How High Schoolers' Efforts Led to the Historic Recognition of Filipino-American Leaders

Nicole Castro, Kevin Torion and Johnllen Crisostomo were recognized as leaders of a movement to name a school after Filipino-Americans for the first time in U.S. history.  (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Nicole Castro had no idea she was going to make history.

Two years ago she was just a senior at James Logan High School in Union City. That's when she realized that she never saw Filipinos in the history books she read in school.

But on Dec. 18, she was sharing a stage with East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta, the first Filipino-American state legislator in California history, and Johnny Itliong, the son of a Filipino labor leader she’d learned about in an ethnic studies class.

Castro and two other former James Logan students were being recognized for leading an effort to rename the first school in the nation to honor Filipino-Americans.

“Driving up, we saw the [school] signs change and it just gave me goosebumps,” said Castro, who’s now 20 and studying nursing. “I still can’t believe I was a part of it.”

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Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), the first Filipino-American Assembly member in California history, stands with students in front of new signage at Itliong-Vera Cruz Middle School. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

Itliong- Vera Cruz Middle School in Union City -- formerly Alvarado Middle School -- honors Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, two Filipino-American leaders who organized for farmworkers rights in California. The two helped lead the successful Delano Grape Strike of 1965, which ultimately led to the formation of the United Farm Workers union.

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“Usually when people think of the farmworkers movement, they think of Cesar Chavez,” said 19-year-old Kevin Torion, one of the three students who led the campaign, who is currently majoring in Asian American Studies at San Francisco State. “The history of the Delano Manongs has been marginalized throughout history ... [and] I feel like this renaming is the perfect time to recognize those efforts."

The students got involved after what began as a civics lesson in their Filipino Heritage Studies class at James Logan three years ago. Their teacher, Ivan Santos, was starting a unit on Filipino-American history. Their discussions focused on immigration, Filipino communities and labor organizing.

"Then it gradually started growing bigger than all of us," said Torion.

It was in that class that the students learned about the largely forgotten history of Filipino farmworkers in California, and the 13-year effort to get New Haven Unified School District to name a school after Filipino-Americans, which was finally approved by the school board in April 2013 but didn't take effect until Dec. 18, 2015. Johnllen Crisostomo, a 20-year-old student who now studies psychology at Ohlone College, was also a leader in the effort.

“I became more aware of the community," said Crisostomo, who regularly attended school board meetings to talk about the name change. "We have a Cesar Chavez Middle School. Why not have one for Filipinos to represent both sides of the movement?"

Many students began dedicating their semester projects to the name change, and Santos began pulling in support from the Filipino community and beyond. But there was something special about these three students in particular. They were introverts.

"They weren't your traditional leaders -- the high-energy, overachieving students most teachers think of when they think of leaders," said Santos. "When they were tasked to learn about the experience of their own families, they connected it all with the curriculum.  That's when their engagement jumped. They saw themselves in the history and found motivation to not only take leadership roles in the classroom, but also out in the community."

Efforts to get the district to name a school after Filipino-Americans were first initiated in 1992 by the New Haven Pilipino-American Society for Education, or NHPASE.

Tracie Noriega, who holds a district position and serves as president of NHPASE, said that campaign was revived by the city's youth.

“These three young people were instrumental in bringing our vision to reality,” said Noriega. “They organized walks and spirit rallies, as well as gathered support from fellow youth, including Cesar Chavez’s grandson.”

But when you ask any of the three students about their role in the efforts, they deflect attention from themselves. Even as Torion introduced Itliong’s son, Johnny, in the gym where the official renaming ceremony took place, he was reluctant to take credit.

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Johnny Itliong, son of Filipino-American labor leader Larry Itliong, pauses during a ceremony to officially rename Alvarado Middle School to honor his father. 'This has been a long time coming,' he said to applause. (Ericka Cruz Guevarra/KQED)

“Looking at the words of Manong Philip, leadership is not essential to the movement,” said Torion, who got involved when he was just a junior in high school two years ago. “The movement should move past its leaders because if we just focus on the leaders, then the movement is going to die with the leaders.”

Torion managed an Instagram account for the movement and even worked as an instructional aide in Santos' class. Crisostomo organized and counted petitions, and worked as Santos' instructional aide her senior year. Castro regularly attended school board meetings and had background discussions with other local leaders to discuss the name change.

“We were told that it was going to be a big thing, that we were gonna make history,” said Castro. “But for me it never really was about that. We’re always absent in the books. But Itliong and Vera Cruz were just as important as Cesar Chavez, [and] I just felt like it was the right thing to do.”

At the end of the ceremony, Crisostomo was overwhelmed with emotions. She didn't think their high school efforts would lead to anything after she graduated from high school in 2013. But now that it has, she realizes how the historic naming demonstrates the importance of understanding history.

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"They are now a part of the rich tradition of Filipino organizing and activism," said Santos. "This win, this victory, is awesome. But it's even better that they still feel like there's work to be done."

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