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Artist Spotlight: FASO Violinist & Scholarship Winner Kaitlin Aquino

A photo of scholarship winner and FASO violinist Kaitlin Aquino in promotion of FASO@10 at the Alex Theater on Saturday, November 3, at 7:00 p.m.

FASO@10 is this Saturday! For this special artist spotlight, we’re announcing the winner of our first-ever Filipino American Symphony Orchestra College Scholarship. This scholarship for graduating high school seniors required each applicant to write an essay in response to this prompt: “What does Philippine music mean to you?”

One of our youngest violinists, Kaitlin Aquino won with her riveting essay on her complicated relationship with her dual Filipina and American identities. Kaitlin’s a first-year English major at the University of California, Irvine with a strong passion for the performing arts, namely writing, and vocal, theatre and orchestral performance. She delights in being able to combine all four as a novice writer! Kaitlin’s also a member of the team behind our new Youth String Ensemble.

As a special treat for ya’ll, we’re sharing her winning essay below. We hope to see you all at FASO@10 this Saturday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m. at the Alex Theatre! Enjoy!

Kaitlin Aquino’s Winning Essay for the Filipino American Symphony Orchestra College Scholarship

“You’re Filipino.”

“No, I’m not.” I retorted to my dad petulantly. I, at the age of six, would have never identified myself as so. “I’m American.”

“No,” he said gently. “You’re Filipino.”

“No, I am not.” I glared at him, denying his denial. “I’m American!”

“You’re Filipino!” he exclaimed. The corners of his mouth upturned. Much to my chagrin, he found my infantile frustration amusing.

I fought the urge to wail. It wasn’t easy trying to be taken seriously when you’re six. Insistent, I balled my hands into fists and huffed. “I am an American!” I am unsure of how such a conversation between my dad and I came about. But its unknown origin pales in comparison to its true meaning. I used those angry six-year-old hands to eat my “baon” at school–homemade “mongo” or adobo–until I was “busog;” turn on the fountain and quench my thirst with heaping gulps of running “tubig;” and greet my dad after school with a warm embrace when he arrived to pick me up and take me back to our “bahay.” And yet, with those same six-year-old hands I expressed a vehement, unequivocal rejection of the culture that had always been a constant, friendly presence in my life.

Now, before you raise your chin in contempt for a six-year-old version of myself, I entreat you to think twice before you judge. Though prevalent in my daily life, my Filipino culture only ran as deeply as the broken Tagalog I understood. At eleven years old, I spent an ordinary afternoon at the mall with my dad, my “titos” and “titas.” But it didn’t take long until this humble outing took an unexpected turn.

As we made our way through the corridors, mid-conversation, we suddenly stopped. Panicking, I brought my hand to my face, wiping the wetness away. Peering through stinging, water-filled eyes, I could barely make out the looks of sheer confusion and horror on my relatives’ faces. With tears down my face and a sniffling, snot-filled nose, I felt overwhelmingly like a pathetic baby in front of all my “titos” and “titas.” Already eleven, I was long past the stage of emotional instability. Bursting into tears in public without reason just wasn’t acceptable past age eight anymore.

Ridiculous as this sob session was, it came from a genuine place. While we were out and about at the mall, my relatives only spoke English if they absolutely had to. Otherwise, they talked up storms, hurricanes, cyclones in the language they knew best: Tagalog. So, while they all listened to each other intently, I sat picking at my portion of mall food, understanding little to nothing.

This wasn’t new to me. This was what spending time with them was usually like. But that’s why I cried so hard. I’d had enough of being excluded by my own family members. I knew they loved me and had no intention of leaving me out. But I let my frustration and grief build up for too long.

Unfortunately, I’ve never felt truly connected with anyone from my extended family.

Although no language barrier separated myself from my “ates” and “kuyas,’ a generational gap certainly did. Being the youngest of my generation, it was never easy for me to try bridging the 20-year age gap between myself and my cousins. Who could’ve guessed that people 20 years apart had vastly different interests?

Instead of seeing the truth of the matter—my inability to speak Tagalog and to truly understand the struggles of those much older—I blamed my culture.

The media didn’t make it any harder for me to hate my Filipino roots either. Although I don’t remember a particular show or movie expressing a distaste for foreign heritages, the overconsumption and subsequent glorification of American pop culture, coupled with my attendance at a school whose students weren’t the most celebratory of things foreign, subconsciously led me to believe my Filipino heritage was something to be embarrassed about. And being the impressionable grade-schooler I was, I accepted it. I told my dad I wanted Lunchables for “baon” instead of his home cooked meals. I often looked in the mirror, lamenting over my absence of pale skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair. I covered my ears every time Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” played in the car. I wanted to be American, not Filipino.

Obviously, my logic carries a huge flaw. I didn’t hate being Filipino. I didn’t hate coming home to a big bowl of “sinigang” after a long day, or doing karaoke at parties until the wee hours of the morning, or having annual Pacquiao fight viewing parties. Rather, I hated that I wasn’t immersed in my Filipino heritage enough, so that it could serve as an outlet to further connect me with my Filipino family. I made the mistake of equating family and culture: I sensed my family’s disapproval of myself, so I renounced their culture.

But as I’ve grown, I’ve had many enriching experiences that have led me to rethink my cruel misjudgment of my Filipino heritage—my experiences at FASO, consist of several. Just being surrounded by professional Filipino musicians was enough to re-instill, in me, a sense of Pinoy pride. But aside from being impressive, my fellow orchestra members were also very caring and kind. I’ll never forget how welcome they made both me feel, despite our crippling nervousness, as first-year apprentices.

I miss the Tuesdays my dad would pick me up from theatre and take me to FASO rehearsal. Admittedly, it was stressful. I was constantly scrambling to do some homework in the car before he parked in the church’s lot. Consistently, I entered the building anxious over the deadlines I had to meet. But after sitting down, picking up my violin, and taking in the warmth and artistic passion that filled the atmosphere, my concerns with my homework, my guilt over my past efforts to separate myself from Filipino culture, and my loneliness seemed to melt away. The only concern of importance was making sure the music we played—whether classical European, American contemporary, or Philippine folk—sounded the best it could be. And after two full hours of serenading the night away—the duration of our rehearsal complete—I always left hungry to play more.

To me, Philippine music is my way of reconnecting with the culture I wrongfully tried to cast aside. Whenever I played, through FASO, I felt relief and reconciliation—a time to heal the cultural wound I unthinkingly inflicted on myself.

Of course, it didn’t solve all my problems. I may feel a bit more connected to my “ates,” “kuyas,” “titos,” and “titas” than before, but the ever-present disconnect between us will never fail to make my heart ache.

It’s sad to say that this problem of mine is not a unique one. First-generation Americans all over the nation suffer from cultural identity crises; as they tread between several distinct cultures, they will never be able to fully submerge themselves in all, or even one.

As wonderful it would be to change the course of American pop culture and put national hostility toward foreigners to rest, it is unrealistic to hope for such a thing in the near or even far-reaching future. Instead, I think the solution is right in front of our eyes.

We don’t need to eliminate the cultural identity crisis today’s minority children face. Although my experience was grueling and painful, I wouldn’t trade it for anything easier. More than just a difficult experience, mine was a journey of self-discovery. And if others must take a similar painful path in order achieve something as priceless as cultural security and self-confidence, then so be it. As strange as it sounds, we need our minority children to struggle. For it will breed strength. And they need to be as tough as nails if they want to succeed.

So as Filipino and other minority children embark on their respective journeys of self-discovery, it’s my hope that cultural sanctuaries, like FASO, can help guide them in the right direction. Maybe they too will let the music of their own culture lead them out of their self-imposed darkness.

For a Filipino who can barely speak Tagalog, Philippine music is my cultural savior. Hopefully, music from other cultures can serve the same purpose.

At age fifteen, my dad called me American.

No longer the pouty, Pinoy-hating six-year-old I was, I replied, “No, I’m Filipino.”

Be a part of this history-making event as FASO celebrates 10 years of Filipino musical creativity and artistry on Saturday, Nov. 3, 7 p.m., at the Alex Theatre, on 216 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, CA 91203. Order tickets online here and check out info on the Alex Theatre’s physical box offices here. Children 2 years of age and under may enter for free. Student discounts and group rates apply. Contact Louie Ramos at luisramos91201@gmail.com, for more info on those special prices.

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