Filipino American History Month (October 2018 #3)

Adding to this month’s theme of identity awareness, guest blogger Nicole Magtoto reflects on the skin she is in – in the context of her relationship with the San Francisco Unified School District.  In addition to graduating from and currently working in SFUSD, Nicole is SF-CESS’ Board President and, as she puts it, “an SF-CESS Kid”.


October is Filipino American History Month. As it closes, I’ve been reflecting on my complicated relationship with being a Filipina educator and product of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

I am an almost model minority. This is a refrain I often use when sharing my own experience as a student from the late 1980s through 2001. As a third generation, native San Franciscan of mixed-race background, I experienced nearly every type of schooling one could that our public school system has to offer – alternative dual-spanish immersion, traditional public and public charter.

But, I also entered those experiences with the added bonus of carrying generational expectations as someone who was Filipina, Chicana and to a lesser degree Irish and Afro-Portuguese. Lesser, because in our larger context I could not pass as either, lesser because I did not experience the privileges of being white or white-passing, nor did I encounter the systemic racism of being black or passing for black.

“Almost model minority,” because my parents never fully enforced stereotypical Asian American values on me, all the while speaking Spanish and being visually read as Latina. This meant that I simultaneously lived up to societal expectations when I got straight A’s but also, consciously avoided getting involved in our systemically built sorting systems for brown folk like the gang affiliations that caught up some of my Latinx peers – San Francisco in the early 90s was an interesting time to say the least.

“Almost,” because even as a teenager, I had a complicated relationship with being Filipino – not quite Asian, not quite Pacific Islander, certainly not like other Latinx diasporas but still colonized by the Spanish. All things that I’ve spent years reckoning with.

As I reflect however, as we recently lost a pioneer in Filipino American studies, Bay Area native and local professor Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon – I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a young Pinay (Filipina) in our schools now, in 2018.

I’m not the only Filipino who has a complicated history with being Filipino. Yes, being mixed certainly adds to it, but we as a people have had an ancestry that involves a lot of negotiation. Our history is one that’s been dotted with migration and influence from all over the world – our indigenous traditions poking through Malay and Chinese influences, Japanese and Spanish wars and U.S. military installation.

But here, in the Bay Area, we have found a second home. Since World War II brought so many of our grandfathers, uncles and family members to San Francisco (and the west coast of the U.S. in general) our families have easily (and not so easily) settled in the area and we have staked our claim. Like many other diasporic communities, we spent years trying to assimilate and simultaneously hold on to whatever cultural traditions we brought here with us.

In SFUSD, this manifested in the opening of the Filipino Education Center in accordance with the Lau Action plan in 1977 and a push to recruit and hire Filipino teachers, something that though diversity and inclusion have continued to be important, there has not been a specific focus on recruiting Filipinos.

I was in late middle school/early high school during the late 1990s when we saw a shift in how local Filipinos both saw ourselves and wanted to be seen by others. A push to recognize that there was no F in our native tongues (of which there are at least 185 languages) and a movement to spell Filipino with a P began in local higher education circles. We started to embrace the terms Pinoy/Pinay to describe ourselves – a term that could be likened to Mexican Americans calling themselves Chicano/a.

In the academic world – and in the spaces where young college students supported youth empowerment of Filipino young people (my own entree into the community beyond my family) there was also important dialogue about Filipino’s relationship to Asian America. Were we Asian? No. We did not experience the privileges that our brethren from mainland Asia did. We were darker, had complex histories as a colonized people, had indigenous roots that more similarly reflected the Pacific Islanders we were around. But, we still didn’t quite fit there. Our indigenous background had been – in comparison to our cousins in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – watered down or hidden publically by years of territorial rule. For a time, it made sense that we were potentially grouped with them, or alongside them.

I don’t believe 2018 is much different, and I have cause to think that maybe, for Filipino young folks it might be just as complex if not more so.

We’ve set a priority in SFUSD, to focus on closing the achievement gap for African American students, which, regardless of being an SFUSD employee and alum, is something I fundamentally believe will change ALL of our students futures. If we can find ways to do right by our African American students, all students will benefit.

But, the reality is that while that’s a district priority, and we are still wrestling with what that looks like, the experiences of other students are rising to the surface and people are calling for action.

Earlier this spring, the SFUSD Board of Education passed a resolution in support of better serving Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NHPI) students. Though this group may be statistically small in our landscape of SFUSD, they are deeply underserved – their community is concentrated in the same areas of the city as our Black families and students, and though there is no basis for direct comparison, these students and families are disproportionately impacted by academic neglect, health issues and unemployment like their neighbors. Though the resolution was initiated by a collaborative between different City and County stakeholders in San Francisco, from a variety of backgrounds, the efforts are specifically targeting students whose lineages trace to Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – which when considering that the resolution aims to increase graduation rates and post-secondary success, commit to collaborative partnerships with community-based NHPI Organizations that support our young people and hire more NHPI staff – this request is necessary it is also innocuous to our district priority of closing the achievement gap for African American students.

It is impossible, in that sense to not get behind this initiative. Yet I have a sticky feeling about it. I have a slight unease. There’s a nuance to the experiences of our most marginalized communities, that requires that we not begin to play some twisted version of the oppression olympics, that by calling out what communities need, we cannot also create a hierarchy of trauma – at least not when we are trying to serve entire communities of young people who inherited that trauma from all of us adults.

Statistically speaking, Filipinos are doing fine academically – fine relative to their other POC peers. Statistically speaking, the chronic health issues our community may experience are not disproportionate to our population size. Except for one thing that’s become more and more transparent. The 2017 survey results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey have indicated that  Filipino middle school aged students in San Francisco Unified may be experiencing disproportionate rates of suicide ideation. While 19.4% of the 1,627 middle school aged students who took the survey overall indicated they experienced feelings of suicide ideation, 32.4% of the Filipino students had seriously thought about it. In a time when anxiety across the board is clearly at an all time high for people living and breathing in the United States, this particular data point has stuck out with community members in San Francisco and many are partnering to destigmatize mental health supports and dialogue in the Filipino community. Does that mean then, that this issue should somehow qualify them for their own inclusion in NHPI supports, should it somehow be compared to the needs of our island kapit-bahay (translation: neighbors)? Absolutely not. It’s merely worth noting.

So, when I consider my own experiences navigating among my kababayan (translation: countrymen), the stances, beliefs and customs I have inherited and, at times, distanced myself from – I can’t help but wonder, what world do we now have to create to better support these young folks? How do we create spaces where young people, of any background can inherit the truly best parts of our communities and arrive authentically in their own skin? Can we disinherit them from the trauma, the racial hierarchies we’ve created, and give them a space to know themselves and support each other?

As the movements for Black Lives have expanded over the last few years, there has been a small and quiet contingent of Asian/Pacific Islanders for Black Lives. To me, what this has demonstrated was that there is a possibility – in 2018 America where breathing as a young person of color is a risk factor- to dismantle the either/or paradigms which we are so enmeshed in.  There is a space for both/and, and it’s imperative we cultivate it for, and with our young people.

This is how I begin every day, in the work and in life – arriving everywhere as authentically as I can, carrying with me the layered experiences of being in the skin I am in – Filipina, Chicana, Irish, Cape Verdean, Native San Franciscan, Woman, Spanish speaker. Though I graduated from our school system 17 years ago, I recognize that our young people today, are similarly intersectional, similarly complex and know that it’s my duty to investigate and create educational spaces and conditions that allow them to discover their authentic selves.  Perhaps I can reach to this goal today by posing the following to you:

  • In the skin you are in, when have you experienced the complexities of conflicting identity politics?
  • In the skin you are in, how are you cultivating conditions for young people to authentically be who they are?
  • In the skin you are in, how are you showing up for those across difference, who may be experiencing disproportionate challenges, even when your own community’s needs are heightened?


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