Culture and Gender in Filipina American Lives

“We Don’t Sleep around like White Girls Do”: Family, Culture, and Gender in Filipina American Lives Author(s): Yen Le Espiritu Source: Signs, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Winter, 2001), pp. 415-440 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: Accessed: 03-08-2019 23:48 UTC

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Yen Le E s p i r i t u

“We Don’t Sleep Around Like White Girls Do”: Family,

Culture, and Gender in Filipina American Lives

I want my daughters to be Filipino especially on sex. I always emphasize to them that they should not participate in sex if they are not married. We are also Catholic. We are raised so that we don’t engage in going out with men while we are not married. And I don’t like it to happen to my daughters as if they have no values. I don’t like them to grow up that way, like the American girls.

– Filipina immigrant mother

I found that a lot of the Asian American friends of mine, we don’t date like

white girls date. We don’t sleep around like white girls do. Everyone is really mellow at dating because your parents were constraining and restrictive.

– Second-generation Filipina daughter

F ocusing on the relationship between Filipino immigrant parents and their daughters, this article argues that gender is a key to immigrant identity and a vehicle for racialized immigrants to assert cultural superi-

ority over the dominant group. In immigrant communities, culture takes on a special significance: not only does it form a lifeline to the home coun- try and a basis for group identity in a new country, it is also a base from which immigrants stake their political and sociocultural claims on their new country (Eastmond 1993, 40). For Filipino immigrants, who come from a homeland that was once a U.S. colony, cultural reconstruction has been especially critical in the assertion of their presence in the United States- a way to counter the cultural Americanization of the Philippines, to resist the assimilative and alienating demands of U.S. society, and to reaffirm to themselves their self-worth in the face of colonial, racial, class,

and gendered subordination. Before World War II, Filipinos were barred from becoming U.S. citizens, owning property, and marrying whites. They

I gratefully acknowledge the many useful suggestions and comments of George Lipsitz, Vince Rafael, Lisa Lowe, Joane Nagel, Diane Wolf, Karen Pyke, and two anonymous review-

ers for Signs. I also would like to thank all those Filipinos/as who participated in this study for their time, help, and insights into immigrant lives.

[Signs:Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2001, vol. 26, no. 2]

? 2001 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2001/2602-0003$02.00

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416 I Espiritu

also encountered discriminatory housing policies, unfair labor practices, violent physical encounters, and racist as well as anti-immigrant discourse.’ While blatant legal discrimination against Filipino Americans is largely a matter of the past, Filipinos continue to encounter many barriers that pre- vent full participation in the economic, social, and political institutions of the United States (Azores-Gunter 1986-87; Cabezas, Shinagawa, and Kawaguchi 1986-87; Okamura and Agbayani 1997). Moreover, the eco- nomic mobility and cultural assimilation that enables white ethnics to be-

come “unhyphenated whites” is seldom extended to Filipino Americans (Espiritu 1994). Like other Asians, the Filipino is “always seen as an immi- grant, as the ‘foreigner-within’ even when born in the United States” (Lowe 1996, 5). Finally, although Filipinos have been in the United States since the middle of the 1700s and Americans have been in the Philippines since at least the late 1800s, U.S. Filipinos-as racialized nationals, immi- grants, and citizens – are “still practically an invisible and silent minority” (San Juan 1991, 117). Drawing from my research on Filipino American families in San Diego, California, I explore in this article the w-ays racialized

immigrants claim through gender the power denied them by racism. Mv epigraphs, quotations of a Filipina immigrant mother and a second-

generation Filipina daughter, suggest that the virtuous Filipina daughter is partially constructed on the conceptualization of white women as sexually immoral. This juxtaposition underscores the fact that femininity is a rela- tional category, one that is co-constructed with other racial and cultural categories. These narratives also reveal that women’s sexuality and their enforced “morality” are fundamental to the structuring of social inequali- ties. Historically, the sexuality of racialized women has been systematically

demonized and disparaged by dominant or oppressor groups to justify and bolster nationalist movements, colonialism, and/or racism. But as these

narratives indicate, racialized groups also criticize the morality of white women as a strategy of resistance – a means of asserting a morally superior public face to the dominant societ.

By exploring how Filipino immigrants characterize white families and white women, I hope to contribute to a neglected area of research: how the “margins” imagine and construct the “mainstream” in order to assert superiority over it. But this strategy is not without costs. The elevation of Filipina chastity (particularly that of young women) has the effect of reinforcing masculinist and patriarchal power in the name of a greater ideal

of national/ethnic self-respect. Because the control of women is one of the principal means of asserting moral superiority, young women in immigrant

‘ Cordova 1983; Sharma 1984; Scharlin and Villanueva 1992; Jung 1999.

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 417

families face numerous restrictions on their autonomy, mobility, and per- sonal decision making. Although this article addresses the experiences and attitudes of both parents and children, here I am more concerned with understanding the actions of immigrant parents than with the reactions of their second-generation daughters.

Studying Filipinos in San Diego

San Diego, California has long been a favored area of settlement for Filipi- nos and is today the third-largest U.S. destination for Filipino immigrants (Rumbaut 1991, 220).2 As the site of the largest U.S. naval base and the Navy’s primary West Coast training facility, San Diego has been a primary area of settlement for Filipino navy personnel and their families since the early 1900s. As in other Filipino communities along the Pacific Coast, the San Diego community grew dramatically in the twenty-five years follow- ing passage of the 1965 Immigration Act. New immigration contributed greatly to the tripling of San Diego county’s Filipino American population from 1970 to 1980 and its doubling from 1980 to 1990. In 1990, nearly 96,000 Filipinos resided in the county. Although they made up only 4 percent of the county’s general population, they constituted close to 50 percent of the Asian American population (Espiritu 1995). Many post- 1965 Filipino immigrants have come to San Diego as professionals – most conspicuously as health care workers. A 1992 analysis of the socioeco- nomic characteristics of recent Filipino immigrants in San Diego indicated that they were predominantly middle-class, college-educated, and English- speaking professionals who were more likely to own than rent their homes

(Rumbaut 1994). At the same time, about two-thirds of the Filipinos sur- veyed indicated that they had experienced racial and ethnic discrimination (Espiritu and Wolf, forthcoming).

The information on which this article is based comes mostly from in- depth interviews that I conducted with almost one hundred Filipinos in San Diego.3 Using the “snowball” sampling technique, I started by inter- viewing Filipino Americans whom I knew and then asking them to refer me to others who might be willing to be interviewed. In other words, I chose participants not randomly but rather through a network of Filipino American contacts whom the first group of respondents trusted. To cap-

2 Filipino settlement in San Diego dates back to 1903, when a group of young Filipino pensionados enrolled at the State Normal School (now San Diego State University).

3 My understanding of Filipino American lives is also based on the many conversations I

have had with my Filipino American students at the University of California, San Diego, and with Filipino American friends in the San Diego area and elsewhere.

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418 I Espiritu

ture the diversity within the Filipino American community, I sought and selected respondents of different backgrounds and with diverse view- points. The sample is about equally divided between first-generation immi- grants (those who came to the United States as adults) and Filipinas/os who were born and/or raised in the United States. It is more difficult to

pinpoint the class status of the people I interviewed. To be sure, they in- cluded poor working-class immigrants who barely eked out a living, as well as educated professionals who thrived in middle- and upper-class suburban

neighborhoods. However, the class status of most was much more ambigu- ous. I met Filipinos/as who toiled as assembly workers but who, through the pooling of income and finances, owned homes in middle-class commu- nities. I also discovered that class status was transnational, determined as

much bv one’s economic position in the Philippines as by that in the United States. For example, I encountered individuals who struggled eco- nomically in the United States but owned sizable properties in the Philip-

pines. And I interviewed immigrants who continued to view themselves as “upper class” even while living in dire conditions in the United States. These examples suggest that the upper/middle/working-class typology, while useful, does not capture the complexity of immigrant lives. Re- flecting the prominence of the U.S. Nav\ in San Diego, more than half of my respondents were affiliated with or had relatives affiliated with the U.S. Navv.

Mv tape-recorded interviews, conducted in English, ranged from three to ten hours each and took place in offices, coffee shops, and homes. My

questions Nwcre open-ended and covered three general areas: family and immigration history, ethnic identity and practices, and communitv devel- opment among San Diego’s Filipinos. The interviewing process varied widely: some respondents needed to be prompted with specific questions, while others spoke at great length on their own. Some chose to cover the

span of their lives; others focused on specific events that were particularly important to them. The initial impetus for this article on the relationship between immigrant parents and their daughters came from my observation that the dynamics of gender emerged more clearly in the interviews with women than in those vwith men. Because gender has been a marked cate-

gory for xwomen, the mothers and daughters I interviewed rarely told their life stories without reference to the dynamics of gender (see Personal Nar-

ratives Group 1989, 4-5). Even without prompting, young Filipinas al- most alwayNs recounted stories of restrictive gender roles and gender ex-

pectations, particularly of parental control over their whereabouts and sexuality.

I believe that my own personal and social characteristics influenced the

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 419

actual process of data collection, the quality of the materials that I gath- ered, and my analysis of them. As a Vietnam-born woman who immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve, I came to the research project not as an “objective” outsider but as a fellow Asian immigrant who shared some of the life experiences of my respondents. During the fieldwork pro- cess, I did not remain detached but actively shared with my informants my own experiences of being an Asian immigrant woman: of being perceived as an outsider in U.S. society, of speaking English as a second language, of being a woman of color in a racialized patriarchal society, and of negotiat- ing intergenerational tensions within my own family. I do not claim that these shared struggles grant me “insider status” into the Filipino Ameri- can community; the differences in our histories, cultures, languages, and, at times, class backgrounds, remain important. But I do claim that these shared experiences enable me to bring to the work a comparative per- spective that is implicit, intuitive, and informed by my own identities and positionalities–and with it a commitment to approach these subjects with both sensitivity and rigor. In a cogent call for scholars of color to expand on the premise of studying “our own” by studying other “others,”

Ruby Tapia argues that such implicitly comparative projects are impor- tant because they permit us to “highlight the different and differentiating

functional forces of racialization” (1997, 2). It is with this deep interest in discovering – and forging – commonalities out of our specific and dispa- rate experiences that I began this study on Filipino Americans in San Diego.

“American” and whiteness: “To me, American means white”

In U.S. racial discourse and practices, unless otherwise specified, “Amer- icans” means “whites” (Lipsitz 1998, 1). In the case of Asian Americans, U.S. exclusion acts, naturalization laws, and national culture have simulta-

neously marked Asians as the inassimilable aliens and whites as the quintes- sential Americans (Lowe 1996). Excluded from the collective memory of who constitutes a “real” American, Asians in the United States, even as citizens, remain “foreigners-within” – “non-Americans.” In a study of third- and later-generation Chinese and Japanese Americans, Mia Tuan (1998) concludes that, despite being longtime Americans, Asians -as ra- cialized ethnics – are often assumed to be foreign unless proven otherwise. In the case of Filipinos who emigrated from a former U.S. colony, their formation as racialized minorities does not begin in the United States but rather in a “homeland” already affected by U.S. economic, social, and cul- tural influences (Lowe 1996, 8).

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420 I Espiritu

Cognizant of this racialized history, my Filipino respondents seldom identify themselves as American. As will be evident in the discussion below,

they equate “American” with “white” and often use these two terms inter- changeably. For example, a Filipina who is married to a white American refers to her husband as “American” but to her African American and Fili-

pino American brothers-in-law as “black” and “Filipino,” respectively. Oth- ers speak about “American ways,” “American culture,” or “American life- style” when they really mean white American ways, culture, and lifestyle. A

Filipino man who has lived in the United States for thirty years explains why he still does not identify himself as American: “I don’t see myself just as an American because I cannot hide the fact that my skin is brown. To me, American means white.” A second-generation Filipina recounted the following story when asked whether she defined herself as American:

I went to an all-white school. I knew I was different. I wasn’t Ameri-

can. See, you are not taught that you’re American because you are not white. When I was in the tenth grade, our English teacher asked us what our nationality was, and she goes how many of you are Mexi-

can, how many of you are Filipino, and how many of you are Samoan

and things like that. And when she asked how many of you are Amer- ican, just the white people raised their hands.

Other Asian Americans also conflate American and white. In an ethno-

graphic studv of Asian American high school students, Stacey Lee reports that Korean immigrant parents often instructed their children to socialize only with Koreans and “Americans.” When asked to define the term Ameri-

can, the Korean students responded in unison with “White! Korean par- ents like white” (Lee 1996, 24). Tuan (1998) found the same practice among later-generation Chinese and Japanese Americans: the majority use the term American to refer to whites.

Constructing the dominant group: The moral flaws of white Americans

Given the centrality of moral themes in popular discussions on racial differences, Michele Lamont (1997) has suggested that morality is a crucial site to study the cultural mechanisms of reproduction of racial inequality. While much has been written on how whites have represented the (im)- morality of people of color (Collins 1991; Marchetti 1993; Hamamoto 1994), there has been less critical attention to how people of color have

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 421

represented whites.4 Shifting attention from the otherness of the subordi-

nate group (as dictated by the “mainstream”) to the otherness of the domi- nant group (as constructed by the “margins”), this section focuses on the alternative frames of meaning that racially subordinate groups mobilize to (re)define their status in relation to the dominant group. I argue that fe- male morality -defined as women’s dedication to their families and sexual restraint – is one of the few sites where economically and politically domi-

nated groups can construct the dominant group as other and themselves as superior. Because womanhood is idealized as the repository of tradition, the norms that regulate women’s behaviors become a means of determin- ing and defining group status and boundaries. As a consequence, the bur- dens and complexities of cultural representation fall most heavily on immi- grant women and their daughters. Below, I show that Filipino immigrants claim moral distinctiveness for their community by re-presenting “Ameri- cans” as morally flawed, themselves as family-oriented model minorities, and their wives and daughters as paragons of morality.

Family-oriented model minorities: “White women will leave you”

In his work on Italian immigrant parents and children in the 1930s, Rob- ert Anthony Orsi (1985) reports that the parents invented a virtuous Italy (based on memories of their childhood) that they then used to castigate the morality of the United States and their U.S.-born or -raised children. In a similar way, many of my respondents constructed their “ethnic” culture as

principled and “American” culture as deviant. Most often, this morality narrative revolves around family life and family relations. When asked what

set Filipinos apart from other Americans, my respondents – of all ages and class backgrounds -repeatedly contrasted close-knit Filipino families to what they perceived to be the more impersonal quality of U.S. family rela- tions.5 In the following narratives, “Americans” are characterized as lacking

4 A few studies have documented the ways racialized communities have represented white Americans. For example, in his anthropological work on Chicano joking, Jose Lim6n (1982)

reports that young Mexican Americans elevate themselves over whites through the telling of “Stupid-American” jokes in which an Anglo American is consistently duped by a Mexican character. In her interviews with African American working-class men, Michele Lamont (1997) finds that these men tend to perceive Euro Americans as immoral, sneaky, and not to

be trusted. Although these studies provide an interesting and compelling window into ra- cialized communities’ views of white Americans, they do not analyze how the rhetoric of moral superiority often depends on gender categories.

5 Indeed people around the world often believe that Americans have no real family ties. For example, on a visit to my family in Vietnam, my cousin asked me earnestly if it was true

that American children put their elderly parents in nursing homes instead of caring for them

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422 I Espiritu

in strong family ties and collective identity, less willing to do the work of family and cultural maintenance, and less willing to abide by patriarchal norms in husband/wife relations:

American society lacks caring. The American way of life is more indi- vidual rather than collective. The American way is to say I want to have my own way. (Filipina immigrant, fifty-four years old)

Our [Filipino] culture is different. We are more close-knit. We tend to help one another. Americans, ya knoxw, they are all right, but they

don’t help each other that much. As a matter of fact, if the parents are old, thev take them to a convalescent home and let them rot there. We would never do that in our culture. We would nurse them; we

would help them until the very end. (Filipino immigrant, sixty years old)

Our [Filipino culture is very communal. You know that your family will always be there, that you don’t have to work when you turn

eighteen, you don’t have to pay rent when you are eighteen, which is the American way of thinking. You also know that if things don’t work out in the outside world, you can always come home and mommy and daddv will alwavs take vou and vour children in.

(Second-generation Filipina, thirtr-three years old)

Asian parents take care of their children. Americans have a different attitude. They leave their children to their own resources. They get baby sitters to take care of their children or leave them in day care.

That’s why when they get old, their children don’t even care about them. (Filipina immigrant, forty-six years old)

Implicit in negative depictions of U.S. families as uncaring, selfish, and distant is the allegation that white women are not as dedicated to their families as Filipina women are to theirs. Several Filipino men who married white women recalled being warned by their parents and relatives that “white women will leave you.” As one man related, “My mother said to me, ‘Well, you know, don’t marry a white person because they would take

everything that you own and leave vou.”‘ For some Filipino men, per- ceived differences in attitudes about women’s roles between Filipina and

non-Filipina women influenced their marital choice. A Filipino American navy man explained whyr he went back to the Philippines to look for a wife:

at home. She xwas horrified at this practice and proclaimed that, because they care for their elders, Vietnamese families are morally superior to American families.

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 423

My goal was to marry a Filipina. I requested to be stationed in the Philippines to get married to a Filipina. I’d seen the women here and basically they are spoiled. They have a tendency of not going along together with their husband. They behave differently. They chase the male, instead of the male, the normal way of the traditional way is for the male to go after the female. They have sex without marrying. They want to do their own things. So my idea was to go back home and marry somebody who has never been here. I tell my son the same thing: if he does what I did and finds himself a good lady there, he will be in good hands.

Another man who had dated mostly white women in high school re- counted that when it came time for him to marry, he “looked for the kind of women” he met while stationed in the Philippines: “I hate to sound chauvinistic about marriages, but Filipinas have a way of making you feel like you are a king. They also have that tenderness, that elegance. And we share the same values about family, education, religion, and raising children.”

The claims of family closeness are not unique to Filipino immigrants. For example, when asked what makes their group distinctive, Italian Americans (di Leonardo 1984), Vietnamese Americans (Kibria 1993), South Asian Americans (Hickey 1996), and African Americans (Lamont 1997) all point proudly to the close-knit character of their family life. Al- though it is difficult to know whether these claims are actual perceptions or favored self-legitimating answers, it is nevertheless important to note the gender implications of these claims. That is, while both men and women identify the family system as a tremendous source of cultural pride, it is women – through their unpaid housework and kin work – who shoul-

der the primary responsibility for maintaining family closeness. As the or- ganizers of family rituals, transmitters of homeland folklores, and social- izers of young children, women have been crucial for the maintenance of

family ties and cultural traditions. In a study of kinship, class, and gender among California Italian Americans, di Leonardo argues that women’s kin work, “the work of knitting households together into ‘close, extended fam-

ilies,”‘ maintains the family networks that give ethnicity meaning (1984, 229).

Because the moral status of the community rests on women’s labor, women, as wives and daughters, are expected to dedicate themselves to the

family. Writing on the constructed image of ethnic family and gender, di Leonardo argues that “a large part of stressing ethnic identity amounts to burdening women with increased responsibilities for preparing special

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424 I Espiritu

foods, planning rituals, and enforcing ‘ethnic’ socialization of children” (1984, 222). A twxentv-three-vear-old Filipina spoke about the reproduc- tive work that her mother performed and expected her to learn:

In my family, I was the only girl, so nm mom expected a lot from me. She wanted me to help her to take care of the household. I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me. It’s very important to my mom to have the house in order: to wash the dishes, to keep the kitchen

in order, vacuuming, and dusting and things like that. She wants me to be a perfect housewife. It’s difficult. I have been married now for about four months and mv mother asks me evren now and then what

have I cooked for my husband. Mvr mom is also very strict about

families getting together on holidays, and I would always help her to organize that. Each holiday, I would try to decorate the house for her, to make it more special.

The burden of unpaid reproductive and kin work is particularly stressful for women wNho work outside the home. In the following narrative, a Fili-

pina wife and mother described the pulls of family and work that she expe- rienced when she went back to school to pursue a doctoral degree in nursing:

The Filipinos, we are verv collective, very connected. Going through the doctoral program, sometimes I think it is better just to forget about mv relatives and just concentrate on school. All that connect-

edness, it steals parts of myself because all of my energies are devoted to my family. ,And that is the reason why I think Americans are suc-

cessful. The majorint of the American people they can do what they

want. They don’t feel guilty because they only have a few people to relate to. For us Filipinos, it’s like roots under the tree, you have all these connections. The Americans are more like the trunk. I am still

trying to go up to the trunk of the tree but it is too hard. I want to be more independent, more like the Americans. I want to be good to my family but what about me? And all the things that I am doing.

It’s hard. It’s alxvas a struggle.

It is important to note that this Filipina interprets her exclusion and added responsibilities as only racial when they are also gendered. For example, when she says, “the American people they can do what they want,” she ig- nores the differences in the lives of white men and white women – the fact

that most white women experience similar competing pulls of family, edu- cation, and work.

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 425

Racialized sexuality and (im)morality: “In America, … sex is nothing”

Sexuality, as a core aspect of social identity, is fundamental to the structur-

ing of gender inequality (Millett 1970). Sexuality is also a salient marker of otherness and has figured prominently in racist and imperialist ideologies (Gilman 1985; Stoler 1991). Historically, the sexuality of subordinate groups -particularly that of racialized women–has been systematically stereotyped by the dominant groups.6 At stake in these stereotypes is the construction of women of color as morally lacking in the areas of sexual restraint and traditional morality. Asian women -both in Asia and in the United States–have been racialized as sexually immoral, and the “Ori- ent” – and its women – has long served as a site of European male-power fantasies, replete with lurid images of sexual license, gynecological aberra- tions, and general perversion (Gilman 1985, 89). In colonial Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, female sexuality was a site for colonial rulers to assert their moral superiority and thus their supposed natural and legitimate right to rule. The colonial rhetoric of moral superiority was based on the construction of colonized Asian women as subjects of sexual desire and fulfillment and European colonial women as the paragons of virtue and the bearers of a redefined colonial morality (Stoler 1991). The discourse of morality has also been used to mark the “unassimilability” of Asians in the United States. At the turn of the twentieth century, the public perception of Chinese women as disease- ridden, drug-addicted prostitutes served to underline the depravity of “Orientals” and played a decisive role in the eventual passage of exclu- sion laws against all Asians (Mazumdar 1989, 3-4). The stereotypical view that all Asian women were prostitutes, first formed in the 1850s, per- sisted. Contemporary American popular culture continues to endow Asian

women with an excess of “womanhood,” sexualizing them but also im- pugning their sexuality (Espiritu 1997, 93).

Filipinas – both in the Philippines and in the United States – have been marked as desirable but dangerous “prostitutes” and/or submissive “mail-

order brides” (Halualani 1995; Egan 1996). These stereotypes emerged out of the colonial process, especially the extensive U.S. military presence in the Philippines. Until the early 1990s, the Philippines, at times unwillingly,

6 Writing on the objectification of black women, Patricia Hill Collins (1991) argues that popular representations of black females – mammy, welfare queen, and Jezebel – all pivot around their sexuality, either desexualizing or hypersexualizing them. Along the same line, Native American women have been portrayed as sexually excessive (Green 1975), Chicana women as “exotic and erotic” (Mirande 1980), and Puerto Rican and Cuban women as “trop- ical bombshells, . . . sexy, sexed and interested” (Tafolla 1985, 39).

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426 I Espiritu

housed some of the United States’s largest overseas airforce and naval bases (Espiritu 1995, 14). Many Filipino nationalists have charged that “the prostitution problem” in the Philippines stemmed from U.S. and Philip- pine government policies that promoted a sex industry-brothels, bars, and massage parlors -for servicemen stationed or on leave in the Philip- pines. During the Vietnam War, the Philippines was known as the “rest and recreation” center of Asia, hosting approximately ten thousand U.S. servicemen daily (Coronel and Rosca 1993; Warren 1993). In this context, all Filipinas were racialized as sexual commodities, usable and expendable. A U.S.-born Filipina recounted the sexual harassment she faced while vis- iting Subic Bay Naval Station in Olongapo City:

One davy I went to the base dispensar. … I was dressed nicely, and as I walked by the fire station, I heard catcalls and snide remarks being made by some of the firemen…. I was fuming inside. The next thing I heard was, “How much do you charge?” I kept on walk- ing. “Hey, are you deaf or something? How much do you charge? You have a good body.” That was an incident that I will never forget. (Quoted in Espiritu 1995, 77)

The sexualized racialization of Filipina women is also captured in Marianne Vilanueva’s short story “Opportunity” (1991). As the protagonist, a “mail- order bride” from the Philippines, enters a hotel lobby to meet her Ameri- can fiance, the bellboys snicker and whisper puta (whore): a reminder that U.S. economic and cultural colonization in the Philippines always forms a backdrop to any relations between Filipinos and Americans (Wong 1993, 53).

Cognizant of the pervasive hypersexualization of Filipina women, my respondents, especially women who grew up near military bases, were quick to denounce prostitution, to condemn sex laborers, and to declare (unasked) that they themselves did not frequent “that part of town.” As one Filipina immigrant said,

Growing up [in the Philippines], I could never date an American because my dad’s concept of a friendship with an American is with a G.I. The only reason why my dad wouldn’t let us date an American

is that people will think that the only way you met was because of the base. I have never seen the inside of any of the bases because we

were just forbidden to go there.

Many of my respondents also distanced themselves culturally from the Fili-

pinas who serviced U.S. soldiers by branding them “more Americanized” and “more Westernized.” In other words, these women were sexually pro-

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 427

miscuous because they had assumed the sexual mores of white women. This characterization allows my respondents to symbolically disown the Filipina “bad girl” and, in so doing, to uphold the narrative of Filipina sexual virtuosity and white female sexual promiscuity. In the following nar- rative, a mother who came to the United States in her thirties contrasted

the controlled sexuality of women in the Philippines with the perceived promiscuity of white women in the United States:

In the Philippines, we always have chaperons when we go out. When we go to dances, we have our uncle, our grandfather, and auntie all behind us to make sure that we behave in the dance hall. Nobody goes necking outside. You don’t even let a man put his hand on your shoulders. When you were brought up in a conservative country, it is hard to come here and see that it is all freedom of speech and freedom of action. Sex was never mentioned in our generation. I was thirty already when I learned about sex. But to the young generation in America, sex is nothing.

Similarly, another immigrant woman criticized the way young American women are raised: “Americans are so liberated. They allow their children, their girls, to go out even when they are still so young.” In contrast, she stated that, in “the Filipino way, it is very important, the value of the woman, that she is a virgin when she gets married.”

The ideal “Filipina,” then, is partially constructed on the community’s conceptualization of white women. She is everything that they are not: she is sexually modest and dedicated to her family; they are sexually promiscu- ous and uncaring. Within the context of the dominant culture’s pervasive hypersexualization of Filipinas, the construction of the “ideal” Filipina- as family-oriented and chaste – can be read as an effort to reclaim the mo-

rality of the community. This effort erases the Filipina “bad girl,” ignores competing sexual practices in the Filipino communities, and uncritically embraces the myth of “Oriental femininity.” Cast as the embodiment of perfect womanhood and exotic femininity, Filipinas (and other Asian women) in recent years have been idealized in U.S. popular culture as more truly “feminine” (i.e., devoted, dependent, domestic) and therefore more desirable than their more modern, emancipated sisters (Espiritu 1997, 113). Capitalizing on this image of the “superfemme,” mail-order bride agencies market Filipina women as “‘exotic, subservient wife imports’ for sale and as alternatives for men sick of independent ‘liberal’ Western women” (Halualani 1995, 49; see also Ordonez 1997, 122).

Embodying the moral integrity of the idealized ethnic community, im- migrant women, particularly young daughters, are expected to comply

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with male-defined criteria of what constitute “ideal” feminine virtues.

While the sexual behavior of adult women is confined to a monogamous, heterosexual context, that of young women is denied completely (see Das- gupta and DasGupta 1996, 229-31). In the next section, I detail the ways Filipino immigrant parents, under the rubric of”cultural preservation,” po- lice their daughters’ behaviors in order to safeguard their sexual innocence and virginitx. These attempts at policing generate hierarchies and tensions within immigrant families–between parents and children and between brothers and sisters.

The construction(s) of the “ideal” Filipina:

“Boys are boys and girls are different” As the designated “keepers of the culture” (Billson 1995), immigrant women and their behavior come under intensive scrutiny both from men

and women of their own groups and from U.S.-born Americans (Gabbacia 1994, xi). In a study of the Italian Harlem community from 1880 to 1950,

Orsi reports that “all the communitys fears for the reputation and integrity of the domus came to focus on the behavior of young women” (1985, 135). Because women’s moral and sexual loyalties were deemed central to the maintenance of group status, changes in female behavior, especially that of growing daughters, were interpreted as signs of moral decay and ethnic suicide and were carefully monitored and sanctioned (Gabbacia 1994, 113).

Although details vary, young women of various groups and across space and time–for example, second-generation Chinese women in San Fran- cisco in the 1920s (Yung 1995), U.S.-born Italian women in East Harlem in the 1930s (Orsi 1985), young Mexican women in the Southwest dur- ing the interwar xears (Ruiz 1992), and daughters of Caribbean and Asian Indian immigrants on the East Coast in the 1990s (Dasgupta and Das- Gupta 1996; Waters 1996)-have identified strict parental control on their activities and movements as the primary source of intergenerational

conflict. Recent studies of immigrant families also identify gender as a sig-

nificant determinant of parent-child conflict, with daughters more likely than sons to be involved in such conflicts and instances of parental deroga-

tion (Rumbaut and Ima 1988; Woldemikael 1989; Matute-Bianchi 1991; Gibson 1995).

Although immigrant families have always been preoccupied with pass- ing on their native culture, language, and traditions to both male and fe- male children, it is daughters who have the primary burden of protecting

and preserving the family. Because sons do not have to conform to the

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 429

image of an “ideal” ethnic subject as daughters do, they often receive spe- cial day-to-day privileges denied to daughters (Haddad and Smith 1996, 22-24; Waters 1996, 75-76). This is not to say that immigrant parents do not place undue expectations on their sons; rather, these expectations do not pivot around the sons’ sexuality or dating choices.7 In contrast, paren- tal control over the movement and action of daughters begins the moment they are perceived as young adults and sexually vulnerable. It regularly con- sists of monitoring their whereabouts and forbidding dating (Wolf 1997). For example, the immigrant parents I interviewed seldom allowed their daughters to date, to stay out late, to spend the night at a friend’s house, or to take an out-of-town trip.

Many of the second-generation women I spoke to complained bitterly about these parental restrictions. They particularly resented what they saw as gender inequity in their families: the fact that their parents placed far more restrictions on their activities and movements than on their brothers’.

Some decried the fact that even their younger brothers had more freedom than they did. “It was really hard growing up because my parents would let my younger brothers do what they wanted but I didn’t get to do what I wanted even though I was the oldest. I had a curfew and my brothers didn’t. I had to ask if I could go places and they didn’t. My parents never even asked my brothers when they were coming home.” As indicated in the following excerpt, many Filipino males are cognizant of this double standard in their families:

My sister would always say to me, “It’s not fair, just because you are a guy, you can go wherever you want.” I think my parents do treat me and my sister differently. Like in high school, maybe 10:30 at night, which is pretty late on a school night, and I say I have to go pick up some notes at my friend’s house, my parents wouldn’t say anything. But if my sister were to do that, there would be no way. Even now when my sister is in college already, if she wants to leave at midnight to go to a friend’s house, they would tell her that she shouldn’t do it.

7The relationship between immigrant parents and their sons deserves an article of its own. According to Gabbacia, “Immigrant parents fought with sons, too, but over different issues: parents’ complaints about rebellious sons focused more on criminal activity than on

male sexuality or independent courtship” (1994, 70). Moreover, because of their mobility, young men have more means to escape-at least temporarily-the pressures of the family than young women. In his study of Italian American families, Orsi reports that young men rebelled by sleeping in cars or joining the army, but young women did not have such opportu- nities (1985, 143).

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When questioned about this double standard, parents generally re- sponded by explaining that “girls are different”:

I have that Filipino mentality that boys are boys and girls are differ-

ent. Girls are supposed to be protected, to be clean. In the early years,

my daughters have to have chaperons and curfews. And they know that they have to be virgins until they get married. The girls always say that is not fair. What is the difference between their brothers and

them? And my answer always is, “In the Philippines, you know, we don’t do that. The girls stay home. The boys go out.” It was the way that I was raised. I still want to have part of that culture instilled in my children. And I want them to have that to pass on to their children.

Even among self-described Western-educated and “tolerant” parents, many continue to ascribe to “the Filipino way” when it comes to raising daugh-

ters. As one college-educated father explains,

Because of my Western education, I don’t raise my children the way my parents raised me. I tended to be a little more tolerant. But at

times, especially in certain issues like dating, I find myself more to- wards the Filipino way in the sense that I have only one daughter so I tended to be a little bit stricter. So the double standard kind of

operates: it’s alright for the boys to explore the field but I tended to be overly protective of my daughter. My wife feels the same wav be- cause the boys will not lose anything, but the daughter will lose something, her virginity, and it can be also a question of losing face, that kind of thing.

Although many parents discourage or forbid dating for daughters, they still fully expect these young women to fulfill their traditional roles as women: to marry and have children. A young Filipina recounted the mLxed

messages she received from her parents:

This is the x way it is supposed to work: Okay, you go to school. You

go to college. You graduate. You find a job. Then you find your hus- band, and you have children. That’s the whole time line. But my question is, if you are not allowed to date, how are you supposed to find your husband? Thev say “no” to the whole dating scene because that is secondarv to Tyour education, secondary to your family. They

do push marriage, but at a later date. So basically my parents are telling me that I should get married and I should have children but that I should not date.

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S I G N S Winter 2001 1 431

In a study of second-generation Filipino Americans in northern California,

Diane Wolf (1997) reports the same pattern of parental pressures: Parents expect daughters to remain virgins until marriage, to have a career, and to combine their work lives with marriage and children.

The restrictions on girls’ movement sometimes spill over to the realm of academics. Dasgupta and DasGupta (1996, 230) recount that in the Indian American community, while young men were expected to attend faraway competitive colleges, many of their female peers were encouraged by their parents to go to the local colleges so that they could live at or close to home. Similarly, Wolf (1997, 467) reports that some Filipino parents pursued contradictory tactics with their children, particularly their daugh- ters, by pushing them to achieve academic excellence in high school but then “pulling the emergency brake” when they contemplated college by expecting them to stay at home, even if it meant going to a less competitive

college, or not going at all. In the following account, a young Filipina relates that her parents’ desire to “protect” her surpassed their concerns for her academic preparation:

My brother [was] given a lot more opportunity educationally. He was given the opportunity to go to Miller High School that has a renowned college preparatory program but [for] which you have to be bussed out of our area.8 I’ve come from a college prep program in junior high and I was asked to apply for the program at Miller. But my parents said “No, absolutely not.” This was even during the time, too, when Southside [the neighborhood high school] had one of the lowest test scores in the state of California. So it was like, “You

know, mom, I’ll get a better chance at Miller.” “No, no, you’re going to Southside. There is no ifs, ands, or buts. Miller is too far. What if

something happens to you?” But two years later, when my brother got ready to go on to high school, he was allowed to go to Miller. My sister and I were like, “Obviously, whose education do you value more? If you’re telling us that education is important, why do we see a double standard?”

The above narratives suggest that the process of parenting is gendered in that immigrant parents tend to restrict the autonomy, mobility, and personal decision making of their daughters more than that of their sons.

I argue that these parental restrictions are attempts to construct a model of Filipina womanhood that is chaste, modest, nurturing, and family- oriented. Women are seen as responsible for holding the cultural line,

8 The names of the two high schools in this excerpt are fictitious.

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432 I Espiritu

maintaining racial boundaries, and marking cultural difference. This is not

to say that parent-daughter conflicts exist in all Filipino immigrant families.

Certainly, Filipino parents do not respond in a uniform way to the chal- lenges of being racial-ethnic minorities, and I met parents who have had to change some of their ideas and practices in response to their inability to control their children’s movements and choices:

I have three girls and one boy. I used to think that I wouldn’t allow my daughters to go dating and things like that, but there is no way I could do that. I can’t stop it. It’s the way of life here in America. Sometimes you kind of question yourself, if you are doing what is right. It is hard to accept but you got to accept it. That’s the way they are here. (Professional Filipino immigrant father)

My children are born and raised here, so they do pretty much what

they want. They think they know everything. I can only do so much

as a parent …. When I try to teach my kids things, they tell me that I sound like an old record. Thev even talk back to me sometimes….

The first time my daughter brought her boyfriend to the house, she was eighteen years old. I almost passed away, knocked out. Lord, tell me what to do? (Working-class Filipino immigrant mother)

These narratives call attention to the shifts in the generational power caused by the migration process and to the possible gap between what parents say they want for their children and their ability to control the young. However, the interview data do suggest that intergenerational con- flicts are socially recognized occurrences in Filipino communities. Even when respondents themselves had not experienced intergenerational ten- sions, they could always recall a cousin, a girlfriend, or a friend’s daughter who had.

Sanctions and reactions:

“That is not what a decent Filipino girl should do”

I do not wish to suggest that immigrant communities are the only ones in

which parents regulate their daughters’ mobility and sexuality. Feminist scholars have long documented the construction, containment, and exploi- tation of women’s sexuality in various societies (Maglin and Perry 1996). We also know that the cultural anxiety over unbounded female sexuality is

most apparent with regard to adolescent girls (Tolman and Higgins 1996, 206). The difference is in the ways immigrant and nonimmigrant families

sanction girls’ sexuality. To control sexually assertive girls nonimmigrant parents rely on the gender-based good girl/bad girl dichotomy in which

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S I G N S Winter 2001 1 433

“good girls” are passive, threatened sexual objects while “bad girls” are active, desiring sexual agents (Tolman and Higgins 1996). As Dasgupta and DasGupta write, “the two most pervasive images of women across cultures are the goddess and whore, the good and bad women” (1996, 236). This good girl/bad girl cultural story conflates femininity with sexu- ality, increases women’s vulnerability to sexual coercion, and justifies wom- en’s containment in the domestic sphere.

Immigrant families, though, have an additional strategy: they can disci- pline their daughters as racial/national subjects as well as gendered ones. That is, as self-appointed guardians of “authentic” cultural memory, immi- grant parents can attempt to regulate their daughters’ independent choices by linking them to cultural ignorance or betrayal. As both parents and children recounted, young women who disobeyed parental strictures were often branded “non-ethnic,” “untraditional,” “radical,” “selfish,” and “not

caring about the family.” Female sexual choices were also linked to moral degeneracy, defined in relation to a narrative of a hegemonic white norm. Parents were quick to warn their daughters about “bad” Filipinas who had become pregnant outside marriage.9 As in the case of “bar girls” in the Philippines, Filipina Americans who veered from acceptable behaviors were deemed “Americanized”-as women who have adopted the sexual mores and practices of white women. As one Filipino immigrant father described “Americanized” Filipinas: “They are spoiled because they have seen the American way. They go out at night. Late at night. They go out on dates. Smoking. They have sex without marrying.”

From the perspective of the second-generation daughters, these charges are stinging. The young women I interviewed were visibly pained -with many breaking down and crying–when they recounted their parents’ charges. This deep pain, stemming in part from their desire to be validated

as Filipina, existed even among the more “rebellious” daughters. One twenty-four-year-old daughter explained:

My mom is very traditional. She wants to follow the Filipino cus- toms, just really adhere to them, like what is proper for a girl, what she can and can’t do, and what other people are going to think of her if she doesn’t follow that way. When I pushed these restrictions, when I rebelled and stayed out later than allowed, my mom would always say, “That is not what a decent Filipino girl should do. You should come home at a decent hour. What are people going to think

9According to a 1992 health assessment report of Filipinos in San Francisco, Filipino teens have the highest pregnancy rates among all Asian groups and, in 1991, the highest rate

of increase in the number of births as compared with all other racial or ethnic groups (Tiong- son 1997, 257).

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434 1 Espiritu

of you?” And that would get me really upset, you know, because I think that my character is very much the way it should be for a Fili-

pina. I wear my hair long, I wear decent makeup. I dress properly, conservative. I am family oriented. It hurts me that she doesn’t see

that I am decent, that I am proper and that I am not going to bring shame to the family or anything like that.

This narrative suggests that even when parents are unable to control the behaviors of their children, their (dis)approval remains powerful in shap- ing the emotional lives of their daughters (see Wolf 1997). Although better-off parents can and do exert greater controls over their children’s be-

haviors than do poorer parents (Wolf 1992; Kibria 1993), I would argue that all immigrant parents – regardless of class background – possess this emotional hold on their children. Therein lies the source of their power: As

immigrant parents, they have the authority to determine if their daughters are “authentic” members of their racial-ethnic community. Largely unac-

quainted with the “home” country, U.S.-born children depend on their par- ents’ tutelage to craft and affirm their ethnic self and thus are particularly

vulnerable to charges of cultural ignorance and/or betrayal (Espiritu 1994). Despite these emotional pains, manv young Filipinas I interviewed con-

test and negotiate parental restrictions in their daily lives. Faced with pa- rental restrictions on their mobility, young Filipinas struggle to gain some control over their own social lives, particularly over dating. In many cases,

daughters simply misinform their parents of their whereabouts or date without their parents’ knowledge. They also rebel by vowing to create more egalitarian relationships with their own husbands and children. A thirty-year-old Filipina who is married to a white American explained why she chose to marry outside her culture:

In high school, I dated mostly Mexican and Filipino. It never oc- curred to me to date a white or black guV. I was not attracted to them. But as I kept growing up and my father and I were having all these conflicts, I knew that if I married a Mexican or a Filipino, [he] wVould be exactly like my father. And so I tried to date anyone that

would not remind me of my dad. A lot of my Filipina friends that I

grew up with had similar experiences. So I knew that it wasn’t only me. I was determined to marry a white person because he would treat me as an individual.1″

l0 The few available studies on Filipino American intermarriage indicate a high rate rela-

tive to other Asian groups. In 1980, Filipino men in California recorded the highest intermar-

riage rate among all Asian groups, and Filipina women had the second-highest rate, after Japanese American women (Agbavani-Siewert and Revilla 1995, 156).

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S I G N S Winter 2001 I 435

Another Filipina who was labeled “radical” by her parents indicated that she would be more open-minded in raising her own children: “I see myself

as very traditional in upbringing but I don’t see myself as constricting on my children one day and I wouldn’t put the gender roles on them. I wouldn’t lock them into any particular way of behaving.” It is important to note that even as these Filipinas desired new gender norms and practices for their own families, the majority hoped that their children would remain

connected to Filipino culture. My respondents also reported more serious reactions to parental restric-

tions, recalling incidents of someone they knew who had run away, joined a gang, or attempted suicide. A Filipina high-school counselor relates that most of the Filipinas she worked with “are really scared because a lot of them know friends that are pregnant and they all pretty much know girls who have attempted suicide.” A 1995 random survey of San Diego public high schools conducted by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, in comparison with other ethnic groups, female Filipino students had the highest rates of seriously considering sui- cide (45.6 percent) as well as the highest rates of actually attempting sui- cide (23 percent) in the year preceding the survey. In comparison, 33.4 percent of Latinas, 26.2 percent of white women, and 25.3 percent of black women surveyed said they had suicidal thoughts (Lau 1995).


Mainstream American society defines white middle-class culture as the norm and whiteness as the unmarked marker of others’ difference (Fran-

kenberg 1993). In this article, I have shown that many Filipino immigrants use the largely gendered discourse of morality as one strategy to decenter whiteness and to locate themselves above the dominant group, demoniz- ing it in the process. Like other immigrant groups, Filipinos praise the United States as a land of significant economic opportunity but simulta- neously denounce it as a country inhabited by corrupted and individual- istic people of questionable morals. In particular, they criticize American family life, American individualism, and American women (see Gabbacia 1994, 113). Enforced by distorting powers of memory and nostalgia, this rhetoric of moral superiority often leads to patriarchal calls for a cultural “authenticity” that locates family honor and national integrity in the group’s female members. Because the policing of women’s bodies is one of the main means of asserting moral superiority, young women face numer- ous restrictions on their autonomy, mobility, and personal decision mak- ing. This practice of cultural (re)construction reveals how deeply the con- duct of private life can be tied to larger social structures.

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436 I Espiritu

The construction of white Americans as the “other” and American cul-

ture as deviant serves a dual purpose: It allows immigrant communities both to reinforce patriarchy through the sanctioning of women’s (mis)be- havior and to present an unblemished, if not morally superior, public face to the dominant society. Strong in family values, heterosexual morality, and a hierarchical family structure, this public face erases the Filipina “bad girl” and ignores competing (im)moral practices in the Filipino communi- ties. Through the oppression of Filipina women and the denunciation of white women’s morality, the immigrant communitv attempts to exert its moral superiority over the dominant Western culture and to reaffirm to itself its self-worth in the face of economic, social, political, and legal sub- ordination. In other words, the immigrant community uses restrictions on women’s lives as one form of resistance to racism. This form of cultural

resistance, howcever, severelv restricts the lives of women, particularly those

of the second generation, and it casts the family as a potential site of intense

conflict and oppressive demands in immigrant lives.

Ethnic Studies Department

University of California, San Diego


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  • Contents
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  • Issue Table of Contents
    • Signs, Vol. 26, No. 2, Winter, 2001
      • Front Matter [pp. 551 – 554]
      • Object Lessons: Men, Masculinity, and the Sign Women [pp. 355 – 388]
      • Pelvic Politics: Sexual Dimorphism and Racial Difference [pp. 389 – 414]
      • “We Don’t Sleep around like White Girls Do”: Family, Culture, and Gender in Filipina American Lives [pp. 415 – 440]
      • Chicana Feminism and Postmodernist Theory [pp. 441 – 483]
      • Against Epistemological Chasms: The Science Question in Feminism Revisited [pp. 485 – 509]
      • Comments and Reply
        • Comment on Walby’s “Against Epistemological Chasms: The Science Question in Feminism Revisited”: Can Democratic Values and Interests Ever Play a Rationally Justifiable Role in the Evaluation of Scientific Work? [pp. 511 – 525]
        • Comment on Walby’s “Against Epistemological Chasms: The Science Question in Feminism Revisited”: Structured Knowledge and Strategic Methodology [pp. 527 – 536]
      • Reply to Harding and Sprague [pp. 537 – 540]
      • Review Essay
        • Challenging the Chicano Text: Toward a More Inclusive Contemporary Causa [pp. 541 – 550]
      • Book Reviews
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