By HEIDI DE LA CRUZ
My thoughts of the Philippines have evolved and grown in complexity as I myself grew older and expanded my worldview. I was born in San Diego, California, the second daughter of a nurse and U.S. Navy veteran. My siblings and I are all American born and had the great privilege to visit my parent’s provinces many times since birth, each visit learning more about our family than from any book or television show. I remember that “going back home” was a long process in itself. Not only did we pack for our needs, but for all our family back in the Philippines. Heavy balikbayan boxes packed full of clothes, shoes, cans of corned beef and SPAM, Colgate, Dove soap, and chocolates. Our aunties and uncles who weren’t able to go back would drop off packages for their loved ones, finding space in the nooks and crannies of our luggage like Tetris before wrapping it up with yards of rope and tape. Then followed the never-ending airport lines and wait times, and a flight across the great Pacific that felt like an eternity with rows upon rows of Asian brothers and sisters anxious to get back to their homelands. It was an exhausting mental and physical transition for a kid, but now as an adult I can see that experiencing that culture shock at such a young age imparted a patience and empathy in me for all the sacrifices my parents made, and for any immigrant who bears the tough decision of leaving their home country.
I remember my siblings and I would find a complaint for just about everything under the sun: the clinging humidity that turned my Ate’s hair into an Afro, the relentless mosquito bites that devoured our American blood, the overwhelming smell of exhaust from cars and that distinctive burning smell that was magnified by the heat, the way our teeth would nearly crack from little pebbles in our rice, having to pump water to flush the toilet or to ligo, the constant brownouts that took away our precious aircon, I could go on and on. We were definitely spoiled and experienced culture clash, yet we were surrounded by warm hugs and bountiful offerings of food from our family, and they were so happy to see us that they held parties and celebrations almost every day we were there. One of my fondest memories in the barrio was getting a whole 20 pesos from my maternal grandfather, we all called him Tatay (Father), while he was playing mahjong and going across the street to the sari-sari store which was basically no larger than a walk in closet full of snacks, candies and sodas galore. With my 20 pesos I was able to buy myself and all my cousins RC Colas, a bottle of soda was halved- one half in a plastic bag with a straw and the other in the glass bottle, and bags of barbeque chippy’s. What a feeling of independence and freedom for an eight-year-old kid. Despite the perceived uncomfortable differences, we were surrounded by such a beautiful, lush and green jungle, the meat and vegetables were so fresh and diverse, and there was a fullness to life kind of like one of the family parties we’d have back in the U.S. but multiplied. I remember seeing a different side of my parents and family, as if they were truly alive and so comfortable in their own skin, not worried about their accents, appearance, or other fears they often wore like armor back in the states.
My mom’s side is from San Luis, Batangas, which is about a two-hour drive south from Manila. She came from a very poor family, but luckily was put through nursing school by her grandmother and so became the primary breadwinner to eight younger siblings. A hard worker, she got a working VISA in the states and landed a nursing job in snowy New Jersey in 1979. Quite the opposite was my dad, the bunso of two boys from a well to do family who owned rice paddies in Camiling, Tarlac. We have American citizenship today thanks to my dad’s father, my Apong Inzo, who fought alongside the Americans in WWII. As such my dad traded in his Filipino citizenship for American citizenship and joined the U.S. Navy in Hawaii in 1977. I have heard mentions of Apong (grandparent) working abroad in the sugar cane plantations in Hawaii, and in Chicago on the railroad, but my dad doesn’t talk much about the past so unfortunately not much else is known. Stationed in Philadelphia, my mom met my dad through mutual friends and were soon married and moving yet again from the continental east coast to Honolulu, Hawaii where my Ate was born. Through their hard work and dedication, my parents were able to sponsor most of her siblings and both her parents to the states and after 30 years, they are all U.S. citizens and are well established here in the U.S. with growing families of their own.
One thing I really love about visiting my parents’ provinces is that my extended family live in a barrio, which is like their own little neighborhood community behind one gate with one shared road and each family has their own house and yard. They are all connected to a communal space for dancing, singing karaoke, playing cards, doing laundry, chasing chickens and dogs, whatever it may be. Even if people have a hard day at work, they are able to come home to family to decompress, talk, share food, and relax together. So much spirit-lifting is necessary after a hard day’s work and can easily be found through being together. I found the shared environment to be conducive to a feeling of greater connectedness and less isolation, like it might sometimes feel here in the U.S. Everyone had their playmates, young and old, and these barrios were safe places right outside their doorsteps for them to engage with one another. I also saw how that feeling of community care went beyond the gates of the barrio, as I felt that anyone we came across (on the street, at the store, anyone) we could talk to on a much more personal level, in a way. Each Christmas my family would put dozens of packages together for the needy in their community, and we’d share food and dance and talk. The shared culture and identity were a common language in itself, allowing everyone there to relax and let their guards down.
As I got older, I was less interested in only visiting the beautiful resorts and shopping centers and became more concerned with the extreme inequalities I saw everywhere: gigantic mansions with maids and drivers right next to shacks fastened together with scrap pieces of wood and metal, the many people and children obviously suffering from malnutrition and poor living conditions, city infrastructure completely neglected and uncared for, the ubiquitous trash littering the wild nature, the tangled electric wires on street posts that looked like an electrical fire waiting to happen. The disparities were so stark, and when I last visited, I started to feel very guilty about my American privileges which led me to want to learn more about my heritage, the history of the Philippines, and the roots perpetuating all of this inequality. If one has money near the city, life in the Philippines is kind of idyllic. We mostly knew where our food came from, whether it was chicken, goats, or pigs from a neighbor, daily trips to the open market for our food, bartering with the local fishermen for our fish. Food was local and regional and tasted so much better. If one has money, they often had maids who cooked and cleaned and cared for the children, and drivers who had to deal with the craziness of traffic and driving in the Philippines, many of whom often lived with the families they served. It was wonderful, but it felt sickeningly wrong to flaunt such privilege against the backdrop of rampant inequality.
A trait I sensed quite strongly was a lack of initiative within my family and others to make social-political change, whether it was in their community, city, province or nation. Each time I tried to ask questions about the inequities, pollution, social and environmental degradation, and other things that I saw, I was met with a very fatalistic attitude, bahala na, not my problem. Don’t know, don’t care attitude, it will give you a headache to think about things like that. Things like giving money to the cop who pulled us over for some minor traffic error and threatened to look into members of our family for warrants or misdoings, or the rampant lack of environmental regulations for clean air and water, to mention a few. I learned later that this was likely tied to a colonial mindset: generations upon generations of not having power and authority to be agents of change. As an American-born Filipino, this was something I thought many Filipino-Americans could perhaps help with.
The Philippines has some of the most beautiful nature I have ever seen, and the people are as warm and welcoming as the weather. One day I hope to travel there again with my American husband and daughter to my parents’ provinces so she can begin to learn about her family heritage as I once did. In this course, I look forward to learning more about the history of the Philippines with gusto, the push and pull factors that led to migration to the west, and ultimately my goal is to learn about current issues facing local Filipinos and Filipino-Americans abroad and how I can help the growing movement to reclaim our shared Filipino heritage, identity and agency.
Heidi de la Cruz is a student majoring in Anthropology at San Diego State University, College of Arts and Letters. She is also a student in the course, ”Contemporary Filipino Americans: Their History and Culture” taught by Dr. Ofelia Dirige from the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies.
This is the first time this course is taught online and will be taught again in Fall 2021.