Caribbean and Filipino Culture
Culture is in the Details
An old expression is that the “devil is in the details,” and this is as true in the field of human behavior as it is in any other arena. If one examines any arena of human behavior as it presents itself in different groups then there will always be substantial similarities between the members of the groups. All humans are more alike each other than they are different, and this fact means that the two groups being compared here — Caribbean and Filipino Latinos — will share many traits.
Indeed, from the outside (and perhaps even from the inside) these two groups of people may appear very similar to each other. Certainly they share a number of traits in terms of their history and the values that govern their everyday lives as well as influence the deepest values of who they are. Discussing the differences between Caribbean Latinos and Filipino Latinos is a way of delineating the most important things that they see as belonging to them: Writing about how these two groups see themselves is also a way of writing about the complex ways in which identity is constructed by those the intersections of past and present, of distant and near.
The scions of islands, the inheritors of post-imperial cartography, the skilled merchants bantering in a dozen creoles, inhabit their cultural identities in ways that are very different from other Latino groups such as those living in Mexico or Peru. This paper looks very briefly at the ways in which two different groups of Latinos can share so much of both recent and ancient past and yet remain so very different from each other.
However — and this is the devil in the details — there are at least as many important distinctions and differences between these two groups as there are similarities, and it is these differences that are key. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of human culture that transcends both time and place is the fact that we are all (as humans) more likely to define ourselves by how we are different from each other than by how we are the same.
When we meet someone from another group we examine them to see whether we can classify them as more like us or more different then us. It is a deeply held part of the human psyche that we are always on the alert for ways in which we are different (and therefore potentially better) than others. Even when we are not aware of it we are in a continual process of adding and subtracting to the sum of who we are.
Every Island is a Melting Pot
An overview of Caribbean Latinos should begin with their literal definition. Caribbean Latinos are of mixed ancestry, their heritage a genetic combination of the native peoples of the islands (such as the Tainos, the people who used to be called the Carib) along with genetic inheritance from African peoples as well as those of European peoples. There is no single mixture of races that defines the Caribbean Latino like the Puerto Rican
This fact that can be seen in the different phenotypes that arise from different genotypes. Caribbean Latinos can look very different from each other: They range in skin color from almost typically Caucasian to as dark in skin tone as those African-Americans who genetics hold little chromosomal material from any place but Africa. Caribbean Latinos are very different from what Americans are likely to think of as “normal” Latinos, those whose primary cultural links are to Central and South American mainlands.
It is arguable that because Caribbean Latinos can look so different from each other in terms of skin color, bone structure, and other genetically-based characteristics such as hair color and texture that they connect with each other on cultural axes such as religion and language. Citizens of Las Tres Hermanas (Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba) connect to each other in complex ways that constantly acknowledge and then disengage from each other as they recognize common biological heritage, a commonality that is reflected not just in the ways that they look but also in the ways that their cultures parallel each other.
The fact that the Caribbean Latinos are biologically linked is simply another way of acknowledging that they share a history that links them culturally as well. People of both African and European ancestry made their way to the Caribbean along trade routes that carried goods as well as people to ever-distancing markets. The islands had always been home to different peoples but as empires rose and grew stronger on the blood of less powerful people and native ways and languages and religions grew fainter they became less and less the home to people who were born and expected to die in the same place that their grandparents had and more and more the place where people came and went.
Islands are always way-stations. But one of the most important things that link these peoples is the fact that there is a certain transience in their lives. Caribbean Latinos wear their identities lightly in many ways: They live lives defined by the fact that everything about a life can be changed in an instant and everything that was dependable can be swept away. Their ancestors have been colonized by different empires in succession, and they are linked by this too, by the history of what it means to be first coveted and then discarded by the same overlords (Suarez-Orozco & Paez, 2008).
Hess-Fischl (2006) writes that Caribbean Latinos are also linked to each other on far less fortuitous grounds as well. For example, this group is marked by a very high percentage of individuals with Type 2 diabetes, a medical trend that arises primarily from poor dietary habits that focus on high levels of saturated fat and processed sugars. Such a high level of Type 2 diabetes has potentially terrible consequences for the population. This can bind Caribbean Latinos (who come from the Dominican Republic as well) together as members of families seek support from across their communities to create better pathways to health.
Quatromoni et al. (1994) found that the more tightly knit Caribbean Latino communities can be the better their chances for reducing the risk of early death. These researchers found that focus group techniques could very effectively be used “with low-income, urban minority populations” as a mechanism to provide “information on lifestyle behaviors and beliefs regarding chronic diseases that impact on health and nutritional status.” Caribbean Latinos are linked by a common biological past that mixes genetic heritage from across the world, creating a population that is simultaneously a source of difference (in terms of appearance) and similarity (in terms of susceptibility to the same physical limitations.)
Caribbean Latinos are as important in parts of the United States as they are at “home” in ways that shift the balance of cultural power amongst Latino groups in American cities. When these Caribbean Latinos come to New York they become interchangeable with each other in the eyes of Americans, a fact that may make them seem more interchangeable to themselves:
But even as the proportion of Puerto Ricans shrank, many of their replacements came from the Dominican Republic. Inter-island rivalries make some people reluctant to admit it, but the two cultures have many similarities, from the food they eat to the music they make to the Spanish they speak to the baseball they play to the African blood in their veins. (Kugel, 2002)
A Different Island Home to a Different Group of Latinos
Filipino Latinos share certain key characteristics with Latinos from the Caribbean, including the fact that many of them are unlikely to call themselves “Latinos.” They are likely to call themselves by their nationality: Cubans, or Puerto Ricans, or Filipinos. They see themselves, as most people in the modern world do, as belonging to the country where they grew up. They are defined by what their official paperwork says more than by the bone structure that they see in the mirror or the specific dialect they speak as they cook the dishes that they grew up eating.
Filipino Latinos combine many of the same biological and cultural dynamics that obtain for Caribbean Latinos. They both include a very wide range of ethnic and racial smaller groups: The best ethnic and racial description for many Caribbean and Filipino Latinos would be “none of the above.” Filipino Latinos and Caribbean Latinos share the characteristic that they are often far less identifiable with the islands on which they live than with the historical migrations that brought their ancestors to the islands. Islands always lie in the between-spaces of the world. Both of these facts are important: Both that they are defined by being islands and that they are defined by what they lie between, by what watery bridge they inhabit.
Caribbean Latinos lie on the crossroads between Africa and the Americas, and so the history of this community is written in Spanish and Taino and the languages of West Africa (Davila,1997). Filipino Latinos are created by a similar process of amalgamation but the pieces that the amalgamation is based on are different. Filipino Latinos contain elements of European culture and language in the form of Spanish (the colonial power in this part of the Pacific for key eras) and European culture as mediated through the United States.
Filipino Latinos, of course, are a part of the story of a number of the most important Asian cultures in a way that parallels the ways in which African cultures have been threaded through Caribbean Latino culture. Both Caribbean and Filipino Latinos are mixtures of racial and cultural elements, but the specific elements that went into these mixtures. Filipino Latino culture has been much more about Asia than Africa.
There are numerous consequences for the ways in which the past shapes the present for these different types of Latinos. Those in the Philippines are more deeply influenced by the great religious traditions of Asia, while those with Caribbean aspects to their lives are much more unilaterally affected by Catholicism. Those who have come via the Caribbean are touched by the relatively fewer languages of the Caribbean islands, which are fewer than those spoken in the Philippines.
The Caribbean islands have served as a sort of funnel, with the people of Africa and the Spanish empire being pulled in and then spilled out into the New World. The Philippines, on the other hand, pull people from Asia and from the Latin America mainland and mix them together, retaining more of them in this chain of islands than is true in the Caribbean, more self-contained. The Latinos in the Philippines remain Asian in a way that the Latinos in the Caribbean have long ago left Africa behind.
Davila, A. (1997). Sponsored Identities: Cultural Politics in Puerto Rico. Philadelphia: Temple University.
Hess-Fischl, A. (2006). Beyond Rice and Beans: The Caribbean Latino Guide to Eating Healthy With Diabetes. Alexandria, VA: American Diabetes Association.
Kugel, A. (2002). The Latino Culture Wars. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/24/nyregion/the-latino-culture-wars.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
Quatromoni, P.A. et al. (1994). Use of focus groups to explore nutrition practices and health beliefs of urban Caribbean Latinos with diabetes. Diabetes Care 17(8), 869-73.
Suarez-Orozco, M. & Paez, M. (Eds.) (2008). Latinos: Remaking America. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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