Interview with Gayle Romasanta

Rocky & Izzy Delano Ca Farm fields

Rocky Rivera is an artist and journalist from San Francisco. She recently performed at the Journey for Justice book tour kick-off in Delano and interviewed one of its authors, Gayle Romasanta, on the shared significance of the book, their friendship with Professor Dawn Mabalon, and the impact of Manong Larry Itliong’s legacy to their children and next-generation of Filipino-Americans. You can listen to her recent album, “Rocky’s Revenge”, on iTunes and follow her journey on Instagram. Be on the lookout for her upcoming book as she reflects on ten years of being a Filipina-American rap artist from the Bay Area. Check out the Journey for Justice Book Tour in a city near you!

One of the last messages I got from Dawn was a Facebook DM that asked me to share a Kickstarter link to her children’s book about Filipino labor organizer, Larry Itliong, Journey for Justice. “Of course” I said, reposting and tagging her on my handles. I waited eighteen long years to learn about Manong Larry, as I took Asian American Studies classes at San Francisco State in the early aughts. It was the first time I learned about the history of my people in the place that we migrated, not some distant fact romanticized on Pinoy Pride shirts during Fiesta Pilipina. The last time I saw her, she was helping Allyson fix my indigenous headpiece on the set of Ruby Ibarra’s “Us” video, looking up the Dugso dance it originated from on her phone and handing a bobby pin, one a time, to Allyson as she affixed it to my stingy little bun. My six-month pregnant belly bulged out and heaved a laugh every time it toppled over a little, prompting more jokes from the three of us, as we pondered how indigenous women affixed this heavy piece to their heads pre-Sally Beauty Supply. Evelyn Obamos (who was shooting behind-the-scenes) hovered nearby with her camera, capturing what would be our last laughs together, and honestly, the most time we had ever spent together, laughing hysterically in the bowels of a high school gym.

Rocky, Izzy, & Kahlil at the Delano Ca Filipino Community Center

When I was invited to perform in Delano for the book tour kick-off, I knew that it was my turn to honor their work with my work – in my case a rap performance with songs that described my search for racial identity in America as a first-generation Pinay. The songs I chose were not the party anthems or “pussy power” songs I usually am known for – this was not the occasion. The songs I chose were my own musings on a Filipina-American upbringing, a shout-out to the women organizers that came before me in “Heart”, where I changed the lines for Delano and shouted out Dawn, and in “‘Round We Go” bemoaned the new administration that discriminated against those, (like Manong Larry) who picked in the the Delano fields. We were bringing the whole family and I made sure that we could be at the historic Delano Community Center by golden hour, so we could take a family picture there, and in the vineyards. At the rest stops beforehand, we marveled at the distance between Stockton and Delano, and how far it was they had to walk during the grape strike, how difficult it must have been to organize the towns and laborers along the way, with no social media or first world problems of organizing today. My son Kahlil read Journey for Justice to his sister Izzy, and cute family photo op-be-damned it was a long and dense book that took weeks to finish. No cutesy pictures or pared down baby talk. When I performed “Heart” onstage, my son told me that my delivery was different that day and that he welled up in the audience listening.

Rocky: Is this your first children’s book?

Gayle: This is my second book. My first book, Beautiful Eyes, an English/Tagalog children’s book, was published by Meritage Press in 2012. It’s a book that helps caregivers and children understand and know that their Filipino selves is beautiful. It was voted by the San Francisco Unified School District board of trustees as curriculum for Pre-k-2 grade at targeted elementary schools. I am so grateful to PEP for including this book in the curriculum!

Rocky: What was the process like creating it? 

Gayle: Journey for Justice production was fast. But it was also one filled with love and collaboration. Andre (Dre) Sibayan, Dawn B. Mabalon, and I have been working together for over 20 years. Dawn was my comedy partner when we were in our early 20s and our memories of Little Manila and Stockton go way back. We are both Stockton and manong raised. All three of use spent our 20s in the original Bindlestiff Studio on 6th street for the better part of the late 90s and 2000s creating art. I was a writer/violinist, Dawn was my comedy partner, Dre was an illustrator and was in one of the original films Bindlestiff Studio artists put together. I eventually became an artistic director and still worked in the same community work as Dawn and Dre. I have worked on many productions in my lifetime. This was one of those special processes, where there wasn’t any ego or arguing or bad vibes. It was three friends and three professionals who knew their work and finished it without drama. We came out even more as family. We finished the book and sent the hard copy proofs on the morning that Dawn passed away. We were all working daily because we were on deadline. I remember we woke Dawn up because we were wrapping up and she was in Kauai. We did a check off list and then we were like, “Yeah!! We’re done”. And then she went snorkeling. It was poetic and very sad, but I am grateful that it was Dre who delivered the news to me and then Allyson on that devastating day, August 10, 2018.

Illustration by Andre Sibayan

Rocky: How was it collaborating on this book with Dawn?

Gayle: To be truthful, it was hilarious and just sisters and a brother working on our work. It was like old times when we were in our 20s, but this time we were professionals and knew what we were doing and everything was strategic. On top of this book, we had to think about financing it, so we all together worked on the book campaign to get it funded. That was exhausting, but it brought on another level of strategy that we all weathered together. Dawn and I went to the same preschool, although not the same years. I lived in Little Manila when I was a toddler. During the writing of the book, she found information about my mom at the UFW (United Farm Workers) archives in a letter and petition she sent Cesar Chavez as the farmworkers’ doctor in Little Manila at the Bayanihan house, Stockton, in the 70s. My brother and sisters and I had no idea that my mom was a practicing doctor in the states. We only knew her as a homemaker. My mother doesn’t remember any of this, she is in her 80s and losing her memory. So it’s instances like this that make Dawn and her work so valuable. She uncovers histories and the truths that our people and our families didn’t deem important. But she sheds light on that truth and makes us all know that our voices and stories are important and we are all one. We are in this together if we are all listening to each other. Working with her was easy and so lovely. She would have written a 100 page book if I let her. Lol. One of my jobs was to make sure she stopped rewriting what we did. We went through 25-30 drafts of Journey before we had to stop because of our deadlines.

Rocky: Why do you think this was an important part of her legacy?

Gayle: I was afraid at first she would say no to this project, because it took her awhile to get back to me. She was busy. She was in the city, and I was in Stockton raising my two kids and pregnant with twins. I have been publishing and writing for over 20 years, and Dawn was going around the country talking about history. We were deep friends, but we were doing what adults do, handle their business of life and keep going. This project was a passion project. Did we still have time for passion projects? Passion projects don’t feed families. But I think one thing to know about Dawn is that she was always about passion projects. The probability of a Pinay from Stockton becoming a professional historian reads “passion project” all over it. She was and always will be to me a person who was passionate about her community our history, and bringing us all up with her, and where she brought her seat at the table. She wanted all of us to be at that table with her. But we got together in 2016 and we talked it out and she agreed. We both agreed we had to do this independently and quickly before someone did this and did it incorrectly. We also had to do it the right way, without a mainstream publisher telling us what to do. So I created the publishing house and we set the parameters of the work as we worked and got through the funding campaign on 2017 – 4 books on Filipino American historical figures for our youngest students and Larry Itliong was the first. I think this is important part of her legacy because if it wasn’t for her research, we wouldn’t know what a true historian does for our children’s books. Anyone can put together a history. But it is a true historian who can be there, at that time, breathing in their research, living and breathing their timelines and historical documents. It is because of Dawn that we have this book about Larry Itliong and with her loss we are forced to understand that we need the humanities as a community to raise more historians, artists, writers and critical thinkers in our community. It is this specific book, her last book she gifted to us. It is accessible to everyone. It’s an all ages book and not just for students 10-15. I think this book is her in a nutshell, passion, history, and determined and strategic. This project was all of that.

Rocky: Children’s books are sometimes overlooked as seeds of change for young readers to discover their history, tell me why this was the right time to release.

Gayle: I would say it was the perfect storm at the time. There was ethnic studies happening – at the state level, the creation of the model curriculum for ethnic studies was approved to move forward and had to be completed by 2020 (AB 2016). Also there was AB 123 that Assembly member Rob Bonta, the first Filipino American assembly member wrote, that paved the way for the work. Bonta wrote the bill and it was signed into law that strongly suggests to all California public schools that they need to recognize the contributions of Filipino Americans and other ethnicities/immigrants when teaching the farm labor movement. So we have state policies/law supporting this movement of institutionalizing Filipino American history at the school level, but there are no books. So it was definitely something for me as an artist and mother that saw this as a void. Mainstream America and text book publishers are ignoring us. Then we have to do this ourselves. Our elected officials are bringing in ethnic studies to the forefront along with our communities demanding it, but we ourselves as a Filipino American community haven’t demanded this of publishers. Or if we have, it’s fallen on deaf ears. Technologically, DIY is feasible these days in publishing, so it was a perfect storm of events and perfect timing for the three of us, Dre, Dawn and I to do this very quickly, under two years.

Illustration by Andre Sibayan

Rocky: This book is illustrated but text-heavy, can you explain the choice not to create a more simplified version of Larry Itliong’s history?

Gayle: Dawn had so much information, she would have written more if I let her. Lol. And she wanted to be so correct and precise in what story was being told. As she says in her author’s note by way of a Philip Vera Cruz quote, “we need the truth more than we need heroes.” 40+ years after the death of Larry Itliong and there still wasn’t a book about him. To Dawn, that would be like if African Americans didn’t know who Martin Luther King, Jr. was or what Selma was about. How did we let that happen? She had so much to share about Larry’s story, so we agreed to a page count. As long as we were within page count, we were good, two-three paragraphs per page. Dawn wanted to write more, but we had to stick to page count due to budget. She was working on the college version of her book at the same time. So we could have simplified it even more, but we definitely felt that our children could handle this information and it was aligned to Common Core state standards.

Rocky: Why is ethnic studies important to learn?

Gayle: As one of my dear friends says, Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, founder/director of Pin@y Educational Partnerships, ethnic studies saves lives. It is as simple and multi-layered as that. Ethnic studies lets students know that they are part of American history, their stories are important and they were part of solutions. So that they can go back into their own communities and become engaged citizens, contributors to healthy, problem solving communities, and families. To see yourself in story as a child opens the door to a world where our students are at the center of these stories and not on the margins looking in.

Illustration by Andre Sibayan

Rocky: What other stories would you like to see as children’s books?

Gayle: I would love to see more young adult books with our people at the center of it. More fantastical stories with our children at the center. I read so many books and I think of all of these best sellers and I wonder, what if that child who is the heroine/hero was a Filipino? Why can’t they be Filipino? I am a big fan of fantasy, and also books like Game of Thrones  – read all of the books. But the books were more diverse than what is portrayed on the TV series. I’m irritated that some of the characters on the show are not people of color, because their description in the book are people of color. What the heck? Of course I shouldn’t be surprised. But that tells me as a writer and publisher, fantasy needs to come next … I would love for us as a community to finally see ourselves in science fiction.

Rocky: Can you tell us about any future projects?

Gayle: Be on the lookout for our next children’s book about Dawn. It will be written by Dr. Allyson Tintiangco Cubales  and illustrator is Ricky Nierva formerly of Pixar (Worked on Up, Nemo, Monsters Inc, Bao, and more). We want to take our time on this one, so hope to see it within the next 24 months. We’ll keep you all posted! A few other books are on the horizon, but we’ll keep you all posted on www.bridgedelta.com Also PEPSF, Allyson, and three of her teachers (Aldrich Sabac, Aileen Pagtakhan, Daisy Lopez) created an amazing teachers guide for Journey for Justice. It helps teachers/caregivers with their lesson plans surrounding Journey. You can it on our site or on http://www.pepsf.org/.

Next book dates here.