Uncharted Waters

The last two weeks of February have felt like swimming in uncharted waters. From seeing the community outcry pour into Antioch City Council calls and social media since the news of Angelo Quinto’s death surfaced on February 18, 2021, I feel overwhelmed and heartbroken. Yet, I am perplexed by my own grief for a Filipino man I never knew.

For much of my life, I have felt ironically isolated from my Filipino heritage, culture, and ancestry. Born in California, I grew up in a Filipino family that immigrated to the US through the late 1970s through the mid 1980s. Perhaps as a way to facilitate the socialization process, learning a Filipino language and the culture from which my family came from was never a priority in my family–even my father never bothered to learn Tagalog (or any Filipino language for that matter) and today, my mother only speaks Taglish, a mix of Tagalog and English.

In middle school, high school, and college, I remember making attempts to learn about what it means to be Filipino by joining AAPI clubs and organizations. But even then, I have felt so far removed from the history and culture associated with being Filipino, I struggled to fit in. It felt inaccessible as if I was living in the wrong time zone, the wrong temporality, the wrong country.

Recently, I read a fantastic young adult fiction book The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio, which tells an adventurous, yet touching tale of an undocumented Filipino teenager and his mother living in the US. In this story, Tenorio draws a connection between jet lag, time zones, and the disorienting conditions of living in multiple temporalities both as someone who is Filipino without ever setting foot in the Philippines and who is American without the legal recognition of American citizenship. It struck me when one of Tenorio’s characters Jerry says, “It’s like you’re here, but your body’s in another time.” (Tenorio 2020). Like a flimsy olive branch, my connection to being Filipino deeply connected to this sentiment.

However, after reading another brilliant book Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay (a gripping and riveting coming-of-age story that follows a young Filipino teenager who seeks to learn the truth of his cousin’s death in the Philippine war on drugs), I was moved to take action as soon as I heard the context in which this story was set was real.

In October of 2020, I joined the Malaya Movement, a broad and global movement of individuals and organizations unified to defend human rights, democracy and sovereignty in the Philippines. Started in 2018, the Malaya Movement was initially a network or coalition of many activist and community organizations rallying behind what is called their Points of Unity, initiatives that bring them together against the Philippine war on drugs. These points of unity include: (1) stopping the extrajudicial killings, (2) scrapping martial law policies, (3) saying no to fascist dictatorships, (4) ending political dynasties and corruption, (5) standing for democracy, and (7) defending Philippine sovereignty (Malaya Movement).

Since joining the Malaya Movement, I still sometimes find myself in the uncharted waters questioning my role, questioning my credibility and questioning my right to be a part of this movement. But in the chambers of Zoom rooms, the bareness of black boxes and the anxiety of awkward silences, I have learned to move away from the question, “Who am I?” toward the question, “Why am I who I am?” By asking “Who am I?”, I was operating under the assumption that I was isolated and undeserving because of my inauthenticity, but I realized I was also imposing walls upon myself, a sort of island of my own design. Moving away from questions of my own authenticity, I finally realized why I see myself in Angelo Quinto, why I see his eyes in mine. Not only do we find common ground in the color of our skin, but also in the history of displacement and dislocation that has created the conditions of being stretched across the temporalities of being Filipino and being American.

From the short time I have worked with the SF chapter of the Malaya Movement, I have come across the phrase isang bagsak, which loudly reverberates, echoes and rings in my ears, especially now as a movement of community support continues to grow for the family of Angelo Quinto.

In Tagalog, isang bagsak stands for one down or one fallen. While the phrase’s exact origins seem hazy, history shows that it grew out of Filipino activism.

Some say that the phrase dates back as early as the United Farm Workers movement during the 1960s. In this origin story, it was said that the phrase was adopted from Larry Itliong, a Filipino farmworker, labor union organizer and activist, who used the phrase as a way to invoke the unity clap, a practice used to build and signal solidarity between Mexican and Filipino farmworkers across cultural and language barriers (see Pasion 2020). (Read Gayle Romasanta‘s children’s book Journey for Justice and Dawn Mabalon‘s work for more history regarding the role of Filipinos in California agriculture.)

Others relate this phrase to a massive nonviolent mobilization in the Philippines during the 1980s, the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution (see Lee). In late February, thousands of protestors gathered and occupied Epifanio de los Santos Avenue for four days to protest and express dissent against former Philippine President and Dictator Ferdinand Marcos. During these protests, the phrase has been attributed to people who would create loud clapping and stomping in unison as if they were one cohesive symphony, orchestrating solidarity and commemorating the struggles that join and link them with one another.

Today, activists and community organizers continue to use this phrase as a way to signify the idea that we fall together and we rise together. Re-articulated by teacher-scholar-activist Artnelson Concordia, the phrase isang bagsak was fused with the unity clap practice to embrace the history of people power. Concordia brought this combination into his classrooms where students would start a slow clapping process that gradually crescendoed into a loud final clap in unison while invoking the phrase, isang bagsak. In conjunction with Pin@y Educational Partnerships (PEP), SFSU Professor Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales is often recognized as a leader in taking this phrase a step further to create the Tatlong Bagsak (three down/three fall) ritual.

As Jasmin Lee noted, “The Tatlong Bagsak ritual also begins with the Unity Clap and then is followed with someone yelling Isang Bagsak to represent our past together, then the community responds with one clap or stomp, then it is the quickly followed by an Dalawang Bagsak (two down) and the community claps or stomps two times and this represents our present work together. To end the ritual, someone yells Tatlong Bagsak (three down) and the community claps or stomps three times and this represents our future journey together.”

From this short historical detour of Filipino activism, the creative storytelling of Filipino writers, and my own involvement with the Malaya Movement, I have learned that history can unlock different ways of seeing our present moment and re-imagining our future moments. It has a way of communicating and creating connections between unlikely allies. And so, while I have personally never met Angelo or his family, I share the family’s grief and sorrow especially in light of the Antioch Police Department’s Monday press conference, and I remain committed to sailing uncharted waters to stand in solidarity with the family of Angelo Quinto as they heal and seek justice during this time. #IsangBagsak #JusticeforAngeloQuinto

References:

Lee, J. (No date). Tatlong Bagsak. https://equitablelearning.org/pages/ByVYjn6K.

Malaya Movement. (No date). https://www.malayamovement.com/about-malaya.

Pasion, A. (November 3, 2020). From “Isang Bagsak” to #FilipinxForBlackLives, the Filipino Identity has Always Been Political. https://medium.com/@apasion96/from-isang-bagsak-to-filipinxforblacklives-the-filipino-identity-has-always-been-political-eddc928658fa.

Ribay, R. (2019). Patron Saints of Nothing. Kokila Press.

Tenorio, L. (2020). The Son of Good Fortune. Harper Collins. New York, NY.

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