Every October, the country largely ignores Filipino American History Month, which is a shame, given the enormous, contributory role Filipino Americans have played in shaping the American experience for everyone. But in the COVID age, the situation is even more dire. More on that in a moment.
This year, in the light of a pandemic of a different sort, the Seattle-based Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) has decided Fil-Am History Month is dedicated to shedding light on the long history of Filipino American justice activism.
“We choose this theme to highlight the myriad ways Filipino Americans have participated in social justice movements, including but not limited to, the United Farmworkers Movement, the fight for Ethnic Studies, Hawaii Sugar Plantation strikes, Washington Yakima strikes, and Anti-Martial Law Movements across multiple decades,” the FANHS said in a statement.
Bottom line, respect must be paid. “Though Filipino Americans were the first Asian Americans to arrive in the U.S. in 1587 (33 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620), little was written about the history of the Philippines or of Filipino Americans in the U.S.,” writes Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor at the City University of New York and HuffPost contributor. As a group, they’ve often been excluded from Asian American organizations and academic literature and have formed alliances with Latinx and Black communities with whom they’ve found unique solidarity. “As one of the largest immigrant groups in the country, we want our history to be recognized and our stories to be told,” says Nadal.
Tragically, one of those stories is now about COVID-19.
A new report from the National Nurses Union finds that Filipino American nurses make up just 4% of nursing personnel in the US, but 31.5% of COVID-19 deaths in their ranks. The regional numbers are even more alarming—some 20% of registered nurses in California are Fil-Am. “And because they are most likely to work in acute care, medical/surgical, and ICU nursing, many “FilAms” are on the front lines of care for Covid-19 patients,” reports Stat News.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times shows that people with Filipino heritage make up one-quarter of the Asian American population in California, but at least 35% of the COVID-19 deaths in that broad cohort. The shocking mortality rate is driven by many factors, experts say, including their propensity to be front line workers, poverty, housing and economic insecurity, preexisting health conditions and lack of health insurance. “It’s the perfect storm,” Adrian De Leon, an assistant professor in USC’s department of American studies and ethnicity told the paper. “In terms of exposure to the pandemic, exposure to the virus, but also exposure to a lot of other factors, too—like dense housing tends to be in places that have environmental hazards.”
I’ll leave it to you to draw a bright, angry line between President Trump’s bizarre handling of his own coronavirus illness with the disgraceful way his administration has left entire swaths of citizens to fend for themselves.
But with a nod to their long history of a fully inclusive social justice activism, it’s worth thinking about what role we all have to play in making sure Filipino Americans—who are the second-largest Asian American group in the nation and the third-largest ethnic group in California—find their rightful place in both the country’s narrative and on policymakers’ agendas.