By Nafeesah Allen
Marlo de Lara’s photo should appear next to the word “intersectional” in this century’s cultural encyclopedia. The Filipina-American is currently a 2021 Intercultural Leadership Institute Fellow, one of just two dozen people selected for a year-long intensive leadership experience for artists, culture bearers and other arts practitioners.
Born in Baltimore, De Lara received a PhD in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds and an MA in Psychosocial Studies at the Centre of Psychoanalytic Studies at Essex. Her arts practice works within the realms of sound performance, visual distraction, and film. Like most academics of the arts, she wears many professional hats: a Filipina-American Scholar at the Asian Arts and Culture Center at Towson University, a Sound Artist with Ladyz in Noyz, a founder and co-convener of a special interest group at the British Academy of FIlm, Television, and Screen Studies, and more.
With such worldly experience, she shares thoughts on how Filipinx culture has shaped her sense of diversity and the ways that BIPOC artivists can be uplifted, not undermined, by White allies.
NA: How would you describe Filipinx culture and its intersections between Asian and Latinx identities?
MDL: Filipinx culture can be problematically located within Latinx identities, as are most post-imperial postcolonial relationships. The location of the Philippines as the only Spanish colony within Asia is a point of pride for many Philippine elders. It is harmful as this is often deployed to create a sense of superiority toward other South East (SE) Asians. It registers along the lines of “look, we are house slaves and you all work in the field” to the other SE Asian countries. Also, the Philippines achieved independence from Spain, Japan, and the USA, so the association to the colonizers is still painful.
Within the larger story of migration and diaspora, enslaved Filipinxs escaped from Spanish galleons in the gulf of Mexico and set up communities in Louisiana and along the US Gulf Coast. One could say this movement contributed to the intersectional identity formation in this area of the US and US Creole subjectivities.
Then, there’s the sociological view that within the US today, Filipinx are more similarly positioned to both Latinx and Black populations, as opposed to Asian ones. Kevin Nadal speaks a good deal about this. Filipinx tend more towards interracial/intercultural families and are generally folded into Black/Latinx cultures.
NA: Where and how did you grow up?
MDL: I am from Baltimore, MD. I grew up within a baryo or Filipinx community that held those cultural cues. My childhood was different from my parents in many ways but more specifically we were encouraged to deny Filipinx cultural norms that were not embraced in the American meritocracy. We were taught to uphold the “model minority” myth. You can see this through the loss of indigenous language among second generation Filipino-Americans (FilAms), our parents often omitted teaching children to speak our dialects. It is common not to speak a word of the national dialect, Tagalog or Filipino.
Additionally, the location of my baryo within Baltimore had many of us engaging within the racial binaries of the city. So, sure you are Filipinx, but the follow up question, whether implicitly or explicitly, was are you Black or White? For many many reasons, including possibly being a dark-skinned child within a colorist culture and being creatively inclined to certain art forms, I grew up in concert with the Black cultures of Baltimore.
NA: How do you define yourself professionally? What are the different activities and circles where you feel most validated?
MDL: Academic/artist/activist. I feel seen in the whole “artivist” terminology evolution and I experiment with that from time to time. I also end up with “musician/composer” because I do come from musical training that surfaces in my sound art. I also am aligned with “feminist” because of my politics and I think quite frankly I don’t generally prefer the company of heteronormative men. I associate and socialize almost entirely with women and preferably women of color. So, within these sister circles I feel most validated. These sister circles can be purely academic, arts-oriented, social justice focused, or queer. But that is where I feel most validated.
NA: As an educator, what are some of the opportunities that you hope the next generation has that you didn’t?
In my earliest days as an artist activist thinker, we did not have the internet in the same ways. As a riot grrl/punk, I found it difficult to find community beyond my region. Nowadays the ease of finding communities online can fast track actions. Logistics can be managed with less difficulty and the early stages of finding your people doesn’t need to be a barrier. So, I hope my students follow through with that intention, keep compassion, and inject humanness into these initiatives that can establish global internet pathways.
NA: As people think more broadly about engaging with BIPOC artists and activists, what advice would you give to allies who may not understand how to elevate authentic voices inside academia and the creative arts?
Abolish the white gatekeeper culture. I think all we have to do is look at the formation of the “well-intentioned white person” to unpack this. What ticks someone over into being seen as an ally/advocate/co-conspirator (as opposed to a nice, innocuous, white person)? I think it is essential to own one’s positioning and ancestral legacy to harm, while still engaging with reparative actions. Along the lines of recognizing whiteness and investigating privilege in being able to opt out of racial conflicts, it is important to avoid being the white shepherds of BIPOC artists and activists. You can’t amplify if you continue to use white supremacist capitalistic patriarchal structures in your actions of support: curations, cohorts, and activism. Seeing those structures and mentalities persist is really the most hurtful.
Nafeesah is a freelance writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She graduated cum laude from Barnard College in 2006, earned a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University in 2009, and completed the postgraduate program in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India in 2013. Nafeesah received her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2019.