On a recent October evening at Hood Famous Cafe + Bar, longtime Filipino American community advocates and educators celebrated a victory decades in the making.
For the first time, Seattle Public Schools now offers a yearlong course on Filipino American history for high school students that satisfies the district’s U.S. history graduation requirement. Teachers at three middle schools are also incorporating Filipino American history into their existing social studies curricula.
At the community event, between bites of biko and sips of calamansi juice, Filipino American activists and educators extolled the importance of honoring the legacy of their ancestors while also recognizing nuances in U.S. history narratives taught in schools.
“It’s a gateway to understanding American history intersectionally,” said Devin Israel Cabanilla, senior project manager of academics at Seattle Public Schools, who helped shepherd the course’s approval.
Nine students across five schools attend the virtual high school course, learning about cross-cultural solidarity movements, identity empowerment and community building. While the class mostly covers events between the 1880s and 1960s, some of the course material examines contemporary issues, like current U.S.-Philippines relations.
The new high school course uses Filipinx in its name, a term indicating gender neutrality in place of Filipino or Filipina, although some say “Filipino” is already a gender-neutral term. The course, “Filipinx American US History,” fits into the district’s expanding catalog of courses centering diverse perspectives in literature and history classes, such as Black Studies US History and Native American Literature.
The district said expanded access to these courses is critical to its racial equity work and commitment to the community. Studies have shown ethnic studies classes can have strong positive impacts on students, including increasing the chance students will graduate or enroll in college.
Community leaders occasionally join the online high school class as guest lecturers, highlighting Seattle’s central role in Filipino American history, from serving as a notable port of entry for Filipino immigrants in the early 20th century to becoming the site of major labor activism and protests against the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s.
“It’s so important to know that your humanity, your culture, your people exist and are validated,” said Tianna Mae Andresen, who teaches the high school class.
Washington state is home to more than 195,000 residents who identify as Filipino. Many of them, such as newer generations of the Filipino diaspora in the United States, are clamoring to learn more about their ancestors’ histories.
Isabella Alcantara-Warren, a junior at Ingraham High School, said she has always felt “a bit disconnected” from her Filipino heritage and family. Growing up in Washington, she didn’t learn Tagalog, and many of her relatives live in the Philippines or in California.
When she found out the class was approved, Alcantara-Warren was thrilled by the opportunity.
“I saw that email and … I just started crying,” Alcantara-Warren said. “It was a really nice, just, moment of like ‘Wow, we finally got recognition.’”
But local Filipino American educators and community members emphasize the course is fulfilling for students from all racial backgrounds. They hope to see enrollment at the high school level increase next year as the class becomes more well-known.
Dorothy Cordova is among the Seattle civil rights activists who have long advocated teaching ethnic studies to young students.
Cordova founded the Filipino American National Historical Society in the Central District in 1982, and has dedicated much of her life to chronicling the lives of Filipinos in Washington and across the United States.
“When there was the Great Depression, we endured,” she said. “In World War II, we were there. There were Filipinos who fought in World War I, Filipinos in villages in New Orleans.”
In the late 1990s, Cordova helped a group of University of Washington students and local community members teach Filipino history and culture to middle school students in Seattle through a program called Pinoy Teach. But the classes ended after a few years.
Momentum for bringing a variation of the curriculum back to Seattle students picked up again in 2019, after local activists helped push Washington state to declare October Filipino American History Month.
The DNA of the new curriculum used at Seattle Public Schools is rooted in Pinoy Teach, said Third Andresen, who teaches ethnic studies at the University of Washington and is also Tianna Mae’s father. As chief curriculum developer, he worked with local Filipino American educators and college students to shape the final educational material for the school district.
Third Andresen recalls teaching students in 2000 at St. George School and Mercer International Middle School through Pinoy Teach when he was a University of Washington student himself. Now his daughter is following in his footsteps as a high school teacher.
“We are working on the shoulders of ancestors and activists who came before us, trying to continue that work in the field that they literally plowed before us,” said Emily Lawsin, national president emerita at the Filipino American National Historical Society.
The ultimate goal, Third Andresen said, is taking the curriculum nationwide, with school districts adjusting lesson plans to incorporate relevant local history.
Schools in Louisiana could highlight that the first Asian American settlement in the United States was a group of Filipino fishermen who arrived in 1763. Schools in California could highlight Filipino American contributions to the farm labor movement, such as the introduction of “Isang Bagsak,” a unity clap and chant meant to symbolize solidarity.
Seattle-area Filipino American educators and organizers have already started conversations with school districts in Tacoma about adding a Filipino American U.S. History class.
“This is a template, this is ready, and what folks can contribute is, include their own story and their own narrative,” Third Andresen said.