Saturday, June 25, 2011

Glimpses: What is Filipino-American?


Visiting America regularly in the last four years to help promote the Gawad Kalinga movement has made me understand more deeply the life of most Filipino-Americans. I had many assumptions that have dramatically changed, and a few that have been affirmed even more so. My first visits to the United States just over forty years ago were business-driven and ended in 1986 after the historic speech of Corazon Aquino before the US Congress. It took twenty years before I visited again, and I have been in a special journey of rediscovering Filipinos who have become Americans ever since.

There was a census taken last year, 2010, and the results are not yet out. The speculation, though, is that there must be approximately four million Filipinos in America, mostly documented and now citizens of the United States or in the process of being so. They are not Overseas Filipino Workers, they are immigrants. They are not leaving the motherland temporarily, they are leaving it forever as Filipinos to become Filipino-Americans. They are like the daughters of a family who get married and then adopt the family name of their husbands, permanently out of the home where they were born and raised.

The foreign language, the vastness of America, the lifestyle of the West and a developed economy confront new and budding Filipino-Americans and force them to make dramatic changes in their own lives and habits. Except for the few who did migrate to the United States as rich Filipinos, the rest have had to wrestle with the drastic changes of their new environment. While the trappings of an advanced economy must have dazzled the new Filipino-American, having to struggle to afford these must have rattled many of them. But as an ethnic group, after several decades and waves of migration, Filipino-Americans have arrived, have survived, and are thriving in their new country of opportunity.

Filipino-Americans are full-fledged American citizens. When introducing themselves to the world, they are Americans and accorded all the rights and privileges of American citizens. When they need identification and travel documents, they go to American agencies; abroad, they go to American embassies. They may look brown, but they are Americans.

There is actually no need to call themselves Filipino-Americans because they are Americans and not Filipinos. Even though they are of Filipino descent, they cannot identify themselves as Filipino citizens, only as American citizens. The rest is true of other American citizens as well, no matter what motherland they may have come from. They are all immigrants from somewhere (except the American Indians), mostly Europe a few centuries ago, and now from all over the rest of the world. They are Americans now, not British, not French, not Italians, not Germans, not Africans, not Polish, not Israelis, not Spanish, not Portuguese, not Mexican, not Vietnamese, not Chinese, not Filipinos.

Moving across America, especially when I do so overland and driving for days making stops whenever the tired body needs to, I interact with many Americans from the gas stations to the groceries to the shops and restaurants. Most of them identify themselves as Americans, of course. Very few quickly say, I am “Afro-American, German-American, etc.” even though physical attributes may strongly indicate their original countries or regions. And, rightly so because they are Americans.

This is a reality I have had to struggle with in my mind and in my heart, to accept that Filipinos are now Americans – as much as that white person whose ancestors came from Europe, as much as that black person whose ancestors came from Africa, as much as all the rest whose ancestors came from some part of the globe. I did not realize until so much later that I had assumptions that were not necessarily false, but definitely not true anymore. I believe that many Filipinos in the motherland have similar assumptions as the ones I had, and one day will have to learn the same lessons as I do today.

What makes it difficult to realize that Filipinos in America are now Americans and not Filipinos is the fact that they keep identifying themselves as Filipinos by using the word “Filipino” in the term “Filipino-American.” By holding on to the word “Filipino”, Filipino-Americans are regarded as more Filipino than American by Filipinos in the Philippines. Much more so by their own families or relatives. There may be some who more quickly say, “I am not Filipino, I am American,” but these  do not yet reflect the mainstream sentiments and articulation of Filipinos who are now Americans.

The term “Filipino-American” used to identify Filipinos who are now American citizens serve to keep deep bonds alive. No matter how substantial the changes have been in their lives, most Filipino-Americans retain traits that identify them as Filipinos, including language or regional dialect. These bonds make it difficult for many of us to realize the major shift of citizenship, of required obligations attached to that citizenship, of global identity.

Since the use of the term “Filipino-American” is one by choice of those as only the term “American” is required by law, it might be time for Filipino-Americans to reflect on the reasons why they choose to identify themselves as such. By holding on to the word “Filipino”, Filipino-Americans must realize that there are implications when doing so. The word “Filipino” is a term that is alive, representing a race and a motherland. If there is no strong attachment to one’s race and one’s motherland, there is no reason or benefit to continue identifying oneself as “Filipino” when one is already an American.

The context of choice is that it has implications, and these implications affect the lives of those who make choices and many others. By calling themselves “Filipino-Americans”, Filipinos who are now Americans involve make a choice that keep them attached to the Filipino race and the Filipino motherland.

(Below is the second part where the author discusses about the choice, the attachment, and the implications they have on all who care about being Filipino.)

What Is The Filipino-American? (Part II)


The term “Filipino” is the family name of Filipinos who reside in the Philippines as native sons and daughters of a race belonging to the motherland known as the Philippines. It is the father’s family name for Filipino citizens, and it serves as the mother’s family name for Filipino-Americans who continue to call themselves “Filipino-Americans.”

The dimension of Filipinos as a race or a national family is not appreciated nearly enough. The fact that our ancestors had not reached nationhood before colonial powers took control of the motherland and dominated even the way Filipinos lived explains why the sense of nationhood is weak. The assumption of race as a national family is more biological than a lived reality; the sense of the collective, of the whole, has yet to become part of the Filipino psyche.

The sense of a personal family, however, is deep and, in fact, dominates the Filipino lifestyle. For one’s family, a Filipino can go more than the extra mile, can live a life of sacrifice. The Filipino is strongly anchored on the family, and reversely so, very weakly grounded on a sense of nation. In the United States, the income of the Filipino family is second only to another ethnic group and higher than mainstream American families. This is a reflection of how a Filipino family working together can achieve from a secure foundation. And a remittance level of $8 billion from Filipino-Americans to their families in the Philippines these last two years is an outstanding measure of that sense of family.

Locked to personal family ties, Filipinos have had serious difficulty in expanding the sense of a personal family to a sense of a national or global family. A true nation does not exist because personal family boundaries cannot be transcended, or pushed further out to accommodate neighborhoods, communities and the whole motherland. This underdevelopment of a priority to the common good keeps Filipinos divided, divisive, and vulnerable to the machinations of their own leaders or the government of other countries.

Filipinos who left the Philippines to migrate to America did not leave their weaknesses behind, only an environment where opportunities could not match the natural wealth of the motherland. Many in leadership positions among Filipino-Americans mirror the qualities of leadership in the Philippines, if not in the tendency to exploit, then in the tendency to put personal interests, including pride, ahead of the common good. Then, the ordinary mass of Filipinos, both in the Philippines and in the United States, remain servile, subservient, submissive, and in avoidance of participation in community affairs. Most are also very tired and have no motivation to exchange a weekend of rest to watching Filipino-American associations, or their leaders, compete and put down one another.

In the last four years of going back and forth the Philippines and America, I have yet to read or hear a comprehensive perspective of the Filipino-American. Almost ten years ago, I stumbled on a market research survey about the cost-of-living of Filipino-Americans, estimated at $50 billion annually. It could be more than $60 billion today. Aside from a remittance to the Philippines of $8 billion, the average per capita GDP of Americans is $47,000 – and I am assuming that it is the same, or higher, for Filipino-Americans. If so, Filipino-Americans may be earning an estimated $$114 billion annually assuming there are three million Filipino-Americans today (I suspect more).

In early 2008, I was privy to survey results done in San Diego County which estimated that only 5% maximum of Filipino-Americans participate in community affairs. In several other places I have been to in the United States, estimates may even be lower. Again, mirroring their patterned subservience which translates to passivity in the United States, Filipino-Americans are largely uninvolved, unseen, unheard and unfelt. No wonder that Wikipedia refers to Filipino-Americans as either the “invisible” or “silent” minority. Yet, the attachment and generosity to their personal families translate to an awesome $8 billion a year.
If Filipino-Americans do not know their collective strength, they are more aware of their weaknesses. So many disparaging remarks are made by Filipino-Americans themselves about, not only regarding the poverty, corruption and divisiveness of Filipinos and the Philippines, but also about negative traits and behavior of their fellow immigrants in the United States. They are the first to bash themselves and their roots. I do not think there is anyone in second place. Thank goodness that the vast majority is silent enough not to add to this public or Internet bashing against Filipinos and Filipino-Americans.

Last week, I received an unusual amount of commentaries or responses to Part One of this series. The variety of their written comments affirms the many ways that Filipino-Americans think of themselves and others like them. I was pleasantly surprised, though, that all of those who wrote me had a positive take on their being Filipino – even if some had criticisms for how others are.

I had mentioned that Filipino-Americans have choices about how they can call themselves, either as “Americans” or as “Filipino-Americans.” In the Philippines, there is no choice, of course—we are simply and only “Filipinos.” But when Filipino in America choose to call themselves “Filipino-Americans,” they invoke the family name of their race and motherland. Without that live connection to blood and land, the term “Filipino” for Filipino-Americans has no real meaning.

Those who refer to themselves as Filipino-Americans are saying, “I belong to the Filipino race, and the Philippines is the land of my ancestors.” Immediately, non-Filipinos who hear this think of the Filipino people aside from just the individual Filipino-American speaking. Together with this is the assigning to the family name all that is positive and negative about the Filipino. Filipino-Americans, therefore, cannot escape being seen or judged as a people. Their own personal status is affected by the reputation or the imagery of the family name, for good or for bad.

There are many attributes of Filipinos that are beautiful and noble. Sadly, though, it is collective poverty and endemic corruption that dominate in the definition of the Filipino and the Philippines. Is this imagery one that Filipino-Americans have to live with? Or is there a way to reverse history?
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