What ever happened to the quintessential young Fil-Am icon?

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Today, there’s a sense of skepticism in how Filipinos now engage with young Fil-Am stars. Illustration by JL JAVIER

I was only 12 when Jessica Sanchez was on “American Idol”; the cable TV in our home was just merely months old. It was the first season of “Idol” I got to watch, and frankly, my first real sampling of national pride. Screams shook the living room walls every time Ryan Seacrest would call for Jessica fans in the audience, followed by an anxious silence whenever our favorite contestant edged into elimination.

In the season finale, where Sanchez made it to the top two, she belted out “I Have Nothing” and “The Prayer,” songs we’ve heard so many times in local singing contests. For years, Filipino singers have been known as the long gown-clad high note-hitters, and as the audience went wild for Sanchez’s explosive ending to the Celine Dion hit, it felt like we were finally cementing our rightful place on the international stage. Naturally, we all rooted for the girl who was carrying the entire country on her tiny shoulders.

Today, there’s a sense of skepticism in how Filipinos now engage with young Fil-Am stars. When I spoke to Filipino Gen Zs about this, many of them shared the national pride for Sanchez and her fellow “Idol” alum Jasmine Trias, but almost all are hesitant to say the same for their contemporary counterparts, like Olivia Rodrigo and Bella Poarch. They explained that we’ve become more critical of the Global North’s frequent Pinoy-baiting, especially online.

Others, like 22-year-old Ash, think there are simply more Fil-Am celebrities winning awards and breaking records these days that there is no cause for celebration anymore. But most of the people I spoke to are looking to anchor their national pride in something more substantial than blood. In their eyes, stars like “Driver's License” singer Rodrigo are “not being portrayed as Filipinos in the first place,” and that “these people grew up in America. They’re Americans.” As one respondent said, “Mas nakikita ko kay Bretman [Rock], Olivia, etc. yung mga cousins kong lumaki na sa US as Fil-Ams more than nakikita ko sarili ko sa kanila as a Filipino.”

“Filipinos can access a range of global media content, and seeing a countryman in such content can trigger a sense of pride… a sense of visibility and appreciation for the identity and culture,” explained Dr. Earvin Cabalquinto, a lecturer at Deakin University, whose research focuses on the intersection of digital media and migration. He added that with the country’s colonial history, our exposure to these foreign products, cultures, and practices is further amplified.

While this is enhanced even more by the rise of social media, I do think having reality TV as Sanchez and Trias’ ticket to fame helped cement their place as the Fil-Am icons of our early teenhood: their stories of proverbial rags to riches were heavily televised and packaged as a satisfying pop star arc. It has become a cliche in reality singing competitions to have contestants confront their personal history and identity, especially since such a degree of emotional intensity draws viewers in and consequently racks up TV ratings, regardless of genre. This is not to discount their achievement, however; Trias, whose parents immigrated to Hawaii, was the highest-placing Asian-American on “American Idol” until Sanchez landed on the top two spot at the season 11 finale. But Filipinos were able to loyally follow their journey on the show precisely because it was on a show. Weekly, we could tune in and see the singers literally become one step closer to their dream — a dream that many of us have come to share. Besides, a competition format often incites more national support, à la Miss Universe or the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics.

READ: In Tokyo 2020, Filipinos are no longer Olympic underdogs

This arc becomes more apparent when we compare it to how someone like Bella Poarch rose to fame. Like Rock (who turns out to be her cousin), Poarch found success online, fronting the fourth most-followed Tiktok account and the most-liked video on the platform, where she lip syncs to the song "Soph Aspin Send" by British rapper Millie B. Her gaming content soon caught the attention of major esports organizations, and in May of this year, she signed a record deal with Warner Records.

But social media (and social media fame) is very often an echochamber — Tiktok, with its hyper-personalized “For You” algorithm, is especially notorious for this. While it’s easier to build a sense of intimacy with celebrities online, popularity in one corner of the internet is relatively not as pervasive as popularity on TV. Poarch’s debut single “Build a Bitch” is the biggest YouTube debut in history, yet the local fanfare for this record-breaking achievement was more subdued compared to that of Trias, who, upon arriving in the Philippines after appearing on “Idol”, released the now iconic McDonald’s promotional single “Love Ko ‘To” and appeared in multiple popular TV franchises like “Pinoy Big Brother.”

Poarch’s story, after all, is not as neatly presented as her “Idol” counterparts. Her early life in the Philippines remained a mystery until a few months ago, when she opened up about her childhood in a podcast and in some videos with Rock. Perhaps having a conclusive, pre-packaged backstory like Trias and Sanchez makes it easier for us to see ourselves in the stars we revere.

Maybe there’s also something to be said about the nature of Poarch’s content vis a vis “Idol” contestants. Sanchez herself admits her career “has been mostly performance-based,” and her success, while celebrated, was reportedly not a cause for surprise: “A talent for singing is an almost universally innate trait among Pinoys, and Sanchez is certainly no exception,” Business Mirror wrote in 2019. Gen Z Fil-Am stars, from Poarch to Rodrigo, are beginning to deviate from the Whitney Houston-loving, biritera archetype Filipinos are known for globally, and maybe this subtracts from the kind of universal approval Sanchez previously enjoyed. And because social media is an echochamber — unlike singing competitions, which is a near-universal feature of Filipino culture — pride for Poarch and Rodrigo becomes conditional, reserved primarily for people who listen to the genre of music they make, or who find their social media personas, sans explicit Filipino ancestry, more relatable.

Then again, it seems a critically acclaimed oeuvre is not enough to inflame passionate declarations of Pinoy pride. Singer-songwriter H.E.R., who was born to a Filipino mother and an African-American father, bagged multiple prestigious awards, including four Grammys and an Oscar, since debuting in 2016. She also recently posted a video of her Tita Joanne reacting to her Grammy wins, which many Filipino fans resonated with. Despite that, most Filipinos online were unaware of her heritage until a slew of viral tweets called attention to it (amid the discourse around Rodrigo’s Filipino identity, no less).

READ: Award-winning singer H.E.R. talks about her Filipino roots

Despite the imminent disassociation of Fil-Am celebrities with local conceptions of Pinoy pride, it’s hard not to question why H.E.R. and Saweetie, who are both half-Black, were never part of the discussion until recently. We can hypothesize that the recognition afforded to their half-white counterparts, like Rodrigo and Emmy award-winning actor Darren Criss, is thanks partly to their proximity to whiteness; and while this does not dismiss their Filipino roots, this white adjacency grants them the systemic privilege that H.E.R. and Saweetie do not possess.

Of course Fil-Am celebrities are not a monolith — I think Bretman’s case is particularly unique — but there’s still some truth to the notion that, in the collective Filipino unconscious, “Fil-Am” almost always constitutes being half-white. Because of centuries of white colonialism and Western cultural imperialism, we have a deep-rooted tendency to highly value this “dominant” culture and simultaneously devalue our own. In the book “Brown Skin, White Minds,” author E.J.R. David spotlighted this internalized oppression, pointing out that countries like the Philippines may have a colonizer-defined cultural identity that tries to “emulate the colonizer.” There are different ways to look Filipino, especially with our history of colonization, but when you live in a country where only a certain Liza Soberano-esque phenotype gets warranted fame, it becomes clear that there exists a preference for Eurocentric features locally.

When I asked if ancestry contributes to a celebrity’s aptness in being a herald of Pinoy pride, 19-year-old Jose said, “I think the deeper question is why we are so inclined to see Fil-Am celebs as a source of validation for our national identity.” This brought to mind a piece by columnist Gideon Lasco, where he wrote that our notions of Pinoy pride often arise from a history of Pinoy humiliation: “Held in the light of this symbolic violence, people have looked at international validation as a way to affirm their sense of national worth.” Through unpacking our tendency to claim celebrities with any degree of Filipino ancestry, he called for the uncoupling of these public figures from our sense of identity and worth.

We’re becoming more wary of tokenized representations of Filipino culture, and growing more appreciative of Fil-Am celebrities’ attempts at authentically engaging with this part of their identity.

This is something many Filipino Gen Zs like Jose are already cognizant about, even in the case of Sanchez and Trias. We’re becoming more wary of tokenized representations of Filipino culture, and growing more appreciative of Fil-Am celebrities’ attempts at authentically engaging with this part of their identity. Jaime, 20, explained, “As long as they actually immerse themselves in Filipino culture they can be symbols of Pinoy pride, kasi how can a person be a symbol of something they can’t even relate to?” 23-year-old Pat shared the sentiment, adding that she prefers seeing genuine interaction with Filipino fans over “someone who claims to be Fil-Am but only knows adobo and ‘mahal ko kayo.’”

There’s definitely some nuance here. 21-year-old Lori said we can’t blame Fil-Am kids for not being in touch with their roots if they were not raised in a Filipino environment; besides, the experiences of diaspora and mixed-race people are in itself already so complex, even without an entire country regarding their personal achievements as cause for national celebration.

And while I personally doubt that Filipino Gen Z will ever canonize someone as a Fil-Am icon the same way we did Sanchez and Trias when we were younger, perhaps this isn’t much of a loss. As Lasco wrote in his column, maybe we can welcome our connections to these stars without relying on them to give us a sense of worth. I’m hoping, however, that this is proof of the fact that we are beginning to redefine Pinoy pride for ourselves, reformulating a criteria separate from West-centric respectability. And perhaps this discussion is a wake-up call: after all, there would be no need for debate on ancestry if we shift our search for Pinoy pride inwards.