Becoming American

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This week, I become an American citizen, 27 years after coming to the United States.

Like most immigrants, I emigrated to the United States for its promise of opportunity, freedom, and equality. My parents had sacrificed much to send my brother and me to the best private school in the Philippines, but it was not enough to secure financial stability, much less upward mobility. As a young gay man, I was stifled by the cultural and social expectations of the time. I decided that moving to New York City would allow my family to save face and me to live and love openly and with integrity, while pursuing opportunities waiting for me. Like millions of other immigrants, I shared the American Dream of prosperity and happiness.

The seeds of this dream were planted over a century ago, when the United States colonized the Philippines in 1898. The fact is, immigration is an unintended consequence of imperialism. At the turn of the twentieth century, Filipino farm workers were recruited to provide cheap labor in Hawaiian sugar plantations. At the same time, Filipino students were sent to the U.S. mainland to be educated as future administrators of the Philippines. Life for these men was difficult but they persevered and many stayed, building new lives that seemed golden to many back home, including my maternal grandfather.

Lolo Pedong loved everything American. He named his first child, my mother Georgena, after the first president of the United States. He regaled us, his grandchildren, with World War II stories and praised MacArthur for keeping his promise and saving Filipinos from Japanese perdition. He repeatedly told us the story of young George Washington and the poor cherry tree.

It is no surprise then that my uncle settled in rural Mississippi in the 1960s to serve poor whites, blacks, and Choctaws as their general physician. Thanks to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, he was then able to bring my grandparents and unmarried uncle and aunts to the United States in the 1970s. This change in immigration policy also permitted my paternal aunts to stake their fortune in America. But the law had its limits and my family remained in the Philippines.

Nonetheless, my family never stopped gazing at America. How could we not? Life under the Marcos dictatorship was hopeless and good things came from my aunts and uncles in America: U.S. dollars and balikbayan boxes filled with mac and cheese boxes, Spam tins, Hershey’s chocolate, name-brand clothes, and other American delights. We were weaned on Sesame Street and entertained by Hollywood.

On July 7, 1990, armed with my parents’ blessing and $1500, I came to America and never looked back. I put myself through grad school, received my Master’s degree, then my doctoral degree, I’ve had three careers in small business, nonprofits, and now, in academia. I met and married the man of my dreams and we live comfortably in the greatest city in the world.

But until this week, something was missing. A sense of stability and rootedness. A basic confirmation of who I know I’ve been for quite some time now: an American.

Citizenship had been elusive for me, not for lack of desire or want of trying. Immigrants can become citizens through employment or marriage. Employment was never a viable option and marriage was denied to me and my husband until 2010, 12 years after we got together. Our union was not recognized by the federal government until 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court Obergefell v. Hodges decision finally paved the way for me.

America has its flaws and my path to becoming American has been long, and at times, challenging. But America is in my heart. This is my home, this is my land, and these are my people.

Originally published on HuffPost.

 

 

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I March

img_9663I march
Not because I’ve lost faith.

I march
Because I believe
No matter our gender
No matter our skin color
No matter our faith
No matter where we’re born
No matter who we love
We are all equal
Each deserving a happy
and meaningful life.

I march
Because I believe
We are responsible for one another
Accountable to each other
Not just to ourselves,
families, tribes
Not to our narrow self-interests
Not to our resentments
Not to our anxieties
and fears.

I march
Because I have faith
Together we can
Change our neighborhood,
city, town, and country
Change our world
Lift each other up
Equals in grace
and abundance.

New York City
January 21, 2017

Senate Approves Congressional Gold Medal Bill for Filipino World War II Veterans

Washington, D.C. The U.S. Senate today approved by unanimous consent S. 1555, the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) Act of 2015, a measure that would grant national recognition to the more than 260,000 Filipino and American soldiers who served under the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE).

Introduced in June last year by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), with U.S. Senator Dean Heller (D-NV) as lead co-sponsor, the bill gained bipartisan co-sponsorship of 72 U.S. Senators – a super majority that demonstrates the support needed to merit moving the bill in an expedited manner. Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) also played key roles in moving S. 1555 this far.

“Our veterans and their families have been waiting for this awesome news,” says Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret), chair of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP). “They will be very pleased and proud to know that the U.S. has not forgotten their wartime service to this country. We call on the U.S. House of Representatives to follow the Senate’s lead and finally make this long-awaited recognition a reality for our soldiers who performed their duty with honor and uncommon valor.”

To date, the House companion bill, HR 2737, which was also introduced in June last year by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI-2), with U.S. Rep. Joseph Heck (R-NV-3) as lead co-sponsors, currently has 168 co-sponsors. It is expected, however, that today’s Senate’s action will help build momentum to gather more bipartisan support in the House.

“We are extremely grateful to Sen. Hirono and Sen. Heller for their personal commitment and determination to push this bill through,” says Marie Blanco, FilVetREP Vice Chair. “They championed this very important legislation because they appreciate the urgency of getting it passed this year.”

Blanco also thanked the Senate Banking Committee, which has jurisdiction over CGM legislation, for “giving the green light to pass this bill by unanimous consent. We are appreciative as well of U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), U.S, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) for their leadership in promptly facilitating the approval process.”

Informed of this Senate action, 85-year-old Rudy Panaglima, a Filipino World War II veteran of Arlington, Va. welcomed the news with a sense of joy and relief. “My comrades and I have been waiting for more than 70 years, so I am delighted that we will finally be recognized,” he said. “I can only say ‘God bless America’ for doing the right thing.”

Panaglima is among 15,000 surviving veterans residing in the U.S. and the Philippines. Most of them are in their mid 90’s. They served in the USAFFE as Philippine Scouts, members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army and Recognized Guerillas.

The Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) is the highest award bestowed by U.S. Congress to an individual or group who performed a significant achievement that has impact in American history and culture.

Learn more about the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project here.

USCIS to Implement Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program

News release from USCIS, May 9, 2016.

WASHINGTON—Beginning June 8, 2016, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will allow certain Filipino World War II veteran family members who are beneficiaries of approved family-based immigrant visa petitions an opportunity to receive a discretionary grant of parole on a case-by-case basis, so that they may come to the United States as they wait for their immigrant visa to become available.    

This parole policy was announced in the White House report, Modernizing and Streamlining Our Legal Immigration System for the 21st Century,issued in July 2015. An estimated 2,000 to 6,000 Filipino-American World War II veterans are living in the United States today. Among other things, this policy will enable many eligible individuals to provide support and care to their aging veteran family members who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents.

“The Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program honors the thousands of Filipinos who bravely enlisted to fight for the United States during World War II,” USCIS Director León Rodríguez said. “This policy will allow certain Filipino-American family members awaiting immigrant-visa issuance to come to the United States and be with their loved ones. For many, it will also allow them to provide support and care for elderly veterans or their surviving spouses.”

With the exception of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, the number of family-sponsored immigrant visas available by country of origin in any given year is limited by statute. These limits result in long waiting periods before family members may join petitioning U.S. citizens or permanent residents in the United States and become permanent residents themselves. For some Filipino-American families, this wait can exceed 20 years.

Under the policy, certain family members of Filipino World War II veterans may be eligible to receive a discretionary grant of parole to come to the United States before their visa becomes available. In limited cases, certain eligible relatives will be able to seek parole on their own behalf when their Filipino World War II veteran and his or her spouse are both deceased.

Under the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program, USCIS will review each case individually to determine whether authorizing parole is appropriate.  When each individual arrives at a U.S. port of entry, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will also review each case to determine whether to parole the individual.  

Legal authority for this parole policy comes from the Immigration and Nationality Act, which authorizes the Secretary of Homeland Security to parole into the United States certain individuals, on a case-by-case basis, for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit.

Additional information about the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program—including guidance on eligibility, the application process and where to file—is available in the revised Form I-131 instructions and the Federal Register notice published today. We will not accept applications under this policy until June 8, 2016.  USCIS strongly encourages eligible individuals interested in requesting parole under the FWVP Program do so within 5 years from June 8, 2016.

For more information about USCIS and its programs, please visit www.uscis.gov.

National Actions to Commemorate the 74th Anniversary of Bataan Death March

Prisoners In Bataan

Japanese troops guarding Filipino and American prisoners in Bataan. The prisoners were forced to march over 62 miles from Bataan to Tarlac in what became known as the Bataan Death March. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Washington, DC– The Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP) is commemorating the heroism of more than 260,000 Filipino and American soldiers of World War ll by renewing its call to Congress to pass the Filipino Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Award of 2015. April 9 marks the 74th anniversary of the fall of Bataan, one of the critical moments of World War II in the Pacific theater.

Across the country, advocates will be holding community events, including wreath-laying ceremonies, to pay tribute to these soldiers who fought valiantly in Bataan and endured the Bataan “Death March” 74 years ago.

In San Francisco, Calif., the Philippine Consulate General, the Bataan Legacy Historical Society and Memorare-Manila 1945 Foundation will hold a Day of Valor Commemoration and open a Special Exhibit on World War II in the Philippines. The Exhibit will run from April 11-29, 2016.

In Washington, DC, FilVetREP will take part in a program of commemoration hosted by the Philippine Embassy on Friday, April 8. In the Philippines, the Day of Valor (“Araw ng Kagitingan”) is recognized as a national holiday.

Other actions nationwide include a #RecognizeBataanValor and #RecognizeFilVetValor social media campaign to secure co-sponsors to the Congressional Gold Medal legislation; letters and phone calls from around the country to lawmakers; and Op-eds on HuffingtonPost.com and other national publications.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba (Ret), Chairman of FilVetRep, and other advocates will also be available for press interviews. Contact Jon Melegrito, FilVetREP Executive Secretary, at 202-361-0296.

Here is a list of events:

Friday, April 8, 2016, 5:30 PM Wreath-laying Ceremony, World War II

Memorial followed by program/symposium at Romulo Hall, Philippine Embassy, 1600 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington DC,    20036. Contact Gen. Delfin Lorenzana, Tel.202-467-9410.

Saturday, April 9, 1:00 PM Community Program, Philippine Mini Mart, Troy, Michigan. Sponsored by the US Pinoys      for Good Governance (USPGG). Contact Willie Deschavez, Tel. 586-713-8261.

Saturday, April 9, 9:00 AM Wreath-laying at the Bataan-Corregidor Memorial Bridge on the corner of State Street and Wacker Drive, Chicago, Ill., followed by a program at the Philippine Consultate, 122 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60603. Co-sponsored by NaFFAA West Illinois Region. Contact Anna Liza F. Alcantara, Tel. 312-583-0621.

Saturday, April 9, 2:00 PM Commemoration and Remembrance Ceremony, Filipino Veterans Education Center, War      Memorial Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, Cal. Contact Rudy Asercion, Tel. 415-564-6262.

Saturday, April 9, 2:00 PM Wreath-laying Ceremony, followed by a program, sponsored by the Philippine Consulate     of New York and the Filipino Executive Council of Greater Philadelphia, Inc.  Contact: Mae Ermita Manubay,  Philippine Consulate General NY, Tel. 212-764-1330 Ext. 4013.

Monday, April 11, 8:30 AM A Day of Valor Commemoration and Opening of Exhibition on World War II in the Philippines. The Philippine Center, Kalayaan Hall, 447 Sutter Street, San Francisco, CA. Contact the Philippine Consulate cultural@philippinessanfrancisco.org, Tel. 415-433-666 x 313; edgar@bataanlegacy.orgwww.bataanlegacy.org

Democratic and Republican Lawmakers Agree on Congressional Gold Medal for Filipino American Vets

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Originally posted on Huff Post Politics, June 15, 2015 

Democratic and Republican lawmakers can hardly agree on anything that nothing ever gets done in Washington. Last Thursday, however, members of Congress from both Houses announced the introduction of a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to 260,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers who responded to President Roosevelt’s call-to-duty and fought under the American flag in World War II. Led by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), other leading cosponsors were on hand to commend the bravery of Filipino veterans, including Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV), Rep. Juan Vargas (D-CA), and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

“These soldiers did not only defend the nation but they also defended and ultimately liberated sovereign territories held by the U.S. government. These loyal and valiant men and women fought, suffered, and in many instances died in the same manner and under the same commander as other members of our United States Armed Forces during World War II,” said Congresswoman Gabbard. Sen. Hirono added, “If there were ever veterans who deserved the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, it is our Filipino veterans and brothers in arms.”

Filipino WWII veterans were on hand, along with Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Tony Taguba, who leads the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project, a non-partisan, community-based group raising awareness of the service rendered by Filipino and Filipino-American troops during the Second World War.

“For over 70 years, the Filipino WWII Soldiers have sought recognition for their courageous actions and selfless service in defending the United States and Philippines,” said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Tony Taguba. “Despite having their benefits rescinded by the US Congress in 1946, they maintained their unwavering loyalty to the U.S. We are eternally grateful for their faithful and dedicated service. They have earned national recognition from the US Congress proven by the thousands of lives lost in combat, and for those wounded for life. We ask Congress to approve the Congressional Gold Medal for the Filipino WWII Soldiers.”

On July 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a military order directing the Philippine Commonwealth Army, Philippine Scouts, and Philippine Constabulary to be under the command of the U.S. Army Forces Far East (USAFFE) commander to defend the Philippines and United States. A year later, the fall of Bataan (April 1942) and Corregidor (May 1942) led to the capture of over 72,000 American and Filipino troops. The soldiers of Bataan went through the Bataan Death March, while the soldiers of Corregidor were taken to Manila before being transported to Camp O’Donnell. Remnants of the USAFFE forces and Filipino civilians organized into recognized guerilla units led by U.S. and Philippine Army Officers. In 1945, the 1st and 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiments and 1st Recon Battalion joined the fight.

Over 260,000 Filipino troops fought in the Second World War. An estimated 16,000 to 17,000 soldiers remain in the U.S. and Philippines. However, public awareness about the contributions of Filipino soldiers during WWII is scant or nonexistent. While other minority veterans groups, namely, the Tuskegee Airmen (2006), Navajo Code Talkers (2008), Women Air Force Service Pilots (2009), Japanese American Nisei Soldiers (2010), Montfort Point Marines (2011), and Puerto Rican Soldiers (2014) have been formally recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal, Filipino American WWII soldiers have not been similarly honored for their selfless sacrifice and dedicated service.

“I heard the passion that they felt for America and the American cause in the war in their aging voices,” said Rep. Heck, who has championed the recognition and compensation of Filipino-American WW II veterans. “And it is only fitting and proper that we acknowledge their great sacrifice in service to the United States with the Congressional Gold Medal.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I serve on the Executive Committee of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project.

Demonizing Darren Wilson

Darren Wilson

I want so much to demonize Darren Wilson, the Ferguson police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown, especially after seeing clips of his interview with George Stephanopoulos. How could he calmly say that he’d do it over again and that his conscience is clear, when he had killed an unarmed teenager? How could I not be outraged when he is now given a national platform to tell his version of the truth while Michael Brown’s truth died with him?

It would not be the first time I’d demonize another person and make him the embodiment of injustices suffered. I severed ties with a childhood friend for opposing equal rights for gay families like mine. He had become both the patronizing face of straight privilege and oppressive voice of conservative Christianity.  I quit a job and blamed a former boss for passing me over because I happen to be a brown immigrant. He had come to represent racism, and my promoted colleague, the beneficiary of white privilege.

Darren Wilson needs to be held accountable for his actions. But what good would demonizing him do? Focusing our rage on one man will not change things. Making Wilson the scapegoat only enflames emotions and festers our collective wounds. We are distracted from the root causes – individual and systemic racism, militarization of police forces, residential segregation, educational and wealth disparities, media and information silos – and fail to act in ways that can bring about real change.

There are no clear and easy answers. But we can begin by educating ourselves and understanding how Michael Brown’s death and Darren Wilson’s freedom from indictment have become the norm. We can ask ourselves how we are complicit and figure out ways we can chip away at what can feel overwhelming and appear intractable.  We need to do something, but demonizing others is not it.

At Last I Have A Green Card, But Many Others Still Wait

(Photo: Erwin de Leon)

After 23 years in the U.S., I finally have in my hands on that much- coveted green card.

I got permanent residency thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last June upending section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). My husband and I finally have our marriage recognized by the federal government.  It was an easy and expeditious process, which belied our struggle with the immigration system throughout our 15 years together.

Two months after my spouse submitted his petition, we were called in for an interview. We were asked the most basic of questions, confirming who we claimed to be, how we met, and when the other was born. The adjudicator examined our legal and financial documents and made copies of our wedding pictures. That was it.

He didn’t even bother with other “evidence” we had painstakingly and obsessively put together for months, collected in a three-ring binder. A week and a day after the interview, my permanent resident card arrived in our mailbox.

John and I are very happy and extremely relieved. We are well aware that we are among the more fortunate ones. Not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants are as lucky. The Williams Institute estimates that there are about 7,000 non-citizen gay couples and that some 267,000 undocumented immigrants identify as LGBT. These individuals have not benefitted from the Supreme Court’s ruling, but they will benefit from comprehensive immigration reform which includes a path to legalization.

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama once again called for passage of immigration reform. He rightfully argues that fixing our immigration system is good for the economy and our national security, and, ultimately, for all of us.

“It doesn’t make sense to have 11 million people who are in this country illegally without any incentive or any way for them to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, meet their responsibilities and permit their families then to move ahead,” Obama said. “It’s not smart. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense.”

It is highly unlikely, however, that Congress will take up immigration reform this year with only a short time left in the legislative calendar and the Tea Party Caucus controlling the Republican majority in the House.  So the work continues.

My husband and I and other gay binational couples may have won our own personal battles with the immigration system, but we still have the responsibility to help other immigrants out of the quagmire.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds.

15 Years in a Binder

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Last month, my husband and I celebrated our 15th anniversary. In a few days, we need to prove those 15 years real to an immigration adjudicator, now that my spouse is able to sponsor me for a green card. This one person will decide our future in the country we love and call home, possibly radically altering our lives just as five Supreme Court justices did four months ago. We will be presenting this arbiter with an inch and a half binder, an abridged edition of our life as a couple.

Enclosed, each in its own plastic sleeve, are supporting documents that include shared leases, savings and credit card accounts, pension plans and living wills naming the other as sole beneficiary, and health care proxies guaranteeing the other makes life and death decisions when the time comes. These proxies were written up eight years ago when couples like us had no legal rights or protections, documents we always had on hand whenever we traveled outside of New York City, just in case.

Over a hundred select pictures countenance our history. The first Christmas at our cramped East Village studio, followed by holidays in Times Square, Charlotte, and Chapel Hill. The first time my husband’s parents met me on neutral ground at the Philadelphia Flower Show. The first time my large Filipino-American family met John in Chicago for my cousin’s debut. Formal parties celebrating my lola’s 80th then 90th birthday. Grad school graduations from General Theological Seminary and the New School. John’s ordination at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine with family members and friends in attendance. Summers in Maine. President Obama’s first and second inauguration. And of course, our civil ceremony at Moultrie Courthouse in Washington, D.C. three years ago. An elopement that was later celebrated on Facebook, Washington, and New York.

Notarized letters from family and friends attest that ours was not a marriage of convenience. We have over two dozen missives from folks who know us as a couple. From kin as well as from good friends, colleagues, and fellow advocates for civil rights and equality. A lawmaker has written on our behalf, so has a bishop. Finally for good measure, we have tossed in a few cards written to us both, mailed to our home address.

Perhaps this is all overkill. After all, there is no reason why my husband’s petition should be denied since we do meet the criteria. More so, I’d imagine, than countless straight binational couples who have much shorter histories and less proof than we do and whose marriages have been deemed real and worthy of green cards. But our long struggle with the immigration system as a gay binational couple leaves us a bit anxious. When we do finally learn that our 15 years together has been judged real and have a green card on hand, then will we exhale.

Reposted on the Huffington Post.

Filipino Racism

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Yes, my beloved kababayans, I’m saying it. We get racist. It’s time to admit it and do something about this insidious habit.

A week after we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, a friend who runs a couple of acclaimed Filipino restaurants in New York City posted this on Facebook:

We got a phone call at work today. The pinay said she and her family had a wonderful time at Maharlika. In fact, they enjoyed everything…until she took a stroll and saw “A BLACK” cooking her food. Shes positive that she and her family is sick because the BLACK man cooked her food. I am emphasizing black because this was her emphasis. She was irate and not until she said “discount” did she lighten up. Please note we have not received any other calls regarding food sickness. We have an A WITH MINUS FOUR PTS. lemme tell u thats hard.

I wish i cld have said go fuck yourself. Its taking everything i have not to cry or yell at the woman. She was keen to point out that her husband was a doctor….and they thoroughly enjoyed maharlika. She said black four times on two different calls. Theres no mistake. Theres nothing to debate.

I hear my friend’s distress, anger, and shame. I feel the same way.  We both embrace our roots and want to preserve our ethnic identity. We’re proud to be Filipino and want nothing more than other Americans to learn about us, our food, our culture, our strengths, our contributions, our love for this country and the one we will always revisit. Sadly, our people have some traits and habits which need to be abandoned. Racism, internalized and outward, is on top of my list.

Filipino racism spawned out of three centuries of Spanish colonialism and a century of U.S. imperialism. In the Philippines, it is perpetuated by systems of class and privilege along with institutions that favor those with fairer complexions, Caucasian features, and who can speak with an American accent. It is enforced by the global quest for whiteness, thanks to our more connected world where the West still dominates. In the U.S., we imbibe racism festering in the American psyche, systems, and structures.

I see our internalized racism in our mestiza and mestizo celebrities and our gluttonous appetite for skin-whitening products. I hear our racism when our immigrant doctors and nurses accuse all Hispanics of gaming the system. I feel it when we cringe upon learning that our kumpare’s daughter has a black boyfriend. I sense it when we rally behind the white candidate in Pavlovian fashion.

While we might think that we are better than African Americans, Latinos, and even other Asians, we are not. We too are people of color. Although we love hearing how hard-working we are, never causing any trouble, how good our English is, how nice and gentle we are, the same people who utter these platitudes see our difference. That’s why they say such things.

My hope remains with Filipinos like my friend who hold up a mirror to all of us.

well imagine if a patient wanted their money back after finding out your doctor was a brown skin filipino? God forbid hes dark filipino, right?

Ive got news for you…no matter what you use to bleach your skin or how mixed the bloodline gets….your shit is part igorot….part itim. Your money, your education or your zipcode doesnt make you any better, po.

Enough. Tama na. Let’s claim the kayumanggi and celebrate our difference. By doing so are we empowered. By doing so, we claim our rightful place in this world, not the one defined for us.