Who the Heck Needs a Same-race Hero?

Should Filipinos really care that Barcelona's previous record goal scorer was Filipino?

Should Filipinos really care that Barcelona’s previous record goal scorer was Filipino?

Lionel Messi just broke the all-time scoring record for Barcelona, arguably the world’s most famous team in the world’s most watched sport. It’s quite an achievement. I was surprised to discover, though, that the man who previously held the record was Filipino.

Luckily, I came across two recent articles profiling Paulino Alcántara, the man who held the previous record of 371 goals. As one essay points out, besides Manny Pacquiao, Alcántara is the most successful Filipino athlete ever.

The Philippines is composed of over 7,000 islands, hundreds of ethnic groups, 120 separate languages, and was the conquest of a multitude of colonizers including the Spanish and us Americans. To call the country a jumble is an understatement. It’s fitting, then, that Alcántara’s Filipino heritage is mixed—his father was a Spanish soldier and his mother a Filiipina. Many Filipinos trace their origins to a variety of sources, whether Chinese, Spanish, or (white/black) American. I myself am, according to my relatives, a bit of Spanish, Chinese, and German. Ja, ich bin ein Deutsch. It’s why I’m so tall.[1]

Alcántara’s background reminds me a lot of Jeremy Lin, a guard for the Houston Rockets. Lin achieved academically (Harvard grad) and played pro sports at the highest level (the NBA).

Paulino Alcántara not only played elite sport, he became a successful medical doctor.[2] Besides a successful medical career, Alcántara also became one of soccer’s most prolific scorers earning the nickname “Romperredes,” Spanish for “Net Buster” because one of his shots literally broke the goal net.[3]

When I think about Alcántara I feel proud even though, in many ways, he’s totally unrelatable—he’s a Euro-based, Spanish-speaking Filipino who lived a century ago, rose to the top of two professions, and who in no way disappointed his parents.

On another level, though, Alcántara’s just like me because, dude, he was Flip!

But should I feel pride just because he shares my race?

Perhaps not. For one thing, I’m an American. My country is all about equality and (some say) colorblindness.[4] My experience reflects that. Growing up, all my heroes were White; guys like Benjamin Franklin, Abe Lincoln, and Thomas Edison. I learned to revere these men from my parents who annually travel around the U.S. intent on visiting every presidential library because “we like history.” To them, it’s not weird that they—immigrants of the Philippines—are most enamored with the history of old, White men. Growing up, the closest I came to an Asian heroes were Confucius (from the classic ValueTales books) and Spock who always looked a bit slanty-eyed. I didn’t learn that Filipinos could be heroes until after undergrad when, on my own, I read about Jose Rizal and Emilio Aguinaldo (ever heard of them?).

It never crossed my mind that none of my heroes looked like me. Moreover, I felt a bit embarrassed for Black and Latino classmates who drew attention to heroes of their own races during racial history months. I was so American in my upbringing that part of me thought, “Shouldn’t people be heroic to us regardless of the color of their skin? Shouldn’t we minorities be as color blind as we wish White people would be?” To me, championing someone of your own race felt a little self-interested and, well, cheap.

John H Glenn Jr

John Glenn, Jr. matters to Americans because he was an American first.

As I got older, though, I realized that same-race heroes did matter. As I tried to succeed in law, writing, and business, I found myself searching for blueprints to follow. Whenever I came across someone who had succeeded who also shared my values, my background, or even just the color of my skin, it gave me hope. It eased my self-doubt and helped me envision my success when I discovered that someone like me had succeeded. You know why John Glenn is so revered? Because he was America’s first—once he orbited earth, he changed what Americans thought was possible and helped others dream of going even further. Didn’t matter that four Russian cosmonauts beat him to space; what mattered was that he was one of us, an American. If he could do it, so could we.

There’s one more thing about same-race heroes: succeeding as an outsider is always remarkable. And nothing more easily marks someone as an outsider more than the way they look. There’s a lot of things you can cover up; you can fake shared values, gloss over the fact that you grew up poor, or get drunk and feign extroversion. It’s incredibly costly, however, to conceal your lazy eye, your crooked teeth, your flat nose, or the color of your skin. Even then, it comes at a cost that’s more than monetary; just ask the late Michael Jackson. He’d tell you–going down that road will chop you up, inside and out.

So Alcantara does matter. So do Manny Pacquiao and John Glenn. So do female partners at law firms and CEOs in wheelchairs. Each and every one changes what we think is possible, for us and for them.

What people have helped you envision your own success and how much did it matter that they did (or did not) look like you? Have you found it harder to succeed in a field where you feel like you are the first of your kind? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

1 Endnote   5’10”, baby!

2 Endnote  By all accounts, Alcántara actually loved medicine and didn’t just do it for his parents.

3 Endnote  Whatever Lin’ and Alcántara have done for aspiring Asian athletes they haven’t open doors with Asian parents. NBA and Harvard? Soccer star and medical doctor? Pssshhh, these guys raised the damn bar.

4 Endnote  The fact is, the world isn’t colorblind and, in my opinion, probably shouldn’t be. . .but that’s another discussion, entirely.

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