I’m Not a Fake Latina

In honor of Filipino American History Month, a confused Filipina dissects what it means to be Filipino in America’s diverse cultural landscape

Graphic+by%3A+Skye+Salamat%2FSAC.Media.

Graphic by: Skye Salamat/SAC.Media.

“Girl, you’re just a fake Latina!”

Well, that stung.

It was a normal school day, and my friends and I were up to our usual after-school shenanigans. Sitting on the tabletops of the cafeteria as we waited for the traffic to die down was an after-school routine.

In the midst of conversation, I felt a jab in the form of words: I was called a “fake Latina” by one of my closest friends—a real Latina.

What did that even mean? Whatever it meant, it was out of pocket. I mean, it was, right? And why was I so upset by it—like, was I being hypersensitive or were the tears I cried when I got home actually valid?

That was a couple years ago, at the peak of high school pettiness. I took to the coping mechanism I knew best: posting a non-confrontational and somewhat passive-aggressive post on Instagram where I navigated my Filipino identity. My quest to prove misconceptions about being Filipino wrong turned into my own journey of self-discovery.

After years of being called the “Mexicans of Asia” or “barely Asian” by peers, I felt a sort of obligation to set the record straight about being Filipino. As it turns out, however, being told constantly that I was “full-on Asian” by white people and “not actually Asian” by East Asians—never mind the fact that Filipinos were some of the earliest Asian immigrants of America, and were instrumental in helping to define the Asian American identity—culminated into a general confusion about what being Filipino meant.

It seemed like there was always this big debate of what Filipinos were—people have and continue to try and tack us into a classification. All that mattered was that we were something familiar.

I remember filling out STAR test forms as a second grader and not knowing whether to fill in the “Asian” box or the “Pacific Islander” one. By the time I was in junior high, researchers probably caught on to the skewed results and created a “Filipino” box, which only led to further confusion and feelings of otherness.

Navigating ethnic identity was a difficult beast to try and tackle at 17, but it was necessary. I needed to understand what my place was in America’s diverse cultural landscape. This led to many late-night Google searches about the history of the Philippines and asking my Manila-born-and-raised parents about their experiences as Filipino immigrants. In doing so, I was able to come up with my own totally non-scientific conclusions about what being Filipino means to me.

The big “truth” that I found out, but really always kind of knew, is that modern Filipino culture is a rich mix of 300 years of Spanish colonialism, nearly 50 years of American colonialism, pre-colonial roots, and Chinese trade influence.

Colonialism is ugly and problematic, but its influence remains and has had a huge impact on our modern culture. Spanish influence can be seen in almost every aspect of Filipino culture, from food to language. It’s the reason why more than 80% of Filipinos are Catholic, why my dad’s name is Ramon Gonzales, and why my grandpa’s name is José Cabrantes. Even the writings of our national hero, José Rizal, who famously defied Spanish authority and was sentenced to death by firing squad, were originally written in Spanish. A quick image search of the northwestern Filipino city of Vigan will show you a quaint, scenic town with cobblestone paths and horse-drawn carriages, seemingly stuck in seventeenth century Spain. We even have our own champurrado! We call it “champorado,” and it’s a chocolate porridge, rather than a drink. Equally good, though nothing will ever compare to waking up to a surprise batch of my mom’s homemade champorado.

If three centuries of colonization by Spain wasn’t enough, another half-century of American influence brought English as a national language and a strong American military presence; my grandpa’s home province of Pampanga is still best known for the formerly American Clark Air Base. For a short while during World War II, Japan occupied the Philippines and overtook Clark Air Base. To this day, Japanese Hiragana is still ingrained in my 87-year-old grandpa’s head.

Despite all these outside influences on our culture, Spanish colonization has been especially prominent, comparable to the Spanish influence of countries in Latin America. Being colonized by Spain has become somewhat of a binding influence between us and the Latinx community—it is no wonder why there are so many similarities in our cultures. In reducing the Filipino identity to that of a “fake Latina,” hundreds of years of exploitation in the name of religious conversion are glossed over and made to be unimportant.

In his book “The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race,” Anthony Ocampo, associate professor of sociology at Cal Poly Pomona, makes a case that Filipinos are indeed apart of the Latinx community due to our shared experiences as colonized states. He goes on to argue that ethnic identity is a social construct, in which “human beings create these identities” for ourselves. In a way, he’s right; there is no exact definition of what constitutes Filipino culture.

By the end of my journey to understand the Filipino identity, I realized that I couldn’t actually be mad at my friend because of her comment. I had finally understood that it came from the lack of an honest societal conversation about our ever-changing cultural identity beyond arbitrary labels. If I wasn’t cognizant of my own identity, how could I expect everyone around me to be?

My own culture is what has opened the door for me to appreciate and find comfort in other cultures, and has enabled me to immerse myself in diverse experiences. Even before I understood what being Filipina meant to me, I was proud of my identity despite feeling conflicted about what embracing this identity entailed. The change in me was acceptance—acceptance that the Filipino experience is unique for everyone who lives through it, and solidarity for anyone who has ever felt insecure in their own respective identities.

To be Filipino is to grow up believing the moth perched on your front door is the spirit of your late great-grandmother watching over you, to start celebrating the Christmas season in September and to eat mounds of white rice with every single meal. To be Filipino is a blessed thing—only when we start to look past the surface of this label do we begin to see the beauty and resilience of our people.