Faith and Filipino Identity: Reflections for AAPI Month
In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we’ve invited members of our Springtide Ambassadors Program (SAP) to reflect on how their racial and ethnic identities impact their religious or spiritual beliefs. Below, SAP member Gabrielle shares how her faith and her Filipino heritage intersect. This reflection is part of a larger paper that will be published in Loyola Marymount University’s student theological journal later this month.
In February 2022, my mother’s father passed away. We held his funeral a few weeks later at our Catholic church, and I served as the cantor.* I love being a minister of music. It feels like I’m offering a piece of myself to the community that not everyone can, and it is humbling to be entrusted with the community’s worship in even a small way, especially when my family is involved. When I sing in Tagalog, a language my cousins and I neither speak nor understand, I can resurrect family memories of childhoods spent in the Philippines, a country I have never visited. From behind the music stand, I watched as the funeral mass connected even my non-practicing family members with the religion of our culture—my grandfather himself was not a churchgoer. Whatever people’s personal views or practices, the liturgy is still embedded within my whole family —they know when to sit, stand, and kneel, and they receive the Eucharist because they are still full-fledged members of the Catholic Church. They still mark the seasons of life through ritual.
This brief snapshot of my family life could be easily copied and pasted onto many a Filipino household in the United States. The ever-growing population of Filipinos in the U.S. occupy a unique cultural space because of various influences: Spanish, Japanese, American, indigenous, Islamic, Catholic—the list goes on. But the dominant force is Western.
My mother and her family came to the United States from the Philippines when she was 13; my father was born here. I was born and raised in the Bay Area in a suburb that is characterized by blue-collar residents, family-run businesses, and rich diversity. I was never short on Filipino peers, most of whom were born to parents who migrated as adults. Some of my classmates themselves were born in the Philippines and spent the first few years of their lives there. They knew much more about the food, clothing, customs, and language than I did. In elementary school, those who were bilingual or at least understood the various dialects of the islands tossed around Tagalog slang and brought lunchboxes filled with foods I had never eaten at home. Simply put, I have never felt “Filipino” enough.
As a young Filipino American, I find that our struggle is ownership. Our parents were often compelled to Americanize, even in the Philippines, and so we are exposed to the culture of our ancestors selectively: we eat the food but do not speak the language, we wear the special occasion clothes but do not know their history. It is so difficult to disentangle “Filipino-ness” from its history of colonization and forced assimilation that many of us find ourselves in a complicated relationship with the culture and religion that we inherited.
Although religious piety is common among Filipinos, it is much too easy to forget that such visibility was not always the norm. Despite having been entrenched in Catholicism for three centuries in the Philippines, early immigrants to the U.S. were barred from receiving the various sacraments. Marriages between Filipino men and white women were denied, as were funerals for the poor, and confession for non-English speakers. The children of these families were turned away from a Catholic education.
Yet now we see Filipinos moving out of the shadows and into the center of social and spiritual life in their communities. The church is the meeting place of generations, where the older generations are emboldened by the companionship of their community to advocate for themselves and display their cultural traditions with pride. In turn, second- and third-generation children and young adults inherit the knowledge of their parents and grandparents and ensure these traditions live on. Embracing and engaging in Filipino worship is a movement toward proud ownership. It embraces the Church as a God-given gift to the self, to loved ones, and to the community, and, in gratitude for that gift, Filipinos use it to improve their own lot and that of others.
And as for myself, I have realized that when it comes to my own identity, there is no such thing as “not Filipino enough.” I am not an impostor in my own culture; by being fully myself, with all my family’s history shaping me, I am indeed enough. I feel that completeness every time I stand in front of a microphone, every time pews filled with people look at me, a Filipino American young woman, and I know they accept me in my entirety when they open their mouths and sing with me.
* “In the Catholic tradition, the cantor facilitates the congregation’s worship by leading them in song, through both voice and presence.