What are you?” people often ask upon meeting me. “Mexican? Italian?”
My mixed ancestry makes it difficult to guess.
“My mother is from the Philippines,” I tell them. “My father is American.”
Usually, these people know little about the Philippines. Most Americans know next to nothing about our culture.
Maybe it’s our fault. Filipinos are masters of assimilation. When the Spaniards colonized us, we absorbed their language and customs. When the Americans came, we learned their tongue as well. Ours is a fusion of cultures, and our heritage is richer for it.
Yet it also works against us.
Unlike our Chinese or Indian or Mexican neighbors, Filipinos do not have a large presence in America. We do not have a dozen Filipino restaurants within a five mile radius to choose from when we are craving tapsilog. There are rarely Filipino characters in the books we read or the movies we watch. Sometimes, there are Filipino actors, but they are usually assigned to play a Hispanic or Native American character.
In this melting pot of a country, where so many diverse groups of people converge, it is sometimes difficult to hold on to my heritage. How, then, can I explain it to others?
How can I explain to them the centuries steeped in respect, the taste of adobo, the sticky-sweet heat of summer in Manila? How can I explain to them the abiding ties of family, the hospitality instinctively shown to strangers, the rugged perseverance, the determination to succeed in everything we do?
Sometimes, I fear that what it means to be Filipino will dissolve in the hustle and bustle of American life. Many Filipino Americans of my generation do not speak Tagalog. When meeting friends of my mother, they are shocked when I greet them in Tagalog. “Mabuti,” they say. “Good for you. My children don’t know Tagalog.”
Still, I have faith that our cultural presence will grow. I have faith because I understand the resilience of the Filipino people. We adapt, we assimilate, we bend but we do not break. We are evolving into a distinct subset of American culture.
We are American, but we are still Filipino. Even those of us who were raised in the States retain our sense of Filipino identity. We are proud Americans, yes, but that does not mean we have forgotten our heritage.
My friends and I practice Tagalog with each other, hoping to improve our accents. We do not have many people outside of our families to speak with. We beg our older relatives for family recipes so that we can make our own empanada.
We have one foot in each world. We are fully American and fully Filipino and we are carving an identity from both cultures. We are Filipino Americans.
Through my friends, I see the future of our community, the possibilities of what it can become. Our parents brought our families to America and now it falls to us to uphold Filipino tradition, to transplant our culture to this country and watch it thrive. I have faith in my friends and colleagues, in the unbridled potential we possess.
We are connected by our families, by our heritage, by our hopes and dreams for the future. Together, we will show America what it means to be Filipino. Barkada tayo.