9 Muses: Leslie Ferrer Espinosa, Diwata of Diaspora

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.

Love and take care of yourself first.

"For the dreamers who took a leap but actually stuck the landing" is how Jodinand Aguillon, artistic director for the 9 Muses series, captioned a behind-the-scenes shot of Leslie Ferrer Espinosa, our August Muse - and he couldn't be more on point. In my mind, she's living the diasporadical dream - a Fil-Am from Cali who came to the Philippines for the first time a few years ago and is now hella thriving, who co-founded two of the coolest new businesses in Manila and is part of the group of young creatives shaping culture right now. Besides being the first Muse of the day to shoot (and killing it in some crazy barely-there ukay-ukay gown and cape made of lavender mesh and sequined patches that looks like it was designed just for her), Leslie worked with frequent collaborator Jodee to create all of the hairstyles for this series. She really worked with each woman's individual look, texture, and personality to create distinct characters and moods for each diwata card - no b.s., watching her work was truly art, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Of all of the women interviewed throughout our two-day shoot, I was able to spend the most time with her and really connected with her story; of growing up in the States, but feeling a deep connection to the land of her parents and ancestors, crying on the plane home, feeling like a foreigner yet also more like her authentic self in a place she didn't visit until she was an adult, on her own, exploring what it means to be a Pilipina woman. Getting here didn't come without its share of questioning and heartbreak, but her story is a inspiring testament to taking a leap, having faith, manifesting dreams, and following your heart.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Leslie is the co-founder of both KAPWA Studio and Burlesque PH. Her interest in education and performing arts, and the need for some serious soul-searching, guided her to come to the Philippines for the first time in 2011 following her father's passing. Teaching stints with Soulciety and Teach for the Philippines led to Leslie living on a farm in Bulacan for two years with Gawad Kalinga, a Philippine-based movement that aims to end poverty for 5 million families by providing housing and helping Filipinos harness the country's resources to build sustainable lives. During her time there, she helped build a school for farmer children to become social entrepreneurs by instilling a love for agriculture in the youth and teaching them to create land-based, Filipino-owned businesses - a rarity in a country that despite its incredible natural riches, depends mainly on imported finished goods.

Her experiences as a child of diaspora returning to the motherland sprouted Tagalogue, a platform for Fil-Ams to tell their own stories through monologue, dialogue, spoken word, and dance that was performed in New York in 2012 and 2013. Leslie's experience in the performing arts goes way back - she was raised as a dancer from the age of eight, and studied ballet, tap, jazz, Polynesian, and Philippine folk dance. She graduated from San Diego State University in Theatrical Design in Technology, and took classes from all departments, from acting to set design. Her main interest became Costume, Hair, and Makeup, and she started her career in San Diego and Los Angeles working in theatre, opera, fashion, film and television. Five years later, she moved to New York and got her Cosmetology degree from the Aveda Institute and began working on and Off-Broadway.

Now permanently based in Manila, Leslie has been able to continue both her love of performance with Burlesque PH, and her love of hair and makeup as Creative Director of KAPWA Studio. She co-founded KAPWA with three like-minded friends late last year in Poblacion, the old downtown area of Makati, as a unisex salon/barbershop that also functions as a creative space, playing host to all kind of after hours workshops and live sessions that she calls a "place of magic, good vibes, and community." Leslie was inspired by the Pilipinx concept of kapwa - shared self, self in other - and their goals are to be a multipurpose space where artists and creatives can bond and connect, and to support other businesses in the community. The stylists work with all hair textures, and have become known for being a curly-haired and natural salon that offers dreads, twists, and no chemical straightening. She says that in Manila, a lot of people with curly texture don't have anywhere to go, but that this is slowly changing with the movement towards embracing Pilipinx beauty, arts, and culture.

Read on as we talk to Leslie about pursuing the Philippine Dream, the concept of finding "home," and how she went to the Philippines looking for inspiration and ended up finding herself.

here [in the Philippines] there’s roots, soul, heart - a part of myself that was never unlocked now feels whole.

Hella Pinay: What started you down the path to moving to the Philippines? 

Leslie: Moving to the Philippines started as a soul journey. My very first time to see the Philippines was in 2011, after my dad passed away. He had joined the Navy in 1974. My parents worked hard for a lot of things, yet I was still asking myself, Why am I not happy? What have I been working for? The only thing that was clear was to go to the Philippines. I came on a volunteer trip with Soulciety in 2011, and I taught dance. I came two years in a row, and cried both times on the plane ride back. I was ashamed because I didn't know my culture. The more I learn myself and learn about colonialism, the more I unlearn it. Being limited in knowledge also challenges myself as an artist. During these trips, I met different artists and my experiences became the inspiration for Tagalogue - Tagalog + monologue/dialogue - in New York.

My first show was inspired by my trip to the Philippines - I had to share my personal story of finding "home".  I wanted Tagalogue to be a monologue or dialogue about being Filipino in the U.S. Then the following years, Tagalogue explored other cultural topics. I recently got a message that some of the cast wants to revive it. I've been thinking about it also!

Tell me more about your journey and your experience with Gawad Kalinga.

Before GK, I was part of the inaugural class for Teach for the Philippines.  It was a two-year fellowship program to teach in the public schools in Metro Manila, but I decided that it was not for me, so I dropped out after the first year.  My go-getter attitude was shaken up.  I questioned every aspect of life: What career path do I want? What is the future of my relationship? What has drawn me to the Philippines? I was really at a crossroads because I had to ask myself, What do I want? Nothing was comfortable anymore. I felt like my world was falling apart, and I was forced to slow down and reflect on life. I was humbled to say the least, and many things in life are serendipitous. At this crossroads/existential crisis, I found Gawad Kalinga through friends. I kept hearing about the Enchanted Farm in Bulacan and decided to go one day. On that first visit, I met other volunteers who talked about their education and mentorship program. I took that as an affirmation that I do love education, and with these volunteers our main accomplishment was helping create the School of Experiential and Entrepreneurial Development (SEED). 

My class at SEED was called Self Expression.  I taught art and dance-based activities that helped build confidence. I revisited a lot of skills and crafts I have learned over the years, and that was huge for me and my students. A few sessions were about self-care and grooming, which eventually led me to teach some basic hair styling skills. And two years after opening the school, it was time to pursue another dream - to have my own studio. I have journaled about what it would look like, how it would feel to be in this space. I started to share this dream with a couple of friends who are now my business partners!

If I am here to shine a small light that tells you to go this way or that, that makes me happy. I want to help people realize that it really starts with the individual. Gain experience, continue learning, feel all you can, laugh hysterically, have an ugly cry, live to grow and face fears. I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that I haven’t done myself.

What really made you decide, I'm here to stay, I'm not going back to the States? 

A relationship that didn’t work out...I realized that 1) I really needed to know myself and what I wanted. 2) I didn't have to live the story that I thought I had to growing up...relationships and family come in so many forms. 3) No regrets. 4) This crossroads I mentioned - did I want to continue my American dream or create a Philippine dream? I thought I would be spending the rest of my life sharing my dreams with someone. At that point in time, it seemed the universe was telling me to go and live my life.

What made you take the plunge and co-found not one, but two, businesses in Manila? Can you tell me a little more about the process of founding Kapwa Studio and the inspiration behind it?

The times are really changing quickly. The whole country is developing in all industries. As an artist, I have my medium which is hair and I also like to perform. The universe just brought people together! My partners at Kapwa are Marco Katigbak, Dan Bradbury, and Dee Jae Paeste - another serendipitous meeting. It was very organic. I shared a vision, I knew I was going to open a salon one day, but I wanted it to be for all. Men, women, multitalented people, a community. If you can cut and style, you can cut and style - why should we limit ourselves?! If you like hair, makeup, salons, barbershops, art, music, coffee - why not have a creative space where we can nurture all our artistic loves...again why limit ourselves??  

I was also given a book to read from my friend and colleague called Kapwa: The Self in the Other by Katrin de Guia.  It became crystal clear as I read it. More and more there are talks of a renaissance, an awakening to our Filipino roots. With our gifts and talents, what do we do with them in this world if we don't share them? Kapwa is my place to share my creative and performing arts. A place that a community can constantly cross paths and create more synergy. I love it when my client and another client are friends who haven't seen each other in a long time. I love when I have an appointment book full of curly-haired men and women. Just the other day someone came straight to the studio after getting out of the airport to get a cut from one of our barbers. It is a place people love stopping in to say hi.

Leslie at KAPWA Studio / Photo by Dan Bradbury

Leslie at KAPWA Studio / Photo by Dan Bradbury

Kapwa is a place to gather amazing people, where they can cross paths, where we have ideas to share, dreams of building our communities and a better world. Family really comes in different forms.

I even looked up the definition of salon when I was just thinking about Kapwa. A salon of course is where hairdressing is done. A salon is also a social gathering of writers, intellectuals, and artists at the house of a woman in high society...so when I roll this all into one magical ball of an idea, Kapwa is in a way that house!

Kapwa is a place to gather amazing people, where they can cross paths, where we have ideas to share, dreams of building our communities and a better world. For me, I am passing on my skills to my team. Family really comes in different forms. I want to encourage creative careers. If I am here to shine a small light that tells you to go this way or that, that makes me happy. I want to help people realize that it really starts with the individual. Gain experience, continue learning, feel all you can, laugh hysterically, have an ugly cry, live to grow and face fears. I wouldn't ask anyone to do anything that I haven't done myself.

You had mentioned Kapwa has become known for curly-haired and natural styles - do you see yourselves as being part of a larger movement about embracing natural Filipino beauty?  

Kapwa is known at the moment for embracing individuality. Our barbers are on point with their fades and I am building a color and styling team. As for a larger movement about embracing natural Filipino beauty... let's go! One of the first things I realized when conversing with clients, whether they have curly or straight hair, is what their idea of "beautiful" is. I've had people laugh at me when I told them we embrace the curly texture!  I had a client that almost cried because she said, No one has ever done my curly hair and tell me it was beautiful. That alone set me on a personal mission to educate clients about their hair, any texture. Rebonding and straightening starts in the teens...some clients do not even have an idea about what their natural texture is! I want to help them on that journey.

Leslie as Maria Cacao in "Ang Pagdidiwata ni Maria Clara" presented as part of the 2017 FringeMNL Arts Festival / Photo by Jodinand Aguillon

Leslie as Maria Cacao in "Ang Pagdidiwata ni Maria Clara" presented as part of the 2017 FringeMNL Arts Festival / Photo by Jodinand Aguillon

I got to go into this with your co-founder Joyen [Santos, our May Muse], but tell me a little more about Burlesque PH and your collab with HATAW back in February - you had mentioned you get a chance to educate people about burlesque being theater, performance, art. 

I am a Creative Consultant, Co-Founder, and Performer [under her stage name, Lucky Rapscallion] of Burlesque PH.  Everything we do is gonna push the boundaries, as not many people have even heard of burlesque!

The collab with HATAW was many loves rolled into one! I got to perform at CCP [Cultural Center of the Philippines] doing modernized, burlesque-ified, folk dance theatre with crazy talented people! The theme was about diwata and tapping into that spirit. I personally found this as a way to honor my roots while exploring and embracing what it means to be a woman. A Filipina Woman.

What do you love about living in the Philippines? 

I fell in love traveling around the islands during my volunteer work. When I was starting to think about staying in Manila, I could see it all around me...opportunities for rapid development and growth. I really started to understand the culture and landscape. I had no idea. I did start to see that all industries, from farming to arts and culture, have so much opportunity to grow. It might be that Philippine dream many of us are starting to share. Here there's roots, soul, heart - a part of myself that was never unlocked now feels whole.

Have you faced any challenges living in the Philippines? 

Feeling like I came home, but then I became a foreigner. I am still learning Tagalog, but it is appreciated when I try! The challenges that I have faced living here are not so different from relocating to another city or country. It takes time to learn and adjust and I have been humbled.


Do you have any advice for those in diaspora who feel a call to move back?

You just really have to take a leap because you can always move back home, wherever you consider home to be, because we have that luxury. Most people who were born and raised here don't really have that. Don't think about it. The longer you take to think about it is time wasted, when you could just be getting to know life here.

As a "muse," what advice do you have for other creatives looking for inspiration? 

Inspiration is everywhere, act on it to see where it goes.  It could be a follow your heart moment and you will have to find out.  



Keep up with Leslie's hair design @lesferesp @kapwastudio and performance art @lucky_rapscallion @burlesqueph

If you're in Manila, go visit her at KAPWA Studio at 5059A P Burgos, Poblacion, Makati, 1210 Metro Manila, Philippines - get a cut or check their Facebook page for upcoming events & workshops!

Art direction, styling, photography, and digital collage by Jodinand Aguillon for Hella Pinay. Hair by Leslie Ferrer Espinosa and Makeup by Xyrille Yves Zaide and Ara Ambrosio for KAPWA Studio. Extra special thanks to Andrei and Pineapple Lab PH for the space, food, and support <3