Being Filipinx in America: Food, Family, and Faith
Updated: Aug 12, 2020
By Isabel Anderson
A Filipino family gathers around the dinner table, 2016
Last week, Synchesis focused on what it means to be Filipinx in America. We have had so many different submissions that discuss how different people identify as Filipinx and what this identity means to them. Over the weekend, Synchesis’ Isabel Anderson — who conducted and condensed this interview — caught up with Stefanie Manalo-LeClair, a close family friend, over the phone. Manalo-LeClair is a Filipina-American high school counselor living in Oakland, California. She works with students in a multitude of ways, including one-on-one counseling and aiding in the college search. After explaining the purpose of the interview, Isabel and Stephanie dove right in.
Alright! If you are ready, I have a couple of questions I’d like to ask you.
What does it mean to you to be Filipino?
I would say that the first thing I think about is family. I think Filipinos are really close to their family units. Everything I know about being Filipino is because of family. Filipinos are very friendly. They love to feed people, and they love to eat. Family gatherings are the combined enjoyment of being together and eating together. In my experience, there are three important tenets in Filipino culture: Food, Family, and Faith. Food and family are always present, and if you grow up in the Filipino community, religion is very important. Even though I don’t practice as much as I used to, I still have faith and spirituality in my life.
That makes sense! Anything else?
Laughter. Always laughter. Throughout all of the things that have happened, they [people in the Filipino community] have found laughter in hard times. Life has been difficult, and so laughter became their way of saving themselves. My parents grew up during the war. The Filipino community I grew up in was not a solemn, somber community. Even in darkness they could find ways to partake in the things that would make them laugh and release the stress they were experiencing
What was it like for you growing up?
I had a unique experience compared to my siblings. I am the only one who was born here. They had the language — which I didn’t have. I could understand general things, but I would just get the gist. I didn’t have that piece. My siblings are much older, and I was Americanized faster than them. They ranged from 4-12 years old when they came here. I was very American. I wanted to do American things. They had to learn what it meant to be teenagers in the US whereas everything around me made sense. It was hard for them — people made fun of their accents and it was hard to make friends at first. Because of this, they were really close to each other as a unit.
How about your teen years?
They were grown and mostly all out of the house by the time I was a teen. So my friends became like my family. I saw my family life and life with my friends as two separate parts of me. I was Filipino when I was with my family and American outside of the home. When people would ask where I was from, I would always answer “From LA!”
Well, you are from LA!
But they didn’t mean it like that.
They meant it like “Where are you from from.”
Right. “Where are you from?” “My mother’s womb!”
I didn’t think of myself as not belonging when I wasn’t with my family. I always saw myself as an American.
What is it like raising two Filipino-American sons?
I would say, better than I thought!
Haha! What do you mean?
I always thought I would have girls! My family has a lot of girls, I went to a girl’s school, my sisters have girls…. And then we had boys and they were twins. I wasn’t expecting boys…. And to have two of them! It was a conscious shift. It was really important to be close to my side of the family. We lived closer to them and were able to see them often. And in other ways too.
We went back [to the Philippines] when the boys were two and then again when they were juniors in high school. They called their grandparents Lolo and Lola. They got Food, Family, and Faith. They had a similar experience as I did as teenagers. In raising them, it was important to me that they knew who they were and where they came from.
What are some of your favorite cultural practices?
Food! I guess for me it goes back to food. At every holiday, it was always Filipino food, like Lumpia and Pancit. There were traditional foods served at those holidays, [like] 4th of July, Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving…. Always back to Food, Family, and Faith. My parents practice the Novena, and we prayed the Filipino Rosary. But for me, it was always about the food! It meant we could have a really good Filipino dessert afterward. Mmh! So delicious. It was always really easy to connect church with Filipino food.
Do any other practices come to mind?
We learned when we went to the Philippines when the boys were two years old that when you greet someone, you take their hand and put it to your forehead, and say "amen" as a sign of respect. Before we visited my family in the Philippines, I always found it odd. We never did it when I was growing up because there was no one else my age in the family. At Christmas, we experienced “Aguinaldo,” where elder members of the family give money to the younger kids during the holiday season.
Sort of like red envelopes at Chinese New Year?
Sort of, except there is no envelope, just a little money. You have to go to each member and put their hand on your forehead. And my family has adopted that. We see them at New Years in LA and we have the kids go around and collect the money.
That sounds fun. It must take forever with all of you there!
Yes! Haha! Well, there is always amazing food afterward. It’s just a dream. Only when I have Filipino food do I feel like I am home.
Yes, I can go back to LA and it doesn’t feel like I’m home until I eat a Filipino meal. I have to have it…. Then I feel much better.
I know what you mean. I feel like that with my grandmother’s cooking.
Well, thank you so much for your time and for answering all my questions!
It was no problem. Talk to you later!