by Jomar Sevilla, ’14
Amid blooming orchards, we stare at the stone of Larry Itliong and are speechless. Itliong lies, appropriately unadorned, with his manongs (Filipino “brothers”) in a mass of humble graves in a town where he gave hope and created a legacy for Filipino immigrants. This spontaneous visit concludes our time in Delano, a little agricultural town in California’s Central Valley, with Roger, our guide and friend. We all say a few words, thanks here and there, we owe you, we remember you, we’ll continue your legacy. The warm beautiful afternoon in March contrasts with an inner turmoil within.
A few weeks earlier, in the course preparing us for this Alternative Spring Break trip*, we same participants, now walking across the graveyard with our heads down, were seated in a circle. The class discussion leads us back to the inevitable: do we consider ourselves activists? Around the table, there are some hesitant yes, some potentially, some kinda, some no because, some maybe in the future.
Throughout the ASB trip we met with Filipino community workers and activists. I have trouble understanding, much less embracing the label of Filipino activist. American capitalist, social, political, and cultural influence has transformed life in the Philippines. I understand the plea of many Filipinos there who struggle for national liberation, democracy, and even revolution. Where would the thirteen colonies be if they didn’t stand up to British imperialism? I understand that. But Filipino-American activists, I believe, are in more perilous circumstances. Filipino-American activists are, I feel, in a challenging, perhaps awkward, position of trying to utilize, fight against, make a home within and love this country. No, this isn’t an unhealthy domestic partnership, this is international relations. The organizations and the people we meet have created homes in America. They utilize American freedoms to advocate for freedom in the Philippines and support rights of Filipino-Americans. Activists then apply their passions and skills to embrace their roles. Many do social work, some lead public service initiatives, some work in political campaigns or positions. Some simply educate their communities or create spaces for activists to come together and build networks. Some want to arouse. One group of community organizers we met during the trip are the Shining Sons who we’ve kept in contact with and are coming to Stanford campus this week for a benefit concert. Their hip-hop workshop and concert also serve as fundraisers for flood relief operations in the Philippines. Performing groups such as Shining Sons, Power Struggle, and the Kasamas (Filipino “companions”) all use hip-hop to understand their surroundings, advocate political consciousness, and critically analyze society.
This makes sense, but it always returns to the can of worms called American imperialism and my role as a Filipino-American. To be an activist, would I have to reject the country that provided and shaped me? Like a child, first discovering a parent is not perfect; must an activist declare allegiance with a single side, betraying the other? What if an activist supports multiple ideologies; it just so happens, they are incompatible? May I just live my life away from politics and find something I am good at? I can design circuits for the rest of my life. But do I owe anything to my people or country or heritage? And since we’re on that topic: exactly who, which, and what are my people, country, heritage?
The next morning after visiting Itliong’s grave, we depart from Delano toward LA. Delano is best known for being the center of the farmworker movement when Itliong in 1965 led a walkout of 1500 Filipino farm workers to protest low wages and terrible working/living conditions. In a week, their success and example triggered César Chávez and the Chicano farm worker organization to join in the strike, forming the influential United Farm Workers of America (UFW) transforming American labor. On the car ride back, we play word games and eat snacks. We talk about our college organizations, classes next quarter, hilarious friends, dorm conditions. The car is going south, but I’m not sure I left Delano. In the cemetery, Roger asks us “Do you have anything to say to Manong Larry? What does any of this mean to you? I showed you all around Delano, but was there anything important here in your life?” Roger grew up during the rise of the manongs. I’m growing up right now. I sit back on the car’s headrest. I laugh at some jokes, I sing along with the late Whitney Houston, I consider taking a nap because my turn to drive is not for awhile.
Two academic quarters and one lovely summer later, I’m still at that gravesite. This past summer, I didn’t have the energy to start organizing. I don’t have much time to plan this quarter. I won’t take a light course load next quarter while teaching the preparation course. I actually should be relaxing and reviewing circuits over Spring Break. But what should be is rarely how the story goes. If I had the courage that one class to say that I am or am not an activist, things would be different. If at that gravesite I could confirm or deny whether Itliong’s legacy matters to me, I would not be leading the 2013 Filipino-American ASB.
I’m excited to meet, network, and get involved with more Filipino service organizations. I sense the struggle of organizers, activists, and laborers and will always continue. Though they know not the way. Though they know not what the ultimate goal is. Sometimes, it seems to me as if they are the blind trying to lead the deaf. With picket signs, megaphones, hip-hop, Facebook events, mass emails. But their hope is strong, their intentions are noble, and they need no rest in this struggle. There are questions to answer. History to reevaluate. Identities to reconsider. Eyes and ears that need to be reopened. Let’s get Furious.
*The ASB trip described in this post was called No Rest For the Weary: Stories of Filipino Activism and Ethnic Solidarity led last year by Julian Jaravata and Ronnie Estrella. This year’s Filipino-American trip is called The Fury of Our Struggle: Filipino-American Service, Migration, and Diaspora in the 21st Century led by Adrian Bonifacio and Jomar Sevilla.
Last year’s Alternative Spring Break trip invites you to join us for two events featuring the community partners we met during our trip. They will not only be sharing their talents on stage, but also their talents as activists and community workers. Come see a bit of what we experienced and learn what it means to take action and serve the people! Check this flier for more information:
Jomar is a friendly, idealistic junior from LA. He’s studying electrical engineering, computer systems, communication, and how technology fits in people’s lives. He holds two campus jobs as a CA for the incomparable FroSoCo and as an Oral Communication Tutor. He enjoys being Filipino.