Photos taken by Elizar Mercado
First Course: Appetizers
There were three Filipinx dishes that were staples in my household while growing up: chicken adobo, tinola, and nilaga. To be honest, I don’t remember my mom cooking anything else. As a single mother to two kids and a full-time nurse, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. Most meals were in fast food joints or already prepared. There’s no shame in that. It’s just what we had to do to get through the day.
I didn’t really know what it meant to be Filipinx throughout early childhood. I spent most of it in the sunny suburbs of Dallas, Texas. The most exposure I got to Filipinx culture happened at holiday parties my mom’s Filipinx co-workers hosted. I had no idea how to talk to anyone there and usually quietly clung to my mother’s side.
There was one thing I could do on my own in those social situations: eat.
At these parties, I saw cubes of meat swimming in a red sauce with raisins and potatoes. I listened to the crunch of lumpia between my teeth. The sharp smell of vinegar stung my nose. Even though the presence and chatter of a lot of people in one room overwhelmed me, I associated those foods with a fullness in both my stomach and my heart.
Second Course: Main Dish
Fast forward to the summer after I graduated high school. I got my first job as a server in a small Filipinx restaurant in Kent, Washington.
I was beginning to really explore my identity and what it means to live as a Filipinx American. I had no blood relatives in the state besides my parents. They never really talked about their time in the Philippines unless prompted. The word “diaspora” felt just as foreign to me as my own heritage. Luckily, the staff at the restaurant welcomed me with open arms and surrounded me with a community I’d been missing from my life.
My time there was a bit of a rough start. I couldn’t speak Tagalog though I could piece together basic phrases. There were times I felt pressured to hide and pretend I wasn’t Filipinx. I was embarrassed whenever a customer said, “You don’t speak Tagalog? What a shame” or “Ah, so you’re American-born? That explains it. Too stubborn to learn.”
The customers are always right, right?
At first I took the comments in stride and just smiled and nodded. I just wanted to take their order, bring out their food, and be nice enough to score a tip. I didn’t have time to explain my parents’ reasons to strangers. Even if I did tell them why I hadn’t learned Tagalog yet, they’d tease and laugh at my confusion like it was a cute little quirk. There were many times I’d come home upset after instances like that. Did not knowing any Filipinx languages really take away my Filipinx identity?
It took a while to get in the habit of taking a step back and reflect on what I did have. I was in a position to be surrounded by Filipinx folks. I learned about mannerisms, the language, and especially food. I finally put names to the dishes I saw at those holiday parties when I was a kid. I reflected on how those recipes had been passed down from generations before us. I thought about the influence of the Spanish Colonial Era on some of these dishes, how we took from them after they took from us and made the food our own. I had a place where I could be proud of my Filipinx heritage even if others couldn’t see it. That is how I worked on reclaiming “walang hiya”.
Third Course: Dessert
Since my time at the restaurant, I’ve found sweet satisfaction in learning how to cook dishes myself. It was only right I started with two dishes I’ve been very familiar with: chicken adobo and tinola (nilaga is definitely on the list).
There’s definitely something different about cooking dishes than just eating them. Nowadays, nostalgia and diaspora blend together when I make Filipinx food. I realized the absence of Filipinx culture while growing up encouraged me to seek its presence in the most tangible way: food. Sometimes, it’s the closest I feel to my heritage. What warms my heart is thinking about how I would make these dishes for my future children and then hopefully use these recipes to cook with them. And then the cycle of passing down from one generation to another would continue as we reclaim “walang hiya” no matter where we are in the world.
Kayla Ramirez (she/her/hers) is a first generation-born Filipinx American womxn who grew up in Texas and has spent the last decade in the Pacific Northwest. She has a B.A. in Journalism and has her heart set on media production, specifically screenplay writing. She’s completed one screenplay about a Filipinx family and is currently working another about the link between diaspora and food. She hopes to complete both projects by the end of the year (which in Filipinx time probably means the summer of next year). When she’s not painting or writing, you can find her reading books with protagonists of color and re-watching cartoons from her childhood. She hopes to see more and better representations of Filipinxs in media and will help make it happen. Twitter | Instagram