No History, No Self

My identity changes wherever I go. After living in four different places, I learned that my perceived ethnicity is essentially context-dependent. Growing up in the rural mountain town of Sedona, Arizona, where 95 percent of residents are white, made my Asian-ness quite apparent. My Filipina mother raised my siblings and I on her own. We grew up eating lumpia and watching our mother’s income become remittances, things that often underscore Filipino identity.

I never questioned the fact that I am Asian until I graduated high school and moved to Phoenix, where a few peers from a scholarship program accused me of posing as Asian to qualify for it. I spent 18 years of my life unwavering in my Filipino identity, but when I left my insulated community, I confronted the fact that I am actually white-passing. I made a habit of pinching my face in the mirror for long periods of time, dissecting my physical appearance to understand what others see when they look at me.

When I moved to Philadelphia at 20, I lived like a chameleon. I would gauge how others perceived my race, and adapt to whatever impression was imposed upon me. Some people view me as white, others view me as Asian, and some believe I am perfectly ambiguous. Constantly measuring others’ perceptions of me left me unanchored to any single identity, even though I know that race goes much deeper than mere phenotype.

At the onset of the coronavirus lockdown, I moved to Vermont with my then-boyfriend’s white family to escape the anxiety of living in an urban area gripped by a virus we had little knowledge of. This returned me to an isolated, racially homogenous area but also introduced me to living in a white household.  In a well-meaning attempt to make me feel welcomed, my boyfriend’s mother asked me the question, “So what island is your mother from?” while pulling up a map on her computer.

The question didn’t evoke a welcoming feeling, but a haunting one. Questions like this often kickstart an interrogative conversation where one question about my mother’s immigration story leads to another about my heritage or upbringing. Those conversations suffocate me: I usually have to explain not only my mother but an entire nation and how I fit into it, to someone with no prior knowledge. But the most painful aspects of these conversations are my incomplete answers and my butchered pronunciations that remind me of my insidious racial imposter syndrome.

My European name and monolingual tongue make me feel not Asian enough. But my upbringing and experiences that come with being a second-generation Asian person make me certain I’m not white either. Yet I’m not even comfortable identifying as “half” of either race, because it implies that my experience can be divided and packaged. How could I feel compelled toward my “white half,” when my white parent wasn’t ever a part of my life? And if I do create fractions of my experiences, who does this really serve? Making my identity into something palatable to others feels like a performance I never signed up for.

When I lived in Vermont, I realized something crucial was missing from my relationship to my identity. I spent all this time understanding what others think when they see me and no time deciding what I actually think of myself. I defined myself by others’ perceptions of me, and not my own heritage or history. I felt alone in this realization, and had no community to turn to. In an attempt to escape this loneliness, I reached out to a Pinoy friend of mine, Hector, about the struggles I faced as a biracial person. He sent me a message that changed my relationship to my identity for good.

“When you have Filipino blood, you carry the struggles of the people that came before you,” he told me. “When someone is Filipino, even just a little bit, it means that we still exist. Despite the horrors we were subjugated to, we have the pride of knowing that we are still here. Be proud of your heritage because all we have is each other.”

I never heard of someone conceptualizing Filipino-ness as a form of resistance, where the mere act of living proudly as a Filipino could be a form of fighting against repression. I wanted to know more, but I was stuck in Vermont in the middle of a pandemic, and I wasn’t close with any Filipino people besides Hector. I used social media as an escape. I messaged a Filipina peer of mine on Instagram for organizations that could help me learn about Filipino politics and culture. She was in the midst of starting a local chapter of a global organization called Anakbayan, meaning “youth of the nation” in Filipino. In June 2020, I joined a Zoom-based orientation into its Philadelphia chapter.

I knew that Anakbayan fights to liberate the Filipino masses, but I had no idea what we needed to be liberated from. During orientation, I learned a bite-sized version of both historical and current affairs in the Philippines, which entailed a history of colonization and a series of corrupt presidents. I was introduced to what Anakbayan does, and how it is organized. By the end of the hour, I had my left fist raised and recited the following pledge in unison with complete strangers:

I pledge to uphold the revolutionary tradition of the Filipino youth. I will continue the unfinished struggle for national liberation and democracy. I will be loyal, enthusiastic, and arduously serve the interests of the youth and the people, even if it means offering my life.

Together, we work to mobilize youth around Philadelphia to advocate for National Democracy in the Philippines by studying Philippine history, standing in solidarity with other oppressed communities, and educating people about the situation in the Philippines. We organize virtual teach-ins and rallies, raise funds for causes abroad, and sometimes hold in-person actions such as banner drops or protests.

Soon, these strangers would become my dear friends whom I would protest, study, organize, and laugh with. I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with members Rhiannon Newcomer and Astrid, who I had met a month beforehand when they were newly oriented. Coronavirus separated me from my family in Arizona for more than a year now and being away from them forced me to find a new family to get me through the rest of this pandemic’s challenges.

Eventually, Astrid moved into my same apartment building. Rhiannon visits us often, and we do everything together. We organize together, but we also share meals and provide emotional support to one another. We all became passionate about what Anakbayan fights for. 

Remy and Rhiannon talk at the table while Astrid cooks dinner in Astrid’s apartment on March 11.

The three of us learned what we were up against: centuries of imperialism, thick layers of corrupt economic and military agreements, and an education system built to maintain the status quo. The current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, wages wars on his own people. Under his administration, up to 20,000 people have been killed extrajudicially during his War on Drugs, the Philippines became the most dangerous place in the world for environmental activists, and criticisms against Duterte became acts of terrorism under his Anti-Terror Law.

Worst of all, Duterte is only the latest installment in a long legacy of violence against the Filipino people. The archipelago’s history includes colonization under Spain and the United States, occupation by Japan during WWII, and rule under a series of corrupt puppet regimes such as Ferdinand Marcos who infamously placed the country under martial law for 14 years. The picture of Filipino history appears grim, but with every oppressor came a mighty resistance. Filipino revolutionaries struggled against both of their colonizers for hundreds of years. Marcos’ rule ended when the Filipino masses ousted him in 1986.

Most members of Anakbayan are a part of the Filipino diaspora, but some members, like Rhiannon and Astrid, come from various backgrounds. Rather than joining to learn about their heritage, Astrid and Rhiannon joined to fight against United States imperialism abroad. Astrid, a third-year undergraduate film student at SUNY Purchase, joined Anakbayan per Rhiannon’s suggestion. The pair shared frustrations over United States imperialism in Asia, particularly in Vietnam and Korea. When they studied the history of American intervention in these countries, they uncovered secrets that the American education system kept from them.

When Astrid joined Anakbayan, they realized there’s a rich community of organizers doing anti-imperialist work that they didn’t know about previously.

“Even though I haven’t physically met everyone, I feel very close to them.” Astrid said “I feel seen in a way that I haven’t with my friends that I have met in real life.”

Rhiannon, a third-year undergraduate speech pathology student at Temple University, deferred enrollment in Fall 2020 to become an emergency medical technician. This decision was guided by the protests that occurred in the summer, where she saw people getting injured by rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons. She also spent time at the homeless encampments in Philadelphia. Seeing this unfold made her want to have a more active role in helping people.

“I realized that if the world absolutely collapses, having medical knowledge makes you more valuable,” Rhiannon says. “And we don’t have to be so dependent on this system.”

This reflects a core sentiment we’ve learned as a friend group, that one of the most important parts of activism is simply caring for one another. We should be considering, whenever possible, how we can be valuable to one another and create a tight-knit community. I often overlooked this in my own political thought, because I was so focused on dismantling the rotten system at hand. I used to spend so much time just being angry. Angry that I spent so much time explaining myself and trying to find a place in the world that I fit in, and angry at all the unaddressed evil in the world.

But I was wrong. There is a place for me, and there is an abundance of activists that are addressing the evils at hand and fighting for a better world. Some of these communities have been around for years, and Filipino resistance itself has been around for centuries. Now, I spend less time being angry, and more time being appreciative of everyone that I share this struggle with. I learned that being hopeful alongside other activists is one of the most radical things you can do because we are much stronger when we are together and we believe in ourselves.

“Everything you are fighting for should be applied to those closest to you, and your comrades,” Astrid says. “You can be as involved as you want to be, you’re always invited to be as involved as possible.”

Astrid, Rhiannon, and I have a print, made by Astrid for an Anakbayan art show fundraiser, that says “be careful with each other, so we can be dangerous together.” We aren’t really sure who said it, but we keep this phrase on the walls of our bedrooms as a reminder of the importance of community care and the role it plays in the fight for liberation.

There’s a saying by Jose Rizal, a Filipino writer who lived during Spanish colonization, that translates roughly to: “Know history, know self. No history, no self.” Before I studied Filipino history, I did not know myself. I felt uncomfortable with my ethnic identity, and let it be defined externally rather than internally. This quote summarizes a core lesson I learned from Anakbayan: being Filipino isn’t just about speaking a language, wearing certain clothes, or eating certain cuisine. Though these cultural staples are important, there is a major part of Filipino identity that often gets omitted: the fact that Filipino people come from a long legacy of resistance. Throughout history, people have tried to subjugate and repress the Filipino people, but we’ve endured.

Kai, a close friend of mine who I met at orientation, also reflects on how activism shaped his Filipino identity.

“There’s an erasure of Filipino identity. Like, people know [Filipinos] to be hospitable. But why are we like that? It’s because we’ve spent most of our time being colonized so we feel like we have to appease people. The trauma of it all..it’s disgusting.” he says. Kai added that, despite being involved in multiple Filipino cultural organizations beforehand, he felt like a lot of information got “washed away.”

As individual members, we all reckoned with different challenges throughout the past year of the pandemic. Despite these impossible tasks we confronted due to the coronavirus pandemic, we are all still driven and brought together by the belief that a better world is achievable.

“We all share a similar struggle, and nobody is trying to one-up each other in the struggle. We are so interconnected. Even in this pandemic world, we are so very connected, much more than we realize,” Kai says.

When I “offer my life” to the movement, it’s not about facing death. It’s about life, and what I do with my time while I am here on this Earth. I want to dedicate as much of that time to fight for a truly autonomous Philippines, whose government serves its people. I finally feel anchored to an identity, one that doesn’t require me to express myself as fractions, but rather one that carries on my ancestors’ fight for freedom, a fight that I will continue to pass down if we don’t succeed in my lifetime. And I have an entire community of people who’ve chosen the same path. 

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