Emil Guillermo: On Filipino nurses, Lisa Ling and Vincent Chin, and Filipino American history

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All I needed to see was the headline “New Jersey Nurse killed in Times Square,” and I just reacted.

Had to be a Filipino American, I said to myself.

She was.

Last Friday night, Maria Ambrocio, 58, was pushed by a perp who had just snatched another woman’s phone and was trying to get away. He didn’t see Ambrocio, who was knocked down and then hit her head on the pavement hard.

Ambrocio died at a New York hospital on Saturday. They said mass for her on Sunday.

The perp, identified as Jermaine Foster, 26, is homeless and charged with second degree murder.

And while it is not legally a “hate crime,” murder is not a love crime. The perp didn’t see Ambrocio. He just ran over her like she wasn’t there. That’s no accident.

Ambrocio, who had spent more than 20 years as an oncology nurse caring for the critically sick at Bayonne Medical Center, certainly deserved better.

I didn’t know her, but when I saw her picture, I could have called her “Ate,” or sister.

I know the pattern for Filipino Americans: to come to America, live their dream, send remittances to family “back home.” That adds to the pain, to see it all end abruptly, when someone doesn’t notice. Or they may see us, and just don’t care.

It was Ambrocio’s tragic invisibility.

We all have it to a degree. It’s enough to kill us, if you’re an Asian American and no one cares.

So Ambrocio’s life is front and center for a New York minute. Maybe some in the rest of the country will notice. But it will fade from the news.

That happens a lot if you’re Filipino American, which is why we must continue to herald these little markers, past and present, during October, Filipino American History Month.

Another example came during last Sunday’s premiere episode of CNN’s “This is Life with Lisa Ling” which focused on the Vincent Chin case.

I’ve covered or written about the case most of my journalistic career. But I must say the episode is a must see, especially for younger people, or people who may still be wondering what the big deal is about Vincent Chin.

I’ve always admired Ling’s work. But what makes the episode is her choice to tell Chin’s story through the life of author Helen Zia.

Helen and I are friends. And I will never forget all the kind words she’s said about me at times in my life when things were on the line. But I didn’t realize she worked in the auto industry before she made her mark as a journalist and author.

I’ve talked to Helen over the years about Chin, and you can hear our conversation on my 2017 podcast.

When I saw the Ling episode, I never saw Helen tell the Chin case so clearly and eloquently. Maybe that’s because in most stories about Chin, the impact of Japan on the Detroit auto industry in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s is usually covered in a paragraph. The Ling episode gives you a sense of that trade war through news clips of the times and lets you see how easily it could have fueled the animus that erupted in the Chin case.

The violence was irrational as well, since Chin was Chinese, not Japanese. But that didn’t matter to auto worker Ronald Ebens, who murdered Chin.

The episode has Ebens in an old film clip saying he fully expected jail time for beating Chin to death. The fact that he didn’t serve time at all further shows the travesty in the case.

The episode also covers what Zia shared with me in 2017. It’s how the ACLU and the National Lawyers Guild originally balked at supporting the efforts of Asian Americans to seek justice at the federal level.

“They said, you know, this has nothing to do with race because Vincent Chin is not black,” Zia said in the episode. “So civil rights laws only protect Black people, and we said no, Vincent Chin’s civil rights should be protected as well.”

It’s an eye-opening realization that in 1982, less than 20 years after the Civil Rights Act, the nation was still in a black/white paradigm that excluded Asian Americans.

But Zia’s advocacy group, American Citizens for Justice, got support from Rev. Jesse Jackson, who helped blaze the trail for Asian Americans.

“We must redefine America,” Jackson said in a video clip. “So everyone fits in the rainbow somewhere.”

It was the signal for a coalition to make its pitch to the Justice Department to take action in the Chin case.

“Every religion and walk of life came together,” said Zia. “Black, white, Latinx, LGBT, Jewish, Muslim saying we are with you, we stand for you.”

It’s the spirit of coalition we still need to this day.

I won’t go into the timeline of the case from the local judge in Detroit, to the Justice Department’s civil rights case and the appeals. Suffice it to say, Lisa Ling has made a compelling and healing one-hour episode that ties Vincent Chin with #StopAAPIHate and the need to work together for social justice.


But then there were the Filipino parts.

Or really the lack of them.

In all the instances of Asian hate during the pandemic, Filipinos have been just as much in the crosshairs as any other Asian group. So the Ling episode includes the shot of the man in a New York City subway whose face was ripped up with a box cutter.

The episode shows, but does not name the man, Noel Quintana, 61.

A picture tells a thousand Filipinos?

Another clip shows a sign on a door that says “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.”

I know the photograph, but is it so famous it needs no context?

Filipinos are good for more than the montage.

I know there are time constraints in these episodes, and one must be selective. But when the show goes into history mode, as is often the case in these tellings, the full picture is lost.

You can’t go from the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and jump to the Japanese American internment in 1941 and feel like you’ve got it all covered.

But people do. What gets left out between 1882 and 1941? Significant Filipino parts.

The Ling episode talks about wars with the Asian face as the enemy, and it’s enough to flash images of Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans.

But it leaves out the Philippine-American war. After the Spanish American War in which the Philippines was bought from Spain for $20 million, the Filipinos revolted and formed their own nation and went to war against the U.S.

An estimated 1 million Filipino civilians lost their lives. When the war ended in 1902, the survivors became America’s first colony with up to 30,000 brought to the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s as a labor force.

That was my father’s group. They were treated like the Chinese before them. There were lynchings and violence. And then they were excluded too.

That’s where that door that said “No Filipinos Allowed” fits in. But you see how much is left out in order to “get it.”

That’s why the Filipino American Historical Society designated October as our month for history. All if it, warranted by all the omissions.

People are still trained not to see us.

You can start by remembering Maria Ambrocio in your prayers. She is typical in so many ways of the Filipino American experience that it’s somehow fitting her life serves to remind us that this is Filipino American History Month.

Note: Credit watchers will note my name comes up in the final seconds of the Ling episode. I was interviewed several times by phone, mostly on what I’ve written about the Chin case.

Listen to my Emil Amok Live/Shows 155 and 156 where I talk about this column and these issues, including the race emails of John Gruden. I’m live at 2p Pacific on my Facebook page, and YouTube channel, Also on Twitter @emilamok.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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