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Featured Fil-Am: Danielle Colayco

We are excited to get to know and feature Danielle Colayco, a leader and advocate of healthcare for the under-served community. Let’s take a peek into the life of this influential leader of Komoto Family Foundation.

Q: Where do you currently live? Where are you from?

A: I currently live in Southern California. I was born and raised here.

Q: Tell us a little bit about your cultural background.

A: My parents were born in Metro Manila, and we are a multi-racial family which includes Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, and British ancestry. My four older brothers were all born in Manila. My parents and Lola then immigrated to California, where my sister and I were born. All of my siblings and I grew up speaking English at home. Our Lola spoke Tagalog to my dad and English with everyone else. She is also fluent in Spanish (Castilian). As a Southern California native, I took three years of Spanish (Mexican) in high school, so I can now speak like a toddler.

Now that I have a child of my own, I’m inspired to reconnect to my Filipino roots and learn basic conversational Tagalog along with my daughter. I’ve also recently learned to cook Filipino foods at home, including my Lola’s pancit bihon — but I add my own twists. For example, I’m too lazy to wash an extra pot. So rather than boiling the noodles separately, I just add stock to the same pan with the noodles and vegetables so they can soften while cooking. I do have to confess that when I was a small child, I didn’t love a lot of Filipino food. I thought American cheeseburgers and pizza were the most delicious foods, because all of my friends at school were eating those things. I was embarrassed to bring our food to school for lunch, so I begged for Lunchables and peanut butter sandwiches instead. Only when I became an adult and started to build more self-confidence did I start to appreciate and reclaim my own culture. It’s a method of empowerment and healing from our colonial mentality.

Q: What do you want others to know about the Fil-Am/Filipino culture?

A: One out of five Filipino-Americans is multi-racial. One of our most frequently asked questions, particularly from other Asians, is “what are you?” If we respond “Filipino,” typically the follow-up response is some form of “oh, so you’re half.” One time, somebody literally told me, “You’re not what I expected.” So, for my fellow mixed-race Filipinos, I’d like to share with you our Bill of Rights by Maria P.P. Root, PhD, a fellow multiracial Filipina: https://www.safehousealliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/A-Bill-of-Rights-for-Racially-Mixed-People.pdf     You get to decide how you identify, regardless of your racial composition or whether you speak the languages of your ancestors. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not Filipino enough, or that you’re “only half.” You are a whole person, and you are enough. Full stop.

Q: What do you currently do or have you been doing in hopes to contribute to the Fil-Am/Filipino community?

A: I run a nonprofit organization called the Komoto Family Foundation, whose mission is to improve access to healthcare services from pharmacists for under-served communities. One of our key communities includes the farmworkers of Delano, California. If you’ve ever eaten grapes before, chances are that they were grown and harvested by the people of Delano, which also happens to be home to over 7,000 Filipinos. Perhaps the most famous is Larry Itliong, who led the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) in the Delano Grape Strikes of 1965. He convinced Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and the Latino farmworkers to join forces with the Filipinos to fight for fair wages and humane working conditions. (There’s an excellent children’s book written by the late Dawn Mabalon and Gayle Romasanta:Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong

These days, many of the growers have partnered with the Central Valley Farmworker Foundation (CVFF), whose mission is to improve the quality of life of farmworkers. We collaborate with CVFF to bring health education to the farmworkers during their work hours in the fields. Because of several factors including social conditions (low incomes and educational attainment, immigration issues, language barriers, etc), the farmworkers face a number of health concerns including diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies. One thing we’ve noticed is that our health education materials are typically translated from English into Spanish to accommodate the 70% Latino population, but very rarely do you see anything translated to Tagalog, Ilokano, or any other Filipino language. When I attended a talk by Dr. Mabalon last year, she mentioned the erasure of the Filipinos within the majority Latino population of Delano — which explains why Cesar Chavez is so well-known but Larry Itliong is only recognized by some. Part of her legacy as a historian was to bring visibility to the Filipino community, and I’d like to help continue that in her memory.

It starts with engaging the community in their languages (our staff includes native Tagalog and Ilokano speakers in addition to Spanish speakers, and we have started translating our materials accordingly), but it also includes speaking to the unique health challenges of the Filipino community. How do you tell a Filipina with diabetes that she needs to stop eating white rice, when it’s such a staple of our diet? Maybe it starts with incremental changes, like reducing the portion from two cups to one, and encouraging her to replace that volume with some gulay.

We also need to start breaking the stigma around mental health and sexual health, because these are literally life or death issues. Most of us have either been personally affected or know somebody who has been affected by depression or anxiety, as well as unintended pregnancy — and yet, these issues are completely taboo in many Filipino families. Some of this stigma is related to our colonial history, in which our indigenous practices around sexuality were considered sinful by our Spanish colonizers.

In addition, the suppression of normal emotions like sadness or anger is common in many Filipino families. The concept of walang hiya has resulted in the silencing of those who suffer from mental illness, those who have experienced an unintended pregnancy (especially teen pregnancy), and those who are not cis-gendered and heterosexual. This needs to change, and it starts with our generation beginning to talk to our kids about mental health and sexual health in age-appropriate ways. If our kids are lucky, they can find a trusted adult to talk about these difficult issues (e.g. a teacher, coach, doctor, etc), but wouldn’t it be great if our kids could also feel safe turning to us for that help?

Finally, we need to harness the power of our Filipino resilience so that we can rise above our risk factors and find strength in our community. Our people have survived over 400 years of colonization by Spain, Japan, and the United States, and we all have stories of suffering — but we also have stories of family, faith, and healing in the wake of adversity. Part of the work I do as a pharmacist in the for-profit sector is engaging key family members as part of the healthcare team along with the patient, and other healthcare professionals. It is crucial to acknowledge the patient as a whole person and part of a whole community, rather than just treating their disease. By engaging communities, we healthcare professionals can start to become much more effective as healers.

Q: What or who is your inspiration behind what you do?

A: My daughter inspires me to be a better person because I believe in leading by example. The most important lesson that my husband and I can teach her is to treat all people with kindness and to think about how to make our community a little bit better. Usually, that involves alleviating human suffering. This can be achieved in both big and small ways. Right now, the superhero stories are very popular, where you hear about “chosen ones” doing grand gestures to “save the world.” But not everyone has the means or the ability for that.

I also think that the savior narrative is problematic because it doesn’t acknowledge the agency of the communities who are being “saved.” These folks are protagonists in their own stories, too. Instead, if the rest of us would focus on our local communities and just do one small act of kindness per day, it would be so much more transformative. This desire to make incremental, positive changes is what led me to pursue a career in healthcare. My parents made that possible through their unconditional love and by financing my education. My dad told me once, “Your mother and I will do everything within our means to help you chase your dreams,” and they have done that for all six of their children. Because of their personal sacrifices, I feel that it’s especially important to make sure that their efforts were not in vain.

Follow the Instagram links below to see some of Komoto Family Foundation’s work:

Partnering with CVFF to help the farmworkers of Delano

Partnering with CVFF at the Central Valley Pruning Competition

Komoto Family Foundation Reproductive Health Fund    

Guidance on how to talk to kids about their bodies, consent, sexual health, and mental health

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