Organizing and Filipino American Identity

10.31.2022 Christina Baal-Owens, Executive Director

October marked Filipino American History Month and this year’s theme was “Celebrating Our History and Legacy.” As a Filipino American, I have thought about how best I can honor our incredibly rich legacy in both my personal and professional life. To me, civic engagement is core to keeping Filipino history and culture alive. Filipinos have a long legacy of fighting for positive change for future generations, knowing too well the repercussions of non-transparent elections, exclusionary policies, and autocratic governance. 

In 1986, the non-violent People Power Revolution successfully fought back against the oppressive regime of Ferdinand Marcos. Filipinos won in the fight against martial law and undemocratic rule through civil disobedience, boycotts, and the power of organizing. The activists overthrew a corrupt government and helped bring democracy to the Philippines with the election of Corazon Aquino.

Filipinos have also brought their organizing skills to the United States. In the mid-1960s, Filipino American farm workers led by Larry Dulay Itliong  and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee began a strike against grape growers in California who were exploiting workers. Soon thereafter, they were joined by the National Farmworkers Association, a group of predominantly Mexican farmworkers. Together, and with the additional support of Cesar Chavez, these two unions organized consumer boycotts and other actions and eventually won a collective bargaining agreement. People power, as the later-termed 1986 revolution would be coined, was harnessed and successfully used by Filipinos within the United States.  During my time working in the American Labor Movement, I often read the stories of these workers for inspiration.  

All too often, Filipinos in the United States are labeled as “helpers” or “caregivers,”and while there is truth to this, we are also leaders. I’m inspired, for example, by the work of Loida Nicolas Lewis, an immigrant rights attorney and philanthropist, and Jose Antonio Vargas, a journalist and immigrant rights leader, who gave voice to the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US. Their work helped inspire me in my own career as an immigrant rights organizer and continues to motivate me in my daily civic engagement work today. I’m also encouraged by the work of Dr. Kevin Nadal, a psychologist, researcher, and activist who is bringing attention to the harm of microaggressions and discrimination experienced by non-White LGBTQIA+ communities. Representation matters and his leadership in this space is indispensable for queer Filipinos. Equally important is the presence of Gina Ortiz Jones, the current United States Under Secretary of the Air Force, who serves as a role model for young Pinoy girls who want to serve in government. Other Pinoy women, like Deja Foxx, are taking their civic engagement outside of government, and organizing Generation Z to vote and fight for reproductive justice. To bring joy to our world and fight for representation, there are Filipinos like Jo Koy, who has made me laugh for decades, and Bretman Rock, a Generation Z influencer who makes so many young queer Filipinos feel seen and who sheds light on the lives of Filipino-American families. And finally, no list of Pinoy leaders would be complete without a tribute to Dawn Mabalon, who passed away in 2018, but spent her life chronicling the history of Filipino Americans. Her work helped bring awareness to the contributions of Filipino Americans, highlighting a culture that exudes civic engagement at its core. 

The contributions of Loida, Jose, Kevin, Gina, Deja, Jo, Bretman, Dawn, and so many others, continue to pave the way for the next generation of Pinoy leaders and civic engagement organizers, and drives me forward.

At Public Wise, I am lucky to work alongside two other Filipino Americans, Maria Javier, our Chief Information Officer, and Mark Cruz, our Data Steward. Together, Maria and Mark built the Insurrection Index, a database that tracks more than 1,300 insurrectionists and works to keep these individuals out of public office. As Filipinos, Maria, Mark, and I know that previous generations fought for better futures for us, and now, we are taking their dreams further. History helps inform our work, and we are working tirelessly to keep far right extremists out of elected office because we know what is at stake. We are educating others, sounding the alarms, and motivating voters across the country. 

As I look back on the last month, I am reminded that civic engagement and organizing are part of Filipino culture. It is in our blood, and it’s what we do every day at Public Wise. Next month, we have the opportunity to reject authoritarianism and reaffirm our democratic principles as a nation. My family moved to the United States in the pursuit of freedom and more opportunities, and as a Filipino American, I have committed my life to ensuring their sacrifices weren’t in vain.