First- and second-generation Pilipinos and the root of their conflict


By A. Mabini

For my parents

First-generation, by established understanding, are Pilipinos who were born in the Philippines and have migrated to the United States. Second-generation Pilipino Americans are those born in America.

I linger between definitions. Although by the above criterion, I fall under the former, I came here at a very young age and have always felt assimilated in the American culture and norms. I considered myself a second-gen Pilipino American. I experienced the distance between a boy uncertain about his identity and his parents who had difficulty raising their children under the American norms. I have also experienced culture shock and the challenging process of assimilation, shared by the first-generation Pilipino Americans.

My father and I did not see eye to eye when I was younger. When I was around 12, I remembered thinking that growing up in the Bronx, with broken English and a severe case of home-sickness was difficult enough, and having to deal with parents who could not or perhaps refused to understand what I was going through, made it almost impossible to progress. To prevent conflict, I would run away for a night and sleep in subways cars and head back around 7 a.m. when my parents were off to work so I could shower and go to school. This went on for a year or so.

Then one night, as my father and I began to clash again, I thought about the long, cold and lonely night ahead and suddenly felt lazy. So I decided to grab a chair and talk to my father — boy to man. We spoke for a good hour and looking back at it, I think that was the moment that my father and I saved our relationship, and perhaps the moment that my father saved my life. Exercising great humility by way of listening to his youngest son and compromising accordingly instead of kicking his son’s wise-ass quite simply allowed me to live without the undue burden.

I have always respected my father, and feared the man that set my brothers and me straight by way of wire hangers and his leather belt. I often reminisce with my father about that moment and we both agree that we were fortunate enough to build the bridge then and there. I suspect many others weren’t, or aren’t, so lucky.

Needless to say, there is an overwhelming gap of understanding between first-generation and second-generation Pilipino Americans. My respect for my father reminded me that he always had the best intentions for my brothers and me. It took a lot for me to sit with him and explain to the man I have feared all my life that the way he was raised in the province of Bukidnon, Mindanao would not do so well if applied to me, growing up in the boogey down Bronx (lean back). In fact, I insisted that it would only do the opposite and raise a rebel out of me. I don’t think I appreciated the effort it must have taken for my father to change his ways and his ideas of raising his sons. I can only imagine that it was his profound love for me that allowed him to listen to his youngest son mouth off about what would do best for his sons’ well being.

I believe the root of the conflict between first-generation Pilipino Americans and second-generation Pilipino American is simply the difference of culture that has become the foundation of the individual’s beliefs and ideas.

My parents Elorde and Lourdes

My mother was subjected to what she indirectly referred to as chores and what I — and possibly the rest of my peers — would call manual labor by my grandmother. If she were a moment late, my grandmother would beat her without motherly compassion. Similarly, my father was raised in a farm, with about five “chores” starting at four in the morning and then he would walk about three kilometers to and from school. Sometimes, he would have to swim about half a kilometer during rainy season when the river would flood.

These types of difficult experiences by the older/first-generation Pilipino Americans build an uncompromising view of life. You try to apply that point of view to someone who was provided a free bus pass to get to a school less than a mile away, and no demanding “chores,” with basic knowledge of a protective law against parents ass-whooping their kids, you would certainly find a difference of understanding.

My father has also admitted that he too was dealing with his own difficulties assimilating in addition to the stress of financial obligations. Naturally, as a young boy, I did not realize the individual challenges and trials my parents went through as immigrants. Quite frankly, I was far too concerned with my comfort and being able to supply my friends with stories that reciprocate their comfortable living. I was not able to comprehend that lady luck has designated my sorry ass a tougher road than my peers who were born and raised here.

Another contributing factor to the tension between first and second-generation Pilipino Americans is the natural jealousy of a parent over his or her child’s opportunities, and the child’s lackadaisical attitude towards those opportunities. The frustration in seeing endless opportunities by a parent who has come such a long way to get so far on so little is certainly another source of disconnect. The frustration of a child feeling smothered by the look of disappointment in his parents also furthers the divide, even as the child struggles with his shortcomings.

Interestingly enough, when I speak of first-generation immigrants and second-generation immigrants I often refer to the younger and the older generations. I certainly think it’s interchangeable. I have come to realize that the conflicts between both groups are accentuated in the age gap.

Often I would hear the older generation confide in me that the younger generation has no sense of appreciation or gratitude for the blessing that their parents have brought them. I think that’s bullshit. I believe these types of statements are fueled by the older generation’s imagination of the palaces and wealth they could have built with the opportunities that this land and this time have given my peers. I am claiming that the older generation shares George Bernard Shaw’s sentiment when he famously stated that the youth is wasted on the young. Generalizing my entire generation is simply unacceptable, but then I suppose it would be a lot easier to defend our generation if most of us stop fucking around and actually step up to the plate.

The privileged attitude that my generation exposes is difficult to defend. I know of some young Pilipino Americans who will not give the time of day to learn their dialect, culture and history. These unfortunate individuals are incapable of understanding the concept of “No History, No Self; Know History, Know Self.” But then I am a firm believer that everyone is a reflection of their parents’ characters.

A. Mabini was born in Davao City and raised in the Bronx.


  1. Joey wrote:

    You are what officially is referred to as a 1.5 generation like that of my wife. And tho I look like one of those folks in your pic of the 1st gens, I am a 2nd gen, born and raised in Queens.

    About giving the time of day to learn a 2nd language, for you who can speak both, it is not that easy for many of us to learn a 2nd language especially when you don’t have a daily practical use for it. Even my wife’s Tagalog has degenerated into Taglish. The Visayan I sort of understood as a child, more as a defense mechanism as to what my parents were talking about, has long been lost.

    As for culture and history, many have no opportunity and if by chance one comes up, there is little motivation. We at FANHS have the motivation to provide that opportunity if one is so inclined.

    Come visit the Smithsonian Singgalot Exhibition we are cosponsoring at the Stony Brook University Wang Center Room 201, Sunday, February 12, 2012 until Sunday, April 22, 2012. Our opening ceremony will be on Saturday, March 3, 2012 if you want to join in the festivities.

    Given the opportunity, everyone is capable to “No History, No Self; (or) Know History, Know Self.” Don’t sell anyone short! Not everyone of my generation is as knowledgeable as you may assume nor your generation is as privileged as you may think no matter what degree of Filipino American generation they are…

  2. Rene Pastor wrote:

    It is not just culture that divides the Pinoy who came here and the Pinoy born or raised here.
    The Pinoy who came here has to deal with a multitude of challenges in making a life here. We sound different and our outlooks are always colored by the struggles of coming from a land that our children vaguely remember and do not have a solid connection to.
    For our children — raised on Lady Gaga and fully immersed in the culture they have wholeheartedly embraced — the Philippines may well have been Mars.
    On our part, we first-gens fail to understand our children have to deal with their own challenges and they are always different from generation to generation. The best thing we can do is listen, try to understand and love them all the same. Easy to say, tough to do.
    I can’t make my daughter understand the bitterness of the battle against the Marcos dictatorship. But we can talk about the struggle of making ends meet, not earning enough and feeling so dog tired at the end of a long working day that the only thing you can do is to plop in your bed and turn blissfully asleep.

    • Joey wrote:

      Rene…the immigrant issues also differ with the different gens of Filipinos who have been coming here since the early 1900s. Their individual attitude will also determine the outcome of whether or not they assimilate into the American culture.

      Many Filipinos come here with the delusion that they will go home to the PH when they retire and then end up being trapped here with their kids and maybe grandkids who consider the US their home.

      My college educated father never fit in here and died a stranger in a strange land in 07. “Home” was always that pre-WWII provincial barrio he grew up in Bohol even tho he has lived here since 46 and owned his own house here since 53.

      My mom, who passed in 02, only had a 4th grade primary school education and knew no English when she came here in 47, was able to assimilate, learn to speak English better than my father, and when my father retired from the UN in 80 and intended to go back “home”, told him she was staying here in her home with her, at that time, 10 kids and 2 grandkids. She died at peace, here in the US, home with her family.

      My father did not understand my disgust with the Marcos regime since he was extremely proud of the Marcos’s and what they had done to boost the stature of the PH here in the US before he was deposed and forced to flee to the US. He expressed his disgust with the Presidency of Cory Aquino who he though had no business being the leader of the PH as a women…

  3. A. Mabini wrote:

    I’m very glad to hear from you guys, thanks for responding.

    I agree with you Joey, it isn’t easy to learn a secondary language, or third or fourth. That’s why i think it takes a conscious effort to retain culture and history. I suppose I meant to be critical to those who have not taken a conscious effort to retain culture and history. After 16 years in the Bronx, I can easily understand losing your language but I made it a point to exercise and speak visaya to my parents and try to speak Tagalog to anyone I know or meet who speaks the language (despite my ability to butcher it with my visaya/English accent). I think everything in life is like riding a bike, you may think you’ve forgotten but it’s somewhere in there my friend- you’ve just got to make a conscious effort.

    I blushed when I read your comment Rene. You effectively communicated what I failed to when I spoke about my father’s hardships as a new immigrant here in NY. The language barrier for my parents as well as the natural feeling of exclusion/alienation as an immigrant. So thanks Rene.
    I hope to hear back from you guys and or from new folks.
    A. Mabini

    I guess I also want to share my resentment on the second generation. I envy them or rather I’m jealous at the fact that they can easily distance themselves from culture and history. I am also resentful at the first generation, particularly the parents who thought it was essential to compromise their children’s Pilipino accent and subsequently culture just so they won’t stand out. You know who you are, and you definitely drop the ball.

    • Joey wrote:

      A.Mabini…in order to take a conscious effort to retain culture and history, one must have an awareness, motivation and opportunity to do so. Even today with the internet, it is not so easy to come by, especially together at one time in one place.

      Coming from your background, it is easy to be critical of others, something that turns off many of us multigens especially those of multi racial, ethnic and/or religious origins. You take for granted that you started with much more than many of us had, some having almost nothing as far as culture and history is concerned, let alone language. That foreign attitude smacks of elitism, something you have, that we don’t; something very 1st gen.

      You seem to think we multigens make a conscious choice to distance ourselves from what you seem to presume should be an instinct to preserve the language, culture and history of what we call the old country.

      You presume that our parents dropped the ball in preserving the language of the old country in us, when it was back then the societal norm of assimilation, encouraged by our teachers and counselors in our schools, and that diversity back then was not only frowned upon but actively discouraged, no matter where you immigrated from.

      You may consider yourself a 2nd gen, but we 2nd gens and beyond look at what you have written here and consider you more like our 1st gen parents we clashed with, than one of us!

      But don’t feel bad about this. My own and younger siblings look at me and wonder why I am so into trying to find myself in our Filipino American history especially so late in my life. I guess being the eldest and realizing my mortality, I’d like to have something to pass to my 4 grandkids that would be unique to me in this new and now supposedly diversified America…

  4. A.Mabini wrote:

    Hey Joey, I’m glad we’re having this discourse. As I have reminded myself often about my father’s well intentions, I hope that we can do the same to retain a mutual respect. : )

    Although I understand your points, I firmly disagree with a lot of it. For the record, it isn’t easy for me to criticize my people, it’s something I’d rather not do but I feel compelled to. Why? Because that’s how I get better, through criticism.

    On your second paragraph, I know of a couple of friends who were born and raised here. One in particular, born and raise in upstate in NY, speaks fluent Visaya and is very knowledgeable about our history and culture. She too also “started with nothing.” What do you think is the differential factor between her situation and the others who remained distant from “the old country.” Her parents made it a point in her life to instill her culture and her ethnic identity within her individuality. You’re absolutely right about the fact that diversity and promotion of other non-american culture was frowned upon but it was the individuals who stood their ground and insisted on retaining and subsequently promoting their heritage that pave the way to today’s general acceptance. When I spoke of parents’ dropping the ball, I was talking about parents who intentionally distanced their kids from “the old country” for fear that they might stand out. Personally, for a parent to shy their kids away from a profound struggle that without a doubt will help mold the character of their children is simply irresponsible. Parents, in my opinion are obligated to help their children become the best individual they can be, even if it means putting them in difficult, awkward situations, as long as it is part of a master plan. So yeah, I think these type of parents dropped the ball, big time!

    I think you misunderstood me, based on your third paragraph. Actually I’m not sure, because at first you acknowledged the fact that I think it takes a conscious effort (see your first paragraph) and therefore logically, i could not possible “presume that it’s instinctive.” It does take a conscious effort to link back to the “old country.” Furthermore, it also takes a conscious effort NOT to link back to the “old country.”

    About the assimilation process, I am well aware of the different ways we were discourage to keep our ethnic identity, but one thing that will always remain in me are my parents’ ideas, one of which is, “don’t let the world change you, you change the world.” I think the parents who indirectly said otherwise, dropped the ball big time.

    Lol And quite frankly, I don’t give a shit what you and what you claimed the rest of your generation think which category I belong in. And don’t worry, I “don’t feel bad” about your categorizing skills, what I do feel about though is the lateness of your realization that you’d want to pass something to your four grandchildren. I sincerely hope you succeed in that, otherwise I would genuinely feel bad about your grandchildren missing out on such a great heritage.

    I hope my grammar wasn’t so bad, just got home from work and didn’t have time to edit. I’m looking forward to continuing this exchange of ideas. I also hope to hear from other folks. : )

  5. Joey wrote:

    yea, you are just like my 1st gen old man was talking about mutual respect while not giving a shit at the same time…

  6. A.Mabini wrote:

    I’m sure you feel right in your own view Joey, just as I do in mine and that is that you’re a typical crooked politician who elects to take pieces of my statements and rhetorically exploit the crap out of them. And when you’re backed up in the corner by my logical rebuttals, you display “smacks of elitist” dismissive rhetoric. By the way, that was pretty funny and I’m not being sarcastic amigo. I would never imagine in my life that someone will ever mistake me or any part of me, as some sort of an elitist. Forcing myself to sleep with an empty stomach, a few nights in my young life have ingrained a poor man’s mentality or perhaps what you might point out as a first generation mentality. I really regret that you have categorized me and made the polarity between generations even clearer. I think, despite the difference in age/generation, we are quintessentially the same, Pilipino. I don’t think one is better than the other (something I think you may have been hinting up when you categorized me). Notice that I have pointed my finger in both generations, I genuinely hope that you and anyone who may think that one of the other generation is above another, reconsider your method in thinking over these things, for our sake as a united people.

    • Joey wrote:

      if you want people to agree with your POV, I’m sure you will find lots of folks who agree with you back in Davao. You will find little sympathy with your PH centric mindset here in the US among multigen Filipino Americans who are Americans 1st before they are anything from the old country which is no longer their home and is in fact a foreign country to them. You may consider yourself a “Pilipino” American but here in the US, you are a Filipino as far as we Americans are concerned…

  7. Suzette wrote:

    My favorite part is “the natural jealousy of a parent over his or her child’s opportunities, and the child’s lackadaisical attitude towards those opportunities.”

    If you think about it, it’s very circular and interconnected. The 1st gen/ parent’s over-enthusiasm/ transferred ambition onto the child is rooted from the lack of opportunities “back home.” In addition, they would say “we left home for a better life for you (the child).” They fail to adequately admit that they left home as much for THEMSELVES and as they did for the next gen.

    The 2nd gen/ child’s “kulang sa utang ng loob” is as multifactorial. 1- They never experienced the lack of opps 2- in the parents’ success in improving quality of life (for themselves and fam), parents neglect to reflect back (outloud anyway) 3- when reminded of parents’ intentions, it is perceived in a “nagging” way (more often than not, it is brought up in that tone).

    For some of these children/ 1.5gen/ 2nd gen, it is almost as though the child wants to regress back to some kind of suffering/lack of opportunities in order to be motivated to take advantage of such opportunities. As though hearing their parents’ stories is not enough to drive them to it themselves.

    I hope this made sense

  8. A.Mabini wrote:

    Hey Doc! thanks for responding. I’m glad it hit home.

    Ok Joey, I can live with that because 1. i know that despite the fact that you keep saying “we” and “us” as though you represent a large constituent, i know you’re just referring to your insecurities and 2. just to remind you amigo, to white Americans, you are as Mexican as I am Pilipino to you lol 😉

    • Joey wrote:

      You are just a screw up as my old man was and like him will die a stranger in a strange land unless you go “home”! At least I know I am an American…

  9. Tess wrote:

    I like this blog; it’s a masterpiece!

  10. Noel wrote:

    Hi, Neat post, great writing.

  11. […] article was originally published on The, an online magazine for Filipino Americans in New […]

  12. Noli wrote:

    I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great. Cheers!

  13. A. Mabini wrote:

    Thanks Joey for an honest dialogue.

    Thank you Tess, I take a lot of pride in what you just said.

    Thanks Noel!

    Noli, that makes two of us, but we’re here so Cheers brother! : )

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: