For Fil-Am youth, fighting Asian hate in the US means breaking silence

Michelle Abad
For Fil-Am youth, fighting Asian hate in the US means breaking silence

STOP ASIAN HATE. Filipino-American students from the Filipinos In Alliance at the University of Illinois at Chicago campaign against rising hate crimes against Asian-Americans in the US.

Photo courtesy of Lauren Dimayuga

Their parents worked hard for a good life in the US, but now they’re in danger of being attacked over coronavirus stereotypes. The kids won't tolerate any of it.

For the first time since his family immigrated to the US in 2002, Filipino-American student Gabriel Aco watched as his parents taught his younger sister how to use pepper spray.

Anti-Asian violence was on the rise then in March 2021, and while the family had not heard of any major incident happening in their local Chicago, they needed to keep their guards up.

Many of the incidents reported in the news involved elderly people. Filipinos, like other Asians, were not safe.

In February, 61-year-old Noel Quintana was slashed in the face with a box cutter on the New York City subway. The same month, 74-year-old Juanito Falcon died days after being attacked for “no apparent reason” in Arizona. On March 29, a 65-year-old Filipino-American woman was kicked and stomped on in broad daylight near Times Square, reportedly told by her attacker that she “didn’t belong” there.

For Aco and his peers in the Filipinos In Alliance (FIA) organization at the University of Illinois at Chicago – Mia Catalla, Lauren Dimayuga, and Gabrielle Vergara – they could not help but imagine these Filipinos were their own parents, lolos, and lolas. Even going to the grocery store came with the burden of worrying about a possible attack.

Their parents braved numerous challenges to live comfortably in the US, but coronavirus-related stereotypes have endangered them again. For the students, ending Asian hate requires breaking their silence.

COVID-19-related racism

The surge in anti-Asian violence does not come in a vacuum. 

While racism has been an ever-prevalent issue in the US, research by the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) COVID-19 Project found the coronavirus pandemic catalyzed stigma against people of Asian descent since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan, China. 

Former president Donald Trump added fuel to the fire, as he called the disease the “China virus” and the “kung flu” on numerous occasions. The next administration, which took office on January 20, said on March 17 that, there was “no question” Trump’s racist rhetoric contributed to the spike.

In 2020, there was an almost 150% rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. In a report by the Stop AAPI Hate coalition, around 300 Filipinos were targeted in 3,795 attacks recorded from March 2020 to February 2021. Forms of discrimination included verbal harassment and physical assault.

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According to James Zarsadiaz, director of the University of San Francisco’s Philippine studies program, Filipinos being at the frontlines of the pandemic also makes them more vulnerable to attacks. On top of Filipinos comprising around 150,000 of the nurses in the US, 23% of Filipino immigrants are also doing service work, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

One student from FIA said her relative, a pharmacist, told her multiple times that customers said they did not want her to give them medicine because “she was Asian and could have the virus.” They would ask if someone else, preferably her relative’s white colleague, could assist them, the student said.

Still, even with glaring evidence in the court of public opinion that Asians are being targeted, American police have been quoted in numerous incidents saying, there was not enough evidence to call racial motivation. This applied in the case of Juanito Falcon.

When 6 Asian women were shot dead at Georgia day spas in March, a police captain said the 21-year-old suspect may have been motivated by issues stemming from “sexual addiction” and not racism. The cop also said the suspect was “having a really bad day.

“[The police’s remark] disheartens me because they’re supposed to be the ones protecting us – the ones who are supposed to, at the end of the day, give us justice. Right? But there isn’t any,” said Vergara.

The American police have faced scrutiny over racial issues. In recent memory, this was evident in the murders of Black Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which sent shockwaves across the US. The criticism towards police echo now with the surge in Asian hate.

Staying away from trouble

The rising numbers of hate crimes only give a glimpse of the full picture. According to Zarsadiaz, many Asian-Americans may be hesitant to report attacks especially if they are undocumented.

Zarsadiaz said there are some places in the US where an immigrant may not be medically treated for an injury if they are undocumented. There is also the threat of deportation for the thousands of undocumented Filipinos.

But an attacker on the street will not automatically know if an Asian person is documented or not.

This is why the estimated 4.1 million Filipinos in the US are still in danger of harassment and assault – simply on the basis of how they look. It doesn’t help that Filipinos’ appearances can range from Chinese- to Hispanic-looking, given colonial roots. 

One may also think that the cultural closeness of Filipinos and Americans owing to colonial connections would shield them from racism in the US, but this still isn’t the case, Zarsadiaz said.

“My parents have always been very reluctant to truly immerse themselves in other communities outside of the Filipino and Asian community because they are very hyper aware of the racism that is very pertinent and very in-your-face. That has always existed since they came to the US,” said Aco.

Zarsadiaz said among the reasons why incidents sometimes don’t go reported, especially for elderly Filipinos in the US, are that they don’t know where to go, or they’re hesitant to trust the police.

The ‘model minority’

Julian Ayusa, a high school student living in California, told Rappler his religious family’s mindset on the rise in violence is usually to “turn the other cheek, keep quiet, and stay out of trouble.” 

Julian’s father had to live alone in America and work multiple service jobs in the early 2000s before being able to acquire citizenship. It took around a decade for his father to petition the rest of his family to stay with him in 2015.

Dimayuga from Chicago has a similar view of the way her family looks at the issue. Her parents and grandparents had difficulties fitting in when they emigrated in the 1970s.

“The past generation is shy, or kind of wants to blend in with the white communities and the people of power. They don’t want to get into a situation where it can look bad, or they might get in trouble,” said Dimayuga.

These are manifestations of Asian-Americans being seen as the “model minority” – the stereotype that Asians are the “good minority” in the US because they are all supposedly highly educated, passive, and don’t like to agitate.

The hesitancy to make a fuss out of things is especially true “if we’re talking about a certain generation of Filipinos – maybe those who are above 70 years old or so. If they’re immigrants, many of them lived through the Marcos years in fearing authority,” said Zarsadiaz.

Zarsadiaz, a historian, said that there was a boom in Filipino immigrants to the US (among other countries) during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Among others, one reason was because Martial Law restricted Filipinos’ freedoms and mobility.

No more tolerance

Why does your food smell? Do you eat dog? Why do your parents have a thick accent? Do you have an American passport?

These are some of the questions the Filipino-American students dealt with growing up. 

When Ayusa was new to America at 12 years old, he still had his Filipino accent. His middle school classmates sometimes told him to “swim back” to his country. But shocking to Ayusa, remarks like this did not come from his white peers. They were from fellow Asians who were born and raised in America.

While the Chicago kids haven’t been violently attacked, they experienced coronavirus-related discrimination. People would avoid sitting next to Aco in public transport, while Vergara recalled encounters of being coughed and laughed at.

Although the leader who said “China virus” is out of office, Asian hate remains. The students, while understanding their differences with their parents born and raised in the Philippines, know that the situation will only improve if they speak out about it. 

The new administration under US President Joe Biden announced new policies to combat anti-Asian violence, including a $49.5-million fund for “community based, culturally specific services and programs for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

But addressing the racial issues would need to go beyond policies. “These are social attitudes that have been in place for decades, if not over a century. How do you change a culture through law? That’s a tricky problem because this is a cultural problem, not just a political problem,” said Zarsadiaz.

While more incidents seem to be involving elderly victims, the students know it can still be them. Now is the time, they say, to challenge the model minority myth.

“We see our families in these people being attacked, and we no longer want to be the ‘model minority’ that everyone puts us out to be in America. We want to say, hey, we’re here, we need to take a stance because this is hurting our community, so we must do something about it,” said Catalla.

“Our parents fought for a lot of this. The least we could do is fight for it too,” said Vergara. – Rappler.com

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.