Stefanie Nuez Beran
Ms. Liza Erpelo
Engl 165 AK
December 15, 2005
Return from the Dark side
Mel is a native Filipino son of Vallejo and he sees himself as a cultural activist and a cultural consultant. He defines himself in this way due to the work he does through his job as a writer, photojournalist, and lecturer. His works are culturally promoting Filipino culture, rights and Filipino American history. Mel also promotes and teaches PYC (Pilipino Youth Coalition) students Filipino American history, culture, have how to fight for their rights with this young activist group. Mel is not the first Filipino activist.
Before Mel Orpilla there was Sumi Sevilla Haru. In May 2004, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute talked about the life and struggles of this actress, poet, producer, journalist and activist. Like Mel her programs target youth and at-risk youth through her variety show Se Habla Everything and her improving drama program. Ms.Haru was born in New Jersey in 1939. She refused to play roles that perpetuate stereotypes or false accents. When it came to public affairs Ms. Haru was a host and producer of a public affairs program at KTLA, Channel 5 in Las Angeles. She appeared on the show twice a week. Her Activist work focused on affirmative action in performing arts. Most of her arguments focused on European Americans who were cast to play Asian Americans. “This was critical not only for our employment as actors but also in displaying a true picture of America for the public […]”, Ms. Haru was quoted in Freedom for all, a Nation we call our Own. This was a series of pamphlets that was published by the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institution. There were other Filipino activist before Mel Orpilla but surprisingly I never knew there were Filipino activists or activist as a whole up until this semester.
I had no clue about activism.. The only thing I though activism was protests that were held in San Francisco. My parents always had a negative view on protesting and always told me the possible horrors protesting can bring. I was never exposed to activism or so I thought until college. Before college my closest experience to activism was picketing with my dad in front of Safeway and a walk out during my senior year of high school. I didn’t know that acts of activism are as varied as mediums of art.
Mel Orpilla invited me over to his home where I interviewed him and his wife Belle. I conducted the interview in their dinning room of their suburban Vallejo home. Hanging on the walls were photos Mel had photographed of the Igorots and other native people of the Philippines. We talked about his past and occupation , Belle’s past and occupation, their work with Vallejo’s youth and the community over fresh brewed coffee
and home cooked fried bananas. With every answer the Orpillas gave I would respond by rephrasing and asking questions to clarify. Sometimes Belle would ask Mel questions that would help clarify even further. At the end of the interview I reviewing the audio recordings and came to the conclusion the Mel Orpilla has his passion directed to the work of activism and empowering youth to activism. But also another question came to mind, why would a man who was born and raised in America invest his energy in activism?
Looking at Mel now you would think that he was like most other Filipino kids growing up bring home good grade that never dipped below a “B” average but in actually Mel was the polar opposite of this Filipino standard. Mel was a third generation born and raised in Vallejo. Growing up in Vallejo which was primarily a naval town everyone knew everyone else. The families reached out to their neighbors and made new family extended ties. To the children every Filipino woman in town was their Tita or aunt and every man in town was their Tito or Uncle. The men worked at Mare Island and families went to church on Sundays. Everyone in town were blue collared workers that made just enough to fill their family’s needs. The demographic of Vallejo started to changed in the 1960.
The 60’s brought a new wave of Filipinos to Vallejo. The Filipinos moving in at this time were families that were able to live comfortably. Their children wore nice clothes but that didn’t matter to the other children that were already living there but there were other things that bothered the native children of Vallejo. Mel recounts his first heartache of discrimination, “That was the first time I experienced an ism, and it was classism from my own people and it wasn’t from the children , it was from the parents.” This made fitting in
harder for the young Filipinos of Vallejo.
“We didn’t have TFC or Filipinas Magizine , PYC or anything like that to build a reputation. […] We made a reputation by being bad,” Mel was retelling the lack of cultural influence he had and the beginning of his path down a dark path. Mel began to abuse drugs, not just weed but toxic drugs that will latter cause him to feel guilty. “Drugs were plentiful and cheep back then,” Mel begins to describe the beginnings of the drug abuse. In his earlier stages of his habit the drugs would be supplied by the older brothers of his friends. Mel became a young dad and had to care for two sons. His first son genetically took the brunt of Mel’s early and destructive drug abuse. Mel’s son, Tony was born albino with no melanin in his skin. It was Tony’s birth and incredulous remarks from the community that made him change.
Mel felt guilty for Tony’s condition knowing that it was directly his fault. And the community constantly put him down for being a teen dad. “It just drove me […] I wanted to prove them wrong,” Mel was remembering what motivated him to go to college. His grades were less than par and he too his SATs after he smoked pot. But he received a high score and was able to continue to Sacramento State. Leaving his councilor and mentor, who was a pinay teen mom, at Solano Community College behind. He would always acknowledge is role models in lectures and books. He carries on what his mentors started with him, helping young people and teaching the community.
Mel had authored the grant to help teen parents go back to school and provide child care for their children. “I probably wouldn’t have done what I have done if I wasn’t a teen
dad. […]”, Mel was explaining the reason behind writing the teen pregnancy prevention plan. He’s also helped youth to empower them and become active in their community through PYC. PYC is not just available to Vallejo but also in other communities as well.
Romeo Garcia by day is a graduate who tutors the Kababyan students of Skyline College with critically thinking essays. But twice a week he meets with a group of high school kids in the Jefferson School District and helps them realize the leadership skills each participant has. PYCDC shows their community support by holding fundraising events and poetry slams sometimes called open mic. But before all the PYCs existed and
before there was an Ethnic study in the College system, there was San Francisco State pushing for curriculum that was more relevant.
In 1968, San Francisco State students were protesting about the irrelevant curriculum the College was teaching them. In protest the students held demonstration that ranged from picketing and sit-ins to building break-ins. The issue of the poor curriculum and racial discrimination rallied all the minority clubs and organizations the school had at the time. The organizations drew up a list of non-negotiable demands they wanted the school to comply with. But after a confrontation between students and police the campus was closed and a student was suspended without due process. After this the AFT or the American Federation of Teachers local 1532 had picket line around the campus for student rights and teacher issues. With this the school created the School of Ethnic Studies providing victory for the strikers (Kihick).
Mel has done his share of protesting with PYC Vallejo. The most recent event from when I interviewd Mel and his wife was a candlelight vigil for the Filipino war
veterans in front of Sea Food City (a predominate market that inclusive to the mall.) Mel and a Belle assisted the teens of Vallejo in the planning, attending and public exposure to their cause. I can honestly say that Mel is not your average Filipino man.
Mel has gone through so many struggles in his life. But the struggles he endured helped him understand the problem the young people go through in our generation. I can see the massive impact Mel Orpilla has had on the community of Vallejo. Mel is preserving the Filipino American history of Vallejo. In a way he is follow what writer Jose Rizal said about looking to the past to know were your future will go. Mel has looked back to his past and the past of other Filipinos. He has integrated the Filipino culture into his life and it displayed though the tattoos that depict his life and continuing teaching the youth through his works of activism. In a way Mel is like the elderly of Las Angeles who were talked about in the book that Cecilia Manguerra Brainard edited, Journey of 100 Years. The chapter talked about how the elderly women changed the tradition of the Flores De Mayo to suit their new home, America. Mel’s Tattoo is a shadowing of that. In the tribes of the Philippines a man can only get a tattoo if they take the head of their enemies. Mel has earned his tattoo by taking closed minds and giving them knowledge. The closed mind is Mel’s enemy and he fights this enemy every day. This is how the native Filipino son of Vallejo has earned his tattoo and has become the cultural activist and consultant he is today.
Brainard, Cecilia Manguerra. JOURNEY OF 100 YEARS. Anvil Publishing. Atlana. 1999.
Deffense Equal opportunity management institute. “Asian Ameriacan Pacific Heritage month” 2004. http://www.army.mil/asianpacificsoldiers/downloads/AP04-2.pdf
Kilhick, Russell.“ A History Of SF State”. 2005 http://www.sfsu.edu/~100years/history/long.htm
Orpilla, Mel and Belle. Personal Interview... October 30,2005