Aboriginal elder, Aunty Ali Golding and her Filipina friend, Miling (Miguela de Lara) drank tea and munched biscuits in a lounge room while they chatted about the storytelling workshop they attended in October last year. After comparing the medicinal quality of tea in their home countries, Miling turned to the data projector and laptop so they could both view on screen memorable video footage of that workshop.
About fifty people were present watching this seamless blending of live and film footage of stories on 23rd March from 5.30 to 7.00pm at Customs House, Circular Quay in Sydney. The opening was a ‘Welcome to Country’ by Aunty Joyce Ingram from Redfern followed by a “Mano po”,* a Philippine ritual used, this time, to honour Aboriginal people for allowing Filipino migrants to live on their land.
We do not want to call this event a ‘performance’ — rather it was the finale of the three–day storytelling workshop held last October 2006 at Redfern Community Centre and at a home in Newtown. These are the women’s own personal stories shared with the audience, including those captured unscripted on video. As they drank tea and yarned, Aunty Ali and Miling linked and threaded their own experiences with the other participants’ stories on screen.
“They’re no different from us”, “it was an eye opener”, “we gained strength, sisterhood and support” — are some revealing comments from the four Aboriginal and three Filipino participants. The Aboriginal storytellers are all elders: Aunty Joyce Ingram, Aunty Betty Little, Aunty Sylvia Scott and Aunty Ali Golding while the Filipinas are first generation migrants: Maria Elena Ang, Miguela de Lara and Bet Dalton.
What powerful stories they shared with each other! Aunty Ali narrated her escape as a child from ‘the black shiny car’ with public officials who wrenched children away from their parents to put them in reserves and missions. How uncanny the similarity of Aboriginal and Filipino women’s stories where one survived and the other died from drug abuse and aneurism! Miling’s husband died from an aneurism in 1995. She talked about how much her baranggay (local government) captain husband was loved and respected in their community in the Philippines. She recalled the kilometre–long tribute of mourners at his funeral. Bet graphically illustrated the extensive surgery done on her due to aneurism, pointing out the dents and bumps on her head. Miling’s husband died but Bet survived. Bet’s teen–age brother survived his drug addiction but Aunty Sylvia Scott’s 16–year old niece didn’t.
Aunty Betty Little talked about her son who inspired her to compose the song Don’t get hooked on loneliness. This song was her tribute to her son who managed to stop her from committing suicide. “You can talk to me. I’m your friend. Don’t get hooked on loneliness, mum,” her 12–year old son pleaded with her at a time years ago when she was phoning friends to organise people to look after her children. Betty Little is the younger sister of renowned Aboriginal crooner, Jimmy Little.
Maria Elena Ang sang Killing me softly, recalling the time in her early 20s when she was picked up by the military as she was about to go into church: “…I was brought to a certain safe house, but it was actually not safe. That was where I was sort of tortured. I was electrocuted … and I was screaming and they violated my body. They put me naked on the table like this, put my head down and covered my face with a towel, while they poured water simultaneously in my nose and my mouth. That was the song that was popular then.” She related this phase in her life during the repressive martial law regime in the 1970s of Philippine President Marcos.
The concept behind our project was to bring together two diverse groups of women — Aboriginal and Filipino and provide the opportunity for them to share stories of their lives and enhance their understanding of each other. One could only speculate on how much they knew about each other’s culture and the social issues that had an impact on their lives. To do a reality check, each one was individually given an attitude survey to fill out before and after the workshop. We expected that the survey results would indicate possible changes in attitude and outlook after the women had shared food and stories. Indeed we found that after the workshop, the responses of the participants to some of the issues had more depth and were more informed than those they previously provided. Their perspective on their similarities and differences after the workshop had a sharper focus.
All the women recognized that both their cultures are family–oriented and, apart from the issue of language, there was not much difference between them. Three of the four Aboriginal respondents were painfully aware of the loss of their language as a result of colonization, in contrast with the Filipino women who still speak their language. But of course, these Filipinas are first generation migrants. One Aboriginal woman said language keeps a culture strong. The two groups admired the way each had coped and survived and also saw a common love of music, survival stories, songs and dance.
There were mixed results for more controversial issues, however, such as with the statements:
Caution and avoidance of being judgmental may be the reason for this. Filipino women were perhaps avoiding expressing an opinion having had no personal relationship with Aboriginal women at the start of the workshop. But why were Aboriginal women more convinced before the workshop that Filipino women often experienced discrimination and racism? Was it because they absorbed the negative media publicity about so–called ‘mail order brides’, domestic violence and spousal homicide in the 1980s and early ‘90s? Did they accommodate the typical media stereotypes in Australia about Filipino women? After the workshop, the intensity of response of two Aboriginal women based on a Likert scale increased from ‘agree’ to ‘strongly agree’. Why? The anecdotes the Filipinas spoke of hardly related to experiences of racism or discrimination but were more about their personal stories, some from their home country. While this speculation is not borne out of this research, it would be interesting nonetheless to probe further in order to gain a deeper understanding of the reasons for the mixed results.
Of interest is the view on domestic violence. Regarding the proposition: Many Aboriginal women experience domestic violence, two Filipino women originally ticked ‘neither agree nor disagree’. After the workshop, one changed her response to ‘agree’; the other retaining her original response of offering no particular view. One Filipina who has the strongest political views from the rest did not change her ‘strongly agree’ response. This seems consistent with my conjecture about the reluctance of some Filipino women to offer a view about Aboriginal women, out of respect, considering their lack of personal knowledge of Aboriginal women’s social situation.
Reconciliation issues are difficult to handle in mainstream Australia. It is possible that ‘reconciliation’ is seen as an issue mainly to do with Aboriginal and White Australians rather than with Australians from other backgrounds, such as Filipinos. It is also possible that the Filipino respondents, other than the one who already has a strong awareness and political view, find it hard to unpack what underpins the word ‘reconciliation’. I surmise that those who are more knowledgeable about Australia’s history and social conditions know that issues such as‘stolen wages’, ‘deaths in custody’, impact of the ‘stolen generations’, loss of land rights, are anchored in the interpretation of the word ‘reconciliation’ as are poor economic, employment and health standards - problems that continue to challenge those who govern this country.
As for Aboriginal women asked to think whether ‘Filipino women are interested in supporting ‘reconciliation’ issues with Aboriginal people’, everyone except one whose view is probably more nuanced because of her friendship with other Filipinos before the workshop, ticked ‘neither agree nor disagree’. At the end of the workshop, all Aboriginal participants reached a consensus that Filipino women are interested in supporting ‘reconciliation’ issues with Aboriginal people. Listening to stories of Filipino women in this workshop and knowing that the Filipinas were likewise interested in hearing their stories might have influenced the Aboriginal women to develop a higher regard for the Filipinas.
At the end of the workshop, all the women were positive about what they gained from it.
Not only bonding but a kind of mutual positive regard evolved. Filipinas spoke of ‘the strength and resilience of Aborigines’. Their being ‘still very strongly steeped in their culture’ and for Aboriginal women, they saw their interaction as ‘an eye opener’, ‘they [Filipino women] stand for what they believe in’, ‘I admire them so very much’, ‘they are strong’, ‘they don’t show it on their face’, ‘they cop it sweet.’ ‘A better understanding’, as one respondent said, seems to be the main benefit of this workshop, and a feeling of ‘strength, sisterhood and support’.
“Even our colours are becoming alike!” exclaimed Malen as she and the rest of the group put their hands on the table looking at how all their spirits blended, then Malen burst into another song, Amazing Grace, and everyone sang along with her. This was how the video footage ended, and Aunty Ali and Miling in a ‘lounge room’ at Customs House, raised their hands to look at the colour of their skin, and both sang Amazing Grace, inspiring the audience to sing along with them.
The Forum that followed was a continuation of this emotional experience. The audience liked what they saw — it wasn’t a ‘show’, it wasn’t a ‘performance’.
Voices normally unheard seemed to have pierced their hearts. They were obviously moved by the deep bonding, trust and friendship that they felt had developed between the Aboriginal and Filipino women. “Where to from here?”, asked someone from the audience. The Aboriginal elders, Aunty Ali Golding, Aunty Betty Little, Aunty Sylvia Scott, Aunty Joyce Ingram, said they appreciated being acknowledged as first peoples of the land, and were pleased that Filipino women were interested in hearing their stories. They also learned a lot from the stories told by the Filipinas. Aunty Sylvia said she didn’t think she would see in her lifetime Aboriginal culture acknowledged by Australian mainstream society the way the Filipinas in this storytelling circle did. She said they grew up in the mission, they weren’t educated, they were severely disadvantaged ... until now.
The audience at Customs House were predominantly women from different cultural backgrounds, and some of them said they too wanted to be ‘bridge–builders’! Indeed, if we inspire Australians from other cultural backgrounds to meet with Aboriginal people and share stories with them, like we did, they too will discover that we have a lot more in common than we realize — and this natural way through storytelling seems to be a good way for barriers to come down and for boundaries to be lifted!
Merlinda Bobis – Storytelling Workshop and Script Facilitator;
Pawel Sendyka – Video documentor;
Deborah Ruiz Wall – Administrator–Producer
Sally Fitzpatrick, Patti Nicholson & Elaine Telford, Around the Kitchen Table, Women’s Reconciliation Network (DVD), 1998 and training notes, 2005.
M. Guanio-Bartels and R. Pe-Pua, The Development of a Radio Information Package for Filipino Women, Filipino Women’s Working Party: Sydney, 1994. (Best practice in providing government information).
John Mowatt and Deborah Wall, Dealing with the Media — Filipino Women in Cross Cultural Marriages: A Training Course Manual for Community Workers, 1992.
Deborah Ruiz Wall, Reconciliation, love and other poems, Women’s Reconciliation Network, Sydney, 2006.
Deborah Ruiz Wall, Returning to the Heart in Gadigal Land: Reconciliation in Redfern — ’the Block’, Sydney, 1998.
Promotional T–shirts (100% cotton) in small (S) and extra–large (XXL) are also available for Aus$20 (plus $3 postage).
Payment by cheque or money order to D. Wall, Convener, Filipino Women’s Working Party, c/o 152 Wilson Street, Newtown, NSW 2042 Australia.
* In the Philippines, children are taught to respect their elders. “Mano po” is expressing respect by gently taking the older person’s right hand with your right hand, and moving it towards your own forehead.