For the past five weeks, I have been pretty obsessed with a 16-year-old. That probably isn’t the first sentence that should come out of the mouth of a professor of Forensic Psychology. So let me rephrase. I have been obsessed with the idea of a 16-year-old winning this season of American Idol. Let me explain.
I’m Filipino American. I grew up in the U.S. with very few Filipino role models in the American mainstream. Being Filipino in the 1980s meant that you either had to be really good at detecting other Filipino people in the media (sometimes by pressing pause on your old school VCR to notice a brown-skinned Asian-looking extra in the background) or you had to just start making up rumors that people were Filipino or part-Filipino (I’m still trying to figure out who started that Prince was Filipino, and I know I’ll get still some e-mails from people claiming that he is).
Throughout my life, we’ve seen a few Filipinos emerge in the mainstream — Tia Carrere in Wayne’s World and Dante Basco in Hook in the early 1990s; Rob Schneider in a bunch of guilty pleasure movies in the late 1990s (Deuce Bigalow anyone?); and Nicole Scherzinger, apl.de.ap from the Black Eyed Peas, and Charisse (a Filipino superstar but known in the U.S. as the girl from Oprah or Glee) in the millennium. And then of course there was boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, who changed the face of the sport and who my family members often hold up in the same light as Jesus.
Sometimes these celebrities proudly asserted their Filipinoness. Sometimes they were outed. Sometimes they left us to guess, until we stopped asking. Sometimes the Filipino community even gave them awards, but other times they confused us when they attended the Latino ALMA awards. But regardless, we stood by them.
Jessica Sanchez is a 16-year old teenage young woman of Filipina and Mexican decent from what is often called the pinoy (a word meaning Filipino or Filipino American) capital of the world: Chula Vista (a suburb of San Diego). Besides her obvious talent, why did I want Ms. Sanchez to win?
1) I think that if “America” (which is probably defined by White teenage girls and their moms) voted for Jessica, it would have been a clear indication that America is ready for some diversity. "Winners" don't have to only be generic white guys with nice smiles. Winners can also be brown people from immigrant backgrounds with hopes, dreams, talent, and perseverance.
2) Because Jessica has been quite forthright about her Filipina pride and her connection to her family, I think she (whether she likes it or not) becomes a positive representation of Filipinos in the mainstream. This leads to everyday conversations (that have been had by many people I know) involving everything from educating others about the history of the Philippines to something as simple as explaining to others why Filipinos are often mistaken as Latinos. While, I recognize that Ms. Sanchez is indeed Mexipina (a term fondly used by people who are of both Filipino and Mexican heritage), the rest of her family members on our TV screens for the past three months are Filipinos, and I know that way too many people just assumed they were Latino too.
3) If Ms. Sanchez had won, she would have had the chance to be a superstar. Potentially joining the ranks of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, she can become the role model that young people look up to. Win or lose, she could still change the standards of beauty that are held in our society and advocate that brown is beautiful too. She can be that inspiration that every little girl (and boy) needs. Prior to 2008, a lot of people of color never thought they could be president of the U.S., but now they can.
Maybe 2012 was supposed to be the year that young Latina/os and Asian Americans realize that they can become superstars too.
Maybe I'm being too optimistic. Maybe I'm putting too much hope into a washed-up TV show. Maybe this is just a fantasy to make up for the fact that when I was a kid, my biggest Filipino American role model in the media was a fictional red-headed spikey-haired lost boy named Rufio. Maybe none of this will matter at all. We’ll have to find out.