Montreal·First Person

Decolonizing my Filipina identity has drawn me closer to my culture

As the pandemic forced the world to slow down and turn inward, many of us took the time to unpack and unlearn what we had not questioned before. It was during this time that I realized I knew little to nothing about my Filipino ancestors, writes Desiree Ruiz.

I used to tell others a story of Spanish lineage. Now, I'm filled with pride for who I am

Desiree Ruiz grew up in Brossard's Filipino community, which is closely linked to the Catholic church. She writes that learning about the country's pre-colonial history helped her unlock feelings about her identity that she had been struggling with for a long time. (Submitted by Maryam Southam)

This First Person column is the experience of Desiree Ruiz, a community builder in Brossard, Que. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

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

I spent a lot of my time in a church, surrounded by a loving Filipino community, and for many years I believed that a huge part of my identity was being Catholic. But at the same time, something felt off from a very young age that I could not verbalize or did not understand.

I felt disconnected, like I was always on uneven ground — doing something wrong all while feeling a huge sense of duty and pressure to fit in a box. I felt drawn to spiritual religions and cultures that were more connected to nature and the intangible.

High school and college brought me across the bridge to Montreal and that was the first time in my life that I experienced feeling ethnic and "othered" by my peers. It was also the first time I felt that my Spanish roots — something that gave me proximity to whiteness — made me seem interesting or sophisticated.

Desiree Ruiz outside the all-girls' Catholic high school she attended in Montreal. (Submitted by Desiree Ruiz)

As a teenager yearning to belong, I subconsciously started disconnecting from my heritage. I started to tell a story to myself and others: I'm Filipino but my great-grandfather was from Spain. As though it was simply not enough to be Filipino.

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

I am now starting to understand why. As the pandemic forced the world to slow down and turn inward, many of us took the time to unpack and unlearn what we had not questioned before. In my case, that meant uncovering my history, because it was during this time that I realized I knew little to nothing about my ancestors.

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

Then one night, I came across a post about pre-colonial Philippines and the Babaylan. It contained an image of a Babaylan (a Filipino shaman) in 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 made me feel an instant sense of home. This was the beginning of my decolonization journey, catapulting me on a mission to learn more about my history and my culture before colonization.

What were we like? What were our beliefs, traditions and rituals? I went down a rabbit hole and connected with so many amazing folks on this journey. What I discovered was exactly what I had been searching for my entire life — resilient ancestors and grandmothers rooted in spiritual connectedness, and simple yet powerful rituals and practices meant to bring us together.

We were rich in culture, highly advanced, self-sufficient, resilient and so much more — all before colonization.

Desiree Ruiz's journey in decolonizing her Filipina identity was sparked by seeing a beautiful image of a Filipina shaman. (Submitted by Maryam Southam)

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

I'm also having deeper and more meaningful conversations with my mom about faith. My decolonization journey has allowed us to cultivate a more profound relationship — meeting each other halfway. I'm now able to honour, respect and better understand my mom's commitment to her faith, and she has released me from any expectation to connect with the church in the same way as her.

There is still so much for me 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. Learning more about where I come from has been a full-circle moment that has given me a new perspective, a grounded sense of belonging and the drive to make my ancestors proud. And I encourage everyone to learn more about their history.

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Desiree Ruiz is a proud Filipina-Canadian community builder, mom and the co-founder of Les Lilas Society. She has spent the last six years gathering and holding space for thousands of women — helping them feel seen, heard and more connected, and continues to mentor women and moms one-on-one through difficult life transitions.