Filipino students use history to navigate cultural identity

By in News

On Jan. 10, three students at the University of Saskatchewan organized an event about Filipino culture called “Utang na loob: Rethinking Filipino History from KKK to the Huks” as a way to help other Filipino students learn about their culture.

Keith Carlson discusses the importance of “utang na loob” in Filipino culture.

The three Filipino students who organized the event, Patricia Bautista, in fourth-year accounting, Eliza Acode, a third-year crop science student, and Jewel Manlapaz, in third-year chemical engineering, invited a faculty member in history to talk about the complex history of the Philippines.

According to Acode, this presentation was organized as a way to help reconnect students with Filipino culture, as it is often difficult to practice their culture after immigrating to a country with a completely different historical background.

“We [thought] of us Filipino students who moved to Canada or who grew up here — how can we highlight the Filipino in us? It is very easy to conform to our non-Filipino friends, [and] I’m not saying that it is a bad thing, but it’s just what happens,” Acode said.

The Filipino community in Saskatchewan has grown exponentially over recent years, and according to Statistics Canada, there were 26,860 people who emigrated from the Philippines to Saskatchewan in 2016, the largest number of people immigrating to the province from any one country.

Among the population of Filipino immigrants are young people in high school and university who might wonder how important it is to remember their cultural heritage. The organizers say that they hope this event has helped Filipino students navigate this internal debate.

Keith Carlson, a professor in the department of history and research chair in Indigenous and community-engaged history at the U of S, has spent time travelling the Philippines and learning the culture and history of the country. He discusses why it is important for immigrants, and Filipino people in particular, to remember their culture.

“I would hate to think that, as Filipinos come here, they somehow can’t be Filipino anymore. We want them to come to Canada, to be welcomed, to be embraced and to contribute new ways to changing Canada and making Canada a better place,” Carlson said. “That means, in part, keeping and retaining the things that [make] Filipinos distinct and special.”

The event garnered the attendance of approximately 60 people, which came as a surprise to the organizers. Carlson says that he once proposed the idea of an undergraduate course on the topic of Filipino history, which was dismissed at that time because of a potential lack of interest, but the attendance at the event has prompted Carlson to revisit the idea.

Carlson’s presentation detailed the history of the Philippines during Japanese and American occupation. He explained how “utang na loob,” a core value of Filipino culture which means a debt of gratitude, had a profound impact on relations between Americans and Filipinos during that time.

Some students held very different understandings of the phrase “utang na loob” before the presentation, like Bautista, who says she now she understands the expression to mean more than just the repayment of a debt.

“‘Utang na loob’ is returning a favour. You’re repaying someone [for] good deeds … done to you. Before the event, I didn’t know that it takes on a circular relationship. I thought it ends after you have repaid the other person,” Bautista said.

Alanna Baes, a second-year psychology student and an attendee of the event, explains that she views “utang na loob” like a random act of kindness.

“It means ‘debt of gratitude,’ but it’s deeper than that. It is when you do something for someone — it’s not that they are obligated to do it, but you have to be selfless and think of the other person as well,” Baes said. “Like sharing … a random act of kindness.”

Photo and text: J.C. Balicanta Narag / Photo Editor