I remember my mom making ube in the Marshall Islands. I’m not sure if it was from the packet or fresh, but honestly, I have never had better ube since being in the islands with my family. How the smell hits you when its warm and how the purple glows with the golden gloss of melted butter just entices you to eat it along with a nice glass of milk (whole milk because we’re indulgent like that) always got to me. Absolutely no one makes it better than my momma. Not that I have witnessed on this good earth.

I remember my mom cooking it for dessert to follow dinner, but we’d always sneak in a few spoonfuls before dinner. We were living with my grandparents, aunt, and older sister in this memory. The only thing I remember is the smell and taste because in all cultures, when the people are quiet you know the food is good.
— Stephanie Camba

Stephanie (R), Her mother, Eileen and sister, Tasha. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Camba's Facebook page 

In this edition of Pinoy Food for the Soul, Filipin@ undocumented spoken word artist and activist, Stephanie Camba's favorite Filipino food memory led to a shared moment of silence among her loved ones.

If indeed "Home is complicated," as Stephanie told me in this 2013 interview, she will confront this again. This June, Stephanie will head home to the Philippines after over two decades of migration. 

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Camba's Facebook page 

Shortly after her birth in Quezon City, Philippines, Stephanie and her family migrated to The Marshall Islands to escape poverty, political persecution and violence. East of the Philippines and part of Micronesia, The Republic of the Marshall Islands, a sovereign nation that is in free association with the US, was the site of a number of nuclear tests in the 1940s through 60s, including an infamous 1954 US hydrogen bomb test on Bikini Atoll. Owing to their geography and climate, the Marshallese depend on international trade to sustain the population of 68,000 residents. In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City, Stephanie said, critical shipments of food and water came to a standstill. Fearing for their lives, Stephanie's family left and moved to the mainland US, eventually in the Chicago area. Stephanie later learned of her undocumented status while she was in high school, as her elder sister applied for college.

While her exterior life and the macro political conditions around her posed difficulty, the space Stephanie created with her artwork was one of refuge, healing and later empowerment.

"My art began with being born Filipin@. My immigrant family would sing to pass the time. We would not only sing karaoke, but record ourselves on cassette tapes."

"[A]s soon as I was able to, writing also became a medium that I would use to make sense of the world around me. The more hardship me and my family experienced, the more I would write poetry to find an escape, as well as to face my reality head on and by way of paper. Performing my poetry and music has been my way of amplifying my voice and bringing attention to injustice.”

Stephanie Camba (center), with Elephant Rebellion. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Camba's Facebook page (Credit:  Sarah-Ji Fotógrafa)

Her artwork, which includes spoken word poetry, writing, music and mixed media, has orbited ideas of home, displacement and diaspora. Consequently, Stephanie's work examines disjointedness, trauma and pain sustained by individuals, families and cultures.

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Camba's Facebook page

For years, Stephanie spoke out on behalf of undocumented immigrant youth, educating legislators, policymakers and the community at large. She performed her poetry and spoke at political rallies. Together with other undocumented, young immigrants, she staged public actions at detention centers to prevent deportation of fellow immigrants and to call attention to their cause.

Speaking the truths of these wounds publicly and in her art did not leave space for her to heal. In time, Stephanie burnt out on activism in the forms it took for her then, and she started to ask what a healthy way would look like. How can social justice work feel good for the individual, body and soul?

"This is what I look/feel like every time I talk about my family's struggles in this country and the bullshit system that oppresses us." - Stephanie Camba

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Camba's Facebook page

She has found answers in "healing justice work” and incorporating art into community spaces for healing. Stephanie facilitates breathing exercises and meditation at workshops, even at political rallies, "in the continued emotional support work I provide to undocumented folks," she said. Conversations she has with grassroots activist organizations inform the practices that can be passed on to other organizers in Chicago.

Her desire to find natural, healthy ways to practice art and activism and building community lead her to seek indigenous, culturally authentic healing and spiritual practices. Why an indigenous, meaning particular to Filipinos, healing practice? Because this resonates most with her and "trauma is inherited in our bodies," Stephanie said. She's a believer that generations of hurt are passed down, and likewise, healing needs to be passed down in a cultural, familial sense.

Stephanie illustrated how returning to our Filipino culture can provide spiritual answers by pointing out two Tagalog words, loob and kapwa. The literal meaning of 'loob' is 'inside.' It can refer to a directional interior, e.g. 'inside the jar.' But in a spiritual sense, it refers to one's inner self -- intellect, emotion, memory, character and everything it comprises. Kapwa has no direct English language translation. It refers to 'all people' in a connected, collective sense. Kapwa does not distinguish between societies, nations or cultures. We're all part of kapwa.

Even with her humor, Stephanie imbues Filipino sensibilities into a space. For our No Guts No Glory offal-centric popup dinner last January in Chicago, Stephanie's (in)famous puns graced the chalkboard walls.

The Bayanihan Foundation's NextGen program offered Stephanie an opportunity to return to the Philippines and reconnect with indigenous healing ways. 

The NextGen program's mission is to help Filipino American youth learn about their heritage by traveling back home to the Philippines. With a group called Kaluluwa Kolectivo or Soul Collective, Stephanie and the group's specific goal is to connect with indigenous healers and spiritual practitioners.

“We consist of Filipin@ artists, healers, and people who do different forms of spirit and energy work interested in building community around spirit work and connecting with our indigenous roots," Stephanie said.

“We are connected by a higher calling of the soul for the self and the community, so we make sure to set intentions on the spaces we create and share together.”

Current immigration policy under President Obama's administration has made permissible Stephanie's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. With DACA, Stephanie applied for and received Advance Parole for Humanitarian and Education purposes from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Advance Parole allows her re-entry into the United States and allows her trip abroad.

“I am feeling overwhelmed and I definitely need to take a breather before we go, but I am so thankful. So many things in my life have been sending me signs that I need to go on this trip. I am trying to make sure to take care of myself and to take it easy before I go."

"This trip means a lot to me not only because of the NextGen Program or Kaluluwa Kolectivo, which is already so important and amazing in and of itself, but this is my first time going back since I was one and my first time meeting my relatives all while being undocumented."

"I am a little nervous about how my body, mind, spirit, and heart will handle it, so I've been trying to pace myself and gently prepare myself and meditate on the journey ahead. I am also trying not to over plan, but it's so hard when I want to do all the things and I worry legislation will change and I am concerned that I won't be able to return or will have to wait longer than I hope to come back.”

Stephanie has taken it upon herself to raise funds for expenses related to her travel. Supporters interested in financially assisting with the added and necessary Advance Parole fee and other travel expenses contribute to Stephanie's You Caring page or attend a fundraiser in Chicago, this Sunday, May 31, at Little Quiapo restaurant, 6259 McCormick Boulevard. Performances include a reading by Stephanie and dances from the Soul Collective members.


Header Photo Credit: Ms. Silvia I. Gonzalez