Family, 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
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Yen Le Espiritu
“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
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
– Second-generation Filipina daughter
ocusing on the relationship between Filipino immigrant parents and
their daughters, this article argues that gender is a key to immigrant
dentity and a vehicle for racialized immigrants to assert cultural superiority over the dominant group. In immigrant communities, culture takes
on a special significance: not only does it form a lifeline to the home country 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
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 reviewers for Signs. I also would like to thank all those Filipinos/as who participated in this smdy
for their time, help, and insights into immigrant lives.
[Signs:]ournal 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 Espiritu
also encountered discriminatory housing policies, unfair labor practices,
violent physical encounters, and racist as well as anti-immigrant discourse. 1
While blatant legal discrimination against Filipino Americans is largely a
matter of the past, Filipinos continue to encounter many barriers that prevent 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 economic mobility and cultural assimilation that enables white ethnics to become “unhyphenated whites” is seldom extended to Filipino Americans
(Espiritu 1994). Like other Asians, the Filipino is “always seen as an immigrant, 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, immigrants, 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 ways racialized
immigrants claim through gender the power denied them by racism.
My epigraphs, quotations of a Filipina immigrant mother and a secondgeneration 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 relational 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 inequalities. 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 society.
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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5 I G N 5 Winter 2001 417
families face numerous restrictions on their autonomy, mobility, and personal 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 Filipinos 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
nomic characteristics of recent Filipino immigrants in San Diego indicated
that they were predominantly middle-class, college-educated, and Englishspeaking professionals who were more likely to own than rent their homes
(Rumbaut 1994 ). At the same time, about two-thirds of the Filipinos surveyed indicated that they had experienced racial and ethnic discrimination
(Espiritu and Wolf, forthcoming).
The information on which this article is based comes mostly from indepth interviews that I conducted with almost one hundred Filipinos in
San Diego.3 Using the “snowball” sampling technique, I started by interviewing 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 cap2 Filipino settlement in San Diego dates back to 1903, when a group of young Filipino
pensionadlJs enrolled at the State Normal School (now San Diego State University).
‘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.
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 following 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 post1965 Filipino immigrants have come to San Diego as professionals – most
conspicuously as health care workers. A 1992 analysis of the socioecoThis content downloaded from on Fri, 31 May 2019 05:08:57 UTC
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418 Espiritu
ture the diversity within the Filipino American community, I sought and
selected respondents of different backgrounds and ,vith diverse viewpoints. The sample is about egually divided between first-generation immigrants (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 included 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 ambiguous. I met Filipinos/as who toiled as assembly workers but who, through
the pooling of income and finances, owned homes in middle-class communities. I also discovered that class status was transnational, determined as
much by one’s economic position in the Philippines as by that in the
United States. For example, I encountered individuals who struggled economically in the United States but mvned sizable properties in the Philippines. 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. Reflecting the prominence of the U.S. Navy in San Diego, more than half
of my respondents were affiliated with or had relatives affiliated with the
U.S. Naw.
My tape-recorded interviews, conducted in English, ranged from three
to ten hours each and took place in offices, coffee shops, and homes. My
guestions were open-ended and covered three general areas: family and
immigration history, ethnic identity and practices, and community development among San Diego’s Filipinos. The interviewing process varied
widely: some respondents needed to be prompted with specific guestions,
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 with men. Because gender has been a marked category for women, the mothers and daughters I interviewed rarely told their
life stories without reference to the dynamics of gender (see Personal Narratives Group 1989, 4-5). Even without prompting, young Filipinas almost always recounted stories of restrictive gender roles and gender expectations, particularly of parental control over their whereabouts and
I believe that my own personal and social characteristics influenced the
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5 I G N 5 Winter 2001 419
actual process of data collection, the quality of the materials that I gathered, 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 process, 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 negotiating intergenerational tensions within my own family. I do not claim that
these shared struggles grant me “insider status” into the Filipino American 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 perspective 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 important 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 forginge-commonalities out of our specific and disparate experiences that I began this study on Filipino Americans in San
“American” and whiteness: “To me, American means white”
In U.S. racial discourse and practices, unless otherwise specified, ”Americans” means ”whites” (Lipsitz 1998, 1). In the case of Asian Americans,
U.S. exclusion acts, naturalization laws, and national culture have simultaneously marked Asians as the inassimilable aliens and whites as the quintessential 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 racialized 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 cultural influences (Lowe 1996, 8).
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420 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 interchangeably. For example, a Filipina who is married to a white American
refers to her husband as “American” but to her African American and Filipino American brothers-in-law as “black” and “Filipino;’ respectively. Others speak about “American ways;’ “American culture;’ or “American lifestyle” 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 American. 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 Mexican, 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 American, just the white people raised their hands.
Other Asian Americans also conflate American and white. In an ethnographic study of Asian American high school students, Stacey Lee reports
that Korean immigrant parents often instructed their children to socialize
onlv with Koreans and “Americans.” When asked to define the term American, the Korean students responded in unison with “White! Korean parents 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.
Construding 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 421
represented whites.4 Shifting attention from the otherness of the subordinate group ( as dictated by the “mainstream”) to the otherness of the dominant 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 female morality-defined as women’s dedication to their families and sexual
restrainte- is one of the few sites where economically and politically dominated 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 determining and defining group status and boundaries. As a consequence, the burdens and complexities of cultural representation fall most heavily on immigrant women and their daughters. Below, I show that Filipino immigrants
claim moral distinctiveness for their community by re-presenting ”Americans” 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, Robert 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 relations.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 Limon (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 racialized 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 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 individual 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 know, they are all right, but they
don’t help each other that much. As a matter of fact, if the parents
are old, they 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 daddy will always take you and your children in.
(Second-generation Filipina, thirty-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 you.”‘ For some Filipino men, perceived differences in attitudes about women’s roles between Filipina and
non-Filipina women influenced their marital choice. A Filipino American
navy man explained why he went back to the Philippines to look for a wife:
at home. She was horrified at this practice and proclaimed that, because they care for their
elders. Vietnamese families arc 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 recounted 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
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. Although 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 worke- who shoulder the primary responsibility for maintaining family closeness. As the organizers of family rituals, transmitters of homeland folklores, and socializers 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 families;” maintains the family networks that give ethnicity meaning (1984,
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 Espiritu
foods, planning rituals, and enforcing ‘ethnic’ socialization of children”
(1984, 222). A twenty-three-year-old Filipina spoke about the reproductive work that her mother performed and expected her to learn:
In my family, I was the only girl, so my 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 morn
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 my mother asks me every now and then what
have I cooked for my husband. My 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 who work outside the home. In the following narrative, a Filipina wife and mother described the pulls of family and work that she experienced when she went back to school to pursue a doctoral degree in
The Filipinos, we are very collective, very connected. Going through
the doctoral program, sometimes I think it is better just to forget
about my relatives and just concentrate on school. All that connectedness, 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 successful. The majority 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 always 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 ,vant,” she ignores the differences in the lives of white men and white women -the fact
that most white women experience similar competing pulls of family, education, and work.
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S I G N S Winter 2001 425
Racialized sexuality and (im)morality:
“In America, … sex is nothing”
Sexuality, as a core aspect of social identity, is fundamental to the strucmring 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
has been systematically
of subordinate
groups -particularly that of racialized women –
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 “Orient” -and its women – has long served as a site of European male-power
fantasies, replete with lurid images of sexual license, gynecological aberrations, and general perversion (Gilman 1985, 89). In colonial Asia in the
nineteenth and early twentieth cenmries, for example, female sexuality was
a site for colonial rulers to assert their moral superiority and thus their
supposed namral and legitimate right to rule. The colonial rhetoric of
moral superiority was based on the construction of colonized Asian
mark the “unassimilability” of Asians in the United States. At the mrn of
the twentieth cenmry, the public perception of Chinese women as diseaseridden, drug-addicted prostimtes served to underline the depravity of
“Orientals” and played a decisive role in the evenmal passage of exclusion laws against all Asians (Mazumdar 1989, 3-4). The stereotypical view
that all Asian women were prostirutes, first formed in the 1850s, persisted. Contemporary American popular culmre continues to endow Asian
women with an excess of “womanhood,” sexualizing them but also impugning their sexuality (Espirim 1997, 93).
Filipinas – both in the Philippines and in the United Statesemarked as desirable but dangerous “prostimtes” and/or submissive “mailhave been
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 “tropical bombshells, … sexy, sexed and interested” (Tafolla 1985, 39).
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
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426 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 Philippine government policies that promoted a sex industry-brothels, bars,
and massage parlors – for servicemen stationed or on leave in the Philippines. 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 visiting Subic Bay Naval Station in Olongapo City:
One day, I \vent to the base dispensary …. 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 walking. “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 ofFilipina women is also captured in Marianne
Vilanueva’s short story “Opportunity” ( 1991 ). As the protagonist, a “mailorder bride” from the Philippines, enters a hotel lobby to meet her American fiance, the bellboys snicker and whisperputa (whore)e: 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,
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 Filipinas who serviced U.S. soldiers by branding them “more Americanized”
and “more Westernized.” In other words, these women were sexually proThis content downloaded from on Fri, 31 May 2019 05:08:57 UTC
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Embodying the moral integrity of the idealized ethnic community, im5 I G N 5 Winter 2001 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 narrative, 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.
: she
is sexually modest and dedicated to her family; they are sexually promiscuSimilarly, 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 note
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 morality 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).
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 Dasgupta and DasGupta 1996, 229-31). In the next section, I detail the ways
Filipino immigrant parents, under the rubric ofn”cultural preservation;’ police their daughters’ behaviors in order to safeguard their sexual innocence
and virginity. 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 community’s 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 Francisco in the 1920s (Yung 1995), U.S.-born Italian women in East Harlem
in the 1930s (Orsi 1985), young Mexican women in the Southwest during the interwar years (Ruiz 1992), and daughters of Caribbean and Asian
Indian immigrants on the East Coast in the 1990s (Dasgupta and Dastion (Rumbaut and Ima 1988; Woldemikael 1989; Matute-Bianchi 1991;
Gibson 1995).
Although immigrant families have always been preoccupied with passing on their native culture, language, and traditions to both male and female children, it is daughters who have the primary burden of protecting
and preserving the familny. Because sons do not have to conform to the
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 significant determinant of parent-child conflict, with daughters more likely
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S I G N S Winter 2001 429
image of an “ideal” ethnic subject as daughters do, they often receive special 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, parental control over the movement and action of daughters begins the moment
they are perceived as young adults and sexually vulnerable. It regularly consists 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.
7 The 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 opportunities (1985, 143).
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\\’hen questioned about this double standard, parents generally responded by explaining that “girls are different”:
I have that Filipino mentality that boys are boys and girls are different. Girls are supposed to be protected, to be clean. In the early years,
my daughters ha\’e to ha,·e 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
Even among selt:described Western-educated and “tolerant” parents, many
continue to ascribe to “the Filipino way” when it comes to raising daughters. 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
\Vards 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 protecti\’e of my daughter. My wife feels the same way because 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 mixed
messages she recei,·ed from her parents:
This is the 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 husband, 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? They say “no” to the whole dating scene because
that is secondary to your 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 431
In a study of second-generation Filipino Americans in northern Califo
Diane Wolf (1997) reports the same pattern of parental pressures:
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 daughters, 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
I argue that these parental restrictions are attempts to construct a model
of Filipina womanhood that is chaste, modest, nurturing, and familyoriented. Women are seen as responsible for holding the cultural line,
8 The names of the two high schools in this excerpt are fictitious.
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.
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maintaining racial boundaries, and marking culmral 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 challenges 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 guestion 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. They 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 ,vant for their children and their ability to control the
young. However, the interview data do suggest that intergenerational conflicts are socially recognized occurrences in Filipino communities. Even
when respondents themselves had not experienced intergenerational tensions, 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 exploitation of women’s sexuality in various societies ( Maglin and Perry 1996).
We also know that the culmral 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 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 sexuality, increases women’s vulnerability to sexual coercion, and justifies women’s containment in the domestic sphere.
Immigrant families, though, have an additional strategy: they can discipline their daughters as racial/national subjects as well as gendered ones.
That is, as self-appointed guardians of “authentic” cultural memory, immigrant 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 customs, 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
9 According 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 (Tiongson 1997, 257).
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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 Filipina. I wear my hair long, I wear decent makeup. I dress properly,
conservative. I am familv 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 shaping the emotional lives of their daughters (see Wolf 1997). Although
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 unacquainted with the “home” country, U.S.-born children depend on their parents’ 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, many young Filipinas I interviewed contest and negotiate parental restrictions in their daily lives. Faced with parental 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 occurred to me to date a white or black guy. 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 ifnI married a Mexican or a Filipino, [he]
would 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. 10
10 The frw available studies on Filipino American intermarriage indicate a high rate relative to other Asian groups. In 1980, Filipino men in California recorded the highest intermarriage rate among all Asian groups, and Filipina women had the second-highest rate, after
Japanese American women (Agbayani-Siewert and Revilla 1995, I 56).
better-off parents can and do exert greater controls over their children’s behaviors than do poorer parents (Wolf 1992; Kibria 1993), I would argue
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S I G N S Winter 2001 43S
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 restrictions, 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 suicide (45.6 percent) as well as the highest rates of actually attempting suicide (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 (Frankenberg 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, demonizing it in the process. Like other immigrant groups, Filipinos praise the
United States as a land of significant economic opportunity but simultaneously denounce it as a country inhabited by corrupted and individualistic people of questionable morals. In particular, they criticize American
family life, American individualism, and American women ( see Gabbacia
1994, 1 13 ). 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 numerous restrictions on their autonomy, mobility, and personal decision making. This practice of cultural (re)construction reveals how deeply the conduct of private life can be tied to larger social structures.
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The construction of white Americans as the “other” and American culture as deviant serves a dual purpose: It allows immigrant communities
both to reinforce patriarchy through the sanctioning of women’s (mis)behavior 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 communities. Through the oppression of Filipina women and the denunciation of
white women’s morality, the immigrant community attempts to exert its
moral superiorit:v over the dominant Western culture and to reaffirm to
itself its self worth in the face of economic, social, political, and legal subordination. In other words, the immigrant community uses restrictions on
women’s li,·es as one form of resistance to racism. This form of cultural
resistance, however, severely 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.
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