Inside culture: Life in a Filipino family



California has the second largest Filipino American population in the nation with 182,248 living in nearby San Diego, according to the most recent US census. At Cal State Long Beach alone is a large presence of Filipino American students, and organizations including the Philipino American Coalition have been around since 1972, today holding true to their slogan “One Unit, One Club, and One Family.”

CSULB nursing freshman Joseph Sapida, and pre-nursing freshman, Danilyn Besabella spoke to DIG to share a little about their culture, including what it’s like to have grown up in America in a Filipino family.


According to Sapida, everyone is acknowledged by a title based on their familial relationship in a Filipino household. It is seen as a sign of respect. For instance, younger siblings address their older brothers with “Kuya” before their name, e.g. Kuya Joseph. Uncles and aunties are referred to as “titos” and “titas”; godfathers are “ninong” and godmothers are “ninang.” There are others; ate, tita, tito, lola and lolo, to name a few.

“When walking into a home or any family gathering, to greet those who are older than you you must “bless” them,” Besabella said. “This gesture is done by placing the other person’s hand on your forehead. It is a sign of respect and a way to greet those who are much older.”

Sapida said that just as the titles “kuya” and “ninang” will always carried on, so will their love for karaoke and rice.


One of the most popular traditional Filipino dishes is lechon. Lechon is a pig, roasted for hours until the skin turns crisp and brown. It’s primarily eaten at celebrations, such as weddings and important birthdays.

Dinuguan is a delicacy that uses up a lot of household ingredients. Onions, garlic, sliced pork and vinegar among other small ingredients are combined with pork blood and cooked until it turns black. Young children and new friends coming to their first filipino party are told that it’s “chocolate meat!” said Sapida.

Besabella says that other popular Filipino foods are: pancit, adobo, lechon and lumpia.

“Filipino culture will not let anything go to waste,” said Sapida.


In Filipino culture, a woman’s 18th birthday marks her transition into adulthood, and is called a debut (similar to the Quinceanera of Mexican culture). It is not compulsory for a Filipino girl to host a huge event, but most like to. A debut is similar to a wedding; the birthday girl or debutant chooses outfits for the men and women. She then wears an extravagant dress of her own to stand out.

“Of the debuts I have attended and been a part of, the soon-to-be lady plans many months in advance if not at least a year to choose nine guys and girls each from her friends and family,” Sapida said. “These people are usually close friends, cousins and siblings but are never too distant in terms of age.”

At the debut, girls are known as candles whilst guys become roses, and they pair up to dance together, usually a waltz.  There is always an “18 roses” dance to follow, where 18 of her closest male friends and family dance with her for a minute each, then each hand her a rose. Next, the closest 18 female friends and family have 18 candles and give a small speech and present the birthday girl with a gift. There is then usually a father-daughter dance.

“Some debuts have more than one dance, such as a tango or cha-cha, requiring more months to prepare,” Sapida said.

The nine roses tend to choreograph a dance themselves as a surprise for the debutant.

“If an important member of the family has passed prior to the event, actual white roses are presented in memory of that person,” Sapida said.

Tradition vs. Americanization

All of Sapida’s grandparents were the first in their families to emigrate to the United States. Since, they have all either passed away or moved back to the Philippines after retiring. Sapida lived with his grandparents for a while. He remembers them spending time cooking Filipino food, watch Filipino television programmes and speaking in the Tagalog dialect.

“They would always tell me stories of my family back in the homeland, they missed it very much,” Sapida said. “People I know of their generation hold to their roots and though they may have shaped into American culture, their patriotism always stands with the Philippines.”

Though Sapida considers himself Americanized, he hopes to continue some Filipino traditions in the future.

“I am more ‘Americanized’ than I would care to admit, but that should go for a majority of Filipinos whose families have been here as long as we have,” said Sapida. “Some of us haven’t even had the chance to visit the Philippines yet.”

Sapida intends to cook traditional Filipino foods for his own family in the future, to keep titles such as “kuya” and “ninang” and to have a debut for any daughters he may have.

Growing up in a Filipino family was like growing up in any minority family in America according to Sapida. English is his first language and although he has little understanding of Filipino language he has always loved the food!

“I love having parties at my house and inviting non-filipino friends over so they can witness having to take off their shoes when entering the home,” Sapida said, “or my mother pushing them to eat a plate of rice and adobo before I have even introduced them, or telling them that there is no need to remember names when they can just call everyone uncle or auntie.”

Besabella lives with her grandmother and says that she is “fascinated” with the culture she holds on to.

“My grandparents are very traditional when it come to everything that they do - whether it is cooking, cleaning and just everyday things,” she said. “Growing up I could see the value of their methods.”

Sapida said that Filipino culture has always brought him happiness, and it is for this reason that he finds it so worth sharing.