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Asian Americans: Filipinos

Abstract and Keywords

Filipinos are the second largest group of Asians in the United States; more than 3.4 million Filipino Americans live primarily within the largest U.S. continental cities (including Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York) and Hawaii. Annexation of the Philippines, following the Philippine-American War (1899–1902), granted Filipinos unrestricted immigration to the United States as “American nationals” without right to U.S. citizenship. Throughout this more than one-hundred-year relationship, Filipinos in the United States endured discrimination, race-based violence, and a series of restrictive federal legislation impacting civil rights and immigration. Filipinos may present with a distinctly Western orientation in areas such as values and contemporary ideas; however, their traditional social and cultural characteristics contrast considerably with mainstream American culture. This entry provides a brief historic, geopolitical and cultural context to facilitate the work of social work practitioners.

Keywords: Filipino Americans, Filipino immigration, Filipino culture, Pilipino, Philippines


The story of Filipino Americans, a heterogeneous group of people, would be incomplete, and unjustly perpetuate colonial practices, without considering the significant historic geopolitical factors that influenced Filipino immigration to the United States and continue to effect well-being outcomes. This entry provides an overview of salient historic, cultural, contextual, and socioeconomic factors to inform effective practice approaches.

The people of the Philippines experienced over four hundred years of colonial domination and occupation by foreign powers: Spain (1565–1898), Britain (1762–1764), the United States (1898–1946), Japan (1941–1945), and the United States again (from 1946 until the November 24, 1992, closing of U.S. military bases) (Churchill, 2002; de Lario, 2008; Fish, 2003; Ileto, 1999; Kramer, 2006; Mabini, 2001; Zaide, 1939).

More than three centuries of rule—through absolute authority, requiring total obedience—shaped the Philippines to reflect Spain’s medieval political, social, economic, cultural, and religious dogmas (Karnow, 1989). By the late 1800s, colonies in Cuba, Mexico, and the Philippines sought independence from Spain’s harsh rule. U.S. business interests in Cuba, and related political controversy, primed the situation for war. The United States declared war on Spain on April 25, 1898 (the Spanish-American War), purportedly intervening on behalf of the Cuban War of Independence. Less than a week later, on May 1, 1898, the United States destroyed a Spanish fleet of twelve ships in Cavite, Philippines (Karnow, 1989).

Following a series of political and military maneuvers, in Cuba and the Philippines simultaneously, that ended the Spanish-American War, Filipinos believed their long-sought freedom from the yoke of Spanish colonization had been achieved, and they affirmed this with their Proclamation of Philippine Independence (June 12, 1898). However, the ensuing Treaty of Paris, signed on December 10, 1898, gave the United States temporary control of Cuba, and indefinite colonial authority over Guam, the Philippine islands, and Puerto Rico (Kramer, 2006). U.S. annexation of the Philippines was the major point of negotiation conflict. Spanish commissioners argued the Philippines could not be claimed as war conquest since Manila surrendered after the armistice; ultimately, possession transferred to the United States for the sum of $20 million. U.S. public opinion surrounding the decision to annex the Philippines was contentious. However, 2 days prior to U.S. congressional ratification (February 6, 1899), sentiment in favor of the Paris Treaty became fait accompli, when the killing of a Filipino soldier by an American soldier ignited the Philippine-American War (1899–1902). Three years later, the war ended with the deaths of over 200,000 Filipinos (by some estimates 500,000) and 4,200 Americans, marking the beginning of over 45 years of American colonial rule of the Philippines (Kramer, 2006).

Geographic and Historical Origins

The Philippine archipelago is composed of over 7,000 islands, located in the western Pacific Ocean, bounded to the north by the Luzon Strait, to the west by the South China Sea, the south by the Sulu Sea and Celebes Sea, and the east by the Philippine Sea. The country boasts rare flora and fauna, megarich biodiversity, tropical climate, and fertile agricultural lands.

The Republic of the Philippines has an estimated population of 105.7 million people (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013). The country officially recognizes nine languages: Filipino (Tagalog), Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligayon or Ilonggo, Bicol, Waray, Pampango, Pangasinan, and English (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013). There are over 170 native languages spoken in the Philippines belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian family, a subgroup of the Austronesian languages. Approximately 120 of these are distinct languages.

The rich ancestral heritage of the Filipino people can be traced back to Australoid-Sakai and Proto-Malay aboriginal tribes, believed to have reached the islands between 30,000 b.c. and 15,000 b.c. These groups were followed by Mongoloids from China (6000 b.c. to 5000 b.c.), who brought a Neolithic culture; late Neolithic seafarers from Indonesia (1500 b.c. to 1000 b.c.); Bronze Age people from Indochina and South China (800 b.c. to 500 b.c.); and then Iron Age people, who came from Borneo and Malaysia (300 b.c.to 200 b.c.), from whom 38% of the current population are descended (Araneta, 1993).

The ongoing diaspora of Filipinos throughout the world is an important historic phenomenon to be considered when working with Filipino Americans, their extended families, and recent Filipino immigrants (Lott, 2006; Okamura, 1998; San Juan, 2000). Each family’s unique story of migration offers strengths, resources, and challenges to customize and enhance social work practice. Approximately 26.5% (2009 estimate) of the Philippine people live below the poverty line (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013), and with scarce opportunities for upward mobility, large numbers choose to seek employment abroad. In 2010, the Philippines received approximately $21.3 billion in remittances from abroad (World Bank, 2011), which constitutes 59% of the Philippine government’s $36.35 billion revenues in 2012 (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013). According to the Pew Research Center, Filipino Americans sent more than $10.6 billion in remittances home to the Philippines, accounting for 43% of all remittances received (Desilver, 2013). The multiple implications and effects of diaspora and migration, while deserving of singular attention, will not be addressed here. Practitioners should seek to understand client-defined factors, which necessitate Filipinos seeking a livelihood outside their country, the accompanying narratives of trauma, and the long-term impact on nuclear and extended families.

Filipino Immigration to the United States

The U.S. annexation of the Philippines classified Filipinos as “American nationals,” which permitted unrestricted immigration but did not grant them U.S. citizenship. It was during the American colonial period that Filipino workers migrated to the United States in large numbers, fueled by stories of wealth and hope for a better life. Philippine arrivals to the continental United States increased over a hundredfold in 10 years, from 406 in 1910 to 45,208 in 1920 (Takaki, 1989). They quickly discovered some harsh realities: de facto discriminatory social policies, racial discrimination, and the primary value of immigrants as a source of cheap labor. Filipinos were hired for plantation work in Hawaii, seasonally contracted as field labor in California, and taken on as crew for fisheries in the Northwest and Alaska (Takaki, 1989, 1990). In urban areas, Filipinos were particularly desirable as bellboys, busboys, houseboys, elevator boys, janitors, valets, kitchen helpers, and other types of service workers. From documented accounts, Filipinos were subjected to extremely harsh living and working conditions, racism, and economic exploitation that kept them indentured in a work-pay-debt cycle. In 1912, for example, Filipino fishery workers earned an average of $163 per month, but they took home only $34.58 after $128.42 was deducted for food and other living expenses (Takaki, 1989).

Immigration Waves and Life Conditions

Early Filipino migrants were mainly pensionados (students) attending U.S. universities, and they eventually returned to their country to become economic, political, and social leaders (Agbayani-Siewert & Revilla, 1995). The first large wave of Filipino immigrants came in response to agricultural recruitment efforts, particularly to Hawaii and California. These young, single male contract workers, known as sakadas, were from the Ilocos region of the Philippines. Between 1906 and 1934, 120,000 Filipinos came to fill the need for cheap labor, heightened by the Immigration Act of 1924, which excluded all Asian immigrants (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Asian Indian) (Chan, 1998; Takaki, 1989).

Filipinos entered the United States during the Great Depression (1929–1939) with over 13 million unemployed in the United States. Their increasing numbers unleashed harsh anti-Filipino sentiment, racial discrimination, exclusion from housing and services, demeaning racial stereotypes, hate, and violence. Filipinos were called, “goo-goos,” “monkeys,” “headhunters,” “untamed,” and “criminally-minded,” (Takaki, 1989). In Washington State, Filipinos were assaulted and beaten by mobs. In Yakima Valley (1928), 150 white workers stopped 60 Filipino workers en route to apple farms, escorted them out of the area, and told them to leave or be shot to death (Takaki, 1989).

Violence and hatred were particularly severe and widespread in California. In Reedley and Imperial, California, dynamite bombs thrown into Filipino workers’ sleeping quarters killed a laborer and wounded many others. In Watsonville, economic rivalry and sexual jealousy fueled a four-day race riot in which 400 white men attacked a Filipino dance hall resulting in beatings and the death of a Filipino (Takaki, 1989). Filipino males were perceived as a serious threat to racial purity. Among many who testified for exclusionist legislation, V. S. McClatchy, a California newspaper publisher and anti-Japanese activist, stated, “California in this matter [of exclusionist legislation] is seeking to protect the nation, as well as itself, against the peaceful penetration of another colored race” (Takaki, 1989).

The 1924 immigration law could not be applied to Filipinos due to their “American national” status (the Philippines was a U.S. territory). Thus, the only way to exclude Filipinos was to grant independence to the Philippines. In 1934, for the specific purpose of excluding Filipinos from further immigration, Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which established the Philippines as a commonwealth and promised independence within 10 years. In actuality, prior to the passage of the act, immigration from the Philippines dropped from 11,360 in 1929 to 1,306 in 1932 (Takaki, 1989). Reports about the true conditions in the United States deterred young, fortune seeking Filipinos from entering the country. Nevertheless, dissatisfied exclusionists demanded and successfully persuaded Congress to enact the Repatriation Act (1935), which offered Filipinos transportation back to the Philippines on condition they forfeit their right to reenter the United States. The law was unsuccessful, however, as only 2,190 Filipinos returned to the Philippines (Takaki, 1989). The combination of poorer economic conditions in the Philippines, cultural pride, and strong sense of bahala na, or the determination to improve one’s situation in the face of adversity (Okamura & Agbayani, 1991), were among the reasons Filipinos chose not to return.

Single, male Filipinos who remained in the United States found themselves lonely, and they sought excitement and companionship via gambling, dance halls, and prostitution. Filipinos viewed themselves as sojourners, and therefore they were not inclined to bring their families with them, or to form communities, as was done in their homelands. Carlos Bulosan, an author and young immigrant himself, gives voice to Filipinos who suffered and endured exclusion, racism, and injustice during this period in his book America is in the Heart (Bulosan, 1946). This seminal piece provides deeper contextual understanding of the life, hardships, and resilience of Filipino labor immigrants.

The second wave of Filipinos came during World War II, when thousands of Philippine nationals were allowed to serve in the U.S. armed forces and work in defense factories. Their wartime sacrifices and contributions (half of the more than 250,000 Filipinos who served in the war were killed) demonstrated their U.S. loyalty (Chan, 1998; White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 2014). Subsequently, public attitudes improved, and policies affecting Filipinos changed: Filipinos were given the right to own property and become citizens, and antimiscegenation laws were made unconstitutional (Chan, 1998).

The third wave of Filipinos comprised war veterans who were given the option of becoming U.S. citizens. The War Brides Act of 1946 allowed Filipinos who served in the U.S military to bring their wives, children, and dependents into the country. Records indicate that approximately 32,201 Filipinos immigrated to the United States between 1953 and 1965 (Segal, 2002). Among these immigrants were professionals, the highly educated, and skilled labor, causing concern about the country’s “brain drain.”

The fourth and current wave began after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Celler Act) passed. This act ended National Origins Formula, in place since the 1920s, and replaced it with a preference system based on work skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents. Family reunification was the priority; U.S. citizens and permanent residents could sponsor these immigrants in order of preference: (1) unmarried children under 21 years of age of U.S. citizens; (2) spouses and unmarried children of permanent residents; (3) professionals, scientists, and artists “of exceptional ability”; (4) married children over 21 years of age, and their spouses and children, of U.S. citizens; (5) siblings, and their spouses and children, of U.S. citizens; (6) workers in occupations with labor shortages; and (7) political refugees (Le, 2014). The act raised quota of each Eastern Hemisphere country, including the Philippines, to 20,000 per year; children under 21, spouses, and parents of U.S. citizens were exempt from this quota. It is important to note that until January 1992, with the closing of U.S. military bases, another source of immigration from the Philippines was the U.S. military presence there.

The profile of Filipino-born immigrants has changed significantly over the last 30 years. In 2011, more than 57,000 Filipino-born immigrants were granted U.S. legal permanent residency (LPR) (Stoney & Batalova, 2013). Over two-thirds of all Filipino immigrants have strong English-language skills, adults are more likely to be university graduates, and women outnumber males. For example, in 2011 of the total Filipino LPRs (590,000) 60 percent were women and 40 percent men (Stoney & Batalova, 2013). Major factors contributing to this trend include the globalization of the economy, which has encouraged feminization of labor; exporting as a growth strategy, which has weakened the Philippine domestic market economy; and preference quotas (Le, 2014). In 2008, among 666,000 Filipino-born female workers 16 years of age and older employed in U.S. civilian labor, 22.9 percent reported working as registered nurses and 16.8 percent reported working in sales (Stoney & Batalova, 2013).

Filipino Americans: Demographics, Health, and Social Welfare

Filipinos constitute the second-largest Asian group, and the second-fastest-growing population, in the United States. In 2010, the U.S. Census reported 3.4 million Filipino Americans, including part-Filipino, multiracial Americans. Between 2000 and 2010, the Filipino population increased by 44.5%, from 2.4 million to 3.4 million (Hoeffel, Rastogi, & Shahid, 2012). Regionally, over 65% of U.S. Filipinos live in the West, 16.3% in the South, 8.4% in the Midwest, and 9.7% in the Northeast (Hoeffel et al., 2012). In 10 out of 13 western states, Filipino Americans are the largest group of Asian Americans: Alaska, Arizona, California (where the Filipino population in 2010 numbered 1,474,707, the most numerous in the United States), Hawaii (with 342,095 Filipino citizens, the second most numerous), Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Washington, and Wyoming (Hoeffel et al., 2012).

The 2000 U.S. Census data reports only 7 percent of Filipino Americans are not proficient in English; 13.1 percent have less than a high school education; 42.8 percent obtained a college degree; 8.5 percent an advanced degree; 29.7 percent are in high skill occupations; 63.7 percent are married; 67.6 percent are homeowners; the median personal income is $23,000 and the median family income is $65,440; 6.9 percent are living in poverty, and 1.6 percent receive public assistance (Le, 2014). Among Asian American-owned businesses in the nation, Filipinos owned 163,217 firms (10.5 percent of all Asian-owned firms) with receipts of $20.2 billion (4.0 percent of all Asian-owned firms) (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007).

Nearly one out of four Filipino families have three or more working members. More than a fifth of Filipinos in the United States are limited in English proficiency. A majority of Filipino seniors (51%) experience limited English proficiency. Among Asian American–owned businesses in the nation, 9% are Filipino-owned, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 1997 Survey of Minority-Owned Business Enterprises.

While Filipinos historically exhibited indomitable spirit, resourcefulness, and resilience in the face of continuous foreign subjugation, the impact of such long-term cultural and political domination on well-being is not well understood. A small but growing body of Filipino American–focused health and mental health research provides evidence of significant concern in connection with their overall welfare (David, 2008, 2010a, 2010b). Discussion and concern about who is Filipino and the “identity crisis” among Filipinos is thought to be linked to a lack of self-respect, the increase in mixed-race Filipinos, and the sought-after acceptance of gay, lesbian, and bisexuals in the Filipino community (Revilla, 1997; Root, 1997).

Studies of Asian Americans, which include Filipinos, indicate utilization of health-care services at approximately one-third the rate of what would be expected from a population their size across a variety of settings: in-patient services (Virnig et al., 2004), outpatient services (Bui & Takeuchi, 1992; Virnig et al., 2004; Yeh et al., 2002; Zhang, Snowden, & Sue, 1998), emergency room and case management services (Hu, Snowden, Jerrell, & Nguyen, 1991), child welfare and juvenile services (McCabe, Yeh, & Hough, 1999), and the general community (Zhang et al., 1998). The underutilization of services was not found to be attributable to racial differences in rates of psychopathology (President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, 2003; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2001). The large discrepancy between levels of distress and service use among Asian Americans may, therefore, indicate unmet health and mental health needs (David, 2010a).

Despite ranking as the second-largest ethnic group in the United States, Filipino Americans seek mental health services at a much lower rate than other Asian American groups (Gong, Gage, & Tacata, 2003; Tanaka-Konayagi, 2001; Ying & Hu, 1994). Utilizing data from the Filipino American Community Epidemiological Study (FACES) (Takeuchi, 1999), researchers found that 75% of Filipino Americans never used any type of mental health service, and 17% sought sole help from friends, relatives, priests, ministers, herbalists, spiritualists, or fortune tellers (Gong et al., 2003). Research has also revealed that Filipino Americans experience psychological distress and mental health problems at an equal or greater rate than other Asian Americans or other racial groups (David & Okazaki, 2006a; Kim & Chun, 1993; Kuo, 1984; President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, 2001; Tompar-Tiu & Sustento-Seneriches, 1995; Wolf, 1997), and that 98–99% report experiencing daily and lifetime racism (Alvarez, Juang, & Liang, 2006). The research suggests that many Filipino Americans may be experiencing emotional distress; however, they rarely utilize services despite low rates of poverty (Tewari, 2009), higher levels of income (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007a), the second-highest English proficiency rate among Asian Americans, and familiarity with the American culture as a result of American colonization (David & Okazaki, 2006b).

Filipino American Behavioral Mental Health

Filipino Adolescents.

A study examining ethnic and generational influences on emotional distress and risk behaviors found Filipino American adolescents had the highest mean depression and delinquency scores in comparison to Chinese American and European American youth after controlling for age, sex, and family income (Willgerodt & Thompson, 2006). Delinquency was moderately correlated with substance use, and generational status had some effect on mental health. Third-generation Filipino youth reported fewer somatic symptoms than second-generation Filipino youth. However, being of the second generation was associated with more delinquency compared to first-generation Filipino youth; and both second and third generations were associated with increased substance use (Willgerodt & Thompson, 2006). Thus, the assimilation of Filipino immigrants as a model minority often comes at a cost.

The President’s Advisory Committee on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (2001) reports an alarming pattern of suicide among second-generation Filipino Americans (Schroth, 2010). Second-generation Filipinos experience suicidal ideation and severe stress from pressures to succeed, combined with little to no outlet for support or encouragement to seek help from outside the family (Wolf, 1997). And while suicide is the third-leading cause of death for adolescents 15–24 years of age in the United States (Balis & Postolache, 2008), Asian American youth were found least likely to receive counseling for suicidal thoughts (Pirkis et al., 2003).

Filipino youth also have a high rate of negative repercussions associated with risky sexual behaviors; for example, HIV/AIDS is the second-leading cause of death among Filipino Americans, and they have the largest proportion of births to teens across California’s six largest Asian Pacific Islander groups (Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Korean, Indian, and Japanese) (Bolano, Medved, Hokoda, Ulloa, & Siao, 2013). Smoking behavior among subgroups of Asian American youth such as Filipinos was found to be among the highest (Chen, Unger, Cruz, & Johnson, 1999).

Filipino Adults.

Filipino American depression rates are significantly higher than the rates of the U.S. general population (Tompar-Tiu & Sustento-Seneriches, 1995). The lifetime prevalence rate for suicide ideation among Filipinos was 9.76%, the lifetime prevalence rate for suicide plan was 3.78%, and the lifetime prevalence rate for suicide attempt was 3.12% (Duldulao, Takeuchi, & Hong, 2009). These rates are low; however, a 2009 study by Duldulao et al. indicates that U.S.-born Asian American women appear to be most at-risk for suicidal behaviors. Filipino Americans were found to have a lifetime prevalence rate for affective disorder of 8%, and for current affective disorder of 4%. They had a 6% prevalence rate of lifetime substance abuse or dependency, and a 2% rate for current substance abuse or dependency (Trinidad, 2005). Socioeconomic status, discrimination, social cohesion, and neighborhood safety were associated to affective disorders, both lifetime and current (Trinidad, 2005).

Studies examining smoking and alcohol abuse found the smoking prevalence rate of Filipinos was 15.1%, and lifetime smoking prevalence was 35.8% (Chae, Gavin, & Takeuchi, 2006). The smoking prevalence rate among Filipino men was 24.4% in comparison to women, at 7%. The lifetime smoking prevalence rate among Filipino men was 51.9% in comparison to women, at 22.1%. The prevalence rate of lifetime alcohol disorder was 4.17% for Filipinos (Chae et al., 2008). This study examined alcohol abuse or dependence disorder in relation to unfair treatment, racial and ethnic discrimination, and ethnic identification among Asian Americans and found that Filipinos who reported experiencing unfair treatment had higher odds of history of alcohol abuse or dependence disorder. Participants who reported high levels of Filipino ethnic identification had lower odds of history of alcohol abuse or dependence disorders. Ethnic identification moderated the influence of racial and ethnic discrimination. Among participants with low levels of ethnic identification, racial and ethnic discrimination was associated with greater odds of having a history of alcohol disorder compared with those with high levels of ethnic identification. Findings suggest that high levels of Filipino ethnic identification may be a protective factor.

Education, Higher Education, Income, Poverty, and Housing

Nationally, the numbers of Filipinos attending school approximate the attendance percentages of the general U.S. population: in preschool or nursery school, attendance is 5.8% for Filipino Americans versus 6.2% for the general population; in kindergarten, it is 4.9% for Filipino Americans versus 5.1% for the general population; in elementary school, it is 38.2% for Filipino Americans versus 40.8% for the general population; and in high school, it is 20.5% for Filipino Americans versus 22.1% for the general population (Maramba & Bonus, 2013).

Filipino American enrollment in higher education is at 30.6% in comparison to the national figure, 25.8%. The number of Filipino Americans who earn a bachelor’s degree is reportedly twice as high as the national average (37.2% for Filipino Americans vs. 17.1% nationally) (Maramba & Bonus, 2013; National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education [CARE], 2010; Ogilvie, 2008). These statistics, however, do not reflect degrees earned overseas, nor do they equate to employment in the United States (Buenavista, 2013). Historically, Filipinos in the United States faced institutional barriers entering higher education and therefore did not continue their education beyond high school (Okamura & Agbayani, 1997). More recently, reports indicate, Filipino Americans have among the highest rates of educational attainment, with 47.9% over the age of 25 having a bachelor’s degree (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007a). The same 2007 Census Bureau study, labeled the American Community Survey (ACS), found that 39.7% of the Filipinos were in management, professional, and related occupations; the median Filipino household income in 2004 was $65,700; and poverty rates among this group were 5.2% for all ages.

Literature and research on housing and home ownership among Filipinos is limited. In 2005, Filipino home ownership in Hawaii was nearly 68%, higher than the general population (57%), and rental participation was at 32% (Liu, Blaisdell, & Aitaoto, 2008). According to a study by the Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA) and UCLA Asian American Studies Center (UCLA AASC), 64% of U.S. Filipinos own their home (Dela Cruz-Viesca & Chiu, 2010), and 37.5% live in rentals (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007a). A study of Filipino home ownership (Pido, 2012) in Daly City, California, found that Filipinos learn to negotiate and navigate in communities where they are viewed as outsiders. The comparatively high rate of home ownership among Filipinos, and their tendency to live in suburbs, regardless of whether they can truly afford to do so, can be partly understood as a strategy for creating capital and assimilating within the dominant fabric of American culture (Pido, 2012).

Decolonizing and Indigenizing Social Work Practice with Filipinos

The body of scholarly publications in the United States examining and describing the life and well-being of Filipinos in America and the Philippines has grown steadily for more than five decades in many areas, including acculturation and identity; arts, language, and literature; contemporary health and behavioral health issues; cultural traditions, practices, values and group diversity; the effects of intergenerational oppression and discrimination; poverty, education, and socioeconomic mobility; the impact of Philippine-U.S. geopolitical history; immigration, international diaspora, and transnational living; U.S. military service; Filipino psychology; U.S. neighborhood and community characteristics; gender, multiethnic, and gay identities; and the role of spirituality. This information base has served to increase public knowledge about Filipino culture, values, and inherent strengths, to better understand the impact of oppression and racist stereotypes, to identify service needs, and to improve Filipino well-being.

Many activist leaders, dedicated individuals, educators, and researchers working and writing in their spheres of influence have contributed to and continue the campaign against the generations-long impact of colonialism on Filipinos. The success of this movement toward social justice and celebration of Filipino achievements has been a collective effort. Among numerous contributors, Virgilio Gaspar Enriquez (1942–1994), recognized as the founder of sikolohiyang Philipino (Filipino psychology), gave voice to and galvanized 1960s Filipino intellectuals and scholars by questioning the veracity of Western-biased approaches to interpreting Filipino behavior and emotions (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000). Enriquez’s principles of decolonizing and indigenizing practice align with, and are relevant to, social work’s focus on social justice.

Indigenization from within, or, more appropriately, cultural revalidation, as opposed to simply translating Western psychological concepts is described as the process of discovery, development, and defining Sikolohiyang Philipino (Filipino psychology) (Enriquez, 1992). In this way, Sikolohiyang Philipino, the Filipino essence, is anchored in Filipino thought and understood from a Filipino perspective. Utilizing culturally appropriate, systematic research methods, Sikolohiyang Philipino is a sikolohiyan mapagpalaya (liberating psychology) that aims to decolonize the Filipino psyche and denounce exploitive practices (Enriquez, 1992). Sikolohiyang Philipino includes the study of emotions and experiential knowledge (kalooban and kamalayan), awareness of one’s surroundings (ulirat), information and understanding (isip), habits and behavior (diwa), and the soul (kaluluwa), or the way to learn about people’s conscience (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000).

Enriquez’s theories are not without criticism or alternative explanations. Zeus Salazar, a historian and anthropologist, and a friend and critic of Enriquez, agrees with the basic principles of Sikolohiyang Philipino, but he disagrees that it applies to Filipino Americans. From Salazar’s perspective, Filipino Americans are not Filipinos, since they no longer share the Filipino “national conscience,” are not living in the Philippines, were not born in country, and scarcely speak Philippine languages (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000).

Enriquez argued that Filipino-Americans are Filipino because aspects of their identity and cultural experiences remain Filipino, and also that psychology in the Philippines is both foreign and indigenous (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000). The primary importance of Sikolohiyang Philipino, according to Enriquez (1992) is to serve the underserved, and to help solve the problems in Philippine society:

Sikolohiyang Philipino only seeks to put things in their proper perspective and check the imbalance resulting from extreme reliance on Western models as a basis for analyzing Philippine social realities. It merely attempts to find application and bases of Filipino psychology in indigenous health practices, agriculture, art, religion and a people-oriented mass media. Through this, Sikolohiyang Philipino seeks to explain Philippine realities from the Filipino perspective, taking into account the peculiarities and distinct values and characteristics of the Filipino which Western models invariably fail to explain or consider (Enriquez, 1992).

Despite the progressive, liberating nature of Sikolohiyang Philipino, the token use and misinterpretation of Filipino cultural concepts continue to affect the way Filipinos are viewed and treated. Studies utilizing Western conceptualizations and context-stripping research methods used to understand Filipinos contribute to shallow understandings, stereotypes, and oppression. The following introduction to Filipino community characteristics, cultural values, and social concepts represents a starting point in the process of decolonizing and indigenizing social work practice with Filipinos. Patience, listening with openness, and resisting oversimplification are important to keep in mind.

Traditional Filipino Society, Cultural Beliefs, and Values

Philippine society in precolonial times was collectivistic in nature. Communities consisted of independent, well-organized barangays (small villages or towns) with their own political, social, and economic systems under the leadership of datus (tribal rulers), to whom individuals were loyal (Nadal, 2009). During Spanish rule, principal authority figures held power over geographic regions of people, though it was not uncommon for people living beside each other to belong to different barrios (Spanish version of barangay). Reinstituted during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, the modern version of barangay represents the smallest administrative division within a geographic entity. Revival of the barangay, while legitimately promoting cultural pride, was also viewed as an exploitive measure of the Marcos regime, aimed at obscuring more compelling social realities of the Philippines (Bartolome, 1985; Enriquez, 1992), such as poverty.

Precolonial Philippine culture was gender neutral; women and men respected each other equally, women participated in education and politics, and they held power in family decision-making processes and economic management, in stark contrast to the gender-oriented roles of the Spanish colonial period, which objectified and disempowered women (Mananzan, 2003; Nadal, 2009). Spanish and succeeding colonizers shifted Filipino mentality, values, and worldviews toward self-denigration and glorification of the colonizer (David & Okazaki, 2006b; Nadal, 2009).

Religious and spiritual beliefs in the Philippines prior to Spanish colonization included animism, polytheistic worship, and the Muslim faith (Nadal, 2009). During the more than 400 years of Spanish rule, the majority of Filipinos converted to Catholicism. Currently, approximately 82.9% of in-country Filipinos are Roman Catholic (Central Intelligence Agency, 2013), a slight decrease from 1998, when the figure was 85% (Chan, 1998). Over 92% of the Philippine people are Christians, and approximately 5% are Muslims. While the majority of Filipinos are Catholic, many reportedly practice a blend of folk beliefs with Christian practices and other spiritual orientations (Chan, 1998). Filipinos and Filipino Americans may also belong to Iglesia ni Christo (Church of Christ), or other Protestant religions (Nadal, 2009). Spanish colonial governance in concert with Catholic orthodoxy had a long-term impact on the contemporary life of Filipinos. This influence can be observed in the country’s religious conservatism, which remains an active part of Philippine social norms, customs, behaviors, and traditions, as well as the interchangeable nature of government and religious practices (Nadal, 2009). For example, although the Philippine Supreme Court recently upheld the country’s 2012 birth control law, which provides for free contraception and safe-sex education, the country’s Roman Catholic Church maintains that abstinence is the preferred form of birth control (Al Jazeera, 2014). Conservatives maintain this stance despite the 36 percent increase in the maternal mortality rate (221 per 100,000 live births), the need to avoid unwanted pregnancies (the population has tripled since 1970), and the need to slow the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Likewise, divorce remains illegal in the Philippines; a couple married in the Philippines, who later get a divorce out of the country, is still married under Philippine law.

The Filipino family includes nuclear, extended, and intergenerational relations. The family is not only central, but also a core principal of the Filipino values and well-being (Chan, 1998). Family is the foundation of personal identity, emotional and material support, and the heart of a Filipino’s duty and commitment; dependence, loyalty, and solidarity with the family are the highest priority (Chan, 1998; Okamura & Agbayani, 1991; Santos, 1983). Traditional Filipino families and social systems were highly authoritarian, and age, power, prestige, and wealth were determinates in a hierarchical system of influence (Chan, 1998; Santos, 1983).

Filipinos are diverse and distinct people; their cultural values and customs vary depending on the geographic region, ethnic or cultural group identification, and the socioeconomic status of a family and community (Church, 1986). Early studies found that Filipinos’ major strengths were in the areas of pakikipagkapwa (having a regard for the dignity and being of others), family orientation, joy and humor, flexibility, adaptability and creativity, hard work and industry, faith and religiosity, and the ability to survive (Chan, 1998; Church, 1986).

Filipino values and cultural concepts are considerable, and they are further complicated by interrelationships among concepts (Enriquez, 1992). Therefore, this discussion is limited to four Filipino values most often identified as fundamental to understanding Filipino families, individuals, and society: kapwa (fellow being), pakikisama (social acceptance), utang ng loob (debt of reciprocity), and hiya (shame) (Chan, 1998; Enriquez, 1982, 1997; Nadal, 2009). Examined first are the literal translations of these cultural concepts, often interpreted through etic perspectives, and then the emic perspectives or contextualized core meanings will be discussed.

Kapwa and Pakikisama.

The literal translation of kapwa is similar to the Western definition of collectivism (Nadal, 2009). It is interpreted as being related to Filipinos’ sense of unique connection to other Filipinos, with an emphasis on interdependence, togetherness, and the need to do activities with one’s community, not alone.

Pakikisama (social acceptance, conformity) is a value and goal of maintaining good feelings in all personal interactions and remaining in harmony with others at all costs (Chan, 1998). This means avoiding confrontation, never expressing anger or opposition, keeping smooth interpersonal relations, and conceding to group opinion even if it is in contradiction to one’s own desires (Lynch, 1964).

Enriquez’s (1994) research found that pakikipagkapwa, treating the other person as kapwa (shared identity) or caring about the other as oneself (Tanauan, 2012), was of utmost importance to Filipinos, more important than pakikisama. In Filipino social interactions, an individual is immediately located in one of two categories of kapwa: the Ibang-Tao (outsider) or the Hindi-Ibang-Tao (“one-of-us”) (Enriquez, 1986). The type of social interaction one receives is dependent upon the category into which one is placed. Pe-Pua and Protacio-Marcelino (2000, 56) provide the following examples:

If one is categorized as ibang-tao, the interaction can range from pakikitungo (transaction/civility with), to pakikisalamuha (interaction with), to pakikilahok (joining/participating) to pakikibagay (in-conformity with/in-accord with), and to pakikisama (being along with). If one is seen as hindi-ibang-tao, one can expect pakikipagpalagayang-loob (being in-rapport/understanding/acceptance with), or pakikisangkot (getting involved) or the highest level of pakikiisa (being one with).

Utang Ng Loob.

The literal Western translation of the concept utang ng loob is “debt or norm of reciprocity.” Within the family, it requires putting family members’ needs before one’s own needs, especially parents’ needs. In relationships with friends and neighbors, it means individuals are expected to return favors or compensate peers without being asked, whether asked for or not (Nadal, 2009).

Enriquez held that, within the context of Filipino culture, utang ng loob actually means “gratitude/solidarity,” and not necessarily a burden or debt of the immediate future, in that the opportunity to show gratitude may not come in one’s lifetime but in the next generation (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000). Actually, utang ng loob is just one of many psychosocial concepts relating to loob, meaning “interior; interval part; the inside of something” (Ramos, 1971); variations include sama ng loob (resentment), kusang loob (initiative), lakas ng loob (guts), kagandahang loob (shared humanity), and many others (Enriquez, 1986).


According to several authors’ translations, hiya (shame or feeling of inferiority, embarrassment, shyness and alienation) is related to the concept of “face” and a preoccupation with how one appears in the eyes of others. It is considered a necessary part of developing approved or desired behaviors in children (Chan, 1998; Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000).

Depending on the word form, hiya may have several different meanings: nakakahiya (embarrassing), napahiya (placed in an awkward position), ikinahiya (be embarrassed with someone), and so forth (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000). The meaning may be positive or negative, depending on the context. More appropriately translated, hiya means “sense of propriety” not necessarily “shame” (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000).

In this grouping of four cultural concepts, kapwa (shared identity) is a core value, essential to being Filipino, whereas hiya (propriety/dignity), utang ng loob (gratitude/solidarity) and pakikisama (companionship/esteem) are “colonial, accommodative surface values” (Enriquez, 1992). A fifth interpersonal value, pakikiramdam (shared inner perception), involves skill at being sensitive to nonverbal behavior and cues, feeling for another; it is “a request to feel or be sensitive to” (Pe-Pua & Protacio-Marcelino, 2000). Pakikiramdam is an interpersonal value that acts as the pivotal link between the core value, kapwa, and the accommodative surface values, hiya, utang ng loob, and pakikisama (Enriquez, 1992). In other words, a precondition of kapwa is pakikiramdam, and one cannot have hiya, utang ng loob, or pakikisama without pakikiramdam. These cultural values foretell the intricacies of a larger body of related concepts with deeper meanings and connections.

Implications for Indigenized Practice

In spite of the sacrifices of nearly six generations living under U.S. colonization, and having proven their loyalty, Filipino Americans continue to be viewed as “the other,” as second class citizens. Responsible and relevant practice with Filipino Americans obliges service providers to understand families’ context and situation in relation to historic geopolitical events that influenced Filipino migration; U.S. immigration policies; ethnic and cultural diversity of the Philippines; intergenerational issues, cultural beliefs, and values; their definition of well-being; and the effects of discrimination and oppression on health and well-being.

Indigenized social work practices recognize and support Filipino values and cultural ways as potential sources of strength and renewal, as avenues to mitigate the effects of sociocultural discontinuity and minority status, and as a path to reestablish bayanihan (community working together). Whether one is a service provider, researcher, or simply a guest, understanding the ways and protocols of a cultural group, taking the time to acquire contextual information, and taking time to reflect with the participant are among the respectful ways to honor and begin establishing a trusting relationship (Harvey, 2003; Morelli & Mataira, 2010). This discussion is meant to elucidate historic and contemporary factors central to Filipino relationships, interaction, and well-being, and to serve as the basis for cultivating trusting relationships while supporting the evolving narrative of Filipino Americans.


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