The SaySay Project: Engaging the Filipino Community through Oral History

“Hi, I’m Michael Nailat—originally from Oxnard, California and now living in Historic Filipinotown, Los Angeles.” So went the start of one video interview with Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, who stood in front of a camera as part of a storytelling initiative called the SaySay project, coordinated by FilAm Arts at the 22nd annual Festival for Philippine Arts & Culture (FPAC) held at Point Fermin Park in San Pedro.

SaySay, a Tagalog (Philippine language) expression that means both “to have intrinsic value and to declare,” is the concept behind the storytelling project, which looks to gather stories from the Filipino diaspora in order to share the stories with the current community and future generations.

The goals of the SaySay project include documenting the contributions of Filipinos to the U.S., and connecting their experiences to the Philippines. These goals are relevant to the Filipino and Filipino-American community in Southern California, which is one of the largest and fastest growing ethnic groups in the region, but still remain generally invisible as an ethnic community. Moreover, a sentiment that U.S.-born Filipinos are not connected with their ethnic identity and history exists among the older generation of Filipino immigrants.

This sentiment of invisibility and Filipino identity disconnect was strongly stated by long-time community advocate and endearingly known Tita (auntie) Norma Austin. At the launch of the project during the FPAC kick-off reception, Tita Austin fiercely addressed the room of Filipinos, especially the younger generation, with calls for the community to “open your eyes,” “we’re not seen, we’re not heard,” and “let’s get our story straight and let’s tell our story.” Perhaps her strongest call was that the community needed “orgullo,” meaning a sense of national pride.

Philippine pride and a sense of commitment to her home country is not something that Tita Austin lacks. Her departure from the Philippines when she was a young woman took her to Germany in 1970, New York in 1971, and then finally Los Angeles in 1972. Through her years in L.A. she has continued to support the Filipino-American community. In 1982 she brought her passion to the streets by marching with activists, including Remedios Gaega, on Wilshire Boulevard to protest Marshal Law in the Philippines during the Ferdinand Marcos presidential regime. In 1999 she by co-founded FilAm Arts, a community arts organization whose mission is to “advance the understanding of the arts and diverse cultural heritage of Filipinos in the United States through presentation, arts services and education.”

Stories of Philippine pride, and connections that can be recalled through community storytelling initiatives like the SaySay project, are vital to the Filipino community. For others the project did not only bring up connections to the Philippines that emphasized national politics, but telling one’s story about their Filipinoness also brought up sensibilities of one’s bi-culturality in Los Angeles.

Philippine-born Pilar Diaz, who immigrated to and grew up in Colorado and now lives in Los Angeles, was asked about her experience being interviewed during the SaySay Project. She said, “it made me reflect about who I am, how I got here. Even though I go about my everyday life in L.A. operating as an American, telling my story reminded me that I’m Filipino, have Filipino values, and see the world as a Filipino too.”

The sensibility of “both” and “and” when it comes to ethnic populations such as Filipinos describing their lives in America is one of the biggest impacts of storytelling engagement projects like SaySay. Even though the United States may give lip service to it being a ‘nation of immigrants,’ Americans are still seduced into the idea that there is only one way of being American, and often have distorted views of an America that privileges the less ethnically diverse mainstream images of the 1950s. In reality, the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, has been and is continually becoming less racially homogenous. SaySay gives voice to not a New America, but an ethically diverse America that has been, and is today.

The SaySay project is effective for many reasons. One is its dedication to being community-sourced. SaySay is spearheaded by a Filipino-American non-profit, and the project’s primary audience is Filipinos first. This is important because the Filipino-American community needs to prioritize knowing itself in its many existences, and take on presenting itself outward to the general public as a sequential goal.

A second effective reason is that the project recognizes that Filipinos live in various L.A. neighborhoods and California cities. The project is designed to be mobile and accessible, as the project team is coordinated to set up the multimedia production effort at various spaces across the region where Filipinos communicate and gather. This acknowledges the fact that all Filipinos don’t only live in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles, but have actually settled across the city, in neighborhoods such as Eagle Rock and Panorama City. Beyond the City of Los Angeles, Filipinos make up thelargest Asian population in California, with 1.5 million people, and have strong communities in Glendale, Carson, Cerritos, Oxnard, Daly City, National City, Oakland, and Stockton among others.

It is a hope that the SaySay project, which is funded by the James Irvine Foundation, can continue to gather stories of the many Filipinos and Filipino-Americans who live across the various spaces and places of California. Ethnic storytelling, led by ethnic communities themselves, present essential value to Los Angeles and California knowing its global self.

Los Angeles specifically occupies the global city space of an immigrant America. It is encouraging that Mayor Eric Garcetti believes in this, and has established an Office of Immigrant Affairs. As a next step, the office, along with other institutions, media outlets, universities, and neighborhoods, should encourage public storytelling initiatives that share stories of the dual ethnic ways of life experienced by the growing majority of this city.

George Villanueva is currently a PhD Candidate at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, with a research focus on civic engagement, spatial justice, and sustainable urban development.