Advancing Justice | AAJC

Oct 25, 2021

8 min read

Filipino American History Month: Reflecting on our past, present, and future

Filipino American History Month is celebrated every October thanks to advocacy from the Filipino American National Historical Society. The month commemorates the first recorded presence of Filipinos in the continental United States, which occurred on October 18, 1587, when “Luzones Indios” came ashore from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Esperanza and landed at what is now Morro Bay, California. Introduced in 1992, the U.S. Congress recognized October as Filipino American History Month in the United States in 2009.

Staff from Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC reflect on the historic significance of this month, connect it with their personal stories, what makes them proud to be Filipino American, who in the community inspires them, and their hopes for the future.

Joy De Guzman

“My favorite thing about being Filipino is the Filipino philosophy of kapwa — the recognition of shared identity and humanity which requires us to prioritize people and our shared community over individualism and all material things. Through their example, my mom and her family taught me that being Filipino means always practicing resilience and valuing family and community. Even from thousands of miles away, many Filipino Americans continue to take care of their families by serving as overseas foreign workers, sending money home, shipping balikbayan boxes, and bringing boxes of essential items with them when they travel back to the Philippines.

Despite being born in America, when I or a fellow Filipino ask ‘when did you last go home?,’ we all know what we mean. As a first generation Filipino American, I am proud to call the Philippines home.”

Daishi Miguel Tanaka

“I came to America with my Filipina mother expecting our U.S. citizen grandparents to sponsor us through the family immigration system. But we didn’t know the wait would prolong to a decades-long backlog. We lost our status and became undocumented.

One in six Filipinos are undocumented, and Filipinos make up the fourth largest population of foreign-born nationality in the U.S., but Filipinos are still largely invisible in the national dialogue of immigration reform. To me, being Filipino American means carrying responsibility to ensure our community has real political power to make a difference. This means taking up space and being vocal about our issues.”

Bre’Von Stewart

Staffer Bre’Von Stewart admires Chief Justice Tani Cantil–Sakauye. (Photo: California Courts)

“In honor of Filipino American History month, I’ve identified someone who is a true value and inspiration to our community. This individual is a trailblazer, fearless leader, and despite the odds, has surpassed many expectations, and achieved great things. I most identify with and admire Chief Justice Tani Cantil–Sakauye. Like myself, she is a California native who comes from a loving blended family. We were both student athletes who balanced school and our sports, she played tennis, while I played golf. We also are both passionate about educating children, as she started a civics program for students and I was a social studies teacher for years.

Justice Cantil–Sakauye faced a few challenges while seeking employment directly following graduation from law school. As a young woman, she was often discriminated against due to being a young woman of color. However, despite these challenges, she was able to prevail. Although she was initially denied employment by the Sacramento County’s Public Defender’s Office due to her ‘young age,’ she kept her focus and ambition and was later recruited by Superior Court Judge Russ Hom to join the Sacramento County’s District Attorney’s Office, and from there her career skyrocketed. After her appointment to become Judge of the Sacramento Municipal, she yet again broke barriers and was next appointed as Judge of the Sacramento County Superior Court. After her appointment by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to become Associate Justice of California, she was subsequently nominated and was unanimously approved to become the Chief of Justice of California and she served a 12-year term in this capacity.

Throughout her tenure, Chief Justice Tani Cantil–Sakauye has advocated and served the community by fighting for what is just and fair. She advocated for bail reform and for the decriminalization of minor traffic offenses, a sincere concern that she had for those who couldn’t afford to pay charges for minor traffic crimes. She set policy initiatives which support obtaining funding for courts and the bar, and she also advocated for children to have civil disclosure education through a program called ‘Power of Democracy.’ Her program initiative informed students on the importance of jury trials.

Additionally, Justice Cantil-Sakauye took a strong stance against ICE and their practice of arresting immigrants who appeared in court. Justice Cantil-Sakauye has pleaded on behalf of immigrants the importance of not making arrests at the courthouse, as her concern was keeping victims of crime to feel safe and comfortable enough to testify in court, she understood the impact making arrests at court could have, and that people would not come testify if they feared they’d be arrested for being an undocumented immigrant. I admire her hard work and efforts toward what is just and fair. For all these reasons, and many more, I am grateful for Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye and truly admire her.”

Marita Etcubañez

“I have always been fascinated by history — learning about events of the past and trying to draw connections to inform how we understand our present and what lessons we should carry into the future. I’m especially fascinated by the history of my own people, of Filipinos in the United States, my Filipino American community. There’s so much to delve into — our histories in the Philippines, including our long period of colonization, centuries under Spain control, then later the United States; the many factors, both push and pull, that led so many of us to migrate to the U.S.; and exploration of the conditions, including violence and discrimination, we faced once here as we strive for our own versions of the ‘American Dream.’

A mural in Los Angeles’ Filipinotown shows notable events and Filipino American leaders. (Photo from blogs.brown.edu)

In this particular moment in time as we face deep political divisions and a global pandemic that is having a disproportionate impact on communities of color and other marginalized communities, we must approach history and current events with openness and a willingness to seek truth and true understanding, rather than looking only for validation of our current convictions. In my studies, I am grateful for teachers who taught deeper lessons than covering great men, their deeds, and the events that have long been deemed to be ‘significant’ and pushed me to grow as a researcher and critical thinker. We would all benefit from learning about more of our history, including the stories of people that have been left out of traditional narratives, to learn about their struggles and their contributions to push the U.S. closer to equity and ‘justice for all.’ We must be willing to acknowledge more of our history even when — especially when — learning this history requires us to deal with painful and problematic aspects of our past. Turning away from unpleasant truths is never going to help us to become a country that lives up to its ideals.

Growing up, I rarely saw people who looked like me reflected in the history books. Fortunately, this is changing, albeit slowly and not without significant opposition. Illinois recently passed the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act, the TEAACH Act, which will add an Asian American history curriculum to public school education in that state.

On the federal level, Representative Grace Meng has introduced the Teaching Asian Pacific American History Act, which would encourage the inclusion of Asian American history as part of history and civics education.

In marking Filipino American History Month this year, I would like to encourage people to learn and gain a fuller understanding about their own history, to support legislation like the TEAACH Act and the Teaching Asian Pacific American History Act, and to advocate for more diverse curricula and support teaching truth about race.”

Gisela Perez Kusakawa

“To me being Filipino American is about grit, perseverance, and hope. My family and I immigrated from Tondo, Manila in the Philippines. It is an area that taxi drivers and other Manila residents are scared to go to. Tondo suffers from violent crimes and poverty, where you could find yourself losing family just because there wasn’t enough money for medicine or treatment. If I hadn’t moved to the U.S., I would have found myself trapped in the same cycle of poverty and violence that many relatives still live through. Tondo is now facing the brunt of President Duterte’s drug war that has driven extrajudicial killings of the poorest and most vulnerable communities. The trauma of violence and loss continues and has only worsened over the years.

What I learned is that no matter how smart you are or how much you hustle for a better life, things are hard to change if you are surrounded by violence and poverty. Even when you immigrate, the cycle is not magically broken, but you have a chance at a better life. That alone is enough to make people leave everything they know.

My personal immigration experience is what has driven me to pursue a legal background to help immigrant and vulnerable communities both domestically and in the international sphere. My wish is that we can come to a place in our immigration system where we can look at people with compassion. I hope that this month can be a reminder of the strength of our communities and the many barriers and obstacles we have had to overcome.”

Mary Tablante

“Every Filipino American History Month is a time to reflect. I think about my own family and their participation in the People Power Movement, the discrimination my parents faced coming to this country, and how I continue to learn more about our history. I think about how Filipino Americans continue to come to this country to fill labor needs, like in the healthcare industry and in teaching. Yet so many still don’t know our history despite being one of the largest Asian American groups and being in this country since before the United States was founded.

Larry Itliong.

October 25 is Larry Itliong Day, the labor leader behind the Delano Grape Strike, and only recently did it become an official holiday in California. His story is a wonderful example of what can happen when workers build coalitions across communities of color. All of this motivates me to continue to make it better for future generations to know their history and amplify narratives that remain untold in the mainstream. This FAHM and moving forward, I commit to continue learning by reading works of Filipino American authors and historians both past and present, amplifying the work of people currently making history, and pitching in where I can to help Filipino Americans in my own backyard and community.”

Tag us on Twitter @AAAJ_AAJC on how you’re celebrating or reflecting this Filipino American History Month!