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Digging Closer to My Roots

Coming to terms with history as a Filipino American in Spain.

This story is part of a series about being ___ in ___ , exploring how our identities color our experiences while living in new places around the world. 

When I was 17, I had this typical teenage dream of sipping caffe lattes and writing in my Moleskine every day in some charming café off a cobblestone Spanish street. I wanted to be romanced by the language, letting it roll off my tongue as smoothly as the coffee down my throat.

Now, 13 years later, I’m asking myself where that dream even came from and why. How was it so fundamentally sold to me? How was it so convincing? Was it something taught to, or perhaps forced upon, and passed on by my ancestors?

I grew up in a Midwestern, majority-white community, raised by immigrant Filipino parents. As my parents assimilated, my sister and I weren’t exclusively taught Filipino history or any of the languages. I felt like Filipino culture was something left only for family holidays and dinners. It’s taken me up until now, at age 30, living in a small, northern Spanish city of Pontevedra, Galicia that claims the origins of the Niña, Pinta, Santa María, and Columbus’s send-off to the New World to even question why my Filipino heritage is such a distant thing from my everyday life. I’ve been living and teaching English in Spain for two years, going on a third, and it’s only brought me closer to my roots.

Slowly but surely, I’m learning.

Visiting a third-century Roman wall in Lugo, Galicia, Spain.
photo courtesy of Teresa Mupas

Colonial thinking

After having been ruled by both Spanish and American empires, the Philippines has had a long and relatively recent experience with colonization (the US granted the Philippines “independence” in 1946). I hadn’t felt or even considered the full effects of this history until I moved to Spain. During conversations about my heritage and where my parents are from with coworkers or adult students, some people have asked, “But aren’t Filipinos Spanish, too?”

I’m learning that while people here understand the American part of my identity, they are often perplexed and even awkward about the Filipino part.

Then there are the donuts I see on convenience store shelves called Filipinos, white dough covered in processed dark chocolate, a symbol of what seems to me is a way of thinking for the Spanish (and even Americans): that Filipinos were never personalities or a culture of their own, that inside we’re meant to be white, and outside we carry a glossy dark finish. Even the word Filipino wasn’t meant for us. It was meant for the Spanish living in the Philippines who served under the Spanish crown, a namesake of King Philip II.

I’m learning that while people here understand the American part of my identity, they are often perplexed and even awkward about the Filipino part. And, more often than not, they choose to casually breeze over it, shifting the focus back to how I can help them improve their English.  When this happens, I feel like a part of my identity has been glossed over, written off, deemed unimportant.

But I’ve felt like this most of my life. So while there’s a pinch in the back of my throat to finally speak up, I never do—a result of years, centuries, of training.

Language tells so many stories, even when it isn’t intended to

When I went home to metro Detroit last December, my cousin asked me, “Now that you speak Spanish, can you understand Tagalog more?”

The answer is yes, approximately one-third more than I could before. Tiny words that slipped into my childhood—basura, zapatos, coche—are now cluttered throughout my day, casual reminders of centuries of colonization. In the many hours of leisure time the Spanish take in the name of holidays and siesta, I find myself reading José Rizal and studying Tagalog. It is both easy and strange. It’s easy because some nouns end up being Spanish or English ones. It’s strange because I’m an uptight American, poised in my North American accent and private-school grammar. Tagalog is playful and loose, complete with mannerisms I’ve only ever watched my family make when they tell jokes.

But, quite unexpectedly, I’m learning how to undo my conditioning, how to let go a little bit.

Here I find it’s been tough to uncover this part of myself. It’s much easier to go through Spanish grammar exercises and teach the hard “R” of American English. But, quite unexpectedly, I’m learning how to undo my conditioning, how to let go a little bit.

But it’s difficult. Teaching has been the only job that has brought me out of myself, but when I ask my little four-year-old students to repeat their request to go to the bathroom in English, I can only feel like everything has come full circle: I, colonized, have become the colonizer.

A Roman bridge on a boardwalk in my neighborhood. Pilgrims taking the Portuguese route on the famous Camino de Santiago have to cross this bridge to get to the next town.
photo by Teresa Mupas

Coming to terms with myself and my color

My primary school students like to draw pictures of me and ask for the dark crayons when coloring in my skin. Black is okay with them if there isn’t brown available. Race and the nuances of it are not something they are taught to not talk about.

In Spanish, my co-teachers kindly explain to these small children that America is made up of many different types of people. But they still call me negrita freely and always ask if I spend my days off laying out at the beach (I do; I love the deep color that comes afterward). And as I walk down Calle Paseo de Colón, past the Christopher Columbus museum, the bullfighting arena, and four-story-tall crucifixes dedicated to war veterans, the men stare. Sometimes they ask me where I’m from. They guess Brazil first, then Colombia, then sometimes Venezuela. While they’re imposing their own narrative onto me, I can’t help but feel a kinship with these women I’ve been grouped in with. We are, after all, cousin cultures with the same terrible uncle.

Sometimes they ask me where I’m from. They guess Brazil first, then Colombia, then sometimes Venezuela. While they’re imposing their own narrative onto me, I can’t help but feel a kinship with these women I’ve been grouped in with.

Growing up in a majority-white neighborhood, being separated out based on my skin color never offended me. It was just part of life.

Here, where it seems to me people believe racism doesn’t exist anymore, I experience being othered by way of these country-of-origin guessing games and student representations of me as dark and exotic. Here, the erasure has triggered a good deal of my anxiety. While I’m used to being othered, this time it’s being coupled with my search for why I’m brown and how I got to be here in the first place.

Perhaps I was drawn here and dreamt of living here as a sort of message. A message to force myself into learning, to further understand the plight of my family and our people, to start to decolonize myself one piece at a time. While I listen to a centuries-old tradition of killing bulls for sport in the neighboring arena, I read Filipino authors like N.V.M. González and Mia Alvar, who’ve written stories where the main characters behave like my family, whose faces I can see as clearly as my grandmother’s, my mother’s, my aunts’ and uncles’. I create a space where our narratives are being rewritten, our histories are understood and heard, our pain re-lived, our resilience reinforced.

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