The Hamilton-based project Filipinas of HamONT is using interviews and surveys to find and connect the community

There are not enough spaces in Hamilton where BIPOC feel that they belong. BIPOC in the Steel City often feel disconnected from their heritage, their history and their community.

This is a problem that Anabelle Ragsag and Jessica Vinluan are hoping that folks in Hamilton with Filipino heritage will one day no longer have to face. They are helping to tackle the problem with their community-engaged project, Filipinas of HamONT.

Ragsag is an author and educator with a background in politics who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines in 2009. Vinluan is a teacher, the founder of BIPOC youth organization Redefine Twenty and a second-generation Filipina-Canadian who was born and raised in Hamilton.

With their different backgrounds, they have made their project Filipinas of HamONT for all Filipinas in the city of Hamilton, whether they were born and raised in the city, a naturalized citizen, a long-timer, a newcomer or just passing by as is the case for many students.

They have made their project Filipinas of HamONT for all Filipinas in the city of Hamilton, whether they were born and raised in the city, a naturalized citizen, a long-timer, a newcomer or just passing by as is the case for many students.

The pair met in early 2020 at a Reaching for Power workshop, an initiative that teaches BIPOC women and non-binary individuals how to make a positive change in their communities. After the workshop series ended, Ragsag and Vinluan began in June 2020 to think about creating a project for the Filipina community. In fall 2020, they received a microgrant for the project and began sharing it with the larger community in November.

The project initially consisted of a survey designed to map where Filipinas in Hamilton are located. The survey asks for participants’ demographic information including: their highest completed education level; the province in the Philippines that any member of their family is from; if they are working, the industry in which they are employed; and the effect that COVID-19 has had on their livelihood.

The survey results will be shared to show where Filipinas in Hamilton are. As Filipinas began immigrating to Hamilton in the 1960s to build the health sector, Ragsag and Vinluan anticipated that many of the Filipinas that participate in their survey will work in this area. However, they began to find Filipinas outside of this sector when they decided to complement their survey with interviews with Hamilton-based Filipinas.

“[E]specially being born and raised in Hamilton, I didn’t really think that I could see Filipinas in different spaces and I think to be able to see that . . . like, “oh, you’re not just in the health sector, there’s other avenues that maybe I can take if I see myself in them” . . . [The project is] validating that it’s not just in the health sector, but like other aspects as well and other spaces that Filipinos are taking up,” said Vinluan.

“[The project is] validating that it’s not just in the health sector, but like other aspects as well and other spaces that Filipinos are taking up,” said Vinluan.

Ragsag and Vinluan have completed eight of the 10 interviews that they aimed to do. They shared the first interview on Nov. 13, 2020 and will continue to share them until March 2021. The interview series neatly exemplifies the intention behind the project: they want to share stories of leadership, empowerment and living between two cultures.

“I grew up and it was very white-dominated spaces. I think that, as a Filipina, I felt like I didn’t belong in a lot of the spaces . . . I felt like I couldn’t have these kinds of conversations around dual identity and things that I feel like I had difficulties navigating.  So, when Anabelle brought up the idea of starting Filipinas of HamONT through the YWCA project, I was so excited because I know there’s a lot of these kinds of community collectives in Toronto . . . but I also feel like I don’t belong because it’s Toronto and I’m from Hamilton,” explained Vinluan.

Based on the feedback from some of their interviewees, Ragsag and Vinluan are working towards running online events that will enable them to continue the important conversations they began in the interviews. They are considering running a book club where they would read works by Filipino authors and hosting workshops on the history of the Philippines.

“I saw that a lot of second and multiple generations of those with Filipino roots have this thirst to know more about what it is like. What does it mean if I don’t speak Filipino, if I don’t speak Tagalog, am I still Filipino? Because of my teaching background . . . I thought that’s something that I can do. That is something that I can contribute to the community,” said Ragsag.

“I saw that a lot of second and multiple generations of those with Filipino roots have this thirst to know more about what it is like. What does it mean if I don’t speak Filipino, if I don’t speak Tagalog, am I still Filipino?” said Ragsag.

However, in starting this project, Ragsag and Vinluan do not intend to take away from the work done by established Filipino organizations in Hamilton. They recognize the importance of churches, cultural gatherings, all-Filipino sports tournaments and student organizations such as the Filipino McMaster Student Association. They aim to work alongside these organizations to connect the Filipina community.

Despite the name, Ragsag and Vinluan are not completely closing the project to woman-identifying individuals. The project is intended to evolve with community needs.

“We see that our being here in Canada is rooted to that history of a feminized migration . . . So I think it started from there but at the same time, the project is an evolving one – it’s not set in stone — and we are aware that identities are fluid, as well . . . the role of those who don’t identify as male or female have been there in history but they [were] erased by colonization. That is one of the topics that we want to discuss: what is it in our history that was erased? Can we uncover them?” said Ragsag.

Ragsag and Vinluan hope that this project will enable them and other Hamilton-based Filipinas to continue learning more about their history and heritage. By having these conversations with their community and connecting with established organizations, the project will help ensure that every Filipina in Hamilton feels they belong.

Image courtesy of C/O Filipinas of HamONT

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