• Crystal Sipin

Redefining What It Means to Be a: Mestiza

How funny is it to think that one word can be used to define more than one thing? A “block” could describe a piece of material used for building like a block of wood. It could be used to describe a group of buildings or houses on a street. It could also be used to describe a defensive tactic in sports to keep the opposing team from advancing. Or, you could “block” someone online to prevent them from contacting you or seeing your profile! So many different definitions used for just one word.

In linguistics, there is a term used to describe the phenomenon when a word holds more than one meaning or its meaning changes over time. The word “block” is one example. There are also words like “mouse” where in one context describes a small rodent with whiskers and tail that you wouldn’t want running around your house; in another, it is used to describe a device used to maneuver your way through a computer screen. This change in meaning is referred to as a “semantic change.”

As you can see, changes in meaning are sometimes affected by changes in culture. Society’s technological advancement for the past few decades, for instance, has created a new world that hadn’t existed before. Now, words like “mouse” and “block” have been redefined to describe concepts in the technological/virtual world.

There is a word that I believe requires a parallel cultural adjustment in its definition:

Photo taken circa 1890/1899. From the Southeast Asia Visions: John M. Echols Collection (Cornell University Library)

Historically the word “mestiza” or “mestizo”, depending on one’s gender identity, was used to describe a person of mixed descent. Mestizos were typically the result of Spanish colonization as interracial relationships became more prominent through the colonization of other countries. “Mestizo” is a Spanish word that comes from the Latin word “mixticius” meaning “mixed.” To the Spaniards, mestizos were seen as inferior to those of full Spanish descent and were thus placed lower in the caste system. After the Philippines was colonized by Spain, they adopted much of their culture, including their religion and language. Because of colonization in the Philippines, the Spanish-Filipino mestizos were born.

In Nicholas Trajano Molnar’s American Mestizos, the Philippines, and the Malleability of Race 1898-1961, he analyzes how the concept of race shifted through the colonization of the Philippines by the United States. I will summarize his findings briefly in the next several paragraphs:

Following both the Philippine-American War and the Spanish-American war, a new group of mestizos arose in the Filipino population: American mestizos. American mestizos were the offspring that resulted from the sexual relations of White American men with Filipinas. Although colorism still existed between white Americans, Filipinos, and American mestizos, American mestizos weren’t viewed in the same respect as mixed White American and African American children. It should also be noted that the child of a Black American and a Filipina was not considered an American mestizo due to the prejudice that existed towards African Americans. Because the Philippines had been colonized by Spain prior to American colonization, the racial binary system of whites and nonwhites did not exist in the Philippines as it did in the United States. (However, that’s not to say that colorism didn’t exist in the Philippines because it did). Of course, the American mestizo population was not embraced with open arms as many Americans still viewed them as savages. However with time, American mestizos would be accepted in part as American citizens to some extent.

From 1910/1919, the Southeast Asia Visions: John M. Echols Collection (Cornell University Library)

There was a term Molnar mentions that was a popular belief amongst white Americans called the “one-drop rule,” implying that even if a child has a white father, the intermingling of another race would result in a degenerative savage offspring hence the controversy of American mestizos. However, many American expatriates argued that their Filipino-mixed offspring were more American than they were Filipino. This was due to the fact that American mestizos’ physical characteristics typically included fairer skin, reminiscent of their white fathers, giving the impression that they were more White than they were Filipino. Eventually, American mestizos were granted US citizenship as long as they provided the necessary proof of their White American parentage.

Although White Americans viewed American mestizos as US citizens, Filpinos viewed them as their “kababayan”, their fellow countrymen. In fact, all mestizo groups were identified as Filipino. Vice versa, American mestizos felt no different from their Filipino counterparts. The racialization as mestizos, however, made it difficult for them to define their racial identity. Although they were both American and Filipino, they had very little exposure to American culture, disconnecting them from their American heritage. The only thing that separated them from their Filipino counterparts were the benefits of obtaining U.S. citizenship and a better education. The subgroup itself had no definitive culture, despite attempts to categorize them into a separate racial group.

The history between America and the Philippines seemed to have altered the meaning of what it means to be a “mestiza.” Although the original meaning behind the word still remains, Americans altered the meaning of the word to describe a specific hybrid race of someone whose parentage consists of a white American man and a Filipina, whom they considered American more than they would Filipino. Evidently, this racialization of American mestizos created confusion amongst them. Molnar quoted an American Mestizo named A.M. Snook, “I am an American mestizo and was born in the Philippines. Some Filipinos said that I’m a Filipino but Americans said that I’m an American. Can you please tell me . . . which of these is right?” (117-118).

Now, the term “mestiza” seems obsolete and outdated considering that people of mixed race are typically referred to as “mixed.” However, what’s curious about the history behind “mestiza” is how it unintentionally describes a group of people who feel like they don’t fit into a single racial or cultural identity. For the American mestizos, their identity is ill-defined. Are they American or are they Filipino? Are they both? Neither? Something in between?

Although I am not mixed, I too relate with the struggle of defining my cultural identity. By blood, I am 100% a Filipina. Both my parents are Filipino and their parents are Filipino and so on. I eat pancit and kare kare and sisig. My house is never void of rice. I take pride in Filipino celebrities like Manny Pacquiao, Bretman Rock, Jacob Batalon, and Bella Poarch because I am proud to have been cut from the same cloth. At the same time, I am also 100% an American. I was born here in San Jose, California. I have lived here all of my life. I go to school here. I grew up watching Teletubbies and Rugrats and all the other kid shows. I learned how to drive at 16. I bought my first drink when I turned 21. I share the same experiences as any typical American growing up in this country.

And yet, I still feel out of sorts. I don’t know if I can fully identify with being American or being Filipina. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had any Filipino cultural experiences like the coming-of-age Debu ceremony that I can’t solely identify as Filipina. Maybe it’s because of the lack of Asian representation in American film and television that I feel more Filipino than I do American. Maybe it’s because I don’t speak a lick of Tagalog that I feel more American than I do Filipino. Maybe it’s because my White American counterparts are never asked about their racial background because they are simply viewed as American and yet I always have to explain that “My parents are originally from the Philippines but I was born here in the States.” I’m sure that many other second-generation immigrants experience a similar identity crisis.

In attempts to define my cultural identity, I find myself asking the same questions as the American mestizos. Am I American or am I Filipino? Am I both? Neither? Or am I something in between? I think those of us specifically of Asian descent can relate to the infamous, yet racially offensive, banana metaphor: I’m like a banana. Yellow on the outside, but white on the inside! Rather than identifying as a potassium-rich piece of fruit, I have come to realize a better word more suited to define my cultural identity: mestiza. I am a mestiza.

So what does that mean? I am a mestiza in the sense that my ethnic identity is Filipina but my nationality is American. I respect and honor my family’s heritage but understand that their experiences are different from my own. I also understand that my experiences are different from White American families who've resided in this country for generations and generations. Maybe others who experience the cultural divide that one feels as a second-generation immigrant, can resonate to being a “mestiza” or “mestizo,” too.

Works Cited

A Full-Blooded Tagalog Girl. ; Three Mestizo Sisters. p. 1,


Filipino Mestizo Manila. p. 1, https://jstor.org/stable/community.12206178.

Nicholas Trajano Molnar. American Mestizos, The Philippines, and the Malleability of

Race : 1898-1961. University of Missouri, 2017. EBSCOhost, search-ebscohost-com.deanza.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000x


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Crystal Sipin

Chopsticks Alley Intern

Crystal is a liberal arts student at De Anza College. Her goal is to transfer to a university in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in Socio-Political Philosophy. Outside of academia, she likes to explore different forms of artistic expression like painting, ceramics, music, and aerial arts. As a second-generation immigrant, she understands the difficulties of defining one’s cultural identity. She hopes to be a pioneer in defining what it means to be Asian-American.

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