Singkil and the Tagalog Language: Reflections On Being An American-Born Filipina

In junior year of high school, I was asked by a group of Filipinos to participate in a folk dance performance called “Singkil” for our school’s International Assembly and Night performance. I was thrilled because it was the first time I would be a part of traditional Filipino dance performance… EVER! Yes, you heard me right, prior to this event, I had never been asked to be part of any traditional folk dance performance, primarily because I had always been regarded in our community as “too American.”

Photo of Singkil performance, a traditional Filipino Muslim folk dance
Traditional Filipino Muslim folk dance, Singkil. This isn’t a photo of the performance I was part of, but the photo gives you an idea of what ours looked like. (Source: Fiesta Filipina)

After school about three times a week, I would head over to my friend’s place to practice in their backyard. I was one of the fan girls, so I made friends with the other three girls fairly quickly, since we practiced together so much. I was the only person out of the entire group that didn’t know how to speak Tagalog. This at first, was found as an endearment to the others. “Oh! Try not to speak so much Tagalog around Luann, she won’t know what we’re saying, the poor thing,” I often heard. Other times when I would try to respond back in Tagalog, after a moment of laughter from the group, they’d say, “Oh wasn’t that cute the way she was unable to say that word?” It was disheartening to hear these types of messages from the group every time we met for practice, because the often I heard them talk, the more I would realize how disconnected I was from the Filipino identity.

When I was younger, my mom vowed to refrain from teaching me how to speak Tagalog. “I just don’t want you to get confused at school when the other children are speaking English,” she told me. I always go back to this particular memory when she teases me about how I don’t know how to speak Tagalog. “You made me this way, Mom,” I would tell her. She’d then revert back to Tagalog to tell my aunties how disgruntled I felt about not being able to communicate in our native tongue. “Makulit siya,” she would say. Troublesome, annoying, a nag, ran through my head in English translation.

One day during the Singkil practices, I started to share with the other group members about how I had visited the Philippines a few times before with my family. Hoping that this admission of my experiences would finally bridge the gap I felt between myself and the other Philippines-born Filipinos, one group member, the girl that played the princess role in our dance, said, “But you know you’re not a real Filipino, right? You’re not from there, you’re from the U.S. You will never be able to understand our struggles in the Philippines because that’s not your home.” I stood in front of the group, humiliated, because I felt that throughout all of my hard work in trying to establish a connection with my Filipino identity, that loss and disconnection maybe due to the notion that I’m not truly Filipino.

I continued practicing with the group until the night of the performance and the day assembly for school. We had a lot of students and teachers come up to us after the performance because they were so grateful that a Filipino group came together to perform, which apparently had never been done before. I was proud to be a part of the performance and really embraced the moments when we felt united. But I still felt disconnected and separated from the rest of the group, especially after the princess confronted me. We never talked about what she told me and nobody else brought it up with me either. I had a feeling deep down, and still to this day, hold the feeling that everyone agreed with her.

Now as an organizer and activist, I am still met with the same doubts of my loyalty and the authenticity of my Filipino identity. When I met with another activist not too long ago, she talked about the ways in which she felt empowered through her activism in the Philippines and how the work that she does here is always in connection with the homeland. She calls herself, and Filipinos in general, displaced persons in connection with the remnants of imperialism and colonization from the U.S. I told her that my homeland is the Philippines and the U.S. I was born and raised here; my experience in the U.S. and my identity as a Filipina has shaped me into the person I am today. I told her I would never be able to disengage with the politics and social issues that impact me in the U.S. AND in the Philippines because I have loyalty for both homelands. To pull myself apart is not something I can do, just like I cannot disconnect myself from my gender, sexuality, sex, class, race, and ability from my identity as well.

Ideas of authenticity and loyalty to the Philippines, is an ongoing issue that a lot of Filipino activists/organizers deal with and quite frankly, it is all part of the colonial mentality. The act of questioning who or where our allegiances should be and what our experiences are truly about should be reserved for us as individuals. Self-identification with acknowledgement of context of where those identities come from, is crucial in racial and gender justice activism. I need to self-identify and be supported in that identity, so that I have that sense of empowerment. I don’t think these ideas and thoughts will change overnight, regarding identity and who gets to be the deciding factor of what constitutes as an authentic identity, but I know that the awareness of these issues is what continues to drive me in my activist work.

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Luann

Feminist, Pinay, coffee lover, boba aficionado and pop culture enthusiast. Current graduate student in Peace and Conflict Studies. Dwelling in the rainy city of Portland, Oregon but always California dreaming. You can also read more of her articles at browngirldecolonized.com

5 thoughts on “Singkil and the Tagalog Language: Reflections On Being An American-Born Filipina”

  1. Really interesting article, Luann. I feel really conflicted sometimes… While I speak German to my kids, I chose not to teach my daughter the German alphabet or spelling, so as not to confuse her while she learns English spelling. But what if it’s too late once she’s ok with English? Likewise, it’s much harder to get the second kid to even speak German, it gets eroded so quickly. The kids will only speak English to each other. Sometimes I feel it’s the hardest thing for an immigrant parent, that thin line between getting the kids to get accepted as native speakers in the new language and maintaining links to the parents’ languages. And reading your thoughts on it only shows that it will remain a struggle. :/ (And we’ve not even reached a stage where the kids’ loyalty to our native countries will be an issue!) You’re absolutely right about it being a question of your own identity though, and I admire your perseverance despite those issues.

    1. Karo,

      Yes, I can see how the internal struggle of teaching dual languages can be conflicting for the parent. I mean, I know my mom meant well when she decided that to not teach me Tagalog – she assumed there was a stigma against kids that took ESL courses, which there was. I don’t think she wanted me to get picked on even more so for being not white. Granted, we lived in a predominantly racially diverse neighborhood, so instead of being picked on for being the only Asian kid, I was picked on for being the kid that no one could tell what my ethnicity was lol. Was I Latina or Vietnamese? Hard to say!

      I’ve met some parents that are motivated in making sure their kids know multiple languages, including the native one, while they’re still young. It’s just the easiest time to learn languages developmentally during pre-adolescent years. And I agree with you, the topic of loyalty to native countries or homelands is an entirely loaded subject on its own haha. I think even if you don’t full-on teach your kids the entire German language while they’re still young, incorporating as much as you can into their lives at a young age, I think can make a big impact in the long run. 5 year-old Luann thanks you lol.

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