Fil-Am identity

The Northern Philippines as a Filipino Identity Sampler


The Philippines has a rich history and culture, but we sometime do not understand it well enough to realize to what extent. It is not a question of whether we have it or not, rather, it is of how much we really know and are aware of it. For those who would want to get reacquainted with the Filipino identity and our past, I usually recommend taking a nativist-themed trail up north. The beauty of the Northern Philippines lies on the fact that it is home to three UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Sites.

What does this mean?

A World Heritage Site (WHS) is any given natural or cultural place, monument or landscape that holds outstanding universal values critical to the development of humanity and diversity. Some of the more popular WHS around the world include the Great Wall, the Italian cities of Venice, Rome and Florence, the Taj Mahal, Chitchen Itza, the Great Barrier Reefs, and even the Statue of Liberty. Regardless of popularity and fame, all of these places are treated with equal degree of importance under UNESCO conventions.

With the recent addition of Mt. Hamiguitan Range Wildlife Sanctuary in Mindanao, the Philippines now has six sites listed as WHS. Two of which are the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park and Tubattaha Reefs Marine Park -- both are marine natural sites in Palawan. The other three are cultural sites found in the Northern Philippines: the Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras, the Historic Town of Vigan, and the Baroque Churches of the Philippines.

From Manila, one can make a Do-It-Yourself trip to take on this cultural heritage trail. A bus from Manila can take you to Banaue, the jump-off point for the rice terraces. From there, vans can be arranged to bring you down to Vigan. Sta. Maria is also along the way to Vigan, and finally, going further north by bus will bring you to Paoay in Ilocos Norte. Each place offers a taste of the depth of Philippine history.

Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras

Agricultural terracing is not unique to the Philippines. China, Indonesia, and Viet Nam have it. Peru and even Switzerland have this method, too. What makes the rice terraces in the Philippines unique is that they are the oldest and most extensive continually-used rice terraces in the world. As a comparison, these rice terraces have been around much longer than Machu Picchu or Angkor have! The more noticeable distinguishing marks of these engineering marvels would be their heights that reach as high as 1,500 metres from the base, and their steepness that defies limits with 70 degrees maximum angulation.


The incredible mixture of purely man-made terraces, the mountains, the muyongs (forest caps), traditional hamlets, and other visible cultural artefacts in the region certainly does not disappoint. The Food and Agriculture Organization has cited the rice terraces as an outstanding example of “worldwide, specific agricultural systems and landscapes (that) have been created, shaped and maintained by generations of farmers and herders based on diverse natural resources, using locally adapted management practices.” The American Society of Civil Engineers also named the rice terraces as a 'Historic Engineering Landmark' for water supply and control. In 1997, the same group came to the Philippines and formally declared (through a marker) the rice terraces as the [original] 8th Wonder of the World.


For the Filipinos, with the mode of farming and the people’s lifestyles largely unchanged, these ancient rice terraces are an enduring portrait of the ways of life of the Ifugao for over 2,000 years. The WHS-listed clusters are Batad, Bangaan, Hungduan, Mayoyao and Nagacadan rice terraces.

Historic Town of Vigan

Why does this small town merit a special place in the collective memory of the Filipino people? It is one of the few towns in the country that was spared from destruction during the World War II (Intramuros, Manila's walled district, was razed to the ground and only one building was left standing there after the war). Being the best preserved Spanish colonial-era trading town in Asia, Vigan presents itself as an intact and authentic old town. It boasts a good collection of original houses where in the ground floors are characterized as Hispanic, while its upper floors and windows suggest Chinese and Oriental influences. The best of these houses can be seen along Calle Crisologo, a cobblestone street.

One will notice that the town faithfully follows the historical “quadricula”, “plano ortogonal”, or the better known synonym "grid" streetplan. This, believe it or not, is the most 'Hispanic' feature of the town.DSC_0992

The interior of a typical Vigan villa can be seen when visiting the likes of the Sy-Quia mansion, the family house of the former President Quirino.

In 2012, Vigan bagged the  'Best Management Practices for a World Heritage City' award in a worldwide competition by UNESCO. This year, Vigan reached the final stage in the search for the New Seven Wonders Cities of the World. (To vote for Vigan, visit:


Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Sta. Maria

Aside from the San Agustin church inside Intramuros and the Miag-ao church in Iloilo, the Northern Philippines boasts two of the best examples of Philippine Spanish-era churches. The town of Sta. Maria, some 40 minutes south of Vigan, houses a citadel church built on top of a fortified hill. In the older days, the only way to reach the church is through the 82-step staircase made of granite slabs, making the complex easily defended.


Made of red bricks, the Sta. Maria dela Asuncion church boasts a set of massive buttresses that supports the structure from the damages of earthquakes. The pagoda-shaped bell tower is leaning due to the collapsing retaining walls around the hill, which placed this church in the '100 Most Endangered Sites' in 2010 by the World Monument Watch.

Baroque Churches of the Philippines: Paoay  

The crowning gem of the “earthquake baroque architecture” is the San Agustin church in Paoay. This edifice is largely made of coralstones that have been glued together using egg whites, lime powder and mollases. This important church features a mixture of Oriental, Malay, and Western influences in its design. This comes as no surprise as long before the Spaniards reached present-day Paoay, the site was already a trading settlement known as Bombay in earlier records.


Keen eyes will notice some fading carvings and bas-reliefs around the church. The most important exponent of this church are definitely its beautifully-constructed buttresses on its sides. Paoay church is considered to be as a masterpiece of the Filipino reinterpretation of the baroque movement, fusing European principles with local Filipino craftmanship. The bell tower is also separated from the church as a precautionary measure against the effects of earthquakes – this architectural innovation is unique to Philippine churches.

The churches of the Philippines are unique, and, thus, cannot be compared to those found in Europe or Latin America. As religious monuments, they are key in spreading further the Christian faith in the region (Southeast and East Asia, and the Pacific Islands). While as cultural specimens, they embody the artistic, technological, and intellectual interchange between the West and the East for more than three centuries.


While knowing and understanding Philippine history and culture is a large part of what I do as a heritage advocate, the biggest challenge is in making others see and appreciate things the way I do.

I often have a hard time convincing friends who have already settled abroad to come back home to re-experience their native land. Most of them would rather spend their vacations going around Europe or elsewhere in Asia to see cultural and grand ancient monuments or old towns, believing none exist here.



74762_10151172406852613_687399416_nBernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero is a self-confessed cultural junky. Based in the Philippines, he has delivered several talks on tourism, destination promotion and management, and the importance of cultural conservation. As a heritage advocate and consultant, he has assisted and appeared in some features by the Euronews, NGC-Asia, Solar TV, ABS-CBN Regional News Network, as well as being cited by the Philippine Star and the PIA. He enjoys ticking off as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible. So far, Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, the Preah Vihear Temple in Cambodia, and the Philippines' Apo Reef and Ifugao Rice Terraces are the best places he has seen in SE Asia.

Discover other similar posts on Bernard's blog.

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SPAM: A Story of Love and Hate


A Hormel advertisement from the 1940's showing Americans how many different meals they can make with SPAM. For many Pilipinos, there’s nothing like the sound of sizzling SPAM on a hot frying pan just before brunch. When I was in college, a taste of home was never far away as I always made sure that a little rectangular can of SPAM was gleefully sitting in my kitchen cabinet. On lazy Sunday mornings I would throw it over a bed of white rice and enjoy the savory smell of spiced ham wafting in the air.

My (non-Pilipino) roommates, however, did not share the same sentiments as I did. Any mention of eating SPAM was met with a grimace and a resounding: “Ew! Why?”

One of them was so disgusted at the mere presence of SPAM that she wanted to forbid me from cooking it in the apartment while she was home. Sure, I understood that SPAM had a bad rep for being artificial mystery meat, but I was still offended. To me, SPAM was more than just processed meat in a can. It was part of my family and my culture. It was a part of who I was.

My grossed out friends did make one valid point, however: Why? Why did the Pilipino side of me identify so strongly with an American brand of canned pork shoulder and ham? And why was it so despised in its own country of origin?

During World War II, SPAM became the ideal candidate for food rations because it was a cheap and nonperishable good source of protein, and masses of it were sent overseas to American troops. After the Japanese invaded the Philippines, the American soldiers stationed there were able to give their surplus food rations to fleeing Filipinos who were forced to abandon their homes, and thus the SPAM sensation began.

Back in the United States, getting one’s hands on fresh meat during wartime was not easy. For the same economical reasons SPAM spammed its way onto everybody’s plates and eventually became so ubiquitous that everybody grew sick of it. According to Ty Matejowsky, “it was and will always remain an unappetizing reminder of the widespread deprivation brought on by the Great Depression and World War II."


But while SPAM became associated with poverty and unrefinement in the U.S., the very fact that it was an American product ironically elevated SPAM to a foreign delicacy in the Philippines, gratifying happy consumers spanning the working class to the wealthy. Today, SPAM has become so riotously popular among Pilipinos around the world that it is now considered a staple in Pilipino cuisine and inseparable from Pilipino identity. Pilipino obsession with SPAM has reached such a level a fanaticism that there is a restaurant in Manila entirely dedicated to it called the SPAMJAM Café (featuring SPAM Burgers, SPAM Spaghetti, SPAM nuggets, and oh so much more). Maharlika, the hot modern Pilipino restaurant in New York City, flaunts preparing SPAM with a sophisticated flare, including menu choices like beer-battered SPAM fries wittily described as “fresh from the can.”

Beer-battered SPAM fries are a popular appetizer at Maharlika in New York City.

Its history has evolved SPAM into a complex cultural symbol for both Pilipinos and Americans. SPAM is a symbol of love and hate, rich and poor. It’s a symbol of America’s colonial expansion into Asia and the Pacific and also a reflection of the Pilipino colonial mentality. For many Fil-Ams like myself, eating American SPAM is strangely an expression of my Pilipino identity that clashes against my American one. And although it can sometimes represent shame, SPAM has also become a symbol of pride, rallying Pilipino communities together with gelatinous cohesion.

In all essence, SPAM is the past and the future all globbed together in one little rectangular can. And gosh darn it, it tastes great too. I love SPAM. There, I said it.


Photo credits:,,,

All My Closest Friends Are Pilipino... Is This A Problem?


Queens, New York. Not only is this borough my home, but it is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the entire world. Tell me, then, why are 90% of my friends Pilipino? Fast forward to college: New York University. Despite 22,000+ undergraduates, I find myself deeply involved in a Pilipino-based community. As a testament to the ubiquitous Pilipino-ness of my friend groups, I just scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and went through posts by 25 people before encountering someone not Pilipino. I have always loved rooting myself in the Pilipino community, but as someone who prides herself on a doctrine of diversity, I just realized my own hypocrisy. It seems like I only hang out with Pilipino people, I am only active with Pilipino organizations, and I focus all my energy on the Fil-Am community. Is this something to be concerned about? It is not as if I look at people with a need to fulfill a quota: White friend, check. Black friend, check. Hispanic friend, check. I do not subscribe to tokenism. I do, however, want to hold a mirror to myself and understand why I gravitate toward Pilipinos. Am I losing out on something else by surrounding myself in a homogenous community?

An epiphany occurred to me at the Journey of a Brown Girl launch, when I was introduced to the idea of "kapwa." I've heard this word echoed around the community but never understood it. It is an essential concept of collective identity in intrinsic Pilipino psychology, theorized by the likes of Virgilio Enriquez and Katrin de Guia. Sarita Echavez See defines it in "Gambling with Debt" from American Quarterly:

"Kapwa, often translated as a 'shared inner self,' can be understood as a worldview based on profoundly collective forms of mutual recognition. According to sikolohiyang Pilipino scholars like Virgilio Enriquez who forward the study of 'indigenous Pilipino psychology,' in the colonial context kapwa can be interpreted as a kind of friendliness, hospitality..."

My first thought: So there's a word for it? I never guessed the deep bond I have felt with Pilipinos – through exchanged glances with strangers on the subway, the way I root for Pilipinos in any competition, or how my ears perk up at the utterance of any Tagalog – could be summarized so succinctly. There is a smile when you know someone is Pilipino without saying so, and a smile that says I've known you my whole life. It takes a matter of minutes to connect over shared histories, and I have always felt this, but I had never known kapwa. It encapsulates the phenomenon so perfectly.

Perhaps this is the underlying reason why I have found my closest friends in fellow Pilipinos. I have deeper levels of understanding and relation to someone who identifies with my love for Pilipino culture, origins and conflicts with Pilipino traditions, or shares my taste for cultural references, food, and words.

The reason I take issue with recognizing my almost exclusively Pilipino cohort of friends is that a comfort zone bubble forms. Growth and learning come from exploring the unfamiliar and exchanging with diverse groups, but I rarely get pushed to step outside of my Pilipino-centric interests. I wonder if I am subscribing to preference or circumstance. I wonder if I should consciously make an effort to step outside of the Pilipino community. I wonder if this whole line of thinking is flawed.

I do not have answers – only a desire to spark dialogue. Thanks to kapwa you will find a familial bond with other Pilipinos no matter where you go, but who is to say you would not discover that within others?

Source: tumblr

Experiencing the Asian Hierarchy Firsthand in a Korean Hagwon

A Korean Hagwon, in my experience, is a private English school for Korean students. My Hagwon, which I’ll refrain from naming, runs as an English pre-school and kindergarten in the morning where three to six year old students had English lessons from 9am to 3pm.

I spent the earlier part of this year teaching at a Hagwon. As a Fil-Am stepping into this radically different culture, I was eager to learn and be inspired from this new career path. I can honestly say I learned and was very inspired, but not at all in the frame I was expecting. I left after only four months.

My students and I at the Korean National History Museum when I was a teacher in Seoul.

Have you heard of the Asian Hierarchy? It was explained to me as a sort of racist Asian caste system where light-skinned Asians from growing Asian economies were ranked amongst the top and darker-skinned Asians were at the bottom. It was discussed in passing when I was in college among other Asian-Americans, and I laughed off. I sort of forgot about it until I landed in Korea and was confronted with it on my first day of school.

The night before, I was greeted by other foreign teachers who worked at the school. They were from all parts of the United States, as well as Canada. After helping me into my hotel room, one of them bluntly said to me:

“You don’t look like Jessica Alba.”

Confused, I responded:

“Yeah, Sorry….What?”

“The supervisors at the school said you look just like Jessica Alba.”

“Oh… yeah. I don’t look like Jessica Alba.”

“It’s funny how the supervisors view Caucasian faces. They didn’t even mention you were Asian.”

The next day my appearance was again addressed by a Filipina from Southern California. She pulled me aside and asked me:

”What are you?”

I am no stranger to this question so I knew exactly what she was talking about. I went to my auto-generated response of “I’m half-Filipino, part Mexican and White.”

“Yeah, I thought so. We have another Filipino at the school!”

She excitedly high-fived me. I smiled at having found an ally on my first day of school, until she added:

“Don’t tell the school, the parents don’t necessarily want Filipino teachers.”

She went on to explain to me that Filipinos in South Korea were ranked lower socially. Because of poverty and the cost of education in the Philippines, many Filipino immigrants in Korea turned to one of two professions: child care (nannying) or prostitution. Because of this, Filipino women were seen as second-class and unfit to teach the uber-rich students at my Hagwon. I immediately recalled the concept of Asian Hierarchy, but was horrified at seeing it in action. For fear of getting fired and just wanting them to like me, I kept my ethnicity under wraps. I knew this was not a safe space for me when one of my fellow white teachers from the United States threatened to tell my student’s parents that I was Filipino in order to get me fired. Korea was a hotbed for competitiveness and sometimes came out in really ugly ways. A week later, I booked my plane ticket back to California.

Culture vs. Identity

After leaving Korea, I’ve had time to reflect on this experience and while other things contributed to my leaving early, I couldn’t let this rest. My small taste at discrimination had me running home to my mommy. To me, it wasn’t worth it to risk my self-worth, sanity and pride by subjecting myself to a constant fear of being fired. It also wasn’t worth it to hide my family, heritage and in essence who I am. This was not my first encounter with a bully who chose my ethnicity as his or her weapon. But it was the first time that this bully had society on her side. A couple months later, I’ve been able to reflect and break down how this system of racial oppression still exists in South Korea, and Asia as a whole.

It’s easy to walk away from a bad experience in a foreign country and blame it on the culture for their backward uncivilized people and just embrace a Go America! Rah! Rah! Rah! attitude.  Not only is that lazy, but it’s largely incorrect and leaves room for bigotry. It has been used to rationalize imperialism and genocide in all parts of the world. So like a good liberal arts graduate, I put my experience in a global and historical perspective.

South Korean teenagers starts taking their scholastic aptitude tests for college entrance exams in the 5th grade.

Korea in Historical Context

In the 1950s, The United States was engaged in the Cold War. We hear a lot about how this impacted the people at home, but the only images from abroad are of children in crossfire with their clothes burning off. This did contribute to the unsuccessful wars in Vietnam and Korea, but what’s rarely depicted are the lasting effects of the war today.

After leaving Korea divided into two countries, the United States declared the war a win, but not without setting up various military bases in around in South Korea. The U.S military presence is still very prevalent in Seoul, with the United States Army Garrison Yongsan military base located in Itaewon, which is at the heart of the city. Not far up the road, you’ll see Hooker Hill with large window displays of Filipino and Korean women. Not long after U.S wartime presence in Seoul, you began seeing a widespread adaptation of Western culture. Adaptation and idolization to the point where today, Korean men and women alike get eye reconstruction, nose jobs, and skin bleaching to appear more white.

As the Korean economy sought to reconstruct, they searched for models for their education system, for they embody the fact that a good education leads to higher economic productivity and advancement. This is when the United States had already begun putting more pressure on scholastic aptitude tests and initially studies showed that they were a good motivation for growth (today that is not the case.) This influenced Koreas education model greatly, which resulted in increased school day length, more lessons, and a huge push for English aptitude financed by the Korean government. As a result, there was an increase in U.S presence in the form of U.S teachers and recent college grads -- they seek to obtain that magical living abroad experience, but with little background in education or Korean culture, and I was one of them.

As a result, the idealized American face is what has been sought after and thus gave birth to the Asian Hierarchy. Filipinos rank low on this because of our naturally dark skin, lack of a pointy nose, and seeming low economic rank. Capitalist and Western cultures have created a belief that appearance indicates status, therefore, appearing more wealthy or more white, in this sense, makes you more valuable. And in order to be more valuable, one has to be less valuable than you. This value system has created a hyper-competitive race to what Korean culture sees as perfection, therefore explaining why plastic surgery is quite common, as well as stress-related suicides. We see this trend occurring in other developed Asian countries as well, such as Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

No, it is not right that I had to hide my identity in order to keep a job, nor that I was chased away because my ancestors are brown. However, I am glad that I had the privilege and agency to leave. My experience is only the tip of the iceberg; it is one of many, similar to those of other Filipinos living in South Korea. It isn’t just an isolated occurrence in another part of the world, but rather, a construct that has inadvertently been created and adapted from U.S. culture. It is an occurrence that I hope other Fil-Ams and Pilipinos can learn from.

Photo credit: Zimbo

Traditional Dance In the Hands of Fil-Am College Clubs

The author, far left, in 2008 with her Townsend Harris High School tinikling dance group Flip 'N Funky Fresh.

“Culture and the arts are potent forces in national development. With its colors and contrasts, our cultural heritage unifies our race, and gives it a national identity that lends pride and dignity to every Filipino” – Corazon Aquino, 1991

1, 2, 3! 1, 2, 3! The clicking sound of bamboo sticks slapping against each other for tinikling is an all too familiar rhythm. That dance is, after all, the quintessential introduction to Pilipino culture taught to kids in community youth groups, adapted for high school international nights, and ubiquitous in cultural productions by university Pilipino clubs.

The first time I learned the dance, I was 13. I eagerly joined a group performing tinikling at my church as an earnest attempt to connect with my heritage. Naturally, we used PVC pipes in lieu of bamboo, wore white tees and denim shorts instead of native garb, and choreographed our traditional dance to none other than Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” and Ne-Yo’s “Stay With Me.” Body rolls were involved. At the time, it felt like a worthy homage.

Fortunately, I’ve since discovered the rich offering of folk dances beyond tinikling: the graceful balancing act pandanggo sa ilaw, the flirtatious hat duet subli, the masculine coconut dance maglalatik, the stoic, haunting janggay, the regal singkil, and countless others.

Every year, I see Pilipino clubs at universities put on innumerable showcases of our native culture in dance competitions, pageants, and Philippine cultural nights (PCNs, or “barrios” as some call them.) A hodgepodge of interpretations of “traditional” dance appear on stage, from meticulously rehearsed, authentic displays to barely recognizable, loosely-interpreted traditional dance: pandanggo sa ilaw performed with flashlights, maglalatik fused with step dancing, and tinikling liberally peppered with breakdancing.

For every crew I see striving to do traditional dance justice, there is another itching to reinvent, break out, ditch, even, the antiquated choreography. A “cultural” portion is often pegged as a requirement for qualification, and you can’t help but see traditional dance turn more into an obligation than a genuine homage. I've seen some clubs give all of thirty seconds of their seven minute set to a hastily put together folk dance.

NYU's International Filipino Association performing singkil at the Battle of the Barrios 2010 competition.

Why do we even bother to “be cultural” and learn traditional dance? What is the value of portraying them accurately or not? In The Day the Dancers Stayed: Performing in the Filipino/American Diaspora, Theodore S. Gonzalves explains that second generation Fil-Ams use traditional dance to reconcile the conflict of in-betweenness. After growing up Americanized, PCNs are an alluring effort for identity-seeking young adults to reclaim ethnicity.

Dance, after all, is a universal language and educator. Even if a Fil-Am doesn’t know Tagalog, which is a common case for many young Fil-Ams today, repeating the steps of our ancestors offers that connection to heritage that students who join Pilipino organizations seek. However, the experience can seem second-hand and diluted after learning from YouTube clips that learned from YouTube clips that learned from dance troupe’s YouTube clips.

The Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company that started in the 1950s is one of those authorities–their singkil video alone has 300,000 views and counting. The company, which tours internationally and even inspired its own national day in the Philippines (May 27), popularized folk dance as we know it. To a fresh eye, the elaborate presentation, trained facial expressions, and detailed costumes look as traditional as it gets. What we don’t realize, however, is that even Bayanihan’s presentation of traditional dance is skewed. Barbara S. Gaerlan, author of “In the Court of the Sultan,” claims that Bayanihan’s singkil dance in fact shows an orientalist portrayal of Muslims featuring over sensualized females, costumes borrowing from Arabia, and bare-chested males in a way typically offensive in Muslim culture.

Still, the dramatization of the dances are undoubtedly entertaining. Perhaps this is what it boils down to. When we are showcasing our culture to an audience of outsiders, who wouldn’t want to amp up theatricality?

I brought up this dichotomy of accurate traditional dance versus reintepretation to Dr. Kevin Nadal recently, and he challenged me with a thought: Isn’t dance about art?

Art is meant to change, be open to interpretation, and molded in personal experience. If that means tapping your cultural side by infusing tinikling with the latest hit on all means, bump that track and bring out the bamboo sticks.

Photo credit: Don Gutierrez