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What is Filipino-American?

/ 09:15 PM June 16, 2011

Visiting America regularly in the last four years to help promote the Gawad Kalinga movement has made me understand more deeply the life of most Filipino-Americans. I had many assumptions that have dramatically changed, and a few that have been affirmed even more so. My first visits to the United States just over forty years ago were business-driven and ended in 1986 after the historic speech of Corazon Aquino before the US Congress. It took twenty years before I visited again, and I have been in a special journey of rediscovering Filipinos who have become Americans ever since.

There was a census taken last year, 2010, and the results are not yet out. The speculation, though, is that there must be approximately four million Filipinos in America, mostly documented and now citizens of the United States or in the process of being so. They are not Overseas Filipino Workers, they are immigrants. They are not leaving the motherland temporarily, they are leaving it forever as Filipinos to become Filipino-Americans. They are like the daughters of a family who get married and then adopt the family name of their husbands, permanently out of the home where they were born and raised.


The foreign language, the vastness of America, the lifestyle of the West and a developed economy confront new and budding Filipino-Americans and force them to make dramatic changes in their own lives and habits. Except for the few who did migrate to the United States as rich Filipinos, the rest have had to wrestle with the drastic changes of their new environment. While the trappings of an advanced economy must have dazzled the new Filipino-American, having to struggle to afford these must have rattled many of them. But as an ethnic group, after several decades and waves of migration, Filipino-Americans have arrived, have survived, and are thriving in their new country of opportunity.

Filipino-Americans are full-fledged American citizens. When introducing themselves to the world, they are Americans and accorded all the rights and privileges of American citizens. When they need identification and travel documents, they go to American agencies; abroad, they go to American embassies. They may look brown, but they are Americans.

There is actually no need to call themselves Filipino-Americans because they are Americans and not Filipinos. Even though they are of Filipino descent, they cannot identify themselves as Filipino citizens, only as American citizens. The rest is true of other American citizens as well, no matter what motherland they may have come from. They are all immigrants from somewhere (except the American Indians), mostly Europe a few centuries ago, and now from all over the rest of the world. They are Americans now, not British, not French, not Italians, not Germans, not Africans, not Polish, not Israelis, not Spanish, not Portuguese, not Mexican, not Vietnamese, not Chinese, not Filipinos.

Moving across America, especially when I do so overland and driving for days making stops whenever the tired body needs to, I interact with many Americans from the gas stations to the groceries to the shops and restaurants. Most of them identify themselves as Americans, of course. Very few quickly say, I am “Afro-American, German-American, etc.” even though physical attributes may strongly indicate their original countries or regions. And, rightly so because they are Americans.

This is a reality I have had to struggle with in my mind and in my heart, to accept that Filipinos are now Americans – as much as that white person whose ancestors came from Europe, as much as that black person whose ancestors came from Africa, as much as all the rest whose ancestors came from some part of the globe. I did not realize until so much later that I had assumptions that were not necessarily false, but definitely not true anymore. I believe that many Filipinos in the motherland have similar assumptions as the ones I had, and one day will have to learn the same lessons as I do today.

What makes it difficult to realize that Filipinos in America are now Americans and not Filipinos is the fact that they keep identifying themselves as Filipinos by using the word “Filipino” in the term “Filipino-American.” By holding on to the word “Filipino”, Filipino-Americans are regarded as more Filipino than American by Filipinos in the Philippines. Much more so by their own families or relatives. There may be some who more quickly say, “I am not Filipino, I am American,” but these  do not yet reflect the mainstream sentiments and articulation of Filipinos who are now Americans.

The term “Filipino-American” used to identify Filipinos who are now American citizens serve to keep deep bonds alive. No matter how substantial the changes have been in their lives, most Filipino-Americans retain traits that identify them as Filipinos, including language or regional dialect. These bonds make it difficult for many of us to realize the major shift of citizenship, of required obligations attached to that citizenship, of global identity.

Since the use of the term “Filipino-American” is one by choice of those as only the term “American” is required by law, it might be time for Filipino-Americans to reflect on the reasons why they choose to identify themselves as such. By holding on to the word “Filipino”, Filipino-Americans must realize that there are implications when doing so. The word “Filipino” is a term that is alive, representing a race and a motherland. If there is no strong attachment to one’s race and one’s motherland, there is no reason or benefit to continue identifying oneself as “Filipino” when one is already an American.

The context of choice is that it has implications, and these implications affect the lives of those who make choices and many others. By calling themselves “Filipino-Americans”, Filipinos who are now Americans involve make a choice that keep them attached to the Filipino race and the Filipino motherland.


In my next article, I would like to write about that choice, that attachment, and the implications they have on all who care about being Filipino.

to be continued …

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