By Luisa Blue, RN
Chief Elected Officer, SEIU Local 521; Chair, SEIU AAPI Caucus
The running joke in my family is that I could have been born in the middle of the ocean.
My father came to the United States in the 1920s. He was part of the Manongs, thousands of men who were the first wave of Filipino immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s. They came to the United States seeking economic opportunity, but instead they found limited job prospects and a country deeply divided based on race and ethnicity.
So my father, like so many of the other Manongs, became a farm worker with no possibility of going to school, and no possibility of going back to the Philippines because he couldn’t afford it.
After serving in World War II and becoming a U.S. citizen, my father went back to the Philippines, where he met and married my mother. He returned to the United States and sent for her. I was born shortly after she traveled by ship to the United States in late 1951.
On Aug. 28, 1963, the year of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I was a 12-year-old elementary student in San Francisco. My teacher brought a television into the classroom so we could watch the march and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s now historic speech. I think anyone who watched the march and coverage of the civil rights movement had a sense our country was at a pivotal, changing movement.
Think beyond black and white
We often think of the civil rights movement in the context of black and white. But it has deeper meaning for many communities that have fought for equal opportunities in this country. Men and women who were once relegated solely to farm work or menial jobs because of the country from which they emigrated or the color of their skin now have more opportunities. Women have broken many glass ceilings. We still have a way to go, but as a country, we have a better understanding of how we should respect the worth of all people, regardless of gender or skin color or their country of origin.
I went to a school that was largely African American, and the differences in what this poor school had versus schools in more affluent areas was pronounced. The building was worn; the books were tattered and marked up. I remember students who couldn’t come to school because they had no shoes or students who had no lunch because they couldn’t afford it. This kind of disparity still exists in this, the richest country in the world.
More than 20 percent of children live in poverty. People of all shades and ethnicities are working harder but remain at a financial stand still.
At the same time, you have radical, right-wing Republicans backed by deep-pocket donors trying to silence the voices of working people. The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision weakening a fundamental provision of the Voting Rights Act is an outrageous example of this.
In Fresno County (Calif.) where there is a sizable Hmong community, only about 8,000 are registered to vote. Even still, there is no election literature in Hmong. We are denying them accessibility, especially the parents and grandparents. If parents and grandparents don’t have that information, how are they expected to teach their children how important it is for them to exercise their right, and how important it is for them to ask the right questions and address issues in their community?
In the 2012 elections, Fresno county eliminated or changed polling sites in Latino neighborhoods without proper notice causing confusion and frustration for those who wanted to cast their ballots. This was yet another form of weakening our right to cast our ballots.
The right-wing has been effective in pitting people of color and immigrants against each other. But our struggles–whether it’s voting rights, immigration rights, economic opportunity or social justice–are common.
Dr. King was a unifying force. He didn’t just talk about the plight of African Americans, but of all workers. We should hold onto these ideals. The civil rights movement and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom stood for an end to racial discrimination as well as broader opportunity, exactly what my father and so many other Filipino men sought when they traveled to this country decades ago.