What it’s like to belong to the 1.5 Generation

It means you’re as ‘stuck in-between’ cultures – you’re neither here nor there

As I continue to explore the Philippines this summer, I am learning more about the complexities of being a balikbayan, a Filipino returning to the Philippines after living overseas for an extended period of time.

Several women in my cohort identify as a particular type of balikbayan, “1.5 Generation” Immigrants.

The term “1.5 Generation” was coined in the 1960’s by Ruben Rumbaut, a sociology professor at the UC Irvine and a Cuban American who immigrated to the United States as a child. Rumbaut defined 1.5 Generation immigrants as “stuck in-between” cultures as they are not quite first generation but not quite second generation citizens.

They have been away from their native country for too long to be considered first generation like their parents. However they still have memories and cultural connections to their native-born country that are too strong to be considered second generation like their U.S. born friends and family members.

They are a bridge between cultures

As the panganay, or oldest sister, in her family, Trixia Apiado, 20, balances preserving the traditional Filipino values  of her first generation parents with reaching her second generation siblings across their cultural disconnect.

Trixia said: “I have always felt so lucky that I am part of two different worlds.” 1.5 generation immigrants have the benefit of understanding the dynamics of both first generation and second generation cultural norms and practices. The advantage of knowing both worlds allows them to navigate cultural fluidity.

“I always have to mediate between my parents who have traditional Filipino standards and my siblings who were born in the U.S. It’s like I’m always walking on thin ice explaining to my parents why my siblings are acting like this because they can’t be traditional Filipinos like they expect them to. And then I see myself going back to my siblings and explaining,  ‘momma and poppa have these expectations because they had a different childhood in a different place so they don’t know.’”

But with this balance comes isolation.

They assimilated for survival

Claudette Bongato, 21, grew up in Santa Cruz, Lubao, Pampanga in the Northern Philippines. At age 8, she embarked on a journey from her homeland to America with her family, uncomfortable with adjusting to a completely new culture. Compared to Trixia’s experience trying to protect her Filipino identity, Claudette, like many other 1.5 generation immigrants, rejected her roots in order to conform to a North American identity.  She describes, “the biggest barrier was my accent. Which is something I wanted to drop right away.”

Frances, 21, born in Paranaque, Manila had a similar experience turning away from her Filipino identity in order to fit in at  school in the U.S. After immigrating to California at age 4, Frances found, “the main barrier I had to get over was looking different because I could speak English but I was the only Filipino girl in a school that was mostly Latino / Chicano. There was a duality between me wanting to fit into the Mexican community but also wanting to be white as well, but not really Filipino.” 

1.5 generation immigrants caught in cultural limbo were unable to rely on their Filipino identity alone to relieve their fears of alienation and social exclusion.  They witnessed the struggles their parents faced in assimilating to an American lifestyle and in response actively avoided appearing Filipino.

Bianca Larissa, 21, born in Pasay City, Manila and left the Philippines for Toronto, Canada at age 6 found it particularly difficult to accept her Filipino identity into her daily life.

“My parents were confident in their Filipino identity whereas for me as a young child it was very complex figuring out this middle ground because as much as I knew I was Filipino I also wanted to assimilate to my surroundings, which meant being white. It was difficult because my parents didn’t understand where I was coming from so it was a challenging home to school transition every day. ”

Claudette added: “I think the difference between my parent’s assimilation and mine is that they didn’t have to go to school where there were bullies.” Embracing American culture was not simply a rebellious cry against tradition, it was a means of protection, security, and hope for future opportunities in life.

They are never Filipino or American ‘enough’ 

As these women grew older and wanted to learn more about their culture, they wanted to reconnect with the Filipino identity they hid away as children. In their search, many of them believed they would find comfort through Filipino groups on their college campuses. Instead, they still felt isolation and separation.

Aina Abell, 21, Antipolo, Manila, came to America at age 9 and now goes to school in Los Angeles, California. Aina finds her heart and home in the Philippines, sworn to her ‘feeling,’ “being here  I know the Philippines is where I belong, I feel that connection here much more than back in the U.S.”

With love for her home country, Aina was determined to be part of the Filipino community. When she finally found these spaces, however, she always felt set apart from her Filipino American friends.  She said: “I liked being a part of that community because we are Filipinos and I identify as a Filipino, but I always felt there was a disconnect between me and other Filipinos who were actually born in the U.S./..the way they connected with their Filipino-American identity was different than the way I identified with it.” 

Bianca identified a cultural hierarchy among first generation and 1.5 generation Filipinos on campus. 

“I felt so out of place in Filipino clubs growing up as a 1.5 child because in my experience the first generation Filipinos were so exclusive they really made it a point to define what it means to be ‘Filipino’ in a very singular way that does not apply to everyone and growing up I felt very excluded from that and didn’t identify with that.”

The inability to feel fully accepted into American culture and also not able to find solace in Filipino circles makes 1.5 generation immigrants feel invisible and silenced.

They found their sense of belonging in the middle ground

Despite this constant battle with embracing their heritage, discovering the existence of the ‘1.5 generation’  gave these women a new sense of clarity. Claudette explained: “I think throughout my whole life I didn’t want to be labeled American at all. I was like oh, I’m Filipino and they’re American… by realizing that there is such a thing as 1.5 I was like oh wait, yeah I am also American because I grew up in a Filipino American household and going back to the Philippines, it’s like damn- I am American to them.”

Bianca added: “I didn’t feel like I belonged to either the Filipino or Canadian community. It was like I’d go home to the Philippines and they’d be like oh but you’re so different, you’re not really Filipino. Then I’d be in Canada and feel like I could never be fully accepted there either. Finding this label for my identity, I find it really really empowering to have this clear-cut portion of my identity to know where I stand on the spectrum.” 

Knowing 1.5 helped these women believe they could find community spaces validating their existence and advocating for a broader narrative encompassing the diasporic experience. Bianca found a home with Kapisanan in Toronto.

“I was lucky enough to find a community with the intention to expand the definition of what it means to be Filipino or Filipina. [She] was privileged enough to join this group who empowered [her] to start asking the right questions.”

In the right circumstances, there are spaces where they can find other 1.5 generation immigrants as well as others who are willing to listen and empathize with their unique lived experiences.

They want other 1.5 generation immigrants to feel proud of their identity

Their message to young Filipino-Americans and 1.5ers around the world:

Claudette said: “If you’re out there, you gotta claim who you are and there’s no shame in not knowing that, either. Just know that there’s opportunities to explore your identity, you just have to seek them out.”

And Bianca’s advice: “I felt like I was speaking for a group that didn’t exist for a very long time… so I just want to remind 1.5ers out there that you are valid. You exist too. All of the questions that you have, they have answers and you should find them and seek out the communities that will support you in doing so.”