A different kind of homecoming

By JD Damarillo, Kaya Collaborative intern

This past summer, high schooler JD Damarillo joined our Kaya Collaborative Fellows as an intern, living and traveling alongside his 11 newfound “ates” during their stay in Manila. This is his reflection.

It’s easy to say that I thought I was coming to the Philippines for another “routine” visit with my family – that it was going to be nothing more than another boring, mundane trip that I would have to sit through. All the chit­chat in Tagalog and other various Filipino dialects continued to leave me as the estranged American sitting there with people I couldn’t connect with. However, I’ve discovered that this train of thought was only another symptom of the Filipino diaspora.

As a Filipino­ American teenager from California still in High School, I never thought much of this unusual land that I was supposedly from, but as of the changes of the last 6 months, I’ve began to reconsider my American apathy. Here I was, raised in a family that immigrated to the United States roughly 20 years ago, wondering what I owed this foreign land.

I had no connection to the “motherland,” or so my family called the place, and I saw myself more as an American than ever before; there was no reason for me to feel anything for this nation. However, a chance meeting with a particular Brown graduate, Rexy Josh Dorado, changed that. A couple meetings with him slowly evolved into long discussions about the nature of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW’s) and the large amounts of migrant and empowerment work done by organizations such as Unlad Kabayan. From those meetings, my journey of rediscovery began.

As my Junior year came to an end and summer crept forward, I decided that I would begin my journey back to the Philippines. After talking to Rexy about an internship for a month in the Philippines with Kaya Co., I loaded up my stuff and set a course for the Philippines. Trips there usually comprised of the usual fancy hotel found by my Dad’s connections, but this was a different trip. This time, I would live with an organization based in the Philippines and get the more localized experience.

Normally, I would stay around my father’s businesses in Makati, however, I got the chance to stay with the Fellows from Kaya Co.. It seemed odd that I would be staying with a group of 11 Filipino American (and one Canadian) College women, as I was only 17 with my only worry being getting into a reasonably good college. But that shot in the dark to stay with these colorful folk proved pivotal in my idea of the “motherland”. As overseas Filipinos, we all still felt somewhat strange to living in a house situated in an unfamiliar neighborhood in Mandaluyong, but that mattered little compared to the bond that we all shared over our cultural identity. Not everyone was necessarily fluent in Tagalog or even understood every Filipino tradition, and we all had not fully known ourselves as well as we would’ve wanted to.

But that wasn’t the best part of it. What truly made this experience lovable was that I felt with them a sense of community that I had not felt at home, one in which it took 2 weeks to consider all 11 of them as close as actual family. While it seems unusual to consider people that you just met family after such a short time, there was this unusual connection that I felt with these people. It’s almost like they really shared more with you than you thought. All the deep conversations, the college advice, it seemed that some weird magnetic field brought us closer than we would’ve thought.

Along with the Fellows, the whole experience as a high schooler has proved more than fulfilling. I began to see more of the untold story of the Philippines. By untold, I would mean that the history forgotten by the rest of the world. Being able to tour with an Ateneo professor was just a start. I saw the walled, weathered buildings of Intramuros and saw how time had worn on the Filipino history. While the tour guide was in fact native to the Philippines, I think the reason why it became more meaningful was due to the people I experienced this whole tour with. The fact that I had done it with a few filipino Americans who I could connect with about the Diaspora helped me actually “feel something” about my cultural background. Things had changed from the old, strictly American Filipino that I had gotten accustomed to, to the person who could understand the roots from which I came.

On a surface level, it’s easy to say that it just changed my life in a rather immersive way. But beneath that, I’d say that this experienced reawakened a deep, estranged feeling.

Throughout my life, I have been searching for something concrete that I can be known for; a simple, one line phrase that would be the panacea for my uncertainty. I had no clear feeling why my light brown skin or my black hair had mattered so much and why should I even care about the origins of this predicament I was born with. As much as I wanted to think that I felt apathetic over who I am, something kept me from rejecting myself as being Filipino and conforming to American standards of identity, which would’ve left me somewhat empty. It turns out that the small feeling happened to be my buried sense of identity, completed through the crucible of actually living in the Philippines, not visiting.

So on account of my personal beliefs of this trip, I feel more together as a Filipino­ American, but there is still work to be done. Maybe I’ll go back to my room and stare at the ceiling fan begging for it to answer this recurring question: what next? As stated, there’s a part of me rediscovered and put together, but as a part of the Diaspora there is always much left unanswered. That is why I will keep working. I don’t know how long my work will be until I complete this sense of identity that I have been endowed with. As a matter of fact, It may never end. But what I’m sure of is that it is the unspoken yet sworn duty of the Filipino ­American to continue this question.