I hold one card in my hand. One card with two distinct faces. The duality of my ethnic identity is both by choice and by the categorical “deck of cards” I’ve been forced to place myself in. In my heart, I identify as Pilipino; cognizant of how the cultures, values, and practices I hold, are from a childhood place I knew so little about. It’s ironic how the heart can feel so connected, yet so conflicted when it comes to where to fit in. This side of my card has remained face down because according to the social, economic, and political forces involved in the game, I am Filipino American. The eldest son of an immigrant mother and father who came to America for the search of wealth, striving to reach for the ambiguous phrase of “A Better Life:” an immeasurable phrase that millions all over the world dream for the opportunity to attain. This decision to immigrate to America has left me living in a confused community where as a Queer Asian I am praised, tokenized, fetishized, included, and excluded both by those that identify similarly in terms of ethnicity, and those that don’t understand how salient ethnicity can be for many minority folks. My ethnic identity as a Filipino American has bled into every part of all the identities I’ve carried and is expressed unapologetically in what I choose to wear.
The Pilipino and Filipino American identities can be jarring to reconcile at times because there is a learned culture, or how information is passed down in America that is picked up only by experiencing it. Living in a multicultural country, we are exposed to so many ethnic cultures at once that we create signals and markers that differentiate groups from one another, even if it’s inherently wrong. This type of racial segregation is a lived experience that’s shaped my interactions with family, peers, institutions, media and other connections that are connected to my life. It’s all colored in meaning, whether it’s something we are taught to believe or are forced to acknowledge, it has shaped how I see myself. Sitting in a classroom, reading about White leaders and their heroism, very rarely seeing a face or a narrative that reflected mine, forced me to see through only the lens of stories that washed away what my ancestors did for this country. As a first-generation college student, my parents were never able to navigate the college education system. I was going to a high school that prepared me for community college, while my peers who attended privileged and higher funded school systems were taking their SAT’s and planning for entrance into competitive UC’s and Ivy League schools. It wasn’t until college that I realized how our educational institutions were not made to serve people of color from the poorest of places like myself.
Just bad luck? I don’t think so.
Growing up in the Philippines for 6 years, my family’s socioeconomic position fell further into the wealthier side but being Filipino American I experienced the struggle of immigrating into the US and watching my parents struggle finding jobs that provided us with enough to live on a daily basis, when they were used to management level positions in the Philippines. In the Philippine media, overseas workers like my parents are considered “heroes” and are constantly portrayed as economically capable of sending money back to extended families in the Philippines on a whim because of the luxury of living in America. Because America is perceived so highly in other countries that lack the resources this country has, it creates an invisible divide that constructs the racial segregation ethnic identities like mine face when understanding how our geographic location affected our perception of our own ethnicity. Having experienced both living in the Philippines and the US, the idea of group boundaries brings that divide front and center as it acknowledges the fact that the Filipino American identity has an ingrained exclusivity and vice versa. I think there is a geographic factor that directly affects how I choose to engage my ethnic identity and when it becomes more salient than other identities that I carry. A prime example is the difference in culture when I moved from the Philippines to the US. When you’re younger, social consciousness isn’t always demonstrated because it becomes more about trying to blend in with others looking for a state of acceptance. Little things that were a major part of my everyday Pilipino culture like eating rice for lunch or wearing a beaded bracelet with the colors of the Pilipino flag from home, I compromised to make way for the American culture. As I grew older, I began instead to make the conscious decision to find folks who understood my struggles, as I no longer felt comfortable in hiding parts of my identity.
My agency to push for a new consciousness came.
Ethnic identity also shapes our other identities.
It even affects my gender which lies on a spectrum. Although I identify as male, my gender presentation and sexual preferences separate me from the heteronormative societal structure that has our community wrapped around the gender binary. My ethnic and gender identity are also strongly linked to two large ideologies, patriarchy and toxic masculinity, which has clearly separated how a man and a woman are supposed to look, act, and accomplish, leaving little room for anything in between. The overlapping layers within my own identity has made it very difficult to explore this area of my life as a Queer Pilipino Male, especially as internalized homophobia has run rampant and is perpetuated in the Philippines and here. Out of all my overlapping identities, I find this discrimination profoundly greater in how we as a community continue to marginalize LGBTQIA+ folks that exist in our spaces. Although ethnic identity for me isn’t as fluid as my other identities, I challenge this because how I choose to engage with my ethnic identity and the intersecting identities, is what changes over time based on acquired knowledge and lived experiences such as coming to terms with my Queer identity. The hierarchy that has been created within our ethnic group due to colonialist mentality and homophobia has not given me the opportunity to bring together both my Queer and Pilipino identity, leaving me feeling more marginalized than ever in both spaces that have always been dominated by heteronormative ideals.
There are days I feel isolated. We are isolated. Considered the Latinos of Asia, I feel as though we are further marginalized in an already marginalized community. We are the minority, although we are the largest population of what is categorized as “Asian” in California, we are among the most socioeconomically challenged and divided. The westernized construct of identity has decided to place all those who are Asian into a large mass, regardless of the fact that not all ethnic groups that are categorized under the umbrella term of Asian come from similar cultures, value systems, geographic regions, etc. leaving the Pilipino community lost in translation.
In an effort to try and find our voices again, I find myself asking more questions than I ever have, searching for ways to reconcile my Pilipino and Filipino American identities. The Filipino community, specifically here in the US relies on nationalism, because it’s the closest thing to unity we can attain compared to not being in our homeland. But herein is the fear of further compartmentalizing our increasingly diverse community outside of the Philippines. A shared lived experience doesn’t mean the absence of individual stories and voices that need to be represented.
So where does Fashion come in?
What I wear is a relationship all on its own. It’s a living, visual representation of the different stages of my intersecting identities. Like a relationship, style can evolve and change along with the individual. And with that, a look has the ability to protect a memory, a moment, or a choice I’ve made. As a first generation college student, Queer, Brother, Son, and Filipino American, I’ve found that my narrative is directly reflected in what I wear. My everyday looks convey my desire for a genderless fashion industry; for a time where it’s no longer brave to look a little “different” than what we are conditioned to believe is appropriate; a liberated understanding of the struggles I continue to face; the moments I celebrate. They say you don’t always remember what you wore. But I do, because what I wear isn’t ever just a statement, it’s a narrative choice. It’s my story, told through style. And who can forget a powerful story?
I hope through this, I’ve given you more of an insight into the complexity of identity, and how I am currently navigating how this affects everything that makes me, me. And hopefully, it can help you start to think about the things that make you, you.
Longer read, but one that means everything to me.
Miguel Raphael | XO
Photography | Daniel Joseph Aniciete