on composite selves & representation

In an episode of Another Round, Lin Manuel-Miranda discusses the first time he saw himself represented in any form of media. At the time, I was passively listening, part of my attention on my numismatics research, but the same question kept returning to me in the two years it’s been since, catching me off-guard in increasingly frequent moments where, for once, I find myself desperate for Filipino representation in mainstream media as I’ve never allowed myself to be before.

Yesterday was one of those moments, the ache of familiarity as a friend and I watched a screening of Pan’s Labyrinth at TIFF so startling I couldn’t look away from even its most violent scenes. The question returned to me every time I heard Capitán and thought of Crispin and Basilio and my visit to Corregidor at ten-years-old—got me thinking, wondering, searching myself for an answer that only bothered me when I realized I don’t have one. Not really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen myself onscreen. I don’t think I believed at any point that I ever will. Pan’s Labyrinth planted a stronger sense of dismay at this than usual, watered by a second run of the consuming familiarity I felt watching Coco a month ago, except this time the sadness left behind is more frustrating than depressing. 

I spent the first half of my life growing up in Metro Manila, Philippines, raised partly by Benedictine nuns and partly by patriotic, conservative grandparents born in the tail-end of the Japanese occupation. My paternal grandfather, in particular, came of age in a military household, and made certain I did as well, divulging to my eight-year-old self his vivid memories of the turmoil that still plagued the country well up until he came of age. There was never a time I wasn’t aware of the hybrid this made me, technically, a product of more years of colonization than freedom. Filipino identity is a mish-mash of things, both physically and culturally, and though sometimes that’s a benefit for a small country tucked away in the Pacific, nowhere near as major as most other countries in Asia, it also makes it difficult to lock on an identity that doesn’t feel like it stems from someone else’s. The Philippines, after all, had been passed between many different cultures and rebirthed multiple times as a consequence—so many times that it’s difficult not to feel wistful of the kind of Philippines I might have grown up in if Ruy López de Villalobos had not found the archipelago in 1521. It wouldn’t even be called the Philippines. I wouldn’t even have two Spanish surnames from both parents. It wouldn’t be a country shaped by cultures that didn’t always start out our own but had come to replace and intermingle with everything that came before it. It wouldn’t be a country so entrenched in colonial mentality that even Filipinos have a hard time figuring out where our identities and values start becoming distinguishable from that of our colonizers or other societies that have experienced the same colonization. There’s no undoing that many years of influence, and no undoing my certainty that I’ll have to be content looking for representation in those small bits of similarity between my identity and other people’s that I’m lucky to even have. 

My first brush with a Filipino in media I was consuming was in Dante Basco's voice acting roles. If I wasn't already a staunch fan of Zuko to begin with, I probably would have been when I found out. It’s a Filipino custom to take pride of one Filipino’s achievement like it was the whole country’s—Lea Salonga, Manny Pacquiao, Dave Bautista, even Bruno Mars—and as a child I was no exception. That was my first taste with seeing a reflection of my ethnicity in what I perceived to be an international platform. As I got older, however, it became more and more obvious how rare it is to see Filipino actors portraying Filipinos. Miss Saigon, of which my parents speak highly of as one of their only fond memories with each other and which I realized as a teen is not a romantic story at all, features Lea Salonga playing a Vietnamese bargirl. Vanessa Hudgens, who was proudly touted to my entire grade in elementary school to be half-Filipina, played a Latina character in the High School Musical movies. 

The same half-echoes of myself flares up beyond just Filipino actors. Lady Bird would have been a movie for me, because it contained much of my own life experiences, only it’s centred around a white girl in suburban America. Pan’s Labyrinth vividly held similarities to a history I was taught but had allowed to drift back to a distant corner in my mind—a reminder of history reenactments I watched as a child, of the horrors I was taught about in Araling Panlipunan. Not the same history at all, or the same narrative, even, but familiar enough that my subconscious supplied and relied on the similarities. The same in Coco, in the familiarity of dia de los Muertos and calling relatives Tía and Tío. The same in depictions of Voltron’s Lance, a Cuban character to whom I have less than ninety percent in common but whose presumed longing for Varadero Beach and his big family is something that resonates so much with me it aches when I let it. Even the idea of Lance recording messages for his family in Spanish in order not to forget the language is painfully relatable, almost a direct connection between him and my own fear I’ll forget Tagalog if I stop Skyping with my grandparents. 

But all of this is only that—just an almost. Sometimes that’s enough, but it’s becoming exhausting, recently, having to find representation in things that are inherently not made for me. Still, I know somewhere in the back of my mind that this is probably as much as I’ll ever get: the brief snatches of familiar words when characters are speaking Spanish, the overlap between Asian cultures when it comes to parental behaviour and unspoken customs. It isn't really me, exactly, nor is it my life, but it's close enough. For now, it’s all I can realistically ask for. 

The latter half of my life has been grounded in Canadian identity, in the permanent disconnect between my own personal history and that of my other Filipino friends—who, while raised by parents no different from my own, cannot feel more disparate, more alienating to what I am. There’s a clear divide between my life before Canada and after, and I feel that the longer the gap between the dividing line and my present becomes, the more I’ll also feel disconnected from a history that I’ve been exposed to much longer than I have even lived in Canada. I love this country, and consider myself very much Canadian, but there is a part of me that will always ache for the brief glimpses of something else I get when I watch movies like Pan’s Labyrinth. One that none of my Filipino friends here in Canada would ever feel, the same way Tagalog would always be a language I can only speak around family and thereby a self I can only be in rare, specific occasions. And if my own Filipino-Canadian friends feel distant to me in terms of identity, if my first impression of Filipino-Canadian teens were that they were mocking of a culture they hadn’t grown up with but that I had, I can only assume that whatever representation I might someday get will only be relatable by half, by the same bits I rely on in non-Filipino reflections of myself. 

Yet a tiny corner in my mind wants to remain optimistic despite that. I might not get representation for myself, but visibility for Filipinos is starting to gain more and more traction in the media I consume, may that be the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the many Filipino voice actresses on Steven Universe. It’s impossible not to be cheered by that fact. None of these characters are reflective of who I am, sure, but their very visibility at least allows me to imagine myself in fields I hadn’t always thought of myself as belonging to. 

It isn’t exactly representation, but on more optimistic days it motivates me a little bit more to aim to carve out a space in a field of my own and from there—maybe, maybe, maybe, when I let myself give in to fantasizing—take representation into my own hands.