What is the meaning of identity? Does it spring to life the moment of your birth or is it shaped by experience? Can identities conflict? If so, how can you bridge the divide?
For Carina Forsythe, an author, a retired US Navy veteran, and second generation American, the question of identity, in particular a seeming lack of an identity for Filipinos in America, inspired her to embark on a personal journey of self-discovery.
A two-time Excelsior College graduate, Forsythe explored the roots of her Filipino-American identity as part of her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies and learned the extent to which an individual’s ‘mindset and actions stem from cultural beliefs (often) rooted in colonization, religion, politics and economics.’
Excelsior Life recently interviewed the native Californian on her thesis and what she hopes people learn from her research and writings. Download ‘Filipinos in America in the 21st Century: The Shaping of the Filipino-American Identity’ by Carina Forsythe.
Excelsior Life: Your thesis paper is entitled “Filipinos in America in the 21st Century: The Shaping of the Filipino-American Identity.” A major discussion point centers on the topic of invisibility, the lack of a distinct Filipino-American presence in Los Angeles. What drew you to this topic?
Forsythe: I am a second generation American-Filipino, born and raised in Los Angeles, California. I am fortunate to live in a historically diverse multi-cultural city that throughout the years has exposed me to many different peoples, beliefs, traditions, foods, art, and music.
A couple of Los Angeles’s earliest ethnic enclaves that were established in Los Angeles in the beginning of the 20th century were Chinatown and Little Tokyo. However, Filipino migration to the U.S., mostly to California and Hawaii, began as early as the late 1800s. A growing Filipino population in Los Angeles neighbored the early Chinese and Japanese communities, yet their presence was not documented in any significant context. Filipino immigrants today comprise one of the largest groups in the U.S. and is among the top five countries of origin. (It also) comprised the fourth largest group of foreign-born people in 2013.
Curiously, the history of Filipinos in America in general, and the Filipinos in Los Angeles in particular, is largely undocumented. In 2002, approximately a century later, Los Angeles officially designated a small geographic area in Los Angeles as Historic Filipinotown, due largely because of the efforts and persistence of a small group of American Filipinos, such as myself, that the city recognizes a people that have long resided in Los Angeles. The official designated area is memorialized with a couple posted freeway-type signs, but there is virtually no Filipino presence in the area.
This was the impetus for me to begin digging deeper to find more hidden information to answer my questions on why Filipinos are virtually invisible in America.
Excelsior Life: How did your own experiences as a Filipino-American inform your work?
Forsythe: Growing up American and shielded from most things Filipino, including language, tradition, and food, I never thought about being of Filipino decent until much later when others asked about my heritage. I used to answer the question by saying that my parents were from the Philippines, which was
an indirect way of saying I was of Filipino decent, but I soon came to realize that although I was American, I was looked at by others as more of an immigrant American than someone born in America.
It made me feel like I didn’t quite fit in with white America and by the same token, although I was Filipino, I didn’t identify with Filipinos because I did not speak the language. This prompted me to begin a personal journey in search of my identity as an American Filipino. I found that an individual’s mindset and actions largely stem from cultural beliefs that are sometimes rooted in colonization, religion, politics and economics.
My studies and research brought me to the realization of how little I knew of my Filipino heritage and more significantly, how less I knew of my immigrant parents’ experiences in coming to America and becoming American citizens, and the reasons they chose to raise their children as Americans. Flashbacks of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s show me a facet of the immigrant experience, which I never thought about before, but it holds the secret as to why Filipinos are considered to be the invisible Asians in America.
Excelsior Life: Why are these topics of invisibility and identity so closely intertwined with contemporary discussion on the Filipino-American culture?
Forsythe: I have personally observed the subject of invisibility and identity as a popular discourse around many Filipino American and American Filipino circles. It typically begins with the question or statement about not having a distinct Filipino enclave or community to which [we] can be proud.
Two strong arguments debate this issue.
One is that colonization has given Filipinos chameleon-like abilities. Spanish rule in the Philippines for almost 400 years changed the Filipino language, custom, food, art, and music. U.S. occupation in the Philippines changed their language to English, as well as promoting Western customs. This enabled the Filipino in America to “blend” in unnoticed and was capable of independent assimilation.
The other argument is that early settlers did not have a need for an enclave because of the migratory nature of their work – most were agricultural workers and others held domestic-type service positions where they often were live-ins. Later, when America had a growing need for medical technicians, many professionals and scholars immigrated to the U.S. Their middle-class status in America offered them opportunities to live and work where they desired.
This contrasts with many other ethnic immigrants who live side by side to find solidarity. On this ground, identity comes into play. How do Filipino immigrants identify themselves? My thesis discusses the many facets of the Philippine Islands, each having their own language, traditions, customs, and food. For example, two Filipinos in the Philippines from two separate islands will have two separate identities, such as one may be Muslim and the other may be Christian. Now, when you throw in the years of colonization and the strong Western influence that has existed for several decades, it is difficult, if not impossible, to nail down a homogenous people.
Excelsior Life: What do you hope readers take away from your research on this topic?
Forsythe: I hope that my work will shed light on the newer American-Filipino generation who have drifted so far away from their heritage that they view themselves as simply “American”, and that my
work will also be interesting and appealing to future generations of American-Filipinos to better understand the Filipino-American experience in the 21st century.
Read Carina Forsythe’s thesis paper here.