My name is Jamie Balaoro - a Filipina American, Bay Area-based visual storyteller, born in Vallejo and raised in San Francisco and Union City, California.
I was lucky enough to grow up in a place like Union City where the diverse population, and the large Filipin@ population specifically, helped me not feel so much like the “other.” I’ve faced typical stereotypes though — despite my high school reflecting the diverse community of Union City, I was still hit with the “Aren’t you supposed to be smart?” or “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” questions from classmates; in my undergrad years at San Francisco State University (SFSU), a random student approached me and straight up asked me if I eat dog — that was a fun encounter. I’ve also had my share of ignorant folks telling me to go back to where I came from or assumed I didn’t understand English. (Fun fact: I’ve never been to the Philippines and I’m only conversational in Tagalog because I took three years of Tagalog in high school.) All of the things I’ve experienced, though — in terms of stereotypes or microaggressions I’ve faced due to being Filipina American — have been relatively minor. Not to say they didn’t affect me, and not to compare experiences with others, but I’m always aware that so many others have dealt with worse.
I am a result of all of the struggles and triumphs of my ancestors who came before me, so who I am and my identity as a whole is heavily influenced by all of that. My parents were born in Manila, Philippines but grew up in the Bay Area. My dad immigrated to the U.S. when he was 2 years old in the late 60s, and he was able to do so because at the time, the U.S. opened its immigration out of a need for teachers and it just so happened his mother, my grandmother, was one in the Philippines. My mom immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager in the 80s because her father, my grandfather, was able to get a job here. My parents were in their early 20s when they had me, so I like to say that we literally grew up together — as in, while they grew as individuals, so did I. Even though they grew up here in the States, they were still raised on traditional Filipino values that were later passed on to me. Because of these values, I very much live my life with this mantra: Never forget where you came from, who came before you, and how you got here.
I think when I was very, very young and didn’t have a strong understanding of who I was, my ethnicity didn’t play a big role in how I identified myself. I used to just say I was Filipino if someone asked “What are you?” but there was no deep, thoughtful reasoning behind it. There was no shame, but I think I just didn’t feel like there was anything “special” about being Filipino. It wasn’t until high school that I started really thinking about how I see myself, how I identify myself as, and where I learned the term, “Asian American.” As most Asian Americans experience, there’s this feeling of being neither here nor there, of not being enough of this or that — that you just fall somewhere in between. Learning the term, “Asian American” and further breaking it down to “Filipina American” changed everything for me. I was comfortable with this identity, and the more I learned about my Filipino heritage, the prouder I became. Also, in high school I got to learn about Philippine history and Filipin@ sheroes and revolutionaries, like Gabriela Silang, Tandang Sora, and Lorena Barros, and I remember feeling so much admiration — so much pride — toward them, and the feeling still sticks with me today whenever I say I’m Filipina American.
One of the greatest opportunities I’ve ever had was being able to take Filipino Heritage Studies during my junior year of high school. It opened so many doors for me — it instilled a passion for history and social justice, and ultimately led me to majoring in Asian American Studies at SF State, which I didn’t even know was a thing you could do, let alone a possibility for me. When I was applying for colleges, I had always put “Undeclared” as my major of interest, but my Filipino Heritage Studies teacher/mentor, Ivan Santos, really inspired me to build off of the foundation he laid for my peers and I, and so by the time I got to SF State, I was more than ready to dive into as many Asian American Studies courses as possible. Overall, once I started learning, I just wanted to keep learning. A lot of Ethnic Studies peers would talk about how they weren’t exposed to Ethnic Studies until they got to college, so I have always felt very lucky to have attended a high school with an actual Ethnic Studies department and in a state that pushed for Ethnic Studies as part of the General Education requirements for high school students.
During my first year at SF State, I decided to sign up for a course called Psyche and Behavior of Filipinos taught by Prof. Danilo Begonia, who we respectfully refer to as Tito Dan. At the time I didn’t know about the legacy of the course and its instructor, but I’m so grateful I got on the waitlist and was able to get into the class. Tito Dan taught me to see myself as a Filipina American in a way I never did before — he would talk about Filipin@ Americans who were artists, musicians, athletes, authors and more, share the accomplishments of Filipin@s around the world, and help me learn to see myself in the world through a wider lens. All of the experiences and lessons from that class strengthened my sense of self and my identity as a Filipina American, and introduced me to a beautiful community known collectively by former students as Ating Tao, which I later learned my Filipino Heritage Studies teacher was also part of. My mentors, my peers, and the courses I took all allowed me to see my potential and the possibilities that can come from the knowledge you gain and the perspective you develop through Ethnic Studies.
I originally started at SF State with an undeclared major, but by my second year, I ended up deciding to double-major and ultimately received my B.A. in Photojournalism and Asian American Studies. For me, the two just went hand in hand. So much of the work we did for Asian American Studies was gathering stories — we’d go into communities or interview our families and ask them about their experiences; we’d document everything through writing, transcription, images, or video; we’d present data through visual graphics. So what I did in my Photojournalism classes was always connected and fueled by what I did in Asian American Studies.
Post-undergrad life was a struggle for me though, so The Golden Bullet Magazine was really born out of necessity. It started as a creative outlet, a place to continue practicing and developing my journalism skills, but it started to grow into a platform full of the potential to tell stories about people or places from my perspective — a Filipina American perspective. While it isn’t a full-on Asian American x Photojournalism digital publication per se, all the stories that are shared through TGBM are a reflection of the two because they are created with respect, consideration, and care, which I feel comes from my Asian American Studies background, and the visual focus that I feel is so valuable when it comes to storytelling, which comes from my Photojournalism background.
I think we’re in an interesting place right now where, due to public demand, diversity and inclusion are being pushed as priorities for networks. We’re tired of seeing the same faces on the small and big screens and of the same Eurocentric stories being told over and over, and we as Asian Americans are demanding to no longer be treated as invisible. However, there is a big difference between being seen and being heard, and I feel like we’re not quite at the “heard” part yet. There are so many Asian American actors and actresses on TV now, which is amazing, but that doesn’t mean the characters they play reflect who they are or all communities; just because a Filipin@ American character is in a show doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be able to connect with them. For example, when the show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend showcased a Filipin@ American family, I couldn’t relate to the characters or the experience at all. But I completely understand the importance of just being able to see someone who looks like you on a platform as significant as a TV show. Growing up, the only Filipina I remember seeing on TV was this girl on Barney…obviously, that was a very, very long time ago. These days, I’m happy to say that a few of the shows I watch, besides Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, have Filipin@ American actors or actresses who get to play main characters, such as Nico Santos on Superstore and Liza Lapira on 9JKL, and my little brother now knows there’s a Filipina American actress starring in one of his favorite shows, Bizaardvark. A lot of folks like to say that it doesn’t matter what ethnicity an actor or actress is, but for so many of us it does, because it’s just nice to see people like you doing their thing and showing folks who think Asian Americans are an anomaly that we aren’t new here, that we’re so much more than mainstream media writes us out to be.
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