This essay is a commission published partnership with the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU’s A/P/A Voices: A COVID19 Public Memory Project for “COVID19 & Its Afterlives”. Learn more about the series here.
Dear Set :
Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with me from this past year. We completed this interview in August 2020, but recently, I returned to the recording and was surprised by how unfamiliar it felt to me—as if I was listening to it for the first time. It is now Fall 2021, a year and a half into the corona. Pandemic temporality is strange. We experience it in all its urgency and immediacy, as well as in its endless cycle of peaks and dips. But this sense of interminability is also because the coronavirus exists in and is exacerbated by a web of prolonged emergencies. Understanding the pandemic this way – as an emergency nested within a convergence of long existing crises – foregrounds the scale of change needed for a more possible, more livable world delinked from white supremacist capitalism. Yet, this long vision can feel beyond reach if we do not rebuild in ways that are local and felt. After all, freedom and liberation are relational practices we enact with and for each other, as well as the horizon we dream for and toward.
From the beginning of our conversation, you describe the pandemic as our experience of the present and what has been for a long while now. When I ask you about your immediate response to sheltering-in-place, you share, I didn’t think much about it. I think part of it is because as an undocumented person for the last decade, I’ve been navigating a lot of things already and this feels like just another one of them. I always tell people – not COVID-19 itself, but the shelter-in-place and the quarantine – it’s not the most difficult thing I’ve experienced in my life up to this date. During an invited lecture to my class several years ago at UC Riverside, you shared your immigration status alongside your creative work as a filmmaker with students – not to affirm the singularity of this legal construction, but to communicate your frustration with how your complex personhood is often delimited to “being undocumented.” You also share, for the first time in my life, I’m undocumented, but I’m not just undocumented. I’m also undocumented and a filmmaker and a storyteller. I’m also undocumented and queer. Here, you are gesturing to the depth and scale of harm produced by the settler state; yet you are also refusing to be held down by its carceral hold. In part, this refusal is potentiated by the multiplicity of your queer, migrant, and storytelling selves, which the law cannot control or tame. You share that queerness is so tightly bound with migrancy and storytelling that these exist at the heart of who you are and are becoming. Queerness emerges as the will, capacity, and courage to live perpendicular to a dominant world we’ve been told is the only way – when it is, in fact, only one way. It’s not to say that queerness is devoid of power asymmetries; but in its most subversive and generous forms, it resists alignment or “straightness” with the white settler nation. Migrancy, too, converges with queerness: as a mode of ongoing flight, it indexes the violent excesses of heteropatriarchal nationalism, as well as improvised strategies of escape, survival, and fugitive movement that the state is incapable of entirely tracking or containing.
This entwining of queerness with migrancy emerges in your documentary, COVER/AGE. The film depicts how domestic caregiving provided by undocumented Filipinx femme migrants like Emma is made invisible in the United States, while undocumented healthcare advocates of color, like Héctor, face profound precarities because of their transgender migrant embodiment. Yet, as femme and trans undocumented immigrants struggling in and against white capitalist heteropatriarchy, they are also fighting for the worlds they want to love, breathe, and live in. And Emma’s and Héctor’s fights for accessible healthcare are not attempts to assimilate into the settler nation. Rather, they are emergent strategies of care that immigrants provide for each other when the state falls short (which is always). By sharing this, I do not want to erase or romanticize the systemic challenges that Emma and Héctor face in their everyday lives. In fact, your film foregrounds the costs of caregiving and the ways this labor exacerbates depletion and depression. This resonates with the ways you describe your recent experiences, too, since the desire to provide care is compromised by the exhaustion that comes with survival. It is difficult to really know how to support in the most meaningful way when you’re also figuring out how to survive. I offer these observations because your film demonstrates the harm and violence enacted against caregivers who provide the labor, support, and care necessary for the world to function – and yet, their own access to quality healthcare, security, and safety is constrained by a state that considers them unworthy of citizenship. Much too often, caring for others in the face of austerity is either simplified as an altruistic act detached from systemic inequities, or as an autonomous “choice” we make for our own survival since the powers-that-be tell us we cannot take care of ourselves and others.
Queerness, migrancy, and storytelling are also integral to the burgeoning spaces you are forging with other undocumented filmmakers of color. While you are a part of different collectives, you speak at length about the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective (UFC), where undocumented cultural workers “are not only sources of stories but are the creators, artists, and primary audience members.” What makes this collective really beautiful is that we’re still grounded in the fact that we just wanted to hang out originally. And that’s what we’re still doing most of the time. Yes, there is work, but if someone doesn’t do the work, it’s not the end of the world for us… The film world is so competitive, but one of our values is elevation, not competition where abundance is real and capitalism and white supremacy is what tells us that scarcity is how the world operates. For us, in conjunction with other BIPOC filmmakers, what we’re pushing for is: we don’t need to compete against each other. How can we support each other instead?
Your description of the UFC brings to life an anti-capitalist feminist praxis of abundance that disrupts the racist sexist logic of scarcity, which is always telling us there is only so much and so little. And “production” is never the point. Rather, it is the sustenance of friendships that nourish the magic and healing capacity of creativity. Through the stories you tell me, the love you feel for the UFC is so palpable: you laugh and cry as you describe the eight-hour Zoom calls that stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Friends remain online even as they sleep or take breaks, because no one wants to be the first to leave. While you are sharing this, I briefly imagine what the university could be and feel like if it dared to operate from and with abundance, generosity, and for the lack of better words, kindness. In the absence of such a place, trusted co-conspirators and I create spaces where we can share and celebrate each other’s work and writing, while also honoring our collective desire for slowness, rest, and unproductivity.
• • •
What does it mean to be a cultural producer during this time? Is there even a future for which to create culture? What is your and my place in a future cultural ecosystem if there is no general ecosystem to even exist in? When I listen to this segment, I attune to the when and where of our interview. August 2020. Hot and parched California. On some days, the sky is colored by the smoky greys and incandescent reds of hungry fires that jump freeways. On other days, it is a cerulean blue, the stuff of oceans, and I feel like everything will be okay. Two weeks following our interview, the Bobcat Fire engulfed the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, twelve miles north of where my family and I live. For several months, the air became so unbreathable that our pandemic masks functioned as improvised shields protecting our lungs from the toxic particles falling from the sky— the ashy snowflakes of summer.
In returning to this memory of billowing smoke, my mind veers to the science fiction work of Octavia Butler and her Parable series. A writer-seer, Butler portends a future where social catastrophe is inseparable from climate catastrophe. While she wrote these stories throughout the 1990s in California, her portrayals of the 2020s are so accurate I find it eerie if not terrifying (right down to the election of no. 45!). We should remember, too, that Butler was writing during a time of destruction defined by the neoliberal dismantlement of the social welfare system; the accelerated (re)militarization of the US-Mexico border; the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising; the police’s targeting and murdering of Black people; and the passage of anti-immigration legislation in California. Yet, as much as Butler’s stories are of violence, they also show us how the committed act of writing can shape change and (earth)seed against an inevitable future. More than any other writer, Butler teaches me that creativity is essential for liberatory worldmaking because our imagination is inseparable from change and praxis: how can we shape a different world if we are unable to imagine it in all its beauty, wildness, verdancy, and vibrancy? This is especially true for those who are repeatedly told that there is no time, no resources, no energy, no use, no room, no breath, no possibility, no future. In this way, creativity and imagination are intimately enmeshed with the ways we care for and sustain each other during times that feel impossible – and not just for other humans, but for the air, land, water, minerals, animals, insects, and plants. During these ferocious times of floods, fires, and illness, creating with and for all of us in committed ways is a way of practicing hope.
• • •
Throughout our interview, we discuss how we’ve moved through and experienced the national uprisings triggered by the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. You share that these uprisings felt more real to you than sheltering-in-place because they challenged you to (re)consider your role in movements for racial justice. At some point, I ask you what it means for you to be in solidarity with Black communities. How do I be in solidarity? That is one way to think about it. I think that’s an umbrella question. For me, the way I think about it more specifically, is when I do show up in solidarity, what does that exactly look like? You know, like marching and protesting, and adding my voice, okay, sure, that’s helpful. But, also, as an organizer, I know that showing up is just one part of the picture. You show up for a reason, right? And you show up with intention and purpose. What is that intention and purpose for me? What is my role that I’m going to play when I show up?
This conversation provides an opening for us to share just how pivotal white supremacy, imperialism, occupation, and racial violence has been and continues to be in our lives and the lives of our families. This country was and will never be for us. Yet, this discussion also compels me to name the ways that anti-blackness shapes my Korean immigrant family and the ways we benefit from structural forms of violence that are experienced in wildly disproportionate ways. You clarify that solidarity is an ongoing practice that addresses how and why we benefit, as well as a collective enactment of accountability, redistribution, and mending that is situated and specific. Solidarity, in other words, is possible because, rather than despite, of difference: being specific about our location and the varied roles we play in a movement begins the process of reckoning with how our bodies are differently valued within a hierarchical system that metes out, in asymmetrical ways, life-and-death consequences. Solidarity is also a way of showing up for one another across a lifetime, rather than at a single protest or event. I feel like reflecting on how Black people have done so much for me, both in a personal level and a systemic level. The Undocumented Filmmakers Collective started because of the support of a lot of women of color, but in particular Black women in Firelight Media: Sonya Childress, Loira Limbal, Marcia Smith. Some of the folks in that space really championed us and really opened doors to include undocumented folks in this conversation around equity, particularly in the space of documentary. I think about how, in high school, Ms. Daniel… she hustled to get me to go to college before the California DREAM Act. Ms. Daniel is still a friend to this day. I keep in touch more with my teachers than with my friends in high school. Jenny, my friend, also in high school, co-conspired with Ms. Daniel in so many ways to help me. Jenny was a friend in high school… All these people that I named are Black women who have shown up for me in so many ways.
Naming is not the same as recognition, giving voice, or making visible. Naming is a relational practice of solidarity and an ancestral form of conjuring that acknowledges a community of dear ones, including the vanished, who make us possible. For me, the most cherished co-conspirators across my 41-year span are femmes of color, queers, non-binary folx, dissenters, and experimenters who compel me to write, activate, rest, and seek revelatory joy without reserve. Liz. Mari. Mimi. Susie. Ja Young. Janet. Joo. Katherine. Carisha. Eric. Anjali. Sarah. Hentyle. Dona. Emily. Jane Jin. Kin in the north. It feels vital to tend to and care for these names here.
• • •
Dear S: I move to closing my letter here, though I am hopeful that this will only be a beginning to our conversation. I feel fortunate to have had this time to sit with your words and to allow for a spaciousness that could not happen during the live-time of our interview – perhaps because our interview is an experience of compressed time that needs to unwind and unfold. Near the end of our interview, I ask about your given family and what your relationships are like with your mother, brother, and the aunties who raised you. You share stories about how your family’s love for each other materializes through cooking, eating, and improvised recipes of favorite dishes like liang (your mother makes a delicious vegan version of this). You also share stories of your ate, who took care of your brother and you in the Philippines while your parents worked abroad in Japan. Recently, you reunited with her virtually and the meeting made you mourn for the hardships she must have experienced these past two decades a domestic worker in the Philippines. But for now, I leave with a single word: pagmamahal. In Tagalog, there’s this word, pagmamahal. It’s translated as “love,” but actually “mahal” means love in Tagalog… Pagmamahal is like being loving or like the quality of being loving. So it’s not just love itself, but loving, warmth, and all these things coming together. I don’t know how to translate it to English. But that’s how my relation with my family, my mom and my siblings is.
While I am no longer wholly fluent in my first language, I can still feel the impossibility of translation because the resonance of Korean never carries over to English. For example, 눈치 and 정 are most alive when they exist in relationships and alongside body gestures, intonations, and facial expressions. From what you share here, this is also true of Tagalog. Pagmamahal. Being loving is the vital pulse, the gravitational pull, the centering force. Being loving is our refusal to turn away from those who have held us, even when things get really hard and we want to give up. Being loving is the permission we give ourselves to say no when yes can no longer hold the truth of who we are becoming. Though it hasn’t been easy, being loving is what has sustained me this past year and what has made it possible for me to breathe, create, and write.
Thank you, again, S, for being loving.
 This letter essay is dedicated to Set Hernandez Rongkilyo, whose brilliance and generosity knows no bounds. I quote extensively from my August 2020 interview with Set and their excerpts in this letter essay are italicized – thank you, Set, for permitting me to share your words with a reading audience. I am also indebted to the expansive work of the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective (https://alliedmedia.org/projects/undocumented-filmmakers-collective), which Set co-founded. Lastly, I am grateful for the slow, capacious, and deeply grounding collaborations that have fed me this past year, including with A/P/A Voices: A COVID-19 Public Memory Project. [RETURN TO READING]