Undocumented & Filipinx: Kat's Story
The Trump administration’s hardline immigration agenda shows no signs of abating. Last week, it announced plans to reunite families separated under its zero-tolerance policy only if they agreed to being deported, and on Tuesday the Supreme Court upheld its travel ban against several majority Muslim countries. While conversations about these policies rightly remain focused on those from the countries most affected by them, the future of the 12.1 million undocumented immigrants estimated to live in the U.S. - many of them Filipinx - also grows more uncertain by the day.
In fact, more than 300,000 out of the 3.4 million Filipinxs living in the U.S. are undocumented, according to Patrick Chuasoto of the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C. Yet the experiences of undocumented Filipinxs often remain overlooked.
Over the next few months, Hella Pinay will feature first-person stories from undocumented Filipinxs, reflecting a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. In our first installment, 34-year-old Kat, an activist, stand-up comic, performing artist and writer, shares her experience coming out of the closet twice – as both queer and undocumented, or undocuqueer – all while navigating her relationship with her deeply Christian, closeted lesbian mother.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I was five years old when I immigrated to the United States with my mother, grandmother and sister. We had been living a comfortable, middle-class life in Makati. But then my dad cheated on my mom, so she decided to leave his ass. She also thought there were more opportunities for my sister and me in the U.S.
We settled in Los Angeles, but I don’t think I understood we were moving there. I saw it as a vacation; I thought we were going back. The rest of my family started migrating soon after us. We lived with 15 people in this three-bedroom house, a family in each bedroom.
I came out to my mother in my junior year of high school. Actually, she dragged me out. I was in my first real relationship with a girl. My mom said she had found a letter from her. “You can tell me,” she said. “I’m your friend.” And then her wrath broke loose.
She was not ok with it – which was ironic, because she was in a relationship with another woman, my Tita Jay, who also happened to be undocumented. I attribute a lot of that to internalized homophobia. My mom was not proud of her relationship, even though she and Tita Jay had bought a house together. We even took family photos together.
“I accept it, but I don’t understand it,” my mom said. We didn’t talk for six months. She didn’t trust me, and when your parents don’t trust you, that means more rules. She started to tighten the reins. She called my pastor from the born-again Christian church she had joined, who also turns out to be a “reformed” lesbian. That was really hard for me. I was a straight-A student and athlete. I couldn’t reconcile my mom being upset with me when overall, I was a really good daughter.
After that, I became a statistic. I started engaging in risky behavior—drug use, unprotected sex, going out, drinking. It wasn’t until college that I understood I was a statistic, and I reacted in the way young people tend to do when they’re rejected by their family for their sexual orientation. Sharing those things with my mom really pushed her to feel comfortable with being queer. That was the turning point, when I started to accept myself and really challenge my mom to accept me. It gave her a way to accept and love herself.
I always kind of knew I was undocumented, but I didn’t actually try to understand what that meant until the past five years. In that time, in 2014, Tita Jay self-deported; she voluntarily moved back to the Philippines because her family is well-off there. On top of that, my dad started getting sick. One of my biggest fears is him dying and me not being able to see him. I watched it happen to my grandmother when she was still waiting for her citizenship; I passed her the phone after telling her that her mother had died, and I remember the way she fell to the floor. Not knowing when I would see my dad or Tita Jay again was really devastating. When I started realizing that I didn’t have a path to re-entry if I ever did leave the country – that’s when I decided to participate in the immigrant rights movement. I hate the idea of being separated from the people I love.
“Queer” and “undocumented” are both marginalized categories. You experience the same fears. You ask yourself, “Should I share this? Am I going to be rejected for this?” But for me, coming out as queer is a lot easier than coming out as undocumented. When you come out as gay, you risk being rejected by your family and friends; when you come out as undocumented, you risk being rejected by an entire country. You risk losing all the things you worked so hard to build.
I knew I wanted to come out as undocumented in 2011, when Filipino American journalist Jose Antonio Vargas disclosed his status in an article in The New York Times Magazine. When I read it, I straight up had an anxiety attack. We were both going after our dreams, yet there was this sense of conviction to speak out. I knew I had to come out as undocumented. That was the last wall I had to break through to fully express myself as a human.
When I started performing my one-woman autobiographical show, I started getting a lot of attention, which made me realize my voice and my power as an artist. The show is not just about being queer; it’s about the sexual abuse I experienced, too. As an artist, I’ve always wanted to tackle my fears. Tackling my fears around my sexual identity and sexual abuse history by telling those stories on stage helped me connect with other people, and helped them connect with me. I realized I had the power to build community and combat silence in our culture through my art. So I knew I had to tackle my fear about my immigration status and tell that story, too. I’ve spent the past five years building the courage to do so.
Finally, shortly before the election, I publicly revealed my status in a video for Vargas’ nonprofit organization, Define American, which seeks to shift the dialogue around immigration, citizenship and identity. I had recently begun working with them. I was sweating and shaking the entire time, but excited to feel courageous enough to join the conversation. There was this question of, “Why are you coming out now, when it’s the most unsafe?” But I wanted to come out when we actually needed people to show up.
The night before the election, I shared the video in a Facebook post aimed at family members I knew would most likely vote for Trump, to show them how their vote could impact me. When he won the next day, I got a text from my mom saying “I admire your courage. I think you’ve made your point. Please take that down.”
The week after the election was particularly difficult. I avoided my family. At the end of the week, I finally began answering my mom’s calls. “I understand that you took a stance, and that you can’t take the post down,” she said. “You’re smart and talented, and you’re going to make a difference. But I need you do it cautiously.” That was probably one of the most encouraging conversations I’ve had with my mom; it was the affirmation I had been awaiting from her.
After I posted the video, even some of my family members who are registered Republicans sent their love. People shared it on their Facebook accounts, saying “I’m voting because Kat can’t vote.” It was heartwarming to see that support from my community.
This administration is pushing conversations in ways that are not ideal. My partner and I really care about each other, but we’ve also had to have that conversation – if shit goes down, I will marry you. At the same time, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m with them because of my status.
I recently started working with a spiritual teacher and realized everything I stand to lose if I were to get deported is material. I would not lose my knowledge, my vision, my experience, my gift as an artist, my ability to make people laugh. You could take me out of the U.S. and plop me anywhere in the world, and I will find a way to make a difference as an artist.
One of the issues I want to address with my work as an artist and activist is the need for more Asian representation in the immigrant rights movement. In my household, I didn’t feel like I was allowed to ask questions about my status. My mom, who recently became a U.S. citizen, told me that if anyone asks, to just say you’re an American. I think shame plays a lot into it, but also being strategic and smart so as to not get caught.
Asians often kind of just try to fit in, like how our parents didn’t want us to learn to speak Tagalog. They wanted us to just speak English, although I’ve observed a big shift in this in the last 10 years. I think it’s part of not rocking the boat, and showing filial piety. When your parents tell you not to talk about something, you don’t, out of fear of disappointing them.
The Filipino community is not comfortable talking about being undocumented. My mother instilled a greater fear of revealing my status to other Filipinos than to non-Filipinos. At least my family believes that when Filipinos get envious, they want to take you down. We had family friends – a mother and daughter—and a Filipino at church reported them to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. I do wish I had a stronger undocumented Filipino support group.
Since the election, I’ve been pursuing my artistry more rigorously. I knew immediately that I had to get my autobiographical show on the road. Everything has an urgency that it didn’t in the past to reach more audiences -- not that I didn’t plan to do so already. The election didn’t change my goals; it just accelerated my shit.
A lot of the work that my collaborator and close friend, Yosimar, and I are trying to do with Define American is to challenge the narrative the media perpetuates – that immigrants are disempowered. We want to create a counter-narrative. We’re not sitting in a corner crying every day. We’re thriving. We’re really creative and entrepreneurial. I have an incredible love life. I love the work I do. I love my life despite this one circumstance.
I love this country. I do this work because I want to create something to help this country. Just because undocumented immigrants aren’t citizens doesn’t mean we’re not engaged. Being undocumented is just one aspect of who I am. I will not let that dictate the rest of me.
Maria K. Fabila
MK Fabila is a freelance graphic designer and illustrator in the Los Angeles area, working primarily in broadcast and network television. MK was originally born and raised in New Jersey. She graduated from Northeastern University’s Art+Design program in Boston, MA, and ventured west. She now resides in California with her husband and two daughters. MK finds inspiration in children's books, treasure hunting at thrift stores, natural phenomena, gardening, and a good beat. She is always pursuing new and creative ways to serve her local and global community through her art.