Accepting + Loving My Filipina Heritage
October is Filipino American History Month. Congress officially recognized the contributions of the Filipino community to the United States in 2009. And, just like Congress, it took me a couple decades to also accept and eventually love my heritage.
Growing up half-Filipina and half-Pakistani in Iowa, I wanted nothing more than to be “American.” I saw friends eating spaghetti and burgers for dinner, talking to boys on the phone, wearing cool clothes and attending school dances.
I instead ate stew with fish heads and rice, couldn’t talk to boys outside of school until I was 16 (at least not openly), had to dress somewhat modestly. And school dances? Don’t even think about it. My parents were politically liberal and open-minded, but they were very strict with my older brother and me.
My Filipina mother, Tessie, and I butted heads constantly because of her strict rules. I couldn’t understand why she was trying to raise me like we lived in the Philippines instead of the United States. It took going to college and then several more years to finally understand and value what my mom and the larger Filipino American community bring into my life and their local communities.
An Interconnected History
When I was in fourth or fifth grade, my classmates and I took turns reading out loud from a history textbook. My teacher called on me to specifically read a four-paragraph passage. It was a highlight reel of the Philippines’ national hero, Jose Rizal, President Emilio Aguinaldo and Filipino revolutionary Andres Bonifacio and their fight for independence from Spain. That was the only Filipino history I learned about until college.
In college, I took the opportunity to enroll in a Filipino history class from a visiting Filipino professor. I learned that there is a long, shared history of the Philippines and the United States. It is a history that could fill hundreds of history books, let alone four paragraphs.
Filipinos first landed in North America around 1587, several years before the first Pilgrims. Before the U.S. declared independence from England, Filipinos settled in what would eventually become Louisiana. Over the centuries, the Filipino population continued to grow in America.
According to the Pew Research Center, Filipinos make up 18% of the Asian population in the U.S. Filipinos are the third-largest Asian group in the country. Filipino Americans are politicians, teachers, doctors, lawyers, stylists, nurses and every profession in between. The contributions of the Filipino community to the U.S. are just as abundant.
In the 1920s, Filipino men, called “manongs,” came to the U.S. to work in Hawaiian and Californian plantations and in the fisheries of Washington and Alaska. The manongs later played a significant role in the farm worker and labor movements. Larry Itiliong organized Filipino laborers to strike with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
During World War II, Filipino guerilla soldiers fought alongside U.S. solders. Even after General Douglas MacArthur escaped from the Philippines to Australia in 1942, Filipino guerilla forces kept the fight going against Japanese occupation for three years until his return. With their help, the Japanese occupying forces were defeated. Despite fighting alongside the U.S. and the thousands of lives lost, it took seven decades for Filipino veterans to receive any kind of veterans benefit from the U.S. government.
Our shared history with our Black brothers and sisters also goes back decades, starting with the Buffalo Soldiers deployed to the Philippines during the Filipino-American War, through the Civil Rights Movement, to the continuing social justice movement today with activists like Kalaya’an Mendoza who fight for our collective rights.
The list of individual Filipino contributors is long:
Finding Acceptance + Self-Love
The Filipino community is filled with resilient, kind and caring people. They overcame decades of colonization, imperialism and a dictatorship, while incorporating and integrating the many cultures that make up the essence of the Filipino American community. Just look at Filipino food to get a glimpse of the melting pot that is Filipino American culture.
Their contributions are tightly woven into the fabric of America and go far beyond the professions and celebrities. I finally found acceptance for my mom’s culture — my culture — in the little acts of love I see in her, my titas and my titos.
My mom’s table is always open to anyone who asks. She loves to cook Filipino staples for my best friends and husband: chicken adobo, pancit, lumpia, turon, bibingka, sinigng, arroz caldo and tinola. I am constantly getting text messages from her saying, “I cooked food. Come and get.”
I went to college in Dallas, Texas, my first home and birthplace, where my parents also studied. While there, I joined my Uncle Levy’s church, which was 90% Filipino congregants. Being surrounded by this wonderful and supportive group of people, I finally saw my mom’s rules and customs, which I’d thought were so foreign, for what they were. They were acts of love for her children and future generations. When I visit Dallas, I see that love in this large, adopted, extended family. Trips to Dallas are always a whirlwind of open doors, cheek pinches, food and gifts.
But what I came to respect the most is the strict upbringing. My mom and dad were strict not because they were unwilling to assimilate, but because they sacrificed so much for their children and wanted us to succeed. My Filipino American friends know this sacrifice well. Our parents left their families half a world away to provide a better life for their families back home and their future families.
My mom is an educator and trained opera singer. In the U.S. she worked an overnight shift at a hotel just so I could finish high school at the school I wanted to with my friends. At the same time, she sent money back home to provide for my titos and my late grandparents. This isn’t unique to my mom. Almost 10% of the Philippines’ GDP is personal remittances sent from family overseas.
My mom and dad raised two kids in a foreign country with almost no immediate family close to by. My brother and I are their American Dream. My parents sacrificed their homelands, families and way of life to give my brother and me every opportunity they never had. My parents weren’t strict, they were protecting their American Dream the best way they knew how with love, discipline and a sense of familial bonds.
It would be remiss of me to sing the praises of Filipino American heritage without also relaying our issues. I’m acutely aware of the issues present in our community. My mom still drives me bonkers. We still fight and say hurtful things. Anyone with a Filipino mom knows Filipino moms have strong personalities and even stronger words. The Filipino community’s views on mental health, sex education, sexuality and colonial beauty standards are still problematic, but they are changing little by little. I will continue to educate my mom, titos and titas while continuing to respect and embrace the culture that made me the person I am today.
This Filipino American History Month, I encourage you to learn more about this resilient and diverse group of people. The Filipino American National Historical Society offers resources and education for anyone interested.
Locally, I’m proud to be a member of the Filipino American Society of Iowa (FAS). FAS membership is open to anyone who is interested in the combined cultural, social and political histories of the United States and the Philippines. We host several cultural events throughout the year and will be hosting a celebration of Filipino heritage and culture with our annual Pista sa Nayon event on Saturday, Oct. 9. All are welcome to attend.
It took me a long time to get to this place of self-love, but I’m glad I’m finally here. I’m happy that I recognize I can be Filipina, Pakistani and American all at the same time. And that all these cultures I claim as my own are the true embodiment of what it means to be “American.” I hope you can learn to love the Filipino American community for all its beauty and faults as much as I do. Mabuhay ang Pilipinas at Amerika!
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