Maria Razelle Mirasol Manalang was born in a small town called Isabela on the western half of an island called Negros (Occidental) in the Philippines. Maria grew up the oldest of six siblings, with three brothers and two sisters.
Due to a 14-year age gap between Maria and her youngest sibling, she played a large role in raising the younger children. Her mom was a working mother who was very bright and graduated in the top 10 in her class. She worked as a local school teacher, while Maria’s father grew up working for his family’s business.
Throughout her childhood, Maria also lived with extended members of her family. Eventually, most of the family would end up moving to the United States, but it took 20 years for them to all get there.
In the 1960s, her maternal grandfather was working with the U.S. military in Guam when they began offering American citizenship to workers and their families. Maria’s mother was supposed to be the first one to come to the United States, but due to the long paperwork process, she was married by the time everything came through. Marriage changed her status, causing another paperwork slow-down, and she was ultimately the last of her sisters to make the move. The family landed in Indianapolis because Maria’s aunt was the first to secure a job – a teaching position at Marian College (now University).
In 1978, Maria, her mother, and the other two oldest siblings finally arrived in Chicago and drove to Indianapolis. Little did they know, they were driving through the blizzard of 1978.
“I didn’t know it was a blizzard. I thought that was normal! We were like, ‘Oh look at the pretty snow.’ And I didn’t know it was a blizzard until 10 years later,” Maria said.
They moved into a house with three other families – her aunt’s families. Her father and two youngest siblings joined them in Indianapolis two years later.
Maria was a young girl when she moved to the United States, so it comes as no surprise that she wanted to assimilate.
“Growing up as a foreigner in a foreign country, you look at yourself in the mirror and you go, ‘I wish I was a white girl,’ so I never really appreciated who I am and my differences until I was in college,” she said.
Even though Maria maintained connections to her Filipino roots through family and food, she says she did not know much about the cultural history of her home country until she started a Filipino dance company. Maria’s husband, Darwin, is also from the Philippines, but a different area: Pampanga, in the north.
“For me, I grew up in the United States. I did not understand my culture until I started getting into the Filipino folk dances, because then I had to do some research,” she said.
Maria spent most of her career in health care as a respiratory therapist and sleep technician in Indianapolis. After 10 years, she decided she needed a change asked God to help her find a different path. She happened upon a job opening for a respiratory therapist in Montana, reached out, and within a week interviewed for the position.
“I didn’t even know where Montana was,” recalled Maria. “I had to look it up on a map – after I was offered the job.”
Maria considers the months she spent in Montana to be pivotal in the direction her life and career took. She looked for signs and asked God whether she was on the right path. Maria still wasn’t happy, and she was also separated from Darwin, who stayed in Indianapolis for work.
“I had asked God, ‘You have led me to the direction of your plan. I’m living that plan. But one thing: I miss being part of a community. If you lead me to a job working with a community, I’ll take it,’” she said.
That was when Maria saw the program manager position with the International Marketplace Coalition was open.
“Maybe that is what I’m supposed to do,” she remembered thinking. “It takes me back home.”
Before she moved to Montana, Maria had been involved with seven different cultural organizations, a lot of which were Filipino. When she moved back and started her new position in Indianapolis, her perspective changed from one of insulation to one of sharing.
“When I left Indianapolis, I had this network of people in the Filipino community. The person that left is not the person that has come back,” said Maria. “I now work for the international community and these are now my family.”