I am the only Filipino in my family, a privilege and honor that was given to me 35 years ago through a Presidential Decree for sporting reasons, naturally. How that one act has directed the course of my life tremendously.
While I was born in Washington, DC, we moved to the Philippines when I was five months old, and have remained here ever since, except for stints abroad for further education or training.
My father, Marsh, first came to the Philippines in the 1950s as part of the US Navy in Subic; his return in the 1970s with our family was as the Director of the Peace Corps. This was at the peak of the program, founded by Sargent Shriver, with 750 volunteers scattered all over the country doing developmental work.
My parents were blessed to see so much of the Philippines because of my dad’s work with the Peace Corps, which is where I believe their love for the country began.
While my siblings who were also swimmers tried to become Filipino soon after me, it was not meant to be. After multiple attempts, an approval in Congress, they were denied at the Senate. Still, their hearts will always be here.
We grew up in Paco, Manila, which was then close to the Peace Corps headquarters off Osmeña highway. Naturally, my siblings and I would all pick up swimming at the Army Navy Club on Roxas Boulevard, which was a stone’s throw away from where we lived. This is where my beginnings were, where I first learned to swim. Who would have known the role sports would play in my life?
Growing up, we were not very conscious about defining the culture we lived in; it was the only culture we knew. As I have matured, and even gone on to study different cultures, I am very cognizant of all the parts that make up who I am, all of which I honor and uphold.
While my father was a hard-boiled egg — a Caucasian on the outside, and Asian on the inside — my mother is a Japanese survivor of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima.
My parents' meeting is a story in itself — the irony of it all — but these are the rich histories that make up who I am, the seeds of which I am made. The Philippines is the soil that has nurtured and formed the person I am today.
I always knew God had a reason for allowing me to be Filipino. While my siblings who were also swimmers tried to become Filipino soon after me, it was not meant to be. After multiple attempts, an approval in Congress, they were denied at the Senate. Still, their hearts will always be here. This is the land, the culture, the people that raised my siblings and me, the land we all come home to. The land where my father’s ashes remain.
Becoming Filipino has led me down a beautiful path of discovery of who I was meant to be.
Who’s to say how we define what is a Filipino? While being Filipino is not in my blood, it certainly is in my heart. I am proud to be Filipino, and grateful this is who God chose me to be.
While I enjoyed the water growing up and equally enjoyed competing, I had no aspirations, no dreams, or real ambitions of making it big. It was pure fun. Fun is what brought me to the sport; my passion and love for the sport developed through the years. God’s plans and ways are beyond comprehension; I stand in awe at all He enabled me to do through sport.
If I close my eyes and think about what it means to be a Filipino in the context of my five senses, what comes to mind are… sharing tuyo and rice with our yayas in the kitchen, fish balls at the end of a school day (I like the sweet and spicy dip), buying Tarzan chewing gum from the sari-sari store down the street, manggang hilaw with bagoong or singkamas with salt for a light-ish merienda, halo-halo after a particularly long and hot day.
Games of my childhood come to mind when I think of touch. Chinese garter, which may not be Filipino in name, is certainly something most girls played and which I was very good at! Patintero, piko, luksong baka… and once, at a Philippine festival celebrated at school, we had the palosebo… oh, what fun, and what lasting memories those games conjure!
Varied scents accompanying my mom to the Paco market come to mind… scents that would sometimes make me cringe and hold my nose, but scents also of a sweet ripe mango or newly picked rosal or a sampaguita lei bought off the street.
Every morning at the strike of 8 a.m. we would hear the loud but angelic sound of the school children across the street at St. Peter’s reciting their worship song and prayer. I can still sing these songs today. The sound of the Selecta jingle heard just outside our gate at the end of the day…
While we certainly enjoy some of the most beautiful sunsets in many parts of our country, extensive patches of green and brown rice fields (depending on the season) and creatively crafted makeshift basketball courts seen on so many of my road trips come to mind… how basketball-crazed we are!
If I shift the context of being Filipino to the framework of an athlete, it looks very different. What comes top of mind are memories of the 1991 Manila SEA Games. What a privilege and honor to swim for one's country on home ground.
The taste of victory and defeat. I experienced both at these SEA Games, but the lessons have served me well in life.
Diving into crisp cold water, the relief of touching the wall… reaching out and meeting the extended hand of a spectator, the scent of competition and chlorine, the mesmerizing sound of the people chanting our names, the beautiful sound of the national anthem being played for us, the awesome sight of a jampacked Rizal Stadium, teeming with crowds bursting at the seams, on the rooftops, leaning over the edge of La Salle University — how much better can it get? We drew an audience we didn’t usually have.
This is but a glimpse of what it means to be Filipino to me. I have since married a true-blue Filipino, so I suppose you can say I have been grafted in? But really, who’s to say how we define what is a Filipino? While being Filipino is not in my blood, it certainly is in my heart. I am proud to be Filipino, and grateful this is who God chose me to be.
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Akiko Thomson Guevara supports the Dama Ko Lahi Ko campaign. For details visit www.damako-lahiko.com; @damakolahiko on Instagram, Twitter and Tiktok; and Facebook: Dama ko Lahi ko.