Two-time Creative Arts Emmy awardee Gabbi Pascua shares how she explored her Filipino identity through the ancient wellness practices in Siquijor.
I came to the Philippines seeking something within me. Born a third-generation Filipino-American, I wanted to feel a spark in my motherland for the first time.
I grew up in California, with my immediate family all within 30 minutes of one another in the San Francisco Bay Area. I heard stories of my late grandparents and stories of World War II and was always reminded that the life I lived in the United States didn’t come without a price. My great-grandfathers fought for their lives and the future of their families. Some lost, some survived, and through all of the resilience, they provided me the opportunity to live out whatever “American Dream” I desired. The story of the last two generations of my family is laced with tragedy. For the first time, this third generation has been granted the chance to choose beauty over tragedy, healing over heartbreak. There is a sense of freedom within ourselves to seek, to search, and to find what will bring us ultimate happiness, wellness, and wholeness.
To search for what wellness truly means to me and what, as Filipinos, is intuitively ours. I dove into a soulful expedition with friends and my business partner as we documented traditional healing methods native to our pre-colonial culture.
Upon arriving in the Philippines, I wanted to connect to my ancestors, to my family, to the deepest cultural experiences in hopes of really linking the emotions from the duality of being a Filipino-American. During my first 10 days in the Philippines, I went through the waves of culture shock, a sense of not belonging, and opened up to childhood wounds of not feeling “Filipino enough.” I asked my friend Angela, a fellow Filipina-American, to join me. It was by her side, this adventure to discover Siquijor began.
At first, spending time in the Philippines just made me feel as if the cultural divide was even larger than the one I already felt prior to our arrival. The discomfort of being Fil-Am, to me, sat between the acceptance of being born American alongside the desire to be accepted as Filipina. With limited, tangible roots back to the Philippines, there were undeniable cultural differences from those who grew up here. Flashbacks of my childhood, being told that I was “too American,” “Sound too much like a ‘white girl’” only echoed louder in a place that was not my known “home.”
However brief this existential crisis was, I came to a conclusion that I may not be a Philippine National, but my ancestral heritage is still shared with contemporary Filipinos here. There is that same longing to understand what is “ours.” In one conversation, Angela and I led us to search for healing. Through that desire to “heal,” she stumbled on the beautiful Visayan island of Siquijor.
As the Healing Island (and healing being the operative word that sold us on Siquijor), we were delightfully surprised by the peaceful vibrancy that radiated from throughout. We drove through idyllic landscapes, with views that were sometimes covered by cascades of coconut trees. We went on an adventure through the hills and mountains, along roads that were framed by lush views.
From the tropical air to the landscapes, sea, and waterfalls, the island allowed us to reset and recharge even before we began our healing tour.
Learning about the community and their self-taught healing practices that have been passed down from generation to generation is where my spiritual connection to the Philippines began.
I was sitting in front of an altar in the first healer’s room, where she prepped herbs, smoke, and oils. I watched as she prepared herself, and then her tools to create a ritualistic atmosphere to help cure us individually of any spiritual or physical ailment.
Healers have the intuition to feel misalignment, gas, tension, stress, or ailments that we carry daily. Their practices are not taught, but rather originate from what they say is an intuitive call from God. I observed as she performed the healing ritual; the smoke to clear the energy, the physical touch and brief hilot (massage) to relieve immediate tension held in the body, and the prayers above our heads as she connected with God to help erase any pain we might have been carrying.
In those moments, I felt the sense of ancestral connection that I longed for. It reminded me of the care my grandmother had for me. The way she would celebrate her faith, lean on God, and create space for nurturing and healing that was so powerful when I was sick as a kid.
The touch of the healer also reminded me of my mother; her light touches, gentle massages, and energetic waves of healing as she caressed my back.
In that moment, I felt the spark I was seeking. I knew that I was already connected to the Philippines by the nurturing and healing spirit of a mother’s touch, that I had the privilege to know what that healing feels like already. I had to travel thousands of miles to understand my mother’s healing hand more, to appreciate and embrace it within myself to pass on to my future family one day.
The experience was grounding. It provided me a hand of not only healing but of community and a sense of belonging. I decided to go back a second time to document the experience. To observe it once more would allow others to experience what I had. I was able to see the prayers being recited throughout the practices. I was able to see the grounding. I could see the ways that they responded to the others I was with. A front row seat to intuitive guidance from something larger than us, with methodology rooted in faith and connection to the divine, to the earth and to one another.
Siquijor was the gateway for me to continue to explore the 7,000 beautiful islands. It showed me the truth behind the rituals and unveiled that we hold the power both individually and collectively to heal or destroy ourselves and one another.
The power of community here in both the Philippines and abroad is one characteristic of our culture that has stood the test of time. This healing tour exceeded my superficial observations, it surpassed the tales and folklore of voodoo and magic. It touched me in a way, and I am forever changed.
I learned that without spiritual discord, there would be no reason to seek. Without the belief in curses or witchcraft, there would be no rituals of protection and healing to break through. My observations led me to explore self-realizations on the islands. Whether your faith is reliant on God, nature or man, the truth of it all is that the power of healing is held within us.
Special thanks to Angela Lionetti and Luis Nathaniel Lumingkit Borongan. Photographs by Jacob Maentz.