Erika Acosta’s every pursuit unfolds like a series of nesting dolls, each layer revealing a new facet of her vibrant and dynamic personality. At the outermost layer is her role as the Political Chair of the United Minorities Council (UMC), where she ardently advocates for the representation of minority groups on campus. Beyond this, Erika delves into the complex histories and narratives of the Asian American experience as an Asian American Studies minor. Her involvement with the Penn Philippines Association (PPA) brings together her passions with Filipino advocacy.
Throughout her four years at Penn, Erika has brought art to her activism. Her background in theatre has allowed her to better educate and connect with peers in her work at Penn Violence Prevention. As part of PPA, she directed a performance to share Filipino culture with the larger campus, which served as the impetus for her ongoing passion project: writing her own movie.
Name: Erika Acosta
Hometown: Manila, Philippines to Orlando, Fla.
Major: Health and Societies
Minors: Asian American Studies and English
Can you share a memorable experience from your involvement with the UMC?
UMC stands for the United Minorities Council, and essentially, it's this umbrella organization encompassing all the cultural clubs on campus that focus on minority interests. For example, the Pennsylvania Association, which I've been deeply involved with, is a constituent of UMC. UMC was formed in the '70s, I want to say, during a sit–in at College Hall involving the Black Student League and other minority student organizations.
They realized the power in consolidation and formed this cool coalition. They advocated for the formation of the GIC (Greenfield Intercultural Center) and have been involved in CRCs (Cultural Research Centers) and the ARCH, contributing to the creation of cultural groups, as well as the expansion of Ethnic Studies. It's a really cool group that I'm fortunate to be a part of. My personal involvement in UMC is as the Political Chair. What that means is that I do advocacy work for political issues related to minority concerns. I have a seat at the University Council, so I meet with other groups and President Liz Magill, and I get to advocate for various causes. For example, the most recent one is pushing for the reimagining of ARCH, transforming it into a space for minority students on campus.
Last semester, UMC hosted a celebration of culture. Many minority constituent groups had tables with various activities celebrating their cultures. We had food from all around the world, representing different cuisines—it was really fun. Specifically, my group, PPA, had a little lesson on tinikling, a dance involving two bamboo sticks where you clap them on the floor. It was super fun, having the opportunity to teach people about Filipino culture, which I'm truly passionate about.
This week is Unity Week, commemorating UMCS's 45th anniversary. We've been planning Unity Week for a while now; it's the first time it's happening since COVID-19. We had an event called "Rice Around the World," where different clubs presented the rice dish of their country—it was so cool. We also had a little tasting event, where we ordered rice dishes from different restaurants serving diverse cuisines.
What inspired you to get involved with PPA and how has it enriched your connection to Philippine culture?
God, what a loaded question, especially for something that's been such a big part of my life since freshman year. I'll try to answer this without crying because I'm saving all this for my senior speech at the end of the year where I say goodbye to all the underclassmen.
I actually didn't know PPA existed until right before freshman fall started. I lived in Orlando, Florida, which doesn't have much of a Filipino population. I felt that the biggest thread that I had to my home and my culture was my family. I lived with my family, and we spoke the language, practiced all the customs and culture, watched movies and TV shows in Filipino, and listened to Filipino songs. I never really had a community of friends I could practice or share this culture with, which was fine with me because there was no other option in Orlando.
Then I came to Penn, and I swiped up on an Instagram story of one of the board members of PPA who made these ube crinkle cookies. She sent me the recipe, and she was like, "Oh, I see you're an incoming freshman. Join PPA." I was like, "What? I didn't even know cultural clubs could exist." I went to the virtual meeting, and I was like, "Whoa, there's a lot of us here." At least, to me, it was a lot. So I kept going to the meetings, kept getting involved, and then I came on board.
As for the role it has played in my life, I don't know where I would be without it. It has become so much to me—a community, a family. Honestly, I look at these people and I think of home, which is really special because where else can you find that, really? It is a way to stay connected to the culture that I miss so dearly and the country that I miss so dearly. It's really cool because even within PPA, it's such a diverse group—socioeconomically, immigration stories, interests, personalities. Yet there's one thing that connects us all, and it's our love for this country. It's just really cool. I have made lifelong friends within it, my closest friends. It has served so much, so much, you know?
Tell me more about the Barrio show you were involved with!
Since I got here I've been dedicated to preserving, showcasing, and expressing Filipino culture on campus in Philadelphia. Usually, cultural organizations have a cultural show, and PPA usually has one every year. However, our last one was held in 2019 due to COVID-19. In 2022, I felt strongly about having it, so I got roped into being one of the Barrio chairs for the cultural show. Initially, it was a bit of a struggle. We tried and failed with a group of four or five people. I was busy as the president at that time and couldn't manage both roles.
In December of last year, the Barrio chairs needed help, and since I was stepping down from the presidency, I agreed to write two scenes for the show. I had a friend, and together we wrote the entire script, a romantic comedy inspired by Filipino tales and movies. I directed the show and, with the support of the team, it turned out to be a huge success. It was our first Barrio since COVID-19, and despite the challenges, including a lack of generational knowledge transfer, we built it from scratch. Alumni assistance was valuable, but not as extensive as desired.
The show marked the 25th anniversary of Barrio, a significant cultural event that drew a crowd of 400 at the Penn Museum. It was an incredible achievement, and people loved it, with some even saying it was the best part of the year.
How did the Barrio show inspire you to write a movie?
The Barrio show was my first time writing a full–length script of any sort. I had written stories, pieces, and poems, but never a full script. So I thought, "Oh my God, I can write something like that, right?" Another part of it is that I grew up watching Disney movies, especially Disney princess movies. Belle was my role model for the longest time. I have so much nostalgia for it. I just love it. It's really good; I enjoy watching Disney movies.
But I think one of the audiences it has failed to represent is Filipinos, who are actually a significant part of the US population. The fourth most spoken language in the US is Tagalog, [which is] just crazy. It goes like English, Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog. So, where's our Filipino Disney princess?
I've been inspired, and I truly want to write the first Filipino Disney princess. That's because of my love for my country, my culture, and my love for the next generation of kids who are going to have new Disney princesses to look up to. I want a Filipino princess to be one of those princesses that anyone can look up to. So, I'm going to take a screenwriting workshop next semester. I'm already planning. I have a vague plot idea in mind and specific things that I want to hit. I know it's a kids' movie. Disney movies, yes, they're for kids, but a lot of them touch on really adult themes. I want this to be the same. There's colonialism, gender–based violence, exploitation, immigration, and [the question of] what is home, especially as someone who's an immigrant. I want to explore all of these things.
Hopefully, I want to go back home to the Philippines after I graduate and spend some time there, really reckoning with what it means to be home. What does a homeland mean? These movies are always based on a fairytale or another story, so there is a story I have in mind: a Filipino epic from old times. I can't remember which century, but that's going to be the basis of this. I want to read the original text, which is in the Philippines. So yeah, it's a whole thing.
How have you explored acting beyond the Barrio show and what has involvement in the arts taught you?
I'm a part of TAC–e, the Theatre Arts Council. So, especially for the play I did this semester, one aspect is building trust and a relationship with the scene partner. You really have to trust them to know their lines and build off the energy put into acting. Besides monologues, it's a team effort and highly collaborative. When on stage or in the rehearsal process, you rely on the people around you, like the director and stage manager, but you also need to contribute your effort to make the scene look the way it should.
For instance, in the play I just did, I had scenes with my niece, creating an interesting dynamic. I play her aunt, a teacher in the school she runs. It's kind of meta, which was really fun. I view teaching at her school as a favor, given my reputation, but from her perspective, she's doing me a favor by providing me with a job. There are scenes capturing that tense dynamic, and it's enjoyable to play with my scene partner on how that tension will look and play out. It often leads to scenes where we're yelling at each other. If I don't give that energy, it's hard for my scene partner to reciprocate. All of this to say, there's a lot of trust and collaboration on stage and behind the scenes, and I've applied that to other aspects of my life at Penn, whether it's other clubs, my job at Penn Violence Prevention (which is also highly collaborative), or my academics, trusting myself and others for the support I need.
What motivated you to join Penn Violence Prevention, and how does the organization contribute to creating a safer campus environment?
I am a student worker for PVP. Last year, I started as a Penn Anti–Violence Educator with PAVE, still under PVP. When I talk about the trust aspect in these workshops, we usually have a co–facilitator. There's that trust and cooperation, and you have to give that energy for them to give that energy back. You bounce off each other's energy so that the people in the workshop gain the knowledge and practice the skills they need.
This year, I was hired as their student worker, which has been really fun. I get to work more behind the scenes now. I'm still doing PAVE, but as a student worker, I work in the office, plan different events, and handle marketing. It's really cool. One thing I've enjoyed is seeing the tangible impact on specific people. I remember doing a PAVE workshop last year, and one participant came up to me afterward, saying, "Thank you so much for all that you do. This is really helpful, and it makes me feel safe because I know a lot of people in high school didn't get this information." I recommended that person to join PAVE, and she interviewed and is now a PAVE educator. During a retreat, she thanked me for encouraging her, and it was mind–blowing to see the impact I made on even one person. My mindset is that even if I do something for one person, I've done enough.
I’m inspired by Emily Dickinson's poem, “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain.” That's kind of my mindset on a broader basis. The idea that we are constantly reframing mindsets is really nice. It's amazing to hear these discussions and conversations that aren't normally had at the high school or even college level, facilitated by the work that we do.
How do your studies intersect with all of these interests?
I came to Penn and I knew I wanted to study in an interdisciplinary mode of medicine, like Health and Societies, asking what impacts your health beyond just doctors. Because, even in the doctor–patient interaction, as I've learned from all my classes, there's so much nuance and depth to it. That's why I chose HSOC; I've always been fascinated by the interdisciplinary aspect of healthcare.
Initially, I wanted to be a doctor, but that has changed, partly due to those classes. I admit that yes, it has made me reconsider pursuing a medical career, but that's not the sole reason. There are many other factors. I've been actively involved in the Asian American community and spaces here at Penn. It's not only about Filipino culture but also broader Asian American and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander solidarity. I've done significant work in the Asian American and NHPI spaces, including being an Asian American Studies minor. Through this minor, I've delved into history and explored the ways Asian Americans live in the US. This exploration has inspired me to want to write a movie. We need more Asian American Disney princesses, not just Filipino ones (although, yes, that too). It's about uplifting not just minority communities as a whole, but also addressing Asian American, Native Hawaiian, or Pacific Islander issues and highlighting their significance.
Favorite movie(s)? Hunchback of Notre Dame, Atonement, Everything Everywhere All at Once, She's Dating the Gangster
Best place to study? On my living room floor with all of my friends.
Hidden talent? Cross–stitching, making a star with a rubber band, and flipping words in my head pretty fast.
There are two kinds of people at Penn... Those who question this question (because binaries are not real) and those who don't.
And you are? The kind that questions this question.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.