Confronting Appropriation and the Struggle to Re-member Self

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I have been reflecting on the conflicts arising within my community around topics of identity in its relation to representation of ancestry, and how to navigate around the realness of appropriation.

I have invested my life’s work to remembering and healing myself wholly as a human being, as a wom*n, as a person of color in the United States, and most particularly as a Pilipina-American/daughter of immigrants in the Philippine Diaspora - a child raised from Colonization.

It is such a struggle to have to piece yourself back together from an upbringing where your parents’ main agenda in raising you on a land far from where your ancestors were from, was to assimilate you: to remove you from the language, the cultural mindsets, the land (as it relates to labor and the poverty they experienced), and any trace of indigenous beliefs and practices. This is the story that I unpack daily, and is also the story of many other 2nd, 3rd, and so on-generation Pilipino-Americans and Pilipinos raised in the diaspora I have met and exchanged with.

Re-membering can be painful, but it is a process that I invest in because it helps me make sense of how to walk with understanding in the spaces that have oppressed me in my growing and aging; the spaces that allow the trauma created by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism to persist.

There is a part of me that has always called back to the Motherland, that is directly tethered to that place of being. I don’t see myself as uprooted, because I have come to recognize that ancestral roots are deep within me; though my physical self is removed, something of my spirit responds to her call. Even if we deny our roots, they are with us, and they call back to us; they invite us to dig deeply to see ourselves as reflections of our ancestors. The persistence of our living is their legacy, a continued resistance against all those who attempted to erase us, to forget us.  

The author with her grandmother, March 2017

The author with her grandmother, March 2017

Growing up, I understood my identity as a Pinay through the “otherness” that I walked in, through always trying to understand where I fit in the scheme of race, ethnicity, and ancestral origin. My parents sought to raise me American, and despite the tireless work they did to change my dress, my speech, and my cultural practices, my ancestors still shone through me. Because of this, as I have grown more in my agency to learn and choose who I walk as in this world, I have chosen to re-member the depth of who I am and who my living and past ancestors are, as Pilipinos.

I have been digging for many years in my adulthood for the sense of my Pinay Identity, and every time I learn something new, my spirit is uplifted. It really began for me from sitting in on lectures and reading texts that taught me more about my family than they had ever meant to tell me. I learned the struggle of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents who migrated here, and the experiences of racism and injustice they lived and thrived through to provide a life they felt would be better for them and for future generations. This initiated a yearning that I still feel is insatiable, that makes me continue to seek teachers who help me make sense of all that was lost to me. Each exchange of learning in the culture, the history, and the understanding of my people continues to change me.

Rice farmers in Los Banos, Laguna / Photo via irri.org

Rice farmers in Los Banos, Laguna / Photo via irri.org

The listening to his/herstories of experiences lived, the singing of songs, the playing of music, and the chanting of prayer has uplifted me in their beauty and made my spirit dance in gratefulness. Even just viewing images of the land and the people in the Philippines calls me back to the surroundings of Motherland. The viewing of objects in photographs, in museums - crafted by the hands of our people, and used in labor - resonates and echoes parts of self that I am still seeking to understand. And in the moments of being able to touch these creations - from tools to housewares, and garments and adornments weaved, stringed, fashioned by our people - a powerful connection arises, where we can walk even for a moment in the reflection of our people carrying them in our own daily lives.

When I’ve committed myself to learning movements of dance, martial artistry, laboring of land, and cooking of foods that were prepared by my elders and those before them - placing these motions in my body or words and song and prayer on my tongue make me feel connected to my ancestors. And even deeper, I began to seek connection in spirit with them through prayer and practice, in connection to the divine beliefs of our people. My quest to know myself in connection to ancestor persists.

In this journey, I have faced moments when the remembering needed to deepen. There were questions of intention in my learnings; in how I express them through my artistry, how I practice culture in my work and leisure activities, in my partaking in all the experiences of speaking, moving, wearing, practicing, creating from the fragments of my identity as a Pilipina that I spoke of above. In full circle, asking for patience and guidance and speaking with humility and love, the answer that I give to self and other is this: “I am a Colonized Child Re-membering - putting myself back together and understanding that there will continue to be holes to fill, humbled by what I do not know, and what I want to know. The Re-membering of self is a lifetime of learning, unlearning, and relearning what our ancestors and ancient selves have known. How to do this with the fullest humility, integrity, and honor in a world that tempts us to do otherwise is the challenge.”

Appropriation has become a buzzword for calling out those outside of and within our community that take aspects of our cultural/ethnic ancestries and exploit them. I move to understand exactly what this means for someone longing to find connection to a motherland they have been removed from. As I continue this reflection, I will do my best to be very clear that I am speaking from my own personal experience in support of those who are living the same challenges and encounters, the way I always seek to share. I know this is a conversation our community is sensitive to and is seeking to find justice, dignity and healing in. I am seeking justice, dignity and healing in this as well.

Artist Kim Arteche on her 2014 Ta,Too Project, a series of self-portraits that digitally imagine if her life hadn't been changed through colonialism and immigration: "There's a fine line of appropriation that my work operates in...I am ethnically Filipina, but all of these traditions are so foreign to me, so I use my appropriation as a way to reclaim them for myself and what it means to me today." / Photo via TAYO Literary Magazine

Artist Kim Arteche on her 2014 Ta,Too Project, a series of self-portraits that digitally imagine if her life hadn't been changed through colonialism and immigration: "There's a fine line of appropriation that my work operates in...I am ethnically Filipina, but all of these traditions are so foreign to me, so I use my appropriation as a way to reclaim them for myself and what it means to me today." / Photo via TAYO Literary Magazine

I have heard stories of similar Pil-Ams and Pilipinxs in the diaspora, particularly those who were not born or raised in the Philippines, being shamed for walking this path of re-membering. Being told that their expression of self in connection to their learnings of self is appropriation of the very culture they are seeking to re-member and connect to. I have heard of comrades being ashamed to wear their garments and jewelry, to show their tattoos, to dance their dances, to sing their songs, to play their instruments, to speak their language, or to create art and expression in response to their inspiration from their cultural learnings. I also see different sides of the conversation that creates this shame. Two common ways that this appropriation of one’s own culture arises are (1) the utilization of a learning from the culture that is just a fragment and lacks depth of knowledge and understanding and (2) the mixing of our cultural practices and artifacts into other cultural expression, often pop-culture of a western influence. I hear the complexities and sensitivities of finding ways to converse about the process that occurs in these acts of appropriation. Quite often, the main community that are called out on this are artists.

I believe that these conversations should happen, and should happen in a way that invites a conversation that will cultivate understanding of all sides of this experience. We can do this more than we ever could before because of the communication that links us abroad so powerfully. This reflection is an “invitation in” to move with Love, compassion, and deep understanding, instead of "calling out" through shame and guilt our Kapwa who are moving to remember.

I believe that in the act of re-membering, there is a need to continuously humble ourselves to the expansion and deepening of learning by acknowledging and honoring that which we do not know, and to allow ourselves to be guided by those who do. In being invited in, we must let go of our ego and welcome the opportunity to peel back new layers of learning, returning us closer to our roots in physical practice and living.

There are a number of things to acknowledge on all sides about the experience of those who are in a journey toward remembrance. I want to break down 3 phases of this process of re-membering, putting self back together in relation to ancestral lineage:

1) Awakening-Inspiration

2) Activation-Expression

3) Continuity-Commitment

In all of these phases I will talk about the importance of acknowledgement and honoring and about appropriation and when we begin to teeter into this realm.

 

Awakening-Inspiration

For a Colonized Child, raised on colonized land far from their motherland of origin, experiences of connection to “where we are from” can be as joyful and lifting as it can be painful and angering. There is something wholly sensational about seeing yourself in something connected to your ancestry. Something inside of you is enlivened. I have felt that in moments of being re-introduced to and re-membering my ancestry. I felt it the moment I held a woven blanket from the weavers of our people in Ilocos that my grandmother offered me, previously hidden away in a closet, and felt more comfort in being wrapped in it than any other blanket I had ever used. Or in the moment of striking a gangsa from the north in a workshop that introduced instruments from all regions of the Philippines, and letting its vibrations shake my core. Or when I fit into a dress made of pineapple fibers given to me by my mother, looking at myself in the mirror and seeing my ancestors in my reflection. Or when I sit eating pinakbet with my father over conversation of how in his past he grew both this ancestral vegetable and the rice on my plate, and my insides feeling nourished in a way that made me feel fullness in both stomach and pride. Or the moment when I heard an elder pray a non-Catholic chant in a gathering and felt tears well in my eyes from the divinity that I felt shaking me.

Center for Babaylan Studies conference, 2016 / Photo: Nicanor Evans

Center for Babaylan Studies conference, 2016 / Photo: Nicanor Evans

All of these moments give us a glimpse of parts of our being that were hidden away and forgotten in our childhood. And so the sight, the scent, the sound, the taste, the feeling of these moments of re-membering become intense for us. We feel mixed feelings of resentment, sadness and anger for being removed and divided from our ancestry, and also the joy, excitement and pride of being reconnected.

I invite into the conversation a visualization of these initial moments of exposure and uncovering of fragments of cultural and ethnic knowing; an understanding of what can profoundly and life-alteringly occur for an individual who was never exposed to their culture as a child, but who in adulthood embarks on a quest to know when they are given a piece of self that they may not even have known they were longing for.

This is where appropriation can begin, because we may just be motivated by that feeling, and not seek to know deeper of what we have been exposed to. What we have learned feels so immense and moving that it may feel like enough. The lesson that will continue throughout this reflection is that there is always more to learn and questions to ask that can tie us even more closely to every object, every image, every sound, every food, and every practice.

 

Activation-Expression

When we have experienced these moments of learning, what often emerges next is that we are moved to share it, to speak on it, to display it, and often for artists - to create from it. This is where appropriation becomes most prevalent. It is also where patience, understanding, and honesty, on all ends, is most called for.  In creating what we are moved from, and implementing those learnings into our expressions, we have to be willing to own the extent of what we know about what we are creating from. I say this as a removing of ego, and an ask for acceptance on the side of the creator and on those observing and witnessing what is being expressed, to be in a place of understanding that we are all on a path of learning.

This is where conflicts arise between those who know more and those who are just beginning to know. This is also where it is most important to “invite in” when we are the ones who have something to teach to deepen a learning, and where it's important to humble oneself to accept that invitation, and see it as an opportunity to be further moved and connected to what it was of our ancestry that moved us to begin with.

This goes back to the practice of acknowledgement and honoring. In our activation and expression, acknowledgement and honoring should be central. This invitation to deepen the learning is not meant to be a means of censorship or shame, rather it is meant to enhance the expression, to call forth an even greater honoring through knowing, and to help an artist move with the greatest integrity in expressing their connection to their ancestry.  

"Butterflies in Spirit is 'a dance troupe made up of mostly family members of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that raises awareness of violence against Indigenous womxn and girls across Canada. During and prior to the conference, Butterflies in Spirit collaborated with the Kathara Philippine Indigenous Dance Collective in a fusion of contemporary hiphop with traditional dance choreographed by PowWow dancer Madelaine McCallum." -Shaina Agbayani / Center for Babaylan Studies conference, 2016 / Photo: Maileen Hamto

"Butterflies in Spirit is 'a dance troupe made up of mostly family members of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that raises awareness of violence against Indigenous womxn and girls across Canada. During and prior to the conference, Butterflies in Spirit collaborated with the Kathara Philippine Indigenous Dance Collective in a fusion of contemporary hiphop with traditional dance choreographed by PowWow dancer Madelaine McCallum." -Shaina Agbayani / Center for Babaylan Studies conference, 2016 / Photo: Maileen Hamto

As an artist, I am learning to ask for permission and to hear spirit teach me how to honor my culture and ancestral practices in an honorable way. Ever learning, ever open to hear critique of the ways I walk my path carrying my ancestors in my heart through words, actions, and practices that are extensions of their own. I am learning. And I have allowed myself to be invited into many conversations that have asked me to take a step back, to retract a statement, to stop a way of practicing - these conversations have come from those in my community who I know seek to give me a lens into something from a deeper place of knowing, or a perspective outside of my reach, all for my betterment and growth.

This has done nothing less than strengthen my expressions and has led me to the last phase in the process of re-membering:

 

Continuity-Commitment

When we accept the process and re-member with humility, integrity and Love, re-membering becomes a continuous learning that influences the way we relate to all people, places and things in all our lived experiences. When we go beyond a space of inspiration and a reactionary and often ego-driven want to express, we allow ourselves to walk a path of re-membering that commits us to self and ancestor, past ushered into the present, with intentional acknowledgement and honoring.

I think of all those who I have witnessed in my circles willing to make this commitment. Those who are willing to listen as deeply as they share, that see community being integral to our re-membering; because we are one another’s teachers, and have the ability to support each other in rising. As we commit to deepen our learning, we are also committing to sharing and teaching in a good way to all our relations. This process of sharing our knowledge is meant to free us all from colonized mentality and practices that are counter to our liberation. When we make a commitment to an interconnected learning, we collectively uplift our ancestry, and the act of appropriation occurring in our communities becomes a collective discussion and exchanging of knowledge - not a battle of egos seeking to shame or guilt others in their unknowing.

Continuity and commitment is not a singular walk on the journey. We were not meant to hoard away our ancestral teachings (as our colonizers intended) for a sense of power, control, and superiority. I invite us to see how important it is for us all to invite one another to learn, and for us all to do the work to contribute to that communal learning.

I hope for us to find ways to celebrate one another more, as Kapwa (shared self) on our individual and collective paths toward re-membering. The only way we can find ourselves in a space to truly celebrate one another is for us to take pause and have conversations that invite and inspire acknowledgement and honoring of each other and our ancestors.

Center for Babaylan Studies conference, 2016 / Photo: Maileen Hamto

Center for Babaylan Studies conference, 2016 / Photo: Maileen Hamto

I recall words I expressed through the Center for Babaylan Studies that surfaced from our 3rd International Babaylan Conference whose title invited us to “Revitalize Ancestral Traditions Together.”  At the conference a message of re-membering came to me that said: “We are all learning. We are ever learning. Be kind to yourself and to others in our learnings.” I hope this message can echo throughout my reflection and my sharing for myself, for you, and for any other individuals that come to your mind in reading my words.

“We are all learning. We are ever learning. Be kind to yourself and to others in our learnings.”

In our journeying through this life, we can get caught up in messages of colonial mentality that urge us to KNOW. Colonial teachings create emphasis on the individual, and raise our ego to take precedence over our humility and gratitude that allows us to find continuous wonder in our living and for each other.

Be humble in your misunderstandings and the misunderstandings of others. Draw away from shaming yourself and from shaming others. Take moments to express truth as you have learned it and offer it to others with humility; those teachings are universal learnings that are meant to be shared with care, not with ego. We need to work more to compassionately invite each other into conversations of learning, and to approach one another with Love and the genuine intention for us all to be better and to speak and act in a good way with all our relations.

In reflection of our misunderstandings of protocols and ceremonies and what transpires in our raising of spirit, I invite you all to have forgiveness to self and to each other. And to ask yourself continuously in your choices, your movements, your actions in furthering your connection to ancestral learnings: “What is my intention? Is it coming from clarity in my heart and the ability to walk with Love?”

To decolonize is not about ownership in reclamation, it is about remembering that we belong to each other. That the more we re-member, the deeper our connection to each other and all relations becomes Kapwa.

 

BY JANA LYNNE "JL" UMIPIG

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Pronouns: she/her/jl

Jana Lynne "JL" Umipig is a multidisciplinary artist, educator, and activist who seeks to elevate the narratives of Pilipina wom*n as a reflection of her own life's journey toward decolonizing, re-indigenizing and humanizing self.  She is the creator of the acclaimed Movement Theatre production "The Journey of a Brown Girl" which has been noted as a "transformative human experience through the lens of the Pinay Narrative." She is a core member of The Center for Babaylan Studies, an Inner Dance facilitator, and founder of Butikaryo mga Babae, which creates sacred space for Pinay Womxn Healers seeking to learn and remember healing practice and knowledge connected to our ancestral traditions.