My grandfather used to tell me stories about bayanihan. Of how, when a family needed to move, neighbors gathered around the house. They slid bamboo poles under the structure, forming a sort of bamboo harness. Then individuals would each take hold of a pole, and together they would hoist up the entire structure and walk the entire house to its new location.
There’s not a lot of house-walking going on these days, but the idea of a bayanihan spirit, of cooperation and partnership, lives on. The motivations behind bayanihan also make it a unique concept, as people help out not simply out of pity or charity. Rather, there is the idea that helping an individual or one family is actually helping the whole bayan. Bayan, is the key concept here, a term that could refer to a barrio, a town, a region or province, or even to the entire country.
The tradition of bayanihan lives on among Filipino Americans, as seen in the numerous organizations of Filipinos from the same towns, the same probinsiyas, or more generally, for all Filipinos migrants. But bayan also has another important meaning — community. Filipinos in America are in a unique position to expand on the concept of bayan as a community, to extend the bayanihan spirit beyond nationality and to be allies with other marginalized groups.
Of course, it’s not easy, especially for recent immigrants struggling to make ends meet. As a former US colony, many Filipinos believe strongly in assimilation and the American Dream. And in talking to recent immigrants, I’m saddened at how often this seems to pit Filipinos against other minority groups, trapping many of us into an “us vs. them” mentality. This is illustrated, for example, in the anti-affirmative action stance prevalent among many Filipino immigrants who have a tendency to see affirmative action gains of other groups as harmful to their own interests.
It is tempting to adopt that divisive notion, to see the gains made by other racial groups as coming at the our expense. But in fact, Filipinos in America have had a long history of bayanihan, of working with other racial groups towards community goals. In the late 1700s, for example, the Manilamen who settled in the marshlands of Louisiana had significant ties with Cajun and nearby Native American communities.
In 1919 in Hawaii, under the leadership of Pablo Manlapit, the Filipino Labor Union and the Japanese Federation of Labor joined forces to fight for better working conditions for all sugar plantation workers.
In 1965, Filipino farm workers led by Larry Itliong, Philip Vera-Cruz and Pete Velasco went on strike in Delano, California, eventually leading to an alliance between the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and the National Farm Workers Association led by Cesar Chavez. These two groups would eventually merge to form the United Farm Workers of America.
In the 1970s, Filipino Alaskeros from the Alaska Cannery Workers Association joined with Latino workers from the Northwest Chapter of the United Farmworkers of America and African American workers from the United Construction Workers Association to form Legacy of Equality, Leadership and Organizing (LELO).
Filipino American history is rich with such examples of bayanihan. And I’m really happy and proud to see how groups like Filipinos for Affirmative Action continue this tradition, with campaigns geared towards community organizing, youth development, and assisting recent immigrants. I know that activist work is a lot to ask, especially for Filipino immigrants who in addition to making ends meet here, are also supporting families back home. Those who do not yet have the benefits of US citizenship could understandably be wary of jumping into social activism.
So how about a starting point? It is difficult to take that first step, to extend the bayanihan spirit and broaden our concept of bayan. Know the history, and become familiar with the coalitions that have already been built.
Investigate the issues that supposedly divide our bayan into “us” and “them.”
Examine how current campaigns such as workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and the DREAM Act illustrate how our struggles are closely related.
Consider how bayan / community in the United States encompasses all people of color.
In many ways, it’s a continuation of the long history of bayanihan. Whether in the probinsiya or in America, the bayanihan spirit calls on us to hoist up the bamboo poles and walk forward as a community.