What does healing and reconnection look like for Filipinos in the diaspora?
Whether you were born in the Philippines and immigrated, or you were born and raised abroad, many of us find ourselves in the same place.
We grow up asking what it means to be Filipino and if we’ll ever be “Filipino enough”, as though we’re in a Miss Philippines pageant being judged by a panel of experts. We search for ways to reconnect and feel closer to our roots, our people, and the places we come from.
But while we share some universal experiences as members of a diaspora, our individual pathways are varied. The journey towards reconnection, reclaiming, and healing look different for everyone.
For myself, I was born in Bulacan province and immigrated with my family to colonial Canada when I was two years old. I spent the majority of my life in white dominated spaces and barely had time to reflect on what being Filipino and Chinese meant to me. I was too busy trying to get by, hiding my “smelly” lunches and trying, in vain, to fit in with the white kids. Until my twenties, my identity was defined according to Whiteness. And it was only after I travelled back to the Philippines and we created Cambio & Co. that I really began to explore who I was and how my heritage fit into it. It was only in reconnecting with myself and reclaiming my identity that I truly began to heal, a journey that continues today.
I love that our experiences as Filipina/x/o individuals are rich and diverse. And I began to wonder, “what is this pathway for others in the community? What does it look like for people whose lived experiences have been very different from my own?”
I had the privilege to discuss these questions with Jovie Galit, Founder of Pinay Collection. Jovie is a Filipina Immigrant from Nueva Ecija (home of the tilapia ice cream and celebrity rice paddies) who arrived in Canada in July 2011. Jovie’s immigration journey moulded the person that she is today and the person that she is for her community.
She’s the founder of Pinya Letters, a Modern Calligraphy business based in Toronto. Her work with the Filipino language has been focused on reclaiming Tagalog pejorative words through the art of hand lettering. She also founded Pinay Collection—a merch line that celebrates and reclaims Filipina/x heritage and identity. Outside of her artistic role, Jovie is a trained Social Services professional and leads a team of Settlement Workers in Toronto, where she develops and facilitates workshops for Filipino youth and families exploring belonging, identity, community, and many more.
The first time I met Jovie was in collaboration for Cambio & Co.’s Filipinoesque holiday pop-up in 2018.
I first met Jovie in 2018 in a coffee shop in downtown Toronto. She had reached out to Cambio on Instagram and offered her calligraphy services at our upcoming Filipinoesque holiday pop-up. She told me her story, and that she wanted to use her skills to give back and uplift the Filipino community. I was immediately enamoured by her passion, generosity, and a wisdom beyond her years. Today, I’m proud to call her one of my good friends.
So earlier this year, in an intimate conversation over (virtual) drinks with the Cambio community, I spoke with Jovie. We talked about her migration journey from the Philippines to Canada, how she found reconnection through community, and how Pinays can reclaim our heritage through our words.
Here are some of the highlights from our conversation.
Parts of our conversation have been edited for length and readability.
On her migration journey:
“My migration journey is just a whole bunch of different emotions. I came here to Canada [from Nueva Ecija] when I was 18 in July 2011. During my first three to four years of settlement I lived in Listowel, Ontario. Listowel is such a small town, we're talking about over 7000 people. And when I say over 7000 people, 7000 people are white people. [According to the 2016 census], there were only about 20 Filipinos, so it was really isolating.
I did not see anyone who represents me. I did not see community. I only knew my mother and my brother, I would not speak because I feared that no one could relate to me or to my experiences. It took about six months before I had the courage to take the bus because I did not know what to do with those tokens. I did not know where to pay. I did not know if I should be saying para, I did not know how to stop the bus. I feared that the bus driver would make fun of me, just by having that presence in that bus. So it's a lot of anxiety and fear molded into one ball of mixed emotions. It's really hard to explain.”
Pinay Collection is a merch line which celebrates Filipina/x identity through reclaiming Tagalog pejorative words and the art of hand lettering. Here’s Jovie in a ‘high quality, 100% original Punyeta’ sweatshirt.
On family separation and reunification:
“During those years especially, migrant and skilled Filipino workers in Canada couldn’t bring their families right away. So when they come to work here, they'd have to work at least three or four years before they can bring their families over. That was the case for my family.
My mom took four years before she was able to bring us in as permanent residents. And during those four years, there was a lot of pain and a lot of trauma between me and my mom. When I came here, I didn't have the critical thinking I have now. I didn't think that ‘oh, you know, this is the fault of the complex immigration system of Canada’. I did not think that this is the fault of the corrupt government in the Philippines. I definitely did not think this is the fault of colonialism. I know that now, but during that time, my anger was all just projected on my mother.
I thought it was her fault. What kept going through my head was, ‘why did you leave us?’
On repressing her Filipina identity:
“In the Philippines, it’s common to use whitening products like papaya soap, and I used them too. Even when I came here to Canada, I was still using these products for many years. I’d use them right in the middle of winter, trying my best to lighten my skin. I wanted people to stop looking at me or telling me that I'm exotic and other microaggressions I got on a regular basis.
I had to repress my identity and who I was, just so I could escape the reality of it all.”
On the power of representation:
“The first stage of my reconnection journey was feeling represented. I remember the first time I came into a school to facilitate a program as a youth settlement worker. There were about 30 students, and 28 of them were Filipino. I was so ecstatic that I could speak Tagalog at work.
I not only felt represented with the youth I worked with. I also felt represented with so many professionals around me: Filipino settlement workers, Filipino counselors, I ended up working with a lot of Filipinos over time. So that really gave me a whole bunch of confidence and a sense of belonging.
In the presence of my community, that’s when I began to get more engaged in conversations about my homeland, and picking up what I left back home. I started watching more news and learning about the immigration patterns of Filipinos here in Canada. That's when I started integrating more Filipino workshops and programming in my work.
The more I felt capable, the more comfortable I became with my work. That’s when others began acknowledging my potential.”
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Our goal is to build a brand centered around vulnerability. A brand that highlights Filipina/x stories that's been longing to be shared and witnessed. A brand that builds and nourishes a deeply connected community. A brand that centres the unheard and embraces the beauty in our "imperfections". - We can't express how grateful we are to hold space and hear your stories of reclamation. Us too, had gone through feelings of inadequacy, diminished sense of belonging, confusion. Us too felt what it was like to be different, to loose confidence. So really, whenever we say Maraming Salamat for your support and for reclaiming the Pina/xy identity with us, we mean every single word. - Maraming salamat for allowing us to help open difficult conversations in our community and to bring out new perspectives on issues unique to us Filipinas. We can't wait to hear more of your stories and handle them with so much care and vulnerability. We can't wait to build a larger community. 💕
On choosing to serve the Filipino community:
“I started giving back to the very community that gave me that sense of self determination. This eventually led me to create Pinya Letters, a calligraphy business that caters to special events to weddings, restaurants, and workshops.
With Pinya Letters, I eventually realized that 90% of my clients were white. And my social media, for example, rarely reflected any of my identity. That’s when I decided to engage more in Filipino and Tagalog artwork for the community. And the more I engaged in this work, the more I realized that I’m in a position where I get to represent Filipino artisans and Filipino calligraphy.
Having the influence to represent is a huge responsibility. But representation without the purpose of community care and mobilization is just plain privilege. Owning a business comes with power and privilege. Being intentional and humble about it means understanding how to properly redistribute wealth and resources to uplift, so you’re not the only one benefitting.”
“I remember when I first began practicing calligraphy, I’d practice in Tagalog because it’s my first language. And whenever I’d practice, I’d use swear words. So I’d practice calligraphy in words like punyeta and putang ina and I remember thinking, “this is so beautiful!”. It felt so empowering, being able to swear something, but write it so beautifully.
When we first launched Pinay Collection, I didn’t expect people to understand this at first. There was one Tita who attended our launch party and kept asking us to change our minds about the words we were using. She said things like, ‘But why? What are you reclaiming? Why are you representing bad words? Why can’t you celebrate good words?’ Despite me trying to explain, she still never got it.
So that encouraged me more to continue this work. We need to change the narrative: not just the ones our oppressors have bestowed upon us, but also the narratives of those in our community who buy into them. I still get some messages now and then from people shaking their heads, saying shame on you. But I'm kind of used to it. There are so many more people who embrace what we do, which I find beautiful.”
On reconciling our past with our future:
“We are not to blame our nanays and lolas for the things in our past, because they’ve been through trauma in our colonial history. We need to keep that in mind when we walk through this life and encounter a problematic person in the community or a problematic piece of our past.
It’s important to ground ourselves and ask, ‘how have I also been complicit in perpetuating a similar colonial mentality? How might I have reinforced these same principles or ideas?’ Asking these questions is also part of my journey.
I then ask what I can do better. Because, more important than our past, is how we make amends. And how we move forward, healing together.”