Catholic Church

Discovering My Story in 'The Journey of a Brown Girl'


I made my way up several flights of stairs, where I was greeted and asked to choose a small stone from a bowl before entering the performance space. Each audience member did the same, and wrote a word or their name on their stones - I elected to scribble down the word “love” in Arabic. We placed them on the altar, located on stage right, and took our seats.

Jana Lynne “JL” Umipig, the director, creator and producer of The Journey of a Brown Girl, explained to the audience that the stones were meant to absorb the positive energy from the show, and that we were free to retrieve our stones at the conclusion of the night’s event.

The energy that flowed through WOW Café Theater that evening was beyond positive. It was also a mix of wonder, anger and passion; wonder – for many of the issues that the piece as a whole raised, all of which sparked curiosity and reflection among the audience; anger – for the many misfortunes and atrocities that fellow Pilipina women have had to endure throughout the course of history; and passion – for the intense level of emotion that each the five characters evoked during the performance.

The Journey of a Brown Girl did not follow a particular storyline. Instead, it was a collective; it was an exploration of Pilipina issues and experiences through varying lenses. Following the opening ritual, the five women gathered for “Ina sa Anak na Babae (Mother to Daughters).” Light, played by Precious Sipin, was the mother figure of the four other elements. Her four daughters were Wind (Renee Rises), Water (Leslie Hubilla), Fire (Vanessa Ramalho) and Earth (Karen Pangantihon). Each of the women in the show used a malong throughout the performance. The malong is defined by Umipig as “a life cloth.” Umipig describes the malongs as garments that:

“… become an extension of the spirits of the wom*n and are used throughout to help them transform into characters and to give to the stories of all the sisters, mothers, wom*n, and girls whose voices fill the piece… From cradle to grave, this is how the malong serves the Maranao. The malong is a tube-like, unisex garment that also symbolizes the Maranao’s artform and culture.”

In a commentary on the Catholic Church, poignantly referred to as “Sit, Stand, Kneel,” Light knelt on stage right, deep in prayer. As they sat, stood, and knelt non-stop, the four daughters began to itch with frustration. They recognized that they had been conditioned to abide by the expectations of the church, regardless of their understanding of faith and spirituality.

“I know Him, but I know the hymn by heart,” one of the daughters stated with discontent.


The wide disconnect between the church and women’s issues as a whole is still evident today. Change, though slow, requires arduous effort. Just this past week in the Philippines, the Supreme Court passed the RH bill, which previously faced much opposition by the Roman Catholic Church.

“The Reproductive Health Law is a historic step forward for all women in the Philippines, empowering them to make their own decisions about their health and families and participate more fully and equally in their society,” states Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Still the church continues to clash with women’s rights, especially in the Philippines and among Catholic women of the Pilipino diaspora.

The performance also presented the modern Pilipina woman as an individual that is often overlooked in society. The performers took turns telling the accounts of OFWs who have become domestic workers after leaving the PI. These portraits explained the trials that domestic workers are subjected to, including receiving little or no pay, enduring physical and sexual abuse, and experiencing the inability to break contract and leave their employer. The piece went on to portray trafficked Pilipinas who have been deceived by recruitment agencies or individuals and forced into sex slavery abroad. The performers took on a different persona, reflective of the women whose stories they were telling. They took turns recounting several interviews and recollections over candlelight. Hearing these chilling tales brought tears to many in the audience, myself included.

The latter half of the piece explored the perception of beauty among Pilipina women. Light encouraged her four daughters to make their skin white by smearing thick layers of lightening cream upon their faces. Watching the women cover up their brown skin was comical at first; they appeared to buy into the acceptable perceptions of beauty (according to their mother and society). Eventually, each of the daughters realized that they were hiding their true selves, and began to wash away their masks.



All I could think of during the performance was how much I understood each of the daughters - and even the mother. The performers portrayed Pilipina women as victims of circumstance. Those circumstances ranged from religious faith and spirituality to colonialism and globalization. However, each of the women also portrayed strength, perseverance and resilience.

After the show, I approached Umipig, and thanked her for such a moving experience.

“It was like you were telling my story,” I admitted to Umipig.

“That’s because it is your story,” she assured me.


Photo credits: Chauncey Velasco

What I Learned About Spirituality from My Grandmother

One of the first things I learned in life was how to pray. My grandmother, who was my main caretaker, taught me the basics of the Catholic dogma as soon as I could speak: the Lord's Prayer and the Hail Mary. As I got older, my parents enrolled me in a Catholic school where I spent ten years of my young life, mostly in rebellion against the very practices I was being taught. My mother forced us all to go to church on Sundays, which I despised, on top of going to evening confirmation classes in my last year at the Catholic school. I felt at the time that religious practice was filled with hypocrisy. I would see families gathered together in a forced fashion for an hour, much like mine, pretending to be devout followers of the lessons of peace being preached, only to be cursing at other drivers trying to leave the church lot in haste. An hour in the church did not feel like it was enough to be genuinely in touch with your higher power. It bothered me. I began studying other religions and modes of spirituality in my teenage years. It wasn't the idea of God that I was against, but I needed a practice that would work for me. I always knew that the Philippines’ deep-rooted Catholicism came from its colonial history with Spain, but I began to wonder what came before it. I looked high and low for what Filipinos may have practiced before Catholicism, but I didn’t come up with much. In the meantime, I became very attracted to Pagan spirituality for its secrecy, its mystical nature, its spiritual practices that didn’t seem forced and its rituals that were not bathed in pageantry.

But all along, if my grandmother invited me to pray with her at home, I never hesitated to join her. She is a deeply devout Catholic, yet something about her spiritual practice resonated with me. She never questioned my rebellion or reminded me about church and because of that, I never argued with her about spirituality. Instead, I followed her lead. She would offer simple wisdom in Tagalog: “If you feel troubled, talk to God. Come and pray with me.” I would sit quietly with her and watch her light a candle, take a rosary in her hands and close her eyes. She said nothing aloud, nor forced me to say anything. It was beautiful to just watch her, and wonder what she was thinking, or saying to God. I couldn’t help but notice how similar her practice was to some of the Pagan rituals I'd researched.

Later in life, no matter how much I tried to deny my religious upbringing and break away from my family’s spiritual identity, I found myself practicing the same things as my grandmother. Away from my family in college and confronted with bewildering new situations, I began trying to talk to God on my own. I stopped going to the church, but my practice continued, quietly, in the peace and privacy of my own mind.

Nowadays, I don’t subscribe to any religion, but I feel I’ve found my spiritual practice, and it takes the same form as the practice my grandmother and I used to do together at home: a quiet meditation and a one-on-one conversation with the powers that be. It’s helped me get through a lot of difficult situations when I've felt that there is nothing left for me to do but go back to that quiet place in my mind and heart. I no longer feel like I need to rebel against Catholicism and the Church anymore - I see that it enabled me to seek my own truth and opened me to the possibility of something beyond what's tangible and logical. I understand now that spirituality is more than just a religion, but something deeply personal that transcends man-made rituals and practices. It’s incredibly life-enriching to find and create a spiritual practice, if you can allow your mind and heart to go there.

The Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 (RH Bill) is Passed

I had been following the progress (and stagnation) of the Reproductive Health Bill since 2011, when I wrote part of my college senior thesis about the proposed law. My paper covered the main points of the bill - that it would provide access in the Philippines to maternal care, sex education and contraception, but it would not legalize abortion. I also discussed the controversy surrounding the issue. The majority of the population, along with President Aquino who endorsed the bill were long at odds with the Catholic Church, itself a potent political force within the country. That May, having completed my thesis and received my diploma, I went to the Philippines with my family. The three-week trip was a graduation gift from my parents, and I couldn't wait to explore the country again, this time with a good friend who joined us for the first ten days. While visiting Bohol and Quezon City, we noticed a certain trend: there are so many kids here, we thought. It wasn't an observation I can remember having on any other family vacation. There were small children literally everywhere. They approached us with wonder on the beach, they hung onto their parents at the malls - and they languished on the streets, begging for money. Our thoughts turned often to the RH bill.

I read an article from the Los Angeles Times this past summer that delved into the RH Bill and its implications, while also painting a portrait of a woman named Yolanda Naz. At the age of 36, “she had more children than teeth, common for poor women after repeated pregnancies and breast-feeding.” This mother of eight recounted sermons she had heard at Mass, when priests emphasized the sinfulness of taking birth control pills. But she explains, "What is more sinful is to have more children than I can afford to feed." The RH Bill is for women like Yolanda, who struggle every single day to feed their many sick children.

On December 19, 2012, the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 enacted by the 15th Congress of the Philippines. The law guarantees Pilipino citizens access to various contraceptives and fertility control. The public will have access to sex education and methods of family planning. Women are guaranteed maternal care and will have more control over their own bodies. This is a major milestone in the Philippines, where the median age is 23.1 years and the birth rate is 24.98 births/1,000 population (compared to 37.1 years and 13.7/1,000 in the United States).

Human life is precious, and that is exactly why I am glad the bill was passed into law. We should value the lives of children by allowing them to have as much opportunity as possible. Too often they are forced to work instead of going to school; tey become ill or they face death because their parents can't afford the luxuries of education, clean shelter and food. Because of this new law, children in the Philippines - this is the hope, and it will take time - will have a better shot at living healthier and happier lives.