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Introducing the Artisans of Hanunuo Mangyan

Filip+Inna, July 9, 2019
Carrying a steadfast commitment to their craft, the Hanunuo women brought their work to the venue of their meeting with Filip + Inna, continuing the embroidery as the conversation progressed.

Solidarity governs the Hanunuo. Their long-kept beliefs rooted on the value of fellowship sustain the harmonious connections they have with one another, between children and the elderly, men and women. One of the eight indigenous groups collectively known as the Mangyan, the Hanunuo reside in Mindoro Island, at a rustic community atop the mountains, overlooking turquoise waters and lush fields. A school and a church stand surrounded by a myriad of nipa huts and a few concrete cottages, symbolizing the community’s high regard for education and religious practice. 

While driven to preserve their cultural ancestry, the Hanunuo also embrace the modernized ways of living. Quite simply, they embody the marriage of tradition and modernity, keeping the authenticity of their culture as they adapt to the present-day lifestyle of non-Mangyans. 

The Hanunuo Mangyan’s sacred place of worship, featuring their syllabic script and the famous pakudos symbol on its exterior.

Compelled to adopt the common tongues of the Philippines, the Hanunuo is versed in Filipino and English. Nevertheless, they primarily use their mother language, also called Hanunuo-Mangyan, which has its own written syllabic script unlike several native languages. 

The Hanunuo’s livelihood primarily centers on agriculture and design. They are known for doing kaingin, or swidden farming, an act often misjudged by those outside of their indigenous group, even replicated wrongly which tainted the reputation of their farming practices. They also collaborate with some social enterprises based in more commercial locations such as Baguio and Manila, where most of their women and children work as artisans.

Embroidery plays a huge part in the Hanunuo’s lives. Their authentic clothingba-ag and balukas for men and ramit and lambung for women—is often accentuated by pakudos, cross-shaped designs on the back of their shirts which they believe to keep them out of harm’s way.

Other than embroidering by hand, the Hanunuo is also versed in weaving or habilan, where they use cotton. Non-Mangyans recognize their handiwork for both remarkably complex designs and neat execution. Naturally innovative and artistic, the Hanunuo is one of the few indigenous groups whose craftsmanship is now acclaimed internationally, thanks to their partner enterprises that help them reach a wider, stable market.

Len Cabili, founder and designer of Filip + Inna, always makes sure that communication lines are open between her and the indigenous creatives she partners with.

Filip + Inna is one of the social enterprises collaborating with the artisans of Hanunuo. Well-known for interweaving traditional design with contemporary fashion, the multi-awarded fashion brand has been working with the Hanunuo for more than two years, and this partnership only grows stronger.

In our latest visitation to Mindoro to meet the local artisans, we were able to speak with three exemplary Hanunuo Mangyan women who shared their thoughts on the collaboration between them and Filip + Inna.

Mildred Galisya

Mildred acts as the official liaison between the Hanunuo Mangyan and Filip + Inna, helping the latter’s assistant designers to ensure that efficiency and quality are both met.

A Hanunuo native, Mildred left the community to work as a private school instructor, teaching Mangyan culture to students. The subject included teaching traditional techniques in tailoring and embroidery. Now back to her hometown, Mildred now runs a small sari-sari store and earns as the overall head artisan of the Hanunuo Mangyan affiliated with Filip + Inna. She liaises between assistant designers and local artisans, and handles the safekeeping of finished products. She has been with Filip + Inna since the brand first forged partnership with the Hanunuo more than two years ago. When asked how the brand helps her and her community, Mildred noted that the stable income earned through embroidering for Filip + Inna certainly makes a difference, sustaining her sari-sari store. People residing from other nearby areas thought that the women of Hanunuo Mangyan were lucky to have this kind of livelihood.  

Strict as their group may be in keeping their culture intact, Mildred supports Filip + Inna’s mission to reintroduce the Hanunuo designs by merging their traditional embroidery with modernistic fashion.

She feels especially grateful that their works reach national and international markets, and that, through working with Filip + Inna, they get to see their art alongside the cultural stamps of indigenous groups from other parts of the Philippines.

Susan Sagansan

More and more women and children from the Hanunuo Mangyan group are expressing interest in working with Filip + Inna.

The 49-year-old artisan also serves as an area leader for local artisans working with Filip + Inna. Before partaking in this collaboration, Susan’s line of work has long focused on embroidery and handcrafted art pieces. From doing beadwork for former clients to embroidering for fellow Mangyans who do not share the same skills that their community was gifted with, Susan and the Hanunuo women have always been immersed in this livelihood. Nevertheless, these services were compensated cheaply, if even paid at all. Today, Susan moonlights as a kaingin farmer, but her primary source of income is her work as a Filip + Inna artisan. 

Susan noted how women of her group used to endure the low income rates from opportunities that came rare as well. Filip + Inna’s presence in the Hanunuo community truly provided economic empowerment for the women, by platforming their handiwork online and overseas, and giving them competitive rates that allow them to do more than just get by.

As every business receives the occasional criticism, Susan mentioned how some non-Hanunuo natives questioned how they failed to secure permission from the superiors overseeing all Mangyan groups before collaborating with enterprises such as Filip + Inna. While others believe that it is not ideal for them to let their culture be showcased at a massive scale, Susan’s conviction in their collective choice remained unwavering. There is nothing wrong with what they do, she commented. The Hanunuo believes that there is no disrespect in capitalizing on their skills and sharing their culture as a livelihood.

Gemma Kukusan

Through this opportunity with Filip + Inna, indigenous women are finding empowerment in translating their culture into tangible art, while having an equally tangible means to provide for their families.

A working student and mother of one, Gemma firmly believes in perseverance. When she decided to put matters in her own hands and began to craft her way into Filip + Inna’s growing roster of Hanunuo artisans, she knew that she wanted to become financially independent. When she did, after putting in the hard work as one of the best performing Hanunuo artisans under the brand, she made it a goal to finally finish her studies, making certain that her family remained well-provided for.

A woman with fiery passion for service, she majors in Education. She recalled spending nights after class in her dormitory room, finishing her embroidery for some of Filip + Inna’s staple Hanunuo items. Through the incentives she garners from every embroidered fabric and garment, she was able to purchase solar and battery-run electronics and necessities for her home, items she bought with her child’s comfort in mind. Mouths were now served thrice a day—and more often than before, with food they used to rarely get a taste of. 

She admits that she still catches herself in deep awe whenever she gazes at the symbols that were once only embellishments outside their humble place of worship—symbols of their culture that used to remain secluded within their own space—and the reality sinks in again: they have made these symbols into something a lot more tangible, animated. Today, the crosses are found inside closets of several people from across the world, quiet prayers in every home disguised as thread work.

Support the Hanunuo Mangyan artisans by purchasing their crafted pieces available from Filip + Inna.

Text by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro
Photos by Magee Faronilo