In Tagalog the word ugat means root. As we approach the end of Asian American Pacific Islander heritage I wanted to kick off my blog highlighting my longtime friend and the person who helped design the HELLA famous t shirts Michael Dalupo. Michael is a South Bay Filipino American artist, activist and entrepreneur using his roots to promote social change. He is the creator of Ugat Clothing Company in addition to be a leader with NAFCON (National Alliance For Filipino Concerns). Ugat Clothing Company promotes Tagalog words including Makibaka (struggle and revolution) as well as Filipino figures representing history and shared struggle. When asked what came first his art, activism or entrepreneurship Michael says “I’ve always been a fan of art” and went on to share as a young person trying to figure out life it was all about hustle and making money. However the hustle created connections with other people. It was through those connections Michael says he was able to “find a space in terms of community.” This allowed him to begin learning about Filipino American history and identity in his thirties.
When discussing unique barriers that he faces as a Filipino American creative and entrepreneur, Michael says assimilation is an issue. There is a struggle for visibility not in terms of physical population but for identity. Michael points out there are not Filipino cultural hubs comparable to Chinatown or Koreatown. He connects this to the push for assimilation that starts in the Philippines because the education system was built by the United States. He points out the impacts of colonialism and the process of assimilation creating a disconnect between people, their history and culture. He doesn’t say this with judgement because he understand the need for survival and the ways assimilation is systematic. He discussed moving from the Philippines at age eleven and his parents telling him not to speak Tagalog but to speak English so he could get a good job one day.
I asked Michael why he chose the name Ugat for his clothing company. It was previously known as Know Your Roots but there were some copyright issues with the name. He says it was a moment of reflection to make his movement more Tagalog. The name Ugat ties to his mission of empowering all ethnic groups to know their roots as he quotes “know history know self.” Michael understands there are issues of access for Filipino Americans and other marginalized groups to learn about their history and be empowered in their identities, shared struggles and intersections. He advocates being empowered and using whatever platform and space are available to be part of improving our communities and being an active part of social change. Michael says “representation movements go back to being empowered” and notes how culture is part of our connection to the world and our ability to take agency. Through his work with Ugat clothing and his role as a community activist Michael shares how this has made him a better person questioning and rejecting social norms like prejudice and misogyny.
When I asked Michael how we can support him as a Filipino American creative he says “in essence working towards bettering the community. Ugat is a vehicle and a tool to meet that goal to have a better community.” He goes on to say that if Ugat is not impacting that’s on him to find better ways to communicate the conversation. He’s more focused on the impacts Covid19 is having on Filipino communities worldwide. One of his current projects and concerns are J1 workers who are on nonimmigrant visas issued by the United States as research scholars, professors and exchange students. He mentioned J1 workers are being neglected by their sponsors and do not qualify for unemployment and are struggling with day to day to needs. Even during the pandemic he is concerned about worker rights and the impacts on our vulnerable essential workers. As our conversation winded down Michael made sure to emphasize his passion for youth and how much he loves the language they have created for themselves. He says “how do we empower them to take an active role in progressive things?” For Michael Dalupo Ugat is not just the Tagalog word for root or the name of his clothing company. Ugat is a guiding force for his passion to promote all marginalized people to be empowered in their roots and using that knowledge to take agency over improving their communities because we are part of the communities we come from.
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