Being both Filipino and American is a blessing, a curse…and a privilegeBy Sarah Santos
I sometimes have moments where life as I know it gets snatched out from under me so fast I can’t figure out what to do next. Over our summer fellowship, as the world grew before our eyes, my cohort and I experienced these moments a lot. With every deep-dive discussion, every thought-provoking workshop, and every eye-opening encounter we faced, our perception of the Philippines and of ourselves evolved, provoking existential crises in the most serendipitous moments.
The Kaya Co. curriculum showed us where we came from so as to reveal where to go next. It was a gradual process of enlightenment, dotted with fits and bursts of inspiration that turned my world upside down. As I learned about the history of the Philippines, I found myself discovering a fundamental part of who I was. To put it in the words of José Rizal, Filipino national hero, “No history, no self. Know history, know self.”
My first encounter with Filipino history was during U.S. National History Day with my elementary school. Under my mother’s pressing suggestions, I did a research project on the Philippine-American War. I remember at the time how dull and irrelevant the topic seemed. In an eighth-grader’s world, it was all just another cast of flat characters, meaningless events, and dense facts to be compiled, sorted, and synthesized.
But it’s funny how life works out. Little did I know just how relevant all this so-called history was to my present reality. To give some context, I was one of three minority students at my East Coast suburban Catholic school. Against the backdrop of my white American peers, I fell helplessly into the stereotype of quiet Asian nerd with a budding inferiority complex. I tried to suppress anything Filipino and instead taught myself the slang and values of my American classmates. Basically, I was an ideal candidate for a colonial mentality case study.
The irony kicks in with my oblivious, American-oriented research of the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines. In fact, I was embarrassed that my project drew attention to my heritage, something so out-of-place in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania. I felt ashamed to be doing a topic outside “typical U.S. history.” Interestingly enough, all of my middle school insecurities as a Filipino-American tied back to the dates and events I haphazardly scrawled on my index cards. And so began my first exposure to the history of American colonization, a chronicle with unsettling parallels to my own situation in Pennsylvania.
Of course, the irony passed undetected by me at the time.
Fast-forward five years and it’s a different story. I remember the exact moment when I experienced a sort of tipping point, as if everything that ever happened to me in the past had led to this pivot. I was a college freshman who had just left English class, where we discussed neocolonialism in the East and its effects on diaspora populations. As I trekked across the quad that Wednesday afternoon, my mind buzzed with snippets from class discussion swirling with fragments from my childhood.
I suddenly recognized the role of my personal narrative in the larger storylines unfolding, and it floored me. History had somehow snuck up to the present, showing me that my story began long before I was ever born.
This past summer, six months after my epiphany on the quad, the Kaya Co. fellows met with Ateneo Professor Tony La Vina. He taught us all about Philippine-American history, outlining the good, the bad, and everything in between and emphasizing one thing in particular: “No matter what, you can’t separate yourself from your history.” He had a good point. It’s a belief that’s shaped how I approach my own personal case of colonial mentality.
As a Filipino-American, a pure cultural hybrid, my story is equal parts Filipino and equal parts American. I’m the product of two histories intersecting, and it’s been both a blessing and a curse. Nonetheless, it has been such a privilege to discover for myself the implications of that paradox. The feeling that you’re a part of something overwhelmingly larger than yourself is an exquisitely humbling one. It leaves you reconsidering just how influential a role the past plays on the present moment.
Sarah Santos is a Business student at Georgetown University. This essay is being republished with permission from Kaya Collaborative where she is currently a fellow.