Growing Up Mestiza

Posing on the awards podium (farthest left) after winning a bronze medal at the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand

Everyone knew our mothers were nearby because you could hear them coming, chatting away at volumes louder than the average person is accustomed to. In typical Filipino fashion, they were loud and proud, decked out in red, yellow and blue—the colors that adorned the flag. I couldn’t understand their jittery language, but I knew they were talking about us because we were their favorite gossip topic.

I was 17 at the time and making my debut on the international stage of swimming. My teammates and I were in Manila competing at the 2005 Southeast Asian Games where most of us possessed the talent to win a medal for our country, a feat that evoked feelings of anxiety and excitement among our parents.

I asked my friend Marichi to translate what our moms were saying just as mine walked over. “So if you guys win the gold just get up there and say, ‘Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon, ’ and it will look like you know the words to the anthem, ” she told us.

I laughed. What was more ridiculous: me repeatedly saying “watermelon” on a medal podium to cover up the fact that I couldn’t speak Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, or the fact that I was representing an entire country and didn’t even know the national anthem? It was sort of shameful, I thought, to think that thousands of people died for hundreds of years before the country became independent, and here I was, dishonoring the country with my “watermelon” lip synch. I felt like those fake designer bags sold in Filipino malls. I felt like I didn’t belong.

As a Filipino American, I often wondered whether I considered myself more Asian or more white. The topic always brought up confusion whenever I had to bubble in my ethnicity on standardized tests to identify what I was. At one point when all of my siblings attended the same elementary school as I, my brother was classified as white, my sister as Asian or Pacific Islander and oddly enough, I was classified as black. The latter gave my entire family a big laugh because on paper we could’ve passed as the multicultural Jolie-Pitt family, minus the Hollywood fame.

During the Games, I stayed in the athlete’s village, where all the participating athletes were housed for the next week, and throughout that time I bonded closely with my Filipino teammates who were either “halfies” like me or native Filipinos. Luckily we all spoke English, although I asked for translations on a constant basis. It only took us a week to become a family; one that didn’t judge whether we lived in the Philippines or not, or whether we spoke Tagalog, or even how fast we swam in the pool.

Waving to the crowds (second from the left) before a relay at her first SEA Games in Manila (2005)

Once, while dining in the athlete’s village cafeteria, a group of Filipino workers tried speaking to me, and my failed attempt to respond in Tagalog revealed my American identity. Of their broken Tag-lish, all I could make out was “fake Filipino. ” Between heaping mouthfuls of rice I shared the incident with one of my coaches, who laughed saying, “If you are a fake Filipino, we are all fake Filipinos. There is no such thing as a real Filipino anymore, we are all mixed. ”

As the competition progressed that week, I racked up some impressive hardware, earning silver and bronze medals, not too shabby for my first international appearance. I was oblivious to the pressure, spending my time making friends in the ready room instead of focusing on my races ahead. Crowds roared when they announced my name, children asked for my autograph, strangers begged for a quick picture with me, volunteers gifted me with random trinkets and flowers. To a country racked with national issues like poverty, overpopulation and terrorism, I was a fresh face of hope and inspiration, concepts I didn’t comprehend at the time.

In one of my final races, I was out-touched for the gold medal by mere hundredths of a second. The competitor in me wanted the gold more than anything, but I also wanted that one chance to stand atop the podium to hear the national anthem playing for an entire stadium of Filipinos, even if I didn’t know the words. I thought of how proud my mother would be to sing the hymn of her beloved country.

It only took us a week to become a family; one that didn’t judge whether we lived in the Philippines or not.

I may have fallen short of my gold medal dreams, but I left the Games with friends who showed me that being a part of that team was not only about our success in the pool, but about enjoying the journey and pursuing our deepest passions.

Now at 24, I sometimes reminisce those glory days of swimming and traveling the world competing for the Philippines and feel like it was all a dream. My former teammates have started new chapters in their lives: beginning their careers as a swim coach, doctor, actor, lawyer, or future president of the Philippines. Maybe one day I’ll be a successful writer, the possibilities are endless.

Now, the millions of races throughout my swimming career all blend together, yet I vividly remember every adventure that happened on those trips. Life is about the people you meet and the moments you create with them. I admire our courageous young selves, opening our minds, arms and hearts to new things and people, proving to a divided world that we were united in our differences.

Totten with mother, Yolanda, at the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand

Together, my teammates and I traveled to the deserts of Qatar, adventured through the casinos and malls of Melbourne, Australia, ate the spiciest pad thai in Thailand, almost got arrested for attempting to swim in the Trevi Fountain in Rome and thought we were going to be shot by communist soldiers surrounding the athlete’s village in Laos for being too loud and disruptive. Perhaps all that traveling and getting lost helped me find myself.

To this day, I still miss my “second family” and the laughs we shared that translated across any culture or language barriers. After all, being a family is the basis of being a Filipino.

So, yes, I am a mutt. I am Filipino American and feel blessed every day for the opportunities that my identity has created for me. My Tagalog-speaking skills are still far from fluent, but I hope to one day know all the words to the “Lupang Hinirang, ” the Philippine National anthem.

Erica Totten

Erica Totten

Erica Totten was born and raised in Miami, Florida, to a Filipino mother (Yolanda) and American father (Gregory). She was a member of the Philippine National Swim Team from 2005-2011 and through swimming, traveled to the Philippines, Thailand, Australia, Qatar, Italy and China. She recently graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2011, with a bachelor's degree in journalism, specializing in advertising and public relations.