Undoing My Own Invisibility: In Celebration of Filipino/a/x American Heritage Month

by Jasmine M. Pulido

“… if you don’t see yourself represented outside of yourself you just feel fucking invisible.”

—John Leguizamo, Latin History for Morons

I have felt invisible for most of my life.

I have never immersed myself in a story where someone Filipinx American was the main character. I have never watched a show that was led by a Filipinx American protagonist. I have never read a book by a Filipinx American author. I haven’t ever had a Filipinx American neighbor, not even one, in the 15 years I have lived in Seattle.

It’s a problem.

It’s a problem because Filipinx Americans have been in America since 1587. We are, in fact, the second largest Asian American population in the nation. It’s problematic that the first time I felt visible in any media was watching Tia Carrerre from True Lies, with the immediate understanding at age 12 that if I wanted to be seen in this world I would need to have a certain body type, play into sexual objectification, and win the white male gaze via Asian exoticism. 

October is Filipino/a/x American Heritage Month (also known as Filipino/a/x American History Month). It commemorates the first recorded presence of Filipinx people on “American” soil — and they were the first Asian people on that soil, 33 years before the events at Plymouth Rock — on October 18, 1587. As workers aboard Spanish trade ships, they made up the majority of the crew while also getting paid the least. I didn’t even know any of this until a few years ago, nor do I tend to remember it even though October is my own birth month. What I have come to learn about my own invisibility in movies, books, shows, plays, art, food, community — in U.S. society — is that I interpreted my lack of presence in dominant culture as an indicator that my own culture must be inferior; that the stories of my people were unimportant. We Filipinx Americans weren’t worthy of being highlighted, seen, or understood.

This message is not an accident. It is a purposeful message from white supremacy.

It created internalized racism within me. I didn’t seek out Filipinx American narratives and instead I sunk myself into whiteness. When I saw a Filipinx American just starting out in any visible field I would hear in myself a judgmental voice, sometimes small, sometimes overpowering, saying they weren’t good enough. I would see them as inferior, a mere copycat of white culture.

There’s an easy answer as to why I thought these things: Assimilation. Colonialism. Imperialism.

The Philippine islands have been colonized multiple times by the Japanese, the Spanish, and by Americans. Each time we are colonized, we are told that to achieve success as a third-world country we need to be more like someone else. They lecture us, telling us our ways are barbaric, savage, and uncivilized and that our culture is in need of outside intervention. My mind and the minds of my ancestors have been colonized with such messages before we ever set foot on stolen and colonized American land — then again since we have arrived here. On so many levels, we have been taught to be ashamed of ourselves.

This is why representation is so fucking important.

The only way to undo all this colonial and imperialist damage, to resuscitate the inherent worthiness of my Filipinx American heritage back into my life, is to realize I am participating in my own invisibility. I need to understand why I have subjected myself to invisibilization and reverse its effects on me. Because when I reclaim my ancestry from cultural erasure, I demand that we are enough instead of letting others decide our worth for me.

This October I decided to get very specific about reclaiming my visibility. I searched for Seattle-based Filipinx American writers who released books this year. I found and read the works of four Seattle authors: Ebo Barton’s Insubordinate, Jen Soriano’s Making the Tongue Dry, Allison Masangkay’s Do Androids Dream in Color? Phenohype is a Cyborg, and Donna Miscolta’s Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories. I was astounded by how much their works impacted me. In their words, I found reflections of myself that fit in a remarkably customized fashion. This overwhelming resonance, this connection, gave light to places inside me that have never been given a chance to speak and started to amplify them for the first time. These authors had written into existence complex feelings that, until then, I couldn’t even begin to name. I felt instilled with a larger hope that if they could tell our story, I could tell it too.

This is why representation is so profoundly important.

The Philippine Islands consist of 7,641 islands with 175 different dialects. When you factor in multiracial backgrounds due to multiple colonizations as well as immigration patterns, varying generations of immigration to the United States, and other intersectional layers, you get an enriching perspective of Filipinx and Filipinx American identity. Barton, Soriano, Masankay, and Miscolta reflect this diversity and intersectionality in interesting blends, defying the “exotic Asian” stereotype I used to see glimpses of in the movies.

Ebo Barton is a writer, poet, educator, producer, performer, and an arts and activist leader. (Photo: Dalin Costello, Instagram @dcostellophotography)

Ebo Barton (pronouns: he/him and they/them), is a genderqueer, non-binary, Black and Filipinx poet, educator, and writer. His first collection of poetry, Insubordinate, reflects on navigating the world in a body and identity that challenge societal norms in every aspect of his life. From non-profits to a gentrified Pike Street, you can hear Barton yell “we are still living, even if you didn’t expect us to.” In his written pieces, you get a chance to read more of Barton’s personal thoughts, the ones he rarely performs in his spoken word.

What I admire about Ebo Barton is their insistence on speaking their truth even in spaces where they feel unsafe. I aspire to internalize their proclamation that they are holy and sacred, to announce the idea that they are a God within a society that aims to constantly demoralize every identity they inhabit. This takes deep intention, tenacity, and self-determination. At the same time, Barton’s poetry also captures their own insecurities, vulnerabilities, and discusses how they have doubted themselves. It reminds me what strength, courage, and love we are called upon to show ourselves in our deepest sufferings. Barton describes himself as “community-educated” and told me in an interview that those without educational privileges have “knowledge and wisdom that is valuable, it’s just not mainstream.” Barton reminds me that there is not one hero, not one answer to the white supremacist problems of America, but that there is an unfolding of many truths in the multitude of our personal stories.

Jen Soriano is a Filipinx American lyric essayist, performer, and communications strategist for social justice organizations, originally from Chicago. (Photo: Naomi Ishisaka)

In Jen Soriano’s (pronouns: she/they) first chapbook, Making The Tongue Dry, I got my first exposure to lyrical essays. Soriano presents in poetic prose all the questions and contemplations I didn’t know I had about my own identity like, “Why do I feel so fragmented despite knowing my cultural background?”; “Why do I feel so connected to Indigenous folks?”; and “Why is writing so liberating for me as a Woman of Color?” I rejoiced in getting to read writing by another Pinay mother the same age and generation as me. Like me, Soriano is an avid researcher. She dives deep into areas of history and neuroscience and makes connections between disciplines that I didn’t know existed. Soriano is able to weave back and forth between a granular, personal view of her own life and a larger scale, bird’s-eye view of social issues to show how she is impacted by larger forces at any given moment.

What I absolutely resonated with is Soriano’s emphasis on kapwa ( “interconnectedness”) and bayanihan (“community solidarity”). I find myself constantly searching for these things in Seattle. I find it affirming and comforting that this desire is possibly seeded deep within my bloodlines. In Soriano’s “Unbroken Water,” for instance, I explore the parallels between America and the homeland, between Trump and Duterte, between past attempts to seize land for profit and current ones. In “War-Fire,” I circle and sit on the line “Silence is the sanctuary of buried trauma” and think upon the fact that “PTSD is now considered more of a systemic rather than solely mental disorder.” Soriano’s first essay named “A Brief History of Her Pain” was eye-opening for me in the way they tether their own chronic pain to the pathologizing and demonization of women, especially Women of Color, throughout history.

Allison Masangkay (DJ Phenohype) is a sick and disabled Filipinx femme, is an artist, scholar, and social justice advocate, originally from Northern New Jersey (Lenni-Lanape territory). (Photo: Bianca Recuenco)

Allison Masangkay’s (pronouns: she/they) book, Do Androids Dream in Color? Phenohype is a Cyborg, challenges me to think about race in different ways. Masangkay takes me with her viewing race as technology, a man-made construct that can be manipulated, hacked, and decoded. She pushes me to imagine new realities completely outside of white supremacist systems, pulling from both Indigenous and Filipinx frameworks to create a new lens on issues like mental health and chronic pain. Her words introduce me to the world of Afrofuturism and her music, accessed by scanning QR codes with your phone at certain parts of the book, fills my ears with electronic music that includes samples of traditional Filipinx instruments. To dive into Masangkay’s work is to have a multimedia experience where I get to live a reality that fully embodies a Brown life free of oppression.

What I connected to most in Masangkay’s book is her clarity interrogating race as a Non-Black Person of Color. They mindfully reflect on developing DJ practices that divest from racial capitalism while also modeling accountability practices to oppose the Black cultural appropriation that is too common in the music industry. At age 25, Masangkay is grappling with systemic concepts at a level I had no real understanding of at the same age. Seeing the tools, language, and knowledge the next generation has to have these conversations gives me a lot of hope for the future and what Filipinx American voices can contribute to it.

Donna Miscolta is the author of three books of fiction: “When the de la Cruz Family Danced,” Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories, and Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories, and a retired project manager for local government, originally from National City, CA. (Photo: Meryl Schenker)

Donna Miscolta’s (pronouns: she/her) book, Living Color: Angie Rubio stories, gives me a chance to explore my own childhood but with the mindfulness of Miscolta’s commentary to guide me. Although the protagonist of the book, Angie Rubio, is Mexican American, the stories echo with uncanny similarity the Southern Californian culture in which I grew up. From Angie’s mom’s remarks and family dynamics to her playground social anxieties, I am reminded what it was like to be a kid growing up Brown in a world where there’s an implicit understanding of the racial rules at play from a very young age.

I see myself so much in Donna Miscolta and her writing. We grew up in the same city, got the same bachelor’s degree, and made the same pivot into writing at about the same age. Now having read her book about a fictionalized version of her own Filipinx/Mexican American upbringing, I see that we had very similar experiences, albeit about 20 years apart. If there is anything I gather from Miscolta’s work, it is the resounding message that I can fully inhabit an identity as a writer for the next 20 years and make a living telling my own stories full of color. Having no writing role models growing up, no Filipinx American authors to study, this was a completely impractical thought to me as a child and one I still have a lot of internal resistance to as an adult. Miscolta’s nuanced narration of Angie Rubio’s life nudges me to filter through my childhood experiences to see how they have shaped my understanding and insecurities around my own racialized identity.

These readings have opened doors I didn’t know were available to me. They opened pathways to possibilities I didn’t know existed. They led me to understanding myself in ways I didn’t know I could. They helped me understand the invisible layer of my childhood no one had the words to explain to me. They gave me alternate frames for the future where people like me are centered. I understand now with refreshed lucidity how much our Filipinx American stories matter. They really do. It makes me want to tell more of mine. 

Jasmine M. Pulido is a first-generation Filipinx American writer-activist and mother of two in Seattle, WA. She is currently writing a full-length play entitled, “The Master’s Tool.” Her Facebook experiment personally exploring the theme of shame in story posts for 30 days ultimately inspired her to launch an ongoing blog called, “Shameless Jas.” She still contributes new essays to it intermittently in her spare time. 

Featured image by Jasmine M. Pulido.

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