Dear Charlie and Jack,

It’s June and the Black Lives Matter protests continue to rage. Many are pushing for the abolition of the police, the schools, and other racist institutions and narratives.

Your Papa and I are in constant discussions about the ways we can contribute towards liberation, especially in the ways we raise you. It is a huge task and sometimes we are paralyzed and feel that we don’t do enough.

So I try to bring it back to the self because that is the best place to start.

During a Decolonizing School session sponsored by the Center for Babaylan Studies (which is the source of most of my work on decolonizing my self), one of the exercises we had to do was to answer this question: How did I find out I’m Filipino?

I had to think about this a bit because I grew up in the Philippines where everyone is Filipino. Unlike you, I did not grow up in a multi-racial environment. (However, I did deal with discrimination that was still based on anti-blackness. The fairer Filipinos, usually those with mixed Spanish or Chinese or European blood, were considered superior: more gwapo, more smart, more rich—and they’re usually those who lived in the big cities up north, e.g. Manila, and not in the barrios. This anti-blackness in the Filipino community is another topic best considered in a different post.)

I didn’t really know I was Filipina until I came to the US.

I was 17 when I immigrated with all of my siblings. Your Lola came here three years prior to our arrival, your Lolo two. In the Philippines, I had already graduated from high school and attended a semester of college. When I arrived to the US, I had two choices: start earning money as a caregiver or go back to junior year in high school (and go to the prom, kiss boys, take the SAT, apply to and attend Stanford, and live happily ever after!!!) (There were other bigger problems about my legal status that would have made it impossible for me to go to college but I was blissfully unaware of them at that point so they didn’t factor into the decision making process.) It was a no-brainer: Of course I was going to choose to go to an American high school. I had read so many Sweet Valley High books and was ready to “date”, go to the movies, walk around the mall, and share a root beer with somebody like Ned Nickerson, Nancy Drew’s erstwhile boyfriend.

Justine High School Prom

(Junior Prom. Ironically, I have no memory of anything about this prom, just that I wore a polka dotted baby doll dress designed by a friend and sewn by my mom.)

Except, I was very surprised to find out, there were hardly any blond kids in the high school I went to in South San Francisco. This was something I never expected. Prior to coming to America, I expected America to be full of blondes with blue eyes. Instead, there were Latinos, Asians, Blacks, and other kids newly arrived from countries I didn’t even know about. Even more surprising, there were so many Filipinos. But they weren’t the Filipinos I was used to. These Filipinos didn’t understand or speak Tagalog or Bisaya but, instead, liberally said sh*t and f!*k, and the girls told stories of taking showers with their boyfriends.

There was this guy. He was my Chemistry partner. I gathered he liked me, thought it cute when I said “steer the mixture in our flasks.” “Stir,” he told me, emphasizing the uh uh sound. After a month of Chemistry partnering, he started to give me rides home on days when he didn’t have to work at the mall. I would stick my feet out of his car window, bopping my head to Marky Mark’s Good Vibrations, feeling like an American teenager. For my birthday, he bought me a pair of tan leather loafers. He said the shoes looked good when worn with short shorts, the way his ex-GF did. He was always talking about his ex-GF. One day, while we waited for the cars to crawl out the school parking lot, he looked at my face for a good long while. “Are all Filipinas like that?” he asked. “Like what?” I replied. He pointed to my top lips. “My ex-GF also had hair on her upper lip.” And then he added, “She was a gold digging ho.”

Justine High School

(Senior Photo. Did I have hair on my upper lip back then???)

A few days after, he pointed out his ex-GF to me. I thought to myself that she kind of looked like me… or I looked kind of like her. Except, instead of wearing Salvation Army bell bottoms like I did, she was preppy looking with her white shirt tucked in her denim pants. Sure enough, she was wearing shiny brown loafers. She looked studious with her gold-rimmed glasses and straight black hair parted in the middle. I could not tell whether she had hair on her upper lips. Or that she was a gold digging ho.

For some reason, this stuck to me all through the years as the day I realized I was Filipina.

Charlie and Jack, I know that by now you are already aware that you’re part Filipino. There will be many moments in your life when people will attempt to define that Filipino-ness for you and make you conform to their definition. I hope you realize that YOU get to define who you are and that it is beautiful and joyful to be Filipino.