Watching The Debut Twenty Years After its Release
In Gene Cajayon’s 2001 film “The Debut,” second-generation Filipino American Ben Mercado (played by Dante Basco who is best known for his role as Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender) is caught between attending one of the biggest parties of his senior year and his sister Rose’s (Bernadette Balagtas) debutante ball. With all that in mind, we were introduced not just to the world of the Mercado family, but to Filipino America as a whole.
The film introduces its first-generation parents, played by Tirso Cruz III and Gina Alajar, respectively, who want the best for their children but are unable to distinguish between their dreams and those of their son. The primary conflict of the film is between Ben and his father, who expects his son to become a doctor. However, Ben just got accepted to an art school where he wants to pursue his artistic aspirations.
The meat of the film takes place at Rose’s debut where we are introduced to the family’s greater social circle. Fe de los Reyes masterfully captures the energy of a distant family friend who chooses to stay blind to her son’s criminal tendencies. A couple of titas, who always seem to be in the background, quietly share their opinions with each other on everything and everyone. There’s even a tito who runs on “Filipino time.”
I was in middle school when I first watched this film. It felt good to see people who looked like me and my family on my living room screen. I suppose, at the time, I felt that it also reflected my own Filipino American story.
Watching the film more than 20 years later, I recognize that the experiences in the film line up more closely with those of my parents who were roughly the same age as the Mercado children during the time of its release. The sense of familiarity, however, came from their retellings of family parties and anecdotes of being young.
Twenty years later, as Ben’s generation become elders within their families and communities, this film is here to help third and fourth generation Filipinos understand and contextualize how they defined Filipino American identity and how we can redefine it.
While watching the film, we are also reminded of just how much this country views Filipinos–– and Asians in general–– as uniquely un-American. Ben ditches the ball for a high school kegger where a drunk girl invokes old xenophobic tropes of dog eating at Ben’s expense. Today, the uptick of violence against Asian elders also reminds us of our countrymen’s inherent inability to view us as American.
But perhaps we don’t need their validation. The resources to learn about the rich history of Filipino Americans is only a phone call away. None of our elders came here for no reason, all made choices for a better life and in those choices we can find our pride in ourselves.
Ben learns this in the film after watching his father sing to his mother and sister. Singing in Tagalog, his father revives his own dream that he put on hold inorder to pursue another one.
It comes full circle at that moment. In his father, we join Ben in seeing more than 500 years of perseverance resulted in over four million Pinoys who can call themselves American.
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Zachary FR Anderson
Chopsticks Alley Pinoy Contributor
Zachary FR Anderson is SoCal born and NorCal raised. He is an Occidentalist, writer, and lover of books. He resides in Sacramento.