Following his recent reelection to the California state legislature, Assemblymember Rob Bonta commemorated Filipino American History Month at an event organized by Nueva’s Filipino Club. Speaking virtually to the entire upper school on December 4, Bonta shared how his identity as a Filipino American influenced his political career, which has been devoted to promoting social justice, inclusion, equity, and opportunity.
Born in the Philippines, Bonta came to the United States as an infant when his parents fled the regime of President Ferdinand Marcos. He spent his formative years living with his family in a trailer among Filipino and Mexican American farm workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where his parents worked as union organizers alongside Cesar Chavez. Seeing firsthand the efforts of the farm workers union had a lasting impression on Bonta. When asked to name legislation that he was proud of, Bonta cited AB 123, a 2013 law that requires California schools to teach students about the role of immigrants, including Filipino Americans, in the farm worker labor movement.
Bonta also noted that, as the first Filipino American elected to the state legislature, he is all too aware that many in our society lack political representation and he wants to ensure that those voices are heard. He has introduced legislation to protect civil liberties and immigrant communities against overreach by the federal government and he recently authored a bill that makes racially-motivated 911 calls a hate crime. He has also co-authored various pieces of legislation that protect tenants against rent-gouging and unjust evictions, provide for free community college, and strengthen workplace protections for nurses and others who work the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. Given the current political climate, it was inspiring to hear a public servant who wholeheartedly believes in the power of government to effect positive change in peoples’ lives.
As I listened to Assemblymember Bonta share his perspective on what it means to be Filipino, I reflected on my own Filipino identity. I have always been aware of the fact that I am half Filipino. Like Bonta, my mother was born in the Philippines and emigrated here at a young age. She is both a proud Filipina and a proud Californian, and she has always tried to inspire in me a similar love of my Filipino heritage. Her parents, sister, aunts, uncles, and their extended families all live in Southern California, and as I was growing up, we’d see them at holidays and special occasions. In short, I have every reason to be in touch with the Filipino side of my identity, to be fully aware of what it means to be Filipino. But the reality is that I remain unsure exactly how Filipino culture fits into my life. Outside of my familiarity with my relatives and their personal histories, my knowledge of the Philippines is limited to facts and figures I’ve read in books and on the internet.
One of the primary reasons that I co-founded the Filipino Club at Nueva was to answer these questions about my Filipino identity. Forming the club and getting to know the handful of other Filipino students at the upper school made me realize what I had been missing. I’ve been at Nueva for 12 years, and last year was the first time that there was another Filipino student in my grade and the first time I had a teacher who was Filipino. I’m thankful to be part of this community, and I take great comfort in knowing that, like me, others in the club are also searching to understand what it means to be Filipino.
Being part of the Filipino Club has also helped me learn more about Filipino American history. In preparing for Assemblymember Bonta’s presentation, I read about AB 123 and began researching the role that Filipino Americans played in the California labor movement. I was surprised to learn that Filipino workers initiated the 1965 Delano Grape Strike, which led to the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) Union and is considered to be one of the seminal events in the labor movement in America. But, while Cesar Chavez’s role as the leader of the UFW has been widely celebrated, history has largely forgotten Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, and other Filipino activists who first made the decision to strike.
Unfortunately, this erasure of Filipinos from the American story is not just a historical phenomenon. Even today, Filipinos make critical, but largely invisible, contributions to this country. For example, recent reports have revealed how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted Filipino healthcare workers. While Filipinos make up about 4 percent of registered nurses in the U.S., nearly a third of registered nurses who have died of COVID-19 are Filipino. One explanation for these statistics is that Filipino nurses tend to work on the front lines of the pandemic—in the ICUs, the emergency rooms, and in long-term care facilities. Yet, their sacrifices are rarely acknowledged.
During his presentation, Bonta warned that the true enemy of democracy is apathy. In a nation where we have the right to vote, to speak, and to protest, failing to use these tools to combat injustice undermines the entire system. Bonta meant this as a lesson in civics, a recommendation to soon-to-be voters on how to effect change. But I wonder if there is a related point here, one that operates on a more personal level. Apathy towards the political process is certainly an issue, but apathy can take many forms. Apathy towards heritage, an ignorance of where you come from, may be just as problematic. By learning more about my Filipino culture and about the contributions made by other Filipinos, I’m inspired to think about what role I can play as a member of the Filipino community in creating a better democracy.