Janice Sapigao: Writing on the Filipina and San José Experience
Janice Lobo Sapigao is a Filipina writer, poet, teacher, and daughter of Filipino immigrants. Born and raised in San José, California, she is the author of two books of poetry, Like a Solid to a Shadow and microchips for millions, which documents her mother’s experience of being an assembly line worker in the Silicon Valley. She is currently the editor of TAYO Literary Magazine, and she was named one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s 2017 Bay Brilliant Series (formerly known as Women to Watch) by KQED Arts.
What was it like growing up in San José as a young Filipina?
When I was growing up here, I grew up in an apartment on the north side of town near the airport. We moved when I was six which was when my dad passed away. We moved to a house a couple of blocks away with my auntie, uncle, cousin, and his grandma and grandpa. There were a lot of people, and we moved there during a time when there was still farmland — it was public land where my mom and auntie would go and pick certain edible flowers. That land is now the new Kaiser Permanente Skyport campus.
It was a very San José thing to see the Silicon Valley burst out of the Valley of the Heart’s Delight. Growing up in San José, I went to a lot of schools that were mostly Latino. I felt like I was constantly searching for things that were Filipino, whether it be friends, teachers, books or even songs. Thankfully, during that time, there was a lot of Filipino R&B on the radio.I was looking for things to belong to, and I didn’t know where to look because the only things that were Filipino were my music and my family. It was more observing and learning about how to be Filipino.
The first time I was able to really find books about being Pinay and growing up Filipino was when I finally got access to the Internet in my home; I think this was in 1998 or 1999. I had the freedom to search what I wanted to learn about the world. I was looking up Filipino books or Filipino American books. This was when eBay was the most popular marketplace seller that I knew about. I looked up books on eBay and I had to bid on them. I was bidding for Growing up Filipino which is edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Then, I got this book that was about an Alaskan family but they had Filipino roots. It was a novel, and I wanted to read it just because it had something Filipino in it. And then, I didn’t know this at the time, but I had also purchased one or two books that were anthropological texts. There was a lot of distance in reading those kinds of narratives. One text was called Understanding the Filipino, which was clearly written by a white male author. I strangely connected to it because it taught me some things that I didn’t know or didn’t think about. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn those things unless I read them in a book. That journey to look for the right book still influences me [in terms of] what it was like to grow up here.
What changes have you seen in San José?
There’s been so much change. Some of the things that I cherish and remember about San José are not here anymore. Some of the things I remember about certain places are suddenly filled with more popular things. For example, here in Japantown, I used to come here when I was little and there used to a lot of Japanese American owned businesses mostly by first or second generation immigrants. I like now that there are a lot of young entrepreneurs here. I think the part that bothers me is that there’s so much housing around here which capitalizes on the ethnic enclaves, immigrant work, and the affinity to be near another part of the city center. There’s a visible change.
There are more white folks walking the streets. It’s hard not to think of that while walking the streets, while also taking up space in the businesses, and then the lines get longer, and then the prices of everyday things get higher. That’s really hard for me to see, because as a writer, I’ve been able to travel around the country and see different costs of living. It almost becomes a point of respite that I can buy a five dollar salmon sandwich in Milwaukee.
I’ve seen a lot of things change — a lot of Filipino restaurants that hella mark my memory are not here anymore, either in Milpitas or in the east side of San Jose. My memories are marked by what is erased or absent or can’t be here anymore.
I know that when my stepdad first came to the U.S., he immigrated here in 1998, he wanted to open a restaurant, but it was too expensive even then for new immigrants to come and do that. He just kind of gave up on that and instead cooks a lot at home. I really empathize and feel for those sort of everyday personal interactions, charged with decisions that people make to maneuver their lives around what doesn’t include them, or what once did but no longer does. Sometimes, it is based on a feeling. Sometimes, it is based on one simple interaction. Those are the things that I don’t want to forget. For me it’s a drastic change. It’s kind of uncomfortable to be in this place where I was able to live before, but now Big Tech has brought a lot of people here who don’t care about what was here before them. I think that’s a huge problem.
What led you to storytelling and how do you connect storytelling with activism?
I wanted a diary when I was six. It doesn’t escape me that that was when my dad passed away. Even at a young age, I knew that I wanted to say something or grieve something or be able to have something to say when I’m asked. I wanted a diary, so my mom took me to Sanrio at Eastridge Mall to get it. I just wanted write. My dad passed away during a time when I was still learning how to write and how to form letters and words and how to write cursive. I wanted more time to do it outside of the classroom because I thought it was the most fun. It’s fun and joy and grief and expression, all at the same time. I like that writing could be that.
Whenever I found a blank book, I’d write in it, and I still have some of those diaries today. I would just write things, that now as an adult, I think are trivial, but back then, they were super important. I wrote about a boy that I really liked in middle school but nobody knew. I wrote about what happened in school that day. I didn’t know how to share that with my family, and my brother is two years older than me. At that time, two years feels like twenty years. I felt like my brother wouldn’t understand me, and my mom was always tired from work. My diary was the person I could talk to.
When I was in college, I realized that I needed to figure out what I wanted to learn because I didn’t have a major. During my first year, I majored in sociology — I didn’t know that I could study people of color. I [then] changed my major to Ethnic Studies. A lot of the emphasis was on counter narratives and telling people’s stories. I would read stories that were so specific to certain ethnic groups. A lot of that was what became my first book, microchips for millions.
If anything, my writing, just like activism, teaches me there’s not a lot of time. There’s not a lot of time either because you’re busy or [you] fill your schedule. Even with the time that I do spend wanting to put things together — books, events, people — even that time is not as meaningful as it could be all the time. Writing and activism can come together and they could be separate. I’m okay with either one as long as I declare when one is the other.
How did “microchips for millions” come about and how do you address your own trauma and the trauma of your mother while she was working in a silicon chip factory?
What I want to make clear about the traumas that are addressed in the book is that I kind of feel like it’s trauma from when I was younger. [It is a trauma] of absence, not so much the injustice of what the microchip industry does to its people in terms of toxifying their work environment. The trauma was my mom leaving when I was younger and the trauma for a lot of these women who don’t know what may come in terms of their medical help later on, that their health might be deteriorating because of their environment. There’s potential for trauma.
When I was writing the book, and even now when I talk about it, I think of trauma as severe, hella deep, and deep seated. For me, it’s not going to work every day. When I was writing it, I wasn’t writing out of a place of trauma more than I was writing to get away from the loss or the potential loss of my mom. Finding what could be fatal in her environment scares me, and it makes me worried because I don’t want to go through losing another parent. For me, that is what I would say is the trauma that’s underlying the book. When I was writing it I actually felt like I was writing more from a place of freedom. There’s something really satisfying for me about documentary poetics. Documentary poetics, much like documentary film and non-fiction, writes about real world struggle. It doesn’t really focus on the solution because I think that that’s not the work of the people who have the problems all the time. Documentary poetics has allowed me to pull what I know from so many different sources, or DocPo, as we call it. It pulls from scholarship, it pulls from headlines, it pulls from formal and informal interviews, and it pulls from observations. I think all of those things are what make up my poetry in my book. There will be references to scholarship, to literature around how toxic Silicon Valley, and to my informal conversations with my mom.
Writing the book, I wanted to be very careful about how I present my mom as a character in the book. People will feel a lot of pity for my mom or they’ll feel a lot of pity for me, which I understand. Pity is a [part] of the book, but I don’t want the work to rest there. I would want the pity to move into action or move into reading more (I think reading more is another action actually.) I would want people to see how poetry could be this vehicle to learn more about the world.
The very first poem I wrote for the book was in 2008. I was a student at UC San Diego. I had known that I wanted to write about the microchip industry because I still take issue with the name, Silicon Valley. I knew I wanted to write about it. At the time, there was a visiting scholar from the Philippines. His name was Dr. Neil Garcia. He studied literature and he was a visiting scholar and he worked with Dr. John D. Blanco who was serving as an advisor for most of the Filipino students. So he brought Neil Garcia, and as a send off, they wanted to do a reading for him. Neil read some of his work, and they needed students to read, too, so they asked me to read because they wanted female writer to read. It was a very small reading but I’m glad I got to read this little thing about the Silicon Valley. I remember that being the start of it.
I really started to work on microchips in graduate school for my documentary poetics class. Everybody had to write or recreate a chapbook that was anywhere from eight to twenty pages. I thought “microchips for millions” was just going to be a chapbook. It ended up being so much more. The reason why I decided to pursue it as a book was because I remember feeling something was wrong about the feedback I received. For me, I felt that maybe the work wasn’t where it needed to be before workshop. That was the first time I where I submitted work that was not just personal for me, but also for my family. I think that’s why the stakes are higher, and I decided, OK, I need to write about the Silicon Valley.
Then, I moved home and I remember going to the Mission in San Francisco where I used to party, and go clubbing with my friends. The Mission used to be mostly brown people in 2010. I moved back here in 2013, and I remember walking behind this family that was looking through the window of an art gallery, and they said, this used to be a taqueria. I was like, whoa, I am feeling the same sense of displacement I was writing about, from something I thought that happened more slowly.
Even though I didn’t live there, my friends and I decided that we were going to patronize these businesses. I think it was really tough. Just to see the changes in the Bay Area made me want to write microchips.
How did you come to learn more about Filipino-American history and activism, and how do you incorporate your Filipina, or Pinay, identity in your storytelling?
When I was in college, my friends and I organized a directed group studies course, which was led by students on Pinayism because we all wanted to read the Pinay Power, a Peminist Critical Theory book. We all wanted to read it, and we found a mentor who was willing to sponsor the class. After reading the book, I kept thinking, wow, I really feel seen, and I can relate to this on a new level. My friends and I organized the class, and we did a lot of work that [surrounds] what I still strive for, which is uplifting the consciousness of people and getting people to sit down and create art even if it’s just writing a sentence or doodling.
I was also doing undergrad research that related to Filipino history. At UC San Diego, I was a part of the McNair program. In McNair, you choose your own research project. I wanted to learn more about the struggles of first generation Filipino-American students. I changed my research topic to Filipino American high school students after-school spaces. I noticed that at Great Mall, here in Milpitas, that a lot of Filipino American students gathered at the movie theater after school on a Friday afternoon. When I lived in San Diego, I lived in a very Filipino neighborhood Mira Mesa, also known as Manila Mesa. I moved there and noticed that a lot of high school students would gather at the neighborhood movie theater, too. I wanted to study this Friday afternoon phenomenon of mostly Filipino students. In that research project, I was able to learn about Filipinos gaining citizenship through the Navy; San Diego is a navy town. A lot of Filipinos moved to Mira Mesa because of the suburbs and moving closer to the Marine Corps Air Base, which is outlined with a lot of furniture stores. That’s literally how a lot of Filipinos got to build their home in Mira Mesa, that was the origin.
I also learned that the movie theater space was made to be a place of surveillance. I was taking Urban Studies courses and I learned that when there are no benches in a space, that means they don’t want you to sit, nor do they want you to stay for a long time. There were two benches for the entire movie theater quad. I learned about how urban design tells you what to do in the space — it tells you where you can go or where you can’t go. That’s why there are those clamps on benches or there are like a lot of dividers on benches so that people can’t sleep there, so people can’t skateboard there. A lot of the inventions around urban spaces are anti-homelessness and anti youth. That’s the same thing that I detected with the movie theater space where they only hired security for Friday night. They knew that youth would mostly gather there on Fridays, and they hired security to watch them. It was a heavily policed space.
I also learned what the youth do to resist; a lot of the students resisted by continuing to skate over the clamp, and by having dance battles, and ciphers outside of the quad. They treated it like a high school without supervision. And because of that project, I had to learn on my own. I had to look at Youth Studies, American Studies, and Urban Studies and all three of those fields contributed to my literature review and then that sort of became my avenue for documentary poetics and writing poetry. I still feel like I do research in many ways but a lot of people don’t think poets do research but we do hella research. Because I had to read all of that work on my own, that’s the same approach I take to writing poetry.
I actually wasn’t actively writing poetry at that time of my research project. I had a friend whose honors thesis was about Asian American poetry, and we both really loved the work of Ruby Veridiano. She was a part of an arts collective called iLL-Literacy that came out of UC Davis. Her work really inspired me to write because she was writing about anti-miscegenation and interracial dating. She was able to attach concepts of Ethnic Studies into poetry. I realized I wanted to do that with my writing, too, and I read a lot of books because of it.
I then became the first social media intern for the first Filipino American International Book Festival in 2011. That’s when I became familiar with PAWA, Philippine American Writers and Artists. I didn’t know that six years later they would be my publisher. I really believe in that community pipeline. I hope people know why I chose to publish microchips with a small Filipino press. It’s purposeful. I super wanted to do that because I know that it won’t be my last. I want people to know that when they look at my career, they’ll see that all of the decisions I made were super intentional to support the Filipino American literary community.
It was through my experience being an intern for the FilBookFest, that I was in a room with all of these Filipino American authors. Abe Ignacio, who wrote the Forbidden Book: The Philippine American War in Cartoons, was there. Mitchell Yangson was there — he used to be the Filipino American expert librarian at San Francisco Public Library. I was so floored to be around them. Gemma Nemenzo was my supervisor for the Book Fest–she ran Filipinas Magazine, which ended in the early 2000s, and now she runs Positively Filipino. She wrote one of the blurbs for microchips.
Being in that room with people [was amazing.] That’s when I realized who they were, and which people I had to read. That made me want to keep going. I learned so much from those people about how Filipino storytelling has been vital to the survival here in the U.S., even to survival in the Philippines, because a lot of them came during a time of Martial Law, during a time when they weren’t supposed to be writing anything.
Filipino and Filipino American writing is actively writing back and then documenting everything that’s problematic, which I think is exactly where my work falls. FilBookFest was where I learned about the balagtasan, when Dr. Joi Barrios came in and she gave this workshop on why the Filipino American International Book Fest should have a balagtasan completely in Tagalog. Then Dr. Penelope Flores — she was part of the organizing committee — would talk to me in Tagalog, and I would just guess what she was saying to me because I only knew Ilokano. Thank God I was correct every time. I was able to understand, but their collective presence taught me humility. It doesn’t come out of the shame of Filipino culture but just coming out of being together. There’s something really special about that.
What dreams do you have for San José?
I would like for the poetry organizations here to have more money and funding so they could bring more authors here. A lot of authors either come to San Francisco or Oakland, especially if they’re community artists. That’s where more people are. There are also documented and visible traditions of writers there. But there have always been amazing writers here, too.
I would want for there to be a space, more of a known and accessible space dedicated to the arts. I hope other people see how poetry can be a way to address and be a part of different struggles. I also secretly want to open the Filipino Community Center over here on Fifth Street as more than just a hall for rent. I would like that to be place of organizing and community.
What are your words of wisdom for artists, writers, and storytellers?
Read and write the same book over and over again at different parts of your life. Something to emphasize for myself is creating your own pipeline, and it doesn’t have to come from other poets. Read authors, and see what they’ve been through. Maybe figure out where they are teaching, or where they live, or how can you meet them — what conferences are they attending, at what festivals will they be presenting? Talk to them for advice. Also, I want to emphasize the importance of figuring out your own shit.
Last week, I was at a reading of a friend and she responded to a writer in the audience who asked about how to sustain a writing practice — she said, you’re already a writer. Most people already are, and they just don’t have the time or the push or the person to say, hey you need to do this. Young poets have to be that for themselves and each other first.
I think my advice should be simpler. My mom always has the most simple advice and it always works. She always says, do your best, which is so true and so simple. I think that’s what I would want people to take from this.