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  • Crystal Sipin

The “Family” in Filipino

What constitutes a family? Some may argue that your family consists solely of your immediate family--your parents, your siblings, and you. Others may think that family includes your extended family--your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your grandparents, and more. Maybe you would consider your friends or your neighbors as part of your family, too. In any case, family is a relative term. It can be whatever “family” means to you. In Filipino culture, for example, “family” is more than blood; it’s community.

There are words in Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, that refer to one’s older siblings. Ate (ah-teh) refers to one’s older sister while kuya (koo-yah) refers to one’s older brother. These terms are used by younger siblings as a sign of respect to their elders, similar to the way one would refer to someone they respect as“ma’am” or “sir.” The difference, however, is that ate and kuya refer to people within your family.

Not only used to refer to one’s siblings, ate and kuya are also used to refer to one’s cousins or kinship within the same generation signifying a close relationship to one’s extended family. Evidently, family is a principal value in Filipino culture. In a study conducted by Edwin Almirol, he analyzes the family structure of Filipino Americans in the 1980s. In Almirol’s analysis he writes:

As one examines the present organization and function of the Filipino family in the U.S., one cannot fail to observe the existence of a complex structure of loyalty and interdependence . . . Dependence on, and loyalty to, the family and kin group is paramount. (297)

Evident in Almirol’s study, a Filipino’s family is their main support system explaining their close-knit relationship to each other. After further analysis, one can conclude that this familial support system can be found outside of one’s bloodline as well.

If you happen to overhear Filipinos interacting with one another, you’ll often hear ate and kuya exchanged between strangers. The social exchange of conversing and referring to each other as brother or sister is common in the Filipino community, revealing a lot about Filipino cultural values.

An example of this is depicted through Filipino popular culture is in the Filipino film Between Maybes. In the movie, a Filipino actress goes to Japan to get away from her life of fame. With no knowledge of the language or how to find her way around, she seeks help from a fellow Filipino she meets who happens to live in Japan. As they meet for the first time, she seeks his help while she’s in Japan and says something to him that roughly translates to, “Obviously, I need help. But it’s better if I get help from my kababayan (kah-buh-bai-yan), right kuya?” The word, kababayan, translates to “fellow Filipino” or “coming from the same country.” In this context, she implies there is a sense of duty to help someone who is from your country. The support from one’s kababayan reflects the same principles suggested in defining one’s family.

Arguably, the inclusion of kababayan in the definition of family suggests a social responsibility to other Filipinos. Almirol expands on this idea further in his study claiming that this mutual support system extends outside of the kinship network, “Fictive kin ties are formed to link not only individuals but kin groups as well . . . Filipinos generally recruit their own countrymen” (298). Filipinos rely on each other for help in the same way that families are obliged to support and protect one another.

One may ask why Filipinos are so keen to support fellow countrymen as they would blood relatives. As more of them immigrated into the United States, like many other Asian ethnic groups, they faced socio-economic adversity. Referred to as the “Filipino menace,” they were restricted by law from working in packing sheds, a job exclusive to white workers; they were demoralized, criminally identified as corrupt gamblers, knife-fighters, and sex fiends; and they were prohibited from leasing/buying lands, owning property, or marrying white women (Almirol 295-296). To cope with ethnic discrimination and economic disparities, the kababayan offered a fellowship of people with similar struggles and cultural background that provided comfort to Filipino immigrants.

From this, the Filipino community has created its own definition of what family means. Not only does it include one’s immediate and extended family, but it includes the kababayan as well. It includes the people who can relate to your struggles and support you in them. To a Filipino, this is what it means to be a family.

Works Cited:

Almirol, Edwin B. “Rights and Obligations in Filipino American Families.” Journal of

Comparative Family Studies, vol. 13, no. 3, Dr. George Kurian, 1982, pp. 291–306,

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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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