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  • Through Their Eyes: Poet Jerrica Escoto

    The interview series “Through Their Eyes” features various artists at the 2017 Folklife Festival. Whether they express their truths through spoken word or acrobatics, these artists share a part of themselves in every performance. Note: Jerrica Escoto prefers the pronouns they/them/their.

    Queer Filipino spoken word poet Jerrica Escoto grapples with self-identity and living in the shadows of their parents’ sacrifice in their poems. As children of immigrants, Jerrica and I have shared similar struggles. In listening to their performance, I felt as if I was watching someone replay some of my own experiences in front of me.

    In this interview after their performance in the On the Move program at the Folklife Festival, Jerrica explored the struggle of feeling alienated in both the Asian American and American communities, as well as spoken word’s role in promoting mental health and activism.

    What is it like living in two communities without feeling completely at home in either?

    I think the privilege of having a college education is what caused me to look more into my Filipino heritage. When my grandmother died, I just wanted my parents to speak to me in Kapampangan. I didn’t learn much about my Filipino culture when I was younger, so now I think I’m kind of aching for that.

    To be in an all Filipino space now, I’m trying to overcome this shame that I don’t think I’ve overcome or healed from just yet. I’m much more Americanized than I am Filipino, and I’m not proud of it. I don’t know how to negotiate it, but this is me in my true form.

    What made you want to learn more about your Filipino heritage?

    It didn’t hit me until my grandmother passed away when I was twenty-one years old. We were all in a circle with the whole family who came to say goodbye to her. My dad said, “Say whatever you want to say to her,” so I told her that she was the spine that held our family together.

    As beautiful and poetic as that is, as much as I meant it, I felt really embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn’t say it to her in Kapampangan. I know she understood me no matter what language I would have said or even if I had remained silent, but for me, right before her last breath, I just wanted her to feel like we could connect one hundred percent.

    In my experience, I’ve felt this need to marry the obligation to my family with the obligation to myself. What do you think?

    Moving across the country was probably the best thing I could’ve done for myself. Out of the four children, my parents really looked to me as the confidante. I’m the emotional keeper of our family. My father has said to me, “I know you’re always going to be okay, so I don’t ever have to worry about you.”

    What’s difficult about that role is that everyone always thinks that I’m okay. There’s nothing that I ever do, even today, that I don’t think, “will this be something my dad or my mom will want me to do?” So I’m still trying to figure that out.

    For example, me being a spoken word poet, my parents didn’t like it for years. Then my mom went to my book release, and she was so cute. I gave a shout-out to her so she got up and waved. She was really proud of me and put me all over her Facebook—but it’s still not a career to them. Every single day, I have to remind myself that my parents are prouder of me than I think they are. They love me more than I thought they could. 

    When my family immigrated to America, we constantly talked about living out “the American dream.” What’s your American dream?

    The American dream to me, which we don’t talk about and what our parents don’t talk about, is that the dream is not really possible. This is obviously a much deeper conversation, but with the world of capitalism, we’re always going to believe there’s so much more. When we get to whatever this dream is, we know there’s more, so we’re going to keep going to the point where we almost don’t allow ourselves to be happy. We end up suffering in the end.

    In the America that I want, everyone has the right to be with who they want to be and whomever they want to be freely and safely. Realistically, have your own thoughts and ideas, but don’t be violent. Be respectful, most of all. Don’t think of someone as less than you. Don’t think of someone as your subordinate because they’re another gender or they’re a person of color. Come on, it’s the golden rule!

    Jerrica Escoto performs on the Story Circle stage at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
    Photo by Daniel Martinez, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
    Jerrica Escoto's performance at the 2017 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

    What attracted you to spoken word?

    I was first exposed to poetry in high school, and I thought it was really cool to have a platform. I immediately wanted to have a community, so a couple of people and I did free shows, shows in bars with no one but drunk people listening to us. We traveled five hours to a coffee shop that had ten people looking at us, maybe. I started going into lockups, juvenile halls, working with young women, and it just fueled me working there.

    What was it like working with the young women?

    It was bittersweet because I always ended my workshops with, “I hope I don’t see you here next week,” because it meant they were still in lockup. In regards to mental health, the way that we talk to each other is through poetry. What we say on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter is poetry to me.

    For the young women to say their stories over and over again, even if it was a different version of the same story, week after week, you can see something in them shift when I left. I hope that’s something that stays with them even when they’re locked up or in a place where they feel like they weren’t being seen or heard.

    How do you use your art to connect to audiences that otherwise may not be receptive to the stories you are telling?

    If I can make someone feel anything, even if it’s anger or discomfort, then I feel like I’ve done my job. They’re going to go and take that discomfort, and some may let it dissipate while others may have the emotional intelligence to ask themselves, “Why did I feel uncomfortable or angry?” Same thing when I do a love poem or breakup poem—we all go through love and heartache. 

    I think the strength in emotion is paramount. Telling our story here on the National Mall—wow—what it is to be a queer Filipino person in front of all these people who’ve never heard our story before and who didn’t realize, “oh this is why you feel invisible sometimes,” is very powerful.

    On top of other existential crises, young people of minority groups are often expected to retain their cultural heritage. What advice would you give them?

    I would tell them that any time something shows up, whether it’s food or a conversation, to witness it—not necessarily to have any sort of expectation as to how you’re supposed to absorb that information, but just experience it. Be grounded in the fact that the way you experience something is yours. You don’t have to compare it to others. Even now, the most jarring part of being in a Filipino space is me comparing myself to other people and having this envy of, “I wish I was more well-rounded or more knowledgeable in our heritage.”

    When you’re in middle school, in high school, you’re trying not to get bullied. You’re trying to figure out your crushes. Being a part of the LGBTQ community meant that I was afraid of being gay and coming out to my parents. When suffering happens, witness it. When triggers happen, witness it. And let it be inside of your body and do what you need to do to let it out.

    Laura Zhang is a student at the University of Texas at Austin studying neuroscience. She is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and exudes a passion for social justice, stories, and dogs of all kinds.

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