By: Michelle Lapitan
Before I entered UCLA, I grew up believing that I truly knew what it meant to be Pilipino. While some of my friends rejected their Asian culture, I grew up embracing the fact that I was an “FBI” or a Full Blooded Ilocano. However, after entering UCLA, my cultural identity was, and continues to be, challenged. My personal definition of what it means to be Pilipino has constantly been redefined, but it is also important to note that it has been refined.
Like most immigrant families, my parents came here for a better life. My dad came here in 1986 and settled in San Jose, California; my mom joined him a year later and my paternal grandparents lived with us until I was about five. My older brother and I are second generation Pilipino-Americans, yet I did not even know that this term existed nor did I know the meaning until I entered UCLA.
Growing up, I believed that I was living the “Pilipino lifestyle.” My parents and grandparents cooked Pilipino food; they spoke to us in their home city’s dialect, Ilocano; and they stressed and internalized many Pilipino cultural ideals into our lives. My parents were solely working, so that they could see my brother and me go to college; school was the number one priority and getting less than an A was unacceptable. My parents fit the stereotypical Pilipino parents: my dad was an engineer and my mom, still currently, a nurse.
When I was about four or five, my grandfather was diagnosed with testicular cancer; after this unfortunate event, he and my grandmother decided to go back to the Philippines. Looking back, I believe that this event was one of the key events that affected my identity as a Pilipino-American.
My parents stopped teaching us how to speak Ilocano because they felt that it was no longer important, but also because they simply did not have time. At that time, and in high school, I did not think this was such a big deal at all — I never questioned my parents. I strongly believed that I still could define myself as a Pilipino, even though I could not speak the language. I thought it was normal that Pilipino youth did not know how to speak the native tongue; I thought that this was part of the Pilipino culture. In the area I grew up in, I was surrounded by Pilipinos, ate Pilipino food, and heard Ilocano (and Tagalog) being spoken by the older folk. In high school, I was part of the Pilipino club, Kasama; I became historian, publicity commissioner, and taught cultural dances as well. I was very invested in my culture and had I sense what Pilipino identity was.
I have come to realize that I have lived a very sheltered life in the Bay Area. I was privileged to live in an area where there are many Pilipinos, thus I did not really become “white washed” at all. I entered UCLA as a Neuroscience/Pre-Med major; I wanted to go through the motions of college and focus on my studies to become a doctor. The classes I took popped the comfort zone bubble I was in. I could barely keep up with the pace of my classes and was very confused since I was at the top of my high school class. I wanted to pay back my parents for the sacrifices they made for my brother and I; yet, I don’t think I even knew what these sacrifices meant. I felt like I was disappointing my parents because I was not at the same caliber as those in my class.
Towards the end of my fall quarter of my first year, I began to miss being a part of the Pilipino community. I was doing okay in my classes, but I felt like I was lacking a social life. I went to one of Samahang Pilipino’s (SP) general meeting and met with a peer counselor from SPEAR, SP’s retention project. I was paired up with a mentor from SPEAR and I began to have that sense of community I had in high school. I thought by being involved with these Pilipino organizations and surrounding myself with a Pilipino/Pilipino-American community, I was fulfilling what I missed and I would do better in school. I have come to see that I first immersed myself in these organizations for superficial reasons, for just the social aspects; one could even say for selfish reasons. I did not see the bigger picture, nor did I see the purpose of SP or SPEAR.
The summer before my second year, SP’s Cultural Coordinator was looking for someone to be historian for the organization. I was still very shy, but one of my passions was (and still is) photography. I took this as an opportunity to improve my photography skills, but also to get out of my comfort zone. I also joined Samahang Pilipino Culture Night (SPCN) because I missed the cultural dances I taught in high school.
My responsibilities as a historian was to attend SP general meetings, facilitate separate meetings with cultural committee, and also attend events put on by SP. Again, my comfort zone bubble was popped by the challenging questions I was asked. I was surrounded by people who knew their Pilipino history, but I knew nothing. The dance coordinators of SPCN talked about the origin of many Pilipino dances, many were the result of Spanish colonialization; all I knew was the 8-count to Tinikling and Sakuting. To say the least, it was a big reality check for me. I taught cultural dances when I was in Kasama, but I did not teach the history behind it; I went to weekly Kasama meetings yet learned nothing about my culture.
I was faced with questions that really got me thinking. Who was I to claim that I am a Pilipino? Why are many Pilipino last names Spanish? Are you truly Pilipino even though you don’t speak a word of Tagalog/Ilocano? Do you even know who Philip Vera Cruz or Jose Rizal was? What was martial law? I began to feel stupid when I could not answer any of these questions. Thankfully, SP asked these questions to general members to get that critical thinking going — not to make us feel less Pilipino or stupid.
My knowledge continued to grow and develop after the budget cuts; limited and overcrowded classes were prevalent at UCL — I could not get into my pre-med classes. In addition, I was very unhappy with my major and just frustrated with the grades I was receiving. I decided to “take a break” and fulfill some of my GE requirements by taking two Asian Am Classes (Asian Am 20 and Asian Am 30). Initially, I was just aware of the historical events of the Philippines because of SP. These classes, however, helped me make connections to the issues that exist today in the Pilipino and AAPI community. In particular, Professor Delloro’s class (Contemporary Asian American Issues) really opened up my eyes, and I began to question my life and society. Why did my parents stop teaching me Ilocano? Why was my high school underresourced and underserved? Why don’t I see Pilipinos in the media?
Simply put, I fell in love with Asian American Studies. I wanted my questions explored and answered. My fall quarter of this year, I dropped my Neuroscience classes and switched to Asian American studies. I took Asian Americans and War with Professor Bascara, and things began to make sense. I found possible reasons as to why I do not speak Ilocano. I learned that in the Philippines, there was a huge emphasis to learn English. This was because soldier-teachers from the United States were stationed in the Philippines to teach English. I realized that maybe my parents did not continue to teach Ilocano to my brother and I because in the Philippines, English is seen as a way to escape the Philippines — speaking English meant opportunity.
I also became aware of the privileges I have and did not have. Growing up in east side San Jose is definitely not the same as growing up in the affluent areas that some of my peers grew up in. To say the least, my high school did not prepare me for the workload I have in college. I was asked by a classmate what my SAT score was; the average SAT score of a UCLA student is somewhere between 2000-2400. Mine was 1680. I got responses like “how did you get into this school” and “but… you’re Asian.” These comments undermined the hard work and dedication I put into school, but Asian American Studies gave me the possible reasons why I was struggling and why I had these model minority type-ish answers.
Becoming cognizant of the intersection of my life and war, peace, and justice is a “terrible lesson” because I began to realize how underappreciated the API (and other ethnic minorities) are. I also recognized that there are probably many minority youth that are struggling to get into higher education. It was also scary when I began to question my culture—how much is truly indigenous Pilipino culture and how much is Spanish or US culture? America prides themselves upon the idea that we all have equality, but do we all have equity? I became aware of the institutionalized racism and system barriers that we have gone through. With recent events, such as CSULA’s announcement to cut its Asian American Studies program, it brings in the question, “what happens when someone tells you that your history is not important?”
Which brings me to the “magnificent” part of the lesson. Recognizing this intersection allowed me to learn more about my history and how it has been shaped. Though I have come to realize that Pilipinos have been marginalized, this realization has also brought the beautiful idea that I can do something about the injustices happening now.
I am currently the administrative assistant and a peer advisor for Samahang Pilipino Advancing Community Empowerment (SPACE). SPACE is a student-initiated access project that strives to empower high school and community college students to realize that they have a voice and can make a change in this world. We strive to educate our students to have discussions about racism, socioeconomic status, privilege, and oppression — topics that are not really covered in high school. We work hard to create critical conscious students in hopes that they can spread awareness to their peers and ultimately organize their community. When these students began asking me the same questions I asked myself, I could not help but smile. It is a beautiful thing to see an empowered sophomore or junior in high school. It is a beautiful thing to see the youth having discussions that really build their critical consciousness.
Ultimately, I believe change begins with education. I am an Asian American Studies major, a general member of Samahang Pilipino, an administrative assistant and a peer advisor for SPACE. I am also an empowered Pinay. It is my personal duty to make sure that the Pilipino community is aware of the barriers that exist that keep us from advancing forward. At the same time, I must challenge the community and ask how can we move forward and what are we doing to ensure this change?
Histories of oppressed communities are hardly heard about because it is not in our textbooks. I find that it is selfish of me to keep this knowledge that I have been so privileged to learn at UCLA. As a Pilipina, I find that for me, my purpose as a Pilipina is to keep our culture alive and make sure that someone on the outside is not rewriting or retelling our story. I hope for the day when Samahang Pilipino no longer has to participate in rallies and organize the Pilipino community. I hope for the day when Pilipinos’ retention rates are high and have equal access to higher education, so that SPEAR and SPACE do not have to exist.
I cannot wait for the day that social justice and equity is actualized.