Anthony Garciano: On Dignified Poverty

More than twenty years ago in Camotesan island wrapped by calm, beautiful waters off the coast of Cebu—Anthony Garciano was born in a chicken coop behind his grandmother’s house. It was the norm in his small community for a child to be born amongst the family’s prized hens.

Anthony was the second of what would eventually become a brood of six children, four boys and two girls. Though their sense of familial love was strong, life for the Garcianos was difficult. In 1995, Anthony’s father left to work in the U.S., leaving his mother to raise him and his siblings on her own. Even amongst the warm community of Camotes, where everyone treated each other like an extended family, there was a harrowing poverty that affected their household and others around them.

“I grew up in poverty, but it felt like everyone was in that state in my community,” Anthony said. “Most people had no job or went to the city to find jobs.”

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In 2002, Anthony and the rest of his family migrated to the U.S. to join his father. The move redefined what Anthony understood as “poverty”, having grown up in a small provincial hometown. All of a sudden, the clothes he wore, the food he ate, and where he lived became glaring signs of his family’s struggle.

“We lived in a place that had two bedrooms and one bathroom,” Anthony said. “My grandmother and grandfather lived there, my mom and dad, and us four boys. We would sleep in the living room because there was no other space.”

It was during these tough times that Anthony developed a deep appreciation for his education and began viewing it as a vehicle to elevate himself and his family. His mother, who was held behind at school because she had to work but was later able to skip two grade levels and graduate on time, became his inspiration for doing well academically.

“She was smart, but her circumstances didn’t allow her to succeed fully,” he said. “I wanted to show her that we could make it.”

While Anthony launched himself into his studies, his father continued to work as a janitor to make ends meet and his mother stayed at home to care for the six children. Their support for Anthony never wavered, and they did everything in their power to ensure his success. Part of this support hinged on encouraging Anthony to disengage from Filipino customs and focus on adjusting to U.S. life instead.

“My parents wanted me to be completely American. I even forgot to speak Bisaya because my Mom just wanted me to speak English,” Anthony said. “They didn’t want me to have any issues when I tried to look for a job.”

For Anthony’s parents, as with many first-generation Filipino immigrants, assimilation seemed to be the goal. Their new home in Independence, Missouri was situated in a largely white and Republican area. The family was forced to fit in quickly or risk being alienated.

Anthony described the feeling as painful and confusing, with his desire to succeed pushing tenuously against his desire to stay true to his identity:

“Even though I didn’t consider myself American, for those first 11 years in Missouri, I was forced to shed my Filipino-ness because of the community I was in. I had to assimilate quickly. Being a Filipino was a thing of the past. When I went to college, I was alone and did not have any family or friends, so the only logical thing for me was to go back to what was comfortable, which was my Filipino sidethe food, the people. So I searched for that at college and I luckily found it. At college, I was able to negotiate my identity between someone who had to consider himself as only Filipino, then only American, and now as Filipino-American. Now, I’m in a place where I understand myself more.”

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Anthony graduates from the University of Southern California this past May 2016.

By the time Anthony could afford to return to the Philippines through a fellowship with the Kaya Collaborative, it had been 13 years since he had left. He described feeling a certain anxiety that surrounded his homecoming, since images and memories of his childhood home had become pristine and glorified in his mind the longer he stayed away. He was afraid that, having grown to develop a fuller and more critical understanding of social issues, he would taint these fond thoughts with an ugly truth:

“My biggest fear when I came back to the Philippines for the first time was destroying my ‘happy place’. Whenever I’m sad or feeling nostalgic or listening to any song from the Carpenters or the Beegees, I think about the Philippines. I think about it as paradise. I feared that when I came back that I wouldn’t love itthat I would destroy this place I came to in my mind when I was struggling with something. I was afraid to see the reality and not have that anymore. I asked myself: Will this version of me fit into this Philippines? I was not the Filipino that grew up on that island anymore. Sure enough, when I came back, they could tell that I’d been Americanized. I no longer fit in all the way. I struggled with one question: Could I rightfully say this is my Philippines?”

Anthony admits to idealizing his perception and memories of the Philippines. His return forced him to face a shocking socioeconomic disparity that he had neither remembered nor expected. Due to a strong tendency to lump poverty in all its forms into a homogeneous narrative, we forget that the experience is unique and singular across different contexts. Anthony drew this distinction as he reflected on the incongruities between what he personally experienced and what he later witnessed when he returned to Manila:

“When I was in the Philippines, I grew up close to poverty, but it was kind of a dignified poverty. We had food to eat, my Dad had a job in the U.S., etc. But once you go to Manila or somewhere urban, you’re blasted all the time by different people and different levels of wealth. I worked with an organization called “Food for Hungry Minds” that offers scholarships to students in slum areas to attend to schools in Manila. Part of their curriculum involves talking to the families and actually visiting their homes. We had to take seven jeepneys and a boat ride across a river to visit some families. They were literally living in houses the size of bathrooms. I say my family was poor, but not to the extent of these students. I thought I had a good idea of what being poor was, but the rural poor are different from the urban poor.”

In working with these communities, Anthony’s biggest struggle has been finding feasible action plans that are divorced from his personal experience. A deeper awareness of his privilege has made him realize that while he has always valued education and has personally used it to reach professional success, this may not be a priority for some families:

“I’ve really been trying to learn what the best place is for me as someone who wants to observe and help these communities. I’m trying to unlearn my savior complex. My childhood and the things I’ve become have intensified that complex. I end up thinking: ‘I did it, why can’t you?’ I am now trying to understand that every community is different.”

In coupling this self-understanding with a recognition of privilege, Anthony has also come to terms with systemic issues that may continue to hinder students in poverty from achieving their full potential. These problems, he recognizes, will take more time and an effort bigger than what he alone can undertake.

“For students living in urban poverty, even getting a college degree won’t necessarily get you a job. A lot of high schools in the Philippines have become these diploma mills where the value of an education is not necessarily up to par internationally. A student can try to accomplish things because they have self-will, but through no fault of their own, most of them just do not have a lot of power to change their situation. I see a systemic problem that must be fixed.”

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Anthony visits his family in Camotes, Cebu upon his return to the Philippines.

As a next step, Anthony hopes to continue research he started as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California. Tying his experiences and interests together, he hopes to study the competitive science high schools in the Philippines and investigate whether the meritocracy touted by these schools has ameliorated or exacerbated social inequalities. He hopes this research can shed better light into the experiences of low-income youth as their pursue socioeconomic mobility through education.

As for whether Anthony will be returning to the Philippines, the answer is clear: “I feel like [Filipinos] understand me at a level that people in the U.S. just don’t understand me. I feel like I don’t have to explain anything and I’m just accepted. I just feel like I’m at home.”

—–

Anthony Garciano originally hails from Camotes, Cebu. He moved to Independence, Missouri at the age of eight and recently graduated from the University of Southern California. There, he was the Community and Culture Chair for Troy Philippines during his Sophomore and Junior Year. While in this position, he worked to elevate the members of Troy Philippines’ awareness of Filipino and Filipino-American culture through workshops on identity, historic Filipino town tours, and Filipino food trips.

In 2015, he became a Kaya Co. fellow to explore further his Filipino identity (and what better place to do so than in the Philippines?). Shortly after the experience, he joined Kaya Co.’s Los Angeles team as a Regional Associate, working closely with Filipin-American college students in the SoCal area who want to engage the Filipino diaspora.

In the future, he hopes to become an educator, working to find the best ways to engage and educate communities who have been historically and systematically discriminated against.

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