KASAMA Vol. 15 No. 1 / January-February-March 2001 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Building Bridges and Beyond

DEBORAH RUIZ WALL's photographs have been exhibited at EORA Centre, an Aboriginal College; at a Sydney annual art show in Newtown; and in galleries and cafés in inner city Sydney. During the next six weeks, they will be on display at Bankstown Hospital till mid-April. On 2nd March, with her photographs on show, Deborah was the guest speaker of the Australian-Philippine Association, Illawarra Welfare Service at their inaugural celebration of International Women's Day 2001.

Today we celebrate International Women's Day. As it happens, this year the UN has declared to be the International Year of Dialogue among Civilisations. Last year, many Australians marched across the Harbour Bridge - 'Corroboree 2000' - in which ordinary people showed their support for Reconciliation between black and white Australians. This year, the 4th Aboriginal Philosophy Farm held each year at Easter week has the theme, 'Beyond the Bridge'. Where do we, women of Philippine origin, see ourselves in the context of this current climate here in Australia? As women who have made Australia our home, are we part of this dialogue, how do we relate to this symbolic image of 'the bridge' and what that represents for us?

These questions we cannot answer without having a keen sense of identity and belonging. A couple of years ago, I was attracted by an invitation to non-Aboriginal people, like myself, to do a course in Applied Aboriginal Studies at Tranby Aboriginal Cooperative College in Glebe, Sydney. Why the attraction? After 27 years of living in Australia, I wanted to get to know this country more intimately. After all these years of working here, bringing up two sons, being part of the Australian lifeforce so to speak, I was ready to 'go deeper' in terms of my relationship to this country, and I thought, who better to serve as my mentors but the first peoples of this land. "Land is life", is a simple but profound statement that sums up the Aboriginal way of thinking.

One of our year-long assignments is about identity. "If you want to get to know us, first you need to get to know who you are", they said to us. The Filipino maxim, 'ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan' (one who does not acknowledge one's origin will not reach one's destination) is something Jose Rizal who was overseas for many years appreciated.

Photo: The Path by Deborah Ruiz Wall

And so, I undertook family research, writing to my uncle in Canada to find out more about my grandparents from my father's side. I wrote to my mother in San Francisco and to my aunt in Taytay, Rizal to find out more about my grandparents from my mother's side.

And the result was astounding, for me personally.

In my research, I came across this piece of news from the Philippines: Interport Resources Corp has run into major legal problems concerning its centerpiece property, the 2210-hectare land parcel in Binangonan which it intends to develop into an 'Interport Satellite City.' The heirs of the Guido family, former owners of what used to be called the 'Hacienda de Angono' have filed a suit for the recovery of the property from Interport Resources, a publicly listed firm.

What is this all about? I discovered parallel experiences between Australia and the Philippines in regard to land rights. Francisco Guido, my great-great-grandfather came to 'acquire' the Hacienda de Angono from the natives of the Philippines. Sometime at the turn of the century, another Spanish family, the Borjas who lived on the estate for a while, contested the ownership but lost to the Guidos. And during the Marcos era, there was a transaction between Interport and some of the Guidos selling parts of the property to the corporation.

Land rights, colonialism, identity, and the sense of belonging are issues common to both Australia and the Philippines. Who am I? Who are we? Where do we feel we belong? On whose behalf do we speak, if we speak at all? Without attempting to consider these searching questions, we may feel totally stranded. Unable to move. We need to be able to 'see' , first of all. We need to open our eyes.

For me, discovering this sense of 'belonging' is something that did not happen overnight. It evolved through my experiences of life both in the Philippines, my birthplace, and here in Australia. Like some of you, I am in a cross cultural marriage and am an offspring of Spanish, Chinese and Filipino antecedents. Within myself, I need to be able to bridge these different cultural identities to begin with, and still feel intact.

Deborah Ruiz Wall

After I got married and went to Papua New Guinea, I wanted to 'see' what was happening from the Papua New Guineans' point of view. I was one of fifteen expatriates living by the Sepik River in Angoram. At the time, the country was on the road to self government. Shortly after, I had the privilege of working for the Leader of the Opposition as press secretary, and from my village life, I moved to the big town, Port Moresby, interacting with journalists and politicians about the issues of the day; quite similar to the issues discussed in the Philippines before martial law such as the constitution, regional autonomy, and sovereignty.

I went back to Manila and had my first born there in 1973, a year after I left the Philippines. Change occurred rapidly in Papua New Guinea. My husband's job was 'localised' and the impetus was there for him to return to his homeland, Australia. So, our new family unit began to settle in Australia in 1974.

Still aching over the loss of our people's rights in the Philippines, I became part of the Philippine Action Support Group (PASG), a group of Australians and Filipinos who tried to keep the public eye focused on human rights abuses in the Philippines, in order to give support to our people back home. The late Senator Jose Diokno, for example, was one politician whose speaking tour in Australia was sponsored by the PASG.

Then more Filipinos came to live in Australia, mostly women. Not long after the mid-70s, my energy shifted from Filipinos in the Philippines to Filipino women in Australia. I joined the discourse on cross cultural marriages, giving another side to the stereotyped images of 'mail order brides', exploring the phenomenon of 'serial sponsorship', sex tourism, domestic violence, and observing the mushrooming of Philippine-Australian associations such as the Philippine Australian Friendship Association in Sydney in 1974 and the University of the Philippines Alumni Association.

My involvement with Philippine issues in Australia focused on issues that linked our peoples, for good or ill, and studies about early intermarriage between Aboriginal and Filipino people in Darwin in the 19th century. The Filipino Women's Working Party came into being after a few of us were approached by the Immigrant Women's Speakout Association and the Ethnic Affairs Commission, to facilitate a state-wide consultation over these many complex issues so that governments can initiate policies that would address them in a positive way. The road to racist attitude and behaviour is something that needed to be blocked. The result of these efforts are the many documented articles, reports and projects that have been the basis of some enlightened policies, rules and regulations legislated by both the governments of the Philippines and Australia.

Ultimately, my involvement in reconciliation issues as an active member of the Women's Reconciliation Network and the Redfern Residents for Reconciliation has taken me to looking into 'who I am' now after 27 years of living in Australia, without ever discounting my personal history.

In 1998, I went on leave from my work as Head Teacher of Communication at Sydney Institute of Technology and left my home in Newtown to live in Redfern to be close to the urban Aboriginal community there. I rented a house and lived with students for a few months while doing my study on reconciliation using the Block as a case study and being an active participant in the community life of the people there, both black and white. I finished my thesis, 'Returning to the heart in Gadigal land' about reconciliation in Redfern.

Last year, I discovered something else about myself when I went away during the Olympics. My dream of visiting the sacred site of Uluru came true. I took many photographs during my trip there and I had the opportunity to visit Bob Randall's land and write an article about him. Bob Randall is a member of the Stolen Generation and was famous for composing the song, 'Brown Skin Baby they took 'im away'. When I returned and saw the prints of my pictures, I had the desire to share my experience with people through these visual images.

And so beyond my wildest imagination, I had a joint art exhibition in December last year with Ali Golding, an Aboriginal elder who lives on the Block. The theme of our exhibition was 'Following the Heart'. ***

Today, I pose this question for us all: What are we celebrating on International Women's Day in this year of dialogue with civilisations at the advent of reconciliation movements of peoples from all over the world?

The short answer, for me, is: we are celebrating 'life', discovering being, becoming 'us' together, seeing our inter-connectedness, our belonging to each other. Our personal and collective identities help us become part of this movement in support of this 'life', which we have been graced and blessed to have and to share as 'women', as people.

Kasama Vol. 14 No. 4, Oct/Dec 2000, features Dr. Jan Saave's "Impressions of a cross-cultural event"