Waterloo, Iowa;
Second-generation immigrant from the Philippines

Melissa Palma photo.jpeg

"While most of the Filipino-American history and literature focuses on communities in California and the West Coast, this project serves to document stories of migration and the many paths we take to call Iowa home."

Tell us about yourself and your history: Before immigrating to United States in the 1980s, my mother and father trained as physicians in the Philippines. My parents were pressed by my grandmother to support the family by moving to the States, and I was born in Worcester, MA, as my father completed his internal medicine residency. I spent my nomadic early childhood moving for my father’s medical training.

Our family settled in the rolling cornfields of the Hawkeye State in 1995 for my father to establish his rheumatology practice. As a product of both the parochial and public school systems in Waterloo, I witnessed how the effects of race, class, and language can twist one’s fate. Like so many before them, my parents wished for us to achieve assimilation and success, and thus never consciously taught their children Tagalog. Its absence continues to separate me from my own community.

My work now focuses on needs of immigrant populations. I studied health equity and volunteered coordinating clinics to provide basic health care for Spanish-speaking migrant farmworkers and undocumented patients in rural Iowa. Through the years, I have come to reflect on my upbringing in two cultures and how it has prepared me to become an advocate in service to immigrant populations.

Tell us about your relationship to Iowa: As an Iowa-raised daughter of Filipino immigrants, the places where I find community are varied and diverse. Although we have no other immediate relatives in the Midwest, my surrogate family comes from all walks of life, including immigrant doctors, nurses, migrant day laborers, and assembly workers at the local meat-packing plant.

As a child, I witnessed my mother do whatever she could to make newcomers welcome. She was always the first to know of new arrivals who needed winter coats upon emigrating from their tropical country. At home I was AteIssa, the eldest daughter, surrounded by constant invitations to eat and share, kain na tayo! In grade school, I was called Melissa, or depending on which Disney movie was more popular at the time, Pocahontas or Mulan. My classmates told me my house smelled different from theirs. I asked my mother to pack Spaghetti-O’s instead of pancit noodles for lunch. Growing up as “the only one” at every level of education in Waterloo, I learned quickly of the invisibility of Filipino Americans despite our extensive colonial history with the United States. It is revealing to call a place home that no one expects you to be from.

During medical school in Iowa City, I learned the art of narrative medicine as advocacy. Returning to Waterloo as fourth-year student to complete qualitative public health research on Burmese refugee resettlement, in my mind I served as a collector of personal narratives. Although we did not share a common language, I saw my own family’s migration story and the beginnings of new transnational identities in Iowa.

What types of writing do you see yourself creating during the residency?
I plan to generate a collection of personal narrative essays and spoken word poetry, constructing an ethnography of immigration in Northeast Iowa. While most of the Filipino-American history and literature focuses on communities in California and the West Coast, this project serves to document stories of migration and the many paths we take to call Iowa home.

My goal is to explore the insidious legacies of colonialism and colorism as it exists in the Philippines and beyond. I will investigate the intersection of language and bilingualism when over a third of first-generation Filipinos such as myself are never taught Tagalog. Of particular interest to me as a racially ambiguous person in Iowa is exploring the privileges of passing, the spaces we are socially allowed to enter, and how we will progress as a multicultural, multiethnic society.