The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race

The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race

by Anthony Christian Ocampo

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Is race only about the color of your skin? In The Latinos of Asia , Anthony Christian Ocampo shows that what "color" you are depends largely on your social context. Filipino Americans, for example, helped establish the Asian American movement and are classified by the U.S. Census as Asian. But the legacy of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines means that they share many cultural characteristics with Latinos, such as last names, religion, and language. Thus, Filipinos' "color"—their sense of connection with other racial groups—changes depending on their social context.

The Filipino story demonstrates how immigration is changing the way people negotiate race, particularly in cities like Los Angeles where Latinos and Asians now constitute a collective majority. Amplifying their voices, Ocampo illustrates how second-generation Filipino Americans' racial identities change depending on the communities they grow up in, the schools they attend, and the people they befriend. Ultimately, The Latinos of Asia offers a window into both the racial consciousness of everyday people and the changing racial landscape of American society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804797542
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 03/02/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 275,014
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Anthony Christian Ocampo is Assistant Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona and a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Public Policy at University of California-Riverside.

Read an Excerpt

The Latinos of Asia

How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race

By Anthony Christian Ocampo


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9757-3


The Puzzling Case of Filipino Americans

IN THE SPRING OF 2011, I was in my last year of the sociology PhD program at UCLA. I'd been in the program for nearly seven years — long enough to have finished law school twice with time to spare. Like most graduate students, I wasn't making much money. Working as a college teaching assistant for the majority of my twenties hardly brought in the big bucks. So when I walked by this flyer in the UCLA sociology building, I thought I'd hit the jackpot:


Do you drink alcohol regularly?

Are you Asian American?

For completion of the study, participants would be compensated up to $215.

This study was tailor made for me. Given the typical stresses of PhD life, my fellow grad students and I were no strangers to the local bars, and as a Filipino, my ethnic roots were from Asia. This would be the easiest two hundred bucks I'd ever make in my life, I thought.

Apparently, I was wrong.

I called the study coordinator to set up an appointment for the following Monday, but before I hung up the phone, I mentioned that I was Filipino. This was when everything went downhill.

"I'm sorry, but you're not eligible for the study," the coordinator said.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because we can only have Chinese, Japanese, and Korean participants in the study."

"But I'm Filipino. Your flyer said it wanted Asian American participants."

"Yes, but we need a genetically similar sample."

"You've got to be kidding me."

"No, I'm sorry."

I knew the genetics argument was bogus. Anyone who's taken Introduction to Sociology knows that race is a social construction, not a genetic one. People, not biology, determine the meaning of racial categories. Besides, there is a consensus within the scientific community that with respect to genetics, "all human beings, regardless of race, are 99.9 percent the same." Even though I had science on my side, the coordinator wouldn't budge. By her definition, I wasn't Asian American. I hung up the phone without bothering to say good-bye.

What was the big deal? Surely I could've shelled out a few bucks from my own wallet for a few drinks at happy hour. And so what if I wasn't going to make two hundred dollars? This was my last year of grad school, and within a few months, I'd be working as an actual college professor (finally). But this wasn't the main issue. What upset me most was that a researcher from a top university felt at liberty to exclude Filipinos from a study about Asian Americans. This researcher had no idea what she was talking about. Besides the plethora of scientific articles that have debunked the relationship between race and genetics, I also had the history books on my side. Any Asian American historian can tell you that Filipinos played a central role in the creation of the Asian American identity. In fact, the term Asian American did not even exist until the late 1960s, when Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino activists coined the identity as an ideological strategy to advocate for their civil rights.

Although I was angry, I wasn't entirely surprised. For all intents and purposes, there are many out there who forget that Filipinos are, in fact, Asian American. Most would also agree that when people hear the word Asian, Filipinos are rarely the first people that come to mind. This seems baffling considering the size of the Filipino population in America. There are more than 3.5 million Filipinos in the country, but it's as if nobody knows we're here. Most Americans have no clue that Filipinos are the third-largest immigrant group behind Mexicans and Chinese. In California, the nation's leading destination state for immigrants, Filipinos outnumber every other Asian American group. Despite their size, people would be hard pressed to name anything distinctly Filipino: try naming a Filipino dish, a Filipino public figure, a Filipino musician. Most people would be stumped (interesting aside: many Filipino musicians have been marketed by record labels as Latino artists). When it comes to their place in America — and in the Asian American community — how did Filipinos become an afterthought?

This is the puzzle I hope to unravel with this book. Over the course of three years, I interviewed more than eighty Filipino American young adults living in Los Angeles. Our conversations tackled a variety of questions: What was it like growing up in an immigrant family? What was it like growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles? Who did you hang out with in your neighborhood? What were your interactions like with the people you went to school with? What was college like? Who do you feel Filipinos have most in common with?

Of course, these conversations took their fair share of twists and turns, but my aim was always central: I wanted to know how Filipinos carved out their racial place within American society. I was especially interested in studying Filipinos in Los Angeles, because the region, in many respects, foreshadows the America of tomorrow. Immigration from Latin America and Asia is reshaping the racial landscape of this country. While not discounting the continued legacy of the black-white divide, the United States is surely becoming a more multiethnic society. In Los Angeles, for instance, Latinos and Asian Americans now make up a collective majority. This book investigates how Filipinos understand their identity vis-à-vis these two fast-growing communities. In other words, I am interested in panethnic moments, or those times when Filipinos have felt a sense of collective identity with either Latinos or other Asians. That Filipinos share historical and cultural connections with both Latinos and Asians makes this an even more interesting puzzle to investigate.

Beyond the Filipino case, studying these panethnic moments reveals the constellation of institutional, social, and cultural factors needed for people from different ethnic backgrounds to develop a sense of common identity. Along the same lines, when panethnic moments don't happen, we gain a better understanding of the conditions when identities fail to resonate. My hope is that the puzzling case of Filipino Americans provides the proverbial "black box" that can reveal the unwritten rules of race in an increasingly diverse America.

Understanding how people fit into the American racial landscape matters tremendously. Race permeates nearly every aspect of our everyday lives, whether we realize it or not. It affects which neighborhood we live in, which schools we attend, our chances of finishing our education, our likelihood of getting a job, and whether we're paid well and get promoted at our job. And these are just the socioeconomic outcomes. Race also affects who we become friends with and who we decide to marry. It influences our physical and mental health, our musical interests, and what we do in our free time. Race also affects how we judge other people — whether we think someone is a trustworthy person, a decent neighbor, an intelligent student, a hardworking employee, a capable leader, and even a great lover. In other words, race is ubiquitous.

Immigration and the American Racial Landscape

Throughout its history, America has had an obsession with categorizing its inhabitants by race. From the early days of the republic, our nation's founders made it clear that the constitutional rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness applied only to whites, and not to African Americans and American Indians. By the nineteenth century, the US legal system had implemented the "one-drop" rule — the notion that someone with even one-sixteenth African blood was considered legally black, even if that individual appeared white to the outside world. For much of American history, race essentially determined one's life chances. It determined whether one could own land, attend certain schools, live in certain areas, marry certain individuals, or vote in government elections. White Americans, in particular, have had a vested interest in maintaining these rules of race. Race has provided them with an ideological tool to systematically maintain economic, political, and cultural privileges at the expense of blacks and other nonwhites.

Immigration has historically complicated American racial paradigms. How did immigrants fit themselves into America's racial classification system? At times, this choice was out of their hands. Many of the early European immigrants who made the trek across the Atlantic during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were poor and uneducated. They spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and had distinct ethnic traditions. Although they were European and legally categorized as white, they weren't always treated as white. The white Anglo-Saxon Protestant descendants of the early colonial settlers saw new European immigrants as "social and cultural threats to the American way of life." In their eyes, these newcomers, who were mainly from southern, central, and eastern Europe, threatened American job security, public health, and patriotism. European immigrants were even likened to African Americans, who occupied the bottom rung of the racial hierarchy. For example, there was once a time when Irish Americans were commonly referred to as "[negroes] turned inside out."

Over time, however, Europeans eventually "became" white. The industrial economy allowed even the most poorly educated of European immigrants to achieve middle-class status within a generation. When the United States closed its borders to immigrants in the 1920s, it became more difficult for European immigrants to maintain the languages and cultures that distinguished them from the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant groups that once discriminated against them. Without a continuing influx of Europeans coming to the United States, the ethnic markers that once triggered their racial otherness were no longer being replenished. European immigrants were also asserting their whiteness by actively distancing themselves from African Americans. By the middle of the twentieth century, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of early European immigrants blended seamlessly into the white middle-class mainstream. Since then, they have continued to embrace their whiteness as a marker of privilege and status within their workplaces, neighborhoods, and everyday interactions. Sociologists cited these experiences as proof that immigrants and their children would "acquire the memories, sentiments, and attitudes" of native-born white Americans. They argued that assimilation was "inevitable."

Unfortunately, claiming whiteness was never a viable strategy of social mobility for non-European immigrants who arrived during this period. In the same historical moment that Europeans' status as whites went from probationary to full-fledged, immigrants from Mexico, Japan, and India had also attempted to legally argue that they too were white. Whether they were trying to gain American citizenship or attend desegregated schools, their attempts were usually denied. Judges cited everything from phenotype to commonsense understandings of whiteness to connections with the home country as reasons to deny their requests. Immigrants from Mexico and Asia were never seen as white, and for most of the twentieth century, they were not granted the same basic privileges as their European-descent counterparts.

By the 1960s, America had entered a new era of immigration. Part of the change had to do with the transformation of the American economy. With the postwar period came the end of American industrialism, which for decades had served as the economic stepping-stone for newcomers to this country. The industrial and factory jobs that had catapulted Europeans from poor to professional within a generation were rapidly disappearing. The US government decided to reopen its borders to immigration in 1965, but the collapse of American industry meant that the opportunities for upward mobility were severely compromised. The American labor market became an hourglass economy — there were jobs in the professional ranks and low-wage service sector, but fewer and fewer in the middle. As a result, millions of immigrants who arrived after 1965 had to settle for jobs with essentially no chance for occupational mobility. The majority of occupations available to immigrants after 1965 had no built-in opportunity structures. Low-wage service jobs, hard physical labor, and domestic work provided little chance for millions of immigrants and their children to move up in society.

The literal face of immigration today has changed. Immigrants who have arrived since 1965 are generally not coming from European societies. The overwhelming majority of them are from Latin America and Asia. Unlike their European counterparts of yesteryear, most of these immigrants do not have the privilege of white skin. For them and their children, assimilation into the mainstream is not a given. No matter how middle class they become, how well they speak English, and how familiar they are with American ways of life, race marks them as foreign. Sociologists now believe that the continual arrival of immigrants from these regions means that even the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of today's newcomers could be subject to immigrant backlash, which is unlike the case of later-generation Europeans. In short, immigrants today may become Americans, but they almost certainly will never become white.

But maybe that's OK. Given the dramatic changes in the demographic composition and political climate of the United States, immigrants and their children have had less of a need to become white to thrive in this society. Undoubtedly, whiteness brings privileges across nearly every political, cultural, and economic arena of American life. All anyone needs to do is look at the racial composition of Congress, American television shows, and Fortune 500 CEOs (which are, by the way, 85, 84, and 97 percent white, respectively). Even so, communities of color in the United States have asserted their economic and political autonomy in unprecedented ways. Whiteness is not always necessary for upward mobility in the same way it once was. For example, when post-1965 immigrants could not find work in the mainstream labor market, they developed thriving ethnic economies. They established businesses and community organizations that provided not only jobs but also the infrastructure of support to help them get on their feet in their adopted country. In these spaces, ethnicity was an asset, not a liability. Immigrants came to rely on their cultural sensibilities and ethnic networks to achieve middle-class status.

Undoubtedly, the 1960s civil rights movement also reshaped how people came to value minority identities. The 1960s gave rise to race-based social activism. Drawing inspiration from African American civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, other people of color in the United States began using their minority identity as a strategy to galvanize their communities to fight for equal rights. Ethnic groups that once considered themselves separate came together under panethnic identities. For the first time in American history, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos began identifying as "Asian Americans." Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans began seeing themselves as "Hispanic," and a few years later, as "Latino." In the decades since the civil rights movement, these new panethnic identities crystallized and became part of the American racial imaginary. This was largely a result of the efforts of political activists, cultural institutions, media organizations, and ethnic studies departments, which collectively cultivated a sense of shared peoplehood among groups that might otherwise have seen themselves as culturally distinct. Today, people take terms like Asian American and Latino for granted, but the reality is that these identities only came into being within the past half century. The additions of these new panethnic categories are evidence of the increasing racial heterogeneity of the United States. As such, sociologists today are less concerned about whether immigrants and their children will become American and more interested in understanding which "segment" of society they will assimilate into.


Excerpted from The Latinos of Asia by Anthony Christian Ocampo. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

1The Puzzling Case of Filipino Americans
chapter abstract

Though classified as Asian by the U.S. Census, Filipinos have Spanish last names, are predominantly Catholic, and frequently encounter racial miscategorization. In other words, Filipinos do not map onto the American racial landscape very neatly, which affects how they experience race in everyday life. This chapter introduces sociological theory relevant to the racial experience of second generation Filipino young adults, who are classified as Asian, but who are culturally linked to Latinos, the emerging new majority in both the city and the state overall. The narratives of Filipinos in Los Angeles illustrate important lessons about the changing dynamics of race relations in an increasingly multiethnic society, how racial barriers persist, and most importantly, how we can break barriers if we more deeply understand the rules of race in everyday life.

2Colonial Legacies
chapter abstract

Historical colonialism in the Philippines catalyzed the mass migration of Filipinos to the United States at the start of the twentieth century. However, colonialism has had very different effects on how Filipinos adapt to life in the United States, depending on the racial system that they entered. In the early twentieth century, American colonial policies allowed only for the migration of Filipinos who could work in the agricultural industry and other low skilled labor sectors. Meanwhile, back in the Philippines, American colonial policies were rapidly transforming the Philippines' social, cultural, and institutional landscape. Given the cultural and socioeconomic advantages that Filipinos acquired due to American colonialism, they today are much different from their predecessors—they are middle class, they hold professional jobs, and they live in racially integrated neighborhood because they can speak English.

3Suburban Ethnicity
chapter abstract

Filipinos do not live in ethnic enclaves. They do not have to. As the previous chapter notes, Filipinos come to this country with socioeconomic resources and a cultural proficiency with the United States that most other immigrants do not possess. Instead, their children grow up in neighborhoods that are middle class and multiethnic. In many ways, their neighborhoods are a preview into the United States of tomorrow. Given the class and racial composition of their neighborhoods, second generation Filipinos come into their ethnic identity differently from other Asians. Other Asians rely on the dense presence of ethnic institutions and homogenous social networks to learn about their ethnic culture. In contrast, Filipinos spend time learning about ethnicity in their families and church.

4The Latinos of Asia
chapter abstract

Growing up in Los Angeles, Filipinos develop a keen awareness of the cultural traits they share with Latinos that can be traced back to Spanish colonialism, such as language, last names, and Catholic religion. This shared sense of peoplehood that Filipinos and Latinos develop emerges not through conscious political coalitions, but rather through mundane everyday interactions in the most intimate spaces of neighborhood life. Even though Filipinos are Asian, they do not all live with other Asians, which in turn affects their ability to identify with them panethnically—many Filipinos are openly ambivalent about pan-Asian identity.

5Getting Schooled on Race
chapter abstract

Within public middle schools and high schools, which are more socioeconomically diverse and strongly enforce an academic tracking system, Filipinos become distant from their Latino peers due to the divergent ways that teachers and administrators racialize them. Within the educational context, to be Asian is to be a model minority (and vice versa). In the absence of other Asians within the district, Filipinos are more inclined to enroll in the honors and college preparatory tracks, given their socioeconomic advantages over Latinos and other minorities. Their tracking patterns lead to school experiences, which in turn facilitate a sense of Asian racial consciousness—one that is based on the model minority stereotype, rather than culture. For example, Filipinos receive preferential treatment and greater academic push from teachers, which in turn cultivate this Asian American consciousness. Within Catholic schools, the campus climate is intimate, and Filipinos develop deeper connections with their Latino peers.

6"Filipinos Aren't Asian" and Other Lessons from College
chapter abstract

In college, Filipinos encounter new rules of race related to their underrepresentation, social activism, and educational politics that they generally do not deal with within neighborhoods and their earlier schooling. Because of their residential patterns of in Los Angeles—their tendency to live in neighborhoods with large numbers of Latinos, rather than other Asians—college is the first opportunity that many Filipinos have to interact more intimately with other Asian ethnicities. In addition, Filipinos' status shifts from high school to college dramatically. In college, Filipinos experience unusually high rates of attrition and, on some campuses, even have the designation of "targeted underrepresented minority." Their increased traffic with other Asians, along with the shift in racial context, prompt many Filipinos to socially distance themselves from other Asians and disidentify from the racial label. Their status and experiences as underrepresented minorities reinforce their connections with Latinos and other non-Asian minority students.

7Racial Dilemmas
chapter abstract

The rules of race not only vary by neighborhood and school context, but also by life stage. This chapter narrates the story of Eileen, a Filipina American woman from Carson who has "identity crises" and "identity epiphanies" through her experiences at a public middle school, a private high school, a public university, and most recently, in medical school. Eileen's narrative shows how one person consciously navigates the varying social constructions of both Asian American and Latino identity through different stages of her personal life and education. In her story, Eileen went from strongly identifying as Asian American (in high school) to actively disidentifying from other Asians (in college) to developing a panminority identity with her Latino undergraduate and graduate student peers (in college and medical school).

8Panethnic Possibilities
chapter abstract

Filipinos admit feeling "in-between" Asians and Latinos, which makes it difficult for others to map them onto the American racial landscape. To complicate matters more, they seem to fluctuate between Asian and Latino racial identification differently between neighborhoods and schools, and between childhood and adulthood—this is because the rules of race change in these different contexts and life stages. Filipinos transgress racial boundaries on a regular basis. This chapter closes with discussions of how Filipinos' unique racial experiences may influence their political involvement, their labor market outcomes, and even their love lives.

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