I remember my dad once told me to take my last name with pride. Did I listen? Of course not! For 17 years of my life, I was safe and surrounded by a Filipino enclave outside of my immediate household in Vallejo, California. The Filipino Community of Vallejo is resilient, strong, and proud.
After school, members from UC Davis BRIDGE Pilipinx Outreach & Retention would make the hour-long journey to Vallejo just to support the students at my underserved high school. They offered their resources and time to teach us about civic engagement, college admissions, the higher education experience, and about our culture. Beyond the classroom, UC Davis and UC Berkeley Pilipinx Academic Student Services hosted conferences for students like me to understand what it means to be Filipino, and what it means to hold that identity while in higher education. At the moment, I never really understood the impact of all the resources offered to me. There were and are so many people I look up to as mentors, ates, kuyas, aunties, and uncles back home. But with a huge Filipino population, did I really need to care about my community and our empowerment?
September 2017, I left the “City of Opportunity” for the “Emerald City.” Moving into my freshman dorm at Seattle University, I had an uncomfortable feeling. I suddenly went from being the majority to becoming a small statistic that the university uses to promote diversity. I remember being in my first college classroom. Everyone said their names. In a sea of last names modeled after the Roman alphabet, I felt ashamed to say my last name, Bañez. After this experience, I remember the gut-wrenching feeling of not belonging on my college campus. Is this how the kuyas and ates from the nearby universities in the Bay Area felt on their campus? Is this why they came to my community? Everything was starting to come together.
During my first year, I became an officer for my college Filipino organization, I remember making it an effort to start a high school outreach conference or a system to support the students of the Puget Sound. Did it happen? Of course not. I did not have enough resources to make this happen. I did not know what the first step was. I did not know how to empower myself. Throughout my time on board, I did not feel content. I felt disappointed in myself for not trying hard enough to make it happen. Simultaneously, I became an officer for the Northwest Filipino American Student Alliance and I began to meet more community members, Filipino folks on campus, across the city, in Washington, and in the Pacific Northwest. I was beginning to learn that in order to survive in my new environment, I have to try harder to be seen, to be heard, and to be respected by my peers. There was something special I learned throughout my experience in the Northwest, and that was community organizing. Learning to come together to progress the visibility of our community and preserve as well as educate the public on who we are. Every single person I met was strong and resilient with a story to tell of how they transcend our culture and adversities into their everyday life and empowerment. These stories and experiences inspired me to make a difference in the community.
I was on a high to learn more. I began to read more Filipino literature and history–the Alaskan Yukon Pacific Exposition, Saint Malo, Louisiana, Watsonville, California, St.Louis World’s Fair, and the list goes on. My heart was growing weary and empathetic learning about the discrimination of our people… When I look at historical photographs, I start to see my face in theirs. As an urban planning student, I was blessed to have been taught by Dr. Marie Rose Wong, an urban planning and Asian American studies professor at my institution. Taking classes in both of these fields, I began to learn more about the intersection between Filipinos and place in America. The Eastern Hotel, The Alps Hotel, The Publix, 6th and King Street, City of Seattle Resolution 31754, and more. In this moment, I began to feel frustrated and annoyed but at the same time, I felt strong. The United Farm Workers movement, the International Hotel, the Filipino Town Coalition, movements like Malaya and NutriAsia led by organizations like Anakbayan and Kabataan. Seemingly, academia and literature allowed me to liberate myself, but most importantly, gave me strength and challenged me to make a change.
Today, I am an EPYC Ambassador with NaFFAA alongside 18 young and empowered Filipino leaders across the country. We are granted the resources and education to learn how to properly be an agent for social and political change, engage in our regional communities, and utilize our resources to support the four million Filipinos in the United States. In January 2019, the ambassadors converged and collaborated in Seattle. We toured and met Filipino professionals at Microsoft, learned about the community at Seattle University and the University of Washington, met individuals like Velma Viloria, and took a tour of the Filipino experience in the Chinatown-International District. Throughout a four day retreat, we created camaraderie, collaborated on projects, sought out issues in our community and how we can tackle them, and developed our leadership skills. These individuals inspired and supported me to get out of my comfort zone as a leader.
Currently, alongside a strong group of students, we are working on and hoping to launch SoulFil in summer 2019, a nonprofit to prepare our youth for higher education and their careers through cultural empowerment, academic enrichment, professional development, and civic and political engagement.
Empowerment-it begins with community. But more importantly, it begins with you. The stories and knowledge of those around me inspired me to do something great. In the midst of floating on cloud nine with all these ideas, I did not know where to begin or how to find the fire to keep going. I began to read more, engage with the Filipino community of Seattle, allowed myself to be frustrated and uncomfortable with history, and let this be the catalyst for my self-empowerment. If you are not empowering yourself, how do you expect to make a difference? How will you root your work? My journey to community organizing has been long, but I know it has just started. There is a long road ahead of me filled with trials and tribulations, and I am ready to take on what the world has for me.
I believe it’s about time I take pride in my last name. “Bañez” has been through colonization, diaspora, and discrimination. But, I know one thing for sure. “Bañez” is ready to transform these traumas into resiliency, strength, and pride, just like Vallejo.
Myron Joel Bañez