I cannot change the fact that my parents, who were born and raised in the provinces of Nueva Ecija and Pangasinan, left the Philippines in search of a better life and the American Dream.
I cannot change the fact that my skin is brown, my eyes are brown, or that my hair is black.
I cannot change the fact that I was born in the United States.
Actually, I would not change a thing because what an amazing life has been given to me. I have been living in the Philippines for a year and a half now and I want to share the positivity and the opportunities that are happening here. I have been asked many times what can Filipino Americans do to give back? Rather than just sending balikbayan boxes of chocolate, hygiene products, old clothes and old shoes, I tell them to bring back what they learned in life.
Filipinos Americans are products of those dreamers who came to the United States in search of opportunities. Their children must be enabled to share their knowledge back in the Philippines.
For those who want to stay in the Philippines, like myself, I have to keep renewing a tourist visa every month. Even the Bureau of Immigration told me to apply for dual citizenship and I am always disappointed to share that I was denied. So if my blood, heart, and soul are Filipino and I am contributing to building a new Philippines, why is it difficult for me to claim my Filipino citizenship?
During my career as a hairstylist and makeup artist for film and theatre, freelancing encouraged me to travel outside of San Diego. It took me to Los Angeles, and eventually New York City. Things were fantastic! I made it to New York! I was living life! But that was dream shattered the day that my dad called me from his hospital bed in San Diego, and told me that he loved me before he would not be able to say that to me ever again.
I flew home the next day and I got to see him. He told everyone that he did not want to die alone in the hospital, so we set up hospice and took him home the day after. He died that evening after years of battling cancer.
How ironic that I am writing this on his birthday.
At his funeral I watched a beautiful military ceremony, I saw them fold up the American flag and hand it over to my mom, and then I watched the casket lower into the ground. If this moment was about celebrating life and dreams, was I living the life that my Filipino immigrant parents imagined for me?
The answer was no. I was a college graduate, working as a freelance artist, and something was missing. I didn’t know what it was, but all I knew was that I needed to go to the Philippines.
My first time to the Philippines was in 2011. That volunteer trip was so profound and healing because I met people who looked like me and I met my relatives for the first time. I went back the following year to volunteer again. I wanted to go a third year, but instead got the opportunity to be a part of a fellowship where I taught in a public school in Metro Manila for a school year. This was not a vacation anymore, this was not a volunteer trip to the Philippines, I was living and working in Quezon City, in Balintawak to be exact. I was able to experience what life was like for everyone in the area, which included my students, their families and some teachers. The area was dirty, smelly, dark, and unsafe. Even after I was hospitalized because of Dengue Fever, I did not want to leave the Philippines, because I knew I had work to do.
I wanted to learn more about poverty, I wanted to get to the root of the problem. Then I found the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm, and learned about a solution to poverty itself: raise entrepreneurs and innovators. This was the place I needed to be, this was the place that I was going to make an impact. I became a fulltime volunteer and chose not to do the second year of my fellowship.
On August 11, 2014 we opened SEED Philippines: School for Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development. We have 45 scholars that graduated from public high schools in Bulacan and are now starting their college education. They will become social entrepreneurs in agriculture, food processing, culinary arts, and hospitality and tourism. These students will be the future leaders in this country.
“They will be producers, not consumers, and they will be job creators, not job seekers” -‐Tony Meloto
I followed my heart in pure faith that I could contribute to making dreams come true and to building a better Philippines. My reality is that I cannot be legally recognized as a co-‐founder of this school because I am not a Filipino citizen. I am not allowed to be hired or get paid because I am not a Filipino citizen. I have to leave the country or extend my visa every 30 days because I am not a Filipino citizen. By December 2014, I would have used up all my savings and return to the United States. Even the French government has a program that pays the salaries of volunteers abroad. Why is it difficult for someone who has family roots in the Philippines, who is actually contributing to a better Philippines…be denied Filipino citizenship?
Today, I am still trying. There has to be away. If you have the opportunity to be a dual citizen, do it before the laws are changed or updated.
Thank you for letting me share my story. My name is Leslie Ferrer Espinosa.