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"California is in the Heart" Exhibit Explores the Rich History of Filipino Americans

Photo: Patricia Azurin

The day I visited the “California is in the Heart” exhibit at the California Museum in Sacramento was during the series of winter storms that brought historic amounts of rain and snow across the state. It was January 7, and parts of my current hometown were underwater. The following day, my neighborhood underwent a power outage for 72 hours.

For the longest time, history to me meant before, not after, and certainly not “during.” But as I walked through the exhibit, learning about the impact of Filipino American leaders, activists, and innovators past and present, my understanding of what makes something or someone historic began to change.

Presented in partnership with the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies and with support from the Filipino American National Historical Society Museum, the “California is in the Heart” exhibit highlights the critical role of Filipino Americans in California history. It is extensive in its representation of our diverse community. Moving through the room of newspaper clippings throughout the ages and photos and mementos from private collections, I was reminded of a question posed in another exhibit: “Who gets to be remembered?”

“California is in the Heart” celebrates Filipino Americans in education, the arts and sciences, agriculture, healthcare, law and politics, and social justice movements. Visitors venture down the historical timeline, learning about the first documented presence of Filipinos who entered what is now known as the United States in 1587 and the Filipino American nurses and their sacrifice as frontline workers during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are reminded of the human zoos at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition meant to glorify white superiority above all other races. Also known as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, the spectacle showcased the Igorot people and their so-called “uncivilized” ways and traditions for the enjoyment and horror of white Americans.

Walking through the “California is in the Heart'' exhibit, I reflected on my own history of coming to terms with my hyphenated identity being both Filipino and American. I immigrated to the United States from Bikol, Philippines, when I was ten. My exposure to U.S. history was always under the context of “the Americans saved us from the Spaniards.” This illusion of friendship was solidified by a picture I saw in my grade school history book of American and Filipino soldiers shaking hands after World War II. I attended a private Catholic school in the Philippines where students were encouraged to speak English and Tagalog, not Bikol. I later learned how control over one’s dominant language only maintained U.S. exceptionalism and colonialism.

As I passed the exhibit highlighting the accomplishments of Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, I reflected on a college Asian American Studies class that taught me the role of Filipinos in the United Farm Workers movement. Little did I know, my first introduction to Filipino farmworkers in California was as a 5th grader reading John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath. It felt like a full circle moment.

The “Filipinos in Entertainment” section features rapper Ruby Ibarra, whom I met at a Sacramento Kings game in March 2020 before the statewide lockdown. Her album Circa91 was the first time I felt a connection in my dual Filipino and American identities. Hearing Ruby Ibarra sing in multiple languages was validation that healed the homesickness I felt as a 10-year-old, learning to navigate a version of America that was more complex than the pictures in my grade school history book.

When does the present become the past? Continuing my way through the exhibit, a statement I had seen on social media, “You don’t realize you’re part of a historical event until after it has already happened,” came to mind. History is not the past but rather the present, an ever-evolving state of self and connection to kapwa where the past informs our present self and who our future self can be.

“Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makarating sa paroroonan.” This Tagalog phrase, associated with Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal, is more commonly known in English as “No history, no self. Know history, know self.” Over the years, Filipinos have worked tirelessly to break generational traumas that we have inherited and make known the contributions Filipinos continue to make in this country. To borrow from artist Klassy, we are “reclaiming what’s ours, the high and the low.”

“California is in the Heart” is a declaration that Filipino American history is not only California history but U.S. history.

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