If you’re young, a woman or nonbinary, and have ever spoken up to an elder, you probably already know how this story goes. No matter what you say or how you say it, the end is usually the same: there’s yelling and anger. And words like “walang hiya” (shameless) and “bastos” (rude) get thrown at you.
In Filipino culture, elders are given unquestionable respect. Kids are trained to mano and use titles like kuya/ate, tita/tito, lola/lolo, and manong/manang to show deference for our elders. The Filipino concept of utang na loob (a debt of gratitude to our parents, family, and community) is ingrained into us even before we can read and write. After all, haven’t our parents and elders done so much for us? Isn’t it our duty to repay them?
But there’s a difference between being an Elder (capital E) and simply being older - and it’s an important one. As Stiegelbauer wrote in her paper on the role of Elders in First Nation communities, an Elder is someone “who has been sought by their peers for spiritual and cultural leadership and who has knowledge on some aspect of tradition.” While age is a part of this, it’s not the only part. Being an Elder also means acting as “a role model for the path of life” and a commitment to helping others who are of a similar background.
Though Stiegelbauer’s paper talks specifically about First Nations Communities, we can learn a lot from it as Filipinos. Yes, Elders deserve our respect, but being older doesn’t automatically transform you into one. Contrary to what we’ve been taught, respect is not the same as submission, and age isn’t the same as authority.
I still remember the fights my sisters and I had with my parents growing up. If we ever dared disagree with my parents or try to stand up for ourselves, the conversation would go downhill faster than you could say halo-halo. We’ve been called mga hayop (animals), ungrateful, know-it-alls, and have even been kicked out of the house. My relationship with my parents today is positive and healthy, but it required many years of learning, unlearning, and growth from all of us.
Age as authority and utang na loob don’t stop within our families. They’re ingrained into the Filipino psyche and social structures. Politicians will often remind citizens they should be grateful, and older folks in our community will repeat the same. Combine our culture’s deference for age, our rigid hierarchies, and machismo culture, and you have a formula that pins women, and especially non-binary folks, at the bottom of the power pyramid.
As Pinays and Pinxys, we’re told we can’t have opinions because we’re young, we’re inexperienced, we don’t know any better. We need to be put in our place. This isn’t unique to Filipino culture, but it is deeply embedded within it. And it’s amplified when you consider the dynamics of being in the homeland versus being part of the diaspora.
When members of the Filipina/x/o diaspora speak up against what’s happening in the homeland, we’re told to be quiet. What would you know? The voices say. You’re not from here. You don’t know anything. And young women and non-binary people face the brunt of these assaults on our knowledge, lived experiences, and our right to speak.
But it’s not a homeland versus diaspora thing, either. When a group of young women in the Philippines began to speak up against sexual assault and the culture of victim-blaming, they were told to shut up. They were called hija, meaning young girl or daughter, and older men like Ben Tulfo positioned themselves as concerned elders/fathers wanting to guide and save these young women from their ignorance. As a result, young Filipinas took to social media and created the hashtag #HijaAko (translation: I am a young woman) to fight back.
So we see these power dynamics everywhere: from social media to academia, to our workplaces and our households, in the diaspora and in the homeland. And, time and again, young women and non-binary folks are the brave ones, choosing to speak up with courage and defiance against elders who try to put them back in their place.
Here are the stories of just five of these women, two of whom are Indigenous. Like many before them, these women were attacked, dismissed, harassed, and oppressed by elders in the community. They were told to shut up, sit down, and be silent, but they chose to speak up anyway.
These are their stories.
Margaret is an Ifugao American law student and former educator in the Bay Area on occupied Ohlone land.
On speaking up as a young Indigenous woman:
“You wouldn't believe the harassment I've gotten and continue to get! It was everything from, "be humble", "shut up and respect your elders", "you're doing the colonizers' work", "just because you're loud doesn't mean you're right.", “you're claiming something you can't claim", "you may have the blood, but you don't have the right" and "you better be careful". And for what? Because I dared to point out how my Indigenous community was being exploited? Dared to suggest that the diaspora could do better? It was as if the criticism I brought forward would never matter - tone, respectability, power - those will always take the real precedence for them...”
“People want so desperately to be us - they want our textiles, our tattoos, our dances, our words, our photos. But do they want our pain? Our struggle? Our loss? No. They never do. And they never realize how their own ancestors were part of our struggle.
At best, we are invisible and left to the margins of community; at worst, we, as a concept, are romanticized, but we, as a people, are demonized. It's a double-edged sword.
There's such incredible power when an Indigenous person speaks up - like how can you argue against the actual people from the culture? But the flip side is that we get the worst of the hate, because the truth we have to tell always makes people uncomfortable.”
On how attempts to silence her have shaped her:
“It has me more on edge, more paranoid, less willing to engage. I already struggled as an Igorota to fit into this bigger diaspora community, and it's made me very withdrawn. What good is claiming the Filipino community when they clearly don't want to claim me as an Ifugao? I don't know what else to do when so many people made it clear that my voice (and more importantly, my people) do not matter.
But, it also has weirdly made me more proud. I am incredibly determined to not let them win - their goal was to silence me and bully me and voices like me out, and I'm not going anywhere.
They feel so entitled and emboldened to their opinions; who said I couldn't do the same just because I'm a young woman? And it's led to an incredible amount of solidarity from other young women who also aren't afraid to speak on behalf of justice. I'm grateful for that.”
It takes a lot of courage to speak up when it's your face, your name, your identity out there. Justice requires that kind of courage. I have to remind myself often that for all of the social media harassers who refuse to speak with me publicly with their own name and face (and instead pretend to be IP or otherwise online), their lack of courage to confront what young women bring forward is not our fault. And for everyone of those who coward behind fake accounts, there's infinitely more who will say publicly or privately with their whole chest that the truths we bring are needed, relevant, and salient. I hold on to that everyday. But it is hard, and it requires a lot of self-compassion and community support to withstand those kinds of attacks, particularly as a survivor.
On finding the courage to speak up:
“Being Igorot means recognizing and living up to the duty and responsibility of protecting our cultures and fighting for our people. I often find myself speaking up without even half the strength or courage people think I have. I don't do it because I want to, but because I have to.
I think of my grandfather, the strong women in my family, my Igorot community, and I always come to the conclusion that I have to be loud, proud, and willing to say what needs to be said.”
On speaking up:
“It's not your fault that it feels shitty! There's a whole system designed to lull you into silence! And every time you choose to say the uncomfortable truth, we get one step closer to justice. No sugar-coating, but know that it is worth it.”
On the hypocrisy of elders:
“A question I have for many adults in my own community is: Do you really want to teach the youth? Or is it the superiority and savior complex you want? Adults always encourage youth to "use their voice" and stand up for themselves, until it's against them. Until it's a call in. Until it's a call out.
In the past five months alone, I have been called "a little girl," a "shook little brat," and "kid." We need to talk about how ageism, misogyny, toxic masculinity, and elitism harm women and nonbinary people in the Pilipinx community. And we need to talk about how to REALLY show up for youth. It’s sad, hurtful, and anxiety-invoking that so many adults would rather harass and gaslight youth rather than listen to our call-ins and call-outs, simply saying to do better so WE can be better.”
On romanticizing revolutionary Filipinas:
“Pilipinxs love to paint our community as resilient and unified but when women, nonbinary people, and youth speak up on the ways we are oppressed—it's crickets. I'm convinced that y'all love the idea of revolutionary Filipinas, Pilipinxs, and youth until it's time for us to come at your throat, THEN you want to demonize and criminalize us.
People have jumped to call me “too angry” and “too much” rather than listen to the message I’m trying to send. Sometimes it makes me feel unsure about my place in the Pilipinx community and in the movement, and it makes me feel really heavy and sad too. I don’t think older folks realize how often they break our hearts.
The truth is that our oppressors are in our own communities too, and they must also be held responsible and accountable.”
On fixing the mistakes of previous generations:
“I don't know who people think they're talking to when they're talking to me. To youth. To this generation. Yes I'm young, but I come from a generation of youth who are living the mistakes generations before us have made.
We are here to say: That's not okay, and you can't treat me like this. It doesn't matter how much older you are than me, because if you were really here to show up for me like your organization's mission statements say, then you would.
I honor myself by setting my boundaries, with those in my community and out of it. When I show up for myself, I am able to show up for others in the most present way I can and THAT is love. Revolutionary love. And that’s what we need.”
Justinne is a settler-immigrant to the the Unceded Territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. She grew up in the streets of La Loma, Quezon City and was raised by loved ones whose roots are from Bulacan, and Romblon. Walang hiya at hindi takot.
On being dismissed:
“The older people in the community made assumptions about my experiences, what I contribute, and my impact. They were wrong.”
On fighting for a better future:
“Young women and non-binary folks speak up as we are often carrying the brunt of the harms.
We carry our family's cultures and traditions with us. We are still hopeful and have hope in seeing dramatic systemic, societal, relational, and familial changes within our lifetime.”
On protecting yourself as you stand up for others:
“Speak up but stay safe. Your safety should not be at risk, especially if you are an Indigenous, Black, trans, poor, non-binary, femme, rural, disabled person. Your peace is valuable. You deserve safety. If you choose to, take a bite, but don't consume it all. There are many of us unlearning, unconditioning ourselves, and picking away at the messes that we've received intergenerationally, since colonization.”
“Greater empires have fallen. Capitalism is next.”
Nicole Saley Diwag is a Kalinga and Kankana-ey Igorot currently residing in San Diego, occupied Kumeyaay territory. She's a librarian, whose librarianship focuses on the ethics of collecting and archiving information and data concerning marginalized communities, and the research and evaluation methodologies in forms of knowledge-making and sharing.
On age as a false indicator for authority:
“As an Igorot who grew-up within the Igrot communities and who’s connected to my clans in the Philippines, I do not subscribe to behavior that fawns over someone solely based on their age.
As someone who knows Kankanaey there are no words in the oral-based language that denote age like kuya, ate, manang, and manong—I’ve always been taught that Igorots do not participate in hierarchical relationships rooted in filial piety. Respect and communal accountability occurs on a multi-generational level.
No one is above criticism and when you’re called up do better, be better. Therefore, from my perspective, the responses garnered didn’t come from elders, but from people who have deemed themselves elders and matured folks who after years of dedicated work to the community and activism ought to know better.
They’d rather protect and manipulate their influence and social status than stand for something.”
On the role of younger Filipino men in upholding the status quo:
“Some accessible publications and readings say every generation is going to have new or different demands. However, the harassment also includes Filipino men in their late 20s to early 30s who seek glory, approval, and validation from garnering a following and platform.
All the responses have followed a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” justification. I’m the “colonizer's pet”, “gatekeeper”, who’s also “perpetuating colonial academic thought”, and “enacting a woke hierarchy”, and any other anti-Indigenous sentiment that’s short of calling me a savage.”
On what community looks like as an Indigenous woman:
“Black feminist thought, abolitionists, and organizers have taught me that community is built; and I’ve learned from DJ Kuttin Kandi that solidarity is a love verb in action. So, I struggle to call those who’ve harassed and continue to exhibit misogyny, sexism, homophobic, right-wing and or neoliberal politics, community.
Filipino/a/x are in love or are fascinated with Igorot culture minus the Igorot people. They romanticize and glorify specific aspects and only uplift or name drop certain Igorot people when it benefits their desire to consume Igorot art and culture on a materialistic level.
My recent interactions solidify my experience as an Igorot woman within the larger community, my indigeneity has been shaped by the series of events and interactions directly connected to the political identity of being Indigenous. My relationship is predicated on exposing my Igorot identity to avoid further erasure, infantilization, the virgin-whore dichotomy, the romanticization or the dismissal of my indigeneity, and my task of somehow becoming the bridge to ones’ “pre-colonial” culture, genealogist, and or therapist to unpack generational trauma.
What has thankfully changed in the last couple of years due to relationships being built is the allyship, the willingness to learn, and then that education is put into practice. I think it’s worth interrogating within the Filipino/a/x community in diaspora why under the disguise of academia, “kapwa”, activism or organizing do folks demand that Indigenous peoples provide validation of our lived experiences for ones’ fulfillment in perpetuating settler colonialism.”
On why we need to listen to young women and non-binary folks:
“Why are young women and gender non-conforming folks often targeted when we are the pillars of the community and are the damn future?
People position themselves, quote, and wear the imagery of female academics, artists, and revolutionaries, like Gabriela Silang. Yet, they cannot accept critique from young women and non-binary folks.
That’s the virgin-whore dichotomy—it’s actively choosing to uphold tropes and imagery they accept as opposed to working with, hearing, and centering young women and non-binary folks. Young Indigenous women and gender non-conforming people are constantly silenced due to a patriarchal system and toxic masculinity. Upholding these systems continues to grant those powers in a colonial world and capitalist society.”
On finding the strength to be loud and demand better:
[Content warning: Sexual assault is mentioned but not detailed in the response.]
“[Finding strength] is knowing that I am held and supported. It’s understanding my privilege and using the tools that I have to dismantle my privileges and the systems that have admittedly benefited me to some degree. I am an Indigenous person in the diaspora but I am also a settler and I understand how to navigate that complexity because I’m not scared of accountability. I have been and am willing to allow myself to be called-in or called-out.
I saw young women come forward this year to voice their anger and criticisms, which were devalued, silenced, tone policed, and then told to respect their elders. Cancel culture doesn’t exist, if we wait for permission for accountability we are centering ego before the willingness to take responsibility. I say this as a survivor of sexual assault: power, and privilege is a real thing, there is no right time to demand accountability.”
Maddie Yakal is an archaeologist, currently pursuing a PhD in anthropology at UCLA.
On being harassed and diminished:
“When I speak up, I feel like others are trying to bait me. They want to catch me saying something wrong, rude, or disrespectful, so they can feel reactive and righteous.
How can you have a “dialogue” if you refuse to listen and respond? Once someone has reached a certain age, they feel justified in considering themselves experts or elders, and maybe that is why some refuse to engage with younger generations. But I’m 28 – I’m not that much younger than those who are claiming to be experts and cultural leaders.
I know people look at me and they see someone who looks young and inexperienced. I’ve had people say “Hindi siya Pilipina” to my face, thinking I wouldn’t understand what they said or be hurt by their words. I’ve had elders offer me advice, and then turn around and do the opposite of what they were trying to teach me.
For some reason it can be hard to convince our elders and peers, even in the diaspora, that we are informed and educated by our interactions and experiences. Our thoughts, words, and identities are as valid and meaningful as theirs.”
On doing better as a community:
“We are all at different points in our individual journeys connecting to our heritage, but truthfully, the deeper you go the more painful it becomes.
This is what is hard for people [to accept]. For example, it is easy to put our frustrations onto Spain and the U.S. for colonizing the Philippines, but it is hard to acknowledge that Tagalogs like me have been complicit in appropriating, harming, and thus contributing to the erasure of Indigenous Peoples. Filipinos are prideful -- we don't like saying we are wrong. This is a toxic trait I myself am trying to unlearn everyday. I know I can't control what people do, but I wish they would consider these things too.
It's actually harmful to say "we don't claim that person" when a community member has done something wrong. We need to acknowledge that our community, like every other one, is imperfect, and sometimes people have good intentions but a bad impact. That doesn't make them less Filipino -- it actually reveals more of the toxic traits across our whole community that we are all struggling to deal with.”
On learning to listen to other voices:
“We need to listen to each other but it's hard to listen when words are full of spite and defensiveness. The experience of Pinays and Pinxys is so varied, and we should be open to hearing each other’s stories. What makes me a Pinay (my relationship with my mother; my family and ancestry in Obando, Bulacan; my research and friendships in Ifugao and Bicol; my role in Philippine academia) is absolutely unique.
I think I'll be more guarded with myself in the future, but I won't stop speaking up when needed. We don’t experience these things in life for nothing – everything has a purpose. Maybe this makes me too “modern” for some people, but I don’t need to search for my distant ancestors when I need direction. Tradition and change are shared by the people here in my life now, and I am a part of it now too.”
On finding your community:
“Don't let discouragement keep you down. For every person you meet that dismisses you, I promise there are more who are understanding, patient, and full of love and support. Surround yourself with them and don't give up on yourself.”
What has been your experience speaking up towards elders in the community? Share your story with us.
About the Author:
Gelaine Santiago is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago.