"The Kaya Co Fellowship" by Jacqueline Ramos

This is a reflection post about the Kaya Co fellowship program. Click here to learn more. 

Even though three fans hum all around the spacious room, the cool air barely grazes my mattress on the top bunk as sweat beads form on my forehead.

Of course, this is expected. I’m in the Philippines for the next 8 weeks with Kaya Co’s summer fellowship even though 2000 miles of ocean, 8000 miles of land, and years of the American experience separated me from the Philippines. But wanting to connect with the country that my family came from, wanting to connect with other Filipinos of the diaspora, made me fly out for 3 months to Manila during their rainy season. Kaya Co’s mission of “redefining the balikbayan” caught my heart even though my personal history includes my family dreaming and realizing that dream of leaving the Philippines.

So what is the Philippines to me at the beginning of these eight weeks? 

It’s hot, it’s humid.

What else is it?

With the few family vacations to Manila I took when I was younger, I heard that it was: 3rd World. Poverty-ridden. Beaches. Delicious food. My family’s past.

I push those thoughts to the back of my mind, the sweat off my forehead, and push myself into work on the first day, feeling accomplished having braved EDSA traffic on the bus that morning. With Kalsada Coffee, a coffee company dedicated to sharing Philippine specialty coffee with the world, I am here to learn about the coffee industry here and to tell the story of specialty coffee here in the Philippines.

Every day with them, I gain much more than a coffee industry and social impact education. I become friends with the most incredible people working tirelessly with coffee shops in the Manila and farmers around the Philippines to give those farmers their fair share of the work while sharing their story and coffee from the mountains of Benguet to people who say, “There’s specialty coffee in the Phililppines?”. From Manila to Benguet, from the city to the mountains, I learn about the diversity of people striving:

  • the farmers tending to their crops, their land in the mountains from 6 am – 6 pm
  • Kalsada folks in Manila roasting, selling, planning, connecting with the food and beverage community and the Filipino community at large
  • baristas at specialty coffee shops sharing their stories and presenting the coffee to guests every day.

I witness a community and culture growing, building each other up, every single day. 

What is the Philippines to me now? It is resiliency. 

Each week during these months filled with experiencing a new country and learning of new ideas, I came back to a group of 10 ladies, the 2016 Fellowship cohort, where we could challenge what we knew, what we have heard, what we grew up with as people of the Filipino diaspora. With them I networked, workshopped, heard, connected with changemakers in the Philippines while having no doubts that these ladies will be a part of creating positive change in their communities here in the Philippines or out of the country.

With them we reconnected with this country, learning of our history and reflecting upon our identity as balikbayans. Some as the 1.5 generation, some as mixed-race. Wrestling in this empowering space with questions of colonial mentality, our role as Pilipinx of the diaspora. Throughout the eight weeks, we at our shared home, at restaurants, in the taxi, on the jeep, in vans that drove through Luzon, in the office, at our retreat in Bohol, we discussed our experiences, we learned with and from each other, we healed with each other.

For our concluding design project, we decided that our final project will focus on telling stories, sharing experiences. Creating a space where people from the Filipino diaspora are able to share their stories through an online platform: Balikbayanonymous. We held our concept event in Makati and shared our written letters to the Philippines. Four of us performed in front of a crowd of Manilenos. The 2nd part focused on listening and sharing through an open mic. Through that, I found diversity in “the Filipino experience”, what it meant to be Filipino. With them, I found a space that I had never been able to express myself previously.

What is the Philippines to me now? It is empowering.

But ... what is the Philippines to me as I come back to America?

Even though I was initially clueless as I lay anxiously on my mattress before the first day I stepped into EDSA traffic, I realize that I came to the Philippines to remember. To know what was erased, to know what happened, to think about what could happen and where my people and I stand in all of this history.

The sweat beads on my forehead doesn’t just mean that it’s hot, but it shows the work that my kababayan and the balikbayan and I will put in for this beautifully complex country.

The Philippines in all of its beautiful diversity is still here. Now. Continuing its long narrative. From the sultanates, to the Spanish colonial period, to the American colonial period, to the Japanese period, to independence, to now. It continues with the people here in the Philippines and with the Pilipinx diaspora spread throughout the whole world.

I realize that don’t have to believe what I heard before, what I learned from words that put my country down that made me feel shame of where my family came from, made me avoid it. It’s the motherland, and it’s a work-in-progress. It’s resilient, it is empowering and a place with opportunity and community. A place that, with other changemakers in and out of the Philippines, I can call my home.

The Kaya Co fellowship is an 8 week program that takes place every Summer. Through the fellowship, Kaya Co connects the Pilipino diaspora to organizations in the Philippines to develop agents of exchange: informed and inspired leaders from the diaspora who will activate their own migrant Filipino networks as partners to homegrown social change initiatives. Learn more about the Fellowship on the Kaya Co website - http://kayaco.org/

Banner image credit: Kathleen Guytingco Photography - https://www.facebook.com/kathleenguytingcophotography