Walter Villagonzalo and his family left the Philippines during a coup following the removal of President Marcos from office, and after 12 years of living in Melbourne, the Villagonzalos went back.
The decision came out of Walter feeling unaccepted and underappreciated.
But when Walter broke the news to his children that they would not be going back to Australia, he was met with:
“But dad, we are Australians.”
Walter and his wife decided to move the family back to Melbourne where they have been ever since.
“It’s so different. We feel we belong to the Philippines but our kids feel that they are Australians … but as a family, we belong together,” Walter said.
300,000 people make up the Filipino-Australian community, and many of them come to Australia in search of opportunities in all facets of life, from education to career.
While most come to Australia to better themselves, some end up bettering their community too.
Leading the way
Walter Villagonzolo has lived in Wyndham, Victoria for over three decades where he has held 50 roles in community organisations and has served as a city councillor.
Being a full-time volunteer at one point was what made Walter feel a sense of belonging.
“As Filipino community, we’re good at organising among ourselves being part of our community organisations. But we are also part of the Australian community.”
He continued, “I stood for council, not because I wanted to be a politician, but because the Filipino already is a growing community and we needed a voice.”
As the founder of the Migrant Hub, a resource centre for migrants to gather and seek advice, Walter has used his lived experience of feeling sidelined to make the experiences of others better.
In a different time zone, Filipino youth Jurse Salandanan has represented international students through his role as a StudyNT Ambassador and has supported them through one of the toughest things an international student could go through: a global pandemic away from home.
After seeing his friends and other international students struggle at the hands of COVID-19, Jurse decided he had to do something.
What came was the BayanihaNT Response Team, an initiative that aims to assist Filipino international students with issues of food, accommodation and finances.
“I think the most important thing for an international student is to have that support. Because if you have that support you will feel that sense of belonging, you will feel important – that you are significant,” Jurse said.
Strength in numbers
The Filipino-Australian community is not one single group, but a conglomerate, with new communities popping up.
In Tasmania, the Filipino Student Society is a new addition to the fold, bringing Filipino students and those interested in Filipino culture together through food, dance and activities.
At the start of the pandemic, students were looking to stay connected to their homes and each other, and like the BayanihaNT Response Team, the Filipino Student Society was formed last year.
Founding President of the society, Kerns Juan, has seen how much clubs like these matter to students.
“I remember in the clubs and society day in February 2021, a Fil-Aussie student came running to me and just hugged me like a feeling of not seeing each other for so long.”
Activities such as bushwalking, cooking tutorials, Filipino fiestas and trivia nights hosted by the society have brought students together and allowed them to move forward from the troubles of 2020.
In Perth, a volunteer-run organisation promoting health and holistic wellbeing is making rounds in the community by distributing COVID relief packs, conducting mobile health assessments and feeding the homeless.
The Filipino Australian Health Workers Association (FAHWA) is made up of health professionals looking to service the most vulnerable groups in the Western Australian community.
Adela Oakdon, a member of FAHWA believes that the association is filling in the gaps where government action is lacking.
“The association had the vision of extending health service outside the confines of the hospital- by providing volunteer work in many areas especially the vulnerable groups concerning health and holistic wellbeing.”
When FAHWA volunteers are not on the move providing supplies and healthcare services, they are raising money for causes in the Philippines through cultural galas and concerts.
FAHWA also promotes wellbeing among its members by hosting dinner and folk dance nights to sustain Filipino culture and heritage.
“Although we live in and are citizens of an adopted homeland that has embraced us, we are nevertheless Filipino by heart and by heritage,” Aida said.
The branches of knowledge
Contributions to the community are not exclusive to monetary donations or helping those most in need, it can also often mean imparting knowledge and experience that others can learn from.
Mark Anthony Santos, from Port Lincoln in Adelaide, has a varied tool belt of knowledge that he shares in workshops for Filipinos, international students and migrant workers.
He owns eight businesses and has experience in several industries including hospitality management, IT, real estate management and financial management, where he aims to share his knowledge.
The advice that Mark wants to give Filipinos is to be entrepreneurial and to help family members back in the Philippines to be financially independent.
“A lot of Filipinos send money overseas to help our families and I always reiterate to these people that you need to take some actions.
“If you help your family there to set up some business, then they’ll grow as well. They get out of the cycle of debt and poverty,” Mark said.
In Queensland, Filipino language teacher Wilmer Tiezo is also imparting his knowledge and teaching the Tagalog tongue to those wanting to learn.
On Saturdays, he volunteers for the Filipino Language School where clientele includes partners and children of Filipinos.
As someone who migrated to Australia only last year, Wilmer has found his home away from home in the Filipino-Australian Foundation of Queensland, the group that established the language school.
“I’m thankful because coming from the Philippines to Australia I have found this association where language is being taught and at the same time is being nourished,” he said.
To Wilmer, language is part of one’s identity and should be used in daily practice and in the household to preserve Filipino culture while in Australia.
“If you can speak English that is good because we are in an English speaking country… but again having your home language, it would make a person totally complete,” Wilmer said.
Navigating dual identity
For both Australian-born Filipinos and Filipinos who have migrated and now call Australia home, identity can be something to grapple with.
In the art world, Filipino-Australian Marikit Santiago from Sydney shares her personal experience with cultural plurality through her paintings.
Growing up, Marikit noticed her ethnic differences in school.
“I had an unusual name, I had dark skin, I didn’t call my parents mum and dad, and I began to notice that my peers had different family rules and expectations that weren’t as strict as mine. These negative experiences led me to resent and reject my ethnic identity and I would hate it when people asked what nationality I am. I would always answer ‘Australian’ which is correct but I knew that’s not what they’re really asking.”
Marikit has received recognition for her work, having won the 2020 Sir John Sulman Prize.
“It’s okay to be confused about how you feel. I would suggest not to resist those conflicting feelings like I did.”
Marikit believes cultural plurality and identity is becoming more visible and should be talked about more, but it requires truth.
“I don’t think [cultural plurality] should be just for the sake of ticking a box or to appear to be culturally diverse. Representation should seek to be authentic and genuine.”
If these seven stories from seven states have told us anything, it’s that Filipinos have a miraculous talent for making a place theirs.
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