Report from KJCC's first undergraduate scholar-in-residence, Isabella M. Garcia Bernstein

The Paglaban Pilipino Literature Project

This past summer, with the generous support of Dr. Jordana Mendelson and the KJCC, I had the incredible opportunity to perform research as the first undergraduate visiting scholar. When I came to the center at first, I was under the impression that I would write a couple of academic papers with the hopes of publishing them. However, with the strong influence of Sulo: The Philippine Studies Initiative, I learned that there was something much greater about scholarship than meets the eye, which soon led me to create an open-access curriculum website that serves students in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. Sulo provided me with an amazing community that not only offered me academic support, but also connections that I hope to maintain throughout my undergraduate, and optimistically, graduate careers. Through the initiative, I had the pleasure and privilege of working with Dr. Lara Saguisag (NYU Steinhardt), Prof. Luis Francia (Department of Social and Cultural Analysis), and Dr. Mary Louise Pratt (Department of Spanish and Portuguese). (I also became acquainted with Dr. Ana Maria Theresa Labrador, former Deputy Director of the National Museum of the Philippines, and Dr. Jonathan Chua of Ateneo de Manila University.) All of them inspired me in so many ways, and I wish that there were enough words to thank them for their expertise and encouragement throughout this process.

I embarked on my research project at the KJCC without a clear idea of what I wished to produce. As a Filipina-American student majoring in Archaeological Anthropology and Hispanic Studies, I often don’t see myself fairly represented in the academic sphere. My story is frequently told by others, which has greatly damaged how the Philippines and Filipinx people are viewed today. My strongest research interest (currently) is in hispano filipino literature, or Philippine literature published in Spanish. There is a false notion that Filipinos never spoke Spanish, which is a narrative propagated by serial colonization and imperialism. In fact, some say that ⅓ of the entirety of Philippine literature is in Spanish, the other two thirds being English and vernacular languages respectively. The Filipino community is truly multilingual and multicultural, which is something that we don’t discuss enough.

My research aims to spark conversation. How are people represented through language? How do they utilize language to advocate for themselves? The phrase often goes that the pen is mightier than the sword. I think this holds true. While we are quick to believe that all battles occur on battlefields, some of them take place on the page. Dissatisfied with the treatment of his fellow clergymen by Spanish friars, Filipino priest Mariano Gómes founded La Verdad, a Spanish language newspaper published in the Philippines to share the mistreatment of indigenous priests at the hands of the Spaniards. He is known to have kickstarted the Propaganda Movement that would later inspire the revolutionary Jose Rizal. With this history in mind, I wanted to draw the connection between politics, linguistic agency (language being a tool for or against empire), and literature.

After combing through library books, the Internet, and digital archives, I noticed how language could be used as a tool for resistance against colonization and injustice. With the key word resistance, I founded the Paglaban Pilipino Literature Project, “Paglaban” in Filipino meaning “resistance” or “defiance.” Abbreviated, the project title reads the “Ppl” (or “people”) project, which highlights the website’s mission: to provide open-access educational resources to Pilipinx youth so they can feel empowered to enact change. My firm belief is that education must help empower individuals, not existing merely in a vacuum but rather as a vehicle for activism.

The PPL project came from my love for my family and my community. Thanks to Dr. Saguisag, my research became focused on the digital humanities. Marrying academia with my own commitment to serving my community, I wrote curricula for two courses and constructed a collective-based reading list: “Portraying the Pinay: Womxn in Philippine Literature”, “Protestar la periferia: la literatura hispanofilipina como negociación política”, and “Magkasama: ating mga kwento”. All readings, along with both syllabi, are digitized and downloadable, which was my primary goal in aiming to combat ongoing historical revisionism and censorship. With the input from Dr. Saguisag, Professor Francia, and Dr. Pratt, I developed discussion questions that will hopefully bring students and youth together outside the classroom, whether it be in English, Spanish or Filipino language environments.

Working at the KJCC these past few months, I have found that the best questions are asked outside of the classroom in casual conversation. I am overjoyed that my project has evolved into an entity that is community-based and community-driven.  I am proud to say that the website I created under the guidance of NYU faculty is perhaps the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in my short time as a college student. My summer was a fruitful one, finding my place and making my own space. I would once again like to express my gratitude to everyone at the KJCC and Sulo for their advice and support.

About Isabella Maganda Garcia Bernstein

Isabella Garcia Bernstein is a proud Filipina-Jewish American student and Laidlaw scholar at Barnard College of Columbia University where they hope to obtain their degree in Archaeological Anthropology and Latin American & Iberian Cultures. Their research interests include Philippine colonial literature, Hispanic Asia, sociolinguistics, object biographies, environmental personhood, artifact ethics, and archaeological politics. Isabella openly embraces interdisciplinary studies, as they are currently investigating a collection of lithic stone artifacts (the Bais Anthropological Project, 1979-1982) to argue against colonial epistemology and martial law. This past summer, they founded the Paglaban Pilipino Literature Project as the inaugural undergraduate scholar-in-residence at NYU’s KJCC. Independent of their academic pursuits, Isabella serves as the Secretary of Columbia University’s Liga Filipina and edits for several journal publications on the Barnard/Columbia campus. Firmly believing in #educationtoempower, they fight alongside the youth activist group the Kabataan Alliance to uplift youth and students in the battle for democracy and human rights in the United States and the Philippines.