When I was about five years old, I came home from school one day and proudly announced that I no longer wanted to speak Tagalog, one of my native languages. I had learned English and Tagalog, one of the main dialects of the Philippines, at the same time; they were both my first language. My reasoning for wanting to stop speaking in Tagalog was because the language was “ugly.”
Painting by Marissa Trierweiler '11
From that day on, I stopped speaking Tagalog altogether. About five years later, I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable, embarrassed, and annoyed whenever one of my parents spoke to me in Tagalog in public. I would pretend that I hadn’t heard what they said, or would just mutter a response back in English. I am still able to fluently understand the language, but actually speaking Tagalog itself makes me sound like I have a severe stuttering problem.
If I could travel back in time, I would tell my five-year-old self not to drop Tagalog with the snap of a finger. I was too young to know at the time that I should have embraced my ethnic and cultural heritage as opposed to shying away and being embarrassed about being able to speak another language. At that age, the only thing I was concerned with was fitting in with my friends from school and with other people that I saw: in stores, on television, etc. A large part of my embarrassment came from the fact that I knew I was different from everyone else. I had been made well aware of that little fact since the womb, I’m sure. I am unable to name a point in time where one of my parents failed to remind me that I was not American, that I would never be seen as an American, that I would always be an immigrant, despite the fact that I was born in the United States (in Arkansas, of all places!).
I am a firm believer in the idea that a person’s experiences in life shape who they are and who they become. Growing up Filipino-American in a primarily Caucasian area, for example, has had a large influence in who I have become as a functioning member of the Kalamazoo College community, as well as who I will be in society as a whole. Other factors that effect identity cannot necessarily be easily pinpointed and broken down.
Examining Filipino culture and society reveals some of the most important values that are revered by many. These values include the importance of family in daily life. Family is certainly not the only influence in shaping a Filipino’s identity, but it is one of the most instrumental facets in doing so. Filipino-American life cannot be fully understood without background knowledge of family structure. Unlike in American culture where emphasis is placed on the nuclear family, thus leaving extended family to dwindle, Filipino culture treats the nuclear family and the extended family as one and the same, and they cannot be separated from one another. The nuclear family is made up of the immediate family, such as the parents and the children. The extended family is both patrilineal and matrilineal and spans generations. This phenomenon has been described as a “bilateral extended kinship system” (Cimmarusti 1996:205-17). The Filipino idea of the extended family is not limited to in-laws and cousins, but also siblings, aunts, uncles, and good friends. My family, for example, is extremely large, to the point where I have not yet met all of my relatives. My immediate family and my extended family, including second cousins, good family friends, godparents, and many more all constitute my family. Because of the Filipino definition of extended family, the traditional Filipino family is perpetually growing.
I am a second-generation immigrant, born and raised in the United States, and perfectly happy that way. Both of my parents, as well as several other family members including aunts, uncles, and cousins, are Filipino immigrants who came to the U.S. in hopes of a better life. The Philippine government and economy do not have great histories; during my parents’ lifetime, neither have been in great shape. Corrupt government leaders have only perpetuated poor economic situations in the Philippines. The Marcos regime that had eventually enforced martial law upon Philippine society was the cause of many protests and deaths. The country today is still in shambles; the upcoming presidential election has produced very few qualified candidates, and separatists in the southern region of the country keep the military on its toes. Moving to the U.S. seemed to be the only way to escape oppression and live a better life, and my parents did what many people chose to do.
The largest wave of Filipino immigration into the U.S. began in 1965 upon the liberalization of immigration laws that had previously held back many prospective immigrants. What is not commonly known, however, is that the history of Filipinos in the U.S. dates back several centuries when Filipino seamen escaped from the Spanish galleons that transported goods between the Philippines and Mexico from 1565 to 1815 (Espiritu 1995:1). As a result, small settlements were established along the southeastern Louisiana coast in the Barataria Bay. Later on in the early 20th Century, the Philippines became an American colony, providing a small but steady stream of Filipinos coming to the United States.
This is not to say that Filipinos were welcomed with open arms into the U.S. Immigration laws and racism were barriers that still needed to be defeated. The 1952 Immigration Act allowed immigrants from Asian countries to enter the U.S. en masse after several years of being barred from doing so. The Immigration Act allowed 20,000 people from each country in the Eastern hemisphere into the U.S. and was in part meant to defeat the racial discrimination that ran rampant nationwide at the time. These racial quotas were discarded with the establishment of certain amendments to the Immigration Act in 1965. This act gave preference to those of a particular occupation in which the U.S. was suffering a shortage of, or served as a way to reunite families who had previously been divided due to past immigration regulations (Espiritu 1995:19). Reasons for immigration include family reunification, occupational needs and opportunities, and educational benefits, among others. The 1965 amendments resulted in the largest wave of Filipino immigrants to date.
One way in which Filipinos were able to move into the U.S. involved serving in the military, particularly the U.S. Navy. The colonial ties between the U.S. and the Philippines allowed Filipinos to serve in the military without being American citizens. During the Philippine American War at the beginning of the 20th Century, the U.S. was able to establish three military bases in the Philippines. U.S. military presence is still obvious in the Philippines today, be it for official or unofficial business. In 1987, these bases were among the largest employers in the country, second only to the Philippine government (Espiritu 1995:14). National sovereignty was granted in 1991, and the last U.S.-controlled base was turned over to Philippine hands.
A career in the U.S. Navy is a dream for many Filipinos. For some, it is seen as a way to make good money; the wages would place military personnel in the top income bracket. For others, it is an easier way to get into and stay in the United States. Up until the early 1970s, the jobs and positions that Filipinos held in the Navy were not of any prestige. Discriminated against, their duties entailed housework and food service. Pre-1973, these were the only jobs Filipinos could perform. In response to civil rights activists, Filipinos were soon allowed to advance to higher rankings. The change was effective immediately, but still took several years to observe.
One uncle of mine entered the U.S. through this method in the 1950s. He served for many, many years and lives very well off of his Navy pension today in the Philippines. He has been a U.S. citizen for quite sometime, but simply chooses not to live stateside. There are several legal issues tied to his staying in the Philippines despite his citizenship, but he ignores them. A cousin of mine moved to the U.S. about eight years ago, and just a few short months after moving here, he enlisted in the Navy as well. He is still on active duty as an officer, but his contract will end later this year. Despite the roots that he has planted in the U.S. during his eight year stay, he longs to return to the Philippines, though he now considers the U.S. home.
The ultimate immigrant experience (which is said very tongue-in-cheek) cannot be complete with out a good dose of old-fashioned discrimination and racism. When I was about seven years old, one of my best friends from elementary school was an active member of Brownies. She would come to school every now and then dressed in her Brownie uniform so that she could go to the meeting after school. Because she was my best friend, I wanted to be exactly like her. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Emily was someone that I admired. It wasn’t the uniform that I wanted, it wasn’t that I wanted the joy of harassing people to buy cookies, it was that I wanted to fit in. I recall asking my mother if I could join Brownies; her response was that I couldn’t because it was “for white girls.” Instances such as that one only emphasize that the fact that because I am not white, I will never be accepted as a true American.
A Filipino-American’s experience growing up in the U.S. is unique to him or herself, but very few have experienced no discrimination in one form or another. A question as simple and well intended as “Where are you from?” can be perceived as offensive and degrading. When people ask me where I’m from, they tend to expect an answer such as “China” or “Japan,” and give me a funny look when I say that I’m from Michigan. Sometimes they’ll drop the issue, and other times, they’ll keep pressing me, convinced that I am not actually from Michigan, but that it was probably just my place of “settlement” after emigrating to the U.S. Experiences such as this, and many more, are all contributing factors in the construction of identity.
I chose to research Filipino immigrants to the United States because it is what seemed most natural to me. One problem that I encountered while conducting research involved the lack of resources available about Filipino immigrant groups. I was not phased by this until I learned that Filipinos are the second largest immigrant group of Asian origins currently living in the U.S., as well as the second largest immigrant group overall (Espiritu 1995:1). This research project also left me curious. In every source that I used, as well as in other sources that I’ve read in the past, Filipino immigration history to the U.S. starts in the late 1600s, referencing a small settlement on what was then French land. However, every author has jumped from the 1600s to the early 1900s. What happened in the 19th Century? I would like to think that this question will one day be answered.
A recent conversation with a friend of mine, who currently lives in Quezon City, Philippines, proved that many of the “old” reasons for immigration are still around today. She is currently a nursing student at the University of San Tomás, despite the fact that she hates her course. She plans on completing her nursing degree and emigrating to the U.S. Nursing is the hot ticket into the U.S., and she sees her degree as a way to expedite her entry into the country. Once she makes enough money, she hopes to be able to bring the rest of her family to the U.S. in order to escape from the poor economic and political state that the Philippines is currently in. Her story is like many others who hope to one day live in the land of milk and honey, but the many restrictions that are currently in place will make it difficult for the majority of them to fulfill their dreams.
Cimmarusti, Rocco A.
1996 Exploring Aspects of Filipino-American Families. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 22:205-17.
Espiritu, Yen Le
1995 Filipino American Lives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Note: This paper was originally written for Dr. Espelencia Baptiste's SOAN257 Diaspora and Transnational Communities class at K on March 12, 2003.