Being American and Filipino

Last week, I attended the Filipino Cultural Association of the University of Maryland’s Filipino American Studies Gala. It was encouraging to learn of an ethnic studies program that is actually thriving rather than being criticized, or worse, cut. It was also heartening, as it always is, to see Fil-Am youth proud of both their American and Filipino identities.

There is an obvious thirst among these second and third generation immigrants to learn about and connect with their Asian roots – with being Filipino. At this event, they played Filipino ballads I have not heard since my childhood as well as “soft jazz” and muzak popular among many Filipinos. They performed dances from the Philippine Muslim South and Christian North.

It was these awkward but endearing renditions of the Kapa Malong-Malong and Sakuting that made me think, what exactly are these kids connecting to? What are they approximating? Fact is, 99.9 percent of all Filipinos, have never danced this way in real life. My parent’s generation knew how to boogie and cha-cha, while in the eighties, my friends and I did punk rock and new wave in Manila.

This is not the only way or the first time that Filipinos in diaspora have romanticized and conceptualized what it is to be Filipino. Reme Grefalda, Curator of the Library of Congress’ Asian American Pacific Collection and speaker at the event, would characterize this as a need to return to our parents’ sense of nostalgia which is to be expected and respected. There is nothing wrong in wanting to learn a Philippine language and being familiar with Filipino heritage and history. There is much to be said about imbibing some of our forebears’ core values.

Being Filipino is more than language, dance and history however. I recall debates from decades back about what true Filipino culture and identity is. Some hearkened back to pre-colonial times. Others argued that 300 years under Spanish rule had indelibly marked us with Latin culture. Still it cannot be denied that it didn’t take long for Americans to pump Hollywood, English, liberal democracy and aspiration for all things American into our veins.

Being Filipino and American makes it all the more complex and rich, worthy to be known and celebrated independently. Grefalda exhorts Filipino Americans to use Philippine history as a background, a starting point, for their own history distinct from their ancestors. She would like us to begin a new narrative which celebrates our hyphenated identity in the United States. I wholeheartedly agree.

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