On Filipino-ness, Identity and Filipinos Supporting Each Other in the Global Community

Jo Koy’s Easter Sunday was finally released in the Philippines the last week of August. Like in the U.S., it was received with mixed reviews: from Filipinos saying they were unable to stomach the boredom and left the theater before the movie finished; to some calling the movie a run of shallow cliches and stereotypes; to some criticizing the authenticity of the little Tagalog spoken, how the Santo Nino was desecrated and of the misrepresentation of Easter. Of course, there also were Filipinos who loved the movie, but say they loved it, not for its relatable Filipino-ness scenes, but that it was a wholesome family movie.

Generally, the Philippine audience were harsher and more critical of Easter Sunday than Filipino-Americans. Not entirely unexpected, and here is why.

First off, this is not a movie review or defense of Easter Sunday. But an editorial on Filipino-ness, what it could mean from the perspective of Filipino-Americans, Filipino immigrants and Philippine-locals.

In an interview with GMA stringer Janet Nepales, Jo Koy, a first-generation Filipino-American, said the movie aimed to break the stigma of racism. “It’s everything. This is like a chance for us to give a voice, get to be seen. We’re not invisible anymore or pretend to be invisible. This is the fight we get to wave high and not only is it a win for Filipinos, but a win for everybody.”

For Filipino Americans Koy’s explanation here was spot on and is the true essence of why the community in the U.S. found this movie to be significant. Many Filipino Americans grew up and experienced racism solely because of being Filipino, for our ethnicity.

While in the Philippines there are other forms of prejudices and discrimination – economic, color, regional, to a far lesser degree ethnically with Chinese or indigenous populations – most Filipinos in the mother country do not know what it feels like to be an ethnic minority in a racially plural society, to experience racism, or as Koy said, to be made to feel invisible as a people.

U.S. born Filipinos (first generation) sense of Filipino-ness often follows a linear model: one of embrace and comfort for our culture in our formative and pre-teen years, then transitions to one of alienation and self-loathing (mild to severe), and ultimately could be looked upon as a kind of victory in acceptance and pride, even ethnic activism.

Unfortunately, there are also some who get bogged down and frozen in the second phase, who outright reject their ancestral heritage entirely.

Filipino-ness (our inherited culture from the mother land) is a conscious choice, an effort to preserve and maintain for Filipino-Americans and Filipino immigrants in the U.S. Without the second part (effort), through the generations it is lost. This is why a movie like Easter Sunday speaks to the heart for Filipino-Americans because it represents our unique story, our own personal acceptance, celebration and commitment to choose our cultural identity that we’ve inherited.

Filipino-Americans sense of Filipino-ness perhaps is not as authentic as our ancestors, but that’s evolutionary even within the Philippines itself.

In the Philippines, being Filipino comes naturally, and without much thought. Certainly, there are Western influences that Filipino youths and young adults will perhaps adopt and prefer. But that’s “foreign” culture second to the Philippines dominant mainstream culture, which is always identified as the majority, and the fusion of what it is collectively: indigenous, Asian, Spanish, Chinese and Western.

Clearly alienation also exists in the Philippines– separation by viewpoints, ideas, politics, religion, old ways, new ways, urban, rural, etc. – but that has more to do with human construct and man’s natural tendency to find separation, which is true even for communities worldwide with an almost 100% homogenous society racially. But to a Filipino in the Philippines, they’re almost never made to feel invisible or unwelcomed for being Filipino.

Even if Filipino-Americans and Filipino immigrants wanted to completely blend in, in many communities across the U.S. that is not a choice per say, because of our physical appearance, for good or bad. And our physical appearance alone could at times pose a challenge to maneuver through social barriers. In other words, before someone knows that you are a doctor or a mechanic, you are automatically stereotyped as a person of color, a person of wherever you are thought to originate from.

Perhaps Filipino-American immigrants – those who’ve lived in both the Philippines and the U.S. for a considerable time – have the fullest and deepest understanding of what it means to be a Filipino. And arguably, appreciate their Filipino-ness most, relative to native-born Filipino-Americans and Filipinos in the mother land.

Why? Because Filipino-American immigrants have lived out both worlds – from automatically by birthright feeling that you belong as a Filipino (regardless of whatever socio-economic class you are) as it were in the Philippines; to being in a completely different environment where you had to work at belonging through assimilation, learning another language while still maintaining your Filipino-ness. In Easter Sunday, this was represented by Joe Valencia’s (Koy’s) mother, played by Lydia Gaston.

It’s worth noting that Filipino-ness also has a degree of ownership and could at times be a source of tension among all three groups, Filipino-Americans, immigrants and Philippine residents. An innocuous case in point, but a precise example, is the degree to which Easter Sunday was criticized in the Philippines for its cultural inauthenticity. Clearly it was a comedy genre and not meant to be academic by any stretch.

But the degree to which the movie was panned speaks to something much deeper going on, a kind of cultural appropriation among Filipinos in the Philippines onto Filipino-Americans.  In real life (unrelated to the movie), this is an actual phenomenon, of not being Filipino enough. And that tension sours further when Filipino-Americans fire back with criticisms that something or someone is too Filipino. In both cases, when we resort to such tribalism we are only hurting ourselves and our community.

In the rare opportunities that our culture, our Filipino-ness (at whatever degree or level of authenticity) is presented to the world (like in this rare movie), the last thing we would want to show is bickering, division, crab mentality. Let’s all celebrate our Filipino-ness and support each other and the projects we have. This is how we thrive as one global Filipino community.

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