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Street Festival: Filipinos in Toronto

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In Toronto, neighbourhoods like shiny Yorkville, hip Kensington market, or the downtown district (where the CN Tower and Rogers Arena are located) usually get most of the attention. It makes sense since they’re mass and media-friendly and packaged well for tourists. 

But there are parts of this multicultural city that add a deeper layer, representing a holistic picture of its’ people. In my quest to learn to love Toronto, I’ve decided to explore its’ fringe neighbourhoods where communities–often low-key–lived. It’s the unseen that intrigues me. The ones that rarely make it on TV or the flashy Instagram reels and TikToks (or even if they do it’s only for a trendy moment or whatever 15-seconds of fame social media lifespans afford). If you’re someone that likes to go down the unbeaten path (for the lack of a better phrase), you’re in good company.

In Toronto, around 40% of Filipinos in Canada live in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). A good chunk of them converges in an area called Little Manila, at the intersection of Bathurst Street and Wilson Avenue. Being half-Filipino, I often crave the cuisine and have been putting off going there due to the hour-long commute. I live all the way in the downtown core.

Recently, however, I saw an ad for the Fun Philippines Toronto Street Festival which was showcasing everything Filipino: dances, singers, goods, Filipino-owned businesses, music and anything that can be exhibited or sold in a booth. But most of all: FOOD. Yes, it was all about the food. So I decided to finally make the trek. 

As I walked through the multi-block festival though, I noticed a lot of things that were quite telling about the Filipino community. Festival goers weren’t only exposed to the packaged parts of culture that people like to consume. The booths told a deeper story.

Sending Money Home

“She still lives in the Philippines,” I tell my sister once, describing a friend. By this, I mean that even though she physically lived outside the Philippines, mentally and spiritually she was still inside the country. This can come in the form of daily consumption of the news, living in Filipino areas, eating Filpino food for the majority of her meals, and most importantly–sending money and goods to family back home. 

A large chunk of the booths was for cargo services and remitting money to the Philippines. OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) drive an entire industry connecting Filpino citizens living abroad to their family members. Economic opportunities, in addition to corruption, an unstable economy, and the peso – the currency which has poor purchasing power– means sending US, Australian or Canadian dollars, Euros, or British Pounds for their relatives to afford life. I counted no less than six or seven remittance businesses. 

Trade Education

There were three or four booths recruiting students to work in the trades. These programs were short–not the usual four-year university degrees with little guarantee for getting a job after graduation. Many Filipinos who come from working-class backgrounds (especially in the Little Manila neighbourhood) found these programs appealing. The goal is to earn money sooner than later, because more often than not, multiple generations are supported in each household. I also saw businesses that offered to help ‘get your family to Canada’ through immigration consultant services that were affordable.

The Filipino Channel (TFC)

If you’re Filipino, you’ve probably heard of TFC, a Filipino channel that airs globally to keep Filipinos connected to their homeland. TFC is a vital force in keeping Filipinos mentally living in the Philippines–they broadcast the latest soap opera episodes, commercials, and up-to-date news on the daily happenings in the country. My mother left the Philippines in 1978 and she is well-informed about what happened today in the Philippines. It’s unlikely she knows more about what’s happening in Canada, where she currently resides.

Beauty Standards

I passed a banner for a salon that offered beauty services. One of them was a skin-lightening treatment, which is a strong testament to what constitutes as beautiful, adopted by many nations who were colonized: that being light (white) is better, superior. It pained me to see these services advertised. Why can’t we celebrate being brown, beautiful and bronze? Shadism creates a social caste system that marginalizes those on the darker side of the spectrum, from modelling opportunities to being selected as a mate, to daily treatment.

Fusion Baked Goods

There were two baked goods stalls next to each other. Vendor 1 was selling goods that were what I like to call purist. Vendor 2 included ingredients catering to western tastes; their cookie had caramel–a familiar ingredient for the Bobs and Karens of the world. I bought Yema, a traditional custard confectionary made of milk, egg yolks and sugar from vendor 1. It’s popular in the Philippines but not as popular as a caramel cookie in Canada.

While I appreciate fusion attempts in cuisines, I opted for the yema because I missed it and couldn’t find it just anywhere. Also, there is something about fusion food that makes a lot of it start to taste…well, uniform. It’s like how your cooking all tastes the same because you use the ingredients you like, and rarely delve into a new ingredient. I’ve yet to try a number of vegetables at my local supermarket.

The majority of the vendors were first-generation immigrants. The second generation was helping their parents at the booth. I rarely saw third-generation Filipinos; they were mostly attending the festival, not working it. 

Filipino Food, Because It’s What It’s All About

Food is a major love language in the Philippines. When visiting a Filipino household, you are offered food, and even if you decline, there’s an unspoken obligation to still serve you, and an unspoken obligation on your part to eat. It’s a cultural game where one cannot lose face with the other. It’s about generosity.

There was a booth that offered free bottled water. I have been to quite a few food festivals in my life and free water is more rare than common; they usually charge you five dollars for a small 500ml bottle (capitalism at its’ best). But this community is very giving. Food hospitality peppered with the expectation to (literally) serve builds goodwill and if anyone breaks such rules, they are talked about. 

Although I’ve assimilated somewhat fairly into Canadian society, visiting Little Manila kept me in check, and allowed me to mentally travel to the Philippines even just for a couple of hours, getting away from the concrete downtown jungle of a North American metropolis that is Toronto. I needed a break, to indulge my senses in the tropics by sipping a mango shake and smelling the whiff of BBQ. Now all I need is to inhale diesel fumes from a  jeepney, and I am transported (pun intended), into the bustling, vibrant calles of Bacoor, Cavite, where I lived for a year as a child.

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