by Kevin L. Nadal, Ph.D.
(This essay was written in the upcoming anthology, Empire of Funk: Filipino Americans in the Cypher of Hip Hop)
One of my personal claims to fame is that I have proudly represented various parts of the United States- from the West Coast, to the East Coast, and for a short stint in time, even the Midwest. While I grew up in a large Filipino American community in the San Francisco Bay Area, I found myself moving to different parts of the country, primarily for my academic education, but secretly because of my desire for adventure, new experiences, and the chance to meet people from all walks of life. So whether I was living in California or Michigan or my permanent residence in New York City, I always thrived on the opportunity to grow personally, professionally, and spiritually. And in time, I would learn that the people I’ve met in these places and the subsequent experiences that would ensue would be the real education I would get. The life-changing lessons I would learn the most would not be in a lecture hall or classroom, but rather in the communities that I would be involved with.
Before I begin, it may be necessary to share a little bit about my life as a way of providing a context for which I write this narrative. I am a second-generation Filipino American, born and raised in the United States; I am the youngest of three boys who grew up in a two-parent, immigrant, working- to middle-class home. Life in the Nadal house was always a mix of Pilipino and American cultures, which could be exemplified best by the foods we ate—the family dinner with sticky white rice and KFC, a lunch bag with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a lumpia wrapped in foil, and even the Thanksgiving dinner with a turkey in the middle surrounded by pancit (Filipino noodles) and dinuguan (blood pork stew) on either side.
I spent my teenage years in the nineties- a decade when the fashion was supposedly better than the eighties but in retrospect was probably worse. The haircuts on the boys in my family ranged from flat tops with lines to a slicked back pompadour, while the girls sprayed Aquanet to shape their 6 inch bangs into a perfect fan formation. The local radio stations blasted slogans like “Knowledge is Power” or “No Color Lines” as we recovered from Rodney King and the L.A. Riots. We pegged our pants in our pre-teens with safety pins, and we wore baggy overalls a year or so later. Our cross-color jeans were bright and in every shade- from orange to purple to forest green. And we listened to everything from MC Hammer to Easy E, from Michel’le to J.J. Fad, and we even were lucky enough to bob our heads to Biggie and Tupac in human form.
The Catholic elementary school I attended was mixed, with Mexicans and Filipinos as the predominant ethnic minority groups. The high school that I attended was almost fifty percent Filipino American, with a sizeable number of Latinos (primarily Mexican Americans). The college I attended was more than half Asian American, yet it was also one where Filipinos were always separated from Asians on demographic population reports.
I was always actively involved n the Filipino American community in formal and informal ways. My parents belonged to a typical association which was usually defined by extravagant galas where the kids would roam around the hotel and avoid getting in trouble. I was embarrassed when my parents took us to Filipino community events, but I was happy to go to the same events with my barkada (group of friends). I learned how to dance tinikling, singkil, pandango sa ilaw, and other cultural dances. I joined our Filipino student organizations in both high school and college, and I became president of both.
Throughout my youth, majority of my closest friends and social circles was Filipino American, with an emphasis on the American. I bonded mostly with other second generation Filipino Americans who were born and raised in the United States and whose parents all had thick, yet decipherable accents. At the same time, I always had at least 2 or 3 best friends who were Black or Latino, and I always felt comfortable and welcomed in both Black and Latino spaces- from the Baptist churches to my friends’ quincieneras, and even to the hip hop showcases. In high school, I attended all the Black Student Union events; in college, I was an honorary member of MEChA (the Chicano student activist organization). I was extremely proud of being Filipino American in all ways, yet I always found myself aligning closely with the “other brown folks.” And while I had a few close Chinese and Japanese friends, I never felt as comfortable within their communities.
As I moved around the country, I seemed to notice similar trends. When I lived in Michigan, I observed all of the Filipino male students joining the historically Latino fraternity, instead of an Asian American one. When I moved to New York, my Latino students would often refer to Filipinos as the “Spanish Asians,” while my Black students would call them the “Black Asians.” I was easily included in conversations with African Americans and Latinos about race, while many of my Chinese, Japanese, or Korean friends and colleagues often had to justify they were people “of color.” And just about anywhere in the country, it was common for Black men to nod their heads in a friendly gesture when I passed them by, or for African American women to ask me which parent of mine was Black.
As I transformed from a kid who merely showed up to Filipino events for food, to a student activist who learned about racism and oppression, and to an adult who has managed to integrate social justice, Filipino American, and LGBTQ issues into my career, I’ve always wondered why Filipino Americans had experiences that were unique to other Asian American groups? Why were there so many allegiances between Filipino Americans, Latinos, and African Americans? Was it because of skin color? Was it because of bonds from colonialism or racism? Was it because of social class? Was it because of hip hop? And was it just something that I perceived or was this actually a trend across the country?
PNoy Apparel, a Filipino clothing company in San Diego, California, has a phrase that they often use as their motto: “No history, no self. Know history, know self.” Thus, it is important to take a look back at the history of the Filipino and Filipino American people in order for me to answer these questions. It is necessary to not just look at the experiences of Filipino Americans in the US today, but also at the history of the motherland.
The Philippines was the only country in the world that was colonized by both Spain and the United States. Prior to colonization, indigenous Philippines could be described as a group of separate islands southeast of mainland China and west to Pacific Islands where the inhabitants were mostly animistic or Muslim. But after almost 400 years of Spanish oppression, the Philippines became a predominantly Catholic country. Consequently, they acquired many Spanish cultural values (e.g., machismo, or male dominance), Spanish traditions (e.g., having “debuts,” or coming of age celebrations for girls), Spanish surnames (e.g., Mercado, De La Cruz, or Santos) and even Spanish language influences (e.g., Spanish nouns like “pan” for bread or “leche” for milk) - all which are also present in Latino communities today. Perhaps Filipino Americans feel connected with Latinos because of their similar Catholic religious traditions, cultural values, and colonial history. Perhaps Filipino Americans feel alliances with Latinos because they Spanish last names and other people would mistake them for being Latino. And maybe this connection can be viewed as a positive one (e.g., when Filipino American and Latino organizations work together for social justice issues), but arguably it can be viewed as a negative one (e.g., when a Filipino American has colonial mentality and would rather identify as Latino instead of Filipino). Either way, the connection still existed and appeared to be common.
The history of the Filipino American people in the United States may also provide some insight about Filipino Americans and their allegiances with others. The United Farm Workers (UFW) movement was a formed as a result of Filipino American labor leaders who wanted to the Filipino and Mexican farmworkers to create a greater alliance and become a stronger force. However, this movement is often noted in American history books as being a Chicano or Mexican American movement and fails to recognize the Filipino American farmworkers who took initiative to unite the two parties. Additionally, because of the smaller number of Filipinos in the UFW, they often felt ignored and relationships dwindled. Cesar Chavez (the UFW president and chief Chicano labor leader) was often praised for guiding the movement, while leaders Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz (whom were both Filipino labor leaders and vice presidents of the UFW) were not credited for their work and initiative. Although there were some negative outcomes of this movement, this movement symbolized the first of many allegiances that could (and would) ensue between the two ethnic groups.
Perhaps the sociocultural experiences of Filipino Americans have also connected them to other ethnic minority groups. There have been many studies in psychology and education that have pointed to the fact that Filipino Americans have experienced similar types of racism as other Asian Americans do (See Nadal, 2011 for a review). For example, it is common for many Asian Americans to be forced to justify where they are from (e.g., being asked “No, where are you really from?” after an Asian American tells someone they were born in the US). It is also common for Asian Americans to be told that they speak “good English,” even though they were born and raised in the United States. Although Filipinos first landed in the US in 1587, and there are now up to four generations in my own family who have spent their lives on American soil, Filipino Americans (and other Asian Americans) would continually be viewed as perpetual foreigners or aliens in our own land.
Research is also finding that Filipino Americans are often the victims of racism that is similar to African Americans and Latinos. For example, it is common for people of these groups to be treated as if they are inferior (i.e., when someone assumes an African American, Latino, or Filipino American wouldn’t be smart, capable, or have money). Some research has found that Filipino American teens reported being less encouraged by their high school counselors and teachers to go to college, in the same ways that Chinese Americans would (Teranishi, 2002). This aligns with literature on teacher bias which argues that teachers often unconsciously discriminate against African American and Latino students and assume inferiority (Downey & Pribest, 2004). Other research has found that Filipino Americans are sometimes assumed to be criminals (e.g., when a store clerk follows a person of color to make sure she or he doesn’t steal, or when a police officer pulls a person of color over for no reason; Nadal, 2011). Because of this discrimination, Filipino Americans may experience psychological distress that is different than other groups; they experience discrimination involving being treated like an alien, an inferior, and a criminal. And because of this distress, Filipino Americans may experience a variety of mental health problems like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or low self-esteem (See Nadal, 2011 for a review).
Another factor that contributes to Filipino Americans’ unique experiences with race is the discrimination that ensues in the Asian American community. Filipino Americans and Pacific Islanders are often viewed as the bottom of the Asian American hierarchy by East Asians; as a result, Filipino Americans and Pacific Islanders are the often targets of stereotypes of ethnic jokes promoting inferiority of the two ethnic groups with the Asian/Pacific Islander community (Okamura, 1998). These stereotypes are usually based on the notion that Filipino Americans and Pacific Islanders have lower educational attainment levels and lower socioeconomic statuses, as compared to other East Asian Americans, as well as stereotypes that both groups are uncivilized or criminal. As a result of this discrimination, it is uncommon for Filipino Americans to attain leadership positions within Asian American communities and somewhat unusual for specific Filipino American issues to be discussed in Asian American contexts. For example, many Asian American studies classes fail to include Filipino American topics, despite the fact that Filipino Americans are the largest Asian American population in the US and have prominent populations on college campuses. Because of this invisibility, many Filipino Americans may feel marginalized within the Asian American community and may purposefully separate from pan-Asian organizations (Espiritu, 1992). Sometimes these feelings of marginalization may lead Filipino Americans to identify more as Pacific Islanders, primarily because of physical similarities (e.g., brown skin, flat nose) and experiences of discrimination or invisibility.
Filipino Americans also have health problems that are more similar to African Americans and Latinos than to other Asian American groups (See Nadal, 2011 for a review). Filipino Americans have higher incidents of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, gout, and obesity. This trend is often attributed to an unhealthy Filipino diet and lack of exercise. This is a similar explanation given for health problems in African American communities, who may have similar nutritional intakes and lack of physical activity. In terms of nutrition alone, there are many similarities between Filipino Americans and African Americans; both groups enjoy eating fried foods, tend to purchase and cook nontraditional and cheaper meats like pig intestines or oxtail, and tend not to prepare meals with a lot of vegetables.
Similarly, various sociocultural experiences may connect Filipino Americans to other ethnic minority groups. Filipino Americans tend to have higher rates of teen pregnancy and HIV/AIDS than other Asian American groups, with rates are more similar to African American and Latino populations (Nadal, 2011). Second generation Filipino Americans attain college degrees less than second generation East Asian Americans (e.g., Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans) and Asian Indian Americans (Nadal, 2011). Substance use, particularly drinking alcohol and tobacco use in men, has been found to be more significant for Filipino American samples (Nadal, 2000). Depression for Filipino Americans is found to be higher for Filipino American populations (Tompar-Tiu & Sustento-Seneriches, 1995) and suicide has been reported as being higher with Filipina American adolescent girls (Wolf, 1997). While all of these issues tend to affect Latino and African American communities, a major difference is that very few Americans are familiar with these disparaging trends for Filipino Americans. Because of the Model Minority Myth, Filipino Americans are not receiving the services they deserve and these disparities in physical health, education, and mental health persist.
While there is no clear reason to cite why Filipino Americans experience a range of disparaging problems, it is conceivable that experiences with racism (both interpersonal and institutional) may contribute to their alliance with African Americans and Latinos. Perhaps encountering similar types of discrimination allows African Americans and Latinos to feel more connected to Filipino Americans over other Asian American groups. Perhaps the institutional barriers to education, health care, or political voice may influence the joining of oppressed groups. Perhaps the notion that Filipino Americans have a darker brown skin allows African American and Latino persons to feel more affinity with Filipino Americans. And because of all of these reasons, activism can ensue between all of these groups and a united front could be formed. So although experiencing racism is undoubtedly an unfair and unjust problem in the United States, the bonds that it can create between communities can be viewed as a positive outcome.
It is important to note that these trends are only among a few possible reasons supporting why Filipino Americans may bond with African Americans and Latinos. Other issues like social class, socioeconomic status, neighborhood, gang membership, and others may all potentially have an influence on the alliance between the groups. Perhaps the trend that Filipino Americans are more likely to date or marry outside of their ethnic group may also contribute to the phenomenon. Filipino American women are more likely to date African American men than any other Asian group, and there has been an increase of Mexipinos (biracial Mexican/Filipino individuals) and other multiracial Filipino Americans in the country (Nadal, 2011). However, one of the most prominent reasons why Filipino Americans have become so connected to these communities in the past few decades is because of the participation, visibility, and culture of Filipino Americans in hip hop.
Ever since the 1980s, Filipinos on both the West Coast and East Coast have been a force in most of the elements of hip hop. DJ’s like DJ QBert and DJ Icy Ice on the West Coast and DJ Neil Armstrong and DJ Kuttin Kandi on the East Coast have been among some of my most favorite turntablists of all time. Yet, when I was growing up, I also enjoyed my high school friends who would spin 45’s in our garages for our birthdays, or who I’d help carry crates of records or extension cords into clubs, just so that I can say “I’m with the DJ” and not pay a cover.
Emcees and lyricists have been around even before I was a teenager, ranging from the Native Guns and the pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas, and still persist in the new contemporary sounds of Deep Foundation and Ryan “Hydroponikz” Abugan. But they also existed in the non-competitive free flows that my cousins and I would engage in when we were bored at a family party.
Long before Randy Jackson’s America’s Best Dance Crews existed the best of the best dance teams like Culture Shock and old school Kaba Modern. But there were also my b-boy friends who always seemed to be spinning on their heads on cardboard boxes in our garages, as well as the aspiring adolescents who created dance routines to the sounds of Bell Biv Devoe, Kool Moe Dee, and Oaktown 357 and performed at every Filipino Association Christmas party or high school talent show. Sometimes these dance groups didn’t have access to mixers or other fancy equipment, which was apparent by occasional awkward transitions into the next song. Today that would be unacceptable; back then, it was normal and just added character. As long as the audience couldn’t hear their Filipina moms screaming in the background, the performers would be happy.
Even in the spoken word or poetry scene, Filipino Americans have always represented well. There were my favorite pioneers like Faith Santilla, Regie Cabico, Alison de la Cruz, Emily Lawsin, and Two Warriors. But I also enjoyed the endearing and empowering poems of the Filipina teenager struggling in her pinay identity. I watched the young, gay, college-aged Filipino man use his spoken word piece as a way to come out of the closet to his friends in the audience. I witnessed the educator who used her poetry to teach us about imperialism and social justice, while inevitably using the word makibaka at least once (but likely five times). And I was humbled by the young college students in the Midwest who I introduced spoken word to in the early 2000s; I hope to illustrate them to a way of expressing their raw emotions in what I thought was an artistic way, but I later realized it was the only way many of them would know how.
And maybe that is exactly what hip hop has meant to me and the Filipino American community. It has been a chance for us to have our voices heard. It has been the major form of activism for our generation. It has given us the chance to develop positive Filipina and Filipino role models, in a world that didn’t (and still doesn’t) allow Filipino Americans to be present in the media in the ways that we deserve. So maybe we didn’t see many pinay or pinoy hip hop pioneers on television, but we did see them spinning at the club, dancing or emceeing at Friendship Games or FIND, or performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café in NYC or Bindlestiff in San Francisco. I may not remember the names of the most prominent Filipino American graffiti artists of my time, but knowing many were Filipino American did (and still does) instill a pride in my culture and in my people.
I grew up in a time where the only images of Filipinos in the media were negative- from a former first lady’s excess of shoes to a scandalous little league baseball team to the murderer of Versace. I often wonder how not seeing people who look like you in positive ways has an impact on one’s self-esteem. Being consistently invisible on screen may exacerbate feelings of invisibility in everyday life. And even though Filipino kids today have access to the Jabbawockeez and apl.de.ap on their television sets, I hope they still appreciate the real celebrities- the local hip hop heroes like Bambu, Kiwi, Koba, Geologic, DJ Melissa Corpus, Marie Obaña, Mathilda de Dios, K. Barrett, Kimmy Maniquis, Jonathan “Bionic” Bayani, and Michael “Suikace” Capito who make waves in their communities every day through their art and their hearts. And just as importantly, I hope that young Filipino kids today strive to become those local heroes themselves and pass on that flame to future generations.
One of the greatest gifts that the Filipino American presence in hip hop community has given us was the opportunity to feel connected. We have been able to feel connected by crossing colors and uniting with others outside of our community. We have been able to feel connected to a movement of others who believe similarly as we do, and others who use art as a way of expressing that. And most importantly, we have been able to feel connected to each other- across color lines, across social classes, and across coasts.
We have consumed each other’s stories through our five major senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. We have visually witnessed the intricate moves of hip hop dance, as well as graphic art and design on the walls of our urban (and sometimes suburban) neighborhoods. We have listened in awe to the turntabling sounds from Filipina and Filipino fingers, the vicious voices of spoken word artists, and the mesmerizing lyrics leaving Filipina and Filipino lips. And together as a people, we have even smelled victory and struggle, tasted defeat and empowerment, and been touched in our minds and our hearts.
Espiritu, Y. L. (1992). Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Downey, D. B., & Pribesh, S. (2004). When race matters: Teachers' evaluations of students' classroom behavior. Sociology of Education, 77(4), 267-282.
Nadal, K. L. (2000). F/Pilipino American Substance Abuse: Sociocultural Factors and Methods of Treatment. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 46(2), 26-36.
Nadal, K. L. (2011). Filipino American psychology: A Handbook of theory, research, and clinical practice. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Okamura, J. Y. (1998). Imagining the Filipino American Diaspora: Transnational Relations, Identities, and Communities. New York: Garland Publishing.
Teranishi, R. T. (2002). Asian Pacific Americans and critical race theory: An examination of school racial climate. Equity & Excellence in Education, (35)2, 144-154.
Tompar-Tiu, A., & Sustento-Seneriches, J. (1995). Depression and Other Mental Health Issues: The Filipino American Experience. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.
Wolf, D.L. (1997). Family Secrets: Transnational struggles among children of Filipino immigrants. Sociological Perspectives, 40(3), 457-482.