A Room of Their Own in Toronto

CLUTCH program participants at the BRUHA Exhibition last April 2012 (Photo by Dwayne Fundano)

The logo of a jeepney stenciled in white against a crimson background is a dead giveaway even before one reads the words on the rest of the banner.

The words “Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture," and at the bottom, “Be Inspired,” are in crimson, set against a rich and warm ochre. 

It is a minimalist choice made more unusual by the Filipino’s stereotypical penchant for riotous color in anything and everything, including, yes, a banner.

But it works in giving a statement that Kapisanan is not your typical Filipino organization overseas. Kapisanan embraces Philippine culture, but like the ubiquitous, iconic jeepney in the Philippines–a testament to the Filipino’s ingenuity for fashioning something foreign and making it her own–it is unique and mindful of its context. 

The context is this: There are a growing number of young, first and second-generation Filipinos struggling to define and forge their own identities in multicultural Toronto. Kapisanan is there to offer creative tools that would allow them to “explore their history and identity.” 

You can still be Filipino even though you don’t like karaoke.

Housed inside Kensington Market, the city’s most eclectic and well-known multicultural neighborhood, Kapisanan began in the late 1980s as a multipurpose facility that served the needs of the Filipino-Canadian community, according to its website. 

“It used to be a community center, a gathering place like a Filipino mall, which had some services for the youth,” says Kat Estacio, operations and marketing manager. 

New Concept

In 2003 two youth-led professional arts organizations, Carlos Bulosan Theatre (CBT) and The Digital Sweatshop Inc. (DS), approached Kapisanan with a new concept that would “address the gap in services” for the Filipino Canadian youth community. 

CBT’s Nadine Villasin and DS’Caroline Mangosing--young Fil-Canadians who had already made a mark on the city’s art scene-- proposed the transformation of Kapisanan as a center that would provide cultural outreach and exposure to Filipino Canadian youth and the public. 

The partnership was forged, and in 2005 the youth-focused Kapisanan was launched in one of Kensington Market’s coveted row houses. 

Today, Kapisanan is a powerhouse organization that offers nearly a dozen arts and culture programs, including the popular Kultura Filipino Arts Festival. It’s an annual event featuring Filipino-Canadian outdoor live music, spoken word poetry and performance art, an arts/craft/food market and visual arts exhibit, among others.  

My Own Time Collective’s piece, Pagkakataon, at 2012 Kultura Filipino Arts Festival (Photo by Dwayne Fundano)

The festival has gone from being a one-day event in 2006 to a three-day event in 2011, and a 15-day event in 2012, notes Debbie Celis, event and social enterprise coordinator. 

Until Kultura came along, young Fil-Canadians had never had an opportunity to host their own festival, adds Celis. “There are so many Filipino festivals, but the young don’t identify with them. This festival is our message to the community.” 

Last year’s festival was held at Arstcape Wychwood Barns, a heritage building that has been converted into a vibrant “community cultural hub” and named one of Toronto’s Top five architectural gems by The Globe and Mail. One of its main events was an adobo cook-off that featured the city’s top Filipino-Canadian chefs. 

Kapisanan calls Kultura its “signature event” of the year, but its other programs and activities have been gaining equal buzz. (Kapisanan and its website have, in fact, become the go-to places for those who want to learn about emerging Fil-Canadian artists and current cultural events. The organization is also very active on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.)

Free Program

Programs include CLUTCH, a free arts-based and cultural immersion program for young Filipinas (ages 17 to 24), which pairs them with professional artists who act as mentors. For five months, participants get “hands-on artistic and leadership development through the exploration of cultural identity as the foundation for empowerment.” They mount a final exhibition at program’s end. 

Kristina Guison, a multimedia artist, was a CLUTCH participant in 2009 and since then, has become one of Kapisanan’s mentors. “Kapisanan provided me with a lot of opportunities. I got to know a network of artists and I felt like I was nurtured, supported and encouraged to pursue the arts,” she says. 

Born and raised in the Philippines, Guison arrived in Toronto with her family in 2009, at age 19. She enrolled in creative arts at Sheridan College, where she adjusted well. “My friends were non-Filipinos. I never got the urge to look for Filipinos, for the familiar. It was the opposite; I was curious about the non-familiar,” she says. 

Kapisanan's Debbie Celis (left) and Kat Estacio (Photo by Marites N. Sison)

Guison only found out about Kapisanan when she worked part-time at a Caribbean bar and someone–a non-Filipino–spoke highly of it and its enterprising co-founder and executive director, Caroline Mangosing. (A published fashion photographer with a BFA in photography from Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, and a diploma in fashion design, Mangosing is a multidisciplinary artist. She has produced feature and short films, including “Rolling Longaniza” and “Ang Pamana: The Inheritrance.” In 2005 she co-wrote and produced “St. Jamestown,” a TV drama about one of the most diverse neighborhoods in downtown Toronto that aired on Vision TV.)

“When I found it [Kapisanan], it was pretty wonderful,” says Guison. Back in Manila, she had been involved with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, and when she went to Kapisanan, “something resonated and I felt right at home.” 

Guison concedes, however, that she is lucky that when she came to Canada, “I already knew who I was.” Such is not the case for young Filipinos she encounters in workshops on Philippine identity and general arts that Kapisanan recently launched in some of Toronto’s elementary and high schools. 

I have met some non-Filipino emerging artists who wish they had something like Kapisanan for them.

Youth Adjustment Issues

For newcomer youth, issues can include adjusting to a new environment and figuring out who they are. They are at an age where they are “more impressionable, plus they have to straddle between two identities and two cultures,” she says. 

A lot of newcomer youth also speak of coming home from school to empty homes or to care for younger siblings, adds Estacio. “We teach them career development and advancement.” 

For second-generation young Filipinos, the issues revolve around career and lifestyle choices. A lot have parents who “steer them away from the arts, which they think is shallow and superficial,” says Estacio. “We teach them how to look beyond their parents’ lens.” 

This can be as simple as saying, “You can still be Filipino even though you don’t like karaoke,” to “there is a career in the arts,” adds Celis, a second-generation Fil-Canadian who first came to Kapisanan as a spoken word artist and community activist. She wishes she had Kapisanan when she was growing up. 

“There’s a whole lot that society tells you–that you’re not part of society, but you’re also not Filipino,” she says. “I was neither here nor there.” With Kapisanan, she says, “You have a place where you can explore your Filipino-ness.”

Guison agrees that Kapisanan plays a vital role in empowering Fil-Canadian youth and in giving them a sense of belonging through the powerful medium of the arts. 

Their Own Institution

“It is important to know that they have an institution that’s there to back them up,” says Guison. “I have met some non-Filipino emerging artists who have no access to something culture-based, and they wish they had something like Kapisanan for them.” 

Other Kapisanan programs include Poetry as Second Language (PSL), a four-week workshop that explores traditional Filipino poetry like the balagtasan (word joust in verse). Participants get to know such legends as Jose Garcia Villa and Carlos Bulosan, but they are also introduced to published Filipino-Canadian poets like Patria Rivera. Through PSL, participants learn that “poetry has been a part of who we are since the beginning of time…and is very much part of our Filipino fabric.” 

Jen Maramba (left) and Diana Reyes danced in their colorful malongs during the 2012 Kultura Filipino Arts Festival at Kapisanan. (Photo by Dwayne Fundano)

Artpreneur workshops are for those interested in business in the arts, while the Kasaysayan artist residency and exchange program “facilitates a creative exchange between selected emerging artists and established, visiting artists by allowing collaboration through a public exhibit/performance for the broader public.” Other workshops include encaustic wax collage, vinyl printmaking, photography and digital photo editing, which are facilitated by local artists. 

Tagalog classes are also held at Kapisanan, a nod to the fact that Filipinos are the fastest growing immigrant community in Canada and Tagalog, the fastest growing language. (According to the 2011 Statistics Canada census data, Tagalog is the third most common immigrant language spoken in Canada, behind Punjabi and Chinese dialects. There are currently about 400,000 Filipino Canadians, and their population is expected to reach 500,000 by 2017.)

Kapisanan makes good use of its vast basement space, dubbed Vinta Gallery, for showcasing emerging and established Filipino-Canadian artists–whether in literary arts, theater, visual arts, fashion arts, film, new media and photography. 

This spring, it plans to launch a look book and a showroom for Filipinana fashion. They will include “made-to-order goods from the Philippines that are shipped here,” says Estacio, explaining that Kapisanan gets numerous phone calls from the public (not just Filipinos) who are interested in barongs, ternos and other products. There is a renaissance of cultural wear and “authenticity” is a big word among the fashion forward, she adds. The projects will have an internship and co-op placement component for youth. 

The projects are part of a social enterprise initiative aimed at boosting Kapisanan’s sustainability plan, adds Celis.  Kapisanan currently receives grants from the Ontario Arts Council and the Laidlaw Foundation. 

Marites N. Sison

Marites N. Sison

Marites N. Sison is a journalist based in Toronto. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @maritesnsison.