October is Filipinx American History Month.
I am a Filipina American and came to the United States when I was seven years old. Since then, I’ve tried to assimilate into white American culture, forgotten how to speak my native language of Tagalog, and never learned anything about my history.
I didn’t grow up around other Filipinos, but even if I did, they probably would have also been trying to “fit in” to this mold: lose the accent; don’t eat white rice and chicken adobo during school lunch. We were only taught the sunny side of white American history. World history, diverse stories, and indigenous voices were practically nonexistent in the schools I attended.
But the most heartbreaking thing is that I didn’t even see this as a loss—and neither did the people around me.
It took almost 30 years of living in the U.S. for me to realize that I needed to mourn.
The loss hit me not too long ago—right after I visited the Philippines for the first time since I was seven years old. There was a world I left behind 28 years ago that I didn’t even know I missed. Suddenly, I had grief to overcome. I had to go back and forth through its stages, whether I was prepared or not.
First, I was in denial.
I denied that missing out on Filipinx literature was a problem. After all, I’ve already listed hundred of “read” books on Goodreads. And I read so many diverse books. I was in junior high when I first found Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in the very back corner of the public library, tucked away on a featured shelf for Black History Month. And since that day, I’ve been hooked on Black literature. Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Malcolm X, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison—but mind you, none of these were assigned school readings. I’ve always actively searched for diverse books on my own—yet I had no interest in looking for books written by Filipinos. And I thought that was okay.
Then I became angry.
I thought back to my childhood. Why didn’t any of my teachers share any books by Black authors? Why didn’t my classmates and I learn even a tidbit of information about the Philippines from our teachers? Why did my parents move us here? Why don’t white people value diverse voices enough to include us? When I discussed these feelings with a white colleague, he actually said, “Well that’s because there are hardly any of you in the U.S. Most of us are white, so of course most of our books are going to be by whites.” I wanted to yell. “Majority white so everyone gets white?!” How could he dismiss us entirely? There are literally millions of us. I was so livid, but I honestly couldn’t put the words together. All I wanted was for him to see the value in diverse authors, but I was too mad to communicate it to him.
Next came depression.
A few weeks ago, I posted on social media to ask my followers the most current literature they’ve read by POC. The responses were basically, “White is a color too…here are 10 more white authors for you. You’re welcome.”
I cried and cried for days. For some reason, I expected a list of comments about wonderful POC authors I’d never heard of. I was excited to see a few comments like, “Oh, I just read Jhumpa Lahiri.” Or, “Have you heard of Rupi Kaur?” But instead, my white friends wanted more validation, and to feel included in the phrase POC. I took it as another rejection from my white counterparts. Not only were they going to ignore my question about multicultural books, but they were going to take my identity, change it, and use it to benefit themselves. I was no longer angry; I sulked, I couldn’t move, I was so unmotivated, and I wanted to give up.
A few days later, I did some bargaining.
Okay, I told myself, I’m going to deactivate Facebook for a little bit and go on Twitter. I’ll only follow strangers who fight for social justice and inclusion. I’ll try not to read the comments in their threads because every progressive tweet comes with trolls and naysayers. I will stop reading the news and only talk to people about the weather. I figured that if I just avoided any type of real discourse, then maybe the pain would go away.
Turns out it doesn’t quite work like that. Ignoring the pain doesn’t make it stop.
Nowadays, I’m working on acceptance.
I’ve been thinking about how this is what has happened in my life, and I can’t change it. I can only move forward. I must move forward, and I will desperately try to “catch up.”
That has looked like immersing myself in YouTube videos about the Philippines, watching Philippine news in Tagalog, practicing my Tagalog on WeChat, bugging my family for stories about our past, Googling Filipinx American organizations, e-mailing other Filipinx American academics, reading Philippine history books, looking for Filipinx American authors, and writing about my Filipina American experience. I’ve started asking my family that still lives in the Philippines for recommendations of books written in Tagalog.
I even changed my Master of Arts thesis to include mythological folklore of the Philippines. The work is limited and I’ve had to do some digging, but that’s okay. I know it is part of my healing process.
As I’ve started moving forward from this loss, I’ve began growing as a person. I started enjoying the journey to discover myself. I learned that lack of exposure to the work of marginalized people prevents us from growing as individuals.
We don’t learn about ourselves and other people to the point that we hurt each other. To the point that we don’t even consider the absence of our voices to be a problem.
I don’t solely place the blame on literary agents, publishers, teachers, professors, librarians, mentors, public school administrations, the media, or myself. It’s such a pervasive, deep issue throughout our entire society. But we do become responsible for our own actions once we are aware of this injustice.
Luckily, it wasn’t too late before I realized how disconnected I’d become from my culture, and I still have time to do the work. Now I can join forces with others who are changing the narrative, creating new ones, and multiplying, sharing, and spreading it. We will help Filipinx American youth know their heritage, know their parents’ and ancestors’ language, know their history, and ultimately know themselves.