Illuminating what home means for a global community of Filipinos
Adrian De Leon, assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity, joined USC Dornsife in 2019. He teaches Asian American studies and serves on the steering committee for the Center for Transpacific Studies. (Photos: Courtesy Adrian De Leon.)

Illuminating what home means for a global community of Filipinos

USC Dornsife historian and poet Adrian De Leon traces the histories of the Filipino diaspora across continents all the while exploring the meaning of home. [5½ min read]
ByMichelle Boston

Adrian De Leon’s love for the neighborhood where he grew up runs deep.

“Anyone who has known me long enough knows I won’t stop talking about my hometown,” he says. “So here we go.” 

Born in Manila in the Philippines, De Leon, assistant professor of American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, was raised in Scarborough, Ontario, a multicultural neighborhood on the east side of Toronto. 

It’s a part of town that often gets disparaged, De Leon explains. “But there’s also a great artistic and literary cultural movement that’s been going on for years.” Talk show host Lilly Singh is a native of Scarborough, as are comedian and Saturday Night Live alum Mike Myers and Grammy-winning musician The Weeknd.

It’s a place where De Leon carved out his sense of self. He attended elementary school through college in the city, and it’s where his parents established a martial arts studio when they arrived in Canada, creating an informal Filipino community center.

“For a neighborhood that is mainly working- and lower-middle class, and made up of recent immigrants, my parents wanted to do something as a community service that was also about cultural education,” says De Leon, who was first a student and later a teacher of martial arts there.

The studio became a space where first-generation Filipino immigrants and their children could go every Saturday to learn the art of stick fighting and self-defense, but also about Filipino history and culture, he said.

As a scholar, De Leon spends a good deal of time thinking about home. What it means to be from somewhere, why people may leave their homes and how to tell the histories of people from a certain place. His research focuses on the Filipino diaspora, inspired by his experiences growing up.

“I became a student and a teacher of Filipino cultural history because of the community service initiative that my mom and dad started,” he says. “I became an ethnic studies teacher way before I even knew there was a thing called ethnic studies.”

Tracing Filipino histories across oceans

After earning his bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Toronto Scarborough, De Leon pursued a Ph.D. in history, focusing on Filipino migrant labor in the 19th and 20th centuries from the Northern Philippine hinterlands.

Millions of Filipinos move overseas in search of work and opportunities, making their homes in the United States, Canada, throughout Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere. For his thesis, De Leon asked, how do you chronicle the history of people who have a connection to a country that they no longer live in? 

Prior to moving to Los Angeles, De Leon (center wearing black), taught martial arts at his parents’ Toronto-area studio.

“I wanted to rethink what it means to write about Filipino American history from the margins of the Philippines itself, but also think about who counts and who doesn’t count in the narrative,” he said.

De Leon was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to support his research, taking him to libraries and institutions in the Philippines, Spain and throughout the U.S., including Seattle, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Chicago, Honolulu, San Francisco and New York City.

“The archives for the Filipino diaspora are as dispersed as the people themselves,” he said.

 His work connected him with a community of Indipinos — people of Indigenous and Filipino heritage — on Bainbridge Island, west of Seattle just across Puget Sound. He’s been working on various historical research projects with the group. 

Most recently, he has been researching American and Canadian contemporary issues of tribal disenrollment — the process by which a person loses citizenship within a Native American tribe — for people with mixed First Nations and Filipino ancestry.

“I’m interested in the history of relationships forged in the face of imperialism and settler colonialism, how states attempt to use those intimacies to dispossess colonized peoples, and how such people continue to love and live together amidst this duress,” he says. 

From Scarborough to L.A. 

De Leon works on various historical research projects with the Indipino community on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

De Leon joined the faculty at USC Dornsife in 2019. He teaches Asian American studies and serves on the steering committee for the Center for Transpacific Studies, which coordinates the research and teaching activities of faculty whose scholarship focuses on people, cultures and ideas that move across the Pacific.

In the fall, he’ll be teaching a course that he developed in response to the current global pandemic and the unfortunate wave of xenophobia that has resulted, which has mainly been directed toward Asians and Asian Americans. Students in the course “Asian America in the Wake of COVID-19” (AMST 220) will examine racist microaggressions toward Asians in historical context, with a focus on anti-racist education. They will also be mentored by an Emmy-award winning Asian American documentary filmmaker Dolly Li on how to research and produce a podcast on a related topic that they choose, which will be their final project.

“It’s a very hands-on approach, and I emphasize here my pedagogical mission to show how practical ethnic studies is,” De Leon says.

Writing takes many forms

In addition to being a historian, De Leon is also a poet and an essayist. He writes about food, history, culture and, of course, Scarborough. 

His first collection of poems, Rouge (Mawenzi House, 2018), commemorates a mass shooting that took place in the city in 2012. He is currently co-editing the literary anthology FEEL WAYS (Mawenzi House), coming out in September, which features contributions from Scarborough writers meditating on their city. 

De Leon is also producing a multimedia and multidisciplinary project through TOK Magazine in Toronto called Gentrification and the Arts, which will connect artists, critics and writers from cities across North America to address urban justice.

Next year, he is slated to publish a new collection of his own poetry titled barangay, which explores Filipino kinship across oceans and continents. Barangay in Tagalog has a few meanings — it is an outrigger boat and it is the basic unit of Philippine social life. It’s also a way to describe one’s hometown.

“I keep coming back to the idea of what it means to make your home in different places,” De Leon says. 

De Leon, center, and other writers in his creative community at the book launch for his poetry collection Rouge in 2018.

De Leon may be eager to talk about where he’s from but he’s also excited to shine a light on Filipino history, which doesn’t always get as much attention in academia as other Asian cultures. He has a recommendation for those who would like an introduction.

De Leon suggests starting with Little Manila Is in the Heart by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon. The book traces the history of what was one of the largest Filipino communities outside of the Philippines. For much of the 20th century, Little Manila in Stockton, California, was a vibrant neighborhood and also connected the community to the agricultural economy of the region.

“It’s a great introduction to the experience of the Filipino American community,” he says.