By Jayna Gavieres
Being a first-generation born Filipino-American citizen and raised in southern California, I grew up in the small city of Diamond Bar, which in the late ‘90s and early 2000’s had diverse public school districts. Throughout those years I knew most of the Filipino students, if not all of them, but I generally made my way around different cliques. I used to live across the street from the beautiful St. Denis Catholic Church, where the Filipino community was predominant. My mother spent a few years singing with the church choir on Sundays, and during the same time both of my parents were on a cool bowling league that played weekly. The ‘90s was really the only significant period when I was immersed within the Filipino culture until I moved up north.
Although I associated with fellow Filipinos throughout my adolescence, I had very few of whom I considered my closest friends. This later came to a surprise for me when I moved to San Francisco for college in 2006; I ended up befriending a lot of Filipinos/ Filipino Americans. Little did I know that the Bay Area Filipino community is both very strong and widespread.
When I had become pregnant at 23 years old without a college degree, I felt it was best to raise a child with the help and support of my parents. I reluctantly left my Filipino community of friends and family of five years and I haven’t felt as connected to my heritage since.
Now that I’ve entered my 30s, I have a very curious, 7-year-old mini Pinay by my side, I often worry that she’ll have bouts of confusion in her multicultural life like I did. I contemplate about how I can minimize that dissonance for her. To hopefully one day provide her clarity, I conducted an interview with other parents of Filipino descent to dig deeper on what it means to be Filipino vs. American.
Lisa Garcia, 45, is a first-generation born, proud Filipino-American who grew up with parents that some would classify as being “traditional Filipino”.
“My parents are full-on Filipino and when I say full-on I mean very conservative and strict,” Garcia said. “My parents were strict on me, but not so much on my brother so it might be a double standard. When I ask my friends about them being raised every one was different.”
Garcia went to a private Catholic school in Atwater, California, from kindergarten through high school, went to church on Sundays and blessed her elders. Those were the typical customs she remembers upholding while growing up in a Filipino family. She pleasantly reflects on a show from the legendary author and documentarian Anthony Bourdain,
“He traveled to the Philippines and said that Filipinos are hospitable and generous, and I see and feel that, too,” Garcia said. “They’re kind and hardworking people.”
Wilfredo Abad, a 57-year-old Filipino-American immigrant, shared with me that his parents were also religious and practiced the Catholic faith but they never enforced a religious lifestyle onto him or his siblings.
“We learned the culture of the Philippines from being in that environment and practicing customs like showing signs of respectful and blessing the elders,” Abad said. “But I think the culture is really about those certain values of being a good person.”
My 64-year-old mother was born in the Philippines and immigrated to the States at 16. However, she never quite considered herself connected to Filipino culture. Her stepfather was American and her mother wasn’t around, which mainly inhibited on instilling a Filipino lifestyle. So when I asked her the question of what the Filipino culture is, I wasn’t very surprised that she couldn’t give me a definitive answer.
“To me it’s acknowledging that you have Filipino blood and knowing the cultural history, even if you don’t necessarily identify with it,” my mother said. “I consider myself more Americanized because I don’t know anything else.”
It seems obvious that I’d easily identify with the Filipino culture based on physical attributes alone, but even then people often assume I’m a mix of races. I don’t relate to the typical Filipino stereotypes such as a FOB accent because I don’t have one and neither do my parents, really. In fact, they rarely spoke Tagalog unless they were around other Filipinos. They were not strict nor did we bless our elders or practice Catholicism. I was never pushed to work in the medical field, and I don’t believe in superstitions much, but hey, I do sing and I eat a lot of Filipino cuisine so that alone should make me Filipino, right?!
What I’ve come to realize is that physical attributes and stereotypes are quick categorizations; they’re not where the heart of any culture thrives. The heart is in the customs, the traditions, and the values that embody that culture. But when you’re a person of color immersed in American culture, it’s why I can fully identify as Filipino-American.
I’ve learned that many cultures around the world are collectivistic in that family comes first and decisions are based on the betterment of the whole. In America, while we still value family, society embodies individualism that this country encourages. The individual is the priority. “I think the American culture is international,” Abad said. “It’s a melting pot of people all over the world.”
My older brother, Andrew Gavieres, shares the same feelings about the American culture as Wilfredo Abad and my mom. Filipino culture doesn’t mean very much to him. Most importantly, he proudly identifies as being American.
“The American culture is a mix of many cultures being blended together,” he said. “If you think of American culture in a more modern sense, it would mean being self-relying and having pride in your country and what you do to take care of yourself.”
He believes that our parents’ choice to come to America was because the American life is freeing. We can create our own choices and traditions. We can pass on what’s important to us with our children so that they’ll, too, self-identify and share that with their families.
I still had lingering questions. I spoke to Eric Nadera, a 30-year-old first-generation born Filipino-American. His mother is full-blooded Chinese, learned Tagalog when she was raised in the Philippines and she identifies as Filipino.
His mom’s unique story resonate with me because it reflects the stories of Filipino immigrants coming to America: many who are full Filipino, who are raised in the States, but culturally identifies more with being Filipino than American.
In my opinion, moving to a new country means having to assimilate to a new culture. Without embracing American culture fully, there will be lots of struggle, especially within interpersonal relationships. This is why I found it difficult to relate to the struggles of my Filipino friends. I’m not saying my family didn’t struggle, but because my parents fully accepted the American lifestyle it stands for, I was raised very differently than most of the Filipinos I knew.
“Since people grow up differently people value things differently, so it’s difficult to really define what Filipino-American culture is,” Gavieres said.
And I somewhat agree. I’ve often questioned my identity because learning how to navigate a multi-cultural life is difficult while being a single mother, but mainly because I’m still on this path of discovery, even in my 30s, and I’ve slowly learned that that’s ok.
So, what does it mean to be Filipino vs. American? With more confidence than I had before, I can now proudly say that to me being Filipino means understanding my roots and knowing where my ancestors came from. To me, being Filipino means working hard to adopt those cultural attributes that serve me purpose, so that I can integrate them into the American lifestyle. After all, just like my parents before me, I live in America because I have the freedom and power to create a better future for my family and myself.
Lisa Garcia, Wilfredo Abad, Eric Nadera and I all agree that there’s no doubt we’ll teach our kids about Filipino culture and especially when it comes to the masarap Filipino dishes. However, when it comes down to faith, traditional customs, who their children choose to marry , etc., what we all ultimately want is for them to be happy. That’s what I define as Filipino-American culture.