On March 23rd, 69 Filipino youth entered YMCA Camp Erdman for Sariling Gawa’s 38th annual youth conference in Oahu, Hawaii. Among them were five Filipino-Canadians embarking on the experience of a lifetime.
Although Glyn Narca (20), Hilary Naluz (20), Karla Villanueva Danan (25), Kristian Pacpaco (23), and Maria Toquero (22) came from organizations such as the Filipino Canadian Association of Ryerson (FCAR), the Filipino Students’ Association of Toronto (FSAT), Kababayan Multicultural Centre, Babae Theatre Workshop, and more, the first time that the group met was at the Oahu airport. Their common denominator: McGill Social Work PhD candidate Monica Batac.
The SG Magic
When Batac had searched for successful, youth-led Filipino community programming, she discovered Sariling Gawa (“Our Own Work”), a group which had been running in Hawaii since 1981.
For the past two years, Batac built numerous bridges between SG and Canada: SG Vice President Geordan Arenal met youth at Kababayan Multicultural Centre in 2016; Kababayan staff Flor Dandal and Amy Basingan and youth leader Gino Amboang attended the SG camp in March 2017; and in August 2017, Batac had Amboang join SG leader Patrick de la Cruz at KAMP (Kababayan Academic Mentorship Program) in British Columbia.
And finally, in March 2018, Batac encouraged five Fil-Can youth leaders to collect community sponsorships to allow them experience what Sariling Gawa called the “SG Magic” in Oahu.
“I’ve been spending over 3 years laying down seeds, working on the ground among the youth, figuring out who amongst them wants to lead,” said Batac. “It’s slower, but I think it’s more powerful that way.”
A Point of Pride
Sariling Gawa offered three days filled with Pinoy cultural pride, including games of lastiko, tumbang preso, patintero, and Ilokano language challenges, break-out groups called barangays, an on-site sari-sari store, and cultural workshops with Wayland Quintero and H. Wayne Mendoza.
But apart from fun and games, the youth reflected on challenges in the community.
Keynote speaker and Curriculum Studies professor Patricia Espiritu Halagao shared a shocking statistic with the group: although Filipinos make up 22% of the public school population in Hawaii, Filipinos only make up 9% of University of Hawaii Manoa.
“Here, the Filipinos are known to work in hotels and plantations,” explained SG Treasurer and Program Advisor Lana Fernandez. “But we want to see the SG youth become educated, working professionals. That’s why we volunteer; that’s why we’re here year after year.”
During a group discussion, the Toronto contingent spoke about Filipino deprofessionalization in Canada when Program Advisor Rey Fernandez made a suggestion.
“Celebrate the caregivers in Canada,” said Fernandez. “They’re laying down your guys’s foundation. What if every Filipino took a day off in Toronto? Let that be a point of pride for you guys. Find a point of pride to build off of, and that’ll bring some like-minded people together.”
“My biggest lesson from the SG conference includes believing in the power of the collective,” said Hilary Naluz, Equity & English Studies student and FSAT Cultural Events Coordinator. “At SG, they emphasized that celebrating together as Filipinos has strength in it. If we can’t do it for ourselves, no one else will!”
Choosing to Rise
A unique leadership opportunity arose when SG President Leon Florendo held up 25 dollars. “Who wants this?” he asked the youth. “Anybody?”
The group laughed nervously, but History and Equity Studies student and FSAT member Glyn Narca raised her voice and waved enthusiastically. “Anybody want this?” Florendo asked again.
The group hesitated, but Narca boldly went to the front of the room, and Florendo gave her the bills and thanked her for demonstrating leadership.
“The theme of our conference this year is to RISE,” he said. “We can wish for something, we can plan for something, but unless we’re willing to rise and do something about it, nothing happens. It’s just a wish, it’s just a thought. Unless you’re willing to commit and work, nothing will happen.”
By the end of the camp, when the barangay discussions, cultural activities, and self-reflections were over, Narca felt more empowered than ever.
“In Hawai’i, I lost and found myself,” Narca said. “I lost the girl that had doubted herself, the one that constantly questioned if she had the potential to achieve her goals… Instead, I found a woman that now believes in herself and the vision she has for the Filipino community and for herself.”
A Hui Hou
On the final day of camp, as the Canadians and University of Hawaii Hilo students spoke about their challenges, they were surprised to find more similarities than differences.
“The biggest lesson I learned at SG was the mirroring of experiences between Filipino-Canadian youth and the Filipino youth from Oahu and Big Island,” said writer and Ryerson Social Work student Maria Toquero. “We faced similar struggles—from discrimination, to the loss of culture, to immigration, to identity. The highlight of my experience was that I felt like I wasn’t alone.”
Freelance fundraiser, capacity builder at Kababayan, International Relations graduate, and delegate to the United Nations’ 62nd Commission on the Status of Women Karla Villanueva Danan held back tears during the final lunch.
“It was even more magical than I expected,” she said. “Moments would just catch me totally off guard and I would just start crying at how beautiful it was to be surrounded by people who felt and looked like me.”
“My biggest lesson from SG is learning the true potential and result of having a close-knit community and pride in one’s own culture,” said Chemical Engineering student and FCAR executive member Kristian Pacpaco. “I have no doubt that the bonds we, as Toronto delegates, have formed and shared together will be the foundation of a strong community that Toronto and Hawai’i can truly be proud of.”
In the future, the group plans to create a summer leadership camp for Filipinx youth in Toronto.
“When I think about my wish, it’s that they return back from Hawaii, inspired with a clear illustration of what this camp could look like, but it’s up to them to imagine it and build it for themselves,” said Batac. “It looks very promising already.”
A hui hou, Sariling Gawa— till we meet again.
This article was originally published in The Philippine Reporter on April 27, 2018.