Cents and Sensibility My Filipino-American Parents and the American Dream Mary Dacuma

Over 25 years ago, my parents immigrated to America from the Philippines. My Dad tells me that he had $35 in his checking account. Fast forward to present day, they are American citizens with a modest house in the suburbs, three kids with Bachelors degrees and salaried employment in their field of study and the two most adorable dogs in the world. Because October is Filipino American History Month, I wanted to know more about the sacrifices of being an immigrant, their struggles achieving the American Dream and their thoughts on assimilation.

Me: What drove you to come to America?
Dad: Like many immigrants, we were looking for better opportunities. We had friends and family in the Philippines, but the opportunities for employment were limited. My father had already become a naturalized citizen in America, so it was natural for my siblings and me to join him.
Mom: I grew up in a small town in the mountain provinces, and I never thought in a million years that I would move to America. But I met your dad when he was already in the process of immigrating. We fell in love, got married and he moved to America and petitioned me and you to follow.

Me: What was the actual immigration process like?
Dad: It’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of time. It took a few years to get whole family to America.
Mom: In the time it took for your dad to bring me over, we dated, got married and gave birth to you. You were 18 months old when you flew here. We didn’t have email back then, so we planned the move and the wedding by sending handwritten letters. Your dad would fly back, but only once in a while. And I would try to call, but even that was very expensive.
Dad: She always called collect and made me pay!

Me: As it should be.
Mom: Sometimes the calls would be just a minute long – just to say I love you. We were on a very tight budget. But we were willing to make that sacrifice, especially once we decided to have kids. Once you were born, we were all the more determined to give you opportunities that we never had.

Me: What were your initial experiences once you moved here?
Mom: I knew it would be hard, but assimilating was much more difficult than we expected. When we first moved, there weren’t the same “diversity initiatives” that you see in work places now. I don’t want to say there was outright discrimination, but it was more challenging as an immigrant to have to prove yourself. On top of that, your little sister was born just months after we moved here and your brother was born two years after that. Saving for a house, retirement, college funds and trying to raise three small children took a lot of financial discipline.
Dad: We also relied heavily on our faith and our family. Raising you and your cousins was a group effort on behalf of the adults in the family. We could not have made it without each other and without believing that we’d have a more comfortable life someday.

Me: Did you ever have any doubts that this was a good decision? Or moments when you wanted to move back?
Dad: Never. I didn’t have money when I moved here and I struggled to find a job. Your mom and I both went to college in the Philippines, but those degrees didn’t carry the same weight in the United States. But we never wanted to go back. Living here was too important. After a few months, I finally managed to get a job at a bank while your mom became a Certified Public Accountant. After that it was easier to get by. It helped that your mom is very good with money.
Mom: Your dad is such a shopaholic!

Me: Now I know where I get it.
Dad: If it weren’t for your mom, we would be in terrible debt. But she took control of the family budget. Remember, this is before the days of online banking. Your mom saved all our receipts and balanced our checkbook on a ledger pad with a calculator.
Mom: I made sure our bills were paid first and then determined what was left over for disposable income. It wasn’t very much at first. We went years without eating at restaurants or going to the movies. These are the sacrifices you have to make when you are trying to build a life, though. It paid off in the end. It had to. I don’t think going back was ever an option. There was too much opportunity here.

Me: Did you ever feel a cultural clash?
Dad: At first. My siblings lived close by and we stuck together. But outside of that, we didn’t know many other people, much less other Filipinos. It took many years to establish a Filipino community.
Mom: I felt like there was a cultural gap raising the three of you. You aren’t Filipino, you’re Filipino American. You carry habits and values from both countries. That took some getting used to. But like any parent, you do your best to instill good morals in your children and ultimately it’s up to them how they choose to live their lives. Sometimes I wish you were more Catholic or more studious. I wish you cleaned your room more often. But overall, I am proud of what we achieved as parents.

Me: Do you feel like you’ve achieved the America Dream?
Dad: The American Dream is subjective. It means different things to different people. Some people want a lot of money and a lot of property. But all we wanted when we moved here was to give our children a better life than we had growing up, and give them a foundation to give their children an even better life. And hopefully we would have enough leftover to retire comfortably and travel a bit. I think we’ve achieved that. We’re very content with our lives.

Me: What would you say to Filipinos immigrating to America today?
Mom: Save your money and sacrifice. [Clearly my mom is the fiscally responsible member of the family.]
Dad: It’s a tough time to come to America. There are hardly enough jobs for Americans as it is. Inflation is on the rise. The cost of living is higher than it was when we first moved here. But with hard work, reasonable expectations, faith and community, the American Dream is attainable. It’s worth it.

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  1. This story is beautiful and it is everything I ever dreamed my own family/parents (who are 1st generation Americans) would be like. I have noticed that the majority, if not all the Filipino families are this way- close, loving, determined, and successful. My own family never strived to achieve this “Dream” so it’s up to me to provide for my future generations. Mary, your parents are heroes and huge examples of the “ideal” immigrant. Consider yourself very blessed to have them! If only ALL immigrants were this way- our country would be everything our founding fathers dreamed up and much, much more!

  2. Yay to Filipinos on Hellogiggles! I luhh it.

  3. Your mom and dad’s love story is incredible! I love that part when your dad says “Raising you and your cousins was a group effort on behalf of the adults in the family.” One of the best things about being a Filipino is that members of the family are REALLY close and they will always stick with you whatever happens.

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