Trigger warnings: mention of violence against trans women
The Philippines encompasses over 7,600 islands, over 180 ethnic groups, and over 19 dialects. Philippine-Americans make up the second largest demographic of Asian peoples in the United States, and our diaspora of overseas Pilipinx (a gender neutral term for those of Philippine descent) is up to around ten million — and yet we are largely unrecognized and overlooked in world and local history. Even though we are a massive percentage of the population and Pililpinx have made incredible contributions to art, medicine, music, and much more, the world hasn’t recognized us beyond our role as the colonized, and as menial laborers. I’m here to change that.
From the 10th century AD, we traded with China, and by the 1200s, Arab merchants introduced Islam to the many native faiths that we practiced. Our Southeast archipelago location led to wave after wave of Austronesian trade and travel, and our cultures were enriched with Malay and Hindu influence. Much else has been forgotten, for with Spanish interest in the 1500s came Spanish colonizers — our country’s original name was lost, much of our developing cultures destroyed, and we were labeled the Philippines for the Spanish King Philip II.
It is painful, to understand that my heritage, once a palimpsest and pastiche of native cultures, has been reformatted by our colonizers. For after Spain came American rule, then Japanese torment, and then the full force of America’s benevolent assimilation, which is basically white supremacy and cultural genocide.
Today, we are still perceived as little more than someone’s nanny or your grandparents’ nurse (and both of those careers receive far too little gratitude and recognition). The truth is, we are a thriving native people who celebrate the multitudes of cultures we have developed — the erasure of this truth and the lack of respect for our care-based work is the continuation of white supremacy, of cultural genocide.
So today, and always, I want to recognize the Philippines. I want to recognize our contributions, our presence, our pain, our politics. The Pilipinx who still live in the homeland still have a long way to go to restore our government from the tyrants who prey on the impoverished — we are not a perfect country, we are still learning and reclaiming. But we must recognize those who have forged ahead.
More Radical Reads: Radical Self Love and the Politics of Hate
I want to name some of the too-long nameless Filipinas whose names we should speak today, this month, and always. We too are activists. We too are fighters, lovers, creators. I wish I could name us all, but here are just a few radical Filipinas you should know:
1) Geraldine Roman:
Geraldine B. Roman is the first trans woman elected to the Congress of the Philippines.
Geraldine is a Filipina journalist and politician. She comes from a political family — when she was elected as the Representative of the 1st District of Bataan in 2016, she filled her mother’s seat. She is a member of the Liberal Party, and though she has called herself “just another politician who happens to be transgender,” she and the rest of our now predominantly Catholic, conservative country do recognize this election as a breakthrough. The Philippines is largely harsh towards the LGBTQ+ community, although it has been evolving over recent years, and the hatred is not too dissimilar from our own.
Most news about Philippine trans women is tragedy: never forget Jennifer Laude, the 26 year old Pilipina trans woman drowned in a motel toilet by a US marine, who, after a lengthy trial, received “6-12 years in jail for homicide,” a lesser offense than murder, because allegedly he acted “out of passion and obfuscation.” This story has been occurring since the first occupations of the Philippines, and so Geraldine’s achievements are a true triumph — a new narrative we sorely need.
2) Cristeta Comerford:
Cristeta Pasia Comerford is a Filipina-American chef who has held the position of the White House Executive Chef since 2005. She is the first woman, first nonwhite person, and first person of Asian descent to hold the position.
Cristeta attended the University of the Philippines, majoring in food technology. She left school when she emigrated to the US at age 23. She worked at a number of restaurants, and spent six months in Vienna. Cristeta was recruited by White House then-executive chef Walter Scheib III in 1995 to work in the Clinton White House. After Scheib resigned, Cristeta was appointed to his place by First Lady Laura Bush. In 2009, the Obama transition team announced that she would be retained. I certainly hope our next president, whoever they may be, will keep Cristeta on if she so chooses.
Although cuisine is still commonly stereotyped as “women’s work,” men still dominate the industry and enjoy greater respect and career mobility. Men’s work in the kitchen is often more valued than women’s, as women are “expected” to simply, even automatically, be proficient with food. Cristeta Comerford is a pioneer for all women and all Filipina women, in her field and outside of it. She reminds us that we belong where we choose, and that our work in male-dominated and white-dominated fields is still valuable. Her first Filipina female presence in the White House kitchen is a tremendous accomplishment.
3) Shakira Sison
Shakira is an award-winning Filipina-American lesbian essayist, fictionist, and poet, with a weekly column on gender issues, culture, and immigration. Named one of Manila Bulletin’s 15 Women who “empower, inspire, and make a difference” in 2015, she’s won the Palanca, Hildegarde, and Scholarum awards for her essays.
Shakira lives with her wife in NYC, and currently works in the financial industry. She is a veterinarian by education, and her interests include creative writing and various geekery. Her work has appeared in the anthology Motherhood Statements, Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina-American Writers, and much more.
Despite her move to the States, she maintains a constant insightful and approachable online presence for Pilipinx youth. In 2012, she began work as a volunteer ESL teacher at an immigrant center.
4) Shelby Rabara:
Shelby Ann Narito Rabara is a Filipina-American actress and dancer. She was born in California and raised by her mother, along with her siblings. She has appeared in films and TV series, as both an actress and dancer. A former Laker Girl, Shelby is known for providing the voice of Peridot on Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. Steven Universe is one of the most radical shows on television, in any genre. It features a primarily nonwhite cast; explores issues of gender, identity, love, consent, and loss through characters that vary in shape, size, gender, age, sexuality, race, and presentation; and constantly challenges heteronormative scripts, on top of being accessible, entertaining, and excellently plotted. Shelby’s character’s arc and potential underlying queerness (which I hope to see manifest further), is tremendously radical. I don’t want to spoil too much, but Peridot’s transition from colonizer to rebel defender is reclaiming and refreshing – and overall, it’s radical to hear a Filipina voice regularly on American network children’s TV.
(Shelby is also married to her long-time partner Harry Shum Jr., who plays the canonically bisexual warlock Magnus Bane on Freeform’s Shadowhunters. He’s not Filipina…but what a great, radical couple.)
More Radical Reads: Being Biracial: Figuring Out Where Home Is
5) Leona Florentino:
Leona Florentino (1849-1848) was a Filipina poet and political writer who wrote in both Spanish and Ilocano. She is considered as the “mother of Philippine women’s literature” and our “bridge from oral to literary tradition”.
Born to a prominent family in Ilocos Sur, Florentino began to write poetry in Ilocano as a child. However, she wasn’t allowed to receive a university education because she was a woman. Through the teachings of her mother, an Ilocano priest, and various private teachers, she developed her voice in Ilocano and produced profound verse. Due to the feminist nature of her writings, Florentino was shunned by her family; she lived alone in exile and her works were only recognized posthumously.
6) Encarnacion Alzona:
Alzona (1895-2001) was a pioneering Filipino historian, educator and suffragist. Encarnacion was the first Filipina to obtain a Ph.D, and in 1985, she was granted the rank and title of National Scientist of the Philippines.
She obtained a degree in history from the University of the Philippines in 1917. Her thesis was a historical survey on the school education of women in the Philippines. She obtained another master’s degree in history from Radcliffe College in 1920, and a Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1923. Encarnacion returned to the Philippines in 1923 and joined the faculty of the Department of History of the University of the Philippines.
Though American women won the right to vote in 1920, the Philippines, then an American colony, did not grant Filipinas that right. In 1928, Encarnacion was elected President of the Philippine Association of University Women, an organization that eventually focused its efforts on launching a movement to grant women the vote. In 1934, she published acclaimed The Filipino Woman: Her Social, Economic and Political Status (1565-1933), in which she maintained the manifest equality of Filipinas despite the inequitable social and political rights. Her writings encouraged support for women’s suffrage, finally granted in 1937.
7) Lea Salonga:
Lea Salonga is the singing voice of Disney’s Mulan and Aladdin (as Jasmine). Lea originated the lead role of Kim in Miss Saigon at age 18, and became the first Asian woman to win a Tony Award.
She is also the first Philippine artist to have received a major album release and distribution deal in the United States, and one of the best-selling Philippine artists of all time, having sold over 19 million copies of her albums worldwide. Lea was the first Asian actress to play the roles of Éponine and Fantine in Les Misérables. She’s been named Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – as well as an official Disney legend.
There are, of course, way more than seven radical Filipinas you should know! There are thousands upon thousands of us, and I tried to pick a few highlights, but ultimately, we in the West and worldwide must work to make Philippine history and culture more than a paragraph or parenthetical in our textbooks and conversations. We must work towards Philippine and Filipina recognition and representation. Just a few more…
Deedee Magno: Actress, singer, Broadway star, currently the voice of Pearl on Steven Universe.
Natividad Almeda-Lopez: The first Philippine female lawyer, passing the bar in 1913. She was also the first woman to defend a woman in a court of law. Described as a “beacon in the feminist movement.”
Teresa Magbanua: The first woman fighter in Panay. Known as the “Joan of Arc of the Visayas”: a school teacher and military leader.
Bernadette “Det” Neri: An award-winning author and playwright. She wrote the first Philippine lesbian-themed children’s book Ang Ikaklit sa Aming Hardin.
Elisa Rosales-Ochoa: The first woman elected to the Philippine Congress.
I hope by naming some of us, we have become more familiar to you. I hope by recognizing the existence of some of these incredible radical Filipinas, you recognize the potential of the Philippines — we are already here. We are already radical. We just need you to listen. To all of my incredible radical Pinays, Pinoys, and fellow Pilipinx out there — I love you! This is, as always, our time.
Maraming salamat po!
Are you struggling to love, acknowledge and honor your own heritage due to constant erasure? Join us for our free webinar 10 Tools for Radical Self Love.
[Feature Image: Singer Lea Salonga is pictured in a black blouse and skirt on stage singing. Flickr.com/LoreJavier ]