The Groundwork


Ana Serrano & Caroline Mangosing



In Conversation

This International Women's Day seems even more important than ever. The pandemic has shone a light on so many of the inequities present in society not least of all, the importance of "care-taking" in all its forms and how we need to find a balance between how we take care of each other, our families, our communities and how we grow as individuals either in our careers, our art and/or our practices. This never-ending balancing act seems always out of our reach. How are you coping with it? How do you make "everything work?" Can you? What's your philosophy on how to make art, run a business and also make time for others, your son, your partner, your community?

I make everything work ... because I just work. My pragmatism gets me through. I definitely have that COVID anxiety with baseline depression that many have talked about, it's palpable.. and for me, existential. I am a natural problem solver, but existentialism is a kind of thing I know I can't solve in the way I would want to. There’s an acceptance of that now. I give my feelings, these days, much more room than I had previously. I am honouring that. This quarantine has allowed more time for my partner, my son and I to be together like never before. The joy and mindful quality time and the bonding that has come out of it far outweighs any frustrations.

Interestingly, though, when you said art my reaction is still: Oh, I don't make art.

I am more comfortable saying I am a creative - even owning that feels new to me. I am learning what my philosophy is. I observe and try to remember what gives me inspiration to define choices I make because it's always different. I also am still learning how to make space for a creative process. I can't barrel through like I do with the business side of creative work. Some days I just toggle between looking out the window and an empty illustrator file on my computer. And my productive workaholic  side is policing me with guilt, is that work...are you working?

My business, in general, feels like community work still. My philosophical approach to my business is the same as when I ran Kapisanan, a Filipino centre. It's how I relate to the world.

Actually let's talk about this business -- Vinta. You are redefining Filipiniana Wear for the modern age and I think everyone who identifies as culturally Filipino in North America (including myself) would love nothing more than to strut out in one of your Barongs and Ternos. I lived in the Philippines until I was 10 years old and many of my fondest memories was seeing my Lola and Lolo all decked out in this decidedly Filipino formal wear.

What made you start this business?

This business came out of Kapisanan naturally. As one of the accessible Filipino cultural centers that would actually answer their phone calls [laughs], we got regular calls from community members looking for "Filipino costume" or Barongs mostly. It began as a perfect storm.

It was at the time when there was private and public funding available in Canada for non-profits to start up social enterprises to mitigate the dwindling government funding. We launched VINTA Gallery in 2013 within Kapisanan. It went really well. And so I was running a whole made-to-measure clothing business at the same time as a charitable Filipino arts and cultural centre.

However, burning out was inevitable and of course by the end of 2014, the organization was not able to renew critical multi-year operating funding and I was forced to lay myself off. It made sense for me to take VINTA Gallery as a for-profit business. There was more potential with that, and it was crazy to expect anyone to do what I had been doing trying to run 2 whole businesses at the same time. And I was tired of begging for money, trying to prove that the work we did as an organization was a worthy investment, for private and public funding bodies and the Filipino community in Canada. With an agreement with the board of directors of Kapisanan, I took VINTA Gallery with me. I secured a private investor and re-launched VINTA as a private business in 2016.

I don't think I've told you this before, Caroline, but when you invited me to join Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture (a multiple award-winning youth-led charitable community organization based in Toronto) first as a board member and then as Chair, I realized this was my opportunity to reclaim and reassert my identity as a Filipino-Canadian. Your work at Kapisanan, truly accelerated the rise of so many emerging Filipino cultural talent in Toronto. Can you talk about how this dream all came about? What did you want to accomplish and what do you think you actually accomplished looking back almost two decades later?
My memory of you coming to Kapisanan is different.... I remember you trying to get a meeting with me and I had no idea why. And then we talked and you said to me, "I have never seen Filipino cultural stuff look sexy before, and you do that."

The highest form of flattery for me, obviously! And by the end of the conversation, I believe you said you wanted to be a board member. I loved it of course. I thought, here's this powerful, brilliant Filipina working for a Canadian institution, let me just take that brain, talent, and power and make her direct that toward the community! I also knew that this would be the best place for you to rediscover and reimagine your own Filipino-Canadian-ness. It was a win-win.

Ha ha! OMG how my memory plays tricks on me! Thanks for reminding me of that. And yes for sure you were and are still the coolest! And the K is a testament to your vision and perseverance at that time.
I stumbled into what I created with Kapisanan. There was no dream at the beginning. It was just volunteer work. The opportunity to lead presented itself and I pursued it because I was intrigued. I just did what I thought would be cool. Like, wouldn't it be cool if we did...this, that, and the other. And so we did it. It was groundbreaking in some ways because we were at the point where it was the take-over of the next generation. We were the next generation, so anything we did was rebellious as hell. But that's also just me. I am rebellious as hell and I put all my life force into Kapisanan, so it hit in an impactful way. I wanted Filipino-ness to be represented. I wanted us to be seen. My education is in fine art and with that, I intended to put art at the centre of what I was doing. It began with the branding. I did not want to put any FIlipino flags or flag colours in anything. Because it feels like a crutch for the community. Wave the flag and that's it, you're representing. I didn't believe in that. And my sister, Christine, who is a graphic designer, felt exactly the same way and so she did all of the visual identity for the organization, which was really important. Aesthetic was as important as the content.

And that was the bait that got you into Kapisanan! The art and culture that we produced was good. Excellent, even. Period. We presented our culture in a way that you felt attracted to, made you want to know more, made you feel a deep sense of pride.

You certainly made me feel that.
The content of Kapisanan was approached in the same way. Growing up I wasn't into folk dancing or Church. So I had a lot of shame about being Filipino, and the foundation of that shame came from not knowing anything. The central ethos of what I did at Kapisanan was what I would have wanted/needed when I was younger. And of course, there was the outward look at the needs of the community also, and there was a lot of collaboration that we facilitated there. We were part of research projects centered around Filipino youth, we tried our best to interpret the needs of the community and create something for them. For us. Using art as a conscious vehicle to address identity issues, belonging, naming our shame as Filipinos, decolonizing (!) was new at the time. It was heavy work to tackle.

I think what I accomplished at Kapisanan came at the forefront of the second generation movement of reclaiming their identity. It's all out there now. There are so many Filipinx community focused Instagram accounts. But we were offline, except for marketing and outreach. We were an IRL organization and so I think the impact was tangible, visceral, and we were one of the first of its kind. Arts, Filipino, realness, swag, expression. So I accomplished what I set out to do, which was set a new precedent for our collective identity as Filipinos in the diaspora. And I think for the people who revere Kapisanan, the people who experienced being a part of it, do so because it was new and exciting and empowering.

Have you kept touch with many of the talents whose lives you've changed? Knowing what you know now, would you have mentored them differently?  And what are you most proud of during your time there?
I have remained friends with many people who came through Kapisanan. In retrospect, I would definitely have mentored differently. It was very challenging because we, as a community, don't have that kind of legacy (mentorship). It's always been top down with the elders. And my approach was different, and it sometimes backfired on me. Haha. I never had mentors myself, so trying to mentor and create a space for mentorship was challenging and full of learning from mistakes.

I think I'm most proud of all the talented Toronto Filipinx artists that Kapisanan had the honour of incubating. I am most proud of creating a space for them to learn and integrate their Filipino identity into their expression. The artists are the ones who create and perpetuate the culture for us in the diaspora. I think we definitely had a hand in changing the face of Toronto arts and culture to include gorgeous Filipinx faces and talent. And we're just getting started, there's definitely more to come.


Ana Serrano