When Richelle Caday was a freshman and a new member of Troy Philippines, USC’s only organization for students of Filipino descent, she introduced herself with an Americanized pronunciation of her last name: “Cah-DAY.”
But after being in Troy Phi for four years, Caday, now a senior, proudly pronounces her last name as “Cah-DAI.”
This seemingly minor change was significant for her. “I’m able to reclaim my family’s last name and those aspects of myself and decolonize my mentality to learn the history of my culture,” Caday said.
Like Caday, Filipino Americans often juggle assimilating into American culture and maintaining pride in their cultural heritage. But this year, as the country witnessed Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and President Rodrigo Duterte’s Anti-Terrorism Law in the Philippines, many Filipino Americans are reckoning with how colonization and politics influenced their own history.
The Filipino American National Historical Society declared the theme of this year’s Filipino American History Month to be “the History of Filipino American Activism.” The FANHS called on Filipino Americans to reflect on how Filipino activists have influenced political movements, from Larry Itliong’s work in the United Farm Workers Movement to People Power’s efforts ousting Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Johannah Suegay, a junior and one of Troy Phi’s directors of media, said that the very existence of Filipino Americans today stems from the contributions of these previous activists.
“Being Filipino is standing on the backs of our ancestors and all they’ve done to get our community to where it is now, with their resilience,” Suegay said.
In recognition of the political roots of Filipino culture, Troy Phi has shifted its social activities from centering around traditional food, dances and music to the political issues of the Philippines. Caday, who is currently the president of Troy Phi, campaigned for USC’s Undergraduate Student Government to endorse the Philippine Human Rights Act. The legislation would suspend half a billion dollars of U.S. military aid to the Philippines until officials like Duterte are held accountable for human rights violations.
On Sept. 29, the USG unanimously endorsed the Philippine Human Rights Act. Assistant Professor of American Studies Adrian De Leon said that Troy Phi’s campaign was a step in the right direction for a Filipino student organization.
“Troy Phi’s advocacy for the Human Rights Act is a way to try to pull not just the Filipino American community, but also American students and other student bodies to think globally,” De Leon said, going on to explain how crucial activism is to the Filipino identity.
“It is step one,” De Leon said. “It is fundamental to anything you do as a Filipino American. Any type of Filipino American activism must be grounded in these kinds of interracial anti-colonial traditions.”
Suegay, who lived in the Philippines until she was almost 10 years old, said that the importance of activism and seeking justice was ingrained into her identity as she watched her family fight corrupt politics when she was young.
“Ultimately our struggles are all interconnected,” Suegay said. “To me, when thinking about Filipino people, one of the first things that comes to mind is our resilience and our passion. And that’s something that has been so clearly displayed by Filipino American activists throughout history.”
At USC, many Filipino Americans have expressed a political awakening and turn towards activism, accompanied by care for their culture, identity and history. While this is evident in the political shift within Troy Phi, it exists on a personal level, too.
Lois Angelo, a sophomore majoring in human development and aging, said that as he has grown up, he has become more deliberate in learning about Filipino culture, history and the current situation in the Phillipines — an effort that manifests itself in how he uses social media and even in his conversations at dinner.
“Activism and learning about the current political issues that are going on is equally as important because those are your people, you know, albeit how many miles across the sea they are,” Angelo said. “They still share the same blood, the same traditions, the same culture.”
Cultural connections to the Philippines among Filipino students at USC stand strong, despite those students making up less than 1% of the student body. In the 2019-2020 school year, USC had 48,500 students, but only 970 Filipino students, according to the Asian Pacific American Student Services office. However, regardless of its size, the Filipino student community’s unity and dedication to its cultural roots prevails.
“One of my favorite parts of our culture is just how community-minded we are and how united we are,” Suegay said. “Once we hear that someone’s Filipino, they’re instantly family to us, whether by blood or not.”