Decolonizing my Filipino identity brought me closer to my culture

This first-person column is the experience of Desiree Ruiz, a community builder in Brossard, Quebec. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, please visit the FAQ.

I grew up surrounded by a buffet of cultures and diversity, but honestly, being Filipino has always been confusing to me. Born in Canada and having lived most of my life in Brossard, I have only visited the Philippines once. I didn’t speak the language, my last name was Spanish, and the few traditional dances I learned growing up were actually from Hawaii, Indonesia, and Spain.

I spent a lot of time in a church, surrounded by a loving Filipino community, and for many years I believed that a big part of my identity was to be Catholic. But at the same time, something seemed very young to me that I couldn’t verbalize or understood.

I felt disconnected, like I was still on rough terrain – doing something wrong while feeling a tremendous sense of duty and pressure to fit into a box. I felt drawn to religions and spiritual cultures more linked to nature and the intangible.

High school and college brought me across the bridge to Montreal and it was the first time in my life that I felt ethnic and “altered” by my peers. It was also the first time that I felt my Spanish roots – something that brought me closer to whiteness – made me look interesting or sophisticated.

Desiree Ruiz in front of the Catholic High School for Girls that she attended in Montreal. (Submitted by Desiree Ruiz)

As an aspiring teenager to belong, I subconsciously began to disconnect from my heritage. I started telling a story to myself and to others: I’m Filipino but my great-grandfather was Spanish. As if it wasn’t enough to be Filipino.

This story probably helped me connect with different groups of people, but still left me feeling like an impostor, pulling me even further away from who I am.

I am now starting to understand why. As the pandemic has forced the world to slow down and turn in on itself, many of us have taken the time to unpack and unlearn what we had not questioned before. In my case, that meant uncovering my story, as it was around this time that I realized that I knew little or nothing about my ancestors.

I knew the Philippines had been colonized for over 400 years by Spain, the United States, Japan and other countries. I knew it was an archipelago and there were some of the best beaches in the world. I knew we were a matriarchal society and that family, education and religion were highly valued. I knew we were known to be kind, caring people and had delicious food. But, shamefully, that was all I knew.

Then one night I came across a post on the pre-colonial Philippines and Babaylan. It contained an image of a Babaylan (a Filipino shaman) at an outdoor ceremony where she was surrounded by her community. It was the most beautiful thing I had seen in a long time and it instantly made me feel at home. This was the start of my decolonization journey, catapulting me on a mission to learn more about my history and culture. before colonization.

How were we? What were our beliefs, traditions and rituals? I went down to a rabbit hole and connected with so many amazing people on this trip. What I discovered was exactly what I had been looking for all my life: resilient ancestors and grandmothers rooted in spiritual connection, and simple yet powerful rituals and practices meant to bring us together.

We were culturally rich, highly advanced, self-sufficient, resilient and more, all before colonization.

Desiree Ruiz’s journey into decolonizing her Filipino identity was sparked by seeing a beautiful image of a Filipino shaman. (Submitted by Maryam Southam)

For years I had felt lost, searching everywhere and anywhere both to find myself and a sense of belonging. I didn’t know that the answer and the strength I was looking for was already in me, in my DNA. I now have a better understanding of my culture, past and present, and I feel the guidance and strength of my ancestors every day. I am more motivated than ever to serve, support and unite my community because somewhere along the way we were made to believe that we were not enough and that we could not make it on our own.

I also have deeper and more meaningful conversations with my mother about faith. My journey of decolonization allowed us to cultivate a deeper relationship – to meet halfway. I am now able to honor, respect, and better understand my mother’s commitment to her faith, and she has freed me from any expectation of connecting with the church the same way she did.

I still have a lot to learn, but seeing the world through a decolonized lens has given me a better understanding of what it means to be Filipino and how I want to live my life and raise my daughter. Knowing more about where I’m from was a looping moment that gave me a new perspective, a deep-rooted sense of belonging, and the will to make my ancestors proud. And I encourage everyone to learn more about their story.

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