Embracing my Filipino Heritage

Graphic by Madi Reyes/Graphics Center

Some of my core memories as a child may sound familiar to other Filipinx Americans. I remember being a young kid watching The Filipino Channel, with my lolo and lola. I remember eating Kamayan style with bare hands and going to Jollibee, a Filipinx fast food chain. I loved to make “parols,” which are Filipinx star decorations, on Christmas, and to have parties in support of Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao. These moments meant a lot to me and helped me become who I am today. 

Despite enjoying these things, my younger self never understood the significance of having roots in Filipinx culture. I now know how important it is for Filipinx Americans to take pride in their cultural identity and embrace it. 

According to the American Psychological Association, 96% of Filipino immigrants to the United States reported being exposed to Filipino-inferiorizing messages while still living in the Philippines. 

My family is a product of this. My grandparents were immigrants who had to adapt to a new life in the U.S. They immigrated to San Francisco to flee the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, which was under martial law at the time. Martial law caused political, social and economic turmoil under Marcos, causing many Filipinx people to migrate to other countries, according to the Center for Migrant Advocacy. Many of these immigrants, such as my grandparents, came to the U.S.

My grandparents were attracted by the U.S.’s reputation as a “land of opportunity.” However, when they arrived, there were many challenges they had to face. Learning a new language, adapting to a different environment, and meeting groups of people from different backgrounds are all extremely difficult, especially if you are new to the country. 

Whenever my lola cooked sinigang, a Filipinx soup, I dreaded bringing it to school — most kids had lunches like sandwiches, chips, and fruit. Sinigang uses pork, beef, shrimp, and fish as its main protein. The broth is stewed with tomatoes, garlic and onions. Sinigang is one of the most popular Filipinx dishes and is an integral part of Filipinx culture. Its sour flavor and mixture of protein and veggies makes it delicious. It is known as a comfort food for Fil-Am and Filipinx people alike. It has indigenous origins and existed before the country was colonized

My lola would put the cooked dish inside a reusable container. When the steam built up inside, it would create a smell some kids weren’t familiar with. Whenever this happened, I wanted to buy lunch from the school cafeteria. I didn’t want to be different or labeled as the kid whose food had a “weird smell.” I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from a colonial mentality.

According to the American Psychological Association, colonial mentality is defined as internalized oppression “characterized by a perception of ethnic or cultural inferiority” that “involves an automatic and uncritical rejection of anything Filipino and an automatic and uncritical preference for anything American.”

The colonial mentality is embedded in Filipinx culture and reinforces privileges that benefit American culture over indigenous languages, clothing, and food. The Philippines were colonized by Spain and the U.S. and since then, the country has rippled with colonial mentality. In 2014, according to the Inquirer, Filipinx people had an 85% approval rating of the United States, the highest of any country.

An example of colonial mentality would be the common practice of skin-whitening products being purchased, driving a preference for lighter skin, according to Virginia Commonwealth University. 

I didn’t really get outside exposure to my culture until high school, when I joined my school’s  Philipino American Club, a group focused on bringing awareness to Filipinx culture. I learned tinkling, a traditional Filipinx dance, Filipinx delicacies, and the history of the Philippines. I also learned the “Isang bagsak” unity clap, which translates to “When one falls, we all fall.” The chant is a way of showing solidarity and is ubiquitous in Filipino politics. It has been popularized with the United Farm Workers movement by Filipino labor activist Larry Itliong and the People Power Movement in the Philippines, which ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

When I first came to USF, I wasn’t surprised to see a lot of Filipinos on campus, given that USF is ranked second in the nation for diversity, but I was shocked to see that Kasamahan is the largest culturally focused organization on campus. 

I wanted to fully learn about my culture, so I joined. Being able to build a “kuya/ading,” or “big/little,” friendship through KATE, a program that promotes mentorship within the Filipinx community, allowed me to educate my “ading” to be more involved and learn more about Filipinx culture. I also participated in Philippine Cultural Night, and even attended the International Hotel tour, which displayed the remnants of the last Filipinx American neighborhood in San Francisco. Kasamahan helped affirm my cultural identity and made me feel proud of it.

To Filipinx people who aren’t embracing their cultural identity, I would encourage you to take pride. Get involved in your community. Talk with your lolos, lolas, titos, and titas, and educate yourself about your roots. Filipinx culture is rich and diverse, and being ignorant of it shows how powerfully colonialism has influenced our culture. 

Start to slowly decolonize your mind from colonial thinking. No culture is superior to others. It’s important for us as Filipinx Americans to take pride in our cultural identity.

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