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This Filipino School In The U.S. Aims To Help Fil-Ams Find Their Roots

The Saturday school program hopes to help the Filipino diaspora reconnect with their culture and history.

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While some schools in the U.S. offer Filipino language as a class, The Filipino School is the first in the country to teach Filipino culture and history in addition to language.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

The school opened its doors to students of all ages and cultural identifications on April 26 in San Diego, California.

The school's founder, Tony Olaes, told BuzzFeed Philippines the school was created to "bridge Filipinos in the Philippines with those in the diaspora through education."

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

The large metal tree in the school is meant to represent the Filipino diaspora, said Olaes. The branches symbolize the different directions Filipinos have gone, but all come from the same root.

He added that a tribal chieftain from the Philippines told him it's important to remember, "a tree without its roots will never grow."

Olaes said he grew up not wanting to be Filipino. As the son of immigrant parents, he just wanted to assimilate with American culture. That changed after a trip to the Philippines.

Adam Cohn / Via Flickr: adamcohn

"I walked into a squatter settlement, and I started talking with them," said Olaes. "At first, I thought they were going to steal from me or kidnap me, but they actually offered me something to eat, and these people don't have anything."

He found that the negative stereotypes he grew up believing about his own people and culture weren't true at all, he said. Now he wants to foster a similar awakening in other Filipinos outside of the motherland, especially for those in the diaspora who may have lost touch with their roots.

"I want other Filipinos to fall in love with the Philippines again, just as I did, through this school," said Olaes.

"Our goal is to educate, awaken, and empower," executive director and co-founder Estela Matriano told BuzzFeed Philippines.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

The school is divided into four levels — elementary, middle school, high school, and college and up — with classes tailored to enlighten a sense of national identity.

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The concept of "bayanihan" is the school's primary tool as they attempt to reconnect Filipinos in San Diego to their heritage.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

"Bayan is where we come from, the Filipino nation, wherever we are," Matriano told BuzzFeed Philippines. "I always say I may have left the country, but I never left the Philippines. I never left my bayan. Wherever we are, we still carry the concept of bayan, the idea of the Philippines as our home."

"We should understand that we Filipinos are heros to one another and that we can help one another wherever we are," she said. 'Bayani' directly translates to mean 'hero.' "And when we help our community collectively as a community, that's bayanihan."

The school holds classes every Saturday and plans to add after-school programs in the fall.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

"All of our teachers are credentialed and licensed in the state of California, even though the classes are meant to be supplementary to what students would normally learn in their schools or universities," Matriano said. Each class costs $40 and scholarships are available to eligible students.

The school features two large open classrooms with art by Filipino artists. A large television screen will live-stream certain areas of the Philippines as a part of class.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

Olaes spent over $400,000 in developing the space, Matriano said. The school will expand globally via the internet, where Filipinos can join the classroom through their computers, said Olaes.

The teaching staff believes in the importance of bringing and reconnecting the national culture to Filipinos who've lost touch with their roots as a result of the diaspora.

The Filipino School / Via Facebook: TheFilipinoSchool

"For many Filipino Americans who struggle with their identity, this school is an answer for them," Salvadore Idos, a teacher at the Filipino School, told BuzzFeed Philippines. Idos' wife, Sally, is also a teacher at the school.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding between generations, especially for Filipinos in the diaspora," Idos said. "But this school is bridging that cultural and educational gap by allowing students of various ages to participate in the dialogue of 'what being Filipino means to them.'"

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Idos believes that the more a Filipino-American knows about their culture, the better their self-esteem.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

"If you look at U.S. history books, there's nothing there that tells Fil-Ams of their own history because they're all Euro-centric," he said. "How many Filipino-Americans know that the first Filipino set foot in America in 1587 and under what circumstances that happened in?"

Many Fil-Ams acknowledge the lack of awareness about their own language, culture, and history, Idos said. But once they begin to fill in the missing blanks, they start to feel more self-confident and motivated to be active in the Filipino community.

"And we want students to be proud about who they are, not only in how they think, but in how they look," Idos said.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

Once students reconnect with their culture and people, that's when they stop being ashamed or self-conscious of the physical features that set Filipinos apart from a whiter majority in America, like darker skin or flatter noses, Idos said.

"I have students who come up and say, 'Oh great! Now I'll tell my mom to stop buying papaya soap to get lighter,'" Idos said. "Their self-esteem really goes up when they rediscover who they are and their pride to be Pinoy."

Several students from the college and up classes all told BuzzFeed Philippines that The Filipino School had a positive impact on their lives.

The Filipino School / Via Deejay Viloria

Hilton Williams, a man who identifies as black and discovered he had Filipino blood, said that it was "eye-opening" to realize why he had certain physical features other black people didn't have and to decipher his own Filipino roots.

"For years, I always knew I was different and others treated me different," Williams told BuzzFeed Philippines. "Being here, I've met so many students who felt the same way as me."

Avianne Tan is a contributor to BuzzFeed Philippines.

Contact Avianne Tan at avianne.tan@gmail.com.

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