by Cheryl Marcelo
Mirrors show me a different version of myself depending on where I am. When I taught abroad, I saw a young woman advancing in her professional career; in Philadelphia, I saw someone who confidently led peers in advocacy and professional development initiatives at Temple University; in unfamiliar places, an adventurer hungry for new sights and smells. But when I’m in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, I see a 27-year-old stuck in the body of an anxious, insecure, and often sleepless immigrant student trying to find solace in books, music, and academics. I see someone whose physical features not only designate her as an outsider, but more often than not, someone who is feared and hated.
This past March, I visited my family in Hazleton, eager to welcome my first nephew as the newest member of our clan. It had been a long time. I have been busy in the past few years, establishing my professional career in Philadelphia and abroad. Whether as an organization leader at Temple University, an educator abroad, or a social entrepreneur for the Filipino diaspora, I have dedicated my career to empowering minority youth through building cultural identity and pushing for education with a global awareness. As I arrived on a bus at Church Street Station, I was excited for my new role as an aunt, and yet, in the back of my mind, there loomed a faint sense of dread, of anxiety.
Once home, I became preoccupied with familial duties and gradually fell into a routine—buying groceries at Giant, watching movies with my family as my mother inevitably falls asleep, eating eggs and pancakes for dinner at Perkins, walking around the Laurel Mall, and always being tempted by the sweet scent of cinnamon sugar nuts at Gertrude Hawk. This routine and these unchanging places gave me a sense of familiarity, but while many would equate this to a positive feeling of nostalgia, for me, it was far from pleasant.
Being in Hazleton always brings back memories of being a student in the early 2000’s, when the city was taking its infamous stand against “illegal immigration.” It’s been almost eight years since I graduated from Hazleton Area High School with more than 800 of my fellow seniors, including a Chinese American valedictorian and a Latina American class president—a portrait of harmonious diversity and upward mobility for people of color thanks to the American value of individual hard work.
And yet, behind the scenes of these accomplishments is a history marred by the scars of the ugly reality minorities have faced in Hazleton.
Behind the veil of “diversity” is the pitting of minority groups against one another in the effort to evade accusation against Hazleton’s changing landscape. We are generalized under the term “illegals” and perceived with the same negative connotations that label comes with, which in turn pits communities against one another, especially Latino Americans and those perceived to look ‘Hispanic.’
Behind this painted façade there are also layers of internalized racism that caused fellow minorities and I to police ourselves, trying to not seem too Latino, too Asian, or too Black. To distance ourselves from blame, we hide our ethnic identities, thinking any trace of non-white culture warranted shame for being different.
This toxic atmosphere of fear and intimidation became magnified at the school level, where, encouraged by the city’s anti-immigrant sentiment, white students were unafraid to be vocal about their views, and where we, their immigrant peers, too often succumbed to the peer pressure and the omnipresence of white teenage culture.
My own “immigrant success” story exposes how Hazleton’s public “anti-illegal immigrant” sentiment, as a mask for xenophobia and racism, causes deep physical, mental, and emotional damage.
Being Filipino American in Hazleton
As a Filipino American, I occupy a unique space in the racial politics of Hazleton. I consider myself an Asian American, but some people look at my skin color and last name and assume I am Latina. Many people are not even aware that Filipino Americans exist.
This was so often the case growing up in Hazleton. In school, I considered it a lucky coincidence if someone my age had heard of the Philippines, let alone knew where it was. Even though we have been in what is now the United States since the 16th century, and despite there being more than 3.5 million Filipinos living in the U.S. today, the term “Filipino” was simply a great unknown to most of my schoolmates.
The Philippines is geopolitically part of Asia, but its culture finds significant commonality with those of Latin American countries. Like other countries with a history of Spanish colonization, the Philippines shares similarities in food, language, and religion. Because of our shared history, being Filipino American means identifying with Latino Americans. It also means recognizing that I am Asian American with different experiences than my Latino American friends.
Straddling these identities in the increasingly palpable anti-immigrant climate of Hazleton was dizzying. On one hand, I privately sympathized with my fellow immigrants, most of whom were Latino Americans. Publicly, however, I began to separate myself as an Asian American immigrant to avoid the stigma that Hazleton had attached to Latino Americans.
While high achievements throughout my education afforded me certain acceptance in school, I was never exempt from racial bullying. My classmates made me feel my “otherness.” Throughout middle school, I received taunts from classmates about my physical appearance and my race. I mostly encountered racial harassment as an Asian American with an unknown ethnicity. Classmates would tease me for the shape of my eyes and told me to go back to where I came from.
The inaction of other classmates made these incidents worse. Some turned the other way; others stayed silent but looked on with amusement in their face.
Even more than a decade later, these images remain vividly etched into my brain. If I had any artistic ability, I could paint you a picture worth not just a thousand words, but a million.
This harassment led to the start of my internalized racism. In middle school, I began to disguise myself in popular teenage culture, buying clothes from stores frequented by my white peers, watching TV shows that portrayed the lives of other white teenagers, and eating burgers and pizza at local restaurants because they were local hangout spots.
Home remained my refuge, a sanctuary where I could take off my mask. It was where I could go to reconnect with my Filipino heritage. I spoke in Tagalog, ate Filipino food, and watched TV shows starring people who looked like me. However, as Hazleton’s demographics continued to change, so did my actions as I navigated my next four years in high school.
“Playing the ‘Good Asian Immigrant’”
As anti-immigrant sentiment escalated following the passage of the Illegal Immigration Relief Act in 2006, negative sentiments in the city grew like a cancer, infesting every corner of life in Hazleton. Rhetoric blending the words “illegal,” “Hispanic,” and “Latinos” floated about the hallways and classrooms of my high school.
For me, a bigger school meant a bigger pond full of people unaware of my Asian racial identity. As a Filipino American, the color of my skin made me vulnerable to the growing anti-Latino rhetoric. Fearing exclusion through mistaken racial identity, I sought even more approval from my white peers. For a teenager, trying to belong is difficult enough; when added the complications of being a minority who shares colonial history with Latino Americans in an increasingly anti-Latino city, surviving high school was a nightmare.
I felt my survival mechanism needed an adjustment. Silencing my racial and ethnic identity was no longer enough. Now I needed to push the image of the “good Asian immigrant,” further distancing myself from the “bad Hispanic illegal.”
Desperate for acceptance, I began leveraging my Asian identity by playing the part of the token (East) Asian friend. I took advantage of the well-known stereotype of the “smart Asian” and continued to establish myself as an honor student. I “branded” myself in what I perceived as “cool Asian culture” via symbols like using high-tech mobile phones exclusive to Asian countries, and eating “exotic” but “sophisticated” food like sushi and hibachi. At my most desperate point, I even volunteered to play a racist character in my school’s production of M*A*S*H, justifying the part as some semblance of recognition that I’m indeed Asian, and not Latino.
All of this helped me dissociate with the stigma surrounding the Latino community. However, this internalized racism also perpetuated the harmful “model minority” stereotype towards Asian Americans that neglects the different experiences of varying Asian ethnicities, and pits Asian Americans against other racial minorities. Focused on my own survival, now I was staying silent as my white peers threw slanderous comments at my Latino schoolmates. I became complicit in Hazleton’s mistreatment of my fellow immigrants. I realized that while I was still considered unequal to whites as an Asian American, it was still more advantageous than being seen as a Latino American.
When it was unnecessary for me to emphasize my “Asian” identity, I reverted to silencing my racial and ethnic identity in hopes that my silence would leave me in shadow, away from the critical eye of the public.
Going to the mall was a somber affair for my family. It wasn’t that we had nothing to talk about. It was because I insisted we not speak loudly to avoid attracting attention. I was afraid of being judged for speaking a language that people would assume was Spanish and therefore of being mistaken for an “illegal” Latino immigrant.
These were not idle fears. On more occasions than I am willing to remember – in restaurants, school, and grocery stores – I received looks of disapproval and disdain. I heard so many whispers, “They all need to go.”
I even carried this into our home, my former sanctuary against the exhausting criticisms of the outside world. Instead of rejoicing in the vibrant culture of my heritage, I became ashamed at any trace of it and refused to invite friends to my house.
The toxic anti-immigrant sentiment in Hazleton also began pervading the consciousness of my family members, pushing them to echo the white population’s negative sentiments against Latino Americans. My family and I transformed into and perpetuated the idea of “good immigrants” by acquiescing to the ideas of our white neighbors and vilifying our fellow immigrant minorities. In our desperate and futile attempts at acceptance from Hazleton’s white population, we forgot that we would always be the “other.”
I didn’t learn how to love myself again until near the end of high school. From a combination of supportive friends at school and online, a wonderful teacher who encouraged my love of languages, and a growing interest in other cultures around the world, I began to focus on attending college in Philadelphia. There, I vowed to start anew and to fight for myself and other people of color.
People like to say that there are “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” – those who follow the law and those who don’t; those who commit crime and those who don’t; those who work hard and those who don’t, etc. What that story misses is the pain inflicted upon oneself and upon others when we try to conform to these preconceptions.
I perfected the American accent to prevent others from telling me, “This is America; speak English.” I stayed out of the sun so my skin color wouldn’t differ much from my white neighbors. I grew to dislike my fellow immigrants to differentiate myself. I silenced myself, silenced my family. I internalized the racist notion that being different, being non-white, was undesirable, which not only hurt my well-being, but other minorities as well. I vilified Latino Americans, my fellow immigrants, because they challenged the white population’s notion of what it means to be a “good immigrant.” In truth, the comparison of “good immigrants” versus “bad immigrants” is merely a device to continue the policing and oppression of minority communities.
My account is but one of the countless shared experiences of the immigrant community in Hazleton, and around the country for that matter. This is not an easy story to tell, but I believe it is crucial that stories like mine get shared if we are to build an effective coalition to combat racism and make Hazleton a hospitable place for everyone.
If Lou Barletta’s claim that his policies, and by extension, the city’s continuing rhetoric, are not based on race but rather on immigration status, then I, as well as my fellow legal immigrants, would not have endured the negative experiences we did and still do. The truth is, in Hazleton, and in many other places in the United States, it’s not a piece of paper that determines your immigration status, but your race.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for fellow immigrants and minorities to unite and speak out against the toxic rhetoric too easily enforced in our fearful city. Let us no longer turn a blind eye against the continuing damage being committed against our family and friends. As for our white allies, join us in building a stronger, better coalition in the city: recognize your privilege and influence among your neighbors; be brave and stand up against toxic rhetoric, regardless if comments are made “in jest” or otherwise, especially if these words are coming from your loved ones. Most importantly, uplift the minority community by ensuring that our voices are at the forefront of this fight.