Filipino Americans: Blending Cultures, Redefining Race : Code Switch In his book The Latinos of Asia, Anthony Christian Ocampo explores how Filipino-Americans challenge traditional ideas about race and national identity.
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Filipino Americans: Blending Cultures, Redefining Race

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Filipino Americans: Blending Cultures, Redefining Race

Filipino Americans: Blending Cultures, Redefining Race

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You might know that Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in this country. And the largest group among them is Filipino-Americans. Yet, many Filipino-Americans identify just as strongly with their Hispanic heritage dating back to the three centuries when Philippines was a Spanish colony. Anthony Ocampo is a sociologist and author of the new book "The Latinos Of Asia." He grew up here in Southern California, home to most of the country's 3 million Filipino-Americans. Good morning.

ANTHONY OCAMPO: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Great. It's really nice to have you. You know, let's begin with that. Even though Spain colonized the Philippines - in fact, the country's name comes from the 16th-century Spanish King Philip II. It's still located in southeastern Asia along the South China Sea. So how exactly are Filipinos Latinos?

OCAMPO: When you go back to the Philippines and you look at the buildings, the omnipresence of religion - Catholicism's everywhere. The Virgin Mary is everywhere. It's like something you'd see in Latin America. And when Filipinos migrate to the United States, they'll look at things like family. They'll look at things like Catholicism. They'll look at things like their last names and think - hey, when it comes to our history, it seems like we have a lot of similarities with this group, more so than the group that we're boxed into.

MONTAGNE: You do identify - or I've seen you quoted as saying you were raised in a Latino community.

OCAMPO: So I grew up in rubbing Eagle Rock which is in Northeast Los Angeles. And pretty much from elementary school all the way to eighth grade, all of my classmates were either Filipino or Latino. And growing up, you know, there were certain norms that I saw that were common to both of us. We went through a lot of the religious rite of passages like first Communion, first confession, confirmation. It was pretty easy to observe that we have a lot of overlapping words between ourselves and Latinos - like, everyday words like mesa, tenedor, cuchara - that's table, fork and spoon.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's another aspect to this. This is a huge immigrant population, but there is really no Little Manila...

OCAMPO: No.

MONTAGNE: ...Like we have Little Italies and Chinatowns everywhere.

OCAMPO: So as a lot of people know, the Philippines was - after it was colonized by Spain, it was colonized by the United States for another half-century. And arguably, the Americans have had a presence there ever since. And with the American colonial period, they brought a massive public education system. They made English the national language of instruction along with Filipino. And what that means is that Filipinos, even before migrating, are socialized to American norms.

My mom - when she was growing up in the Philippines, she grew up watching "Popeye" cartoons. And in her elementary school, she was fined when they spoke Tagalog as opposed to speaking English. So by the time they get here, you know, the usual things that push people into ethnic enclaves, like not knowing the language, not having a social networks - don't apply to Filipinos because of that strong American influence.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. And as you suggested, there's a lot of pop culture that infiltrated the Philippines generations ago.

OCAMPO: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: And that, in some sense, it's affected the culture.

OCAMPO: It has. It has. I was just in the Philippines in January. And my cousins happened upon an old stack of records from my father and his siblings' home in the Philippines. And they made a jukebox out of it. And these songs are just these classic American hits, you know, Michael Jackson, the Beatles, disco.

MONTAGNE: Well, given how many Filipinos and Americans of Filipino descent in this country, why do you think that group does not have a higher profile, you know, as a nationality in the U.S.?

OCAMPO: I think Filipinos don't have a higher profile because, you know, when it comes to the way we think about race, Filipinos are really hard to place, right. We don't really have a distinct look. We can look Chinese. We can look Mexican. I think also - because generally, the Filipinos that come to the United States are more of a middle-class, highly educated selection, there hasn't been as much of a need - urgent need for them to galvanize and build ethnic economies.

I think about other Asian-Americans, for example. So Chinese-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans - when they come to this country - you know, the Vietnamese nail salon phenomenon is an easy example. A lot of East Asians have developed these Saturday language schools which have been really important for their kids to maintain their close ties to the culture of the homeland. And when you do all these things that are really concentrated, it makes people really visible, right. And Filipinos, because they don't have as much of a need to congregate in that same way, I think it makes them less visible.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk a little bit about politics. Filipino immigrants and first generation as well - Filipino-Americans - they're not very politically active in the United States. But what does motivate them to get out there and either fight for a cause or at least get to the ballot box?

OCAMPO: You know, Filipinos won't go to a political rally. But if they go to church and church says - hey, we're having an event related to some political candidate or some cause, say, you know, abortion or same-sex marriage, Filipinos will go by virtue of being influenced by their parishes.

MONTAGNE: Well, that would suggest - if one didn't know otherwise, that would suggest a conservative or at least a socially conservative slant by Filipinos.

OCAMPO: So, you know, there's been surveys done about Filipino voting patterns. And Filipinos were generally conservative up until the Obama election. U.S.-born Filipinos - they're overwhelmingly liberal and overwhelmingly Democrat.

But yeah, the Catholic thing - it's not to be ignored because there are a lot of Filipinos out there that are single-issue voters. I was speaking with a relative of mine who said that they're a little bit shy to share that he has family members that will vote for Donald Trump, which was surprising to me, of course, because of his anti-immigrant speeches. But there are Filipinos for whom abortion is a major issue or, you know, their opposition to same-sex marriage. And they're going to vote for the candidate that's going to put the Supreme Court justice that'll turn the tides in terms of pro-choice rights or the marriage equality movement.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

OCAMPO: Thank you so much for having me here. I had a great time.

MONTAGNE: That was Anthony Ocampo. He teaches sociology at Cal Poly Pomona. And his new book is "The Latinos Of Asia."

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