Filipino American History Month: ‘We are making our mark on the United States’

Abraham Ignacio helms SF library offering programs, services to his community

This weekend marks the start of Filipino American History Month, an annual celebration that honors the history and legacy of the millions of immigrants from the Philippines and their families who have come to the United States. Such a tribute is especially pertinent here in San Francisco, home to the country’s second largest Filipino American community.

More than 7,000 islands make up the single country of the Philippines. By virtue of its strategic location in the Pacific Ocean, proximity to mainland Southeast Asia and extreme biodiversity, it was long passed between different empires as a spoil of war. It finally achieved independence in 1946.

What’s largely considered to be the first major wave of Filipino immigrants to this country started in 1899 after the Philippines was annexed by the United States. Millions have since followed, bringing their families along with them and building entire communities with new generations of Filipino Americans.

Abraham Ignacio comes from one of these families. His story starts with a Filipino father who joined the U.S. Navy in 1946 shortly after the conclusion of World War II. Ignacio’s father moved from his home country to San Diego, where he was stationed. That’s where Ignacio began his two-decade military career, and met his wife, with whom he had two children.

Today, Ignacio is the librarian for the Filipino American Center, a part of the San Francisco Public Library that helps teach Filipino American residents about the history and culture of their own ancestral homeland, while giving all residents a glimpse into the contribution and complexity of this community.

He’s held the role since 2017. This year, along with five other librarians, Ignacio put together programming for October that highlights the widespread impact of Filipino Americans in San Francisco, giving participants insight into the culture’s food, history, arts, literature, language and more.

“We are Americans like everyone else, and we want to showcase to folks the multiplicity and the richness of our history and contributions to this country,” he said.

How did you get involved with the Filipino American Center? I’m coming into this as an encore career. I just turned 66 years old a few weeks ago. Before that, I worked for FedEx for 25 years as one of those folks you see driving and delivering packages. They actually reimbursed me for a graduate degree in Library and Information Science that I got while also working there, so here I am.

But really it starts before that. My dad was in the U.S. Navy, so we moved a lot. In the ’70s, I was living in San Diego for high school, and that was during the civil rights movement where I was introduced to activism. I got more involved as a Filipino political activist when the country went under martial law in 1973, and I did work in immigration rights, union rights and other things.

I’ve always been passionate about learning about our experiences, that of Filipinos in America but also in the Philippines. We did things like make a book of political cartoons from the Philippines. If you are really passionate about something, you really want to do the best you can for it, and it’s an important contribution to our community to educate around that.

When did you first visit the Philippines, and what impression did that leave? I first visited in the 1960s when my dad got a Navy assignment there, so we lived there for nearly four years. The thing that impressed me most was how many relatives I had, and how loving and caring they all were there. There wasn’t much of a Filipino American community back in San Diego yet. It left a deep impression on me.

The hard part was we didn’t speak the language. My parents were set on us learning English at home so we wouldn’t have any other problems. I started to pick it up while we lived there, but I lost much of it once we left.

What’s unique about the Bay Area Filipino American community? Many of our families first came over around World War II because they served in the military and then started families in cities with bases. Then the 1965 Immigration Act loosened restrictions on Asian immigrants, and there was an explosion of Filipinos not just in California but all over the United States. (In San Francisco, many settled in what’s now SoMa.)

Now Filipinos participate in a wide range of occupations and industries, in contrast to the earlier waves of migrants who were heavily concentrated in farm labor and menial service work. We are definitely making our mark in the U.S. in all spheres

To that end, why do you think something like Filipino American History Month is important? It was initiated about 30 years ago by the Filipino American National Historical Society based out of Seattle to celebrate and educate the contributions that Filipinos have made to America and show what talents and experiences we have brought to this new country of ours.

There are so many misconceptions, not just about Filipinos but also about other ethnic groups, especially now with all the anti-Asian hate stuff. I think there’s a lot of dialogue that needs to be undertaken in this country to bridge the misunderstandings, and I think we have a long way to go in doing that. Racism is still pretty prevalent here, and we all need to come together.

I’m excited for all our programs this month because it brings something for everyone. But, because I’m a sci-fi geek, I’m probably most excited about a screening of a science fiction film by a Filipino director.

Abraham Ignacio holds a Filipino American History Month poster describing the theme “darating ang liwanag,” which means the “coming of the light,” with light a metaphor for hope. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

Abraham Ignacio holds a Filipino American History Month poster describing the theme “darating ang liwanag,” which means the “coming of the light,” with light a metaphor for hope. (Kevin N. Hume/The Examiner)

How has the pandemic shaped Filipino American History month? Most of this year’s programming will be virtual. It’s still raging around us and people are getting sick. Our theme is the Tagalog (term) darating ang liwanag, which sort of means the “coming of the light” with light as a metaphor for hope.

The pandemic has also shown that virtual events can increase our reach. I see that as being the future of some of our events. COVID-19 posed all these challenges, but it also showed us these new possibilities that we have before us.

It’s been interesting, but also very sad. All of us have been faced with friends or relatives either getting very sick or passing away. You just feel the pain and sorrow and heartache that’s been going on throughout our community but also throughout the country and the world. It’s been a trying time for all of us.

Looking forward, what can people expect to find at the Filipino American Center? Part of the task of being a librarian is developing a collection of materials that span the broad interests of everyone. We are actively curating a collection that focuses on the Filipino American experience but also the experience, history and culture of the Philippines, so people here who are members of the diaspora community can get a sense of what’s going on in their ancestral homeland.

Five other Filipino American librarians contributed to creating the content for this months’ programming. These colleagues are Adult- and Youth-focused in their expertise. It takes a lot of collaboration to do the number of programs we do. Kudos to Jaena Rae Cabrera, Joseph Ferrer, Kirstie Harless, Jeremy Jacinto, and Cristina Mitra.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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