To the Filipinx Youth by Adrian Alarilla
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Look up with a tranquil face,
Philippine youth, on this day and shine,
manifesting the grace
and gallantry of your line,
fair hope of this land of mine!
In 1879, an 18-year-old student by the name of José Rizal wrote “A la juventud filipina,” or “To the Philippine Youth,” a poem extolling the virtues of the new generation of indios, the natives of the Philippines, whose novel ideas and forward thinking have the capacity to bring change and enlightenment. Years later, his writings would indeed call for change by bringing to light the oppression he and his fellowmen experienced in the hands of the Spanish colonizers. His writings would be deemed subversive, and he would pay the ultimate price.
To the Filipinx Youth: as we join our friends and colleagues in protest of police brutality and racism, we also need to talk about racism in our community. In light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, we may have begun to hear racist comments from our beloved families, echoes of more subtle, seemingly harmless racist and colorist comments we have heard from them growing up. It is often exasperating and emotionally draining to confront them about it. We have been conditioned by personal and generational trauma to think that keeping silent and non-violent is the only way to endure hardship.
But we cannot afford to stay silent much longer. Lynching is on the rise again, and racists have begun to more openly target other people of color, including Filipinos. We have to speak up, but we also have to unpack our own people’s history of racism and the trauma that stays with us to this day. Only then can we begin to work towards uplifting the minds and spirits of our families and our communities.
See how the light runs down
the ardent zone where dwelt the shadows; and
how Spain, a splendid crown,
with pious and wise hand,
offers the scion of this Indian land.
Racist beliefs are not inherent to Filipinos; rather, they are a result of centuries of internalized colonization based on what our occupiers have taught us. We have so thoroughly imbued racism and colorism within our culture and collective psyche that we even hate ourselves and our skin.
Drawing from their experiences of conquering, colonizing, and ordering the indigenous peoples of the New World, our Spanish colonizers translated their racist beliefs into a colonial system of institutionalized racism. In his book, White Love and Other Events in Filipino History, Vicente L. Rafael describes the racial hierarchy that the Spanish imposed during the colonial period to legitimize their authority. Close to the bottom of the ladder were us, the native, brown-skinned people of the Philippines, called indios, but we were still considered of higher status than the dark-skinned negritos, like the indigenous Aeta or the imported African slave laborers, who were described as “Cafres.”
This colonial hierarchization has led many indios to believe that the whiter you are, the better your position in life. The converse, of course, is that we reviled dark skin, even on ourselves. We especially revulsed the negritos, with their black skin, curly hair, alien ways. We demonized Black people, turned them into monsters: the Kapres of Filipino mythology.
You who, questing, rise
upon the wings of your rich fantasy
into Olympian skies
in quest of poetry
more luscious than the food of divinity;
When the Americans “bought” us from the Spanish, they executed a bloody war of occupation against the Filipinos. In Nerissa Balce’s Body Parts of Empire, she writes about how the American soldiers called Filipinos “n*ggers” and “black devils,” enacting extermination tactics they learned from the Indian Wars and from lynching African Americans. Seeing that our struggles were similar to theirs, it was no wonder then that African American and thinkers such as W.E.B. Du Bois were among the most vocal in their opposition of the American occupation of island territories such as the Philippines. In the Philippines, many African American soldiers such as David Fagen defected and joined the Filipinos in their struggle against American imperialism.
American occupation brought with it American education, and our elders were miseducated to feel gratitude towards the “benevolent” Americans who gave us the “American Dream.” In reality, however, we were only allowed to migrate at certain points in history because America needed cheap, docile labor. As we became compliant and “domesticated,” we stopped being Black and became “Oriental” or Asian—only proving how much race is just a construct created by our society.
We became part of the Asian Model Minority Myth, the idea that race is not a factor to personal success in America, rather individual traits and willpower. Subconsciously (or consciously) we believed this, and so we bought in to the Model Minority Myth at the expense of our Black compatriots. We wanted to believe that we really had a place here, even as we constantly felt our precarious situation here throughout history. In the 1920s, they needed agricultural laborers, many of which were eventually deported during the Great Depression. A postwar fever as well as growing arms race in light of a looming cold war led to the recruitment of Filipino soldiers into many branches of the U.S. Army, even as many Filipino World War 2 veterans who fought alongside the Americans awaited their recognition. And America has always recruited Filipino nurses, even as the recent pandemic has shown how little they really care for them.
Our industry and diligence have become such integral parts of our collective identity, that we have set ourselves apart from other “lazy” races, especially black people. We only see what the anti-Black mainstream media has shown as their loitering, their truancy, their so-called “abuse of the system,” without choosing to see that they have for so long been abused by the racial system of America.
This historical moment that we live in right now is asking us to end this colonized way of thinking, not only from our elders, but also from ourselves. This is a tough pill to swallow, so in our conversations with our family members, we should talk to them with love and compassion. We are all learning together, learning how we, in our big and small ways, can help make black lives truly matter.
O happy, happy day
is this, sweet Philippines, to your descent!
Bless the almighty sway
of God, whose love has sent
fortune shining upon you, and content!
From personal and generational trauma, we have consciously or subconsciously imbued the racial hierarchy in Filipino and American society which has led us to judge people based on the color of their skin. We should strive to educate ourselves and our family members with compassion and understanding. We should strive to keep our hearts and minds open. This is definitely exhausting, but it needs to be done if we ever are to decolonize our mind and our society. The struggles of Black people are more similar to our struggles than we think. In fact, we draw from their struggles. We can thank the Civil Rights Movement in opening America’s borders to immigrants such as our families. Much of our contemporary culture is heavily influenced by black culture. Now, it is time for us to give back.
And as we join the movement here in the United States, let us not forget that at the same time, our fellow countrymen back home in our motherland are also experiencing ever-growing repression under an increasingly fascist state that has learned its own methods of surveillance, policing, and extermination from American colonialism itself. We need to be even more vocal in our opposition as they become increasingly silenced by the Philippine government.
In 1879, an 18-year-old student by the name of José Rizal wrote a poem extolling the virtues of the new generation whose novel ideas and forward thinking has the capacity to bring change and enlightenment. In 2020, we are once more being called to communicate and enact change: in ourselves, in our family, in our community, and in the world.
Notes: Filipinx: I use this term to describe people of Filipino ancestry born and living abroad, especially in the United States. I acknowledge that this neologism borrows from the queer Latinx movement, and is not meant to appropriate or take from their movement, but to describe the diasporic Filipino place “in between” two or more identities, cultures, and countries as very queer in itself.
To the Filipinx Youth: This essay is in tribute to this poem written in Spanish by a young José Rizal; excerpts from this poem are from Nick Joaquin’s English language translation. On June 19th, 2020 we celebrated the 159th anniversary of Rizal’s birth, as well as the 155th Juneteenth celebration, honoring the emancipation of the remaining Black slaves in Texas, part of which was once known as New Philippines.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to Jen Soriano, Frances Grace Mortel, Caroline Tacata, and Vilma Garcia, for your thoughtful comments and suggestions for this essay.
Adrian Alarilla (he/him) is a writer, filmmaker, and PhD History student at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa interested in 20th century Filipino migration across the Pacific. He grew up in Manila, Philippines, and has subsequently lived in Chicago, Seattle, and now here in Honolulu. His films have been shown across the US, Mexico, and the Philippines.