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Stories from the Frontlines: Filipinos in the U.S. on George Floyd, Protests, Racism, and Fear

From New York to Los Angeles to Chicago, these Filipinos share what they see, feel, and know about America's fight against injustice.
IMAGE Rico Cruz
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It's been nine days since George Floyd, a black American, was killed by Derik Chauvin, a white policeman, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In the process of making an arrest, Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, which ultimately lead to the 46-year-old father's death.

This was the final provocation for a country already under so much stress. 

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For more than a week—and with the global pandemic still in the background—the dystopian scenarios we see in movies unfolded in cities across America. Tens of thousands took to the streets to fight for Floyd and speak out against racism and discrimination. Though most of the demonstrations were peaceful, things turned dark with the police using brutal force against people, insidious elements looting malls, and, most recently, the American president threatening his citizens with the military. 

We can only view the world power seemingly crumble through our screens, but these Filipinos living in the U.S. are witnessing the events unfold outside their doorsteps. This is what they see, feel, and know about America's fight against injustice.

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Photo by Associated Press.
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Iara Diaz, artist, Jackson Heights, New York City

Can you describe the mood in your city right now? 

The mood right now is serious! I have a diverse set of friends and I now see who's conservative and liberal or whose side they're on, with regards to what they post on Facebook. And some are even artist/painter friends! They care more about the destruction of property than the real issue, racial inequality and police brutality. I just don't understand how some people can be so selfish and misguided.

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Tell us about your neighborhood.

I live in Jackson Heights, the most diverse neighborhood in all of New York City. It is, in fact, the neighborhood that makes NYC the center of the world, because of the number of languages that are spoken per block (as per the United Nations). Scrabble was invented here too! And the Xerox machine and the Les Paul guitar. I live in the historic section of Jackson Heights, composed of older residents who had been here for years, and immigrants! The protests here had been peaceful. I was on the roof of my building the other day and filmed a peaceful demonstration!

Are you joining the protests? 

I had not been out since March and have been quarantining strictly. I'm active on social media and doing my part by signing petitions and calling Washington lawmakers, bothering them about justice for George Floyd. Some of my artist friends have joined the protests. I have always preferred being alone. By profession, I'm a painter so I am not used to being around people much. I have not been in any protests, nor will I ever be in the future. Lately, I’d been getting into arguments and fights in social media. I have blocked people. Some are friends.

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Have you experienced racism in the U.S.?

As a Filipino female in New York City, it's hard to be the target of discrimination; people treat Asian females in NYC well (although after COVID, things shifted). Although I have experienced being treated differently because of inherent biases people have, the injustice I have experienced have more to do with being female than my color.

How do you think the U.S. can move forward?

We are at the brink of a civil war maybe. The government is bringing in the military now. It’s only going to intensify. The pandemic made everything worse. People are hungry, tired, and penniless, and have a lot of pent up quarantine energy, and they are ready to get out there and fight! This has been a long time coming. In fact, there were articles about the possibility of civil unrest due to the pandemic written months ago! 

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It was only waiting for a catalyst. In this case, George Floyd's murder. Racial injustice is real. For black people especially. I can somehow relate to their pain because, as a woman, you also get discriminated against. But it's different for them. I could only imagine! Its brutal and heartbreaking to see how black men are being systematically incarcerated and murdered in America. I hope they at least figure a way to check the injustices and have short-term solutions to stop racial inequality.

Change is not easy. It takes a while for things to change. People in the meantime could maybe wear camera necklaces that you turn on whenever a policeman comes to harass you or build more apps so the public can police the police better.

Photo by Associated Press.
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Erik R. Lopez, interior designer, Los Angeles, California

How do you feel right now? 

The mood here in Los Angeles is very tense. I normally feel very safe here but during these times I feel anxious. The feeling in the air is palpable. I do, however, feel hopeful that the racial injustice here in this country is being exposed and called out so I also feel this is all necessary right now.

What is happening in your neighborhood?

I live in Hollywood but my work takes me all throughout L.A. I am in Carthay Square, Beverly Glen, Downtown, West Hollywood, Studio City, all around throughout the day visiting my project sites and clients. I was stuck for 30 minutes while protestors passed on Sunset and Vine this afternoon returning from a client meeting. 

Currently, as I type, the largest peaceful protest is happening now here in Hollywood, as sirens blare and helicopter’s hover and the mandatory curfew texts keep coming. Handheld signs are everywhere. I’ve seen a very diverse peaceful crowd of hundreds of people out. My neighbors have all taken off on foot to join the peaceful protest and I am now home safe.

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Are you joining the protests?

I am always participating in the movement against racial injustice and it’s something I hold in high regard on a daily basis.

I am not marching because of COVID-19. I have made the decision to protect my health as thousands of new cases have been reported from these large gatherings. It's a difficult decision but an important one. My protest now is on social media and my constant daily fight for racial injustice continues.

Have you experienced racial injustice while living there? 

Absolutely. Living back in the Philippines I was just Pinoy. Although class discrimination exists there, it wasn't hateful or a dangerous feeling. It was refreshing to not have that palpable racism linger in the air in the Philippines. 

Even though I am half Pinoy and half German-American and born and raised in the U.S.A., I have been looked at as a foreigner here. People who couldn't guess what race I was were unable to categorize me and that made them nervous. Because of my surname, I have been called Mexican, Chinese, or every other Asian or Latino nationality that I am not.

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I’ve been asked if I needed English assistance before hearing me speak English, which is my first language. As a teenager in the San Francisco Bay Area, I had cops pull guns on me. Before the lockdown, I took a flight up to SF to visit my family and treated myself to first class. When I lined up, a white woman told me I was in the wrong line as it was for first-class passengers. She got an earful from me in perfect American English and was humiliated. I took it as a teachable moment and publicly called her out. Her husband was so embarrassed. 

I have dozens of stories I could tell on my own racial injustice experiences here. I am born and raised here and my father immigrated to California from the Philippines in 1951.

How do you think the U.S. can move forward? 

We, as Americans, have taken 1,000 steps backward since this presidency and even before. I trace it to when I lived in Manila and traveled home to New York. At that time, Trayvon Martin was killed and there was racial unrest then and people were angry. It was not the same America that I grew up in nor the America that I left behind. That was a pivotal point in American history in my own lifetime where I felt the U.S.A. moved backward. 

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It has to take white people speaking up against white supremacy and racial injustice to move forward. Every race needs to speak up as well but, most important, it has to be white people. As uncomfortable as it is to talk about it, no one can stay silent.

Photo by Associated Press.
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Martin Romero, photographer, Queens, New York City

What is happening in your neighborhood?

I live in Queens about 30 minutes away from midtown Manhattan so it's generally quiet in my area except for the 7 p.m. cheers for first responders/frontliners. If I didn't check the news or social media regularly, I would just think the past few days would be just like any other normal day. 

I've been hunkering down in my apartment for the past few months because of COVID-19. I've been out a handful of times to do groceries but that's about it. When I do groceries, I opt to walk instead of taking the subway. I haven't taken public transportation since the NY PAUSE and I choose not to because of the virus. Just being cautious.

Last week though, I did start running in Forest Park just to get my dose of exercise and clear my head. I'm okay but I am anxious, worried about what the next few months will bring especially because of COVID-19 and the protests and riots happening in NYC and the rest of the States.

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Are you participating in the protests against racial injustice? 

I am but at home. As a photographer, I'm actually itching to document the protests but I live quite far from where they're happening. The only feasible way for me to get there is public transportation, which I'm avoiding at the moment because of COVID-19. 

Also, there's an ongoing conversation in my photography circles that we should let black photographers tell their story and that one shouldn’t really be covering protests since the photos can be used against the activists. Again, I am protesting at home by sharing stories pertinent to the ongoing situation—posts, videos, photos—donating, reading up on literature, supporting black businesses, championing black people, etcetera.

In terms of daily life, NY being "On Pause" has put me in a bubble. Everything feels the same even if it's not.

How do you think the U.S. can move forward?

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My friends are fed up. People I work with in the industry are tired. They've been living this their whole lives and it has reached a fever pitch. How will they move forward? America needs to vote. What will be the outcome? Hopefully, better and empathic leaders.

Photo by Associated Press.
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Amy Besa, restaurateur, Brooklyn, New York City

Tell us about your neighborhood.

My husband, Romy Dorotan, and I live in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York called Prospect Lefferts Gardens. When we bought a brownstone and moved here in 1981, it was primarily a West Indian and Hispanic immigrant community. Drug dealers controlled major corners of Flatbush Avenue just half a block from our house. It was a crime-ridden area where we walked in fear at night. But we stuck it out and now it’s quickly gentrifying with many white middle-class families moving in and property values skyrocketing every year.

Through the years, there was constant tension between the Korean grocers and the black community, but those have been ironed out and relations have greatly improved in the past decade. As an Asian American living in this neighborhood, I no longer walk around the streets being followed by black kids singing “ching chong” behind my back. Romy and I have developed strong ties with our neighbors of all different races and ethnicities.

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What is happening right now?

The unrest and violent protests resulting from the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white officer in Minneapolis hit our neighborhood hard.

For days, we heard the whirring sounds of a police helicopter hovering over our houses waiting to scuttle people. Media outlets have documented a huge protest outside our subway station near the entrance to Prospect Park just a block and a half away from us. There was a violent clash between protesters and police about five blocks away from us on Bedford Avenue. Images of police cars being vandalized and burning fires in the background were shocking to watch online.

Just now, I see footage of massive crowds in the Brooklyn downtown area where people of all colors are holding vigil and protesting. Even the newly declared curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. starting last night did not prevent protesters from going out in the streets past curfew time, willing to get arrested to use their right to free speech.

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What’s your take on the protests around the country?

Actually, I’ve been expecting pent up outrage among people of color to boil over for some time now as I’ve seen the one percent get richer and the middle class losing its economic viability. I’m more hopeful now because I see black, Asian, Latino, and white people joining the protests. It’s about time that people find their voices before everything is taken away from them: first, their financial security and now, their democratic rights. People are realizing that they can no longer rely on politicians and government to protect them and that they are the leaders that this society needs right now.

Have you experienced racial injustice while living there?

Racial injustice infuses the lives of people of color on a daily basis. Examples are subtle, sometimes benign, while others can ripple through one’s life and are never forgotten.

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I remember one instance going to the shop at the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center (Manhattan) just before a performance. I noticed that many eyes of retail clerks and security guards were scrutinizing me, never taking their eyes off me, until I went through the cashier and the metal detector. There were many other customers in the shop (mostly white) but I felt that I was singled out because of my brown skin triggering suspicion that I could be a shoplifter. I had never experienced that before in all the places I’ve traveled in the U.S.

I had always thought that was a problem mainly experienced by blacks, but that was a wake-up call to me that no matter how honest or innocent you are (and one who spent a lot of money on culture like the opera or ballet), there will always be that one time when your presence will trigger some innate racist feeling in many white folks.

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How do you think the U.S. can move forward? 

I think what you’re doing to collect our thoughts and opinions on how to move this society to a better place is a good start. It’s time that we reflect on our position in society and figure out whether we contribute to the problem of racial divide and inequality or are doing our best to bring everyone together.

This upheaval is an educational moment for us and an opportunity to rebuild ties with all groups, which is easier said than done. I look forward to voting in all elections: primary, midterms, and general. I donate as much as I can to candidates I feel can bring a more responsible voice to the government. And most of all, I am grateful to all the people out there risking their lives like the health care workers taking care of the sick and the protesters who are facing harsh policing tactics. They are the reason for hope and they will allow us to build a better world tomorrow.

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Photo by Associated Press.

Iñigo Elizalde, businessman, New York City

How do you feel? 

The mood here in NYC is tense and agitated. I'm doing okay, but a bit stressed out, to be honest. First COVID-19 and the imposed lengthy quarantine, then protests and looting and lots of anger, and please, let's not leave out what is going on in Washington D.C. Its a lot.

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What is happening in your neighborhood?

There are nightly protests and major looting, which has resulted in many stores and businesses boarding up, and an 8 p.m. curfew, which has never happened in all the time I've been living here.

Are you participating in the protests against racial injustice? 

I have marched a couple of times. Enough is enough. The marches I’ve been involved in are all quite peaceful. I observe the curfews, so I only see what the news has to offer.

Have you experienced racism while living there? 

Yes, I have. I’ve repeatedly been talked to very slowly in English to make sure I “get it.” I hold a triple major and an advanced degree from a major U.S. Ivy League design institution and so this is inexcusable—all because of my passport.

How do you think the U.S. can move forward? 

I think the U.S. will emerge smarter and more unified or I, at least, really, really hope so. What I hope to come out from all of this is more empathy, more dialogue, more understanding, and more unity.

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Photo by Jennifer Madrid.

Jennifer Madrid, technology project manager, Chicago, Illinois

Can you describe the mood in your city right now?

The mood is surreal. Mornings are quiet, beautiful, and sunny. You hear more sirens later in the day as the protests get going. People are stressed as they watch the news and discuss the issues with their friends, but log into work the next morning and continue like normal. Things have been a lot calmer after the weekend, but the bridges are still raised to control the traffic in the city. 

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What is happening in your neighborhood?

A lot of the storefronts were smashed Saturday evening and someone set fire to the convenience store in our building. We had to evacuate. We stayed at a hotel that night. We were slightly scared for a few minutes as we evacuated, and having to stay at a hotel was a minor inconvenience for my family.

But I hope the message of the protests does not get lost: Many are scared and face inconveniences every day because of the color of their skin. Our experience that night was nothing compared with what other people of color go through every day.

All is safe in my building. There’s just the smell of lingering smoke. My building stationed armed guards for our building Sunday night. I was not comfortable having armed guards in our building.

Are you participating in the protests against racial injustice? 

No, I have not participated yet. I would like to and bring my son, as well.

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I have stopped watching the news starting early this year, so I was not in tune with the protests. I was walking around downtown Saturday morning and posting pictures of lilac bushes on Facebook and running errands. I didn't realize the gravity of the situation until we were asked to leave Target because they were shutting down in anticipation of the protests.

Have you experienced racism while living there? 

Yes, but only slightly. It’s tolerable and easy to ignore. It’s generally stereotypes, as opposed to direct hostility.

How do you think the U.S. can move forward? 

I think the U.S. is becoming more politically involved and making their votes count. I hope we confront the issues and find the solution, instead of continuing with an attitude of apathy when it does not affect our wallets, or if it’s just a minor inconvenience.

Photo by Associated Press.
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Rico Cruz, image data analyst, Brooklyn, New York City

Can you describe the mood in your city right now?

In a word, tense. Due to the looting (mostly in the famous shopping neighborhoods in Manhattan like SoHo and Midtown), the mayor of NYC and the governor of NY State put a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., which is effective till June 7th. Apparently, this is the first time since 1943 (according to Anderson Cooper). Of course, New Yorkers aren't going to put up with the curfew, so protests are still continuing past 8, with lots of folks getting arrested.

It's unclear if the curfew will be effective in curbing the looting, but I think that the statements from the protest leaders, celebrities, and some of the more outspoken protesters will be. I'm getting the sense that the protests are generally more peaceful now, but we'll see how the rest of the week goes.

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How do you feel?

Right now I'm frustrated with the curfew. I work from home and we end at 6, so if I join a protest or run errands after work, I only have a couple of hours. As an immigrant on an O-1 or "talent" visa, I can't risk getting arrested.

Generally, it's been difficult to concentrate on work—how can you think about deliverables when all these things are happening right outside? On top of that, NYC still has the highest number of COVID-19 cases despite the numbers going way down. And on top of that, there's the growing number of COVID-19 cases back home due to government incompetence, and now we have an anti-terror bill. So yeah, it's... a lot. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by everything. 

What is happening in your neighborhood?

Ever since May 5th, there have been protests all over the city every day. There haven't been any in my particular neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, except today (June 3rd), so it's been quiet. Even that protest we had was a silent one. Most of the protests in Brooklyn happen around Prospect Park or the Barclays Center, which is more accessible to most of Brooklyn (Williamsburg is sort of on the border of Brooklyn and Manhattan).

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Are you participating in the protests against racial injustice?

Yes, but the curfew and having a day job makes it difficult. So I am limited to weekends. I used to be a photojournalist in Manila, so I'm familiar with how protests go, although the ones here are crazier than the ones I used to cover. Same rules apply though—situational awareness and friends watching out for you are key to keeping safe. Since the protests are about something I've been aware of for some time now and feel strongly about, they are a great experience for me—except for the violence of course. 

How do you think the U.S. can move forward?

I think this is a turning point in American history, and it will all come to a head in November, during the presidential elections. I hope I don't sound too naive when I say that I am optimistic that voters here will replace Donald Trump.

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The pandemic has revealed, in dramatic fashion, that the way things were before Trump was already problematic, which is why he was elected, and these twin crises of COVID-19 and widespread unrest from racial injustice underscores why they shouldn't have relied on him to solve anything. It's become clear that the country needs a dramatic change in leadership. I think (hope) even some folks in red states see that now. 

I want to point out that the issues here have been tracking the ones back home, almost beat for beat. The difference to me is that thanks to the strength of the two-party system here, the opposition is somewhat clearer. Just make sure Biden wins the White House and America has a shot at real systemic change. I feel like the pandemic has made him and other moderate/neoliberal democrats take a closer look at Sanders-style socialist policy that they rejected before. The resources and the brilliant minds are available here. It can be done, and it feels like now is the time it could actually happen. You can feel it in the protests. Tama na, sobra na talaga.

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Clifford Olanday
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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