Each person has his or her own family history. Whether it includes a divorce, a milestone, or even death, each is unique, yet relatable to someone else’s. Part of my family history involves my grandparents during World War II. Honestly, if it were not for my eighth grade history project, I would have never known the details of what my grandparents encountered. While I was learning about WWII back in eighth grade, my social studies teacher enforced the memorization of the beginning of President Roosevelt’s speech. "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan."My grandparents experienced more than one infamous day, especially my grandfather, or as my family call him, “Tata.” If he were still alive, I would have thanked him for what he did. I can admit that he is a source of inspiration. I’m not sure if I can do what he did if faced with a similar situation. My grandmother, “Ima,” was there the whole time too and the war justifies how brave they both were. As I learned from my mother, the Japanese were killing all of the men, but not the women. Why? I am not sure. On top of being poor, my grandparents had to confront the Japanese. But before they reached the nipa hut of my grandparents, Tata planned ahead. He dressed up as one of the women and wore a dress along with a bandana on his head while holding a baby in his arms. I am not sure if the baby was one of my older aunts or uncles or someone else’s baby, but what matters is that he was not killed. The disguise saved his life and the Japanese only pierced the ceiling of the nipa hut with bayonets to ensure that no one was hiding. This incident was long before my mother was born and I always think about how crucial this event was. Without their sacrifice, my mother wouldn’t be here nor would I. After the war subsided, one of my older aunts traveled to the U.S. and settled in New York. She then petitioned my grandparents and other members of my family, eventually leading to the petitioning of my mother as well. Therefore, more importantly, because my grandfather survived, he was able to live in the U.S. and become a U.S. citizen.Everyone has an interesting story to be told. This is one of mine. I’m sure that I will be passing this story down to my family and beyond. It is something that my family can be proud of and proves how an act of bravery can be significant. Tata made a difference in my family by surviving the Japanese. If he hadn’t survived, I wouldn’t be here writing about it.
One of the first things I learned in life was how to pray. My grandmother, who was my main caretaker, taught me the basics of the Catholic dogma as soon as I could speak: the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary. As I got older, my parents enrolled me in a Catholic school where I spent ten years of my young life, mostly in rebellion against the very practices I was being taught. My mother forced us all to go to church on Sundays, which I despised, on top of going to evening confirmation classes in my last year at the Catholic school. I felt at the time that religious practice was filled with hypocrisy. I would see families gathered together in a forced fashion for an hour, much like mine, pretending to be devout followers of the lessons of peace being preached, only to be cursing at other drivers trying to leave the church lot in haste. An hour in the church did not feel like it was enough to be genuinely in touch with your higher power. It bothered me. I began studying other religions and modes of spirituality in my teenage years. It wasn't the idea of God that I was against, but I needed a practice that would work for me. I always knew that the Philippines’ deep-rooted Catholicism came from its colonial history with Spain, but I began to wonder what came before it. I looked high and low for what Filipinos may have practiced before Catholicism, but I didn’t come up with much. In the meantime, I became very attracted to Pagan spirituality for its secrecy, its mystical nature, its spiritual practices that didn’t seem forced and its rituals that were not bathed in pageantry.
But all along, if my grandmother invited me to pray with her at home, I never hesitated to join her. She is a deeply devout Catholic, yet something about her spiritual practice resonated with me. She never questioned my rebellion or reminded me about church and because of that, I never argued with her about spirituality. Instead, I followed her lead. She would offer simple wisdom in Tagalog: “If you feel troubled, talk to God. Come and pray with me.” I would sit quietly with her and watch her light a candle, take a rosary in her hands and close her eyes. She said nothing aloud, nor forced me to say anything. It was beautiful to just watch her, and wonder what she was thinking, or saying to God. I couldn’t help but notice how similar her practice was to some of the Pagan rituals I'd researched.
Later in life, no matter how much I tried to deny my religious upbringing and break away from my family’s spiritual identity, I found myself practicing the same things as my grandmother. Away from my family in college and confronted with bewildering new situations, I began trying to talk to God on my own. I stopped going to the church, but my practice continued, quietly, in the peace and privacy of my own mind.
Nowadays, I don’t subscribe to any religion, but I feel I’ve found my spiritual practice, and it takes the same form as the practice my grandmother and I used to do together at home: a quiet meditation and a one-on-one conversation with the powers that be. It’s helped me get through a lot of difficult situations when I've felt that there is nothing left for me to do but go back to that quiet place in my mind and heart. I no longer feel like I need to rebel against Catholicism and the Church anymore - I see that it enabled me to seek my own truth and opened me to the possibility of something beyond what's tangible and logical. I understand now that spirituality is more than just a religion, but something deeply personal that transcends man-made rituals and practices. It’s incredibly life-enriching to find and create a spiritual practice, if you can allow your mind and heart to go there.
One great amusement of going back to visit my folks’ place in New Jersey is their love of Pilipino television. Throughout the day, the television blares a medley of emotive music and phrases in Tagalog. The sounds coming from the TV act almost like an alarm clock; I know what time of day it is, based on which show's opening theme reverberates down the hall.
Growing up, I found Pilipino television to be absolutely maddening. “Teleserye” (or, Pilipino drama series) rotate every few months, though it can be hard to tell one from another. There is always an angel-faced “inosente” who never stops crying versus an angry “contrabida” who can be counted on to throw objects and dirty looks. The variety shows are even more bewildering. Scantily-clad dancers gyrate to repetitive pop songs and hand out prizes during game sequences to modestly-dressed winners hailing from faraway provinces, crying in gratitude to accept their winnings.
“These people are being exploited,” my sister said once, as we watched these shows together with critical eyes. And perhaps that is one reason why Pilipino television was and sometimes still is an outrage to me. There is an exploitive quality to these shows: human emotion and relationships are reduced to banal storylines. Glamour and status are reserved for roles played by actors with perfect pale skin and flawless figures. The true-life stories of the Pilipino working class are only told when contestants become champions in some childish game, and then these heroes-for-a-moment are whisked offstage and forgotten once the segment is over. It concerns me that this is what Pilipino culture looks like to the outside world: an over-the-top circus of nonstop singing, dancing and crying.
When I was younger, I often asked my family what value they saw in these programs. Allow me to paraphrase and translate my grandmother’s elegant reply. She said, “People who watch these have nothing to lose. I see hope when someone wins a prize.”
Now that I haven't been living at my parents' house for quite some time, these TV shows stir up more nostalgia than annoyance. Being home, in front of the TV with my parents is one of the rare times and places that I can listen to Tagalog all day, refreshing my memory and keeping the language alive. I can only imagine the joy and comfort the shows can give to Fil-Ams who had to leave their traditions, families and native tongues behind, like my parents. It’s a link to their home, and it’s become a link to home and roots for me as well.
The existing programs on Pilipino television may not be the perfect or even the best representation of the Pilipino spirit, but it’s the best we've got for now. And there are a handful of shows that convey true stories of Pilipinos of all backgrounds (“MMK” comes to mind). My hope is that the first generation Fil-Am community that I belong to will continue to be critical of Pilipino media. I hope that we'll strive to study the richness of our heritage and history beyond what Pilipino pop culture now offers, branching out to reinterpret what we have to create something even better, and more meaningful for future generations.