Anyone who has ever served in the Navy has heard the term “Filipino Mafia” at least once in their career. So what is this mafia really? Well the answer to that question, depends on who you ask. Some may say:
It’s a bunch of Filipino Chiefs and Master Chiefs who stick to themselves, and hook each other up.
Oh, It’s supply/engineering department. Those dudes only look out for each other.
It’s those CS’s that run the galley and make Chief in 5 years.
Those brown, Asian-ish looking people who sit together on the messdecks and don’t share their lumpia with anyone.
What do all of those statements have in common? The perception of a secret society of Asians providing unfair favors and advantages to one another. In fact the amazingly legit resource, “Urban Dictionary” describes the term as:
Filipino Mafia is a workplace setting, predominantly supervised by Filipinos, who treat Filipinos preferentially.
Unfortunately, I can’t say I completely blame those who have come into contact with this “mafia” for having such a perception. Anyone walking down the halls of a ship can spot a couple of Filipinos chatting away in hushed whispers in a language that sounds akin to that of the “Ewoks” from Star Wars. Those who are non-Filipinos that happen to unwittingly approach said group will be met with one of the following reactions:
- Immediate stone-cold silence.
- Like turning on the lights in a roach infested kitchen, they scurry away, leaving you questioning your sanity as to whether they were even there in the first place.
- Continuation of Tagalog conversation now with the addition of furtive glances and laughter (If you ever get the feeling that some people might be talking about you, then I promise you, they are).
If you ask any Filipino serving in the military about this phenomenon you will get a genuinely astonished look on their face, followed by something along the lines of,
Man, I don’t know what you are talking about…….?!
So, where is the disconnect? Is there really a Mafia, or not? Are Filipino’s just that sheisty after all? Well as a Filipina and “member” of this Mafia, I can explain.
It’s not personal, nor is it even a purposeful act of discriminating against others. It is an aspect of our culture, which unless you grew up in a Pinoy (Filipino) household or had Filipino friends yourself, you cannot really ever understand. So here I am to fill you in:
Blood is the glue that bonds us
Growing up, I was raised in many different countries. I didn’t even learn to write in English until I was 8. In our household, English, Spanish and Portuguese were regularly spoken, however the cultural values shared by us were 100% Filipino.
The adults spoke Tagalog among themselves and we all ate traditional Filipino foods. Anyone who ever gets to visit the Philippines, especially Manila, can say that the country is heavily influenced by American culture, however it is still vastly different from the culture of America itself. One big example is the concept of family. In a stereotypical American house-hold, you have a Mom, Dad, and maybe a sister or brother living as one unit. That’s it.
You may visit Grandma and Grandpa a couple times a year, and you may even get to see some of your cousins at the big Thanksgiving reunion, but for the most part you don’t necessarily live close by or within the same state. This concept is foreign to Filipinos.
Much like many Hispanic families (The Philippines was colonized by Spain for over 400 years and so share many many similarities) we have large extended families and the “worth” of a sibling and cousin can almost be interchangeable between family members.
It’s very rare to find a Filipino family that doesn’t have at least 2 generations living under the same roof. There was even a time when I lived with 8 of my cousins at once and we were all treated like brother and sister (I was the middle-kid, aka weirdo). I was raised by my Aunts, Grandmother, Uncles and even older Cousins.
The needs of the family is placed above our own needs
This concept places the importance of ensuring the well being of the family as opposed to the individual. In typical American families, children pursue their careers based around their own personal ambitions and desires. Their success is measured in their personal achievements. In Filipino families, children pursue the type of careers that provide the most stability and consistent source of income for their entire family.
This is why the stereotypical image of Filipinos working overseas is that of Nurses, or Engineers, or in my case, Military. Being in the Navy was a way for the Filipino man/woman to provide a steady source of income to his family, as well as medical benefits and a chance to be naturalized in the United States. This is also why a majority of Filipino workers (OFW) work overseas and provide for their families back in the Philippines.
Our community IS our family
Part of the aspect of Filipino culture that gets most misinterpreted as favoritism is that of Kabayan which translates into “Countryman”. Before enlisting into the Navy, I probably could have counted how many other Filipinos I had met within the US with my right hand. Once I actually got into the Navy, that changed almost overnight. During boot-camp I made friends with a girl in my division who was a Filipina. We were both very homesick, and bonded through our shared culture and stories about how we used to both get smacked for “answering back” with chinelas.
Once I got to my first training school in San Diego, I made another set of friends who were Filipino as well. We didn’t necessarily stick together, in fact we were all part of different “social circles”, however we did make regular trips to the holy grail of Pinoy food, Jollibee in National City, often. Food is an important aspect of Pinoy culture and we saw it as a way to reconnect with our heritage. If you ever go to a Filipino party not only will you waddle out of there from the amount of food eaten, but you’ll probably be bringing at least 2 plates home with you.
When I arrived to my first ship I realized there were a large number of Filipinos working on board. We all came from many different backgrounds. Some joined just to gain their green cards, other higher ranking members had joined back when the US used to be based out of Subic Bay.
Did I get special treatment for being a Filipina? Not really–at least not in a tangible way. After all, I did not get the memo before enlisting and had made the mistake of working in a non-engineering/non-logistics field (I am being sarcastic, sort of). The Navy is one of the most equal-opportunity working environments. Is it perfect? Of course not, but it genuinely favors merit and hard work, over networking or race.
Granted, I was able to get certain repair parts a lot faster for our broken gear than other divisions. But that had more to do with my genuine, sometimes desperate, attempts to build a rapport with different people on the boat. After all, we ate, slept and worked together so I saw them all as family–even the ones that I would have drowned in the river if they had been my children.
So, next time you see your friendly neighborhood Filipino, strike up a conversation by just saying hello. Don’t be intimidated by our culture. We are not exclusionary in anyway, in fact, we take delight in your god-awful attempts to say hello in Tagalog. Just don’t over do it or else some Pinoys may think you are attempting to mock their accents. That’s all it takes. There really is no mystery.