Filipino Community Members Make Modern History

by Jasmine M. Pulido


What does the making of modern history feel like to those of us who have been systematically erased from it?

In Washington State, it was only a little over two years ago, on May 7, 2019, when our Gov. Jay Inslee officially signed Filipino American History Month (FAHM) into law. While the Washington State Legislature has proclaimed October as Filipino American History Month since 2010, organizations like Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), along with other local Filipino community members and activists, have recognized it for decades and have pushed for it to be commemorated more seriously by lobbying for the signing of SB 5685.

Passing FAHM into law was a major event of modern history for Filipino and Filipino American community members. For Filipino American community members with real stakes in the larger goal of Filipino American culture and identity, having a legitimate home within our rainy city, it feels like the beginning of a deep wrong finally becoming right.

Local Filipino American community members and educators don’t take this step lightly and, in fact, have used it as a means to catapult Filipino American studies and language into Seattle’s public school curriculum within just a month’s time.

This October, multiple Filipino American organizations in Seattle have worked together to rapidly progress two City initiatives within the public school system — the development of a Filipino American curriculum and, separately but within the same month, the paving of a way for students to more feasibly receive school credit for learning or already knowing Filipino languages like Tagalog, Ilocano, and Visayan.

Dorothy Cordova, executive director of FANHS. (Photo: Jasmine M. Pulido)

Filipino American Studies

According to 2020–2021 Seattle Public Schools (SPS) student data disaggregated by racial demographics, upwards of 4,700 students identify as Filipino, Filipino American, or as a multiracial Filipino student. While SPS already has Black and Latino/a studies, Filipino American studies will be the first Asian American history course mandated at the City level. This means Filipino American studies won’t be categorized as an elective but a required part of history class. The development of the curriculum is part of the broader movement for ethnic studies to be deemed a mandatory component of K–12 education. The first focus is to adopt the curriculum for middle school and high school level, but plans are already in the works for the K–5 material.

The Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” and the formation of Filipino American studies is no exception to this rule. Filipino American studies will be based on text originally written at the college level at University of Washington called “Pinoy Teach” that was developed in the late ’90s/early 2000s.

“Once all the pieces were in place, it happened very quickly, but the actual effort was a 50-year-long effort,” UW teaching professor Dr. Third Andresen said. Andresen is the person responsible for developing the curriculum and was, coincidentally, also one of the undergraduate students who originally worked on its first iteration under the tutelage of Tim Cordova and Patricia Espiritu Halagao. Andresen is also married to Annabel Garcia, president of Filipino American Educators of Washington (FAEW). Between the two of them, Andresen is writing the curriculum and collaborating with other professors and students to vet the material while Garcia is working with FAEW to develop a teacher’s guide for the course and ensure it’s accessible to all students. “It’s a community movement,” Andresen told the Emerald. His goal is to make Filipino American history a statewide required course.

For the community, it’s three layers of history in one moment — Filipino American history is being shepherded through 50 years of time, through the many hands of Filipino American students, educators, and community members, to finally come to a head during Filipino American History Month.

UW professor Dr. Third Andresen and Annabel Garcia of FAEW. Photo courtesy of Annabel Garcia.

Filipino Language Credit

For some time, SPS has been offering high school language credit to any Native or heritage speaker by way of passing a proficiency test through the World Language Credit Testing program. While the program has existed for several years, not all students, families, or community members are aware the opportunity exists. Thad Williams, SPS’ program manager for dual language and world language, has been searching for community organizations to partner with to make this information more widely available for anyone who qualifies.

“We work with a bunch of different providers that are nationally known to really offer a language assessment to any multilingual student who speaks any language so that they can earn high school language credit, and also just be really valued and recognized and empowered for the language they speak,” Williams said. Williams, along with Elizabeth Urmenita, a bilingual instructional coach at SPS, has started connecting with the Filipino Community of Seattle (FCS) to make testing accessible through their Innovative Learning Center, which is set to open soon.

Aside from offering testing for Native and Heritage speakers, FCS will also soon resume offering Tagalog classes, a service they had to shut down during the pandemic. “I think this is a form of also maintaining our culture,” former Sen. Velma Veloria said about holding the community space for language learning and assessment. As the first Filipina American and first Asian American woman to be elected to the Washington State Legislature, Veloria is a monumental part of Filipino history herself. Veloria was involved in helping SPS partner with FCS.

“The Filipinos are now making progress. We’re not just a little group now,” FCS’ Executive Director Agnes Navarro said about the progressing development of the community center, the burgeoning language partnership with SPS, and the culture as a whole. “We have accomplished a lot.”

Former Sen. Velma Veloria. Photo courtesy of Velma Veloria.

Making Connections

The moment to usher in Filipino American community partnerships between all these organizations and SPS was intentionally seized by one individual in particular, SPS senior project manager of academics Devin Cabanilla. Cabanilla’s family has a long history in Seattle dating back to 1920. Within his family line sits Pio DeCano, whose Supreme Court case established immigrants’ legal right to own property in Washington State. Cabanilla’s grandaunt and granduncle are Fred and Dorothy Cordova, the founders of FANHS, who helped enact FAHM into law in 2019. Dorothy and Fred’s son is Tim Cordova, the teacher who was involved with the first “Pinoy Teach.” Not to mention his cousin is Geo Quibuyen, the Seattle rapper in Blue Scholars and co-owner of the local Hood Famous Bakeshop.

Needless to say, Cabanilla is well-rooted in the Filipino American community. Perfectly content with orchestrating movement from behind-the-scenes, Cabanilla was able to leverage his role in SPS academic curriculum department and his long history of relationships within the community to bring these initiatives into reality.

Devin Cabanilla, SPS senior project manager of academics. Photo courtesy of Devin Cabanilla.

Cabanilla has actually been trying to broach the idea of a Pinoy-centric curriculum for years. Dorothy Cordova told him for years that FANHS has had the material to make the course for decades. In the last three years, he has pitched the idea with three different ethnic studies managers but none of the reminders ever stuck.

It wasn’t until the fourth ethnic studies manager, Alekzander Wray, took up the position this past August that the idea took root. Above Wray’s position were Superintendent Dr. Brent Jones and Associate Superintendent Keisha Scarlett. All three are BIPOC leaders and all of them encouraged Cabanilla’s idea with enthusiasm. “A lot of white administrators don’t necessarily see the value or the excitement that’s available.” Cabanilla said. Since BIPOC folks have taken up the mantle in leadership, Cabanilla observed that the response was now different than from previous white administrators. “The response and willingness to do something new that revolves around People of Color is much more positive than it was in the past.”

Because of all the massive efforts of this coordinated collective of community members on all different fronts, the next generation of Filipino American students will get much easier access to proof of their identity. “I’m so jealous of kids,” Cabanilla said. “The relevance of who Filipino Americans are in American history wasn’t clear to me until after college. For kids to be able to recognize that [they] are a valid part of American history … it’s so affirming.”

Now that’s what I call Filipino American History Month.


Jasmine M. Pulido (she/her/siya) is a Filipina American writer-activist and small business owner living in Seattle. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Social Change.

📸 Featured Image: Devin Cabanilla, SPS senior project manager of academics. Photo courtesy of Devin Cabanilla.

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