9 Muses: Caroline Mangosing, Diwata of Community
9 MUSES // Created in collaboration with Jodinand Aguillon as part of his arts residency at Pineapple Lab and shot on location in Manila, PH. Inspired by the "Siyam na Diwata ng Sining/Nine Muses of the Arts" sculpture by Napoleon Abueva at UP Diliman and goddess/oracle cards, this series re-envisions modern Pilipina muses as "Diwata Cards" which can be pulled for words of advice for those seeking inspiration.
I have to admit that I was a little awestruck to be meeting with and interviewing Caroline Mangosing for the 9 Muses series. I had admired her and her work through the internets for awhile, and the fact that we were both in Manila at the same time and connected through this project felt like some kind of cosmic alignment. Founder and former executive director of Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture, designer of modern Filipiniana line VINTA Gallery, as well as an actor and producer pushing for Filipina representation in film - her career and commitment to the Filipinx community is impressive to say the very least. Turns out, she's even cooler in person. Sarcastic, animated, and unfiltered, Caroline brims over with real talk, advice, and encouragement. She's someone who is clearly comfortable in her own skin and owns her power as a proud Filipina woman, badass without the ego.
From the movies she's produced and acted in, to her clothing line of chic modern terno and barong, all of Caroline's work centers on uplifting and bringing attention to Filipinx community and culture. She emigrated from the Philippines to LA in '84 when she was ten years old, then moved to Vancouver in '89, where she stayed through college. After years of feeling isolated in mostly white spaces, she longed to connect and make art with her fellow Pinxys, "especially after I started reading James Baldwin and Angela Davis and shit," she laughs, "I'm like Fuck y'all! I'm out! That's why I was like, one way ticket to Toronto." Finally surrounded by a large Filipinx community - "Like 50% of all Filipinos in Canada are in Toronto" - Caroline started what would be a prolific career in doing "nothing else but Filipino stuff." She soon linked up with her now-husband, Romeo Candido (director, writer, DATU member and a big reason why there's so many Filipinos on Canadian TV), and began producing films. Soon afterwards, she stepped up as the Executive Director of Kapisanan, and with no previous nonprofit experience, successfully transformed it into a community-based, multi-arts charitable organization that operates within an authentic youth-for-youth model, the first and only of its kind in Canada. She has also grown the annual KULTURA Filipino Arts Festival from a neighborhood BBQ into a mainstream summer festival now heading into its 12th year with sponsorship, federal funding, mainstream press coverage, and thousands of attendees. "When KULTURA started out in '06, it was a community BBQ at the crackhead park across the street from Kapisanan, like, pure crackheads in the audience clapping for people reciting poetry. Hilarious," Caroline recalls, "It was very humble."
In 2015, Caroline stepped down from her executive director position and took VINTA Gallery's Filipiniana fashion collection with her, which had been incubated and developed within Kapisanan since 2009. As anyone who's been reading Hella Pinay for awhile knows, we L O V E us some VINTA - a stunning collection of custom and ready-to-wear terno and barong that recall vintage glamour but are super chic and modern, designed in Toronto and made at their atelier in the Philippines. And true to her title as Diwata of Community, Caroline uses her newest venture as a way to bring shine to Filipinx culture and craft while also giving back - not only do they honor artisan work by providing a living wage for those making the products as an opposite reaction to the rampant exploitation in the fashion industry, a percentage of profits is donated back to support Kapisanan's work with Filipino-Canadian youth in Toronto.
Read on to learn about Caroline's journey and how she truly 'faked it til she made it' by having a vision, seeing opportunities, and learning along the way, all while doing everything #fortheculture.
Hella Pinay: Tell me a little about your career path and how you got involved with Kapisanan.
Caroline: I really wanted to get into film because before I left Vancouver I did a documentary for the UN, I went to Africa. When I first moved to Toronto, my whole thing was I just wanna find a community of Filipinos who can do art with me. I came from art school, all white people, I didn't know what I was doing really. I finished in photography - fashion first, for two years - then I switched to photography. So I landed in Toronto as a photographer, and then I met Romeo [Candido] who's now my husband. He was the filmmaker. I met him at his first film screening, a feature film that he did when he was 24. He wrote it, directed it, wrote all the music, starred in it - it was called Lolo's Child.
So we started doing films right away, like on the first date. We were doing Filipino stuff in the early 2000's. It was too early. It just fell on deaf ears. We got the funding, because there was all this kind of push for diversity in Canada cuz you know, we're so earnest that way [laughs]. White and earnest! But then it was like, people didn't know how to take it. People didn't know how to digest it like, "What? What is this? Brown people?" The last thing I produced was a feature film in 2006, which had a theatrical release here, in the Philippines. It was called Ang Pamana: The Inheritance. It was a horror film. and I played the dead lola [laughs] and the White Lady.
So, that's what I was doing. And then, you know, it was hard on our relationship. I was like, I gotta get my shine. I was a producer slaving away and I don't get anything. Sometimes I can't even get a pass for the film festivals! It's like, Guys? I got that money! Someone give me some credit! So I was like, I wanna do something else. I started doing volunteering with Kapisanan, a friend of mine kinda reeled me in because one of the older folks is her mom. She was running the Filipino theater company there.
How did you end up becoming Kapisanan's Executive Director?
The organization started in the 80's by like the old folks, the older generation. Kapisanan means 'assembly' - like "Kapisanan ng Mga Brodkaster", etc - so it's now Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture. It used to be a Catholic thing and then they made it secular, and then people fought and then....basically the people who were fighting to get the money brought us in, the young people. They're like, "You guys need to take over because the community split." I was just gonna volunteer doing video production and whatever, and they were just basically trying to get rid of all the money that was fought over and they were just gonna dump all the money into the space. And didn't really help us with anything, had no plan. None of us had experience running a nonprofit or workshops or stuff like that. So then I met someone who mentored me, from another kind of youth-led nonprofit organization, and I announced to the board, I'm just going to be Executive Director cuz none of y'all are taking the lead and I'm going to just start writing grants.
How old were you?
I was 34. They're like, Huh, what? but they didn't really care because they really didn't want to do anything anymore. And so I took over. There was like $900 left in the bank, rent was due in 2 weeks - and rent is two grand a month, $2500. So I'm like, either I'm dropping out now or you're letting me take over to deal with this. I started doing fundraisers, just jams, because we had a huge space, it was downtown. So I just started doing these rent jams. Bashment Jam, we called it. And we could get a liquor license from the government, so they just sold out. The jams were just like hipster kinda downtown parties, for awhile we were doing a lot of these weird Japanese dancehall parties. And then from there I got grants to put some programming together. We incubate. CLUTCH was the first program and it's been running for eight years now - it's for young women, 17-24 years old, and it's a multidisciplinary arts-based Filipino cultural immersion program. The instructors are Filipino and we have Philippine history and just a succession of workshops by professional artists who are Filipino. Not all of them are Filipino but just like, from different disciplines. And they have to produce a show at the end. We started the boys program [NAVIGATION] just 3 years ago when we finally got additional funding to do boys - same thing but all boys ages 17-24.
How's the response been?
It's been continuous throughout the years and we can only facilitate like eight girls at the same time so it fluctuates, but the last couple of years there's been tons of applications. We have to turn everybody away. What they've done is like, you can just be this intern or that intern and just be involved. So the competition is getting a bit tighter to get into the program.
That must be great to see the interest though yeah?
It's good, it's totally good. Jodee [the artistic director of the 9 Muses series] was actually one of my original program managers. So we had a storefront space and Jodee opened up his shop there and it was part of our kind of, "enterprising youth" thing. Everything was a little bit ad hoc, we'd get an idea and be like, Let's do an entrepreneurial program for youth! and then I would just kind of see if I could find funding for it.
How do you feel seeing this generation of dope artists coming out of Kapisanan?
Like what Kapisanan is now, and what happened with [FRINGE Manila] last year, I came and I wasn't even involved anymore. But Kapisanan just kept getting bigged up because all of these people from Toronto that came and performed as part of FRINGE all pretty much funneled from Kapisanan, from one program or another or volunteering or whatever.
I'm really happy about it, but I think that it was a little bit of a detriment to me because I didn't have ego about it. People say it to me all the time and I'm just like, yeah yeah whatever, but it doesn't make me feel like "It's mine! I'm bursting with pride!" I've been called The Hacendera [plantation owner], Doña...[laughs] I'm just like, whatever, y'all can talk shit but Kapisanan's doing its thing and I'm just a facilitator, a connector. Not without a vision, obviously, but it was one of those things where it was a really lofty vision and it actually happened because I just kinda kept my nose down, just kept working. And then people who got involved kinda took over and it has a life of its own now.
How long were you there?
Ten years, since 2005. Official capacity, 2007, when I started paying myself. I stepped down at the end of 2014.
What are you working on now?
VINTA, that's my full time. I started it as part of Kapisanan and every time I'd come here [to the Philippines], I would just buy a bunch of things and sell them. Jewelry, native stuff, textiles, whatever. And people would always call the center and be like, "Hi, do you have barong there? Do you have Filipino costume?" So I was like, Hmm, I went to fashion school, I can make it happen. My mom ran a showbusiness clothing manufacturing company so it made sense. That same year that I started thinking about it, all of these social enterprise buzzwords started coming out, and then all of these private foundations started putting out social enterprise money. It started as a program within Kapisanan. I was trying to develop a social enterprise to help mitigate the loss of federal funding to organizations like Kapisanan. This was before [Justin]Trudeau [the current Prime Minister of Canada], we were working under [Steven] Harper who was this capitalist, and he wanted to cut all public funding to anything, you know?
So we got all the money and I went through all these different programs that helped develop it, and I was able to come here and do all the research. I went to Aklan, I went to Ilocos, and did all the conceptualizing of where I would get all this stuff. And I already had Manang Lita, who's my master couturier. She used to work with Rajo Laurel, who's a big designer and whose house, House of Laurel, is here in Poblacion. My cousin [Ria Limjap], who's my business partner now, used to work for him. So she knew Manang from back in the day, and Manang left Rajo maybe 15 years ago, but Ria was smart enough to keep in touch with her. Manang Lita is our master cutter and sewer. She did all the couture stuff for Rajo, all of the gowns for Sharon Cuneta, Regine Velasquez, celebrity gowns. And really, her background is couture. So I'm kinda trying to enhance our couture side of VINTA, but I need a gateway drug, you know? [laughs] It's hard for people to imagine buying something that's made to measure, but off a website. You just have to be taught how to take your own measurements. I have a measurement manual that's downloadable and I Skype with people if they need help. It's a slow build on that, because it's a different way of shopping and it's a different way of imagining your clothes. The first time I ever worked with Manang was when she made my wedding dress in 2004. I just did a spec sheet in Illustrator, sent it to my mom, she printed it out and gave it to Manang. My dress came in a FedEx box, perfect! This was before I was working with her, before I even started Kapisanan. I was like, Manang. [laughs] I'm gonna make it happen. And it took ten years. So now, she's working with me. I made her a partner. She's too valuable.
Is it that you want to bring Filipino clothing to more of a mainstream level?
Yeah, I think so. And the craft that's happening in the Philippines - cuz the embroidery thing, it's dying out. I just wanna promote Philippine crafts and professionalize it a little bit. It's so hard to get stuff done because people are like, "Ma'am, brownout!" The electricity goes out, they can't do the work. "Ma'am! We don't know when it will be done." [laughs] But it's hard. Now, we finally got one of our embroidery suppliers to be on [Facebook] Messenger, so she can respond faster on her phone. And that was a big change from the first year, when it was just her mom and we were couriering printouts...of drawings...to Lumban...[laughs] then she would take it and be like, "Ma'am, it will take two months." Ay nako. Guys? Two months? So we were challenged to just push through it to get faster and professionalize.
What are your future visions for the brand?
I think for the future, the way that I'm looking at expanding VINTA is...I mean obviously, like any other fashion label, it would be nice to do New York Fashion Week, something like that, where I'm still only focusing on Filipiniana. Like I don't plan on going "normal" fashion. And then eventually I want to expand the ethical manufacturing so that we can start making clothes for other designers, and just do the manufacturing side of it. Eventually.
What keeps you going with this work? Passion for the culture?
Yeah, for sure. I do nothing else but Filipino stuff. Even as a filmmaker, all of it was Filipino stuff. We had Filipino characters, and a TV drama, and we did a short film called "Rolling Longaniza" about a longganisa maker in Scarborough, Ontario...and Ang Pamana was a balikbayan story with a lola who left the land with all the mumu, so that was fun. But always Filipino stuff. I think it was because I was so isolated without realizing, growing up in Vancouver. There were no Filipinos around. I didn't speak Tagalog for like 15 years. So after my white professor told me to go to the Philippine Womens Center in the downtown East Side, it offended me in a way like, She called me out for being Filipino! And I was just like, horrified and saw that I was assimilated without realizing. It was second year [of college] and it was like, "You need to explore your identity" and I was like [groans dramatically] What identity?! So that was what really started my journey. But you know, I'm so over the "Identity 101" part of it. I'm 42. But, it's still needed, you know. Even with the fashion, it's another gateway. It's another entry point. Like, "Oh shit, that's Filipino? That's so dope!" and it's like What, you didn't know it was dope? It was there all the time! But it's true, Filipiniana clothing is dowdy and costumey. I just want to make it elegant, how it was back in the day when everybody wore it every day.
As a "muse," what advice do you have for other creatives looking for inspiration?
I think the thing that I learned from a mentor when I started Kapisanan - right away he was like, "You need to have an exit strategy before you go in." Meaning, have a long-term vision. What's gonna happen when you're tired of this? What are you gonna do? Like I kinda didn't see it coming, I was totally blindsided. I didn't see [Kapisanan] ending for me. People thought I was gonna be there til I was in my 60's. But I knew that it was gonna be time for me to move on because the model that we created was "youth-led." When I started, I wasn't even a youth anymore. So I was like, OK, I need to learn how to be able to pass it off. Like that kind of mentorship. Cuz you know the baby boomers, they don't fucking mentor. They compete. I've had those older organizations fighting, and yelling at my volunteers, because they're like "How can you teach Tagalog, you don't even speak Tagalog!" and it's like, what the hell? These are the younger people! You don't stand on their shoulders. You let them stand on yours.
When I got the idea for VINTA and started getting money for it, I would be remiss not to mention that I thought of it as an exit strategy for me. Because, I love fashion. And just the idea that here I was, I'd found a niche and it hadn't been done yet. Outside of importing barongs into a shop in West Covina, California, no one else has done Filipiniana. People do it and it's like, beauty pageant kind of stuff, and you can't wear it on the street. Like you've got an umbrella coming out of your back [laughs] like me today, but you know? It's not wearable. So I was like, ok, here I am, going into my midlife and all of a sudden I change careers, and who can say that they're still able to find a niche in this crazy world where there's too much of everything already? So yeah, I think having that kind of long-term vision and kind of working backwards.
If you're in Toronto, go check out the VINTA one-day pop up shop on Saturday, November 11, 2017 at 187 Augusta in Kensington Market to buy something from their new collection or get measured for a bespoke/couture piece!