The Legend of Giants: Celebrating Filipino American History Month

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Did you know? The month of October is Filipino American History Month.

As we near the end of October (and thus, Halloween), I think one way to celebrate this month is to recognize and appreciate the history, resilience, and accomplishments of the Filipino American community. Another way to celebrate Filipino American History Month is to pay homage to the giants standing in your own backyard, the ones rooting for you from your corner, the heroes that get remembered, but the legends who never die. For me, that’s my mum. I don’t always say mum, but it just sounded fun in that last sentence. But I tend to go with mom, mother, ma, and sometimes nay (short for nanay in tagalog). Here she is below in such a rockstar outfit (exact day and year, TBD). So if you think I slay the game, just know that I get it from my mama.

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Now, in thinking about how I wanted to highlight her narrative as a way to ground this month in love and appreciation, I asked her to provide me with some details about her life in the Philippines and what it was like to be a kid there. Side note: the ultimate project I would love to do is to create a visual and written documentary about my parents’ love life and relationship. They did long distance at some point (woof!), exchanged love letters and notes, and raised three stellar boys and put us through college. I believe in the power of storytelling and its ability to create community, vulnerability, and compassion. In my role as an educator, I sometimes forget that storytelling isn’t just about me sharing my story with my colleagues or with my students. It is also about learning from the stories and wisdom that came before me. It is about preserving the generations of stories that have so deeply influenced my personal values, ethics, perspectives, and behaviors. It is about transforming fairy tales and legends into a book of personal truths and revelations.

And so this next part of my blog is therefore a brief story about my mom, a story about her growing up in the Philippines before she came to the United States in the 70’s:

My mom grew up in the Philippines in a small town of Maasin. There was what they/she called “market day” that happened every Monday and her relatives from the barrio (or neighborhood/town) brought their produce from the farm to sell in the market. They had sold things like bananas, sweet potatoes, cassavas, coconuts, and all other kinds of vegetables: “I loved market day. I loved to go with my mom because I got a treat too like banana cue.”

She said it was a 2-hour trek to the town and most of the time they balanced the produce on their shoulders or sometimes on carts pulled by water buffaloes (called kalabaw or caribou). Fun fact: I actually had a chance to ride on top of a caribou when I visited the Philippines 6 years ago. See my old friend below.

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Back to her story: Her mom, my lola (grandmother) had what she called, an “open door policy”, so her relatives and friends would stop by to have coffee or ginger tea to fill their stomachs. My lola would then go to the market extremely early in the morning to buy fish and vegetables. She would then make soup so everyone that stopped by can eat before they headed home. Now that I think about it, this is probably where I get my sense of giving, hosting, and community building, and definitely where my mom gets her love for being around her sisters, her nieces and nephews, and close family friends. It is apparent that in my family, and even in parts of my own life nowadays, we sometimes give more to others than we give to ourselves.

My mom goes on to say that they “were taught to respect [their] elders, to ask for blessings, to say please, thank you, [and] excuse me.” Respect in the Filipino culture is everything. It is not simply an act of doing, it is a way of being. From your kuyas and ates to your distant family friends — aka your cousins who aren’t really your cousins by blood, but you never really knew that until you got into high school — you show, give, share, and respond with respectful behaviors and attitudes. As one of the youngest kids in my family, I could never ride in the front seat of a car if my brothers or older cousins tagged along. I was always expected to pass out the dinner plates and utensils to my family members and guests during family gatherings. I was always told to do something, whether I wanted to or not, and most of the time if I was “good”, I would do it. That’s just how it is in Filipino culture. When you’re the bunso, or the youngest, you’re kind of at the bottom of the food chain. Let’s just say that with years of being at the bottom, I believe it taught me how to be more independent, how to deal and navigate through situations that weren’t particularly enjoyable, and how to advocate for myself and my needs. It has also taught me to be okay with failure and disappointment; to be okay with not being the best, but to be my best self; to be okay with not being the “hero” idolized in so many heteronormative television shows and books, but to realize that we all need saving in some way, at some point; to be okay with asking for help; to be okay with relying on the expertise and wisdom of one’s family and culture.

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My elders are my Filipino giants. The ones whose footprints have left joy and success etched into the dirt of the rice terraces and whose shoulders carry the hopes and dreams of a stubborn and determined community. These are the giants who have turned their roots into veins, never forgetting that their history flows through their blood. They are my mom, my dad, my aunts and uncles, my lolas and lolos. They are the things of legends. The kind of legends that I will write in hard-covered books and read to my kids just before bed:

“Anak, what story would you like to hear tonight?

The tale of the brown star-crossed lovers destined for greatness, but separated by the Pacific Ocean?

Or the one about the Filipina mother of eight whose love and kindness also feeds an entire village?

How about the one with the social justice warrior prince? He who uses his words to slay the dragons of everyday racism and uses his emotions to move an entire country?”

“Dad… How about we read them all? Maybe I can write my own too.” 

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In closing, my mom said this,”I had such a wonderful childhood full of unforgettable experiences. Babe, just correct my grammar. It’s past midnight and I’m sleepy…”

My mom is a one-of-a-kind individual, human, mother, and woman of color. She has demonstrated what it means to be resilient in order to persevere through challenges and high expectations, to be compassionate and respectful to yourself and to others, and to find the sweetness, the happiness, the fulfillment in every story, in every person, in every interaction.

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I may not have the same exact stories or experiences that she did when growing up in Maasin, but I do have a similar feeling of being loved, of being surrounded by family, of being taught these values of respect and optimism, and of remembering my childhood as an enjoyable one. And for that, I am both privileged and humbled.

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To close, here is a little haiku I wrote earlier this month. It is entitled, “Oh, I am brown.”

I am a product
Of brown love and excellence.
I know no limits.

Happy Filipino American History Month, everyone. I hope your October was as excellent and as beautiful as the culture and the people that I so deeply love and respect.

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One thought on “The Legend of Giants: Celebrating Filipino American History Month

  1. Pingback: Reflections on 2016 from a twenty-something-year-old brown city queen | ERIC GERONA CARNAJE

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