Filipino Community Portraitby M. C. Canlas
Filipino Identity and National Consciousness
The term "Filipino" is a historical construction of identity and consciousness from top to bottom. The first group of people to identify themselves as Filipinos were the Philippine-born Spanish to differentiate and distance themselves from the more powerful Peninsulares, the Iberian Peninsula–born Spanish. Later the name included the mestisos, or the offspring of mixed marriages between natives and Spanish or Chinese, and the ilustrados.
The revolution of 1896 and the declaration of independence on June 12, 1898, hastened the emergence of a Filipino nation and the unification of the people in the pueblos and plazas, including the communities in the mountains and far-flung areas, in their struggle to be free. Though the main action occurred in metropolitan Manila and neighboring provinces, people throughout the islands saw the struggle as their own. The momentous turning point produced national heroes and history, a guiding consciousness that would foster national unification and national identity.
Then entered the United States, the new colonial master, through its declaration of war against Spain over Cuba; U.S. forces sailed into Manila bay and extended President McKinley’s Manifest Destiny and "Benevolent Assimilation" to the newly established and fragile nation. The U.S. Congress "purchased" the Philippines from Spain for $20 million. For the United States, a late bloomer among empire builders, the Philippines was useful both as an economic and a military base in the Far East. The price: 120,000 U.S. troops subdued the Filipino national struggle, and by the end of the Philippine-American War, an estimated one-sixth of the 7 million Filipino citizens had perished due to starvation, disease, and murder.
By co-opting the local elite, giving them government posts and positions of relative advantage for their own personal benefit, rather than trying to fulfill the needs of the majority of Filipinos, and through educating the Filipino people, the American colonizers took the shortest and most comprehensive route to pacification and Americanization of the Philippines. In 1901, six hundred American teachers arrived in the Philippines aboard the USS Thomas (later called the Thomasites) and began to institute a universal education system taught in English and based on the American educational system. As Filipino historian Renato Constantino put it, "Education became mis-education because it began to de-Filipinize the youth, taught them to regard American culture as superior to any other, and American society as the model par excellence for Philippine society."
For two decades before 1900, the Filipinos experienced the birthing of national identity and consciousness from years of colonialism. In the next two decades, Filipino nationalism was suppressed by the new colonial master.
Immigration of Filipinos to the United States
U.S. historical records date the earliest arrival of people from the Philippines to 1700, with the entry along the southeastern coast of Louisiana of Filipinos believed to be descendants of Filipino seamen who had escaped from Spanish galleons. However, the largest migration of Filipinos in America happened after the adoption of the 1965 Immigration Act, which abolished national origins quotas and permitted entry based on family reunification and occupational characteristics. The Filipino census count grew from 2,700 in 1910 to 122,000 in 1950, to 343,000 in 1970, and to 1.4 million by 1990. The post-1965 migration was influenced by two other significant immigration periods: 1906–34, the "Manong Generation," and 1945–65, the "Postwar Generation."
The 1906–34 immigration of manongs (older brothers) was composed mainly of young (in their teens and twenties), single, uneducated or poorly educated men from the rural areas of Ilocos and Visayas. They were recruited to work in sugar plantations in Hawaii, agricultural farms in California, canneries in Alaska and Washington, and at other menial jobs. White American men viewed them as competition for jobs and women. Though U.S. nationals by virtue of the Philippines being a colony of the United States, they were not allowed to vote, own property, start businesses, or marry Caucasian women.
The core value of building families was deterred by the sex imbalance (20 men to 1 woman in 1920; 14:1 in 1930). Some of the manongs had left wives and children behind in the Philippines, others married later in life, usually to younger women, whether in America or back home. But a significant number remained isolated, lonely and poor, suffering racial, social, and economic discrimination. In spite of their misfortunes, these pioneer immigrants managed to send part of their hard-earned money to family in the Philippines, built Filipino social and church organizations, organized and joined trade unions, and formed a mutual aid and support system. A San Francisco "Manilatown" developed on Kearny Street near Chinatown and became a gathering place for urban Filipinos as well as migrant workers. According to Lemuel Ignacio, an organizer of immigrants South of Market:
I am told that there were no Pilipinos on welfare lines during the Depression. Because of their highly communal life they pulled together their inner strength and resources to survive when the economy of the United States collapsed.
The 1945–65 period included more women and children, mostly the families of World War II veterans or men recruited to work in the U.S. military. Others immigrated as professionals and students, gravitating to key cities, where they built communities with social and professional organizations, church groups, and cultural centers. They formed their support system and bayanihan traditions. They had an easier time adjusting to American institutions and ways of life, in spite of the economic and racial discrimination they experienced.
By the late sixties, when the U.S. port of entry was opened to professionals and skilled workers and their families, the U.S. labor market was demanding professionals and educated workers. Other factors playing a significant role in the massive influx of Filipinos during this period were (1) the deteriorating Philippine economy and dependency on the U.S. dollar; (2) the inhospitable political climate, particularly under Marcos and martial law; (3) the cultural Americanization of the Filipinos; and (4) the relatively welcoming environment of the United States.
Community Issues and Needs
Although Filipinos have a long history in America and are one of the largest immigrant groups, they have a surprisingly small voice in politics and very few services have been dedicated to assisting them. They have received fewer culturally based health and education programs because it was incorrectly assumed that all were fluent in English, but this alone does not explain the less prominent position of Filipinos compared with other Asian immigrants.
In 1993, the Executive Report of the Pilipino Health Task Force concluded that Filipinos in San Francisco suffered from a general lack of access to health care as evidenced by their low utilization rate. The task force found a number of health and mental health threats to the Filipino community, including high rates of inadequate immunization, tooth decay, and teen pregnancy; the highest number of reported HIV cases among Asians; a disproportionate death rate due to heart disease; and a high incidence of tuberculosis. Inadequate Filipino-specific data and inadequate numbers of Filipino staff were among the barriers to the provision of services.
A further study of Filipinos in San Francisco’s South of Market area concluded that personal relations and cultural and linguistic competency of the service providers significantly affected the utilization of services by Filipinos. The study found that word-of-mouth referrals and face-to-face interactions were among the best outreach approaches and that socioeconomic status as well as family relationships helped determine the patterns of service utilization.
Issues and Concerns in the Interface
Immigrant Filipinos have brought to their new environment both the barangay structure and the plaza complex of their homeland. Filipino families pool their resources to buy or maintain a house and lot, preferring to locate them near other Filipinos. But unlike the barangay in the Philippines, the new neighborhoods lack a sense of community, with few connections or bridges between people. There are few Filipino service providers and agencies linking the people from their "island." To rekindle the barangay spirit, and reaffirm their Filipino identity, Filipinos tend to visit the fragmented and dispersed "structures" of the old plaza. They form community through their churches, congregations, and prayer groups; their family and clan gatherings; and their regional, hometown, and alumni associations. However, the Filipino service providers in community based-agencies may function as bayani (protector/advocate) of emerging Filipino community.
American-born and -raised Filipino youth, children of mixed marriages, and, to certain degree, newly arrived youth, are in the interface. They tend to create distance and be disconnected from their parents’ core values and family traditions, including language, culture, and identity. They gravitate more among their peers. Under a different cultural environment, Filipino immigrant parents tend to continue the child-rearing practice they learned in the Philippines. Without the conveniences of support system of relatives and nannies, compounded with their economic sustenance, often they leave their children by themselves and have the television and toys be their common "companion." Dr. Aurora Tompar-Tiu, an expert of Filipino mental health, posits:
A conflict-provoking cultural gap may appear when older children and adolescents of first-generation parents start becoming assertive about their westernized inclination toward individuality. Parent and grandparents become deeply hurt and angered by the children’s perceived lack of respect and ingratitude. This perception can lead to outright estrangement between parents and children, to acting-out behavior in the children, to depression in the parents and even to physical abuse.
In the school, however, newly arrived youth experience the difficulties relating with American-born Filipino youth. They both confront profound questions of identity and social affirmation, as told by a recently arrived immigrant when he was in high school:
I was ridiculed because my accent reminded them of their parents. . . . I considered the locally raised Filipinos "Americans.". . . . They thought I was not good enough, and I thought the same of them. . . . I didn’t want to be friends with them, but because they didn’t want to be friends with somebody who was their own but not really theirs.
Furthermore, Filipino youth are often unable to fit comfortably into the American mainstream. One Filipina youth explained the dilemma she observed while living in a mainly Caucasian town:
To be able to fit in, you have to act like everybody else so you won’t get left out and your feelings won’t get hurt. . . . It’s also wrong. . . . because they are pushing themselves away from themselves. When they move back over here (to a Filipino area), they’re like, "Oh, I’m Filipino now." . . . People can be so fake. You can be twenty-five and you still don’t know who you are.
The generation gap, the resentments, and conflicts of immigrants and American-born, breed culturally divided camps that beset "older ethnic minority where the schism between within immigrants and American-born painfully reveals itself in conflicting positions on issues facing the community. For now, immigrants and American-born alike still respond to "Filipino identity."
Core and Interface
The Filipino family system and culture thrive in America. Because the majority of Filipinos are foreign born, they brought with them enormous strengths and assets of their cultural core, particularly their family ties, kapwa (shared identity) and bayan (community). They speak their own languages in addition to English. They belong to communities and organizations—church, regional associations, professional clubs, alumni associations, cultural groups, and the like. In a few areas, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, agencies with a culturally and linguistically competent staff cater primarily to Filipinos.
Filipinos, wherever they may be, "draw upon the accumulated wisdom of the cultural heritage and have their own ways of solving problems." They rekindle bayanihan spirit in their new community–the valued practice of cooperation, mutual support, and self-help in bringing about community projects and activities as well as the spirit of helpfulness among neighbors in a community. Filipinos, it is said, are pliant as bamboos; they can withstand the fiercest storm, embrace the soothing breeze, sway with wind, and even kneel to touch the ground. In other words, Filipinos are flexible and adaptable, and their lifestyles can easily be altered or modified to fit conditions.
With the improvement of communication and transportation technology, the Filipino family system and culture remain closely connected to the homeland. The culture of balikbayan (returning to one’s homeland) evolved in the form of as sending packages to the Philippines, visiting the country, developing cultural exchange programs and students’ study tours. The cultural bridge between the two national settings greatly enhances the Filipino culture core in America.
The core characteristics of the ancient Filipino family are still fundamentally intact, despite being transplanted abroad. Family remains the basic unit of the Filipino community. Its language, values, history, and traditions are the kernel of its cultural core. In America, where the interface is far greater than the core, the challenge is finding the elixir for renewal and strength from both our history and our day-to-day life.