Written by Romeo Oscar Cascolan Photos by Romeo Oscar Cascolan and Marta Huo
The inclusive mindset of the American dream makes the United States a welcoming destination for the variety of cultures that the world has to offer. As a Filipino who immigrated to the United States in 2000 and earned my American citizenship in 2018, I can personally attest to the opportunity within this country; as a result, I am more aware of the struggles and hardships that people endure in the hopes of leading a better life in the United States. The field of ethnic studies focuses on understanding the undeniable impact that these immigrants make on this country. The people involved in these studies may come from vastly different backgrounds, but their goal is always the same: to build upon the principles of freedom and independence that unite all Americans.
One person seeking to understand the history of Asians in America is Allan Aquino, a Filipino-American professor at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a professor of Asian-American studies, he strives to empower his students into making a difference in their country’s future. Allan is passionate about his personal work in writing and poetry, and knowledgeable about his professional work in academia and education. He is someone who has studied ethnic histories extensively, graduating from CSUN with a bachelor’s degree in Asian-American Historical Studies and from UCLA with a master’s degree in Asian-American Studies. Professor Aquino himself was a trailblazer in academia, being only the second person in Cal State Northridge history to pursue a degree in Asian-American studies. As a result, he was a special major who had to develop his own curriculum – and he used this freedom and ability to develop a proactive and interactive approach to learning that he continues to utilize as a professor.
“Asian-American studies has historically always been built on community collaboration and being very hands-on, and that is the spirit that I have tried to keep alive to this day,” Allan says. “I don’t believe in the idea of the top-down form of education. That doesn’t work! For me, as a former college student, I learned most when I was able to interact and learn, not just with my professors, but with my classmates as well.”
These interactions were made possible by his fundamental desire to truly understand himself. However, that did not mean focusing solely on the history and culture of Asians in America. He also took classes in Chicano studies, American Indian studies, pan-African studies, and Gender and Women’s studies, describing his curriculum as a “synthesis of the greatest hits of American disciplines, history, culture, sociology, and literature.”
“My intention was not to pursue just this ethnocentric kind of approach, but to first study my own history,” Allan states. “And then in doing that, understanding how I connect to everybody else.” His philosophy of open-mindedness is necessary to embrace not only the diversity that the United States is home to, but also the variety of cultures that reside in Asia. The continent is vast and there are many differences between Asians that need to be acknowledged, respected, and embraced. For example, Japanese culture is not the same as Chinese or Korean culture; Indian culture is not the same as Indonesian or Malaysian culture. However, realizing these differences is the first step to bridging the perceived gaps between them.
“What I think defines Asian-American history, culture, and identity is our shared experiences that stretch across the differences of our ethnic or national backgrounds,” he says. “We do speak much more of a common language and share much more of a common culture than we realize, and our experience as Asian-Americans can only happen here [in America] and not in Asia, so to speak.”
Allan seeks to establish rapport between people, which manifests itself in his philosophy as a teacher. “Asian-American studies tries to bring people from different origins and different backgrounds together, as society is meant to be. It affects all of us because I believe we are all interconnected and as members of society, it’s our duty to empathize and respect one another.”
Professor Aquino holds this perspective because he also witnessed and empathized with his fellow Asian-Americans as a student. “I remember a generation ago, I was a senior when the Los Angeles riots went down in 1992. I look at that particular chapter, especially of how Korean-Americans were represented,” Allan recalls. “The dehumanization and the disregard for Korean-Americans in particular was a hard thing to swallow. It was stunningly a hard thing to bear, and I’m not even Korean American. I sorely empathized with the plight of my immigrant neighbors.” Although Allan was speaking as a Filipino-American, he was also speaking as an Asian-American, a Los Angeles resident, and most importantly, an American citizen. Ethnic boundaries do not and should not prevent Americans of any race or culture from supporting and understanding each other in times of need.
Allan’s poetry reflects another aspect of him that is not defined by his ethnicity, further establishing the idea that “Asian-American” is primarily based on the experiences of being an American. “In my heart, I consider myself a Los Angeleno first, before I consider myself Filipino-American or Asian-American,” he explains. “Because the way I dress, the way I talk, how I live my life, I share so much more in common with my neighbors and the people around me than even my relatives in the Philippines!” In one of his poems, “Area Codes 213, 310, 323, 626, and 818”, he tells the stories of various people around Los Angeles, all with different backgrounds, dreams, goals, and problems.
one, a half-pinoy vato loco, managed his issues with a mossberg loaded with pitbull slugs: he learned how to perforate a brown body before he could make love to one. he claims he’s still down.
another became a big, bad porkchop beating down his nephew’s homies, wasting nary a thought when they got thrown back to the joint where they were f*cked in every way for life.
another marched for the revolution, and when it didn’t work out he jumped on that one. then after that breakup, he’s sticking it out with this one, riding it out till his kids grow old enough to leave him.
opening excerpt from "Area Codes 213, 310, 323, 626, and 818" by Allan Aquino
Published in the July 2019 edition of Cultural Weekly, the colorful language and candid presentation showcase Professor Aquino’s strong sense of the local community that lives and breathes around him.
“One of my social media aliases is #poetproflife, and I picked that phrase as a kind of crystallization of what I do as a writer: I write poetry, but I also write academic stuff… as an academic, obviously, I’m addressing issues of race, ethnicity, sociological theory and history – I’m addressing it head-on, I’m being overtly political and direct. My poetry is different – I haven’t been published as much as other Asian-American poets because I don’t wear my Asian-American studies identity on my sleeve as a poet, per se.” Professor Aquino likens this distinction to taking on a dual identity, and this ambiguity allows him to find his own creative voice and truly express himself.
Allan Aquino was able to develop his own voice and find his own place in the world through years of writing and learning. As an Asian-American professor, he strives to help his students do the same. “My ardent hope for every student at the end of the semester is that they look at themselves and look at the world differently. When I say ‘differently’, I mean a more open-minded, loving, and respectful way. That’s the sum of it. The nuances of how that love and appreciation will manifest, I leave it in the hands of the students.” That is how Allan’s students will contribute to the legacy of the United States - this mindset of acceptance is what connects not only Asian-Americans together, but all Americans together.
Find more of Allan Aquino's work with the #poetproflife tag, or catch him on the Cal State Northridge campus.