‘A zero-sum game’: Community revives fight for Philippine studies program at UC Berkeley

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There are days when Filipino language lecturer Cynthia “Chat” Aban finishes her lesson with a strum of a guitar.

In this particular class, the students have lined up at the front of the classroom, papers in hand, cracking jokes and singing, “Sumulong ka bayan, tayo ngayo’y lalaban!” — “The people united will never be defeated!” Beyond the songs, the laughter and the occasional life lessons from Aban — whom students refer to as “Tita” Chat, using the Filipino word for “auntie” — students often cite the Filipino classes as being integral to keeping them afloat in the chaos of college life.

“I haven’t found the same sense of community and family-connectedness in other classes as I feel in the Filipino classes,” said campus alumnus Christian Guerrero.

The lyrics of the songs sung in Aban’s class carry the weight of the Philippines’ revolutionary struggle in the 1980s through the People Power Revolution, also known as the EDSA Revolution, against the country’s former despot, then-president Ferdinand Marcos, according to Aban. Music and other art forms are often employed by Aban throughout her lectures as educational tools to disseminate culture and history in remembrance of a time of deep political strife for the Philippines.

At UC Berkeley, Aban is one of three language lecturers for Tagalog — more commonly known as Filipino, the national language of the Philippines — in the department of South and Southeast Asian studies, or SSEAS.

When Joi Barrios-LeBlanc came to UC Berkeley as a Tagalog lecturer more than 10 years ago, there were only two beginning Filipino/Tagalog classes and one intermediate class in the SSEAS department. Since then, the Filipino language program has grown to include three beginner courses, two intermediate courses and one advanced course — making it the largest language program within SSEAS.

Aban came to campus in 2011, two years after head Filipino lecturer Barrios-LeBlanc started teaching Filipino in 2009. Campus lecturer Karen Llagas joined Aban and Barrios-LeBlanc two years later in 2013.

“By far (this is) the biggest language effort we have in our department, and to no small measures thanks to (Barrios-LeBlanc),” said campus professor Alexander von Rospatt, who previously served as the interim SSEAS department chair.

Despite its growth, the life of this program is almost entirely contingent on a fluctuating department budget, part of which draws on dwindling reserves of federal funds. Financial sustainability is the issue at hand for Barrios-LeBlanc, Aban and Llagas.

To many, the answer seems fairly simple: a community-funded Philippine studies program. For nearly three decades, generations of Pilipinx faculty and undergraduate and graduate students have attempted to establish such a program.

Llagas, Aban and Barrios-LeBlanc all acknowledged how socioeconomic difficulties have historically plagued the Pilipinx American community and how such barriers to wealth make the process of community fundraising a challenge. Llagas estimates that the endowment needed to fund the program would be at least $2 million.

Regardless, efforts to advocate for such a program are now being revitalized.

We’re No. 2? 

While the campus contends for the coveted title of No. 1 public university, some students at UC Berkeley argue that the campus has fallen short in regard to the resources it has allocated to the Pilipinx student community. Guerrero said he believes UC Davis has surpassed UC Berkeley in this aspect with the establishment of its Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies.

“UC Berkeley is behind … especially as an institution that has (a) strong history of (Pilipinx) American student activism and community work that has come out of it,” Guerrero said.

Barrios-LeBlanc explained that in lieu of a community-funded endowment, the campus administration had the option to create the title of Philippine studies professor and open the position to potential qualified candidates.

According to von Rospatt, the SSEAS department has been requesting this title appointment with campus administration for several years. He added that the current “financial climate” may have made it difficult for the campus to open new positions.

“I joined 14 years (ago), and since then, we’ve kept on asking for this (position),” von Rospatt said. “The latest responses we’ve heard (are that) there’s a realization that the Tagalog program has taken off and would need a matching program.”

In regard to how the campus grapples with decreases in funding for classes covering language and culture, Dean of Arts and Humanities Anthony Cascardi said the answer is “very complicated” and that there is not one answer across all departments.

Cascardi added, however, that federal funds from the National Resource Centers Program took a “major reduction” of about 48 percent seven years ago. The Department of Education created the centers after the Cold War to support area studies in higher education.

“The situation is much more difficult — it’s a zero-sum game. (We) live in a time of dwindling resources,” von Rospatt said. “The best way … out is through endowments.”

Though she remains the youngest of the three campus Tagalog lecturers, Llagas was chosen to spearhead the Philippine Studies Initiative to fundraise for the creation of a Philippine studies program. Llagas said the campus administration has recently encouraged faculty members to reach out to their communities as a means of raising funds for an endowment, resulting in the revival of the initiative, which was originally drawn up by Barrios-LeBlanc.

Von Rospatt added that endowments, especially in the SSEAS department, have become crucial for the survival of language courses in light of the campus’s financial situation.

According to Llagas, the initiative is still in the development phase and is an “ongoing project.” Llagas noted that the department’s budget is contingent not only on campus funds, but also federal funds, which have been under strict scrutiny in the past few years.

“The end goal of the project is to give an endowment to the … Philippine studies program so that we are financially independent of UC policy,” Llagas said.

Student activism

The issue of finding an endowment to fund the program started before Barrios-LeBlanc arrived on campus — about 25 years ago, during current UC San Diego professor John Blanco’s time as a campus graduate student.

Blanco and his peers created UC Berkeley’s first Pilipinx American graduate student group in 1993. Initially, the group was intended to connect graduates within the Pilipinx community, but later, many of the group members became involved in other political and social causes on campus and attempted to “revive the Third World Liberation Front.”

With the support of Oscar Campomanes, a visiting professor from Ateneo de Manila University, the group attempted to create a minor/major program in 1995. Blanco recalled that he had searched for faculty members who focused on the Philippines, only to encounter a locked office in an abandoned building that supposedly housed an older generation of area studies faculty from the 1980s.

While it succeeded in building a community, the group could not be sustained “on a higher level” after Campomanes’ departure from UC Berkeley in about 1996, Blanco said. The group members even faced backlash from fellow students who claimed that they were creating factions, according to Blanco.

“People would say there’s already an Asian studies program in ethnic studies — what would Filipino studies do differently?” Blanco said. “There were people both within and outside Asian American studies that thought we were being outright divisive.”

The most formidable barrier to the program’s birth was the monetary amount required to fund an endowed chair. Blanco recalled this number to be about $1 million in the mid-1990s.

Before coming to UC Berkeley, Barrios-LeBlanc was an associate professor and associate dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of the Philippines, or UP, the country’s national university. In the Philippines, Barrios-LeBlanc is a published author known for her poetry pieces critiquing martial law under the Marcos regime. Aban, also a published author, received her doctorate in clinical psychology from UP while teaching preschool in Payatas — an area that Aban and others have called the “garbage dumpsite” of the Philippines’ capital.

Barrios-LeBlanc said she remembered that during her early days as a campus lecturer, a student group called the Committee for Philippine Studies, or Compass, took the initiative to advocate for the creation of a language program nine years ago.

UC Berkeley alumna and Compass member Joy Regullano recalled that in 2010, she and her fellow committee members organized and attempted to execute a grassroots-type effort to attract smaller donors rather than a single “angel” donor who would give an endowment large enough that the program could sustain itself.

Regullano said she considered Llagas’ hiring a victory for the group. Prior to becoming a lecturer, Llagas spent about a decade freelancing as a court-certified Filipino interpreter in California. She also taught working professionals at the Bayanihan Community Center in San Francisco.

As for the endowment, the figures at the time were “staggering” for the student organizers and the community — the program would have required a minimum of $400,000 in funding in order to endure, Regullano said.

Gauging the impact

Campus Filipino classes have attracted students from up and down the state, aiding not just students who wish to gain a sense of ethnic identity, but students who find themselves navigating the confusing avenues of culture and diaspora as well.

Campus senior Erika Pasia, for example, identifies as a “1.5” Asian American — an immigrant who arrived in the United States before their “true formative years.” Pasia immigrated to Hercules, California, at the age of 8. Despite spending a portion of her childhood living in the Philippines, Pasia said the emphasis on English in her household inevitably limited her own ability to speak her native language. She added that her main motivation to pursue all levels of the Filipino classes on campus is to reestablish the connection she had with her home country, given that she has not visited the Philippines since she left.

Under the tutelage of the campus Filipino lecturers, several cohorts of Pilipinx students have rediscovered the meaning and language of their culture. For some, the classes are training wheels to an already homegrown knowledge of their language. But for many, they are a reintroduction to a culture lost.

“I was so excited for the opportunity to reconnect with my culture through language,” Pasia said. “Looking at other ethno-linguistic groups, a lot of cultures pass through language, so to lose that language is to lose that connection you have.”

The pressure to assimilate has affected not only those who, like Pasia, immigrated at a young age, but also many Pilipinx Americans born in the United States. Campus senior Lorraine Pacilan, for example, said she grew up not understanding Filipino. Similarly to Pasia, Pacilan primarily spoke English at home and she said she considers the Filipino classes “a big step” to immersing herself in the culture.

Pacilan said her parents were overjoyed to hear that she had taken up the language again in college.

“After I had grown up, I asked (my dad) why he didn’t teach me,” Pacilan said. “He said he didn’t want me to get confused with English, and I honestly feel like he really didn’t want me to stand out in the world we live in.”

Pacilan said the establishment of a Philippine studies program would be “empowering, especially for transfers,” because in her experience, transfer students experience different challenges from those traditional students face, which makes college all the more difficult. Pacilan and Guerrero served as the Pilipinx community’s spring 2019 transfer coordinators under the Pilipinx Academic Student Services, or PASS.

Guerrero noted that balancing a busy schedule with mental and physical health can be challenging, burdensome and occasionally unattainable.

Guerrero recalled suffering his first panic attack, which left him staggering out of a classroom, dehydrated and overcaffeinated. Luckily, when he stepped into the PASS space in Eshleman Hall, a fellow transfer student and friend noticed his condition and was able to help him out, Guerrero said.

“(The) panic attack made me realize how much I’m always … onto the next thing,” Guerrero said. “My day is basically scheduled of one after another … from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., booked the whole day. … I don’t even have time to go to the dining halls.”

Because of this experience, Guerrero said he believes the formation of the language division can have two effects: It can provide a physical “institutional space” where Pilipinx students can support one another and can strengthen the “backbone” of the Pilipinx American community altogether.

What’s to come next? 

Llagas said the establishment of a Philippine studies program is the next step of the “logical progression” to aid undergraduate students such as Pasia, who aim to immerse themselves in all three levels of the language. Aban notes that the specializations and bilingual skills offered by the program can help undergraduate students in their future careers. For Barrios-LeBlanc, who teaches the summer culture content courses on Philippine politics, the Filipino language courses have become a fusion of technical skill and historical and cultural lessons.

While the landscape of federal and administrative funding remains unpredictable, these three Filipino language lecturers have put their full faith in the Pilipinx community’s ability to rally for UC Berkeley’s own Philippine studies program — and the students have clearly expressed the need.

“(Pilipinxs) are kind of intertwined, for better or for worse, with U.S. history and imperialism projects … and the more we can equip ourselves with critical thinking, with Philippine studies … then the better we can think about this journey, this ‘being here’ (and) the narrative we have,” Llagas said.

Contact Francesca Munsayac at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fcfm_dc.