How Bretman Rock’s New Reality Show Reflects the Migrant Experience

The Fil-Am influencer gives viewers an unfiltered look of island life in Hawai‘i and its intersection with Filipino culture.

With a collective social media following of over 35 million, 22-year-old Fil-Am social media star Bretman Rock is one of the most prominent influencers of his generation. And these days, he can now add “reality star” to his growing portfolio, as he stars in his very first six-part digital reality show on MTV.

“I think what I wanted to capture the most is how different my lifestyle is from other influencers’ lifestyles in LA, New York, or wherever,” Bretman said in an interview with People. “The culture here and the person that I am today is really fixed to the island.”

The Filipino-Hawaiian Connection

The history between Hawai‘i and the Philippines goes back to 1906, when the first Filipino plantation laborers arrived in the islands 5,400 miles away. Called sakadas, these Pinoy pioneers were mostly from the Ilocos region, lured by the promise of the American dream. They would later on be known as the first batch of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), at a time when the idea of “Filipino” was still not fully realized. After hundreds of years of colonialism under the Spanish rule and the immediate takeover of the Americans who postured themselves as the savior of our young nation, being transported to an American territory seemed like the fulfillment of a promise. But this vision, just as many other promises made under the veil of colonialism, would soon be tarnished.

The working conditions were unfair and were not up to par with what their American counterparts experienced. This gave birth to the first Filipino labor migrant activism. The year 1924 in particular proved to be a tumultuous time for their plights to be heard with the imprisonment of labor leader Pablo Manlapit. It was also soon followed by the subsequent killings of 16 striking Filipino sugar cane workers in a bloody encounter with the state police, which later on became known as the Hanapepe Massacre.

The sakadas’ years of struggles, however, bore fruit. More than two decades later, in 1946, the International Longshoremen & Warehouse Union was formed. This labor union was characterized by what historians refer to as the “The Great Strike” — a 79-day work stoppage that sought to bargain for higher wages and better working conditions for all sugar plantation workers. The first of its kind, the strike proved to be successful and served as a template for other labor organizations that emerged.

The presence of Filipino laborers increased on the island, continuously booming despite the planters’ three-year contracts ending at that time. Today, Filipinos form one of the largest (third, on some accounts) ethnicities in Hawai‘i, with many of them situated in O‘ahu. The Filipino culture would also seep through the highly diversified population of Hawai‘i; sari-sari stores were built, festivities like Flores de Mayo started being celebrated, and Ilokano, the language of the first filipino migrants, would even be taught as part of the Ilokano Language and Literature program in the University of Hawai‘i.

In present day, the Filipino community in Hawai‘i is largely dominated by these people — the Ilokanos — which Bretman and his family are a part of. In one of his vlogs where he cooked adobo with his mom, he said “I used to always be my mom’s translator and I’m pretty sure a lot of immigrant kids would know the feeling of having to translate for your parents.” This is a sentiment all too common among many migrant children.

Bretman’s Rise to Fame

It was a viral video about contouring that gave the Ilocano-born high schooler his first taste of the spotlight. At that time, contouring was a novel idea, reserved to the Michelle Phans of the beauty influencer world. But Bretman had something that others did not possess: he was funny, sassy, and candid. From then on, Bretman’s fame skyrocketed. It was only a matter of time before he literally broke Instagram, when the platform shut down his account after an upward of a hundred thousand people started following him week after week.

Going beyond overnight popularity, his brand of humor continued to resonate with audiences around the world, and has attracted collaborations with brands looking for a more authentic approach to their promotions. Soon enough, Bretman was able to leverage his newfound fame to advocate for causes that he held dear in his own ways — from promoting diversity through a collection he helped bring to life for a beauty brand to representing his Filipino heritage through his vlogs.

“I feel great to show the beauty of Filipinos because we are underrated and have the stereotype of being poor or ugly, especially in Asia. I want to prove that Filipinos can do things just the same as others, if not better — and cuter,” he told HelloGiggles.

More than beauty content, his videos have also become an intimate peek inside the dynamics of his tight-knit family through wacky mukbangs, challenges, and transformations — a breath of fresh air to the cluttered, synthetic, and too-curated online influencer space. Unsurprisingly, he has also evolved into using his platform to bring awareness on social issues, from encouraging kids to stay in school to lamenting the government’s response to the Cagayan Valley flooding last year.

Going Back to His Roots

In MTV’s Following: Bretman Rock, viewers are invited to get to know the Fil-Am content creator in his downtime.

Fans familiar with his work will recognize the show’s cast members. No influencer cameos here, just three of his close family and friends (i.e., his cousin-slash-assistant Miss K, a childhood friend Larry, and his sister Princess Mae), and a few episodes with his mom. It’s The Osbournes meets Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s The Simple Life, according to Bretman.

The show also sheds light on the highs and lows of being a Filipino migrant worker, with Bretman bearing the torch for generations of Filipinos whose parents were once plucked from their homeland to find a better life abroad. In its heartwarming pilot episode, he shares how her immigrant mom had been trying to retire to the Philippines for the past five years, only to end up coming back to watch over her kids in Hawai‘i. With a spread of home-cooked igado and Filipino-style spaghetti, Bretman’s mother recounted how she’d wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning to sell fruits and vegetables to put food on the table, and then come home to take care of her children by herself.

This particular scene illustrates not only the logistical challenges but also the emotional toil of detachment from one’s homeland, especially for migrant parents whose lifelong commitment is torn between their children and themselves. There’s the longing for familiarity, the comfort of speaking your own mother tongue, and the yearning to be surrounded by other relatives, but at the same time, there’s the simultaneous pull to remain where your children are, where there’s assurance of a relatively more comfortable and secure life.

And then there are also the children — the Bretmans and Miss Ks and Princess Maes who recognize the nuanced and difficult experience of their parents. “I’d like to think that I’m the breadwinner of the family, but growing up, my mom would send money to my dad and her cousins in the Philippines,” Bretman said, letting his guard down, “and so I’ve always had this mentality that everything you need, you have to work for.”

Though the gaze used in the storytelling is still very much American, Bretman’s reality show combines the polish of his evolution as a celebrity, its effect on his personhood, and the revolutionary appeal of his success as a child of a migrant. And even with Bretman’s decapitating presence, the characters that surround him also bring distinct experiences about relationships, family, friendships, and the recognizable constraints of being Filipinos in a foreign land.

MTV’s Following: Bretman Rock is available on MTV’s Youtube page.

Arrah Balucating is currently taking up her masters in entrepreneurship, and is leaning towards starting her own venture that can help impact the community and the planet. On her free time, she likes discovering stories on human interest, internet and pop culture, and anything pertaining to lifestyle, wellness, and mental health.

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