The Role of the “Ate” or Older Sister in the Philippines

If you marry a Filipina changes are that, in addition to being your wife, she is also her siblings’ ate or older sister.

As I have already mentioned in my blog, when you marry a Filipina you basically (and actually literally) marry the entire family and, therefore, it is very important to understand the role your Filipina plays in the larger context of the intricate family relationships that are very strong in the Philippines and even among Filipinos abroad.

The “Culture Shock Philippines” book by Alfredo and Grace Roces says the following about the role of the ate: “Sisters play a very important role in Philippine families, especially older sisters. An older sister is called Ate by her siblings. Ate is responsible for the younger children and she may bathe, dress and feed them. This is necessary in large families where the mother cannot look after all the children. Older children are taught early that it is their duty to help take care of younger brothers and sisters. This provides them with training and experience in housewifely and motherly duties. The oldest girl assumes this role as soon as the second or third child comes along and not necessarily when she reaches a certain age. It is not uncommon to see a small child carrying a younger brother or sister who is more than half her size”.

My wife was 10 years old when her father died and her mother moved to Saudi Arabia to work and she basically was the one who raised her younger brother.

Like my mother-in-law, many Filipinos move abroad and are forced to leave their children in the Philippines and often the ate takes up the role of the mother.

And even among Filipinos abroad who have managed to petition their children the ate often plays a major role because, more often than not, both parents work full-time, and even much more than full-time, and they have very limited time and energy to raise their children.

Here in Italy many Filipinos work live-in, meaning that they sleep in the house of their employers and, sometimes, there are employers who are not mabait (kind) enough to provide accomodation for the whole family of their Pinoy katulong (domestic helper).

I know a Filipino couple who had to rent an apartment for their children. The couple used to live in the house of their employer, as they were live-in katulong, while the kids used to live in another apartment and, sure enough, their older daughter raised her younger sister.

The special relationship between the ate and her siblings doesn’t end when the siblings grow up: my wife, for example, went to great lengths to look for an employer for my bayaw (my wife’s brother) and get him here and to this very day she gives him all the practical help he needs.

So, yes, a Westerner who wants to marry a Filipina has to take into account that the husband is not the only one a Filipina takes care of.

Many Filipinas have a lot of responsibilities toward a lot of people: they may have to pay back their utang na loob (debt of gratitude) to their old parents, and maybe to their uncles and other relatives as well, and they may have their younger siblings who show up every now and then when they need help (even if they are 40 or 50 years old…)

So, if you are thinking about marrying a Filipina, you’d better open your mind.

As I have abundantly mentioned in my blog, one of the keys to an amazing intimate relationship in general, and with a Filipina in particular, is letting go of resistance and practicing acceptance.

If you erect barriers and shields and behave like what the “Culture Shock Philippines” calls the Westerner who is “bashing the environment he himself has chosen to inhabit” your relationship won’t go very far.

Because another major key to an amazing relationship is appreciation you need to learn to view the Filipino kin-group culture as an asset rather than a threat to your intimacy with your Filipina.

10 thoughts on “The Role of the “Ate” or Older Sister in the Philippines

  1. A good life lesson, Ed, “letting go of resistance and practicing acceptance.” Our countries share almost the same extended bond but the role of “ate” is an exception. GOD bless you and your extended family!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, and unfortunately many Westerner do just that.
      I found myself in the odd position of having learned Tagalog and a lot of information about the Philippines and its culture but I was bashing it nonetheless.
      Over time I shifted my mindset and I realized that the secret to a multiethnic marriage is not just becoming familiar with the language and learning a lot of theory but rather learning to love and appreciate even the most irking (from a Western perspective) aspects of the “alien” culture. And I owe a lot to the authors of “Culture Shock Philippines”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s an inspiring paradigm shift! Actually I tried to look up the book since you mentioned it in a few of your posts — I thought it would be interesting to read! Sadly it now seems out of print. Will look to your blog for more insights then 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The book is available on Kindle. I bought the hard copy in the Philippines but I also have the Kindle edition….dahil mas gusto kong magbasa sa cellphone habang nakahiga ako (gaya ni Juan tamad)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Nakakapressure din po maging Ate. Pakiramdam mo nakaatang sa iyo ang isang obligasyon. Kahit hindi naman dapat pero iyon na ang nakamulatan. Ang taas pa ng tingin sa iyo kaya ang hirap din pag nagkamali ka. Kasi dapat tutularan dahil ATE ka nga.

    Liked by 1 person

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