Theresa Ronquillo is a second-generation Filipina American born and raised in Michigan and currently resides in Richmond, VA with her family. She is a mother, social worker, educator, and Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner. She writes counternarratives about her intersectional identities, experiences growing up brown in suburban Detroit during the 1980’s and early 90’s, and the desire to find a deeper sense of belonging. www.theresaronquillo.com
Theresa is the founder of Embody Change LLC, a consulting company specializing in anti-oppressive theater and arts-based approaches. She also works with Richmond Story House, a nonprofit organization dedicated to unearthing and amplifying diverse stories in our communities.
When you are a Filipino immigrant family living in the Midwest during the 1970’s and 80’s, your holiday guests are your extended family. Your extended family consists of non-blood related aunties, uncles, cousins, and godparents, scattered geographically across sundry suburbs but within an hour’s drive of each other. You are yoked together by a mother tongue, histories of colonization and migration, and post-1965 professional achievements.
Your holiday parties are the social events of the season, maybe even the year. Your guests drive through the snow in their Cadillacs and minivans to get to your house around lunchtime, staying all afternoon and into the night. They take off their shoes when they enter your house so the pile of pumps and nondescript men’s shoes gets bigger as the day goes on. They come bearing Christmas presents for you and your family, and sometimes a platter of shrimp cocktail or desserts. The uncles reek of cologne and martinis. The aunties try to kiss you, which makes you squirm in embarrassment. You rub off the red lipstick marks greased on your cheek if you weren’t able to escape their clutches in time. They tell you how pretty you are, or how fat you are, and ask if you have a boyfriend.
The adults would walk around in their stockinged feet to mingle and laugh loudly, speaking to each other in the language that you understand but can’t speak. When you were younger you would play with the kids your age. Hide and seek and made-up languages, Atari and later Nintendo. As you grew older and more apart you might give one another a rudimentary nod and a smile at the front door, but then go off on your own and watch MTV or call up your best friend to see if her parents would let her talk on the phone. At some point before the big meal you would wander into the kitchen to watch the aunties drop frozen lumpia into the fryer, then transfer the delicious cigarette-shaped spring rolls to oil-soaked paper towels. You would wait impatiently for them to cool--sometimes burning your fingers if your impatience won out--so you could steal a few before the others gobbled them up.
Food is set up buffet style. The big table in your formal dining room at which you and your family never eat is covered with the festive vinyl tablecloth you only see at this time of year. You marvel at the plates heaped with noodle dishes, rice, lumpia, vegetables, maybe a turkey or ham or a whole fish or a lechon, a variety of colorful sauces, desserts made of strange things like “cassava” and “ube.” (You were eating purple yam sweets decades before they became commodified by the hipster masses and sold by Trader Joe’s.) You knew you hit the jackpot if there was a mocha cake on the table--a round layer cake with pale brown frosting and chocolate sprinkles, which your parents would buy for special occasions. You load up your paper plates, mixing everything up together, and eat with plasticware--because the female members of your family don’t want to do dishes all night. (It doesn’t matter that the majority of your aunties are doctors, nurses, and other post-1965 professionals. They know their place.)
Entertaining for hours. Eating, drinking, talking, sometimes dancing and singing. Making sure you smile and say thank you and shrug respectfully when they laugh at you for not knowing how to speak Tagalog (you wanted us to assimilate, remember?). You find this performance of dutiful Filipinoness exhausting. As the evening draws to a close, you (can’t) wait for the last stragglers to say their goodbyes, hug and shake hands with your parents, put on their shoes, and face the cold and dark night to journey home. Finally, you can put on your pajamas and watch MTV in peace.
When you’re a Filipino American, second-generation kid growing up in the Midwest, you are constantly surrounded by contradictions. Your extended family is big yet small, familiar yet strange, loud yet silenced, invisible yet ostentatious, embarrassing yet safe, consistent yet ephemeral. You remind yourself that your parents and their friends immigrated here for the “better life” trope (trap?). You constantly feel like you’re a guest in a country that invited you in but perpetually exiles you to the kiddie table. You struggle with these contradictions because they are confusing; they are not black and white. You remind yourself that neither are you.