Two Filipino parents and their three children enjoy huge waffle ice cream cones on a California boardwalk by the beach. They are walking toward the camera. Mom is holding her youngest daughter's hand.

In San Francisco, the Filipino cultural heritage district is celebrating its sixth year of recognition. Located in the city’s South of Market (SoMa), the district has street banners featuring Filipino Americans, utility boxes designed with the Filipino Abakada alphabet, and a park named after Victoria Manalo Draves, the first Filipino-American Olympic gold medalist. It’s a community that has struggled with xenophobia, economic challenges, gentrification, and a pandemic. 

However, at the heart of the district lies the Bessie Carmichael School/Filipino Educational Center (FEC), which provides not only academic education, but also programs and events to encourage students and adults to learn more about and connect to Filipino-American culture. Bessie Carmichael has a long history of serving immigrant populations in the SoMa district. Filipino Americans settled into the district post-World War II after being pushed out of San Francisco’s Manilatown in retaliation for organizing protests over tenants’ rights. SoMa eventually became a “gateway” neighborhood for Filipino immigrants.

Today, San Francisco-Bay Area is the second most populous region for Filipinos in the U.S., and Filipinos make up 4.6% of San Francisco’s population. Filipino students account for 4% of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), and at Bessie Carmichael, which serves pre-kindergarten to eighth grade students, 27% students and about a third of teachers and administrators identify as Filipino. The programming and support offered by the school are especially critical for Filipino students, many of whom face financial and housing insecurity and the pressures they create for mental health and academic performance.

Nearly 80% of Bessie Carmichael/FEC students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and have struggled academically for several years, performing below the state’s standards for language and math. Parents of students are also worried about their children’s mental health, citing high rates of suicidal ideation among Filipino girls. The instability and isolation of the pandemic has only exacerbated these issues, making Bessie Carmichael/FEC services all the more crucial. In helping students navigate their journeys into adulthood through these challenging circumstances, the Bessie Carmichael/FEC community is leaning into a deeply rooted history of celebrating Filipino-American cultural education, grassroots organizing, and nourishing intergenerational ties.

Preserving the history of San Francisco’s Filipino community

Many immigrant families face immense pressure to leave behind their cultural identity to fully acclimate to their adoptive homes. Assimilation into the American “mainstream” is not only considered a method of survival, but a gold standard for “being American.” It forces many immigrants to abandon their heritage, the effects of which still reverberate for successive generations.

Christina Alejo feared that loss of connection to Filipino cultural identity when her family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s. She enrolled her children into the FEC, which, at the time, was a separate feeder program for Bessie Carmichael. The program’s intent was to acclimate non-English speaking students, but instead of pushing students to speak only English, the FEC promoted both Filipino language maintenance and English language learning.

“[The FEC] accepted the kids for who they are [and] their background; it embellished and even enriched their bilingualism,” Alejo said. 

But when the FEC threatened to close down due to declining numbers of Filipino students, Alejo was one of several mothers who advocated for preserving Filipino education. The parents passionately lobbied the school board to retain the FEC, eventually resulting in a merger of the Bessie Carmichael school and FEC program that was completed in 2000. 

Today, Bessie Carmichael/FEC is the one of two schools in the country to offer Filipino Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES). Alejo is now a parent of two Bessie Carmichael/FEC alumni and has been active in the SoMa community ever since. She’s been joined by more mothers like Antonina Real and Ruby Turalba, who continue to advocate for an expanded language program at Bessie Carmichael/FEC. Real is working on becoming a teacher herself, hoping to teach in a Filipino language program. Turalba, an adjunct professor for public health at SFSU, believes that language and cultural education is important to students’ mental health. 

“Students feel like it’s important to know who they are,” Turalba said. “It’s the way of decolonizing because by learning our language, history, and culture, we don’t have to be embarrassed about who we are.”

Bessie Carmichael/FEC also hosts Galing Bata, an afterschool program that offers Filipino language and cultural education that Alejo helped establish in 2001. It teaches a variety of subjects such as language support, Filipino history, folktales, and workshops with the American Conservatory Theater, where students study eskrima (Filipino martial arts) and kulintang (Filipino music and dance). Students also learn about Filipino-American authors and the city’s history with Manilatown. Some are training to give “ethno tours” of the district with SOMA Pilipinas. It’s such a unique program that students from as far away as New York have inquired about joining virtually, though it is currently limited to Bessie Carmichael students. 

“We have a huge pool of Filipino-American history,” said Valerie Fernandez, a fifth grade teacher at Bessie Carmichael/FEC. “Our hope for the next generation of Filipino students is to remember that a lot of the changemakers have not been necessarily fluent in the language, but they’ve been fluent in our history and the history of our resilience in this country.”

Maintaining identity in the face of rising costs and the pandemic

However, Bessie Carmichael/FEC is struggling to fund these programs as the area’s Filipino community is shrinking. While Filipinos still account for 27% of Bessie Carmichael’s student population, that percentage has fallen significantly over the past decade—in 2010, Filipinos were 47% of the student body. Raquel Redondiez, a project manager at SOMA Pilipinas, attributes this to rising housing costs. A mother to three Bessie Carmichael/FEC students and a third-generation San Franciscan, she has watched many Filipino families struggle to maintain a foothold in the neighborhood. 

“We’re very much rooted in our experience as immigrant people, but also in the neighborhoods and the Filipino-American experience,” Redondiez said. 

For Redondiez, sustaining the Filipino-American identity is about survival. For decades, Filipino Americans have faced and surmounted countless obstacles to establish their enclave in SoMa. But being able to survive, never mind thrive, is immensely difficult in a city where wages aren’t rising to keep pace with the rapidly increasing cost of living.

Housing valuation in San Francisco has gone up by 290% since 2000. In the 2010s, tech companies began moving en masse into the city, especially in the SoMa district; as of 2015, 60% of office spaces were owned by tech companies. According to Redondiez, the tech boom wiped out many of the Filipino-owned businesses in the neighborhood. The COVID-19 pandemic has also hurt San Francisco’s cultural districts, including the SoMa, as it forced more small businesses to close. 

The multiple economic and social punches of gentrification hit home for many Bessie Carmichael/FEC families. In fact, Bessie Carmichael/FEC has one of the highest rates of unhoused students in SFUSD, at 21.7%. Socioeconomic and housing insecurity are risk factors for mental health issues and lower academic achievement, both of which Bessie Carmichael/FEC teachers know their students are struggling with. 

Our hope for the next generation of Filipino students is to remember that a lot of the changemakers have not been necessarily fluent in the language, but they’ve been fluent in our history and the history of our resilience in this country.

Valerie Fernandez

While Bessie Carmichael/FEC hires social workers through the SFUSD to work with students and families, they’ve also developed partnerships with local organizations such as SOMA Pilipinas, SOMCAN, United Playaz, West Bay Pilipino Multi-Service Center, and the Bayanihan Community Center. Some of these organizations work with Galing Bata or afterschool support, while others assist families with affordable housing, employment, and health services. Additionally, the Filipino Mental Health Initiative of San Francisco partners with Galing Bata to teach mental wellness.

“Cultural education focuses on building, not only language and culture, but a healthy Filipino identity,” said Charity Ramilo, a third-grade teacher at Bessie Carmichael/FEC.

Similar to past efforts, where mothers like Alejo were the primary advocates for the FEC, these organizations are heavily staffed by Bessie Carmichael/FEC parents and alumni, forming a tight-knit network. Taking on the role of both a parent and community advocate is not easy, but it’s necessary because “you have to be at the table,” says Alexis David, one of founders for the Filipino Mental Health Initiative-SF and a Bessie Carmichael parent. 

“My children are just part of the process, and we just have to keep them engaged in it,” David said. 

Keeping students engaged isn’t easy with many parents and teachers concerned for their students’ mental health. However, Ramilo emphasized the importance of afterschool programs and local organizations, and how students have responded well to these efforts, both academically and actively engaging in the community. 

“When you hear the backstory, why [students] can’t focus, and what’s going on at home, it’s sad, we could cry,” Ramilo said. “[Students] are hungry for mentorship, and they’re hungry for connections.”

This struggle between mental health and education is an experience that resonates with Turalba herself. Having to deal with teachers who didn’t understand why Filipino culture was important to her and feeling disregarded led her to drop out of high school and be hospitalized for suicidal ideation as a teenager. As a parent, she homeschooled her children for several years to protect them from having the same educational experience that she had, until she found a supportive community at Bessie Carmichael/FEC.

“I didn’t feel like my experience was reflected in the curriculum,” Turalba said. “I didn’t have teachers that respected my own cultural background.”

However, students aren’t the only ones being supported by these collective efforts—parents and other adults have also been struggling, and the Bessie Carmichael/FEC community refuses to leave them behind. During the pandemic, Galing Bata hosted a chikahan support group for parents and guardians with wellness checks and needs assessments. The school also ran a food bank with volunteers from the community, alumni, and staff delivering food to senior adults. 

Underpinning these initiatives is the vital role of an interactive community in Filipino culture and the idea that one can’t be of service to others without taking care of oneself as well. David stresses the importance of actively cultivating wellness and self-care as an integral part of what it means to be Filipino and part of a Filipino community. 

“There is a level of care that has really helped us survive as people,” she said. 

Strengthening generational ties

Ramilo was just a teenage volunteer at Bessie Carmichael/FEC in 2003 when the school director approached her and said she saw a teacher in Ramilo. 

“I said, ‘I have no patience!’” Ramilo laughed. 

Now, she’s celebrating her 13th year as a teacher at the school. Ramilo is one of many volunteers and teachers at Bessie Charmichael who are part of a Filipino mentorship “pipeline” that’s become a staple of the community. Fernandez also volunteered at Bessie Carmichel/FEC as a teenager and has been a teacher there for 10 years. 

“We chose to teach in elementary schools and high schools with the purpose of not having [students] wait until college—if they even make it to college—to learn about [Filipino-American] histories,” Fernandez said. “It makes us think about what’s important for the next generation.”

In addition to nurturing students’ understanding of Filipino-American history and identity, the emphasis on Filipino community ties through mentorship programs helps encourage students and alumni to give back to the school in various ways, whether financially or by giving their time and talents. For instance, Galing Bata runs a mentorship program for seventh and eighth graders to become junior counselors. As alumni, Alejo’s daughter volunteered at Galing Bata for three years, while Alejo’s son is a tenant counselor for a community program in the SoMa neighborhood. 

“They know that this community raised them to be who they are,” Alejo said. “It’s really out of profound respect, to give back to the community that raised them.”

Four staffers at Galing Bata are alumni as well, including Mark Belocura and Mittee Tuason, both of whom describe the organization as family. 

“[Bessie Carmichael] provided that space for me to accept myself and not just forget my native language,” said Belocura. 

Tuason hopes to become a teacher at Bessie Carmichael someday and “give back to the community that I was raised in,” she says. Alumni have also expressed the desire to become social workers, which Ramilo says the community needs as well. 

That emphasis on connections to community, culture, and history has bolstered the Filipino community in San Francisco through ongoing challenges like racist hostility, gentrification, and the pandemic. While SoMa and Bessie Carmichael/FEC have historically served as a “gateway” for immigrant families and English-learning students, it’s an open door in both directions. It’s allowed students and alumni to connect back with their heritage, culture, and Filipino community. It’s a continuing process that the community hopes will sustain them, moving forward to future generations. 

“It’s a Filipino philosophy: ‘Ang hindi lumingon sa pinanggalingan, hindi makakarating sa paroroonan,’ which means, ‘If you don’t look back to where you came from, you’ll never reach your destination,’” Alejo said.

Helena Gabrielle Ong is a writer, currently based in New York. She is also an editorial producer at The New Yorker. Her past work has appeared in NBC4 News, The Tempest, San Francisco Public Press, and...