Sunday, October 25, 2015

It Does Matter

"I’m a mean son-of-a-bitch in terms of my direction
fighting for the rights of Filipinos in this country."


This is not just a story about Larry Itliong or Assemblymember Rob Bonta. There have been many stories written about Larry Itliong lately, as Bonta successfully established today, October 25, as Larry Itliong Day in California. Bonta chose to honor Itliong because he felt that he lacked the recognition that he truly deserves, and that is absolutely true. Following that lead, this story is about the mother who is the link between these two men, because she deserves recognition for her role too.

Filipinos first set foot in California as far back as October 18, 1587, when the Spanish galleon Nuestra SeƱora de Esperanza sent a landing party ashore in Morro Bay. Throughout the Manila Galleon trade, Filipino conscripts would settle up and down the west coast after surviving the torturous trip across the Pacific.

However, the foundations for today’s Filipino American community were laid over the course of four main waves of immigration: the upper class Pensionados of the 1900s; the working class Manongs of the 10s, 20s and 30s; the War Brides of the late 40s and 50s; and the professional Brain Drain of the late 60s and 70s. Now, over 500 years later, Filipinos are the largest and fastest-growing Asian Pacific Islander population in California. In fact, half of all Filipinos in the US reside in California.

Assemblymember Rob Bonta has passed two important pieces of legislation that require the State of California to officially recognize the important contributions of Filipino immigrants. In his first year in office, the first and only Filipino American to be elected into the California State Legislature successfully passed his first attempt at legislation. AB 123 mandates that social science curriculums in the state provide students with a more complete account of the history of the state’s farm labor movement by recognizing the pivotal role of Filipino workers and labor leaders. Two years later, for the first piece of legislation of his second term in office, Bonta successfully passed a law that mandates an annual tribute to one of those labor leaders on their birthday. AB 7, which was signed by Governor Jerry Brown over the summer, officially proclaims October 25 as Larry Itliong Day.

Larry Dulay "Seven Fingers" Itliong was a long-time migrant worker and militant labor organizer who fearlessly organized the historic Delano grape strike and negotiated the partnership between his Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) that created the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC), the first ever agricultural workers union.

In addition to representing the politically conscious and labor-friendly East Bay Area, Bonta also has a personal attachment to the struggle for farm worker rights. Born in the Philippines, he came to the United States with his family when he was barely two months old. When his parents moved to La Paz, the headquarters of the UFW, he lived in a trailer about 100 yards away from the home of Union President and civil rights icon Cesar Chavez. Bonta’s godfather was Chavez’ Executive Assistant, Jose Gomez.

Growing up in the suburbs of Sacramento, Bonta was raised by two activist parents. His birthday falls on the anniversary of Proclamation 1081, the edict issued by then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to justify Martial Law and the extension of his reign as Dictator for an additional 15 years. Bonta’s mother, Cynthia, was an active member of the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (Union of Democratic Pilipinos, or KDP), so in addition to spending the first few years of his life in the headquarters of the UFW, Rob’s birthday always involved a protest of some sort.

As a history major at Yale University, the young man who had witnessed some of the greatest moments in both Filipino American and California state history found a passion for "giving voice to silences in history." After a successful legal career and two successful electoral campaigns, Bonta has now proven his commitment to doing just that, and he has chosen a very critical silence to give a voice to. With regards to the pioneering Manong labor organizers, Bonta says, "They started something great, one of the greatest movements in the history of the world." Itliong and his crew absolutely deserve recognition for their contributions to a California agricultural industry which now boasts $100 billion in annual economic activity, and that recognition is finally starting to happen half a century later.

The City of Carson and the County of Los Angeles both proclaimed Larry Itliong Days back in 2010, and several other notable honors followed in the wake of Bonta’s AB 123 legislation in 2013. Alvarado Middle School in Union City has been renamed Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School for Larry and his organizing buddy Philip Vera Cruz, becoming the first school in the nation to be named after Filipino Americans. Also, the Pilipino Workers Center and the Little Tokyo Service Center opened the Larry Itliong Village, a community space with 45 units of affordable housing, in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles.

You could dismiss the significance of AB 7 as meaningless lip service pandering only to a portion of the second-fastest growing constituency in the state. However, it is much more significant than that. It’s actually a huge tribute to a heroic figure who is truly deserving of heroic status not just because of what he accomplished, but also because of how he went about accomplishing it.

Itliong’s only speeches were aimed solely at the farm workers themselves, often in their own dialects. He was not trying to be a great orator for the masses. He was not interested in titles or status. He was not interested in writing books or having books written about him, having movies made about him, buildings named after him, having his face on t-shirts, or even having a day devoted to him. He was simply a man who cared deeply about his fellow migrant Filipino brothers, and he was committed to fighting for justice for all laborers. These traits are why he is a great hero deserving recognition and also why he has lacked the recognition that he truly deserves. Just because recognition didn't matter to him doesn't mean that it doesn't matter.

To understand why recognizing Larry Itliong was so important to Assemblymember Bonta, you need to look beyond the smooth, shiny surface and see past the articulate Ivy League trial lawyer. If you can do that, then you will find an incredible story that begins on the same island that Itliong himself came from.

Cynthia Arnaldo, who had grown up in the province of Laguna on the Island of Luzon in the Northern Philippines, was the National Director of Youth Work for the United Church of Christ when she was sent to the United States on a full ride ecumenical scholarship to study at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. Like the Filipino conscripts on the Spanish Galleons four centuries earlier, she crossed the Pacific on a boat. It was July 1965, the same summer that Larry Itliong and his crew were going door-to-door and field-to-field, relentlessly organizing grape pickers in the Delano heat. The Bay Area, a five-hour drive northwest of Delano, was not nearly as hot, especially to someone from the Philippines.

It was also just one month removed from the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, and she soon met Warren Bonta, a fellow PSR student who was a budding young civil rights activist. They were both members of the Social Concerns Committee at the school, and she learned about the wide variety of social movements that were coming into being at that pivotal point in history. During winter break, she and Warren traveled to his hometown of Moorpark in Southern California, and on the way, they stopped in Delano to volunteer at the Filipino Community Hall. While there, they got the chance to hear Larry Itliong speak to a packed crowd. He gave his speech in Ilocano, which wasn't his own native dialect, and they were both in awe of his command of the audience.

Cynthia and Warren eventually got married, and when both had finished school, they went to the Philippines as missionaries. They had a daughter, Lisa, and lived in a missionary house near the US Embassy in Manila. While Warren had experience as a civil rights activist in the Southern US during the era when lynchings were still popular community events, Cynthia’s political consciousness was still limited to Liberation Theology and was only just beginning to awaken. However, during the First Quarter Storm in 1970, the young family frequently witnessed first-hand a fed up citizenry willing to risk their lives to be heard going head-to-head against an out-of-control government seeking to silence its citizens by any means necessary. This was the reality that Rob Bonta was conceived in and born into.

In 1971, the Bonta family relocated to Los Angeles, closer to Warren’s roots. He was now an ordained Minister in the United Methodist Church, and was assigned to the Migrant Ministry of the National Council of Churches. That’s how they got involved with the UFW. They were both on the payroll of the National Council of Churches, but their job was to "volunteer" with the UFW to help organize boycott drives in LA. Paid only survival wages that covered food and rent, the young couple made do despite the fact that they had two young children.

Larry Itliong had just left the UFW, but Philip Vera Cruz and Pete Velasco remained in the organization. Itliong continued his tireless organizing efforts elsewhere, even leaving the country to organize workers in Latin America at one point. One of his main projects was working towards building a retirement facility for his fellow Manongs, most of whom had no family other than each other.

The UFW moved their headquarters from 40 Acres Hall in Delano to a scenic former sanitarium at Nuestro Senora Reina de La Paz (Keene, CA) in the Tehachapi mountains to the East. Warren was transferred to La Paz, from where he was tasked with opening up UFW health clinics throughout the Imperial Valley. Cynthia, now pregnant with the couple’s third child, Marc, juggled communal childcare duties and staffing Warren’s office while he was out at the various clinic sites. She recalls once being ordered by Cesar Chavez himself to cook dinner for the Union leadership because they craved Filipino food, and she was the only Filipina on the staff. "I didn’t really know how to cook that well," she admits, but everyone else helped out and the dinner was a success.

Another duty she had was to go out into the fields to call out scab workers. This was in 1973, after the initial labor contracts with the grape growers expired. While there was a general feeling of safety and security in La Paz (Chavez had armed security), that was not the case on the farms. There were strict rules on where you could be, and where you couldn’t be, and the farmers had armed guards who not only enforced those rules, but also made sure that everyone knew that they were out there enforcing those rules. Such were the tensions in the farm industry in those times, which underscores the significance of a simultaneous strike and boycott. Despite the relative safety in La Paz, Cynthia says, "We were always on the lookout for strange people."

When Jerry Brown became Governor in 1975 (yes, the same Governor Jerry Brown who just signed both AB 123 and AB 7 into law), the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act was passed, which guaranteed California farm workers the right to organize, vote in state-supervised secret-ballot elections and bargain with their employers. To celebrate and educate farm workers about this humongous victory, Chavez led a 1,000+ mile, two-month long march from the Mexican border up the coast to Salinas, over to Sacramento, and then back down through the Central Valley.

The Bonta family, all five of them, met the marchers outside of Sacramento and crossed the Yolo causeway en route to the victory party at the State Capitol. It was the family’s first visit to the city where they would settle down in two years later, and Rob’s first visit to the building where he has worked for the past 3 years. Although known as the "City of Trees," Cynthia remembers thinking that there weren’t enough trees, and it was even hotter than Kern County.

The Bonta family left La Paz shortly after that and moved back to Berkeley. The UFW health clinics had all been set up, their oldest child was ready for grade school, and they wanted to return to the region where they had first met a decade earlier. Cynthia did multicultural curriculum development work for the Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco Unified School Districts.

It was at this point that she got involved with the KDP. She attended an event at United Methodist Church in Berkeley aimed at raising awareness about political prisoners in the Philippines, and when she heard stories about some of her former colleagues from her days working for the United Church of Christ, the Anti-Marcos struggle became a personal issue for her.

After two years in the Bay Area, the family relocated to Sacramento. Warren worked for the State, and Cynthia worked as a Multicultural Resource Specialist for the Folsom/Cordova Unified School District. She later worked for the Sacramento Unified School District, and the State as well. Her first job with the State was as an Office Assistant, and she viewed it as simply a day job that allowed her to focus more on being a mother and her community work with the KDP.

After a year in State service though, she got a job as a Civil Rights Coordinator with the Department of Health Services, enforcing the Department’s compliance with the Civil Rights Act. She also helped build the annual Philippine National Day event, and then the subsequent non-profit organization Philippine National Day Association (PNDA) as well. On the board of PNDA, Cynthia built the Outstanding Filipino Youth Awards (OFYA) and the Filipino American Youth Leadership Conference (FAYLC) programs.

Despite moving back to the Bay Area in 2003 to spend more time with her grandchildren (Rob and Lisa have both settled in the East Bay), Cynthia remained active with PNDA in Sacramento. Several times a week, she crosses the same Yolo causeway that she first marched across with the UFW four decades ago.

"Larry Itliong, the warrior, more than any other, is the heroic figure of the Grape Strike which paved the way for the most telling farm workers movement, ever, in this country. At a pivotal and critical historic moment, knowing that it would be personally costly, he made the necessary decision to save a worthy cause. By subordinating himself he helped make possible the dream of every farm worker come true."

This year, she is the outgoing President of PNDA, and organized a commemoration of the Delano Grape Strike to celebrate its 50th Anniversary during the local Filipino Fiesta. She was even able to convince NFWA co-founder and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta to attend and be honored, which was an amazing feat considering the controversy that still surrounds the way the older Filipino workers were treated by the UFW. Not wanting to take credit for the feat, she claims that Dolores agreed to attend because she truly believed that the real significance of the successful Grape Strike was the genuine solidarity felt between the Filipino and Mexican workers, despite whatever may have been happening amongst the leadership.

What was going on with the leadership was some tension related to Chavez’s hesitancy to delegate authority. To be fair to Chavez though, Itliong and his crew really buttered him up while trying to convince him to join their strike, which he believed the NFWA was still a few years away from being ready to truly support. As the Filipino workers were older and closer to retirement (not to mention the fact that they had just won a strike against the same growers down in the Coachella Valley), they felt that the time was now, and resorted to whatever means they could to recruit Chavez and his large following. Feeding his ego was definitely one of their strategies. In fact, even though none of them owned a barong, they somehow managed to give one to Chavez as a gift, which he wore as he signed the UFWOC partnership deal. This was the first ever unification of Mexican and Filipino workers, the two groups that growers had been playing against each other in order to keep wages low.

Itliong caught a lot of flack for not seeking to be the Director of the new union, but he was never concerned with what would happen after the strike succeeded. He just wanted to win the strike and improve the lives of farm workers, and he knew he needed Chavez for that. His response to calls for him to be in charge of the union was always, "Hindi na bale" (It doesn’t matter who is in charge). When he left the UFW, this fearless, militant veteran of the west coast labor wars justified his not making a fuss within the historic union by remarking simply, "It’s bigger than me."

Cynthia is currently working on the PNDA’s 25th Anniversary Gala event as she transitions from the Board of Directors to the Advisory Board, and has recently established the Larry Itliong Warrior Award.

Of her work with the KDP and PNDA, she says that it made her the mother that she is because it allowed her to model to her children what it looked like to strive to be the best person that she could be. "I just wanted my children to be contributing members of society," she says.

As for being a grandmother now, the retiree says, "It’s like having two full-time jobs." However, she says that grandparenting is very relaxing, and a great complement to her work as PNDA President.

When she thinks back about the course that her life has taken since her fateful first trip to the US in 1965, she says, "I think this must have been divine intervention or something." Considering the funding source of that trip, it definitely was.

A week before the first ever Larry Itliong Day in California, Assemblymember Bonta hosted an event in Oakland to commemorate Larry and all of the pioneering Manongs. He talked about his passion for history, and really drove home the enormity of the struggle that the Manongs undertook. Proving that he may very well be cut from similar cloth, Bonta promised to work hard to ensure that he would not be the last Filipino American elected to the California State Legislature.

Larry’s son, Johnny Itliong, attended, and Bonta presented him with a signed and framed copy of AB 7. The younger Itliong spoke briefly, telling how his father had often spoke of fighting "the good fight," and he said that he carries on that tradition for his kids. He wore red nail polish to bring attention to the abuse of children, and noted that there is still abuse of women ‘out in the fields’ that needs to be addressed as well.

Larry Itliong spent well over 4 decades following the crop cycles up and down the west coast, but today, on what would have been his 102nd birthday, he finally has his moment in the California sun. "It was a huge step getting my father on the books. I could not be more proud."


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Celebrating Who We Are

“It wasn’t a protest. The agenda was to work together, not to argue about Martial Law.” -Liz Fenkell

Labor rights icon Dolores Huerta was a guest speaker at the 2015 Filipino Fiesta of Sacramento.
The annual Filipino Fiesta in Sacramento is a very popular community event that has roots in the struggle for social justice through grassroots community organizing. What started off as a revolutionary attempt to promote collaboration in Filipino American Communities has blossomed into a successful, highly-anticipated, yearly showcase of Central Valley Filipino-ness.
Celebrated on June 12, Philippine National Day is an official holiday in the Philippines that commemorates its birth as a sovereign nation in 1898 after several centuries of colonial rule by Spain. Filipino revolutionary forces had liberated the majority of the archipelago from Spanish rule over a three-year insurrection, and the last vestiges of the former global empire were holed up within the walls of their fortress at Intramuros, Manila. Completely surrounded and under siege by their former subjects, the Spanish saved some face when a budding new economic power, the United States, pretended to overthrow them in May 1898. Refusing to recognize the new Philippine Republic, the US purchased the former colony from Spain for $20 million and occupied it for another 5 decades.

By the 1970s, Philippine Consulates in the US began promoting June 12 as “Philippine Independence Day,” but Philippine nationalists in the US pushed back, reasoning that neither the US nor Spain ever acknowledged the Independence of the first Philippine Republic. The US had “granted” independence to the Philippines on July 4, 1946, and that date became the official Independence Day of the Philippines, at least according to the US. To celebrate a date that conflicts with the official US record is, in itself, a form of protest.

During the 1970s, “barrio fiestas” started happening across the US. They were generally apolitical events, but in reality, these events were actually a coordinated project of the Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino (Union of Democratic Pilipinos, or KDP) that was aimed at promoting unity amongst Filipinos in the US, a group that had earned a reputation for their “crab mentality.”

Celebrating Philippine National Day (PND) as a barrio fiesta was first piloted in 1975 at Sacramento City College. Lead organizers Maxi Villones, Vince Reyes and Dick Mazon wanted to organize an event that reflected the spirit of the times: rising political awareness, celebrating cultural heritage, and also celebrating histories of struggle. The first official event was held a year later at nearby Miller Park along the Sacramento River.

At that time in Sacramento, in addition to several regional and trade organizations, there were two activist organizations: the KDP and the Anti-Martial Law Coalition (AMLC).

Founded in 1973 in nearby Santa Cruz, The KDP was a nationwide collection of Fil-Ams and Filipino immigrants who were involved in community organizing around social justice issues in the US and democratic nationalism in the Philippines. They openly supported the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.
The AMLC was a more popular front for the KDP that focused on raising awareness about the economic plundering and human rights abuses being perpetrated by the dictatorial regime of Ferdinand Marcos.

Before his political career, Ferdinand Marcos had been a lawyer, and one of his clients happened to be Severino Santa Romana, who was arguably the most important man in US history. Allegedly, Marcos used his access to Japanese war loot that had been discovered by Santa Romana to launch a political career for himself and to cement the political dynasty of his family.

Marcos, who had a 1939 murder conviction overturned by the Philippine Supreme Court when he was just 23, was first elected to the Presidency in 1965 after a 16-year run as a Legislator. He claimed to be a war hero, but later research has proven that he lied about his war record. In fact, his father was executed for collaborating with Japanese occupation forces, and he has himself been accused of doing the same.

Soon after becoming President, Marcos sent troops to Vietnam, engaging the Philippines in Uncle Sam’s escalating occupation of its neighbor to the west.  Using $56 million of public money to fund his campaign, Marcos became the first Philippine President to win re-election in 1970. Two years later, Marcos staged a series of fake terrorist attacks that he used as a pretext to declare Martial Law via Proclamation No. 1081. Martial Law enabled him to stay in office well past the two-term limit that had previously been mandated by law. Over the course of his 20-year Presidency/Dictatorship, Marcos looted the Philippine economy to make himself, his family and his closest cronies extremely wealthy. He also used $2.5 billion in aid from the US to expand his police state, suppressing any and all opposition with violence both within the archipelago and abroad as well.

The cover of the Program for Philippine National Day in 1978.
The Sacramento community was very polarized at the time. There had long been divisions along regional, country of origin and class lines, but Martial Law created a more serious rift. Anti-Marcos people tended to be idealistic youth mixed with some progressive elder immigrants. However, these individuals were marginalized in the predominantly conservative community. Pro-Marcos people were pretty much everyone else: dogmatic anti-communists who tended to be older, Fil-Ams who had grown up patriotic, and conservative immigrants. In addition to the fact that Sacramento was a conservative town in general, there was also a large contingent of Ilocanos (Marcos was Ilocano) in the region. In an era where Marcos could push a button on his perceived enemies anywhere on the planet, openly criticizing Marcos took a lot of courage.

Dick Mazon had grown up in Sacramento, and was attending Sac State when Vince Reyes recruited him into KDP. Mazon and Reyes shared a family connection, and had been familiar with each other for years prior to teaming up in college. Mazon was studying Social Welfare, and eventually got a Masters Degree in Social Work. He has since made a long career of community organizing in the Sacramento area, including the creation of a Filipino community center and successfully advocating for a culturally relevant free lunch program for Asian seniors. “I’m just a lucky guy who happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right people,” Mazon says about his role in organizing the PND events.

Officially, PND organizers had three objectives: to celebrate Philippine National Day, which Mazon considered to be “the high point in Filipino history”; to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the Philippines, and; to celebrate the contributions of Filipinos in the United States.

Prior to the PNDs, Fil-Am cultural events were limited to dinner dances and beauty pageants, both of which were typically held in the evening. Also, both of those types of events were celebrations of western culture and aesthetics, so KDP promoted the barrio fiesta model because it was more authentically “Filipino.” In contrast to trying to prove assimilation, the PNDs were daytime events that attempted to rally the progressives and bring together other community organizations as well.

The first PNDs were essentially potlucks with an entertainment stage, vendors, and booths for local organizations to do outreach. Participating organizations included KDP, AMLC, Asian Legal Services Outreach, Filipino Community of Sacramento & Vicinity (FCSV), Filipino Women’s Club, Pilipino Law Students Association, Visayan Association, Mabuhay Lions Club, and Mga Kapatid.

Liz Fenkell, Maxi’s sister, joined the organizing committee in 1976, in time for the first official PND at Miller Park. A member of both KDP and AMLC, she had been born in Sacramento and had grown up with Maxi in nearby Isleton, where they experienced first-hand the plight of migrant farmworkers. Although she considered herself an activist and worked hard to raise awareness about the Marcos Dictatorship, Fenkell maintains the following about the first PNDs: “It wasn’t a protest. The agenda was to work together, not to argue about Martial Law.”

The Aklan Association celebrates during the 1997 Filipino Fiesta.

At a time when identity politics were first coming into being, the organizers wanted simply “to celebrate who we are.” As officially stated in the 1979 PND program, the organizers sought “To overlook and go beyond the surface differences such as regional, educational, age, or even religious beliefs.”

Held on the second Saturday in June, PNDs were an inclusive opportunity to talk about issues that affected Filipino Americans. It was a forum to raise awareness about issues like racism, women’s rights, workers’ rights, the plight of Filipino medical professionals, and the legacy of the Manongs in the Delta. It was an excellent example of using culture to organize.

Sonny Alforque moved to Sacramento from the Bay Area in 1978, and Cynthia Bonta recruited him into the Coalition Against the Marcos Dictatorship (formerly AMLC) since both were University of the Philippines (UP) alumni. Sonny had worked at the UP radio station as a student hosting music and educational shows. With a background in drama and theater arts, Alforque elevated the committee’s ability to celebrate Filipino arts and Filipino artists. He was so good at it, that he made it his life mission, and eventually created the Sinag-tala Filipino Theater and Performing Arts Association (STFTPAA).

During the Presidency of Dolores Pizarro in the late 70s, FCSV was on board with PND, but by the 80s, once she was no longer in power, FCSV started doing their own event at the Rizal Center. FCSV's Filipino Food Faire was much different from PND. It was held mostly indoors on a Sunday in June, was much smaller in size and lacked youth involvement.  Both events began to suffer from the division, and attendance started to dwindle. At this point, Mazon approached then-FCSV President Jan Gorre about joining forces. Marcos was already out of power by this time, the KDP had dissolved, and Gorre agreed to collaborate. The Filipino Fiesta as we now know it was born.

The Fiesta started off as a joint project between FCSV and the recently-formed Philippine National Day Association (PNDA), which grew out of the original PND organizing committee. The Filipino American Veterans Association (FAVA) soon joined as an organizing partner, and the event enjoyed steady growth every year. By the late 90s, more and more organizations wanted to be involved with the planning, and a 501(c)3 named “Filipino Fiesta of Sacramento” was formed as a coalition of 6 community organizations. The organizations that are still currently part of the coalition are: FCSV; Filipino Women’s Club of Sacramento; Pacific Rim Heritage Foundation; STFTPAA; The Ilocanos of America; and The University of the Philippines Alumni Association, Sacramento and Vicinity.
Held on the first Sunday in June at the Jose Rizal Center in South Sacramento, some 6000-8000 people attend annually. The politics continue to live on primarily in cultural and historical performance pieces, but there are now corporate sponsors, a beauty pageant, a parade, food, vendors, community organizations doing outreach, career and health fairs, and even a car show as well.

Teenagers breakdance during the 1997 Filipino Fiesta.
Some elements from the PND events that live on in the Filipino Fiesta are a heavy emphasis on youth involvement, collaboration within the Fil-Am community, showcasing Filipino culture and talent, and promotion of good relations and understanding amongst diverse cultural groups.

Jay Paular grew up in Sacramento, attended both Sac City and Sac State, and was involved with the Filipino clubs at both schools. He says that he always wanted to get closer to his Filipino roots and history, and so community organizing was his way to do that. He was there at the beginning of the PNDs for about 10 years, then left, and was asked back to do a Filipino martial arts demo about 2-3 years ago. He has gotten involved with the local Filipino American NationalHistorical Society (FANHS) chapter in recent years, and he considers supporting the Filipino Fiesta to be part of that work. “It’s grown. PND was just a few organizations. Through the years, more and more organizations have joined, and it’s a much bigger event now.”
Much bigger indeed. However, it never would have gotten to this point if a handful of brave, young, idealistic people hadn’t come up with the genius idea of working together to celebrate cultural pride.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Eskapo Story

They escaped from the Philippines.

Even the puti bassist barely escaped from his one tour of the Philippines.

Rupert Estanislao grew up in Quezon City, Project 7. Brothers Loi and Max Fajardo grew up in rural Nueva Vizcaya to the North. All three ended up in Vallejo, California, where thousands of working class Filipinos have settled.

They came together through music, because that’s what Filipinos do.

Rupert and Loi first met on a basketball court, drawn to each other by a Pantera t-shirt. Sent here for “a better life,” Loi had only been in the US for about a month when he and Rupert got arrested for gang-related activities. When they got out of jail, the two then started going to music shows together regularly. Music became their avenue for escaping from gang life.

In 1995, they started jamming in a friend’s garage with Mike Uy and Gil Espanto. Loi and Mike chose the name “Eskapo” after watching the movie by that name. Not only did they like the political reference, but it also had the word “ska” in it, and they were playing ska punk at the time.

Loi and Rupert began dragging Loi’s younger brother Max to shows, where they told him to watch the drummers. He joined the band as the drummer in 1996.

Eskapo's first show outside of the Fajardo living room was in Luke and Shiloh Winders’ backyard. Luke was a guitarist in the band Exit Wounds at that time, but he later joined Eskapo as their bassist in 1998. Later that same year, Rupert met guitarist Bruce Webb at a restaurant in Benicia. Bruce, Rupert and Max all started working together at a concession stand at Marine World.

In 1999, Loi and Max’s father allowed them to build a practice space at their home. They invited Bruce to come play with them once the space was finished, and Bruce immediately brought a faster, crustier edge to the music. The lineup now consisted of Rupert on vocals, Loi and Bruce on guitar, Luke on bass, and Max on drums.

Rupert also began to branch out into spoken word at this point. Once he became known on the Oakland poetry scene, Eskapo got invited to perform during a poetry event. After that show, their friend Golda told them about Pinoisepop, the Filipino American music festival held at Bindlestiff Studios in San Francisco. Pinoisepop introduced them to the Greater Bay Area Filipino American market, and the rest was history.

Eskapo gave Filipinos a voice, and gave us a reason to be proud of being Filipino. They sung/screamed songs in Tagalog. They sung/screamed songs about Philippine culture, history, and politics. They engaged in community organizing around social justice issues. They were all extremely likable people who made all of Filipino culture cool, and in a genuinely conscious way. They were the antithesis of the Bebot embarrassment, emphasizing pride in their culture rather than reinforcing negative stereotypes in an attempt to prove assimilation.

I can remember one night outside an Eskapo show in Oakland when two white kids were battling to try to prove to me which of them knew more Tagalog. One of those kids, Luke’s brother Shiloh, also told me that he had learned a lot about humility and gratefulness from his Filipino friends, and as the son of an immigrant himself, he really connected with the respect for elders modeled to him by them.

Unfortunately, a series of tragedies ended the band’s run. In 2006, Bruce passed away. His grandfather had been a participant in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. His mother, who was from Japan, was in utero when the US dropped atomic bombs on her country. She, like her mother before her, developed cancer when Bruce was 11. He was born with cancer, and wasn’t supposed to have lived as long as he had.

The band split up three ways after Bruce’s death. Rupert joined the band Echo of Bullets, Loi and Max started the band Delubyo, and Luke formed his own band called Wounds. That split lasted for about a year, and then Eskapo got back together. England Hidalgo, a member of Delubyo who had sung as a guest vocalist in Eskapo, replaced Bruce on guitar.

Then came the legendary 2009 tour of the Philippines, when the band crisscrossed Luzon with 17 people (including members of a band named Toxic Orgasm) smashed into a van...on top of equipment. No one had to ride on the roof or cling to the outside, but it was a tight fit that was both eased and exacerbated by a seemingly endless supply of tuba. They played 8 shows in 12 days.

Rupert says that the tour was culture shock for him. He had been gone for 16 years. When he had left his homeland, he had been in a gang, and there was a lot of violence going on. However, in 2009, Eskapo was a well-known band thanks to the internet, and enthusiastic crowds greeted them at every show. All the bands they played with were “really good,” and some were bands that they had been fans of for years.

Loi was also surprised by the warm reception they received wherever they went, and notes that most of the Philippine bands they played with sung in English. He believes that being the American band that sung in Tagalog was a big reason for their popularity.

Luke was another reason for their popularity as well. He wasn’t Filipino, and compared to the others, he was humongous. Just like the others though, he is a really nice guy, so people were easily drawn to him. Unfortunately, Luke returned home with tuberculosis. Oddly, he was the only one who got it, despite the close living/traveling conditions. Even as a non-Filipino, he too is a survivor of life in the Philippines.

A year later, Max was arrested in San Francisco, and is currently still in jail. The band had survived several tragedies already, but this one marked the end for Eskapo. The former bandmates all say something similar when asked about how they want people to think of Max’s story: Don’t be judgmental. “We’re all constantly trying to negotiate morality,” says Luke. All of the former bandmates want Max to be thought of as the well-mannered, loving person that he always has been. He had gotten involved in community organizing, had a girlfriend and was trying to improve his life like Rupert had. He just made a bad decision, and being a poor immigrant, he had no room for error and no safety net.

Proving that Filipinos are resilient, Rupert, Loi, and Luke (along with Shiloh Winders on drums, and Pinoisepop founder Jesse Gonzalez on guitar) came back together in 2011 as the band Bankrupt District, named in honor of their hometown. Vallejo first filed for bankruptcy in 2008.  The original state capital of California, it was the largest city in the state to ever do that. For many of the thousands of Filipino immigrants in Vallejo, it betrayed the lie that Uncle Sam had gifted their homeland with a great system of governance that Filipino leaders had simply failed to implement properly.

In a similar way, the Eskapo story itself betrays the lie that America is the land of milk and honey. Maybe it is a better life, and a place worth escaping to for some, but not for all. For far too many, America is a place where people struggle against tall odds just to survive. Filipinos, in particular, have found all sorts of ways to do just that for more than a century.
Meanwhile, Bankrupt District rocks on. They recently released their debut album, and have been playing shows throughout the Bay Area. In addition to singing/screaming in Bankrupt District, Rupert has also co-founded Aklasan records, which deals exclusively in Philippine and Filipino American hardcore and punk rock music, is working on a documentary film chronicling Filipino Americans in hardcore and punk, and started a new band called Aninoko.