In Search of My Roots

April 2005, Filipinas Magazine

By Wayne Lacson Forte

 “And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away.”  The Gospel of Matthew 13:6

My parents wanted me to grow up to be a “good American” and thought that an ethnic identity would only impede my progress. What they didn’t realize is that even though I left the Philippines at a very young age, science confirms that my brain was already more than 90% formed. My subconscious already contained the sights, sounds and especially the smells of my tropical country and its people. My mother and my ya-ya had already cradled me in their arms and pressed me against their warm olive skin. They had fed me the foods that Filipinos will always crave no matter where they live. They had comforted me in a language that I didn’t understand or speak, yet whose gentle sing-song tones had already touched my heart. Even at such a tender young age, my roots had already grown deep.

I was born in Manila in 1950 to an American father and a Filipina mother. My father served in the US military and my mother was from a prominent Negrense family. When I was barely three years old we moved to Santa Barbara, California.

We didn’t socialize within the Filipino community of our town. My parents were reluctant to discuss anything from the past—I got the message that they wanted a fresh start in a new place and as they said, “this was the best place in the best country in the world.”  I couldn’t argue with that so I just tried to fit in as best I could.

Our only connection with the Philippines was the rare visit by a family member. I eagerly anticipated these visits because I felt so loved, accepted and valued by my Filipino relatives. I craved their special brand of affection, their expressiveness, their way of being.

I grew up looking different from others in my overwhelmingly Caucasian high school. When kids would call me “chink” or “jap” in an off-handed, dismissive way, I understood it was meant to be an insult. However, what bothered me most about this racial bigotry was not so much their ignorance nor that I was neither Chinese nor Japanese but that I really had no idea of what I was. I was too young to remember anything about the Philippines. I had no solidarity with any Filipino community or even a Filipino friend that I could talk to.

One day I approached my father privately in his office, asking him why I was being singled out in this way. I could sense anger slowly rising in his voice. Taking my passport out of his desk, he threw it at me saying, “Show them that! You are 100% American!” Needless to say, this response only confused me more and even made me feel ashamed, as if I needed to hide something.  I also understood that ethnic identity was a taboo topic in our family.

When I turned 21 my aunt and uncle invited me to visit the Philippines for the first time since I left as a baby. I remember thinking, “finally, I will understand who I am!” My relatives lived in Quezon City but commuted to Manila most every day. My favorite activity was to tag along and just wander the gleaming avenues of Makati, the oceanfront along Roxas Boulevard, the winding maze of Divisoria (of course, always with their driver close at hand). It was a fascinating place and I felt at home in many ways. However, I am a 6 foot tall mestizo and this didn’t go un-noticed. Kids would follow me taunting “hey Joe, GI Joe!”  Oddly, I felt more American than I ever had in America!

Ironically, it wasn’t until I was 24 yrs old and living in Paris that I finally found community with others like myself and discovered that I was not alone. My Lola had paid for me to spend a year in Europe studying. Through my Filipino cousin who had also been studying there for some years, I met a group of ex-pat Filipinos: artists, designers, writers and students, all refugees from Marcos’ martial law regime.  We were all strangers in a foreign land and therefore equally displaced. As these new friends accepted me, talked to me about their own emigration experiences and provided me with a long sought after fellowship, I learned to accept myself.

So, to answer the question, “What is the most important lesson you have learned about being Filipino in America?” I would answer, “Unlike a tree, a person can grow cut off from his roots but it is often a painful and disorienting process.  When the pests and storms come, there is nothing like a strong, deep set of roots to support and nurture a tree.”