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Decolonizing Me by Jonah Ballesteros (Religion & Race)

After 333 years of colonization by Spain, 48 years of imperial rule under the United States, and three years under Japan, the Philippines (a name that outsiders gave our country) is one of the most westernized nations in Southeast Asia because of heavy colonization. 

Growing up in the Philippines, I worshiped anything and everything that came out of western Europe or the United States. From consuming white U.S. culture’s food to clothing, music, and perspectives to learning U.S. and European authors, theology, and language, I wanted to be as close to “whiteness” as possible since it was considered more desirable. White culture, I was taught, was superior to my own.

Throughout my early life there seemed to be more opportunities associated with sounding and looking “Americanized.” I never was proud of my own culture, food, language, clothing, music, movies, or anything Filipino-made or produced. I spoke English outside of my home, ate American food, watched American movies, listened to American music, played American sports, wore American-brand clothing, all while living in the Philippines.

I migrated to the United States when I was 14 years old. When I arrived in America, I lamented that I did not fit in with white culture. The Native Indigenous stories of Turtle Island (their name for North America, including the United States) gave me hope that my culture, language, and identity would be embraced. However, instead of Turtle Island that honored all people, I found that Black, Indigenous and People of Color were not honored. I learned to abhor my Filipino accent, so I trained myself to speak like I was born and raised in in the United States. However, no matter how I tried, being in proximity to whiteness did not shield me from racism.

I grew depressed. I felt lost, invisible, existing for no reason, no purpose whatsoever. I did not know where I was going and what direction my life was heading. So, at one point in 2008, I moved back to the Philippines. I thought maybe that move would make me happier. To a certain extent, I was happy, but not entirely and not wholly. 

Later, when I returned to the Philippines, most people did not see me as entirely Filipino because of how I presented myself. I was considered more of an “AmBoy” or “American boy” than a Pinoy (Tagalog for a Filipino people and culture). I realized that I did not fit in either the United States or the Philippines. Once again, I felt I did not belong anywhere. I was alienated for sure. Something was missing deep inside. Even after I got married and had kids, I experienced feelings of alienation and insufficiency. 

In 2018, while I was on my journey to become a United Methodist home missioner*, I met an amazing, courageous, incredible person, Joyous Prim. She is white, yet she is more Filipino than me, which made me feel ashamed—ashamed that I never imagined doing anything for my fellow Filipinos or for the Philippines. Joyous comprehends what is occurring in the Philippines more than me—fighting for Filipinos’ human rights and all!

While we were in Asheville, N.C., she gifted me the book titled, Reading the Parables of Jesus Inside a Jeepney by Revelation Velunta, associate professor of New Testament and Cultural Studies at Union Theological Seminary, Calabarzon, Philippines. This book absolutely revolutionized my life and led me to decolonize myself and to understand my culture as a blessing from God and a source of inspiration, and pride and identity. It started me on a journey of healing that I believe every Person of Color should make.

Healing began for me with naming my internalized oppression, shame, inferiority, confusion, anger, and learning that uniquely affect those raised under colonial rule. I reflected on the effects of cultural identity loss. Reclaiming my native language (Tagalog) and teaching my kids to speak became a vital component of my cultural resilience. The more I learned to love and respect my own culture, the more clearly I understood the power of colonial oppressors and their oppressive social structures to destroy whole communities. So, I am healing and reclaiming my body, mind, and spirit by decolonizing them.

Decolonization has made me yearn to connect with and give back to the Filipino diaspora.  It has taught me to question, seek, organize, and build solidarity with people in marginalized communities, which made me more involved in lifting Filipino and Fil-Am concerns primarily. It made me speak up more so that others may become empowered to tell their stories and experiences in hopes that they, too, would do the same. 

Decolonizing myself has allowed me to accept and love the authentic me. I have become the Filipino American who loves fried dried fish with shrimp paste, spiced vinegar with okra, unlimited rice and ube cake. I am now the one who is always running on “Filipino time” and who points with my lips while giving direction. The one who says “hee’ puh puh TAHM uhs” instead of “hip’ uh PAHT uh muhs,” when describing a hippopotamus. 

I am adequate, made in the image and likeness of God, and am finally learning to understand myself and know God in the context of my own identity, rather than seeing God through a Euro-American context.