I’m glad about this last World Cup games for many reasons, from the way the Russians were able to show how warm and hospitable they can be, to, quite simply, continuing to get Filipinos more interested in the game. In soccer, to be precise, especially with all the news about the goalkeeper for the champion French team being Filipino. Alphonse Areola, 25, was born and raised in France, but both his parents are Filipino.
I paused while typing that paragraph, wondering how I should describe Areola: French-Filipino, Filipino-French, or just French? That happens to me as well when I want to describe my sister, who has lived in Canada for more than 30 years, and married a Canadian with French and Italian ancestry. What do I call her children, whose Filipino vocabulary can be counted on one hand (“salamat po” counting as two) and whose Chinese vocabulary is even more limited?
We’re constantly grappling with racial percentages and purity. I’m asked all the time if I’m pure, because I have a monosyllabic surname. “How many percent Chinese are you, or are you pure?” they ask. And I sometimes joke back, “Pure in mind, pure in heart, pure in thought.”
Who truly knows what our genetic heritage is, unless you send off a cheek swab sample to one of the growing number of companies that offer genetic testing? And even there, the companies admit they can never be totally accurate. Also, certainly, they don’t use labels like “Filipino,” “Chinese” or “French,” because those refer to culture. In this age of diasporas, of global genetic exchange (I’m being polite), it gets more and more difficult to describe people with those old labels.
The French football team is a case in point. Of the 23 players on the French team, 18 come from immigrant families, mainly from Africa. Peniel Joseph wrote a great opinion piece for CNN observing how France’s World Cup victory happens at a time when France is gripped by racial violence. He said: “In an era of globalization, racial and ethnic diversity represent an enduring strength at all levels of society, ones that build cultural and political bridges within and between countries, nation-states and neighborhoods.”
The obsession with national purity, in Europe especially, has produced many bloody conflicts and that horrible term ethnic cleansing, so we can only hope the World Cup, where it was not only the French team that was “multicolored,” should contribute to the fight against racism.
Two other football players with Filipino roots played in the 2014 World Cup: Jonathan de Guzman for the Dutch team, and Nick Rimando for the US team. In this year’s World Cup, besides Areola, there is David Alaba for the Austrian national team.
Reading about Areola and other hyphenated Filipinos in football reminded me of a Spanish Filipino who made football legend several decades ago. Paulino Alcantara (1896-1964) was born in Concepcion, Iloilo, to a Spanish military officer and a Filipina mother. The family moved to Barcelona when he was 3 and he began professional football at the age of 15, playing for what is today FC Barcelona, one of the most popular soccer teams in Spain.
His family returned to the Philippines in 1916. He played for Philippine teams (while studying medicine!) and brought home championships from regional competitions. Meanwhile, FC Barcelona hadn’t won new championships after he left and begged him to return to Spain, which he did. He retired from playing soccer and practiced medicine, but continued to manage and coach football teams.
Fast forward to the present. The Azkals, our national soccer team, is a product of the Filipino diaspora, with many players born overseas to one or both parents who are Filipino. Unlike basketball teams, we don’t hear of scandals involving fabricated Filipino ancestry among the Azkals.
The Azkals do have “locals,” proudly made in the Philippines, but there’s another twist here. They come mainly from the province of Negros Occidental, the product, too, of another kind of diaspora, that of Spaniards who settled in that area and promoted football as part of local culture.
Back to Areola. He’s married to a Filipino-Lebanese. What do we now call his two daughters?
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