October is Filipino American History month, commemorating the arrival of the first Filipinos to modern-day California in 1587.
In Alaska, a new exhibit is launching at the Anchorage Museum Saturday that chronicles an oral history of Filipinos in the state. Mana is the Tagalog word for “inheritance” and the name of the project, founded by Shayne Nuesca, Tasha Elizarde and Joshua Albeza Branstetter.
Nuesca says the three of them had independently chronicled Filipino history, and the project took off when they came together to collaborate.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Shayne Nuesca: We wanted to tell the stories of elders, Filipinos in Alaska, whose stories would otherwise go untold in mainstream forums. And so these are stories that were passed down orally. It’s how our stories are really told, from generation to generation, within our culture. We also had some elders who had passed away, and that motivated us to get this project going and to record the stories of the elders that we have still with us.
Wesley Early: Josh, the project covers a wide swath of the state. You’ve got Anchorage and Kodiak, and then up to Fairbanks and down to Juneau. Did you find that people were open to telling their stories? Did you find that there was maybe some hesitation?
Joshua Albeza Branstetter: There was hesitation at first. A lot of the elders hadn’t met us, they didn’t even know that I was Filipino American when we first reached out. A lot of these elders have had diverse, lengthy histories and stories that they’ve never shared with anyone. And a lot of that has to do with not feeling like they can share those stories. There’s a wonderful word that Shayne taught me just a few days ago. It’s “hiya”. So many Filipino words are entire essays, but it kind of takes this concept of this shame around like, don’t talk too much, don’t share too much. And our elders have the stories that they have felt like they couldn’t share. They didn’t have a platform to. They needed to trust us first. And once they did, we learned… I learned so much. So much about myself and our community.
WE: Tasha, all of you are Filipino. And while you all have backgrounds in various forms of media, be it filmmaking, writing, photography, journalism, I imagine there haven’t been a lot of big opportunities to do large projects about people who look like you. Did you find any additional pressure, any additional excitement about doing a project like this?
Tasha Elizarde: I was very excited, just because there’s not a lot of opportunities to be able to share the stories of our community, just in whatever spaces exists for media creation in Alaska. For example, there’s only one book on Filipinos in Alaska that’s ever been published, by Thelma Buchholdt. And that book is currently out of print. And so I think that says a lot about what kind of opportunities are available to be able to share the types of stories. She had written that book because at one point, she was just like, “Why do we have no archive?” And so we’re kind of repeating that question back and saying, “Why is there still, after so many years — that book was published, like I think 30 years ago — after so many years, we still don’t have an elaboration of that archive?” And so what we’re doing with Mana is creating a larger archive. Talking to people that exist here now, making these connections to even longer into the past. And that’s something that… it’s just not an opportunity that a lot of people go for. But we had to create that opportunity by ourselves. And that’s why I was so excited to be working with both Shayne and Josh is because we’re able to create an opportunity to share stories that are so important. You see people when we interview them, they’re just so excited to finally feel like they’re recognized and have relationships with young people that remind them we care about your stories, and other people will care about them too.
WE: Josh, you know, you got the opportunity to travel to a lot of parts of the state to meet different people and share their stories. Were there any that maybe surprised you, you learned something new or really resonated with you?
JAB: I would say one that really resonated with me was the story of Camila Cook. She is an elder here in Anchorage. And she would always call me “darling,” and I love that. But when I interviewed her she lit a cigarette and she put it in her mouth backwards, so the lit end in. And I said, “Lola, what are you doing?” And she’s like, “it’s just a thing, darling. We all did this when I was a kid, and so I still do it today.” And I think the specificity of our stories really creates a universality among our community. Because we already have the exhibit up and one of our team, she had never seen it and she went there yesterday. And she said she stopped at Camila’s, and when she saw that backwards cigarette before she’d even read the story, she said, “Josh, it sent me back 40 years, because I remember how all the kids would do that.”
WE: So Shayne, I think my last question is, what do you hope the goal of this project is? Do you see it as more of a resource for a wide audience to learn about their fellow Alaskans — their neighbors — or do you see it as a personal resource to help Filipino people learn about their own history?
SN: I definitely see it as both. So it is an avenue for the wider community to learn about our elders and the history of Filipinos, or a glimpse of the history of Filipinos in Alaska. But it’s also an opportunity now for Filipinos in Alaska to look within themselves, I hope, and to look at their families and open the door for those discussions about you know, the stories that came before them. For me, and I can’t speak for the rest of my team, this was a very healing project for me. I had immigrated here when I was six years old and had dealt with you know, the loss of my birth culture, in a sense straddling two different cultures. And so, hearing these elders speak about their experiences, and then correlating that with with mine as a child, it felt like those experiences were validated. And every emotion that I felt, all of the sort of hardships I had as a child, it felt like I was getting a hug from people that weren’t even in my family, and they were telling me they were validating my experience without even knowing.
Mana: The History We Inherit kicks off at the Anchorage museum on Saturday, Oct. 27, with remarks from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is free. The exhibit will run at the museum through January.