KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 4 / October-November-December 2007 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Storytelling Around the Dining Table: A Workshop with Aboriginal and Filipino Women

In August 2007, three Aboriginal elders met with five Filipino women in Fairfield, western Sydney for a few hours over three weeks to share their life stories. The circle of storytellers consisted of Yvonne Clayton, Mae Robinson and Norma Shelley (Aboriginal), and Leonida ‘Baves’ Ventura, Cora Paras, Aurora Tan, Joanna Salilas and Agnes Nethercott (Filipino). The outcome of the workshops were exhibited at the Fairfield City Museum and Gallery from October 13 to November 11 and the museum published the women’s stories. The photos of the storytellers on the cover of Storytelling Around the Dining Table: A Workshop with Aboriginal and Filipino Women were taken by the Workshop Facilitator, Deborah Ruiz Wall.

Storytelling Around the Dining Table
Differences Melt Away in Aboriginal and Filipino Women Story Sharing in Fairfield

DEBORAH RUIZ WALL’s latest oral history project Storytelling Around the Dining Table: A Workshop with Aboriginal and Filipino Women was launched at the Fairfield City Museum & Gallery on 13th October 2007 with an exhibition opening that showcased Aboriginal and Filipino stories, their portraits, treasured photographs, Filipino traditional costumes, relics, and Aboriginal mementoes.

Deborah Ruiz Wall at the launch of Storytelling Around the Dining TableThe torment experienced by some of Australia’s original inhabitants and the pre- and post-immigration stories of Filipino women revealed the Australian psyche and some of the foundation from which this country emerged. If we are to learn from our past and from the wisdom of our elders, we need to undertake ‘deep listening’ to stories such as theirs — stories of struggle, disappointment, losses, triumphs, achievements and vision.

In the Fairfield City storytelling project, we caught a glimpse of the storytellers’ sense of ‘belonging to country’. We saw that the identity taking process is dynamic and interactive and that it involves not only individual consciousness but also recognition, respect and acknowledgment within the larger community.

For immigrants, it seems that this sense of ‘belonging’ evolves and does not depend on fitting into government or media stereotype of Australian-ness or passing a citizenship test. What is involved in adopting a new country as one’s own? Some Australians who have other backgrounds feel in their hearts that they have two homelands. Aboriginal elder Aunty Mae Robinson uses the ‘walking tracks’ metaphor: ‘We might have walked different tracks but we still got here.’

Living together and sharing the resources available in this country, courtesy of the hospitality of the original Aboriginal inhabitants and our Anglo-Australian compatriots literally provide us common ground. But how far have we matured after one hundred and six years since Federation? How broad has our outlook become since then? Have we become inclusive, exclusive or pluralist in our orientation? Aboriginal Australians, I feel, are much more inclusive and welcoming of other cultures than the settlers who desired an exclusive ‘White population’ in 1901. This exclusive orientation was given official blessing by the Commonwealth Government which passed the Immigration Act of 1901, commonly known as the ‘White Australia Policy’. This policy played a major role in shaping the lives of both our Aboriginal and Filipino storytellers in Fairfield.

Both groups are not white, and this Aunty Yvonne Clayton found as common ground shared between Aboriginal and Filipino women. She remarked: ‘I guess especially in Australia, anyone with a bit of a tan or anyone that has got colour is going to be discriminated against, because you are different. It doesn’t matter where you came from or what language you speak, you will be discriminated against because Australians are a racist mob… rednecks, white Australians. Half of them weren’t even from Australia to begin with…’

Two of our Aboriginal storytellers were from the ‘Stolen Generation’. They were legally taken away from their families and placed in girls’ homes — a ‘stolen generation’ phenomenon which was a by-product of an exclusive national orientation. Our Filipino women storytellers, on the other hand, were able to come to Australia only after the White Australia Policy officially ended. But their arrival here was part of a much longer story of immigration. At the time of the promulgation of the Immigration Act of 1901, there were 689 Filipino settlers in Australia. The implementation of the Act greatly decreased their numbers to 444 in 1911 and 141 in 1947.[1]

What until recently was an untold story was that at the top end of Australia in the nineteenth century, some Filipino settlers inter-married with Aboriginal people. So our connection with Aboriginal Australians is much longer than people generally believe.

Gary Lee from Darwin wrote a play which he called ‘Keep Him my Heart: A Larrakia Filipino Love Story’, based on the life of Antonio Cubillo, his great-grandfather who arrived in 1895 met and married Magdalena ‘Lily’ McKeddie, a mixed race local Larrakia woman. They had ten children.[2] The Pigram Brothers, a well known seven-man band from Broome are descendants of Thomas Puertollano, a Filipino man who married an Aboriginal woman in the 1880s.[3] The Filipino storytellers in Fairfield arrived here mostly from the 1970s onwards. Cora Paras was recruited as a teacher; Leonida ‘Baves’ Ventura was sponsored by her brother; Agnes Nethercott, Joanna Salillas and Aurora Tan came over to join their families.

Another snapshot: Today 53% of people living in Fairfield City (95,343) were born overseas (2001 census).[4] Fairfield Council has, amongst others, an interfaith committee which aims to bring together people of diverse religions and spiritual traditions and promote understanding and acceptance of different faiths and beliefs; 15% of the total Filipino population in Australia (20,000) live in Blacktown City.[5] So in fact, Australia has emerged as a pluralist society, rich in terms of the diversity of our combined heritage. But the winds of change come from different angles. Some commentators such as Professor Andrew Jacobowicz of the University of Technology Sydney wrote that our focus (I believe he is referring to the Howard government’s policy) is turning inward — a return to assimilationism which was once aimed at both immigrants and indigenous people as well as a watering down of our multicultural perspective.[6] ‘Respect, rights and responsibility’ was a theme of one Reconciliation or ‘Sorry Day’ year. By acknowledging respect for each other’s cultural heritage, irrespective of colour or race, and by sharing their stories, the women in Fairfield entered into meaningful and enriching dialogue about their cultures.

During the exclusivist phase of our Australian history, Aunty Yvonne Clayton was among the six out of nine of her siblings who were taken away by the Welfare Board. Her sister, Iris, was taken away. In the early 70s, Iris’s son, Bruce Clayton-Brown was also taken away — an inter-generational stealing of years from one’s life. Only after leaving Cootamundra Girls’ Home did Aunty Yvonne have the opportunity to look for her mother.

Aunty Mae Robinson’s mother was also taken away. Aunty Mae was also sent to Cootamundra when she was in second year high school. Aboriginal children particularly those of mixed heritage were taken away, she said, because of an assumption that ‘if there was white blood in there, they would be superior.’ There was a belief that the ‘black’ in them would eventually be bred out. And if the children were brought up ‘white’, finding the connection with their own culture would be hard for them.

‘Sister-girl’ Aunty Yvonne and Aunty Mae call each other. It’s a way of constructing family for they were deprived of their own. Simply acknowledging the trauma caused by past misguided policies in order to learn from this dark phase of our Australian history, to help heal their wounds and to move forward does not mean embracing a sense of ‘victimhood’ or projecting ‘guilt’, as Prime Minister John Howard would have us believe.

Our Aboriginal storytellers believe that they experienced marginalization early in life because they were either born with the ‘wrong’ skin colour or because they were from a poorer group. Despite experiencing disadvantage, they all achieved brilliantly.

How did they cope? Aunty Yvonne said she ‘had to work three times as hard through education, to be even thought of as equal to them’ [White Australians]. She actually finished the Intermediate Certificate even though Matron at Cootamundra, unbeknown to her, wrote in a report (which she read years later) that Yvonne had ‘nil’ intelligence. Later she pursued a welfare degree course at Milperra College of Advanced Education.

All our Aboriginal storytellers took whatever work they could get – housemaid, laundry hand, waitress, kitchen maid, telephonist. One worked in a milk bar, flower shop, printing place, hotel, and so on. So out of disadvantage came enriching life experiences. Aunty Mae and Aunty Norma eventually became teachers; Aunty Yvonne became a welfare worker. More achievements later in life followed. Aunty Norma was awarded an Order of Australia medal and the medal of Order of Liverpool. Aunty Mae received the Nanga Mai Schools Award for her outstanding service in education. Aunty Yvonne who worked for years at a refuge for women in Liverpool is today acknowledged as a community leader and gets called often to participate in public functions.

What challenges did the Filipino women experience? Why do people leave their home country? Many are forced to leave their war-torn home while some are unable to eke out a reasonable living for their families. On the other hand, Australia even before Federation had always needed specific labour skills to assist with nation building. A mutuality of interests exists that satisfies both Australia’s aspiration to maintain its comfortable lifestyle and the needs of immigrants and refugees who, for whatever reason, need to find a new homeland. Immigrants have to make their own sacrifices and to adjust to a different culture and language.

Storytelling Around the Dining Table Workshop at Fairfield City Museum and Gallery Cora Paras experienced culture shock and homesickness when she first arrived here. The Australian accent and idiom were different from the American English which she learnt back home. Individualism and secularism are stronger in Australia than in the Philippines where Catholicism and a kinship system are highly valued. Filipinos miss the strong support derived from their kinship system. In the Philippines, the elderly and the very young generally get looked after. But in Australia, some grandmothers who arrive here to give support to their children find that they have to play a much bigger role with child care and domestic chores than they anticipated. Two Filipino grandmothers in our group found personal freedom and independence when they moved away from their families into a Housing Commission flat. Like many, both had previously played a huge child care support role for their grandchildren.

The use or misuse of language is another interesting challenge. In the Redfern storytelling project, our Aboriginal participants felt sad when they realized that they no longer could speak their own language whereas the Filipino women participants still could. One of them said, ‘We don’t have language. Language keeps the culture strong.[7] In the Philippines, Baves recalls how proficiency in English was developed at her school at the expense of her vernacular language through fines imposed each time they were caught speaking their own language. I see a parallel application in Australia where most Aboriginal languages in the east coast of Australia have been lost as a result of assimilation policies. In fact, I have met many second generation Filipino Australians who could only speak a few phrases of their mother-tongue and later in their 20s or 30s, they regret the loss of a second language. If there is no commitment or value placed upon maintaining community languages, the next generation, like other Aboriginal Australians in Sydney are also likely to lose them.

Aunty Mae Robinson went deeper with her analysis. She warns against the way the English language may be employed that could disenfranchise people. She gave the example of how Australian history can be distorted, for example, with the phrase, ‘Captain Cook “discovered” Australia.’

At the top end of Australia, some Yol\u people still speak four or five Aboriginal languages but they are also at risk of being lost. I was told during my visit last year to Nyinyikay, an out-station in Northeast Arnhem Land, that what they would like implemented is ‘two-way learning’.[8] They want to preserve their culture and language and learn from the mainstream culture as well. For Aunty Mae, there are two types of education: ‘cultural education and education [for people] to compete in the wider world.’

‘Emotions are being triggered by events shared with each other,’ Filipino woman, Leonida ‘Baves’ Ventura said, reflecting on their story sharing. Aboriginal elder, Aunty Norma Shelley said, ‘We all accepted our differences…while I have never been to the Philippines, I feel I now understand the Filipino way of life and culture more than I did.’

In general, all the Filipino storytellers are happy to be living in Australia. Cora Paras found work as a teacher, Baves Ventura worked in a bank and later in a library while Joanna Salillas, Agnes Nethercott and Aurora Tan are all doing community work in Filipino senior citizen centres as volunteers. Baves’ focus is the care of her only son, Dion. At Fairfield City Library where she works, she was involved in initiating the Filipino language collection and the ‘Read Philippines Project’ which became a model for other public libraries.

There is another episode in their storytelling. Cora Paras’ children married Australians from a mixed heritage. Cora’s daughter-in-law’s father is Italian and her mother is English so the grandchildren call their grandfather Nonno and their grandmother Nanna and Cora is called Lola and her husband Ricky is Lolo. Is this confusing or enriching for Cora’s grandchildren? Cora thinks this situation enriches her grandchildren’s language.

So what of the result of reconciliation, the 10-year Parliamentary bipartisan support given between 1991 to 2001 when black and white Australians are meant to explore how to advance their relationship? For Aunty Yvonne, reconciliation is ‘just a word’ but realistically, ‘we are surrounded by different nationalities and we get on because we have to, especially because we are neighbours’. Aunty Mae says reconciliation means everybody respecting each other, respecting the way people view the world. Agnes Nethercott thinks Filipinos accept Aboriginal Australians as the original inhabitants of this country and reconciliation is more a question of white Australians’ relationship with them that was marred by an attitude of superiority over them.

Worth a reflection from all these stories are the following questions: What shapes prevailing community attitudes? How are stereotypes cemented in our minds? On what basis are government policies developed? How do we change things for the better?

Sharing stories with each other and fleshing out experiences through face-to-face contact will certainly lift the veil of what usually is imposed ignorance or inertia on our part.

Combined launch of Aboriginal Art and Aboriginal and Filipino Women's Storytelling exhibitions Endnotes:

[1] R. Pertierra & D. Wall, ‘Filipinos’, in James Jupp, ed., The Australian People: An Encyclopedia of the Nation, Its People and their Origins, Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, 1988, 467-470
[2] Antonio Cubillo was a Filipino cabin boy on a Spanish ship from Calape, Bohol. He was said to have brought the Rondalla music tradition to Darwin. Gary Lee’s play was last performed at the Darwin High School Tank in 1993. ‘Keep Him My Heart: a Larrakia-Filipino Love Story’, interview with Gary Lee in KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 2/April-June 2006, pp. 6-8; Gary Lee, ‘Bohol Dreaming’, in KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 3/July-Sept 2007, pp. 10-12; see also Peta Stephenson, The Outsiders Within, UNSW Press, 2007, pp. 95-101; Gary Lee, ‘Cubillo Family Lines’, in Regina Ganter, Mixed Relations, UWA Press, 2006, pp. 140-145.
[3] Deborah Ruiz Wall, ‘The Pigram Brothers: a top Aboriginal band talk about their Filipino heritage’, KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 2/April-June 2007, pp. 10-1; Stephenson, op. cit., p. 166; Ganter, op. cit., pp. 101-107.
[4] Emerging Community Data (ABS) Fairfield LGA 2002, Fairfield Migrant Resource Centre, Emerging Communities Profile.pdf (accessed 1/10/2007)
[5] ‘Filipino-Australians promote Philippine reading and cultural programs in Sydney’, 8 March 2007, Philippine Consulate General Sydney, (accessed 1/10/2007)
[6] Andrew Jakubowicz, ‘War and Peace: the government’s engagement with indigenous realities’, U, August 2007, p. 11.
[7] See Around the Dining Table 2006-2007 Attitude Change Survey Results, Filipino Women’s Working Party (2007)
[8] Two-way learning incorporates Western and Yol\u systems of knowledge. Deborah Ruiz Wall, ‘Two-way Learning: Yol\u clan at Australia’s Top End shows the way’, KASAMA Vol. 20 No. 4/Oct-Dec 2006, pp. 10-14.

Further Reading:

In February 2007, the Redfern oral history project was launched, See
See also, Deborah Ruiz Wall, ‘Sharing Our Stories Around the Dining Table: Aboriginal and Filipino Women’, KASAMA Vol. 21 No. 1/Jan-March 2007, pp. 10-12 & 19.

Deborah Ruiz WallAbout the Author:

Deborah Ruiz Wall OAM was born in the Philippines.

Deborah convenes the Filipino Women’s Working Party in Sydney.

She received the Order of Australia medal in the 2004 Australia Day honours list for service to the community in the areas of Social Justice, Reconciliation and Multiculturalism.

A SPAN & CPCA member, Deborah’s photographs, articles and poetry have informed and inspired Kasama readers for many years.