Toronto, Ontario

The Ethics of Honouring Other Lives

The Philippine Reporter
Aug 15, 2017 at 8:42 pm
Dr. Robert Diaz

Dr. Robert Diaz

By Dr. Robert Diaz
Assistant Professor
University of Toronto

I moved to Canada six years ago and, for the most part, I’ve lived a life that seems unimaginable for an immigrant with roots in the Philippines. I work as a faculty member at the University of Toronto. I teach, mentor, and collaborate with Filipinos whose lives continue to inspire me. I’ve been welcomed into the doors of higher education, a place which always seems to let only a few of us in and with conditions upon allowing our entry. This life I live, then, is not just a source of pride. It is an ethical call to do more for those whose versions of an optimal life, whatever that may be, are often deferred and even denied.

I’m painfully reminded of this fact as I walk around a university where I rarely see people that look like me on the staff, unless they are serving coffee, food, or cleaning the hallways of the institution. I’m reminded of this truth when Filipino students brim with excitement as they come across Filipino characters in novels or films we encounter, often for the first time in their lives. I’m reminded of this reality when these same students discuss their migration histories with me knowing that sitting across from them is a teacher who can reflect those histories back.  I’m reminded of this duty when a Filipino mother working at a grocery store tells me, “I hope my son becomes like you,” as soon as she finds out what I do for a living.

Like you. The words never fail to cut deeply. What does it mean to feel responsible for another community member’s history, hopes and dreams? What does it mean to bear witness to stories conditionally shared? What does it mean to transform another’s trust into the necessary fuel for action and social change?I ask these timely questions because we have come to a point when our collective struggles, successes, and dreams in Canada need to be told by members of our community. We must claim the ability to tell our stories more vigilantly and more forcefully by asking those who may not share our everyday realities to give the pulpit they have historically occupied back, or to step aside when needed.

Systemic barriers

In Canada, the time has come for non-Filipinos who’ve historically claimed “honorary Filipino” status to create much-needed space for Filipinos aspiring to be leaders, mentors, and experts in their own right. These individuals must stop turning our pain into profit by continually leading government funded arts initiatives, research projects, curriculum changes, and academic positions that center our community’s experiences even as they limit how we participate in teaching or telling our histories. If I must bear the responsibility the mother I encountered gave me, then those who are outside of the community must bear the heavier burden of ensuring that by the time her son decides to become a teacher (if he does), he does not face the same systemic barriers that make a handful of Filipino teachers in Canada an exception rather than the norm.

I say this because we have an exciting future ahead. Many Filipinos are currently poised to shape how our stories are taught. Ethel Tungohan, John Paul Catungal, Ilyan Ferrer, May Farrales, Marissa Largo, Fritz Pino, Adrian De Leon, Casey Mecija, Katherine Achacoso, Monica Batac, Conely De Leon, Jessica Ticar, Dada Docot, Teilhard Paradela, Dennis Gupa, and many others will carry the burden of teaching our histories with pride, embodied knowledge, and sensitivity. We draw inspiration from those who’ve made our presence possible in the Canadian academy. Roland Coloma, Glenda Bonifacio, Eleanor Ty, Patrick Alcedo, Denise Cruz, Lisa Davidson, and Nora Angeles pursued this vocation when there were so few Filipinos in the halls of higher education. We owe them a great debt. This debt also means that we must cite each other and other Filipino scholars; our very survival in places that often do not want us depend on it.

In the end, the root word of “honorary” is “honor.” In the spirit of “honoring” the community’s history, and inspired by the fact that Tagalog is the fastest growing language in the country, I conclude with somekey Tagalog terms. I hope these serve as ethical guides for those who speak on our behalf. I want to remind those who write about us that they are accountable to us, as partners in ensuring our community’s success:

1)    Makisama – This word prioritizes belonging, not as something you rightfully own, but as something that is conditional on the willful acceptance of the group. So, those who claim “honorary Filipino” status must remember that to identify with us is not the same as being given the license to take from us to gain professional recognition or success. There is a limit to how much they can share in our struggles. Know this limit. No one is our community’s saviour or patron. We can tell our stories when given the chance. Give us this chance.

2)    Utang Ng Loob – This term conjures feelings of indebtedness rooted in reciprocity. For those whose success is partly owed to the mining of our stories, give us the power of storytelling back. Offer us this opportunity and we will gladly take it.

3)    Hiya – This word values humility. For many of us who belong to marginalized communities, the responsibility of sharing our stories carry the added burden of identifying with the stories we share. So, channel this humility when you speak of us since you are accountable to our pains, struggles, and ambitions.

I’ve always known that learning can be a difficult process. So, I share my thoughts to encourage our community to take ownership of our stories. From where I stand, we cannot give this responsibility to those who can only see us from a distance. These are our histories. Now is the time for us to shape their telling.

About the Author:
Dr. Robert Diaz is an Assistant Professor and Graduate Coordinator in the Women and Gender Studies Institute, University of Toronto. His scholarship, community work, and teaching focus on Filipino communities in the Philippines, Canada and the United States.