The aroma of freshly baked empanadas and savory pancit noodles filled the air as dozens of people gathered at Beacon Hill’s Station Cafe on the evening of Tuesday, March 8. With masks and bottles of hand sanitizer spread around the polished wooden tables, soft murmurs filled with anticipation covered the room.
The food was a special recipe from an aunt, said Jill Mangaliman, president of GABRIELA Seattle, a Filipino women’s rights group. In the spirit of International Women’s Day, Mangaliman and other community organizers have come together to celebrate and amplify the rights of working women in the Philippines and beyond.
“For Filipinos, this day means a lot to us because the number one export in the Philippines, unfortunately, is people. Human labor, the majority of which are women, Filipino women, because there is no no jobs at home,” Mangaliman said. “…People are forced to migrate and live all over the world. There are Filipinos everywhere and today is an important day for us because we really highlight this struggle, this ongoing need for a better system that meets the needs of our people.
More than 160,000 Filipinos live in Washington as of 2020, comprising the second-largest Asian and Pacific Islander (AAPI) ethnic group in the state. Washington’s population has diversified over the years — the AAPI population alone has grown 102% since 2000 — and now numbers more than 870,000 people.
Over time, the flow of Filipino migrants influenced the population that now lives across the world, including Seattle. Many Filipinos, including Mangaliman’s parents, traveled abroad to find better economic opportunities to support their families, often finding themselves employed in low-wage positions with poor working conditions. The struggles migrants face in the quest for economic security often go unspoken, even to their own families, Mangaliman said.
” A lot of [struggles], I did not know five or 10 years ago. Fortunately, I found a community. I learned my story, I learned this long fight and I started to trust that we can change things.
At Tuesday’s community roundtable, a group of diverse Filipino stakeholders shared their experiences of educating and organizing the workers’ rights movement. Cami Laborte, president of the UW chapter of Pi Nu Iota, a Filipino interest fraternity, shared the same sentiments as Mangaliman and encouraged other young people to learn more about the Filipino history of the community, if not the family. .
“There is so much value in starting to talk to someone…knowing why they are invested in [the Filipino rights movement],” she said. “Then you ask them, ‘How can I learn more? What kind of action steps are you recommending or asking the community?’
Jessica Valdez of the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) and Maria Bayatola of the Filipino-American Political Action Group of Washington (FAPAGOW) joined Laborte as panelists.
While a formal panel was organized for the event, GABRIELA members encouraged the public to come forward for an open discussion – including prominent Filipino leaders from Washington State. Notable attendees included Burien Mayor Sofia Aragon, Tukwila Councilwoman Cynthia Delostrinos Johnson, and Tacoma Port Commissioner Kristin Ang.
Ang drew attention to the unique role overseas Filipinos play in their respective communities and called for efforts to learn more about their migrant struggles, which have historically remained unspoken.
“When you don’t know your own story, you’re bound to repeat it,” she said. Ang, who was born in Manila and eventually grew up in Gig Harbor and Tacoma, said Filipinos are always intrinsically connected to their country’s history, even abroad.
“They were calling [the migration] a brain drain of people who left… What do we owe to our Filipino brothers and sisters? We care about the Ukrainian people, we care about the Afghan people, so why not the people we know in the Philippines too? Everything we fight is connected.
An emergency thread highlighted each speaker’s point of view. Mangaliman spoke of the twin crises facing Filipinos: the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain the community’s access to basic health, housing and nutrition needs, while workers’ rights hang in the balance with the upcoming elections in the Philippines in less than 60 days.
Mangaliman and other community organizers are critical of current Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s militant approach to the pandemic and the war on drugs. According to Mangaliman, the passage of the Philippines Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 – which allows groups suspected of terrorism to be detained without a warrant – targets human rights and self-help groups who “do what it is necessary that the government did not. ”
Recent polls show that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the late 1980s Filipino dictator, is the frontrunner in the Philippine presidential election, ahead of opposition leader and current Vice President Leny Rorbredo. Marcos Jr. cited Sara Duterte-Carpio, Duterte’s daughter, as a running mate, although the vice president is elected separately.
“For me and for kasamas here in the United States speaking out, we are also terrorized by the Philippine government,” Mangaliman said. “We are asking people to protect activists, to protect those who use their voice for justice.”
After Tuesday’s roundtable, GABRIELA Seattle members handed out colorful zines with recommendations on what Filipinos abroad can do to help Filipino migrant workers and their advocates. The 10-point program encourages people to provide assistance to migrant workers and their families, to advocate for access to affordable, quality health care and to strengthen employment opportunities in the Philippines, rather than programs labor export.
In June 2021, U.S. Representative Susan Wild (D, PA) reintroduced the Philippine Human Rights Act, which would suspend U.S. security assistance to the Philippines until the government is held accountable for the violence against dissidents.
“By blocking aid to the Philippine security forces until human rights standards are met, this bill makes a common-sense proposition: defending human rights requires more than rhetoric,” Wild said in the statement accompanying the reintroduction. “It requires actions.”
Several members of Congress have pledged support for the law, including US Representative Pramila Jayapal.
And in Beacon Hill, before splitting again, a Pinay choir came together to celebrate the continued struggle for Filipino rights, through songs and calls to action. To the soft notes of an acoustic guitar, they sang the song River by the Filipino group Diskarte Namin, which celebrates the successful protest of the inhabitants of the Cordillera region against the Chico River dam project.
“Did you know freedom is like a river / Flowing free and strong like the way we found each other,” they sang. “And yes, together we will work, we will strive to improve life / the way water carves stone / But we cannot do it alone.”