Allan Aquino - Professor, Poet
Professor and Poet Allan Aquino is an educator at California State University, Northridge. He has taught Asian American Studies classes in Media, Fiction, Contemporary Issues, Immigration, and the Filipino American Experience, and is a purveyor of knowledge to generations of college students. Inspired by them, and surely an influence among them, Allan values witnessing students grow in their knowledge and confidence though their studies. He is an earnest poet (poetry being a life long passion), is working on a poetry chapbook and performs in art spaces around LA.
Where are you based?
I was born in Chicago but raised in the San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles, CA). I moved back to Panorama City, my boyhood town, two years ago. My other home, as it were, is California State University, Northridge (CSUN) where I work.
How did you create your career path? Did a career in higher education always interest you?
Though I was a less than average student in high school, my passion for higher education was sparked when I took my first Asian American Studies (AAS) class in the Fall of 1993 with Dr. Kenyon Chan. It was a defining experience that taught me an important lesson: people like me matter; people like me built and defined civilization; people like me, therefore, deserve respect and honor as much as everyone else.
Ethnic Studies, in its purest and broadest sense, is inclusive and ecumenical, inspiring one’s sense of place and purpose in the world. The AAS community at-large has always been driven by the virtues of knowledge, social justice, and mentorship. I am blessed to have had the greatest teachers, mentors, and colleagues one could ever hope for. My aspiration is to be that very kind of mentor for future generations. Heroes beget heroes, scholars beget scholars, and so on.
What are some of your areas of interest (in research, studies, life, hobbies)?
I began writing poems prolifically since 1992, long before I’d considered becoming an educator. My sense of poetics was the foundation of my graduate work at UCLA, and my own writing is inspired by lyricism in Philippine English, which I believe is a sentient and beautiful dialect. I naturally have a commensurate passion for Filipino American history and culture. I am, to be sure, and old-school “for the page” poet; though I lecture for a living, I have no credentials in traditional English Lit, and I have little proficiency in the more popular spoken word styles (which I greatly admire). My favorite poets include Bulosan, J.G. Villa, Neruda, Rilke, as well as living poets like Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Mike Sonksen, Karineh Mahdessian, Jeffery Martin, Luivette Resto, and Jenuine Poetess.
I am quite a pop culture geek - a film, fantasy, and music aficionado for as long as I can remember. Though I have true-life heroes like Larry Itliong and Prof. Dawn Mabalon, my personal saints, in a manner of speaking, include Batman (patron of orphans and the guilt-burdened), Jessica Jones (patron of addicts and trauma survivors), and Luke Skywalker (patron of idealists). I am, above all, sensitive about issues of representation in popular media. In summary, I often quote journalist Marc Bernardin: “Cultural specificity breeds universality”.
How much has poetry been a part of your life?
My grandmother Julita Gamalinda and my cousin Eric Gamalinda were poets and my first true literary inspirations. A number of my other cousins are journalists and fictionists. Creativity plainly runs in my family, but I believe poetry (cribbing Jose Garcia Villa) is the art of daily living. On the page, whether writing a poem or letter or lesson plan, I believe that words, no matter how profound or mundane, should exhibit a kind of musicality. (Why must language be boring, even in its “ordinary” state?) Though Prof. Villa would likely find my writing inferior and laughable (no hard feelings, mind you), I agree with his assertion that “a poem must sing”. I don’t consider myself exceptional by any means, and my perceived humility is never false. But I do have my sense of pride and dignity, and I bear it in every facet of how I express myself, whether through words or manners or wardrobe.
I write (cribbing Rilke, now) because I must. I’m not being pretentious. Poetry is that one right tool that makes sense to me. Asking me “why” I write is akin to asking why I breathe and think. Nature, dude. I’m not a great poet, but I’m an earnest and undeniable one.
Do you have any books or articles that you recommend for those interested in the Filipino American history and experience?
Seekers of knowledge would do well to look into works by scholars affiliated, officially and professionally, with the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS). I am glad that more literature on our communities is available now more than ever.
In speaking only for myself, the authors who’ve influenced me most deeply include Carlos Bulosan, Jose Garcia Villa, NVM Gonzalez, Nick Joaquin, Jessica Hagedorn, Eric Gamalinda, and Dorothy & Fred Cordova. The sum of all they’ve written, not just selected works, is the gravitational center of my mind.
Who/what has been instrumental in your personal growth? What do you love about the work that you do? How do you feel about instructing/advising the next generation of Fil Ams?
In addition to my colleagues, mentors, and aforementioned heroes (true-life and fictional), I must declare that my greatest influence is the students with whom I’ve shared my life. They embody our mutual lifelong dreams, and yet they constantly accomplish in ways bigger than I could imagine. And when they succeed by way of their best and truest selves, I’m reminded that I’m not delusional, that my romantic notions are real and powerful – and that’s the best thing a middle-aged fellow like me can hope for. As an orphaned only child, I long yearned to be a heroic kuyang; whether or not I fulfill that role is beyond my perview, but I can’t deny how heroic my students are for me. Thing is, they're not just my students. They're my greatest teachers.
At the risk of indulgence, here’s some personal thoughts I address to the teens-and-twenties crowd:
Everybody ages, but not everybody grows old. I have an aversion toward cliché, but the ideal that “you’re only as old as you feel” has weight. I believe you grow “old” the moment you renounce the sense of joy, hope, and idealism of your youth. You’re old when you throw away your toys, as if they were insignificant. You’re old when you look down upon those with less experience than you without empathy and respect. To quote one of my favorite U2 songs, “slow down, the end is not as far as the start / please stay a child somewhere in your heart”.
I feel that “success” must above all be defined by joy. One could have tremendous privilege and material comfort, but none of that means much amidst an absence of happiness and fulfillment. In other words, don’t pursue a career simply because you’ll think it’ll pay well and fulfill the hopes of others. Do you imagine yourself being happy with what you do decades from now? Do you dream of a calling such that you awaken before your alarm clock every morning because you’re eager to start your day? Then listen to your heart for once, rather than succumbing to the expectations of others - whether peers or, yes, family elders. Success demands hard work and sacrifice – that’s an irrefutable fact of nature. But if unhappiness is the ultimate compromise for “success”, consider investing hard work and sacrifice into things that make you genuinely happy.
As Grace Lee Bogs said, “we have to change ourselves in order to change the world.” A better world deserves your better self. Everything good deserves time and struggle. In the words of Prince Rogers Nelson, “Anything beautiful is worth getting hurt for” (that’s deep-cuts nerd stuff).
Whatever you do, I pray you stay young and find your joy. And always, always give back to the people who only looked down at you when they were lifting you up. Utang na loob is eternal.
Lastly, I want to drop my favorite quote by Manong Philip Vera Cruz: “If more young people could just get involved in the important issues of social justice, they would form a golden foundation for the struggle of all people to improve their lives.” In case you missed it earlier, utang na loob is eternal.
What are some of your favorite memories/moments in your career?
The joy of my career is defined by bearing witness. Countless times I’ve witnessed students whom I first meet as strangers develop and sharpen their minds, their ways of seeing the world, and the friendships they build among one another over the course of fifteen weeks of controlled interaction. Some of them become my lifelong friends who regard me firstly as “Kuya Allan” and not some guy they took a class with. I witness the young accomplish greatness, wearing genius on their sleeve, and I witness how they silence the criticisms of those who doubt them.
I’m a minister of ideas, not a “teacher” per se; I have no answers, only the life I’ve lived. But my friends and colleagues save for me so much kindness, and they remind me that I’m not crazy, that my ideals and I are not worthless.
Do you have any exciting projects coming up?
Though I’d hesitate to consider my work “exciting”, my life is never boring. I’ve been working on a poetry chapbook entitled dreamlogs & other ephemera for the past few years. Every season I send out poems to various literary journals. I usually accept invitations to share my poetry at various LA-based arts spaces.
As of November ’18 I’d been recruited to revise a textbook chapter on Asian American media representations I first wrote about ten years ago. I’m eager to document how technology and culture and representation have evolved over the past few years alone. And, oh, I’m eager to indulge my movie-tooth this winter. Though films are ubiquitous by way of modern media tech, nothing compares to being in a theater (with fresh popcorn) and losing yourself in a grand dream.
On a rather left-field note, I occasionally provide graffiti art under the alias “#poetproflife” for the rapper MC Zuko (my former student, actually!). His latest album, Respect the Hustle Mixtape, is available on all platforms.
Overall, I’m looking forward to what good may happen next year. I very much live one day at a time.
Photos courtesy of Allan Aquino