A Tale of Two Generations

"I don't want you to forget where you come from," my mom says. "That is why we bring you back home." 

Photo by Pxhere
Photo by Pxhere

By Cerena Ermitanio

Every summer when I travel to the Philippines with my family, there is a recurring theme in the lectures on the airplane rides: "I don't want you to forget where you come from," my mom says. "That is why we bring you back home."

The word "home" has taken various meanings in my life, from an apartment in Brooklyn to a two-story house in Houston. "Home" is familiarity and where a sense of pride resides.

When my mother speaks of "home," she reminds me of the color of my skin and the shapes on my face. She reminds me of our Spanish-sounding last names and the pancit my grandfather makes on family birthdays. "Home" not only means the U.S. where my brother and I were raised, but also the Philippines where my parents were born.

I was born in a middle-class area of Brooklyn. I lived nearby most of my Filipino relatives and family friends. The nearest Filipino store was only a few streets down. My home was filled with songs in Tagalog and my fridge was filled with Filipino food staples. However, after moving from Brooklyn to Texas, I had to re-evaluate my identity as a Filipino-American.

Brooklyn Bridge, NY | Photo by Pxhere
Brooklyn Bridge, NY | Photo by Pxhere

I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood and my classmates dressed more "American" than me. They also ate peanut butter sandwiches, while I preferred to eat my bacon with rice. I desperately wanted to fit into American culture at the time. I remember asking for the same brand of polo shirts my classmates wore to school and also asking my mother to make me the same peanut butter sandwiches so that I could fit in. I didn't think much of it at the time and slowly assimilated more into American culture, making the "Filipino" in my identity unrecognizable.

As for my parents, my mother was born in the tight streets of ParaƱaque, a city absorbed into Metropolitan Manila. She lived in a gated community full of affluent upper-middle-class Filipinos and made a living from selling food in a corner store.

My father was raised on a hilly ranch in the province of Nueva Vizcaya, roughly 200 miles from Manila. There, the roads wind around mountains, with the green vista often punctuated by small corner stores and houses. The views and livelihoods my parents experienced before immigrating were different from the U.S.

My parents were both recruited by an agency in New York to work as nurses during the 1990s. Thankfully, the immigration process was fairly simple for them due to their status as skilled laborers. In 1990, former president George H.W. Bush increased immigration limits, decreasing wait times to obtain immigrant status and expanding green card availability for foreign laborers. Once on U.S. soil, my parents were required to pass exams to obtain a license for practice. Naturalization followed thereafter, allowing their permanent residency in the U.S.

My parents assimilated to American culture, but still remained closely connected to their Filipino culture and homeland. Dramas from The Filipino Channel bring our family members together in front of our TV set for family time. Our fridge is filled with batches of Filipino dishes and groceries. Balikbayan, meaning "returning to the land," boxes are sent every few months to relatives full of silverware, and phone cards are used to the last minute for holiday greetings.

Philippine archipelago | Photo by Pxhere
Philippine archipelago | Photo by Pxhere

Recently I've truly embraced my roots in the archipelago. I am more vocal about the Filipino-American experience. I hope that by doing so, I can shed light to the colonial mentality that has stifled acceptance of Filipino culture by Filipinos themselves. On a volunteer trip to the Philippines with the Filipino nonprofit organization Gawad Kalinga, meaning "giving care," I experienced firsthand both the livelihoods of the poorest and the richest Filipinos. While western culture seemed to permeate every industry, the unique culture of the Philippines remained alive in its people. This visit prompted me to question the value American-born Filipinos place on their Filipino culture, especially with the privilege inherited from the U.S., a country not belonging to their parents.

I believe bridging the cultural gap between these two generations of Filipinos is necessary for Filipino culture to develop both in the archipelago and in the U.S. There is a responsibility to define "home" not only as something that transcends the simple definition of place, but also a rich history that needs to be shared.

Cerena Ermitanio is a freshman health and society major at the University of Texas at Austin.