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Filipino Americans: Blending Cultures, Redefining Race

There are over 3 million people of Filipino heritage living in the U.S., and many say they relate better to Latino Americans than other Asian American groups. In part, that can be traced to the history of the Philippines, which was ruled by Spain for more than 300 years. That colonial relationship created a cultural bond that persists to this day.

It's the topic of the book The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race. Author Anthony Ocampo spoke about the book with Morning Edition's Renee Montagne.

Interview Highlights

The religious bond between Filipinos and Latinos

When you go back to the Philippines, and you look at the buildings, the omnipresence of religion, Catholicism is everywhere, The Virgin Mary is everywhere. 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 are boxed into.'"

Growing up Filipino in a Latino neighborhood

So I grew up in Eagle Rock, which is in northeast Los Angeles. And pretty much from elementary school all the way to the 8th grade, all of my classmates were either Filipino or Latino. And growing up, 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. Everyday words like mesa, tenedor, cuchara. That's table, fork and spoon.

Why it's hard to find a "Little Manila" in the U.S.

Filipinos are really hard to place. We don't really have a distinct look. We can look Chinese, we can look Mexican.

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...So by the time they get here, the usual things that push people into ethnic enclaves like not knowing the language, not having the social networks, don't apply because of that strong American influence.

Why Filipinos have a "low profile" as a nationality in the U.S.

I think Filipinos don't have a higher profile because when it comes to the way we think about race, Filipinos are really hard to place. 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 an urgent need for them to galvanize – 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 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 to the culture of the homeland.

And when you do all these things that are really concentrated, it makes people really visible. And Filipinos, because they don't have as much of a need to congregate in the same way, I think it makes them less visible.

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