What I learned from my American heritage

I may look Filipino, but I’m also Irish, thanks to a woman I never met

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Growing up in the South, I always drew attention for my thick, black hair and almond-shaped eyes. Even though I had been born in Texas, I was frequently reminded of “where I came from.”

Despite my love of all things American including apple pie and country music, my thick black hair and almond-shaped eyes that dissuades bystanders of my American heritage. I always answer the “Where are you from?” question with a grimace, politely answering: “Memphis, but my parents are from the Philippines.”

My parents are from the Philippines.

It is a statement I have repeated my entire life, yet bystanders would be surprised to learn of another ancestor I have: a non-Filipino. This woman is Kay McGrath, my great-grandmother.

issa pumpkin spice latte

kay mcgrath papa

Believe it or not, the woman on the left is my great-grandmother. Kay was an Irish-American woman who was from North Dakota. Beautiful and petite with red hair, she was born during the Depression and resented by her parents who did not want another child. Her life was filled with a lot of turmoil.

At a time when fraternizing with Filipino men was stigmatized, Kay fell in love with my great-grandfather, a worker on the railroad. After marrying and giving birth to her son (my grandfather) in California, Kay decided to send her two-year old son back to the Philippines with his uncle because she knew better options lied ahead for him. Bearing mixed babies was considered “disgusting” and racial tensions probably would have burdened my grandfather and his potential for success in America.

After my grandfather returned to the Philippines and eventually married the love of his life, Marcie (my beloved, deceased grandmother), they bore five children, living a happy, modest life in the Philippine province. But it was corruption from the Marcos dictatorship which caused my grandparents, my mother and her siblings to move back to the land that once indirectly forced them out.

We never knew about the woman partly responsible for our family tree, other than that one photograph with her son. It was her only photograph with him. My grandfather never even saw Kay again because her family did not know about him.

Still, we had inklings of where we could find Kay’s family. My grandfather had letters where he corresponded with Kay and it showed her address. After my aunt called and traveled to the address, we saw that Kay’s family is very much alive, but unaware of their Filipino half-brother.

kay mcgrath sister

Looking at these photos, I would have never believed I was related to a Caucasian family, nevertheless a family with connections to the name “McGrath.” I thought roots ended with the knowledge you already have.

I always believed my roots ended with the statement: My parents are from the Philippines. Rather, it’s more.

My roots deeper than one heritage, one place or one identity. So much history, experience, and pain came together to define the path it took for me to be here, telling this story.

Kay is home. Her American blood opened America up for me and it is why I tell her story: to give her gratitude for indirectly opening the door for my grandfather to restart and be given another chance to reestablish himself in an America that once spat on him. And he has flown. He has five beautiful children who have flourished in their jobs in medicine, the military and education. They give back to an America that sometimes does not deserve the good the immigrants give them.

So I tell the story of Kay, my grandfather and our family to say that our roots run deeper beyond our looks, our accents, our appearances. Examine your family tree and you will discover that your ancestors have probably come from the places that politicians and overall ignorance undermines every day.

Examine your story and you will find that you too, come from places close by and places far away.

Wake Forest