Shortly after Hannah Chua moved to the United States from the Philippines with her mother, Chua stopped speaking Tagalog. For the then 8-year-old, it was part of her effort to assimilate into the community of Escondido, California, that was predominantly white and Latino.
“It’s hard to transition as an immigrant, culturally, socially, politically and I went through a stage at even a really young age when I just rejected everything that made me Asian, anything that made me different,” said the UCLA third-year student who is majoring in world arts and cultures. “I didn’t want to be singled out.”
Her mother continued to try and speak the language with her at home, but Chua refused.
“I really kind of kept my home life, which is very traditionally Pilipino, and my school life, which I constructed to be very American, compartmentalized to a ‘T’,” Chua said. “I don’t think I realized how much that really hurt me until I discovered Asian American studies. It’s where I discovered that there is value in my story and in my lived experiences, that there are other ways to be Pilipino outside of the shame that I absorbed within me as a young immigrant child.”
Chua, who transferred from UC Santa Barbara, is part of the first cohort of students to enroll in the Pilipino studies minor offered through UCLA’s Asian American studies department.
The Pilipino studies minor launched in fall 2020, the result of decades of advocacy from passionate students, staff and faculty. The minor offers a broad catalog of interdisciplinary courses — spanning history, language, literature and more. UCLA is the first University of California campus to offer a program specific to Pilipino studies.
As part of the program, Chua is taking Pilipino language classes and reconnecting to part of her identity.
“I was amazed to learn this minor existed and I thought to myself, I don’t care if I have to take 20 units a quarter, take summer classes, I’m going to make use of this opportunity,” she said.
Pilipino language classes, such as those taught by Nenita Domingo at UCLA for nearly two decades, are often an entry point for students who become interested in Pilipino studies more broadly, said Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, associate professor of Asian American studies, who has been helping oversee the rollout of the minor. She’s been advocating for its creation since she began teaching at UCLA 15 years ago, shortly after Asian American studies became a department in 2006.
“Community building, making a movement, organizing, that’s the spirit in which we approach most of what we do in Asian American studies and ethnic studies in general,” Burns said.
Many of the students who have chosen the minor are from Pilipino families or are also majoring in Asian American studies.
Patrick Romero’s family migrated from the Philippines to the San Francisco Bay area when he was 3 years old. A third-year student, he’s double majoring in Asian American studies and international development studies, adding the Pilipino studies minor this past spring.
While at UCLA Romero has been involved with the Pilipino student group Samahang Pilipino.
“I grew up with exposure to the language and the culture, but I didn’t really have a critical understanding of what it meant to be Pilipino,” he said. “I didn’t understand what conditions were back in the Philippines, or the exact push and pull factors of why my family is in the United States today, or why there are so many Filipinos in the U.S.”
A first-generation college student, Romero hopes to either get into social work or education, focusing on teaching ethnic studies or Asian American studies one day.
“This kind of education is a powerful tool, it’s learning more about yourself, like finding the power within yourself,” Romero said.
Many courses in the minor delve into the relationship between the United States and the Philippines, complex and long running histories of colonization and militarization.
One of the newer faculty of the Asian American Studies department is Evyn Lê Espiritu Ghandi, whose focus is on critical refugee studies.
For Lj Isorena, who declared the minor this year, Ghandi’s classes have been particularly eye-opening, and ones the third-year student would not have otherwise encountered.
“She’s one of the professors that really made me think about things from a global perspective and really think about how imperialism and colonialism really affects my community,” Isorena said.
Isorena was born in the Philippines but came to the U.S. when they were just 1 year old, growing up in Stockton, California, where there is a large Pilipino community. (Isorena’s preferred gender pronouns are they/them). They are majoring in Asian American studies and double minoring in Pilipino Studies and education, hoping eventually to teach, preferably younger students.
Because much of Asian American studies is understandably focused on different histories of East Asian groups or Asian Americans, Isorena appreciates the chance to make specific connections to the history and culture of the Philippines.
“I feel like with a lot of the Pilipino diaspora, there is a really big disconnect with the Philippines itself,” Isorena said. “It’s hard for people from the diaspora and people who live there to connect.”
Burns has been holding informational workshops over the last year or so, talking to potential students about the minor, relating this kind of coursework to realities revealed by the pandemic, such as the number of Pilipino nurses on the front lines of the U.S. health care systems.
She’s grateful for the efforts of former UCLA professors like Roy Morales, who taught about Pilipino studies throughout his career. Barbara Gaerlan, assistant director of UCLA’s Center for Southeast Asia, is a longtime ally who founded the study abroad program in the Philippines in 2001.
“She was such an amazing memory keeper and used the institutional history to move us forward and give us ideas to build on,” Burns said.
Now that the minor is official, Burns is eager to see how it evolves, with new faculty like Ghandi and Oona Paredes, assistant professor of Asian languages and cultures developing courses.
And of course, the students themselves will help chart the course of the minor, Burns said.
“In some ways, we have yet to imagine the community that the minor will bring together,” she said. “I’m excited to see how students are going to transform the minor and what they are going to do in it.”