Recognized as an official celebration by a joint resolution signed by former President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978, and by federal legislation signed by former President H.W. Bush in 1990, each year during the month of May, the accomplishments and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are celebrated in the United States. According to Wikipedia, the first documented Asians who arrived in the Americas in 1587 were Filipinos, when they landed in California. As a first-generation Filipino-American, there is a certain sense of pride, knowing that my ancestors were the first Asians to reach the Americas.
Just east of Vietnam and north of Indonesia in the South China Sea, the Philippine Islands (las islas Filipinas) were named in honor of King Philip of Spain by Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos. Did you know that the native indigenous people were referred to as Indians and the term Filipino was only used for Spaniards born on the islands? Positioned geographically near China, Japan, Indonesia, and other Asian countries has greatly influenced the culture. These influences are exhibited in trade, clothing styles, and more importantly the cuisine. Over the remaining weeks in May, I’ll be highlighting some of my favorite native Filipino dishes.
What does it mean to celebrate my AAPI heritage as a first-generation Filipino? First, there is pride. Mostly because of the heritage and traditions that have been passed on to me from my grandparents. My paternal grandparents, my Lola (Gavina) and Lolo (Alejandro), along with my dad immigrated to the United States in 1963 by way of the United States Navy, as did my maternal grandfather, my Papa (Hernesto).
I had the great benefit of being practically raised by both sets of grandparents with summers and weekends being spent with them. As a result, I was immersed in the strong Filipino community in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. The strong and large Filipino presence is because of the largest Naval base in Norfolk. Many Filipinos were recruited to join the United States Navy. My grandparents were active in the community and instrumental in forming and building what is known today as the Philippine Cultural Center of Virginia - more than a building, but a community committed to carrying on the culture of the Filipino culture for generations to come. So much that they were a strong support for my maternal aunt, who was elected as the first Filipino-American Circuit Court Clerk in Virginia Beach and for the Commonwealth!
Growing up, this strong presence existed mostly in the Norfolk and Virginia Beach areas of Hampton Roads. I lived in both cities, but my parents eventually settled in Chesapeake. A more rural and conservative area closer to the North Carolina border. As a result, I attend a public school system where there were not a lot of people that looked like me. I attended Great Bridge High School where I was one of two Filipino-Americans. Not as close to my grandparents by proximity, my immersion in Filipino culture waned, and my parents were not as committed to keeping the Filipino culture alive for me as my grandparents were.
It wasn’t until I started searching for my true authentic self as a gay man that I realized how set apart I had been. As I started peeling back the layers of my life, I realized just how different I was. Not only was I different from my straight friends with same-sex attraction, but I was dramatically different culturally. Inasmuch as I was trying my hardest to identify as a straight man, I was also not identifying as a Filipino-American. I suddenly was thrust back to the many times of confusion. Here I was in a sea of white and black culture and I was the “other”. I remember more times than not, people asking, “what are you?” On top of struggling with my sexuality, I was struggling with my identity. I wasn’t white and I wasn’t black. Also, as a mestizo-filipino (my mom had a white mother), I didn’t quite look Filipino. I was and am still associated with every ethnicity under the sun.
Through that and in the years to come, self-shame for being different (in so many ways) and the experience of oppression and prejudice came - unfortunately still very alive today. My black brothers and sisters understand this feeling all too well. Some may be reading this thinking to themselves, there’s no way he could’ve experienced or currently experiences this oppression and prejudice today...the only explanation I can give you for that thought is, and it’s by no way being disrespectful to our readers, but it’s simply privilege. I once watched an interview of an Asian-American where she shared the difference for members of the AAPI and Latinx community is that white and black people are easily identified as just that, “white” or “black”. For those of us with brown skin, it’s a constant over time.
With the many senseless killing of black people in recent days and the brutal attacks on the AAPI community because of the rhetoric surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, there is definitely a reckoning happening in our country, and one can only hope that we can get to a place where we can move the needle forward and not backward. And that can only happen when empathy and understanding of those different from us takes place with everyone willing to take a seat at the table.
So back to celebrating AAPI Heritage month! As I’ve shared, the AAPI community is rich in culture and heritage. Celebrating my heritage is more than a month-long celebration; it is a lifestyle. Today, I definitely see myself more than an “other.” I am special and unique! I strive to teach my biological children that their uniqueness as Filipino-Americans is important and cherished. Additionally, teaching my non-biological children that while their brother and sister may not look like them, they are no different.
Visit https://asianpacificheritage.gov/ to learn more about AAPI Heritage Month. Also, please like and leave us your thoughts in the comment section below.