Visibility and the role of Kapisanan
by Christine Balmes
Kapisanan has gone a long way from being the brainchild of two young Filipina artists—as a space where other Filipino youth artists can practice their craft—to a full fledged organization with board members, a mandate, several theater productions and Kultura events in tow, months of culture and language workshops, various arts programs, and several thousands of grant money from different arts and community funders. KPC has more than 20 volunteers and at least 45 paid members, as well as several hundred people who receive regular emails and Facebook messages.
In just the two years that KPC has blossomed so quickly, it is amazing that we have not attracted as much attention from the larger community. Perhaps this is a function of the larger Filipino Canadian community’s visibility within Toronto. Despite being the fourth largest visible minority group in Toronto (4.1% of the population in 2006, according to Stats Can), Filipinos and Filipino culture are seldom represented in the broader Canadian arts and culture. Consider something as ubiquitous as food. While it might be easy for you to think about and locate which Chinese, Korean, or Vietnamese restaurant you might like to go to for dinner, it is not so accessible locally or imaginatively to come up with an idea of where you might go for Filipino food. Sure there are several Filipino restaurants scattered around the GTA, but how many of them are downtown, and how many would you actually go to for a formal dinner?
There are many other examples of this lack of visibility within the community. In my public library for example, I can easily find a hundred Spanish language DVDs on any given day. It is not so easy to find any Filipino DVDs (in fact, it’s near impossible). This phenomenon of the phantom Filipino becomes more apparent if you realize that the number of Latin Americans in Toronto is half that of the Filipinos. They only make up 2.6% of the total population. How is it that we are so underrepresented in our multicultural society?
Of course I’m not saying that we should somehow decrease the amount of Spanish DVDs they offer in the public libraries, or boycott going to a non-Filipino restaurant. I’m saying we have to make ourselves known. Somehow we have to make it “cool to be Filipino.” In fact, this has been one of the unstated goals of KPC. Besides offering a space where young people can explore their Filipino identity through arts and culture, opportunities for arts mentorship programs and cultural events, we also aim to increase Filipino visibility through arts and culture. Our assumption is if we do a good job of portraying ourselves and we are having fun doing it, others will be attracted to the work we do, and to us as a people.
You may be asking, why is it so important to be visible anyway? It’s true that visibility has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that you make yourself more vulnerable to xenophobic attacks. Historically, racially induced crimes are committed against immigrants who have increased in numbers within a short time period, who do not speak the mainstream language, dress in a distinctly different manner, or retain some other aspect of their culture that does not correspond to the culture of their new country. Often they are accused of “taking away jobs”. They are targeted because they do not assimilate. But to use this as a reason to lay low is a terrible excuse for ignoring your heritage and a vital part of your identity.
Here are the advantages of being visible: first, it gives you political clout. When some sort of crisis happens within the community, (e.g. Jeffrey Reodica) you can mobilize the community and effect change within the government. Second, when you see more positive representations of yourself within the larger society, you become a more confident, more generous person. You become more tolerant of others because you do not feel alienated. When you have a sense of belonging, you contribute more towards the betterment of your community. Maybe you help a stranger on the street or pick up someone’s trash in the subway and throw it in the recycle bin. You benefit, but also the larger community benefits.
If the disadvantages of visibility seem to outweigh its advantages, take heart. The truth is, we all live in a more complicated world, and most people, especially those who live in a large multicultural city like Toronto, have more sophisticated ways of approaching people who hail from different countries. We have to. It’s the only way to survive and thrive. And even if deep down, “we are all a little bit racist” as the Aveneue Q song goes, we all know to keep our mouths shut until we get to the confines of our own homes. In general we are already a more tolerant group of people than even 50 years ago (First Black American president, come on). Because, actually, look. Here is another advantage of visibility—it rids people of their irrational fear of those who don’t look like them, dress like them, or share the same values as them.
And it is irrational. They did a study recently. When they showed the test subjects a photograph of a stranger, of a person who clearly came from a different culture, the part of their brain that is triggered is the amygdala, popularly known for causing the fight or flight response. It automatically scares people to see a strange face—to put it bluntly, it’s just human nature to be racist. But there’s hope. They did the same experiments on a different group of people—ones who were exposed to different cultures, maybe because they read the National Geographic or lived in a city like Toronto. When shown the photos of people from different cultures, they didn’t even flinch. The amygdala wasn’t triggered. The point is, people learn. People can be taught to master their natural tendencies towards xenophobia.
Why is visibility important? Because the only way we can really combat animosity between different groups of people is if we made them walk in each other’s shoes. The only way we can make people put aside their differences is if we let them know, through our stories, our art works, our music, that we are not so different. We all laugh, cry, get hurt, appreciate good food, friendships, dance to happy music no matter what our skin colour or our eye shape. This is what we know deep down, and what we are trying to promote at KPC. This is what all the people at KPC are all about.