The Oracles: My Filipino Grandparents in America

When she was in early elementary school, Pati Navalta Poblete was a latchkey kid. She came home from school every day, locked the door behind her, made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and watched The Brady Bunch. Her life was thoroughly American, even though her parents were both immigrants from the Philippines. Pati was really only aware of her different heritage when classmates in her predominately white school pointed it out.

The arrival of Pati’s grandparents, however, brought new sounds, tastes, and smells to Pati’s home. The first arrival was Grandma Fausta, who came when Pati was eight years old to help take care of Pati and her brother while their parents were at work. She brought strict rules and high standards, and Pati balked. One by one, her three other grandparents arrived, and Pati came to refer to the four of them as “The Oracles.” This short memoir chronicles Pati’s life with them.

Poblete does an excellent job describing the feelings she had about her grandparents as a child, even when it doesn’t make her look very good. In the early chapters, she frequently comes across as a bit of a brat, but her responses seem authentic for a child of that age. Of course she’s going to resent having to clean the floors on her hands and knees instead of using a mop like everyone else she knew in America. Of course she’s going to bawl when her family’s visit to Disneyland is cut short because her grandmother is too exhausted to continue walking around the park.

Many of Poblete’s conflicts with her grandparents had to do with cultural differences. Pati didn’t like being perceived as weird at school, but her grandparents couldn’t see why it would bother her to take Filipino food for her school lunches. And then there’s a mystifying incident involving what seems to have been a curse. Poblete’s telling of the tale does seem to attribute every challenge to her grandparents’ unfamiliarity with American culture, but there were times when, for me, generational differences seem just as significant—such as when Pati’s grandmother chooses an extremely childish outfit for her to wear on her first day of middle school. How many adolescents have complained about their parents being out of touch with the right thing to wear?

The memoir does tend to be overly episodic, especially in the later chapters where huge spans of time are passed over quickly. It feels more like a series of vignettes than a fully formed narrative. But many of the vignettes are funny or interesting, and I enjoyed them. The overall arc follows a predictable pattern: second-generation child resents, but then comes to love, her ancestral culture. It’s not a new story, and it’s perhaps been told better, but this is nice and short and competently written. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

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11 Responses to The Oracles: My Filipino Grandparents in America

  1. Mel u says:

    I read this book a couple of years ago then gave it to my wife to read-we both think it is a wonderful book-we especially liked how it caught the generational conflicts between the narrator and her grandparents. It does a really good job showing how hard it is for parents to pass along any ethnic heritage to immigrant children. As we read it our teenage daughter was getting ready to go to her High School prom here in Manila and we laughed at how horrified she would be if her own grandmothers tried to dress her in the outfits a young Manila lady was supposed to wear in the 1950s!

    • Teresa says:

      Mel, I also really liked the depiction of generational conflicts, which I think anyone could relate to. The cultural difference just magnified the challenge.

      I did wonder about the parents’ role in passing along the Filipino heritage. They didn’t seem very involved in that aspect of Pati’s life, but it may have just seemed that way because the book was about her grandparents, not her parents. Or maybe that’s part of the reason they had the grandparents come live with them.

  2. thanks for the review. I am always on the look out for immigrant stories and this sounds like an interesting one!

  3. Jeane says:

    My brother-in-law’s girlfriend is Filipina. I’ve always been curious about their culture. I think I’d like to read this one.

  4. bybee says:

    I love stories about the immigrant experience and cultures clashing. This looks great.

  5. Thanks for sharing this! My husband is Filipino and I sometimes feel like my girls are getting so little of his culture. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of books by or about Filipinos either, so I’m always glad to find them. Thanks!

    • Teresa says:

      Karen, As I said to Jeane, there’s not a lot about Filipino culture here, but as Mel u said, it does say some interesting things about the difficulty of passing along a cultural heritage.

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