USA Discoveries: Understanding Your Roots

In Los Angeles, Joel prepares to meet his birth father, a man absent from his life since he was a young child in the Philippines. First, he investigates what it means to be Filipino in the US.


Joel visits a community in Stanton where traditional Filipino art is the inspiration for extraordinary, intricate tribal tattoos. Then, after meeting his father, the pair head off to a national park to camp for the night and get to know each other. With no distractions other than the campfire, his father opens up about aspects of Joel’s upbringing he knew nothing about.

Joel De Carteret: Yeah we just pulled up at this car park and I smelled something amazing. So we got Taco Bell's across the road, but what's interesting is that there's an authentic Mexican joint right on the corner here where there's heaps of people lining up.

I think I needed one before we get back.

Eating the Mexican food outside Taco Bell, it just went to show that the Mexicans really were out to show what real Mexican food is, and you can always tell what is good Mexican when you see lots of Mexican people lining up.

Well the flavor, it tastes, it's like Mexico, ya know? They remind me of, you know, my place. What I love about coming to America is that I get to experience a Melting Pot of different cultures.

I'd heard of a Filipino cultural group in the U.S. called Mark of the Four Waves, who take great pride in keeping Filipino traditions alive. I went to meet tattooist, Elle. He specializes in personal tribal tattoos.

Elle: I'm glad you made it. Come on in man.

Joel De Carteret: I've been looking to get a tattoo for about 10 years and the permanency of a tattoo has always prevented me from just getting some sort of impulsive thing. I wanted to find someone who not only was a gifted tattoo artist, but almost be my history teacher.

Elle: Come on in man. This is where the magic happens.

Joel De Carteret: Oh wow.

Elle: I can't wait for you to really immerse yourself in this.

Joel De Carteret: I grew up in the Philippines and at the age of five I walked out of my house and got lost in the busy streets of Manila. Then ended up in an orphanage where I lived for about 18 months before I was adopted by Australian parents. Now the last two years I found my biological parents. So that's been mind-blowing. Hopefully this trip I can connect with my birth dad. Elle was a very interesting guy because he is so passionate about reviving the Filipino culture.

Elle: There that's what blew me away. I was like holy guacamole. The face tatted up. So inspiring.

Joel De Carteret: I felt like I was meeting a brother. In so many ways we've come from the same kinda background.

Elle: Growing up here being an immigrant it's totally culture shock. Plus your parents want you to blend in so much that you lose your identity. So I want to help out in some way to clear that path bro. I'm just glad man

Joel De Carteret: Thanks brother. So I've done a bit of research, and my mother comes from Samar and my dad comes from Batangas. So can you take me through some of the markings?

Elle: Yeah bro. So like finding out your (speaking in a foreign language) the reputation about you guys is you guys are mean people, right? The warrior people. And your dad being from Batangas, they're warrior people too.

Joel De Carteret: Elle showed me what he was going to incorporate in my tattoo, like my personality, my accomplishments, where my parents lived in the Philippines, and where my grandparents were from.

Elle: So man, there's like warrior in your blood bro and you need to be strong about this.

Joel De Carteret: When you talk about the warrior part of myself, I mean I felt like I've been fighting all my life. I think I've always had this fighting spirit within me. I think it's important to know where you come from, because it gives that reference point. It makes you realize that you're unique and rather than sort of adapting to the world around you, which is I think quite a valuable skill that I learned growing up.

But now, knowing where I come from, kinda gives me that anchoring to kind of honor both the Australian and the Filipino side of myself. Filipino side of myself is like my humor and the way that I love food and the way that I eat food (laughing) very quickly and without chewing.

What is American culture to you?

Margaret Nazareno: It's definitely a Melting Pot. It's an experiment to see how you can bring all these folks together and see what happens. It's definitely a struggle for people of color, but there is just so much culture here. There's something beautiful about the struggle.

Ray Del Puerto: I was born in the Philippines, raised here in the States. My adopted family never brought me into that, that culture of the Philippines, and so growing up, yo I just kinda felt lost.

Christopher Sempio: My parents both started opening up recently 'cause they've been kinda like hesitant on it. They wanted to make sure I was more Americanized than anything. For me, I feel like I want to connect more from where I'm from.

Joel De Carteret: Seeing all these people so passionate about knowing their culture really makes me think about how important it is to me. To meet my biological dad, Ritchie, while I'm here in L.A. and to be honest, like I really don't know what's going to happen when I hang out with Ritchie. There's been a few situations around my dad. Originally, I thought that he wasn't going to even be in L.A. 'cause he texted me this just bizarre text message that he was in the Philippines while we were in the L.A. and to be honest I was a little bit upset by that.

Hey, Yaz. You're not gonna like this.

So, bad news. He's going to the Phils tomorrow night because there was a thief who entered the house. So, it's like a break-in. He can't think properly now, and I don't know when he's coming back. Like he just like bounced when he knows I'm here. It's like a nightmare. It's a nightmare. Filos are nightmares.

One of my biggest fears is being one of the, the product of all the male role models that have kind of entered and left my life and I think there's this sort of natural instinct to flee. And I, I need to stop that. Some of the big questions that I have for Ritchie is Why did you leave?

One thing that I have to understand is that I might not get all the answers and I have to really accept that. Hopefully, he's not in the Philippines. Fingers crossed.

Hold on a second. Oh shit, he's messaged another address. Now it's North Hollywood. He's at a small shop. He's in the country and he knows I'm coming, so it's coming up. I can always hold out an offer and if he takes it, he takes it. If he doesn't, he doesn't. I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to having time with my dad that I've missed out on. Let's, let's meet my dad.

And just like that there he was.

Ritchie Culadilla: Hello

Joel De Carteret: Hey. How are you?

Ritchie Culadilla: At last you find us together huh?

Joel De Carteret: At last we found ya.

Ritchie Culadilla: How ya doing?

Joel De Carteret: Okay.

Ritchie Culadilla: Yeah?

Joel De Carteret: Is that a chicken?

Ritchie Culadilla: Oh yeah.

Joel De Carteret: I don't know if it's the mechanic shop or if it's a chicken shop. Why do you have so many chickens? It feels like I'm in the Philippines.

Ritchie Culadilla: They lay egg and they hatch it.

Joel De Carteret: You ready for a bit of a trip? We're gonna go do some camping. Do you camp?

Ritchie Culadilla: Uh, not too much. I think only twice. But I don't wanna go there again because you know they the bear or… Oh my God, they're going to eat you there. Oh dear.

Joel De Carteret: Do you have a bag to go camping? Or…

Ritchie Culadilla: No, well are, are we going to stay there longer?

Joel De Carteret: Yeah we're going there for a week.

Ritchie Culadilla: For a week?
Joel De Carteret: Yeah.

Ritchie Culadilla: Oh no.

Joel De Carteret: I'm just kidding. One night, one night.
Ritchie Culadilla: One night, yeah that's okay. Maybe I'll bring my jacket.

Joel De Carteret: Yeah bring your jacket, yeah and a toothbrush or something.

Joel De Carteret: Do I feel angry? Do I feel sad about it? Part of me wants him to like me, ya know. Part of me wants him to see the son that he never had. But part of me is like just understand that he might not be ready for some of those questions and that we might need some time before we have that connection. And so, part of this trip for me is about having that time. I'm hoping that we can build some sort of relationship through that.

Joel De Carteret: You've never set up a tent?

Ritchie Culadilla: No.

Joel De Carteret: Damn.

Joel De Carteret: Doing stuff that we don't have to talk is gonna be the time that he's gonna be comfortable with me to be able to open up to me. And for me too, cause there's this sort of awkwardness about ya know, who is this man?

Joel De Carteret: Okay so, tent's done, fire's done, and I'm about to discover that everything I knew about my childhood is actually not what I been led to believe. See, apparently, way back before I got lost, back when I was a newborn my mother had to go away and Ritchie really stepped up to take care of me.

Can you tell me about what happened when I was born?

Ritchie Culadilla: Oh yeah. If you want, I'm gonna tell you you know. When you were three months old, she go away and you know, I'm a man I don't know how to take care of baby like you, ya know. But I tried. Oh my God, you're crying. Hungry, and give make you milk, ya know.

Joel De Carteret: So you, acting like my mother.

Ritchie Culadilla: Well, yeah mother and father.

Joel De Carteret: So I'm sitting here with my mind kinda blown. I've lived my life thinking my dad abandoned me, but in reality, he took care of me. He nurtured me. He fed me. This is totally new information right now. Growing up, dad, I always felt like you left when I was like a small kid.

Ritchie Culadilla: I'm not a bad guy, ya know.

Joel De Carteret: I never realized that, that you stuck around. You were there for me.

Ritchie Culadilla: Yeah, you are my son you know. No problem.

Joel De Carteret: Thank You. Did you, did you love me at the time?

Ritchie Culadilla: Love? Yeah. Oh, more than love. More than love, yeah. Let only say, I love you. I'm gonna prove it.

Joel De Carteret: It means a lot for you to be here.

Ritchie Culadilla: Well, I'm happy right now. I bond you.

Joel De Carteret: There was something that was really unexpected. Like I didn't expect a pull towards each other. It's made me feel like I've got a dad now that's got my back. I definitely feel like there was trust that had been created on our camping trip and something opened up for him.

Joel De Carteret: Traveling to America has brought me closer to understanding my biological roots and connecting with my dad has changed my life story. I wasn't abandoned. I was loved. So, even though my dad says tattoos are for criminals, it's been so fulfilling to talk to him. To understand his love for me and to uncover more about my past. Stuff that I'm proud to have marked rather painfully on my skin for the rest of my life.

It has been an extraordinary trip just going with the flow and seeing every kind of hurdle and roadblock as an opportunity and just part of the story.

Ritchie Culadilla: I'll see you again.

Joel De Carteret: See ya.

Ritchie Culadilla: Thanks.

Joel De Carteret: It's definitely given me a sort of a reminder of the glass half-full.

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