refer to Filipinos as “the Latinos of Asia”. Filipinos, much like our Chicano and Latino gente, constantly break the rules and conventions of race and simplistic ethnic categories. Our very existence challenges a lot of stereotypes. And though Filipinos share common social and historical experiences in America with our fellow Asian Pacific Americans (we are API, after all), our common roots with our Chicano gente must never be denied. I for one feel it’s a true source for pride and celebration. When I claim “Pinoy pride” it is because I see myself, my history, and my heritage intertwined with and reflective of everyone in my community family amidst, as well as regardless of, what intersections of race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation define us. To quote my community brother Jonah De Ocampo, better known as the rapper Bambu: “Our people are the same, it’s [only] a map that divides us”.

3) …But Back to My API Identity:

Although I am undeniably proud of my Filipino American heritage, I stand completely united with my East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Island peoples. But even before I claim my “Filipinoness” or my “Asian Pacificness”, in my heart I am first a Los Angeleno. My sense of home and purpose, the language I speak, the food I eat, how I live my daily life – I share so much more in common with my fellow residents than with any of my kin in the Philippines.

The purpose of the month of May is not for APIs to retreat into ourselves, but to explore and share our stories with everyone. To celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage Month is to celebrate the meaning of civilization. To be truly Asian American is to stand in communion with all people and all issues pertaining to social justice and the end of oppression. We are ultimately one community and there is no separateness when it comes to social justice. If you claim an API identity but fail to empathize with issues ranging from education and the attacks on Ethnic Studies, the Black Lives Matter Movement, gender equality, the continuing epidemic of transphobia and homophobia, or the pervasive homelessness in Los Angeles, one of the wealthiest cities in history — then you truly need a critical self-examination of your own identity.

I conclude by quoting Manong Philip Vera Cruz: “Leadership is only incidental to The Movement… The Movement must go beyond its leaders… It must be something that is continuous, with goals and ideas that the leadership can then build upon… If more young people could just get involved in the important issues of social justice, they would form a golden foundation for the struggle for all people to improve their lives.”

Allan Aquino is a poet and professor of Asian American Studies at California State University, Northridge. Information on his work may be found at