WATCH: Fil-Am teenagers go back to their roots in this docu-series of self-discovery

The Filgrimage digital series is now streaming on

It is always interesting to experience the Philippines through a foreigner’s eyes. There are some things that we take for granted, things we see every day and now overlook, that are so special to people who come from far away.

It is different, and wholly more powerful, to experience the Philippines through “foreign” Filipino eyes, a Filipino who comes from far away to realize they have arrived back home. That subtle transition, revelation, that they aren’t foreign at all.

I’m coming home

In the recently released digital docu-series Filgrimage, eight young Fil-Am students spend a summer in the country of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Some land at NAIA for the first time in their lives, others treating it like any other vacation: it may be fun while it lasts but they would hardly call it “home.”

“I was born and raised in the States and used to visit the Philippines every other year to see family,” says Riana Hernandez, 21, a university student from San Diego. “But the Filgrimage was a different experience.”

Over the course of 11 days, the students are exposed to the beauty of their country through an itinerary straight out of a luxury travel magazine. There are the crystal blue waters of El Nido, the ethereal old-world charm of restored Spanish-Filipino houses in Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, and an event at the historic Manila Hotel. For history and culture, the students visit Intramuros, Bataan, and even meet indigenous weavers.

Filgrimage participants in front of the Rizal Monument, from left to right: Tyler Jacobs, 18; Luis Borromeo, 24; AJ Asuncion, 16; Ryah Hernandez, 18; Jocelynne Montehermoso, 18; Gabby Almazar, 19; and Lauren Bumatay, 19 / Photo courtesy of The Filipino School

For the most part, Filgrimage is a travelogue and love poem to our country. But the culmination of the trip and the series, the heart at its center, is when the students are exposed to the other side of the country, kept out of travel magazines and glamorous Instagram posts.

They walk through the urban slums of Mega Manila. For them, it is a world so far removed from their lives back in America.

Even worse, it is a world so far removed from the lives of many Filipinos who actually live in the Philippines, who have become desensitized to the plight of the impoverished. Shantytowns and street beggars are accepted as part and parcel of the urban landscape. Some avert their gaze and pretend not to see anything. Others build gates and walls to block off any unseemly views. Suddenly, everything out of sight is out of mind.

Meanwhile, on their Filgrimage, the eight students build houses; build opportunities for their fellow countrymen no matter where in the world they reside. The last episode of the series documents the Gawad Kalinga build of the students, something some of us locals could take note from.

The Filgrimage participants help lay the foundation for houses at a Gawad Kalinga village in Cavite / Photo courtesy of The Filipino School

“The most meaningful part was visiting families in poorer areas and talking with them,” Riana adds. “There was a connection among us, a sense of unity and family. It was an even greater reward to spend my time giving back by helping build houses for them.”

What does it mean to be Filipino?

The Filgrimage is an annual program of the San Diego-based non-profit The Filipino School. It is a place where Fil-Ams can learn more about their culture and heritage. Entrepreneur and philanthropist Tony Olaes founded the school after experiencing the first unofficial Filgrimage back in 2006.

Inside The Filipino School in San Diego / Photo courtesy of The Filipino School

Born and raised in the States, Olaes always considered himself American first. When his parents decided to retire to Cavite, he helped them with the move and reluctantly traveled to the Philippines.

“I was never proud of being Filipino because all I would see on American TV was bad news about the Philippines,” says Olaes. “The brand was always that people there were poor, corrupt, and kidnappers.”

That view suddenly changed when he found his way home. While he did see the poor slums that were often shown on the news, he was overwhelmed by the warm smiles and hospitality that never seemed to get on prime time. He knew, without hesitation, they were all one people. Just with different opportunities.

Some were lucky enough to be born into affluent families. Others, like him, in families that were able to live the American dream as Filipino immigrants. And still many were trapped in a cycle of poverty that they had no control over.  But they were all one people.

“There was this automatic connection toward these extremely poor people I didn’t even know,” he adds. “I somehow literally embodied their pain and their struggle. It was such a profound feeling in my heart that something had to be done. I had never felt this way, ever. This is when I learned the word bayanihan. It means coming together for a greater purpose, and when everybody comes together, the load gets lighter, and all things are possible.”

He wanted to recreate that epiphany for his own children, and for the children of other Filipinos based in America. It wasn’t just to expose them to their motherland; any good travel agent could do that. The Filgrimage instills in them timeless Filipino values like bayanihan. And through this docu-series we see the Philippines through the eyes of a “foreign” Filipino who sees beauty in what we’ve taken to be ordinary, and who see opportunity in what we’ve closed our eyes from.

Filgrimage participant Jocelynne Montehermoso (foreground) taking a photo with her new friends, elementary students in Bataan / Photo courtesy of The Filipino School

Bayanihan is borne within us and unites and defines us as Filipinos,” says Jocelynne Montehermoso, 18, who visited the Philippines for the first time through the Filgrimage. “After the trip, I felt more connected to my people.”

The Filgrimage digital series is co-presented by The Filipino Channel (TFC), The Filipino School, and Choose Philippines.

Filgramige is streaming for free on





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