(This article is condensed from the author's memoir Biting the Big Apple which is available at www.justcliqit.com or amazon.com in print and digital versions.)
A bubbly Filipina once cracked a joke that the classy DKNY has a different twist among Filipinos. "We are DKNY. Not Donna Karan in New York but Dakilang Katulong in New York (The Heroic Helper in New York)," she said. We laughed. There's the classic putting-ourselves-down-again!
Reality check: immigrants have to contend with the "social downgrade" when they enter and live in the U.S. Although not a joke, Filipinos still can afford to laugh at it.
It's no joke when one becomes a person at the fringes of a 'foreign' society. Or a mere shadow, if one hasn't worked out her legal status. It is a major personal pain, stemming from a bruised pride - because in the Philippines one may be somebody, but suddenly becomes marginalized here. That hurts all the time, silently.
Immigrants Ran America
But this is not entirely unfortunate. Being a caregiver, teacher, babysitter, construction worker, housekeeper, or waiter, although politically obscure, is dignified and significant to the functioning of the American society.
Enjoying one's work and assimilation into the American society is a matter of attitude. Immigrants, undocumented or not, ran America. Reality is, America needs a huge army of workers to propel its economy every day.
There is also a growing population of the elderly that needs home care, as their children could not fully personally provide them. As well as a population of young children that need personalized care. Immigrants are easily filling this void in American society.
One has to take personally the value of being a contributor to community and economic good, and being pro-active in this sense.
Racism: When Illusion is Real
Because America is home to the largest immigrant population in the world, racial biases are glaring. Oftentimes these agonies land in newspapers and courts.
New York, the melting pot of immigrants, for example, is run by enclaves of races. The dynamism of community and business life here is powered by racially grouped business chambers, religious organizations, and ethnic-based associations. If at all people of different colors mix, it is on the personal level, through marriages or upon the mandate of a work environment which takes institutional effort against racial discrimination and gender-bias.
Racism is an ugly word. It is unethical. But America has so much of it, and I believe it is natural and to different degrees, unavoidable. Racism comes with the territory. By nature, human beings are territorial. New immigrants are usually unwelcome into this vast land by the older residents as a matter of human nature. One does not immediately welcome a new kid in town. She is usually given the hard time and occurs intensely in the early part of any human interaction.
One realizes that racism within a community is real, because it is kept alive by impressions. But as time goes on, racial bias dissipates when directly interacting with persons in the work and home environments, transforming what was initially a racial impression into a personal opinion.
Stereotyping, the outward expression of racism, is a human fallacy. It is unsafe to say all blacks are noisy and lazy, the whites are too full of themselves, the Filipinos are hard workers, the Chinese are shrewd business people, and the Latinos are romantic. Behaviors and characters are ultimately personal and not racial.
Clearly, racism does not provide the truth about a person or a group of people, because it is an illusion, and a state of mind.
People who have been discriminated against, whether racially or intra-racially, must take personal responsibility to erase these impressions. One shouldn't let racist remarks and stereotypes pass. Everybody is in charge of someone else's awakening.
Finally, the illusion of color is erased as one is judged by his or her actions and achievements and not by the color of their skin.
Stereotypically, we are seen as a people who are either nurses or teachers. When I introduce myself as Filipino, the consequent question would be, 'Are you a nurse?' and I would say, no, I am a writer. I am the odd ball in the family. Nine of 10 cousins of mine are nurses.
For one too many, being a writer is an awesome shock which I have to deal first with a smile, and a little bit of story about myself.
Filipinos have grown by leaps and bounds over the years of diaspora since the 1500s. Filipinos now rank third among immigrant groups in the U.S., and second biggest Asian immigrants, with Mexicans being the largest group and next to Chinese.
Since the first Filipinos set foot in California, New Orleans, and Louisiana, the Philippines was already into 'brain drain:' Bleeding off her teachers, nurses, scientists, and other professionals to the US and other countries.
In a country marred by corruption and injustice, it is frustrating for many to be unable to live a decent and adequate life, hence the flight. Very easily, Filipino immigrants can fill a 747 bound to the Middle East or the U.S. To this date, there are no signs that the bleeding will end.
On this note, I believe the U.S. Congress must pass a comprehensive immigration reform law in 2014, to sanely invest and reap the value of hardworking and talented immigrants who undoubtedly contribute to making this nation greater than ever.
The congressmen must themselves deal with their own racist demons and get real.