What If There’s A Better Way To Talk About Filipino Resilience?

What If There’s A Better Way To Talk About Filipino Resilience?

The words ‘Filipino resilience’ make me cringe. They’re often uttered by shiny news anchors on TV, their voices droning in the background as our screens flash photos of destruction in the Philippines.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. If you search the term on Google, you’ll see a front page of results slamming “Filipino resilience” as a myth, a toxic lie, and even a form of exploitation.

It’s a concept that has been used by leaders in the Philippines to discount our people’s struggles and evade accountability, while romanticizing the poor as “resilient survivors”. In today’s context of rising anti-Asian hate crimes in the diaspora, the word resilience has even helped explain away the need for allyship, justice, and accountability.

And yet Filipinos are resilient, simply because our people haven’t had the choice not to be. Our people have survived a dictatorship, corruption, centuries of colonialism, imperialism, and one natural disaster after another. Resilience is in our ancestral lines, our history, and our blood. 

So what can we do with this complex baggage of words and emotions? How do we honor our resilience as Filipinos, while dismantling its toxic legacy?

A Better Way To Look at Filipino Resilience

What could resilience look like if we came from a place of empowerment instead of oppression? 

This was the question that inspired an online community gathering last year, featuring Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, the Co-founder and President of Rags2Riches

Rags2Riches, or R2R, is an ethical fashion company in the Philippines that works with Filipino artisans across Metro Manila. They’ve been around since 2007 and have overcome many ups and downs as a companybut 2016 took the cake. 

A photo from Reese’s talk about Filipino resilience and joy. Pictured here is Reese Fernandez-Ruiz presenting grave news to the Rags2Riches team and artisans at their annual Christmas party in 2016. 

In December that year, the company faced a looming shut down, which would have potentially put dozens of community artisans and staff out of work. Reese, who was under intense pressure while pregnant with her first child, describes 2016 as “the worst year of [her] life.” 

During our Kwentuhan, our Filipina/x-centered story-sharing session, Reese recounted what those days were like. 

She begins with a photo of herself, standing in front of the Rags2Riches team and artisans, her face grave with concern. She was giving a year-end report on the company’s financials, and explaining why this may be their last year as a company. 

Reese said what followed was heavy and hard, filled with sleepless nights and a bank of voice memos of her sobbing while worrying for her unborn child.

Long story short, R2R survived, but not without battle scars and a lot of lessons learned.

However, something unexpected also emerged from that year: joy

Joy and resilience are words that don’t seem to belong together. But anti-oppression educator and community organizer Gabes Torres said it best during her Filipina On The Rise interview:  “Our bodies were not made to hold so much grief at one time. We need to heal in humor, too.”

Our conversation with Reese showed us a different way to look at Filipino resilience and survival: one rooted in joy, community, and empowerment. 

Here are the highlights of what Reese and the R2R Team learned about Filipino resilience & joy. Note that parts of this conversation have been edited for clarity.

You can also watch the full conversation below.

On What Filipino Resilience Is And What It’s Not:

“Resilience is about grit. Showing up, giving 100% without a guaranteed outcome… Resilience is not denying reality or denying our responsibility to offer support to those who need it.”

“It is not an excuse to say ‘Filipinos are resilient by nature, so this person doesn’t need my help.’ We mean well, but the effect isn’t productive or empowering for others because it takes away the responsibility from us to act.”

On Going Against The Filipino Culture Of ‘Saving Face’ & Asking For Help Instead:

“Shed hubris, practice more humility.” 

“When times are hard, it’s common to think we should be harder… I’ve realized that vulnerability is strength.”

“It was the most important to be honest when it was hardest to be honest.”

“My vulnerability gave others the strength to process their own emotions. We got stronger together because we didn’t deny our difficult emotions and we were able to process it together.”

On The Power Of Community In Filipino Resilience: 

“When you’re in the middle of pain, it’s really difficult to process… I drew strength from our team and the community of artisans, so we all talked through it together. We identified what it would look like to get out of this and drew inspiration from that.” 

“The reasons we’re here today had little to do with my talents. We got here because of our team, the artisans, the culture we built, but also a lot of luck that we made sure we were ready for.”

On Why You Don’t Need To Have All The Answers: 

“When R2R started, I was very young. I didn’t know anything about building a company culture or leading people. But I had mentors and leaders I looked up to who told me to be open, to ask more questions…”

“By following a roadmap of asking, rather than a roadmap of answers, I was able to get to know the team and understand where we were heading.”

On How R2R Built A Culture Of Joy & Empowerment: 

“It doesn’t make sense to fulfill a beautiful mission, but in a very toxic way. It’s not enough that our mission is beautiful. The way we execute it should be just as beautiful, just as empowering, just as values-driven.”

“Our team started identifying the things that will support our Why. We created rituals and practices on each value that we could do in the company on a daily basis so that we don’t forget. So it’s not just a Pinterest quote, but something we practice everyday.”

“One of the things we identified is to start everything with gratefulness. Before we start every meeting, we start with a round of thankfulness, and this sets the tone for a lot of our meetings and a lot of what we do.”

On How Joyful Resilience Prepares Us To Overcome Bigger Challenges:

“Look back on the hardest times of your life with kindness. If 2016 didn’t happen, we wouldn’t have been in a position to survive 2020 and beyond.”

“Navigate the future armed with everything you now know about yourself.” 

On How To Inspire Joyful Resilience In Others:

“Allow people to cope instead of judging their way of coping… There are so many things in our lives where, if we’re just more open, we give people space to find themselves because we’re not judging them. And for all you know, you might find more joy in what they also find joyful.”

You can listen to the full conversation with Reese in the video above.

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Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine Santiago

Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.co

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