Last month, I took time off from writing to work on a painting/collage for an open call for political art. While my entry pictured above, “Stand in My Place: A Guerrilla Self-Portrait,” didn’t make the final cut for the exhibition, I’m sharing the work here for at least a couple of reasons. Regardless of the outcome, I learned from the process and gave it my best … even if my best in recent weeks had been simply finding a way to begin each day. The words of a dear friend, storyteller, and personal growth speaker, Niña Caballero, assuaged me, “it doesn’t matter if you are not where you feel you should be or what you feel you should have done by this time … you are enough. This is you now and this is your best” (for more inspiration, and to join Niña’s Instagram Live “Soulversations,” follow her @idratherbeadiscoball).
A self-portrait also seems a fitting culmination of my “Leap Year.” A year ago, I was someone broken by the unrelenting demands of a job, who had forgotten her value as a human being with more to contribute to greater society than an organization’s bottom line. In the year since, I’ve slowly been piecing myself back together. Imperfections, insecurities, limitations, breakdowns — they’re hard to own up to because we fear being judged as weak. But, it has been from setbacks—falling into depression spells, getting rejected by galleries or publications I’ve submitted my work to — that I’ve learned how deep my reservoir of strength actually runs. Even in the darkest moments, I somehow still haven’t given up hope.
And it is an especially dark moment for countless of people who currently feel under assault in this country and in many other places around the world. In approaching the portrait, I had set out to depict my personal response to the cheap currencies of racism, xenophobia, and misogyny peddled by the Trump administration and the Republican party’s rank and file, which have destabilized the lives of real people. But, as a woman, a person of color and an immigrant — specifically a Filipina-American — my personal history is inextricable from this country’s history of systemic oppression of society’s most vulnerable. The reality of America is nuanced, now as it was then, when poet Langston Hughes wrote “Let America Be America Again” in 1935, or when Filipino migrant worker-turned-writer and activist, Carlos Bulosan wrote the novel “America is in the Heart” in 1946.
Filipinos have had a long history with the U.S., from the time it bought the Philippines from Spain in 1898 for $20 million in order to spread the gospel of “benevolent assimilation … the bestowal of the blessings of good and stable government upon the people of the Philippine Islands under the free flag of the United States,” as then-President William McKinley put it. While the Philippines formally gained its independence from the U.S. in 1946 and from American military occupation in 1992 with the closing of the remaining naval base at Subic Bay, Filipinos remain post-colonial subjects. There’s our ubiquitous consumption of American brands, such as Del Monte, SPAM, Coca-Cola and others featured in the collage as native flora (gumamelas, sampaguitas, orchids, and birds of paradise), and the persistence of the “white ideal” and our continued mis-education in the white supremacist tradition. And to this day, U.S. resources and financial aid have propped up dictators and autocrats, from Ferdinand Marcos to Rodrigo Duterte, at the expense of the Filipino people. Indeed, the legacy of government failures are largely responsible for the migration of around 6,000 Filipinos per day in search of economic opportunities elsewhere.
In the painting, the streets are paved with the gold of slave and immigrant labor, of the resources extracted from far-flung former colonies. The symbolism represents the duality that most immigrants — from the Mexicans since the 1840s, to the Irish and Chinese in the 1860s, to Southern and Eastern Europeans, like the Italians and Greeks escaping economic hardships, and Russian and Polish Jews escaping religious persecution after WWI, to South and Southeast Asians, and Latin Americans since the 1960s — experience in this country. We are drawn here by the ideal of the American Dream, where everyone has an equal shot to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.” But once we’ve fulfilled our obligations to build railroads, to serve as domestic helpers, and to fill labor shortages in the agriculture, manufacturing, hospitality, nursing, and STEM fields, we often are told that we can’t stay in this country to reap the fruits of our own labor.
Langston Hughes captured this duality experienced by oppressed peoples in “Let America Be America Again”:
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Among the valuable lessons I’ve learned in what has turned out to be a year of social activism is that we can’t see the injustices around us when we take for granted our comfortable lives and don’t realize our own privilege. The Apayao tapis skirt I wear in the painting is a symbol of reckoning for the international mining concerns that have driven out Philippine indigenous peoples from their tribal lands, as well as for upper middle class families like mine who relied on the domestic labor of impoverished and displaced Cordillera peoples (the particular tapis depicted was one given to me by the grandmother of one of my yayas. I am ashamed to admit that I remember the names and faces of only a handful of the women who took care of me from birth until age thirteen, when I joined my mother in New York). Whether we use our privilege to exploit others, or don’t use it to uplift those less-advantaged than us, we are complicit in a system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of the few and perpetuates the same winners and losers in society.
When I quit my job last year, I was conscious of the privilege that allowed me to even make such a decision in the first place. I received a college education; worked mostly in the non-profit space, which enabled me to move quickly up the career ladder despite being a woman of color; managed to pay off my sole debt (a five-figure student loan) and to save enough from generally well-paying jobs so that I could leave a 15-year career to pursue creative art and writing endeavors, as well as buy myself time to figure out what was next.
Losing the “certainties” in my life — a bi-monthly paycheck; employer-sponsored health insurance; a set-aside monthly contribution to my 401K; a professional network; an expendable income, which enabled me not to give pause spending $50 on a blouse or a ticket to a baseball game, $100 on a haircut or dinner out, $200 on concert or theater tickets, $1,000 on round-trip airfare to a vacation destination—further opened my eyes to just how much I had taken for granted. For instance, there are many families in this country trying to make ends meet on a quarter of my former take-home pay. This may sound obvious, but it underscores my earlier point that while we may generally be aware that inequity and injustices exist in the world, we often don’t see them in our own lives because we don’t even know the extent of our privilege.
The question is, once we recognize our privilege, what do we do with it? I don’t think it’s an accident that the writing and art I’ve created this past year reflect on and seek to amplify issues of social inequity and injustice. I can no longer find comfort in living a privileged, indifferent existence knowing that whatever modest influence or power I have might help empower someone with lesser resources than me. Among the first rallies I attended during my “Leap Year” and created a hand-painted poster for was in support of the Dreamers, following the Trump administration’s announcement of their plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). To be honest, I was surprised by the reactions of some family members about my voicing support for undocumented immigrants brought by their parents to the US when they were 16 or younger. A common criticism was that these young people and their parents were somehow less deserving of the “American Dream” than others who had spent years planning, saving, and often being separated from their parents or siblings while waiting to immigrate to the US in the “right” or legal way. Another was the argument that we’ve learned to speak English, to adapt and rebuild our lives here, so why can’t they?
I couldn’t understand why they weren’t able to empathize as immigrants themselves, or why they didn’t see Trump’s attacks on DACA and on those with Temporary Protected Status, and his travel ban against Muslims as threats to all immigrants. I understand now that perhaps it’s because they don’t recognize their own privilege. It’s not my undocumented uncle that ICE was after, rather other “illegal immigrants committing crimes and living off the welfare state.” Immigration policies to address U.S. labor shortages benefitted many of my relatives, including my mother, and allowed them to come to this country under the protection of the law. Perhaps their view of law and law enforcement would be different had they migrated here in the years that my paternal grandfather worked in citrus fields and canneries in California — a decade before Carlos Bulosan wrote about the blatant racism and violence he experienced as an agricultural worker on the West Coast.
The thing is, blatant racism and violence against immigrants and people of color continue to this day, escalating each time the head of state condones and goads on such behavior. In the face of these attacks, it is easy to feel discouraged. Lately, I’ve been wondering why I continue to protest, to demand an America “that never has been yet” but that I still believe is possible. I’ve been drawing hope from the words of Frederick Douglass:
If there is no struggle there is no progress … This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
I stand in my place to resist the false idol in the Oval Office, who tarnishes the American Dream for all. Like many who came before me who lived without it, I know that the promise of democracy and freedom is worth more than gold. Stand in my place. Because democracy and freedom, while hard won, is too easily lost.