Rio Grande Valley’s Filipino Community Grows Through Shared Cultural Connections

The community has grown drastically over the last 30 years, and has similar traditions to Latinos in South Texas because of a shared history of Spanish colonization.

By Kristen CabreraSeptember 7, 2020 10:00 am,

When Neil Patrick Surio first sat in the cafeteria at his new U.S. high school, he looked around and felt confused.

“I was like, why is everyone so brown?” he said. “And then a couple of people sat close, next to me, and then they started speaking Spanish. I’m like, what’s really going on? I thought I was in the U.S.”

This was 2009. At age 14, Surio had moved with his family from the Philippines. And his first American high school was in McAllen, a city in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, at the South Texas border.

“It was kind of weird because, again, like, I kind of had this idea of the United States being, you know, like, majority Anglo,” he said.

The Rio Grande Valley, or RGV – a region that comprises four counties and over 4,000 square miles – is about 92% Hispanic.

Surio’s family came to McAllen because it’s where his new stepfather had a children’s physical therapy clinic. At first, he experienced culture shock, but then he began to see the many similarities between Filipino and Hispanic cultures.

“Maybe because of my background in history, I see these patterns,” he told Texas Standard. “Like, I could literally transplant the lived experiences I had in the Philippines back over here to the Valley, and it still somewhat makes sense to me as a Filipino immigrant.”

Common threads include language, a strong sense of community, Catholicism, names and food. Once Surio grew up, he realized the link between it all was Spanish colonization.

“When I moved to Central Texas, that’s when I started forming this kind of opinion that the Valley is a colonized space, just like how the Philippines is still a colonized space,” he said.

Courtesy Edinburg Filipino Festival

Spain colonized both Latin America and the Philippines. The Spanish were in the Philippines for more than 300 years. Spanish traditions are ingrained in both cultures.

“I go back to, like, the colonial aspect of it. Yeah, like, it’s there; it’s present,” he said. “And it’s so culturally and economically distinct from the rest of Texas. I started thinking, well, something’s going on here.”

The total Asian population in the Valley is around 11,500 people. That encompasses many ethnicities, including Filipinos. Still, the Filipino community represents nearly half of that population.

Nila Wipf remembers when that wasn’t always the case.

“There were like 65 families total, including the outskirts [of the Valley] like Rio Hondo, Weslaco,” she said. 

Wipf got her nursing degree in the Philippines’ capital, Manila, and then immigrated to the United States in 1968. She came to the Valley in 1987 after her husband opened a chiropractic practice there.

It’s like being in a small community – and we were a small community,” she said. “And it’s peaceful, and I like the community itself. The Mexican people, the Texans, are very friendly people.”

There are several reasons Wipf has stayed. The climate is one; it’s similar to that of where she’s from in the Philippines.

“The fact that it’s so close to – the environment is so close to my hometown,” she said.

There’s also the Catholic faith. Wipf shares a three-foot tall statue of La Virgin Fatima with her Catholic community. Before the pandemic, they’d pass it along, house to house, and gather to recite the rosary and eat food from both cultures.

“We don’t need to find an excuse to get together because the Virgin Mary statue has kept us together,” Wipf said.

Wipf, who lives in Harlingen, has witnessed the Filipino migration to the Valley over the last 33 years. Many like herself came to the United States because of a nursing shortage. She was part of a wave of nurses who came after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 eliminated discrimination against Asians and other ethnic groups in U.S. immigration law.

Pat Lindsay Catalla-Buscaino from Houston is the Texas Chapter president of the Filipino American National Historical Society. She said exchange programs gave some Filipinos a chance to pursue opportunity in the United States that they may not have had in their home country.

“Many of the nurses and the medical professionals in the Philippines were purposely and intentionally recruited to come here during that time,” she said.

In the Valley, the cultural contributions of the Filipino community are beginning to be recognized. The city of Edinburg hosts an annual Filipino Festival in June, though this year it was canceled because of COVID-19.

The event is something like a family celebration. As Surio sees it: “All of these other cultures from Mexico all the way down to Argentina – we’re basically like long-lost cousins.”

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