How Big Filipino Families Party Like It’s 2020

Filipino families in the United States are now updating their traditions amid the pandemic.
Kate Cabigao
Pasig, PH
(L) A video call celebration with family in the United States and the Philippines. (R) A sign to remind guests to stay distant during a birthday party. Collage: VICE / Images: Courtesy of Regine Anastacio and Joanna Hirsch 

In June, at the peak of the pandemic in Washington D.C., Joanna Hirsch found herself in a birthday party with her Filipino family. With relatives and friends usually attending such gatherings, she said it was strange to only see nine familiar faces. It didn’t feel like a party, she said. At least not like any she’s been to.  

“Although quite sad and strange to celebrate an event after months of isolating, it’s now a normal thing to take precautions for the safety of my family,” she said.  


Aunt Grace, the wife of the birthday celebrant, Uncle Joel, is a frontliner who manages nurses in a hospital in Washington D.C. She’s one of about 145,800 Filipinos working as registered nurses in the United States. There are more with other jobs in the medical field, a group found to be one of the most vulnerable to COVID-19 in the country. According to The Los Angeles Times, a whopping 35 percent of Asian Americans that died from COVID-19 in California were Filipino American. National Nurses United, the largest nurse union in the U.S., released a report in September revealing that nurses of Filipino descent comprise just 4 percent of the workforce, but almost a third of registered nurse deaths due to COVID-19.

Many Filipino healthcare workers work non-stop despite the risks in order to pay bills and fulfill family obligations, according to a report from the University of California, Davis’ Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies. Saving face is another cultural practice that defines success based on achievement and upward mobility, and Filipinos seek to avoid “losing face” by returning home to the Philippines with an honorable accomplishment, usually to do with one’s education or career and salary. Other factors of increased infections in the community include pre-existing health conditions and crowded housing. 

“What was once an American dream for many has turned into a nightmare, living in risk and losing lives. I salute them for their hearts of service,” Hirsch said about nurses like her Aunt Grace. 


She said her family insisted on throwing a party for her uncle’s 50th birthday to thank God for another year of life. They believed that they would be protected from COVID-19, as long as their action plan was carefully executed. With seven healthcare workers in the family, they took on the challenge. 


A sign and a photo of Jesus welcome guests to Uncle Joel's party. Photo: Courtesy of Joanna Hirsch

Fewer than 10 people were invited and safety precautions were strictly enforced. It looked like a professional operation, Hirsch said, complete with a sanitizing station.

In the entrance, there was a little table with sanitizers and wipes, a basket for outdoor shoes, and inside, house slippers for the guests. Guests had to wear masks, step on a disinfectant mat, have their temperatures taken, and sanitize before entering Aunt Grace’s home. 


Food from Uncle Joel's party. Photo: Courtesy of Joanna Hirsch

The buffet and dining area stretched indoor and outdoor as guests sat far apart. Hirsch even drew signs as a reminder to keep masks on and practice social distancing.

“It was strange to greet and converse without cheek kissing and hugging,” Hirsch said. 

Despite the unideal situation, there remained a sense of normalcy. Instead of blowing the candle, Uncle Joel used a fan to extinguish the candle, leaving everyone laughing. Hirsch cooked most of the food: pancit palabok (noodles), carbonara, lumpiang sariwa (spring rolls), and salmon. With food for more than 20 people, the family found themselves with leftovers.


One of the signs in Uncle Joel's party. Photo: Courtesy of Joanna Hirsch

There are over 4 million people of  Filipino descent in the U.S. Many have large families, like Hirsch’s, who meet up regularly. Christmas is the biggest holiday in Filipino culture and families typically start preparing for festivities by September. But now that long-term plans have been supplanted by the day-to-day, simply waking up another day has become a cause of celebration for many. Those who can’t physically meet up like Hirsch’s family, have brought their big family parties online. 


Regine Anastacio, a student at New York’s Fordham University, relies heavily on video calls. For Mother’s Day, she set up a call with her mom, relatives, and grandmother. Although stressful, she said it was still very memorable. When one person spoke, another would chime in. 


She said her grandmother “did not [even] know where to look,” recalling how the jovial Filipino spirit made it feel like they were physically together, even though they were actually in two different countries, four cities, and three timezones.

For her father’s birthday, Trish Vega, a campus missionary at New York University, also collaborated with her siblings, their spouses, and kids to coordinate a Zoom gathering. 

“It truly was characteristic of my family as it was full of jokes, laughter, and people yelling over each other,” she said. 


Photo: Courtesy of Trish Vega

From silly to profound and serious, the mood of the call seesawed. Although they were concerned about two family members working in the medical field, worry and fear eventually turned into admiration and gratitude. To this day, kids in Vega’s family are still encouraged to pursue medicine.

Education is a huge deal for many Filpino families, with parents displaying their children’s diplomas in frames at home. Without a graduation ceremony this year, 22-year-old Mickey Santana’s family threw him a big celebration online, which included an Instagram account called “Mickey’s Grad Squad” that consisted of congratulatory messages from 171 family and friends.  


Mickey’s Grad Squad. Photo: Courtesy of Mickey Santana

“It’s definitely a memory that will last beyond these turbulent times and serve as a symbol of connection, love, and family in quarantine,” he said.  


Mickey with photos of his grad squad. Photo: Courtesy of Mickey Santana

All across the U.S., Filipino families have found creative ways to cope with the pandemic. 

Hirsch found herself baking Filipino bread, like pandesal and ensaymada for her niece’s fourth birthday in August. As always, there was more food than any of them could handle. There were only a few of them there and they wore face masks, but she said that she’s just happy to know that some things never change. 

Follow Kate Cabigao on Instagram and her personal blog.