A young Fil-Am survivor’s journey toward progressive leadership 

Dear Mama,

I remembered that Saturday morning in late August in 2015 when I first told you that I was sexually assaulted. I remembered sitting on the couch and I couldn’t look at you, dad, or Andrew in the eye. It felt like the entire room froze, and no one ever expected those words to come out of my mouth. Andrew kept switching glances between the three of us, Papa had his head in his hands with tears in his eyes, and you rushed over to comfort me. I remembered bracing myself for the “I told you so” that would follow. I remembered the streamline of questions you sent my way, and I think it’s because you never prepared yourself to have this conversation with me. You wanted to avenge the pain I was in by trying to pry any information you could get your hands on and put my perpetrator away. But at the same time, I prayed that I wouldn’t see the disappointed look in your eye when I told you. I always felt like I knew exactly what I was doing, and this was the first time that I just didn’t know how to move forward.

Sometimes I found it hard to explain what I really did at school. As an Asian American studies major, I felt like you just nodded your head and trusted that I knew what I was doing. Progressive leadership to some might seem like a very radical term to describe my work as an ethnic studies student in this polarized day and age. But to others, progressive leadership is helping evolve their campus community in more than just a project that benefits themselves. I would like to think that my work at CSUN is an example of progressive leadership in higher education. I believe activism starts in many corners of campus. From the times when I called to tell you about the conferences I was going to, to the non-profit work I was doing, or when I started crying because I felt that my world was pulling me in five different directions. I just need to be comforted by you, and to be reminded that it was all a part of a process. I have learned that progressive leadership is not necessarily the end goal, but it is the never-ending journey of selfless work needed to help someone who might one day walk in the same shoes I did. 

I was not sure when I realized that I was not alone in my journey, but when I took my AAS 311 – Research Methods class, I found institutional support from Dr. Tracy Lachica- Buenavista to pursue a qualitative research study on the experiences of Filipina American and Chinese American women’s experience with sexual harassment. From that research, I found that so many other Asian American women had been silently suffering from their experiences from sexual harassment and to some extent, incomplete rape. After the paper, I knew that many Asian American women did not have someone who looked like them, are open about their experiences, and knew about resources on campus to help them get through their trauma. 

I knew that my experience was not an isolated case and that finding support was key to my recovery. From that point on, I realized that I had to become a model for other women and become knowledgeable about resources and support on campus in a moment’s notice. When I found Project D.A.T.E., I knew that advocating for survivors and educating the campus community about sexual assault awareness and rape prevention was going to be mentally challenging and emotionally draining, but the work would be necessary. It took me two years to gain the courage to speak to others about a serious and heavy topic, but I wanted to show other Asian American folks on campus that there are resources on campus that can be cathartic and healing for survivors. Some days I would walk out of presentations on a high, feeling like my words affected people. And then there were some days that I would leave the presentation hitting the autopilot button because I would get flashbacks from my assault, and just mechanically walk home, curl up into a ball, and avoid every single thought that ran through my brain. This was the part of my journey that I realized that sacrifices had to be made. But if I knew that I was helping someone else find support, it made the bad days worth it.

It was always been my habit to not give you full details about the trips I went on or the things I did off campus. I remembered calling you a couple of days before my first trip to Sacramento, when I lobbied with CSUN’s Student Government, Associated Students, to advocate for a fully funded CSU system. I remembered trying to explain to you what CHESS (California Higher Education Student Summit) was and what I was doing there. I did not know how I was going to explain to you that I was going to use my story in order to push assemblymembers and senators to convince Governor Jerry Brown to fully fund the CSUs. I did not know when I walked away from CHESS, it was going to a new skill to my toolbelt. I did not know that advocating for survivors and on-campus support services was crucial to my recovery, but it could be the defining moment when the next survivor needs resources and support, and I hoped that support will still be there. I never believed that I, an Asian American woman, survivor, student leader, but most importantly your daughter, could do something beyond the campus community and directly going into California government spaces to promote and actively create change.

Sometimes, I could hear your voice in the back of my head, bragging to everyone around you of how proud you are of me. I am grateful for you being so supportive of my wish to vocalize my experience when it was the norm to either remain silent or internally handle my situation within our family. I am forever grateful that you never turned me away. I am grateful for the days when you are more compassionate and understanding when I snapped for being extra sensitive around the month of August, the time when I am the mostly broken. I am blessed that you were proud of my work as I am fortunate to have an amazing supportive mother. This journey has not been an easy one, nor is progressive leadership tackled without a strong backbone of allies, friends, comrades, fellow survivors, but most importantly family. Not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have my mother pick up me from such a hard fall. I can only hope we can become an example of the change in our community, to open up a dialogue with more compassion and understanding when it comes to topics about recovering survivors. I believe that change starts with us as we continue to take steps forward together.

Love always,

Your daughter, Abigail

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Abigail Garcia is a recent CSUN graduate who majored in Asian American Studies. She advocates for resources for Asian American survivors and hopes to one day change the dynamics of internalized silence within Asian American communities.

Footnote: Once a year, an essay competition is held at CSUN, amongst Asian American Studies and Education majors, as part of an endowment set up by Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz for her deceased mother, Asuncion Castro Abarquez and her deceased sister, Rosalinda Abarquez Alcantara to provide a scholarship grant to deserving students. The essays are then reviewed and carefully vetted by a committee headed by Dr. Teresa Williams-Leon, Dr. Philip Hutchinson and Kimberly Teaman Carroll with oversight from Dept. Chair Gina Masequesmay this 2018. This year’s winning essay is from Abigail Garcia on Progressive Leadership, Asian American Studies and Education.  

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Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes a weekly column for Asian Journal, called “Rhizomes.” She has been writing for AJ Press for 10 years. She also contributes to Balikbayan Magazine. Her training and experiences are in science, food technology, law and community volunteerism for 4 decades. She holds a B.S. degree from the University of the Philippines, a law degree from Whittier College School of Law in California and a certificate on 21st Century Leadership from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. She has been a participant in NVM Writing Workshops taught by Prof. Peter Bacho for 4 years and Prof. Russell Leong. She has travelled to France, Holland, Belgium, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico and over 22 national parks in the US, in her pursuit of love for nature and the arts.

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