The newest comic-book heroes are real-life Filipino caregivers

Two Toronto artists are capturing the real-life stories of migrant workers in an ongoing comic project.

Two Toronto artists are capturing the true stories of migrant workers in an ongoing comic project

Two Toronto artists are working together with Filipino caregivers to create a comic book that captures their stories. (Courtesy of Althea Balmes and JoSiMalaya Alcampo/Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love)

It's the true story of migrant workers in Canada, and two Toronto artists are making sure that it's told — in a comic book.

Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love is the name of an upcoming graphic novel by illustrator Althea Balmes and writer Jo SiMalaya Alcampo. It's a collaborative work, but it involves more than the just the duo.

As they put it on their website, "'kwentong bayan' is the literal translation of 'community stories'" in the Filipino language. And to create the book, the artists are working with caregivers who came to Canada from the Philippines. The comic is their story. Stretching back to the '70s, when the Caregiver Program began, it captures both the personal struggles and the history of political movements and legislative changes that have affected the community.

Filipino 'komiks' have always been a political act.- Althea Balmes, artist

The book is a work in progress, but the artists have already made several pages public. "We are invested in creating meaningful relationships," says SiMalaya Alcampo. "We share our comics with the community to make sure they have a say in how their stories are represented." And while a publication date has yet to be set, the artists have previewed excerpts of Kwentong Bayan online and in magazines (Ricepaper, Briarpatch), as well as during live events such as their talk last month at the Toronto Public Library.

I spoke with the artists via email to learn more about their community-driven approach. Here, they talk about making the comic — and why they're exploring issues facing migrant workers through art, not activism.

Why are these stories important to you?

Althea Balmes: "The first time I got involved in the community was through activism and organizing — joining a youth political advocacy group for young Filipinos. While the experience influenced a lot of the way that I think about social issues, I found out that militant activism wasn't for me. I felt heavy and required to respond out of anger. It wasn't a healthy environment for me. But the Caregiver Program is such a big issue in the Filipino community, and I wanted to explore it more in depth [...] where I could build a healthier relationship with the caregivers and discover a side of their life that activism work leaves behind — one where they aren't viewed in the lens of victimization and exploitation (though in the comic we don't shy away from these truths) and one where I can explore it [in a way] that was good for my spiritual well-being. It was important to me therefore to build a relationship with caregivers, because at that time, I felt distant to them."

What kind of research do you do before creating the stories?

Jo SiMalaya Alcampo: "Before we created the stories, we met with caregivers, Filipino community leaders and advocates for the protection of migrant workers' rights. They helped guide our work to ensure we practice an ethical code of conduct in our research process. We started by reading articles and research studies on the Live-in Caregiver Program, but they left us heavy with sadness and cynicism. We needed to get out of our heads, so we started talking to caregivers. We let people know about our project and caregivers invited us to their events, workshops, gatherings — and we showed up!"

The stories of temporary foreign workers are not widely known in Canada. How do you balance the need to educate with the desire to tell creative and engaging stories?

AB: "Since the nature of our comic is grounded in people's lived experiences, we really have to show our respect in how we use their stories. We do this by creating amalgamated characters based on the people we meet. This allows us to retain key facts but [we have] flexibility to give life to our characters while giving some level of anonymity to the caregivers and advocates they are based on. We also made a decision to include ourselves in the comics as characters going through a process of learning and rediscovery. The conversations and questions we have in real life about the Caregiver Program and interactions we have in the community we insert in the comic. Then as much as we can, we add references to our work citing articles and academic research to balance the fictional element to our storytelling."

Page from Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love by Althea Balmes and Jo SiMalaya Alcampo. (Courtesy of the artists)
Page from Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love by Althea Balmes and Jo SiMalaya Alcampo. (Courtesy of the artists)

You recently did a talk exploring the history of comics artists from the Philippines, Filipino Komikeros. Tell me about that and how it connects to your work.

AB: "In our research, we found out that Filipino 'komiks' have always been a political act — a form of resistance against our colonizers: Spain, Britain, Japan and the Americans who never really left. Komikeros therefore served as social commentators critiquing the leadership, the state, religion etc. and their work acted as a mirror for the Filipinos to see the ridiculousness or injustices of their social condition. Komiks also became one avenue to present new narratives embedded in the Filipino experience. It expands on our values, myths and imagination. Kwentong Bayan continues that decolonization spirit of the Komikeros and expanding on the Filipino experience by telling a very diasporic story with the community."

What are some examples of Filipino komiks?

AB: "Filipino Komikeros are amazing! For Filipino humour and satire, I look at Pol Medina Jr.'s Pugad Baboy. I have books by Francisco Coching that I read from time to time or look at because they're so beautifully rendered. Sometimes I look at his composition and ink work for inspiration, particularly for dramatic scenes."

Is there anyone in your life who you hope will read the comic book?

AB: "There's always a part of me that feels like I'm making this for my younger self who didn't know a lot about the issues and felt like there was definitely something more to the story but wanted to be involved in social justice work. So my younger self and future generations — like when if I have kids, this would be a reading in my household cause they should know their history."

Visit the project's website to learn more about Kwentong Bayan: Labour of Love.


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