As the new year approaches, the Asian Journal editorial team looks back at the MDWK Magazine stories from 2019. Each week, the MDWK Magazine features long-form stories of Filipino Americans who continue to break barriers in their respective career fields, as well as highlighting the Fil-Am experience living in America and the social issues the community faces.
The 52 features published have covered books by Fil-Am authors, single moms who run their own businesses, married couples who work together, a Netflix docuseries about Cebu’s infamous jail that has dancing prisoners, and Fil-Am chefs nominated for James Beard Awards and opening new restaurants.
While it’s difficult to narrow down the best features — as each one is compelling — we remember several stories that have been widely shared and talked about. To read these selected features & other stories in their entirety, visit: https://www.asianjournal.com/category/magazines/mdwk-magazine.
In March 2019, the Vatican named Monsignor Alejandro “Alex” Aclan as the newest auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, making him the second Filipino to ever be presented as bishop in the United States.
Aclan’s journey to the priesthood is not a conventional one as he graduated with a degree in medical technology, which led him to work as a programmer and systems analyst for numerous companies in the Philippines. After moving to Southern California, he continued attending mass regularly, during which he suddenly felt a calling to enter the seminary. For the past 25 years, Aclan has been a priest, getting to know the Filipino American community in the LA area and sees his new role as a way to continue doing what he loves best.
“My favorite thing is being able to alleviate people’s burdens, big and small, spiritual and otherwise,” said Aclan, adding “That’s what we’re all about. Bringing more people to Christ and letting people experience what Christ is like, with the hopes of course that we’ll have a more peaceful and more loving and more progressive society. To heal hurt and division among parishioners and to unify our church.”
2019 was quite the year for R&B sensation H.E.R., who was nominated for five Grammys and won two: Best R&B Album for her EP “H.E.R” and Best R&B Performance for “Best Part” with Daniel Caesar. On top of that, she was featured on Spotify billboards for Best New Artist, performed at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, created her own music festival (the Lights On Festival) in September, and released a compilation mixtape called “I Used to Know Her.”
Born in 1997, H.E.R. — whose real name is Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson — said she was raised with a “good balance” of the Filipino and Black American cultures in her home. Those influences taught her how to be a hard worker as well as a love for music and expression.
For most performances, she wears dark sunglasses. In her album cover art, her eyes are blacked out and you rarely get a look at her face. And unlike so many stars, she’s never one to overshare and maintains a low-key profile. “I wanted the music to be No. 1, I wanted it to get the attention, the forefront, the No. 1 focus, and I wanted people to just listen and love the music because sometimes we get caught up in the gimmicks, the looks, and the glitz: these things that don’t really matter to me,” H.E.R. shared.
Social media was abuzz when Pixar revealed that it would release its first-ever animated short featuring CGI Filipino characters. “Float” — written and directed by Fil-Am storyboard artist Bobby Alcid Rubio — finally became available on streaming service Disney+ this past November. In the roughly seven-minute short, a father tries to keep his infant son’s special ability to float a secret. But once it gets out, the father must decide whether to run and hide or to accept his son as he is.
Based on his own relationship with his son Alex, Rubio developed the story and made the characters Filipino after being encouraged by colleagues, and eventually submitted it to Pixar’s SparkShorts program. “I wasn’t even thinking of them being Filipino…This is just my unconscious bias. I’m not used to seeing Filipinos as lead characters and it felt very empowering to have my coworkers push this diverse person of color to be a lead,” Rubio said.
As “Float” has globally been recognized as a win for Filipino representation, Rubio wanted the story to be universal and relatable regardless of culture and background. “At the end of the day, it is about the bond between father and son. It’s about unconditional love…” he said.
For the first time in the LA Police Department’s 150-year history, it has a Filipino American police commander. Donald Graham has spent the last 24 years in the police force, rising up the ranks from captain to area commanding officer in North Hollywood before his fresh position as homeless coordinator for the department.
Graham’s appointment comes as California has the country’s largest homeless population, as the city alone experienced a 16% increase this year with 36,000 individuals considered homeless. “It is the social fight of our generation so the fact that the chief of police has entrusted me to help him provide the leadership for the organization through this time is a huge honor for me,” Graham said. “I know it’s not going to be an easy job. I didn’t take this job because it’s easy.”
With regard to how to mitigate the city’s homeless population, he will be the department’s representative and make recommendations at these discussions and ensure that the LAPD is consistent in carrying out the policies. “When I think about that and my responsibility as a Filipino American in this role, that is what warms my heart because I have an ability to give back what I have been given,” he added.
The late Thelma Buchholdt paved the way for Fil-Ams to serve in public office, when she was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives in 1974, becoming the first Fil-Am woman legislator in America and serving four terms until 1980. Since then, Filipina Americans have occupied statewide or local positions, whether through elections or appointments, in states like California, New York and Nevada, to name a few.
This year’s Filipino American History Month theme of “Pinay Visionaries: Celebrating Filipina American Women,” recognizes the vital but underreported role of Fil-Ams in U.S. history, especially their work in public office. The Asian Journal spoke to several current Filipina Americans who have been elected or appointed to public offices about their contributions and what needs to be done for more Pinays in these types of leadership roles.
“You could be in the highest position in an organization, but if nobody knows that you’re Filipina, or it’s not something you’re proud of and share with people, then it’s like it doesn’t exist and it isn’t part of your identity. Half of it is telling people and being proud to be Filipina and creating that awareness and having that conversation,” said Jessica Caloza, commissioner of the LA Board of Public Works. “Once you identify yourself and see that you’re the only Filipina or Filipino at the table, it really does open up a discussion about diversity and inclusion and who’s at the table and gets to make decisions.”
Over the summer, Fil-Am model and transgender advocate Geena Rocero became the first transgender Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Playboy Playmate, appearing as the centerfold of the magazine’s Gender & Sexuality issue.
In the issue, Rocero wrote about her “strict Catholic upbringing in the Philippines” and being inspired by seeing transgender beauty pageants on national television. “We spoke English in the Philippines, but when I moved to the United States at 17 and started hanging out with other teenagers, it was a totally different culture,” she said.
She plans to use this new platform to be more visible and continue fighting for trans rights. Since her viral TED talk in 2014, she co-founded Gender Proud, a media production company that tells stories about the global transgender community. “I have to speak about Caroline Tula Cossey because that was so critical for me. What a full-circle moment, I was this young trans girl living in Manila and dreaming of one day becoming a model like Caroline and to now, be the one hopefully giving that inspiration to young trans girls, not just in the Philippines but all over the world,” she said. “Their identities matter, they should pursue who they are. There’s nothing wrong with them, just keep being themselves.”
“Yellow Rose,” directed by Filipina American Diane Paragas, is a timely story about a Filipina teen named Rose from a small Texas town who fights to pursue her dreams as a country music performer while facing the threat of deportation. The film stars two-time Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada, Tony Award winner Lea Salonga, Princess Punzalan and Dale Watson. In October, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions announced that it has acquired all worldwide rights, excluding the Philippines, to the film.
“’Yellow Rose’ has been a labor of passion for over 15 years and I’m thrilled that we can now share this very relevant story with the world,” said Paragas. “We have the added honor of representing the real experiences of Filipino Americans, Asian Americans, and all immigrants seeking a better life in America.”
Since premiering at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), “Yellow Rose” has won the Special Jury Prize at the 2019 Asian American International Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 Bentonville Film Festival, 2019 CAAMFest and the LAAPFF, with Eva Noblezada taking Best Breakout Actor.
The next time you’re on the video streaming service, think of (and thank) Filipina American engineer Anne Aaron, the director of video algorithms at Netflix, whose job it is to ensure that your video is delivered at the best quality using the least amount of bandwidth possible. Aaron took the No. 32 spot on Business Insider’s “43 Most Powerful Female Engineers of 2017” and was named in Forbes’ inaugural “The World’s Top 50 Women in Tech” list in 2018.
At the company’s Los Gatos headquarters, Aaron is at the helm of a 16-person team comprised of software engineers and researchers who focus on video encoding and experiment and tailor algorithms based on the type of content so that it’s presented at optimal speed and visuals. In addition to lauding women’s accomplishments in STEM, Aaron’s background adds another layer as a Filipina and immigrant to which she says she feels “a bit of responsibility” given her visibility in the community.
“I feel fortunate, but also at the same time, I do think about that, like what about my background has brought me here because…compared to the other Filipinas I know back in the Philippines, they’re as hardworking but I think there’s just a lack of opportunity,” Aaron said. “How can I help in bringing more opportunity to other Filipinas who are as smart and as hardworking or as passionate in technology as me?”
Josephine Santiago-Bond started off as an intern at NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida 15 years ago. Today, she’s the head of the Advanced Engineering Development Branch at the center, a division she helped create that extends engineering support to the agency’s various missions in space, on Earth and other planets.
In her nearly two decades at the space agency, Santiago-Bond shares a list of several projects she’s worked on: the tail-end of the historic Space Shuttle program, which ended in 2011; and the formulation and launch of the Ares I-X in 2009, a 327-foot tall unmanned rocket that was part of the research on the future of space exploration post-space shuttle. She also contributed to another lunar exploration mission called Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatiles Extraction (RESOLVE), which had aimed to put a rover on the surface of the moon in 2017 for nine days to map water ice and other compounds. She and her team currently have a portfolio of 70 projects that have to do with Earth, Mars, the moon, and space in general.
“I always feel that I am valued, not only for my engineering and leadership skills, but also as an Asian American and as a Filipina American, who brings a unique set of experiences and ideas to the table every day,” she said. “I’m not the only female Filipina American, nor am I the first, who is in a leadership position at NASA, which in itself makes me proud.”
Hearing similar experiences of Filipinos being told not to play outside too long or being scrubbed with papaya soap, half-black and half-Filipina millennial Asia Jackson is trying to challenge colorism — the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Through the global digital movement #MagandangMorenx, Jackson has opened up a conversation and highlighted the skin diversity within the Fil-Am community.
“In a general sense, I want to leave the world in a better state than when I came in. Colorism is such a huge issue for me and it’s something I will continue to be passionate about. In my lifetime, I would like to see skin whitening companies disappear. I want to work as hard as I can to make sure that no one feels bad about their skin color. That’s the legacy I want to leave in this world,” she said.
A scientist by day, Ruby Ibarra transforms into a musical force by night, unapologetically rapping in English, Tagalog and Waray about the Fil-Am experience through her lens. In Ibarra’s debut album “Circa91,” which was fittingly titled after the year her family migrated to the United States, she gets raw about the layers of her personal identity and history. She also sees her art form as a way to share stories not heard in the mainstream, whether it’s the single Fil-Am mother or how colonization has affected Filipinos centuries later.
A standout track includes “Us,” featuring Rocky Rivera, Klassy and Faith Santilla, which has taken a life of its own and has become an empowering Filipina American anthem. This song was a way to “dismantle the patriarchy and that notion that the Filipina has to always be on the sidelines and be the backbone to the men and always in the background,” Ibarra said. “To have a track like that, where we’re celebrating sisterhood and feminism, we’re showing, not just in rap, but in our community that we’re out here.”
Books by Filipino and Fil-Am authors
This year alone, The Asian Journal team has read (and featured!) a plethora of books by Filipino and Filipino American authors across genres, including: “Loves You” (poetry) by Sarah Gambito; “The Body Papers” (memoir) by Grace Talusan; “I Was Their American Dream” (graphic memoir) by Malaka Gharib; “Patron Saints of Nothing” (young adult fiction) by Randy Ribay; “Why Karen Carpenter Matters” (biography/memoir) by Karen Tongson; “Somewhere in the Middle” (memoir) by Deborah Francisco Douglas; “No Forks Given” (cookbook/stories) by Yana Gilbuena; “Baking at République” (cookbook) by Margarita “Marge” Manzke; and “Rice. Noodles. Yum.: Everyone’s Favorite Southeast Asian Dishes” (cookbook) by Abigail Sotto Raines. More recent releases have included “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion” by Jia Tolentino, “Lalani of the Distant Sea” by Erin Entrada Kelly and “From Rufio to Zuko” by Dante Basco.
“There are not many representations of Filipino Americans in literature and in our culture and I was very aware of that. It took me a long time to come to peace with what I was going through because I knew it would be read as representative in some ways for Filipino Americans, which it should not be because this is just one unique, specific story,” said Talusan. “It is not representative, but I knew that it could be taken that way. Sometimes there’s pressure because there’s so few of us in publishing that we should tell only certain kinds of stories or those that are happy and make us proud of who we are. I would argue that this story does make me proud of who I am because we all go through difficult things and hardships.”
In time for Women’s History Month in March, the Asian Journal examined the contributions Filipina American women have made to the dessert scene across Southern California. Thanks to several Pinay bakers and pastry chefs in Southern California, we can get buko pie, halo halo, over a dozen flavors of ensaymada, and anything ube. Some Pinays to know include Margarita “Marge” Manzke of République & Sari Sari Store; Barb Batiste of B Sweet and Big Boi; Kristine de la Cruz of Créme Caramel & FrankieLucy Bakeshop; Ginger Lim-Dimapasok of Cafe 86; Chari Heredia-Reyes of Ensaymada Project; Isa Fabro of IsaMADE; and Gigi Pascual of Dough & Arrow.
“Ube is still a favorite, regardless of whether it’s in a cheesecake or a cake or just a scoop of ice cream. It still seems to be one of the popular Filipino flavors,” said Batiste. “When we don’t have it — but now we always do — people are quite angry. I don’t think people will ever get sick of it.”
Added Lim-Dimapasok, “Sharing Filipino culture through our food is a very important milestone for us because it’s not something that I imagined I would be doing. It feels like I was able to share what my mom taught me in the beginning on how to treat people, how to entertain, and take care of customers. Being able to translate that through our food and stores is pretty amazing for us.”
Chinatown is home to Now Serving, Los Angeles’ only cookbook store owned by Fil-Am married couple Ken Concepcion and Michelle Mungcal. Since 2017, the couple has seen a mixture of individuals from the culinary industry, home cooks and books, cookbook collectors and even those who stumble in because they ate at one of the establishments within Far East Plaza. “With all of the talk of how influential and vibrant the food scene is here in LA, it didn’t seem right that it didn’t have something like this dedicated to cookbooks, food writing and food magazines,” Concepcion told the Asian Journal.
Beyond printed books, Now Serving’s 450-square-foot space gathers a community for conversations around different cuisines and the art of cooking. Ticketed events, featuring talks and signings from some of the best culinary authors and personalities around the world, are held nearly every week and sell out.