On Asian American Timelines and What They Leave Out

L: Philip Vera Cruz. R: Larry Itliong.

This morning, Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, a scholar of Filipina/o American history and American Studies, posted a “rant” regarding the timeline posted on the website “A Different Asian American Timeline”: https://aatimeline.com/intro. The site does not identify its originators; thus it appears generic and authoritative (as timelines often do). Her complaint is the latest among many that have emerged from Filipina/o American communities in response to omissions or misrepresentations of their history from various parts of the Asian American narrative over the years:

I appreciate and am grateful for the hard work that many folks, including friends and colleagues, put into this project. However, it ONCE AGAIN erases the Filipina/o American narrative in the Delano Grape Strike and the formation of the UFW. HOW COULD AN ASIAN AMERICAN HISTORY TIMELINE NOT EVEN NAME LARRY ITLIONG AND PHILIP VERA CRUZ IN THE ENTRY ON THE UFW?!?!?! [ok, sorry to shout. But come on. It’s 2018. There’s no excuse for shoddy research, especially when a website proclaims itself to be a brand new historical resource for the community.]

It reads like this: “Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta found the United Farm Workers association in Delano, California, which would become the largest and most important farm worker union in the nation. Under their leadership, the UFW joins a strike started by Filipino grape pickers in Delano.”

This is historically WRONG. It completely mischaracterizes the Filipina/o American labor movement as well as the history of Mexican American labor. At the very least, it should read like this: “The mostly Filipino grape workers of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by Larry Itliong, launch the Delano Grape Strike in 1965. Itliong asks the National Farm Workers Association, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, to join the strike. In 1966, the two unions merge and become the United Farm Workers, with Chavez as director and Itliong as assistant director. Filipina/o American labor leaders Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco also served on the board of the UFW.” I left a comment with the correction but it is awaiting approval. AGAIN, Filipinas/os get shafted in larger Asian American historical narratives. It almost would have been better to not even have been included in the timeline than to have perpetuated this myth that the UFW was founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and only them, and that Filipinos were some random folks who happened to start a grape strike.

Shortly afterward, the site revised (deleted) the original text, inserting Mabalon’s text. To which she responded: From what I’ve heard, the site corrected the entry. It’s not 100% correct, but I’ll grade the correction a B+. The AWOC was founded in Stockton in 1959 with a lot of different people including Larry Itliong, Dillon Delvo’s dad Rudy Delvo, and Dolores Huerta, and it was the Delano local of AWOC that included Pete Velasco and Philip Vera Cruz. Thanks everyone for standing up for our histories! 

You can read the Facebook thread here: https://www.facebook.com/dawn.mabalon/posts/10157480754798378?comment_id=10157482219653378&reply_comment_id=10157482308003378&notif_id=1525895355571699&notif_t=feed_comment_reply&ref=notif

UPDATE: From what I've heard, the site corrected the entry. It's not 100% correct, but I'll grade the correction a B+….

Posted by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon on Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Learning & Returning

Rerun of an April 2011 post:

The process of gathering information about Filipina/o writers from the early 20th century is subject to the variables of any life. Authors get sick, die; family members object to releasing information, or can’t be found; collectors hoard their materials like gold until they die, and their documents get tossed into the garbage; some people make up stories that are questionable; valuable papers get lost in the shuffle of life.

Still, the archival research process can be incredibly uplifting and pleasurable, even enlightening. Recently I connected with the daughter of a Filipina writer (actually, it’s a bit limiting to call her a “writer” since she was multi-talented in a number of directions) who had been published by the Philippines Mail during the darkest period of the Great Depression, also a very dark period for Filipinos in the U.S. This writer, Helen Rillera, had experienced numerous daunting setbacks to her ambitions, and I suspect that her experience as a Filipina writer was more or less representative of the struggles of many Filipinas who had writerly, intellectual, or scholarly ambitions at that time. Still, she carried on with grace until her death in 1995.

In the meantime, her daughter, Lala Llacuna, had become the family historian, not just for her immediate family, but for her very large extended family. She had amassed hundreds (possibly thousands?) of old photographs ranging from the late 19th century to the present, and had created a number of detailed family trees that were meticulously dated and detailed, and highlighted with photographs. For the annual family reunions, she began to write histories of notable family members, which were included in the thick volumes that became the family reunion yearbooks. She also created two extensive digital archives for the photographs, available only to family members, which became a site where these histories could be discussed and added to.

I drove about 90 miles to meet with Lala. When I first entered her house, the first thing I noticed was the large kulintang array (a series of gongs used to play indigenous Filipino music); the second thing I notice were her fishing poles — she is a serious fisher. Photos of family members were hung on the walls. We sat down at a large table, and she offered me some bico, the sweet rice dish that I rarely eat nowadays, since my mother passed away — what a treat!

As we talked-story, she spread out on the dining room table her newspaper clippings, discs, photos, and photocopied pages, not only of her mother’s writing, but also of the writings of others about her mother: memorial poems, letters, essays—even a Excel sheet listing dates of articles/essays/poems and their titles, juxtaposed with a timeline. As she talked of her parents and grandparents, I thought of my parents, and the grandparents I never met, and of the many letters I still have, that passed between the United States and the Philippines over the years. Her mother as a child arrived in the U.S. in the same year that my father arrived, 1929; both of them suffered a journey in steerage across the Pacific ocean by steamship.

Later, we had some homemade nilaga (meat/vegetable soup) with abalone that her son had brought back from a dive. She spoke of what got her interested in the family history; meeting and talking to relatives who visited her grandmother and mother; listening to them talk and tell stories. While her interest was spurred by an abundance of stories and exposure to family members, my own interest was spurred by a prescient silence in my family: stories that my father hinted at, but never told in full; grandparents that I never met. While her research focuses primarily on her family circle, in fact, it also connects and speaks to a much larger history of migrations, wars, technology, eras of relative peace, prosperity and economic decline; it’s all there, in the family and community.

The amount of research Lala had done—talking to relatives, digging through archives, contacting genealogy sources, letter-writing, transferring to charts, categorizing and dating, scanning and digitizing of photos, etc.—was really significant. Her detailed family trees look like biology charts for genus and species. I was a little overwhelmed, but also very appreciative of all the knowledge that she has gained, and most importantly, passed on to her huge family, and even to me—a relative outsider.

Of course, no matter how small your family circle seems to be, in reality, its roots spread out and intermingle with countless other relations. It’s not unlikely that even I am related in some distant way to Lala’s family. What’s really wonderful, though, about her family research, is the care she has taken to acknowledge and value all of its members in some small way—at least those members that she knows about. It really says something about the power of her generosity and openness of heart.

It also reminds me that such “research” need never be dry, dull, or selfishly competitive, and the documents and photos we study are always part of a living community. I try to approach my own research with a similar curiosity, openness, generosity, and care.

A New Commonwealth Cafe Blog

As of today, I am moving my Commonwealth Cafe Blog to this website, so website and blog will be in the same place. This is one of the first steps in starting up my press, where I hope to promote the study of early 20th century U.S. Filipino periodicals, and publish writing (pamphlets, tracts, articles, essays, and books) from that period.

That said, I have a lot of work ahead of me, and (plan in hand) many steps to take in this process, including, next year, a Kickstarter campaign. Thanks to my web designer, Denise Enck of Quanta Web Design and Empty Mirror Books for helping me add the blog, and taking care of a few website issues. In the meantime, I may republish a few old articles from the previous blog (which I will shut down next week), and add some new ones — just to stoke the fires. Let the stoking begin!