From “Isang Bagsak” to #FilipinxForBlackLives, the Filipino Identity Has Always Been Political

Abby Pasion
9 min readNov 3, 2020

Our mere existence as Filipinos, and the greater, collective struggle we are all bound to, is overwhelmingly political by nature.

Photo of Larry Itliong via United Farm Workers & Photo of Filipinx 4 Black Lives Matter by Geoff Cordner (geoffcordner.com)

“Fun fact, if you weren’t born in the Philippines then you aren’t Filipino. You may look Filipino, you may speak Filipino, but you don’t think like one. Stop making everything a political problem.”

— Sincerely, some random guy in my DMs.

If you’re as vocal on social media as I am about the state of Philippine and U.S. politics, receiving random, aggressive messages or criticisms of the authenticity of my Filipino identity is nothing new. When engaging in any sort of discourse over social media, these kinds of responses essentially come with the territory. Typically, the main point of argument always seems to stem from the fact that everything is “so political,” and that is somehow a problem.

Well, to the random guy in my DMs, I have a fun fact for you, too: The Filipino identity has always been political, and we’ve got the receipts to show it.

The colonization of the Philippine islands by Spain for over 300 years — colonizers who originated the term “Filipino” to begin with — to then later be sold off to the United States for a mere $20 million, is political. The continued displacement of indigenous communities in the Philippines is political. The People Power movements of both past and present are political. Even the statement on what dictates who gets to be considered “Filipino” or not is political.

Our history as Filipinos and Filipino Americans is undoubtedly rooted in politics, but even that narrative leaves room for criticism. The looming remnants of colonialism and imperialism are absolutely real, and yet, we are also more than just victims of the dark side of history.

We are revolutionaries, leaders, and the writers of our own history. Being political is inherently part of who we are as Filipinos, and a deep testament to our sense of self.

”IT’S IN OUR BLOOD” — A HISTORY OF ACTIVISM

In this house, we “know history, know self” — famous words by Philippine national hero, José Rizal. To understand the political nature of our Filipino identity and the lineage of activism that our modern day kababayans stem from, we must dive back into the chapters of our past. After all, as Rizal says, “a person who does not look back from where he came would not be able to reach his destination.”

Kabataan Alliance National President, Kenneth Crebillo

For Kenneth Crebillo — National President of Kabataan Alliance, a collective of Filipino youth dedicated to advocacy for the rights and welfare of our global kababayan — activism and challenging the status quo is nothing new to the Filipino people.

Conveying his thoughts to me through a virtual space, Crebillo passionately speaks of Philippine revolutionaries like José Rizal, La Liga Filipina, the Katipunan, and later the youth of Kabataan Makabayan who supported the organizing of peasants and labor workers to resist and fight against the Marcos regime. Crebillo views this history as paving the way for contemporary organizers in the Philippines who continue the fight for justice, human rights, and welfare in this modern era. “Nasa dugo natin,” Crebillo exclaims, “it’s in our blood!”

Beyond the archipelago, Filipinos in the U.S. have manifested an entire organizing culture of their own, one which pays homage to and centers on a single, unifying phrase from one particular movement of the past: “Isang Bagsak!”

Translating to “One Down,” it was Filipino farmworker and militant labor activist Larry Itliong who introduced the Tagalog saying to fellow activist and organizer, César Chávez, during the era of the 1960s U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Itliong and Chávez utilized the phrase to create the “unity clap,” a practice that would join both Filipino and Latino migrant workers together after a long day in the fields — communicating across language barriers — to further their cross-cultural fight for farmworker’s rights.

Starting slow, like the pace of a heartbeat, the clap would grow faster, stronger, and louder. Eventually building up to a chorus of applause, someone cries out “ISANG BAGSAK!” to signal a unified front — to fall and rise together — before ending with a final, collective clap.

A tradition born over fifty years ago from grapes and solidarity, the unity clap is still vastly utilized in community organizing spaces today — from Filipino student organizations to professional conferences and marches — though it has transformed greatly from its original purpose as a simple rallying tool. Tony DelaRosa, Filipinx educator and spoken word poet, describes the phrase more as a way of being, focusing on the interconnectedness we share not only as Filipinos, but as a humanity.

“Let Isang Bagsak be our commitment to cross-coalition, cross-solidarity,” DelaRosa enthusiastically conveys.

Personal photograph — provided by Derek Estrella, Samahang Pilipino Cultural Night 2016

It is this unwavering resolve that has become a driving force for many Filipino activists, leaders, and organizers who refuse to remain silent when faced with injustice or adversity. “When our similarities fall together,” DelaRosa continues, “we are able to move mountains forward.”

THE SPIRIT OF “ONE DOWN”

Indeed, we have seen that resolve of Isang Bagsak manifest throughout our history, beginning with the founding of the United Farm Workers Union by Itliong and Chávez in 1965.

We also saw that manifestation during the San Francisco State College walk-out of 1968, the longest student strike in U.S. history. Filipino students played a prominent role during the walk-out, joining forces with other Asian, Black, Chicano and Latino groups to form the Third World Liberation Front, which eventually led to the establishment of the first and only College of Ethnic Studies in the nation at the time.

In 2020, that same, cross-coalition resolve can still be seen running deep within the movement for Black Lives Matter, with groups like Kabataan Alliance or Malaya aligning in solidarity to condemn state-sanctioned violence and call out issues of anti-blackness within our Filipino communities.

Even right here, in the work of One Down LLC, we see Isang Bagsak manifesting in our commitment to redefining and critically challenging what it means to be Filipino in today’s modern world.

Central Washington University FASA member, Deanna Corsilles

It is clear that Filipinos have always been active players in U.S. politics and the movers behind some of the most important social movements in history. After all, the theme for Filipino American History Month this October is “The History of Filipino American Activism.” Contrary to the model minority myth of keeping our heads down and staying clear of controversial situations, Filipinos have time and time again positioned themselves at the forefront of these movements, both in the Philippines and in the global diaspora. Oftentimes even, it is the young people who we see carrying the spirit of “One Down” forward into the next generation.

“Andrés Bonifacio was in his late 20’s and Emilio Jacinto at 19, and wrote the theories of revolution and conduct of guerilla warfare (during the Philippine revolution),” Crebillo explains, further stressing the pivotal role and responsibility of young people in political and social movements. “Youth were some of the most oppressed during the Marcos era, which was also corresponding at the same time as the Anti-War movement here in the U.S. Today, youths like Greta Thunbberg are making waves in environmental justice work, and there are thousands of youth organizing for Black lives, now more than ever.”

Thinking about the Kabataan Alliance, where the organization’s work is propelled completely by the drive of young people, Crebillo is grounded in the belief that as much as the youth have always been key in ensuring the sustainability of any movement, it is also the youth who will inherit the action — or inaction — of that movement as well.

To Crebillo, moving the work forward with the understanding of the legacy you will leave behind, is what it means to embody Isang Bagsak. Crebillo urges us all to remember, “we aren’t just fighting for our own sakes alone, but for those after us.”

THE POLITICAL IS PERSONAL

But, why must everything be political? — Ah yes, I can hear the online aggressors contentiously typing away at their keyboards already.

To put it simply: our mere existence as Filipinos, and the greater, collective struggle we are all bound to (such as colonialism, capitalism, and white supremacy), is overwhelmingly political by nature. Actively choosing to ignore this salient aspect of who we are not only reinforces the privileges we hold, even as a minority group, but ultimately disregards the rich, revolutionary history of our people and the work of those who came before in order for us to have a political platform of any kind to begin with.

Jiemyjoyce Reduque, a student from Oregon State University and current Chief of Staff for the Northwest Filipino American Student Alliance (NWFASA), says that there is a responsibility which falls upon all of us to immerse ourselves in that history and unpack those pieces of our identity. “Filipinos are very proud of our culture. But we can’t just pick and choose the parts of our culture that we’re going to acknowledge,” says Reduque.

When asked about the importance of Filipino-Americans remaining vocal on issues affecting the homeland, such as advocating for the Philippines Human Rights Act in response to the recently-passed Anti-Terror Law, Reduque responds with a sentiment that many Filipinos in the diaspora may resonate with as well.

“As ‘Americans’ we are questioned if we really have a place in speaking out about [Philippine] politics and society because we don’t live there. We are told that this isn’t our fight and we shouldn’t be butting into politics in the Philippines, but it’s the lives and voices of our families who are still impacted and suppressed. There is still a connection.”

In the case of the Anti-Terror Law, which has vaguely expanded the definition and interpretation of “terrorism,” human rights groups and activists in the Philippines have become an even greater target for approved state terror and martial law. But why must this be an issue of concern to Filipinos beyond the islands? It’s not like we are directly impacted, right?

Yet, it is our own U.S. tax dollars which directly fund the Philippines military and police, who are responsible for enacting violence and terror on the Filipino people. And as our Filipino communities are becoming increasingly politically aware and active, it is vital that we understand the connection between our position in the diaspora and the suppression and violation of our kababayan’s most basic rights. As Reduque expressed, there is still a connection.

Our Filipino roots are deeply connected and intertwined, no matter where in the world we may be. Just because the effects of the country’s political and social turmoil may have a more direct impact on the motherland, that doesn’t make members of the diaspora any safer from the aftershocks.

NWFASA members (from left to right), Marianne Roy and Claudia Krumpach

Claudia Krumpach, a student from the University of Washington working alongside Reduque as NWFASA’s current Secretary General, also adds that although it may feel comfortable to remain content in the bliss of ignorance, “Filipinos must be critical of how an apolitical standpoint still equates to complacency — especially in the face of violence or human rights violations.”

For both Krumpach and Reduque, it is important to them that when the next generation looks back on this period in time, they know that their Filipino community did not remain silent. In fact, they were both headstrong in gathering collective support from NWFASA to endorse the Philippines Human Rights Act, alongside Kabataan Alliance and many other Fil-Am activist organizations. And as two young, Filipina and femme-identifying leaders of one of the largest collegiate alliances of Filipino student organizations in the country, they, too, have become contributors to the revolutionary legacy of our Filipino identity.

Whether it’s marching through the streets in solidarity with Black lives, rallying our communities together to call out extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, or exercising our right to vote in what could be the most pivotal U.S. election of our generation, the Filipino identity has always been political.

“By understanding that the political is personal, only then can we pave a path towards true liberation,” Krumpach expresses.

And maybe, that’s exactly what I’ll say to the next random message of aggression that slides into my DMs.

For questions or more information on how to get involved with the Philippine Human Rights Act, please contact Oliver Giron with NAFCON LA at ojgiron@gmail.com

Originally published on One Down Media on October 25, 2020
Editor: Kristine de los Santos, Director of Operations | One Down |
kristine@one-down.com | Instagram & Facebook

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Abby Pasion

Storyteller, community organizer & freelance creative based out of Portland, OR.