How I Learned What It Means To Be A Filipino-American
Growing up, no one taught me what being Filipino-American meant. So, naturally, I studied.
By: Kevin Nadal
I can’t remember the exact moment I first realized I was Filipino-American. It was just part of who I was.
Perhaps it was because I grew up in a large Filipino-American community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Within a 20-mile radius were my 17 first cousins (and about 70 extended “cousins” who I may or may not have been actually related to). My earliest childhood memories involved running around cousins’ houses, while the titos played mahjong or pusoy dos in a smoke-filled garage or basement. The dining room or kitchen always had a tableful of your basic staples: rice, chicken adobo, spaghetti with hot dog chunks, and pancit.
My high school was about 40% Filipino, and most of my friends were Filipino too. At our high school proms, we crammed 50 Filipinos into one group picture, just so we could have wallet-size photos to hand out to our friends. We wore “Filipino Pride” T-shirts and sang along to Jocelyn Enriquez songs on the radio. We could name all the famous Filipinos on TV and movies, mostly because there were so few of them.
There was Lea Salonga, Nia Peeples, Tia Carrere, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Rob Schneider from Saturday Night Live. Anyone with one drop of Filipino blood was considered family or someone to be proud of.
Despite this, we didn’t really know much about what it meant to be Filipino-American. Only a few of my friends spoke Tagalog or another Filipino dialect; the rest of us spoke only English. And none of us were knowledgeable about Philippine or Filipino-American history. Although half of my classmates looked like me, our teachers didn’t seem to acknowledge the diversity of our school, even though it was something many students talked about. We did have “Culture Week” once a year: We were encouraged to wear our native garb to school, and student groups performed their cultural dances during afternoon assemblies.
But for every other week of the school year, our classes focused on white American perspectives and histories. Instead of Jose Rizal or Jessica Hagedorn, we had Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. Instead of lessons about the Philippine-American War or the Bataan Death March, we had lessons about the Spanish Inquisition or the French Revolution. Given that the Philippines was an American colony for almost 50 years, it was baffling that nothing Filipino-related was ever mentioned in any part of the curriculum.
We had only one Filipino teacher in our entire school, an American-born Pinay in her late twenties. Ironically, she taught my world history class. The standardized curriculum she used primarily focused on what were considered the most important events in world history: the history of Europe. Even though she identified as Filipino-American, she couldn’t devote even one day’s lesson to the history of the Philippines. The message we got was that our parents’ homeland was not important enough for us to study — at least not during school hours.
At home, my immigrant parents didn’t talk much about being Filipino.
At home, my immigrant parents didn’t talk much about being Filipino. Both my parents were the first in their families to emigrate (my mom in 1965, my dad in 1969), in search of opportunities for their then-hypothetical children. They said goodbye to their parents, siblings, and friends, not knowing if they would ever see them again. They made a new life in California with the help of a few older relatives (who arrived decades prior and worked as farmworkers and laborers) and each other.
When I was a teenager, my parents told me about the hardships they experienced when they first arrived in the U.S. While they were promised opportunities and open arms, they were actually greeted by racism and ignorance. My mom, a nurse, regularly encountered World War II military veteran patients who said horrific things to her because they assumed she was Japanese. They called her a “Jap” and an “Oriental.” Patients refused my mother’s care because they thought she was “the enemy.” When she’d say she was Filipino, the veterans usually relaxed, since they believed Filipinos were American allies — and sometimes even the “little brown brothers” of the U.S.
My dad, on the other hand, tried not to acknowledge racism at all. He believed no one should have the right to treat him as inferior or as a second-class citizen because he had a college education. Whenever someone assumed he didn’t speak English well, my dad would reply with his version of a perfect American accent, having learned English as a child in the Philippines.
As a teenager, my experiences were varied. Some saw me and my peers as “model minorities” — ambitious children of hardworking Asian parents who knew the importance of education. I knew many non-Filipino adults who enjoyed talking to my parents, because they spoke English fluently. However, many of my classmates made fun of my parents — thankfully, only to me — because of their heavy accents.
Others considered me a “troublemaker.” I’ve been pulled over or harassed by police officers for no reason. Security or store clerks regularly followed my friends and me around in stores or malls. At school, a few teachers and counselors stereotyped the Filipino students as gangsters and did not encourage us to our full potential. I remember a high school counselor telling me I shouldn’t take certain honors classes because he didn’t think I’d do well in them. He later insisted I should go to a community college.
It wasn’t until I went to college at University of California at Irvine that I started to really develop my Filipino-American identity. My campus was 60% Asian-American and about one out of every eight students on my campus were Filipino. I joined — and later became president of — Kababayan, the Filipino-American student organization, 600 members strong. I danced the tinikling and singkil in our Pilipino Cultural Nights, and we sang the Philippine National Anthem at weekly meetings. And I finally read Rizal and Hagedorn and learned about the Bataan Death March.
In my Filipino-American Studies class, I learned that Filipino farmworkers like Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz led the Delano Grape Strikes of 1965, one of the greatest labor movements in U.S. history. In my Asian-American Psychology class, I learned about the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which put an end to immigration quotas and allowed for the influx of Asian immigrants like my parents to migrate to the U.S.
I was in college when I learned that October was Filipino-American History Month (FAHM). FAHM was originally founded by Fred and Dorothy Cordova and the Filipino American National Historical Society in 1988, and October was chosen to commemorate the first Filipinos who landed in the Americas: a small group of Filipino seafarers and servants who jumped ship en route to Spain. They landed in what is now known as Morro Bay in California in October 1587, decades before the Pilgrims would land on Plymouth Rock.
For the next 20 years, many states, like California and Michigan, and cities, like New York and Chicago, recognized the month with official proclamations. In 2009, the U.S. Congress and House of Representatives passed resolutions that officially recognized the month. And this past year, the White House hosted its very first FAHM celebration, as President Obama acknowledged that Filipino-Americans have “helped expand our Nation’s promise throughout every aspect of our society.”
I celebrated FAHM every year in college, so I was disheartened when I enrolled at Michigan State University to pursue my master’s degree and discovered that no one celebrated the month. I became the adviser to the small, but growing, Filipino-American student organization there, and it was through these students I learned even more about my Filipino-American identity.
Because I’d never had any Filipino-American professors, I wanted to become one.
None of these students had similar experiences to mine. They were usually the only Filipino kid in their high schools (and sometimes the only one in their respective towns). By meeting them, I began to appreciate all the resources I had. It was then when I also realized I wanted to become a professor, so I could educate others about Filipino-Americans and other marginalized groups. I wanted to encourage young people to understand and get in touch with their own cultural heritages and identities. Because I’d never had any Filipino-American professors, I wanted to become one.
When I was accepted into a doctoral program in counseling psychology at Columbia University, I made it a point to study everything related to multicultural issues in psychology. I focused on how Filipino-American culture and identity affect people’s mental health. There was little research on the topic, so I wanted to be the person to change that. While there were books on black psychology, Latino psychology, and Asian-American psychology, I wanted to write the first book on Filipino-American psychology (and I later did).
Ten years later, I’ve learned a lot about being Filipino-American. I’ve discovered that Filipinos are the second-largest Asian-American group (just after Chinese-Americans) and are the second-largest immigrant population (just after Mexican-Americans). I’ve also learned about the issues affecting our community, like the fact that American-born Filipinos don’t go to college or graduate school as much as their immigrant counterparts, or that Filipinos tend to have higher rates of depression than other Asian-Americans and the general population, yet are less likely to seek mental health treatment.
Perhaps Filipino-Americans don’t attend college or graduate school because they are stereotyped or discouraged by their teachers and counselors, paralleling what my friends and I experienced in high school. Perhaps Filipino-Americans have higher levels of depression and seek mental health help less often because, much like how my parents taught me how to deal with discrimination, we try to not talk about our hardships or negative life experiences.
I’ve also learned that, because the Philippines has a unique colonial history, it’s hard for people to place us racially. We Filipinos have brown skin like other Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders; some are even misidentified as black. Because of Spanish colonization, we tend to have Spanish last names and majority of us are (or at least were raised) Catholic, so we’re sometimes mistaken for Latinos. The U.S. also colonized the Philippines for almost 50 years, so most Filipinos, including those in the Philippines, are fluent in English.
Perhaps this is why Filipino-Americans experience so many different types of microaggressions. In my research, I’ve found that Filipino-Americans deal with microaggressions similar to those experienced by other Asian-American groups, like being stereotyped as exotic, a “model minority,” or a perpetual foreigner. However, Filipino-Americans also encounter microaggressions often encountered by African-Americans and Latinos, like being assumed to be dangerous or intellectually inferior.
I’ve also studied how concepts like colonial mentality and ethnic identity affect mental health. Colonial mentality is the idea that people from colonized places tend to view values and standards of beauty of the colonizer as good, while viewing those of the indigenous as being bad. For instance, Filipinos tend to view those with light skin as more beautiful or attractive, and those who speak English without Filipino accents as smarter or more sophisticated. Perhaps this is the reason why so many Filipino-Americans, including me, were never taught by our parents to speak their native language.
In retrospect, the one thing of which I am constantly reminded is that Filipino-Americans are a resilient people. Throughout our history in both the Philippines and the U.S., we have overcome these instances of tyranny, brutality, and inequality. We have fought for independence in the Philippines and marched for civil rights in the U.S. We have organized movements, formed coalitions with allies, and persevered against systemic discrimination, ignorance, and oppression.
We have comforted each other in times of despair and have supported the trailblazers who have represented us well. We have moved forward and persevered, usually with a smile, and always holding the hands of future generations behind us.
Kevin Nadal, Ph.D. is a professor at the City University of New York, the Executive Director of CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies, the President of the Asian American Psychological Association, and a National Trustee of the Filipino American National Historical Society.