Filipinos have historically immigrated in droves to the West and East coasts, building formidable immigrant communities and earning a name for themselves as the second-largest Asian group in America. However, as the new Biden administration takes shape, it’s in midwestern states like Ohio where an unexpected progressive shift is taking place.
Filipino Americans overwhelmingly favored former Vice President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, but the political makeup of the Filipino American community tends to be more complicated. A recent Asian American Voter Survey shows over 30% of Filipino Americans voted for President Donald Trump, citing their conservative values and opposition to taxation.
The midwest also lays claim to a sizable Filipino immigrant population. With about 17,000 Filipinos living in Ohio, a small, yet opinionated core of Filipino progressives are reimagining what it’s like to participate in the democratic process. This is a snapshot of how three Filipino American women in Ohio (including myself) each came into their own political awakening and our hopes for the incoming Biden administration.
Beth Piocos, 58, Iligan City, Philippines
(Now living in Wyoming, Ohio)
The daughter of a Filipino military officer, Beth Piocos was raised in a conservative Catholic household in the south of the Philippines during Martial Law in the 1970s. She remembers certain activist teachers and high school classmates running away to join the New People’s Army, the local, armed Communist insurrection organized against dictator Ferdinand Marcos. When Marcos declared Martial Law, more than half of the Philippines’ population was living in poverty.
A newly-arrived immigrant, it wasn’t until the late 1980s, when she came to the U.S. as a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati, that she became acutely aware of the direct impact politics would have on her life. At the time, President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive cuts to student aid slashed Piocos’ budget, limiting her life as a graduate student.
From then on, it was a series of compounded political events that captured Piocos’ attention, starting with America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and President Barack Obama’s election as America’s first Black president. When Hillary Clinton ran in 2016 as the first woman presidential candidate from a major party, Piocos’ political awakening was complete.
“I campaigned door-to-door for Hillary for the first time, I donated money for the first time,” Piocos said. “And so gone is this bubble of suburban life that you’re in.”
This election season, the academic administrator initially supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but switched to Biden after seeing him win the Black vote in the South Carolina primaries. It also helped that Biden was a pro-choice Catholic, something that she personally sympathized with and considers one of her top issues.
“It’s more [about] the right to reproductive freedom,” Piocos noted. “I have two daughters, so that’s extremely important for me. And being Filipino too, being equated to being a murderer if you’re pro-choice … it just gets me going.”
Daphne Constantinides, 20, Cincinnati, Ohio
In November, Piocos’ older daughter Constantinides voted for Biden because it was a vote against Trump, not necessarily because she believed in him like her mom did. She mentions the crime bills Biden has supported since 1976—particularly the tough-on-crime policies he helped pass in the 1990—and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ prosecutorial record. An avid listener of NPR’s CodeSwitch podcast, she was also surprised to learn the Obama administration had deported millions of undocumented immigrants, contrary to the image of Obama her parents had presented.
“Do I not like [Biden]? Yes. But I don’t hate him. I think a lot of people my age realize that the Democrats are also kind of sketchy,” she adds. “Just because Biden’s in office doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be watching him as closely as we were with Trump.”
Even more attuned than millennials to the digital world and its role in politics, many Gen Zers like Constantinides saw through the performative activism of Blackout Tuesday and the anti-Asian racism inherent in the celebrity make-up trend “fox eyes.” As the biracial daughter of Filipino and Greek immigrants living in a majority-white, upper-middle class neighborhood, she also grew up sensitized to issues of race and immigration.
“What Trump is saying about immigration, I think it dawned on me like, what if that was my parents that came here and tried to illegally do that?” Constantinides said. “I would be in a whole different situation.”
Even still, she feels her parents don’t fully realize the gravity of the biggest existential threat facing her generation right now. Constantinides noted that while she and her sister were also thinking more about what they can do about climate change, their father is skeptical about the scope of the problem.
“I was like, ‘I love you, but this is the problem we’re going to inherit—and we’re already inheriting—from your generation,’” Constantinides said.
Maki Somosot, 30, Manila, Philippines
(Now living in Cincinnati, Ohio)
I first met Piocos at a Filipino American picnic a few weeks after we moved to Cincinnati. A chatty, gregarious woman, she quickly welcomed me to the local Filipino group and invited me to join their book club. It was the first time I’d been somewhere that felt like home after several years of moving and working all over the U.S.
I graduated from college in 2012 and started my career working in corporate communications in New York City. When a chance opportunity came up for me to work as a reporter in South Louisiana, I seized it. It happened to be around the time when the nascent Black Lives Matter movement was taking off around the country over the murders of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Drawn to the optimism and post-racial promise of Obama’s historic presidency, I didn’t understand the larger implications of the protests at the time.
It wasn’t until I began covering crime in rural Louisiana, including the local case of a Black teenager killed by a Houma police officer, that I realized the deeper and more insidious repercussions of the criminal justice system. After covering felony cases gavel-to-gavel that resulted in life imprisonment for countless Black people, I left the paper to manage communications and media for the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, hoping I could help change the narrative around racial injustice in America.
I now work for the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a grassroots advocacy organization in Ohio, as their communications and narrative director. As a writer, I’ve always been drawn to the power of storytelling and its deep, intrinsic capacity to shift perspective and change the course of history. With my background in media, I know I can harness storytelling not only to inform and educate, but also to provide important context about injustice and propose possible solutions to societal problems. There is too much at stake.
It’s tempting to return to the hazy, liberal optimism and illusions of the Obama era that many of us held. But too much has happened and it’s hard to shake the dark underbelly of America and the knowledge of how many people have been harmed and traumatized by it. Now my eyes are wide open, and I hope Biden’s are too.