By Diya Bahl
As she stepped foot into Disneyland, educational specialist Marygrace Castro felt amazed and became slightly teary-eyed. At that moment, her sole wish was that her mom and her brothers could be there with her to experience the joy and satisfaction of being in the U.S..
Marygrace, as a 29-year-old from Las Pinas, Philippines, was excited after choosing to immigrate to the U.S., yet scared of what the future would hold. It would be her first time away from family and her second time on a plane. She had been recruited by an American director of special education who visited the Philippines and she immigrated to the U.S. in 2002 under a teacher exchange program with a J1 Visa –– a visa given to those who are exchange participants in a program.
After arriving in Bakersfield, California, Marygrace worked as a special education teacher under Kern County and finished her credentials a couple of years later, one of which led her to becoming an orthopedic impaired specialist. She now works for the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
Her husband, Pierre Castro, had a drastically different immigration experience. He immigrated to Los Angeles, California at 13-years-old — his parents had decided to move because the majority of his extended family had already immigrated there. His family decided to return to the Philippines while Pierre was a young adult, and he went along with them but 10 years later, he chose to move back to the U.S., this time alone. He is now in the driving school business, along with working in insurance.
Pierre and Marygrace were both presented with struggles that immigrants in America often face. For Marygrace specifically, learning how to balance her hyphenated identity was a challenge.
“Having the [Filipino] accent was a difficulty for me, but what I did was I watched the news,” Marygrace said. “I watched the news in order to learn more English. The good thing is I got the liberty to come to Cupertino, where I believe we are in a safe place since we are a mixture of all ethnicities, so it was more OK. However, managing the assistants/helpers I had and students when I first came here was definitely a struggle.”
Contrastingly, obtaining citizenship was not a struggle Marygrace faced after immigrating to America, because she got married to Pierre, who was already a U.S. citizen.
Marygrace recalls being scared when first arriving at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). She had immigrated along with three other teachers from the Philippines and though she didn’t know them well, they had been recruited as a group. After a nearly three hour bus ride to Bakersfield, Marygrace and her fellow teachers were introduced to the Filipino community there and placed in different Filipino households, where they stayed until they could afford to live by themselves.
Marygrace explains that in order to properly assimilate, there were many aspects of American culture the teachers needed to learn beforehand.
“We had training about what to expect and how to act in America before we left because we do some things in our culture that might be misinterpreted by Americans.” Marygrace said. “For example, instead of pointing at something or someone using your finger or your hand, Filipinos use their mouth or lips, so we had to be careful of our gestures or what we said. Another thing was the way Filipinos usually greet people or introduce themselves. We call it, ‘beso-beso’ which is cheek to cheek, and we had to learn that it wasn’t a thing Americans did.”
Pierre also discusses the major differences between living in the Philippines compared to living in California. According to both Pierre and Marygrace, one such disparity was that in the Philippines, both of their families had maids who would do the general household chores for them. When they arrived here, however, they had to adjust to taking care of themselves by washing their own dishes, clothes and completing various other household chores. Other differences Pierre and Marygrace noticed included the cleaner streets in the U.S., and more pleasant California weather. Since the Philippines is usually very humid, Pierre and Marygrace recall sweating all the time while living there, but this changed after coming to the U.S..
Being foreigners in a new country, Marygrace and Pierre experienced several comical situations when first immigrating. Because he immigrated to the U.S. as a young teen, Pierre had to adjust to the norms of American high school. He didn’t struggle with language during the beginning of his arrival, but he highlights a language-related experience which he remembers to this day.
“Because I was an immigrant, they put me in English Language Development (ELD) class for a week because they thought I couldn’t speak English,” Pierre said. “However, in the Philippines, I always spoke English, and I was already fluent. Once they noticed I was just sleeping through the classes, they finally moved me to regular English classes.”
According to Marygrace, her and her husband’s immigration has created a beneficial impact on their children since it has taught them more about their culture and where their family comes from.
Sophomore Marian Montejano-Castro, daughter of Marygrace and Pierre Castro, believes that growing up in a family with immigrant parents has served as an advantage because she has been exposed to many values and traditions of Filipino culture. Visiting the Philippines has also taught her a lot about her community, as well as has made her grateful for where she lives today.
“When I was growing up, I went to the Philippines a lot,” Marian said. “Once I went for around eight months, and I was able to see their community and was able to talk to people and learn all about my culture. Growing up here, I was able to learn about all the diversity and about other people's cultures, and it’s really exhilarating because there’s just such amazing and different people here.”
Marian continues to practice numerous Filipino traditions that have been taught to her by her parents and family members. One such tradition is called the “-ber months.” It occurs throughout September, October, November and December, in which Christmas is celebrated for all four months. When Sept. 1 rolls around, her family begins getting ready for Christmas by decorating their house, playing Christmas music and spending quality time with each other. Another way in which the Filipino community’s Christmas and the traditional American Christmas celebrations differ is that Filipinos usually open their gifts on Christmas Eve, and celebrate with a large feast the night before Dec. 25.
Marian believes traditions like these, and cultural practices such as eating with her hands and speaking Filipino, have made her more invested in her Filipino culture. Marygrace’s first language was Filipino/Tagalog, and she was able to pick it up because her mother spoke it around the house. On the other hand, Pierre’s first language was English, which was what he spoke around Marian. Along with these cultural practices, growing up with immigrant parents has allowed Marian to learn many important values which she continues to cherish to this day.
“I’ve learned to stay close to your community and to your family,” Marian said. “No matter where my mom went, she always tried to stay connected with my family from the Philippines, so I’ve learned that it’s really important. I’ve also learned to stay hard working. My mom had to get two credentials when I was born, and having to work and learn with the child is really hard, so I’ve learned that hard work pays off.”
Marygrace positively reflects on her journey of immigration to the U.S., and encourages others to work hard in order to reach desired goals just like she and her family did to get to where they are now. She says she feels blessed to be here, and is especially grateful to those who initially hired her.
“I would say to be more successful, you need to study and work harder,” Marygrace said. “I have been telling my daughters to study hard so that later, if you want something, you’ll be able to get it, but it’s necessary to work hard for [success].”