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Opinion

Why Filipinx American Activism Deserves a Place in Our Textbooks

Four Filipino/a/x American Teach For America staff members share what FilAm activism means to them and why it needs and deserves to be taught in schools.    

By Tony DelaRosa, Bianca Nepales, Dan Santos, and Monique Rae Valerio

October 30, 2020

A woman looks at paper tree titled "Legacy Projects, Our Collective Impacts."

Filipino/a/x Americans (FilAms) have long played leading roles in social justice movements throughout history. There was Larry Itliong and Philip Veracruz of Delano who catalyzed the United Farm Workers’ Movement in a fight for fair wages and better working conditions. There was Bob Santos, an activist from Seattle’s Chinatown and International District who organized across lines of difference in a stand against gentrification. 

In the midst of this pandemic, we see activism play out in our healthcare community. Despite making up only 4 percent of our country’s nurses, over 31 percent of nurse deaths due to COVID-19 are from the FilAm community. And there are countless others, named and unnamed in our textbooks, who fought tirelessly for human rights, for ethnic studies, and for fair and equal treatment. 

We continue to see this activism play out today in an expression of staunch solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement, the American Indian Movement, Women’s Rights, LGBTQ+ Rights, and a myriad of other important issues. 

These stories of FilAm activism, both in the historical context and in the current moment, need and deserve to be told. And so, as we look back on FilAm History Month, four FilAm Teach For America staff members reflect on what FilAm activism in education means to them, and why FilAm history should be taught as American history in schools. 

Tony DelaRosa, Director of Teacher Leadership Development - Miami-Dade

The first time I felt a sense of FilAm activism was at the Teach for America 25th Anniversary Summit. When I experienced this, I had this dissonance with myself and reflected, “why is this the first time ever hearing about FilAm activism?” 

I witnessed the magic of Isang Bagsak in a room full of Asian Americans educators from across the nation. Staff member Justin Tandingan led a whole group space in this ending clap ritual which means “we rise together and fall together.” This ritual stemming from the Anti-Martial Law Movement in the Philippines was an ancestral gift. It was used during the Delano Grape Strike during the 1960s, and it is used today as we fight in solidarity with other marginalized communities.

Because this gift has the somatic ability to live in the body and bring people together, I try my best today to pay it forward by curating national talks focusing on how solidarity looks like in action. These talks are called #IsangBagsakAsVerb. My hope is that these cross-coalitional talks offer young Asian American and FilAm leaders a new template to learn from, offering another way to combat the model minority myth, and ultimately, white supremacy. Solidarity in action should be taught in schools as part of our commitments to anti-racism. If we teach kids about collective liberation now, our country has the potential of seeing the leaders we deserve in the future. To start now, I encourage you to explore the #IsangBagsakAsVerb Toolkit and bring this to your school! 

Tony DelaRosa (he/they/siya) is a TFA Indy 2012 Alum, and now serves as a Director of Teacher Leadership Development in the Miami-Dade region by day, and works as an anti-bias and anti-racist consultant and motivational speaker by night at TonyRosaSpeaks.com. He serves as a board director of the Filipino Young Leaders Program in partnership with the Philippine Embassy & Ayala Foundation. Outside of the work, ask him about anime, music, or cooking with Sriracha! 

Bianca Nepales, Managing Director of Collective Leadership and Engagement - Los Angeles

FilAm activism in education is solidly shaped through my identity as a Filipina-American woman, or Pinay. Three Pinay leaders stand out to me when I consider the complexity of our current work that builds on the efforts led by our manongs and manangs. First, my elementary and middle school principal, Mrs. Flor Lelis, who was an immigrant from the Philippines like my parents, helped me see that an education system could feel like a kitchen table rather than a conveyor belt.

Another systems-changer that comes to mind is Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, who spoke at one of our AANHPI summits. Through her programs like Pin@y Educational Partnerships, she ensures that teachers, especially Filipinx educators, know their history and know their role in our racialized school system.

Most importantly, I think about youth leaders like Frances Suavillo, the first Pinay elected to LAUSD’s student board member position. As a senior in high school, Frances passed bills that fought for more inclusion, like an official recognition of Filipinx History Month and a Student Bill of Rights. 

We need more examples of diverse leaders like these in education to affirm our students’ identities across backgrounds, build a shared sense of community, and cultivate authentic leadership in order to make our education system more inclusive of all voices.

Bianca Nepales Gervacio brings nearly a decade of experience working in education and as a diversity, equity, and inclusiveness practitioner. As the managing director of Collective Leadership and Engagement at Teach For America Los Angeles, Bianca leads a team that trains 280 novice teachers across 140 schools to drive systems-level change from their classrooms for nearly 9,000 students. She is also a part-time faculty member at Loyola Marymount University where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses to train the next generation of special education teachers. Bianca also successfully advocates for policies and programming that support the Asian American Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community, including advancing the historic LAUSD data disaggregation resolution which ensures that the district take a closer look on the rich diversity of the Asian American community so that particular groups, such as Filipino students, can receive more targeted support and services.

Dan Santos, Senior Associate of Program Communications & Operations - Las Vegas

FilAm Activism has always been ingrained in me, especially during my upbringing. I was raised in a family where it was very common to have dialogue around current events and sociopolitical issues, even if we disagreed with each other.

My father was a barangay captain in the Philippines and my great uncle was a city councilman. My parents raised me with a belief in the capacity of government to make a difference in people’s lives. They stressed that the decisions made in government impacted communities like our own, and it was our duty to be engaged and informed. Above all, they emphasized the importance of education, preaching that “no one can take that away from you.” 

I’ve always felt connected to the movement for educational equity because of my own experiences as an English Language Learner. In kindergarten and first grade, I had to see a speech pathologist because my classmates and teachers could not understand me. I learned both English and Tagalog at the same time and often mixed up words and pronunciations.

Although I was lucky to have access to support, far too many English Language Learner students aren’t as fortunate. These lived experiences bring me to this movement for educational equity for all. In addition to my full time position, I spend much of my free time organizing the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) and FilAm communities in Nevada in an effort to fortify our collective voice as the fastest growing demographic in the state. 

Dan Santos (he/him/his) is a proud second generation Filipinx American. Born and raised in the Chicagoland area and a 2017 graduate of the Gies College of Business in Champaign-Urbana, he moved to Las Vegas to join the Teach for America regional team. Dan coordinates professional development conferences and manages budgets and communications for programming. Outside of his regular duties, Dan chairs the AAPI Democratic Caucus of Clark County and the Teach For America AAPI Resource Group. His passion for education, civic engagement and AAPI representation stems from his immigrant family’s journey and the sacrifices his parents made to provide him with better opportunities in the U.S. Prior to joining TFA staff, he served as a Fulbright Scholar in Malaysia, where he worked as a cultural ambassador and developed innovative English programming for high school students. Dan has also worked in financial services, interning for Deloitte, Siemens, and EY.

Monique Rae Valerio, Manager of Alumni Strategy - Jacksonville + Central Florida

Growing up, I very rarely, if at all, heard about AANHPI leaders and the roles they played in our country’s history. It was not until I went to college that I really embraced my identity as a first-generation FilAm and began my own research into FilAm activism. There are so many noteworthy leaders that I am still learning about as I continue my own development.

My journey in education has only emphasized the importance of continuing my own identity work; there is a lack of diversity in the stories being told and individuals being highlighted in today’s school curricula. Entering the classroom as a first year teacher in 2015, I came face to face with the importance of incorporating diverse voices into the classroom because my group of scholars deserved to learn about leaders that looked like them. I did this by sharing my own FilAm culture, inviting them to share their own cultures and traditions, and making it a point to bring in other cultures through literature.

I continue to actively search for, network with, and highlight the works of FilAms working towards educational equity. Something as simple as resharing a post on FilAm history, a Filipinx activist, or a Filipinx-owned small business has proven to be a conversation starter for my circle of friends and family. 

Monique Rae Valerio grew up in North Plainfield, New Jersey and graduated from Penn State University with a degree in history, where she sat on the executive board of the Penn State Filipino Association. She joined TFA Orlando as part of the charter corps in 2015 and taught elementary school. Monique was a corps member advisor for two summers at the Miami-Dade Institute, and this past summer served as a leadership coach for the very first Virtual Summer Teacher Training. She is currently the manager of alumni strategy, supporting the rising alumni in both Jacksonville and Orlando as well as supporting the alumni initiative in Central Florida. When Monique isn’t working, she enjoys listening to audiobooks and tending to her many, many house plants.

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The opinions expressed in this piece, and all others in our Opinion section, represent those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Teach For America organization.