Now Or Never·First Person

I started wearing my Filipina culture on my sleeve to give me strength at city hall

Growing up in Edmonton, Rajah Maggay felt disconnected from her Filipino roots. Turning to traditional clothing for comfort, she found strength in her identity.

As a young Filipina working in politics, Rajah Maggay discovered that she stands a little taller in her terno

When she wore her terno to work, embracing Filipino clothing for the first time, Rajah Maggay made sure to take a picture outside so she could remember the moment. (Submitted by Rajah Maggay)

This First Person column is written by Rajah Maggay, a second-generation Filipina Canadian who works at Edmonton city hall. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ

Navigating identity as a second-generation immigrant is like teetering on a fine line between cultural worlds. For me, as I was growing up, my Filipino identity was confined to the walls of my childhood home. Imagine the constant sizzle and simmer of fragrant, vinegary food, the mishmash of trinkets and furniture covered in plastic, and the sounds of Tagalog love ballads in the back. That was my home. 

But outside of this bubble was this foreign concept of what it meant to be Canadian. Did being Canadian mean learning English and French as a child rather than Tagalog? Did being Canadian mean I had to conform to Western beauty standards? For me, it did. I felt disconnected from my Filipino identity when I was interacting with those outside of my community, especially since many assumed I wasn't Filipina with a name like Rajah.

"But you don't look Filipino." 

I know but I am.

"I didn't think you were Filipino."

I know but I am.

"Do you speak Tagalog?"

No. I don't… 

I was 19 years old when I started working at Edmonton city hall as a research and policy advisor to a local councillor. 

Since diving into Filipina fashion and tradition, Rajah Maggay has joined a community of Filipino makers in Edmonton who running markets and gatherings to celebrate their cultural heritage in the city. (Submitted by Rajah Maggay)

Racialized women are at the centre of a spike in political mobilization and yet in my city, we have never seen a racialized woman elected to the role of city councillor and our visibility in senior leadership roles is scarce if not non-existent.

My family congratulated me for getting where I am but one of my titas (aunts) pointed out how other Filipino people working at city hall are likely custodians. I didn't know how to react to that. I knew this didn't mean that I was better than any of my kabayans, I was just lucky. 

My terno, my armour

In politics, it's difficult not to let the onslaught of news and stagnancy of change weigh you down. 

Back in July, I had one of those days. City council was going to decide the verdict of a code of conduct complaint, whether a member was going to be held accountable for violating the code of conduct as already ruled by the ethics commissioner. For many reasons I knew that day was going to be hard, but most prominently it was going to challenge the faith I had in our city regarding accountability. 

At this point I'd been working at my job for well over a year and was understanding the importance of visibility, especially as a Filipina in politics. I realized that I wasn't just here because of luck but because I deserved to be here. All racialized women in their fields deserve to be there. They deserve to hold space. They deserve to hold power. 

So on that tough day in July, I decided to wear a terno for the first time.

Since buying that first terno, Rajah Maggay has expanded her collection by sourcing other Filipino designs from local artists such as this terno which features embroidery and mother of pearl. (Submitted by Rajah Maggay)

The terno was invented during the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. During the 1910s to 1930s when the Philippines was under United States rule, butterfly sleeve ternos were a highly visible rejection of American colonization and allowed Filipino women to define modern womanhood in their own way. 

Despite one of the most challenging days I've faced at city hall, there's no way not to stand tall in a terno. The stiff butterfly sleeves lifted me up with protection against whatever was coming my way. As I walked around downtown Edmonton, I could hear the words in my mind, "That's a Filipina on a mission." I hope that any other person who looked like me would see me and my terno that day as a signal of acceptance of their identity in this space. 

Since wearing her first terno to city hall, Rajah Maggay has started to incorporate smaller Filipino items into her everyday life, including these self-made bracelets featuring Tagalog phrases. (Submitted by Rajah Maggay)

Rajah Maggay is the vice chair of research for ParityYEG. She works as a research and policy advisor for a city councillor in Edmonton and is the co-founder of Political DIVAS, a support group for BIPOC women in politics. When she's not working at city hall, she runs Coconut Collective, a Filipinx-owned initiative focused on reclaiming experiences, culture and traditions unique to Filipinx identities. 

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