Personal Spotlights

Reflecting on My Immigrant Heritage

by Jason Melo

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, being a half-Asian/half-white kid isn’t the strangest thing in the world but it definitely makes you think a bit about your identity. My mother comes from a Filipino heritage and my father comes from an Azorean Portuguese one. What do these heritages have in common? Hailing from island regions, strong Catholic traditions, and an instinct to constantly feed their grandchildren. And the differences? Simply put; language, food, and appearance. When you mix these two you get a Filipino-Portuguese-American who speaks basic Portuguese, almost no Tagalog, has no fear of strange foods, and gets mistaken for Latino more than anything else. Many cultures intersect in my identity and I truly cherish the stories of my ancestors because I would know so much less about myself without them.

Having the opportunity to work on the BRAVE study with Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants has made me think especially of my maternal side, starting with my grandmother, Margarita Cereñado Salom, born February 26th, 1921. My grandmother came from a ruling, upper-class family in the Philippines who lost everything during the Japanese occupation. As a child, I remember being told that fleeing from her home was not something grandma wanted to talk about. From what relatives have told me, she saw her town burned, her brother killed, and had to bribe people with everything she had to reach safety. Eventually, my grandmother made it to the territory of Hawaii with very little to her name. In America, her life was very different. She was forced from a comfortable life in the Philippines in a time where being an ethnic migrant in America was as much of a disadvantage as ever. She lost her wealth and family when she immigrated yet one thing I remember about my grandmother was that she always had a refined, almost regal presence to her. My mom always says it’s because she was raised that way before the war. I’ve always been captivated by this idea that her demeanor was a remnant of her past life in the Philippines.

My maternal grandparents, circa 1940s

My maternal grandparents, circa 1940s

Anyway, going forward in time, my grandmother married Higino Salom, a merchant marine and my grandfather, after WWII. My grandfather’s life and mine never crossed but I’ve been told we share the same passion to travel the world. (And the same eyebrows!) My grandfather spent much of his time at sea with the merchant marines and my grandmother was left to work and raise the children. Not only did she have my mom and uncle to worry about; but she worked to bring her sisters’ children to the United States and taking care of them became part of her responsibility too. Margarita was also very involved in the local Filipino community; organizing events, working at church functions, and cooking for these events. Her community and her family were important to her and by the time I came around you could see she was a true matriarch to our family and in the Filipino community.

Me as a toddler, being fed by my maternal grandmother

Me as a toddler, being fed by my maternal grandmother

Additionally, working on the BRAVE study has often made me think of my mother’s experiences as a Filipino-American. After Hawaii, my grandparents moved to Sunnyvale, California in the South Bay where my mother, Josephine was born. The city of Sunnyvale may be a culturally diverse part of Silicon Valley today, but when my mom was growing up it was almost totally Caucasian. According to her, there were only ten Filipinos in her whole high school and they all called each other “cousin.” I’ve heard about racism towards Filipinos that my relatives experienced at the time but this wasn’t something that my mom ever let hold her back. One of my favorite stories from her high school years is managing to win the election to be head song girl on the cheer squad even though she was such a minority at the time. If you look at the picture of the team you’ll see my Filipino mom surrounded by a dozen blonde girls.

My grandmother’s passion for the Filipino community was not lost on my mother and in her adult years, she and my god-father lobbied to get veteran’s benefits for Filipinos who fought under the American flag during WWII. During the war, the Philippines was still part of the United States and Filipinos serving during the war were fighting for the United States; my grandfather included. Because the Philippines gained independence following WWII, these veterans did not receive benefits. My mom saw this as an injustice to Filipinos and became politically active to expand benefits to these veterans. She and my god-father succeeded in getting this legislation passed and it’s always been an inspirational story for me. I think it’s a great example of how working together and raising voices can bring change to one’s community. 

Recently, I was reminded at my grandmother’s funeral how important it was to her that we grandchildren never forget our heritage. As a multi-ethnic student in primarily Caucasian elementary and high schools I sometimes brushed off being Filipino as something that just made me stand out and not necessarily in a good way. In more recent years I’ve really come to reflect on how important my multiple heritages are to who I am. I am a proud descendent of immigrants. I am a proud Filipino-American. I want to help my community the same way my grandmother and my mother have before me and I think working on the BRAVE Study team has given me an amazing opportunity to do this, in my own way, as a public health student. This is just a piece of my family’s immigrant story and I know there are many more voices that need to be heard. The BRAVE Study wants to hear these voices so that we can ultimately bring about action that will address the needs of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants.