Op-Ed: For Filipino Americans, it’s a miracle to see yourself in a summer movie

History takes many forms. This week, that meant texting all my relatives in the Bay Area, wondering how many Filipinos — and friends of Filipinos — I could fit in a theater on a Sunday afternoon. After about an hour SMS pinsan (cousins), titos and tita (Aunts and uncles), kuyas and eats (anyone older than you), in addition to incoming calls from Lola’s (grandmothers) who insisted on talking instead of texting I was up to 76.

“If there are any more tickets,” texted Tita Aida, who, like me, immigrated to the Bay Area from the Philippines in 1993. “Can I have three more?”

Aida’s daughter, Gladys, my cousin and best friend, added, “Count me for three tickets!”

This is a game-changing weekend for the Filipinos. Easter Sunday, starring comedian Jo Koy, opens in theaters nationwide and becomes the first major Hollywood studio film about Filipino Americans, California’s largest Asian American population and one of the largest immigrant communities in the country.

Partly autobiographical, the film tells the story of Joe Valencia (Koy), a struggling comedian and actor who searches for his Hollywood break while dealing with the responsibilities of being a single father and the inevitable drama that comes with growing a large, multi-generational immigrant family goes hand in hand, has to reconcile. Like Koy, Valencia is multiracial and grapples with his identity and what it means to look and sound Filipino.

Representation matters — is a rallying cry for Hollywood as it seeks to diversify the stories it tells and sells. But in the process of telling and selling universal stories with universal themes like love, family, and belonging, we can lose the specifics, especially when it comes to telling stories about Latinos and Asians, whose growing numbers are shaping the perception of the United States challenges and changes states as a black and white country.

As an immigrant child in the 1990s, my assimilation process consisted of consuming all the popular culture I could swallow. Almost everything was told from a white point of view before I realized that the Irish, Italians and Germans were immigrants like me. Growing up, Asians only had All-American Girl, an ill-fated ABC sitcom starring Margaret Cho, plus a smorgasbord of multiracial actors playing Koreans. It was the splinter we got.

Since then, Asian-American screen portrayal has come a long way, from Everything Everywhere All at Once to Never Have I Ever to Minari and every Netflix live-action anime adaptation. The Asian-American diaspora of 22 million people with immigrant roots spanning more than 20 countries can no longer be denied. However, Filipino Americans remain miserably out of the limelight, especially when it comes to Hollywood productions.

“Whether it’s in theatre, publishing, or Hollywood, there have always been obstacles that Filipinos have had to face who wanted to tell our stories our way,” said Pati Navalta, author of The Oracles: My Filipino Grandparents in America. I met Pati in 2000, just when I was starting out in journalism. She was then an editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and one of the few Filipinas who edited in American newsrooms. “Jo Koy opens a gate. This film marks an opening for more films,” she said.

Koy said he wanted Filipinos to see themselves on the big screen. And boy are we on screen, all right. Co-written by Ken Cheng, a Filipino-American of Chinese descent, the film is filled with cultural references, from Halo Halo, our favorite shaved ice dessert, to Santa Niño, which adorns many Filipino homes, including mine. A balikbayan (Emigrant) box is more than just a prop; The caring, collaborative spirit the box evokes—Filipinos here in America take care of relatives and friends they left behind—is at the heart of the narrative.

Watching the film, I had to remind myself that I was watching Filipino actors playing Filipino characters, which seems an obvious point unless you hear the stories of Hollywood veterans like Tia Carrere and Lou Diamond Phillips .

Phillips plays himself in the film, and this is only the third time the 60-year-old actor, who was born in Subic Bay, not far from my grandparents’ hometown, has played a Filipino character. In her nearly 40-year career, Carrere, who is of Filipino, Hispanic, and Chinese descent, has played Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese characters, but never anyone who is Filipina — until this film, in which she plays Tita Theresa.

“How does it feel to play this role? It feels like I can finally be myself,” Carrere told me after a special screening organized by Gold House, which leads the #GoldOpen movement and supports Asian-American films.

I first met Koy at this screening. I watched all of his comedy specials as did most of my relatives who could recite his jokes, sometimes word for word. When you see him in person and bask in the moment, you realize he realizes this Hollywood moment is so much bigger than him.

“When I look at the screen, I see my family,” Koy told me. “I see my community. I see us.”

He showed us all his Filipino disorder in “Easter Sunday” – which I will see on Sunday afternoon along with 105 relatives and friends of relatives at a theater in Santa Clara, near where I was born.

Jose Antonio Vargas is the founder of Define American, a nonprofit media organization, and the author of Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.

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