Arriving in a new country is predicated upon the departure from an old one. This manifests, in many ways, as a double-edged sword: the ability to fit in is often dependent on the capability to leave behind. How do you find your place in a culture that is new to you while maintaining your connection to a culture you’ve left behind?
The answers to these questions are neither straightforward nor linear. Often, the best answers to can only be understood by listening to a newcomer’s journey. By listening to how the immigrant experience transforms and changes over time, we can better understand the relationship between fitting in and leaving behind.
Every year, Canada welcomes hundreds of thousands of newcomers, hoping to establish lives here. It is a country made of immigrants, with more than one-in-five of all Canadians being a first generation immigrant. While Canada is known for its friendly policies towards newcomers, there are undeniable challenges that newcomers face in Canada.
Gelaine Santiago is a successful, Toronto-based entrepreneur. In 2015, she launched an online fashion retail website, Cambio & Co., alongside her partner and co-founder, Jérôme Gagnon-Voyer.
The success of Cambio & Co. is irrefutable. In a matter of years, Gelaine and Jérôme have built a business with more than 2,000 worldwide customers, 12 partner organizations, and 10,000 social advocates. But, Cambio & Co. is more than a business endeavour, it’s also an important part of Gelaine’s journey to reconnect with her heritage.
In 2013, Gelaine and Jérôme went on a trip to the Philippines. “It was a really eye-opening experience,” says Gelaine. The trip was her first time returning to the Philippines since her parents moved their family to Canada when Gelaine was just three years old. “There was this realization that there was this whole gap in my understanding of who I was.”
Gelaine grew up in the Toronto area. Her childhood memories are divided. When her family first arrived in Canada, they lived in Scarborough, around 25 kilometres east of downtown Toronto. Here, Gelaine was surrounded by children and families from around the world. “In a way, because I was surrounded by so many kids from different countries, I didn’t think about what it meant to be Filipino. I was just one of these people from Philippines, just like my friend was from Jamaica.” In Scarborough, it seemed fitting in was easy; a product of the neighbourhood’s cultural multiplicities.
However, when Gelaine’s family relocated to the suburbs and she became one of a handful of people of colour, her experience changed. “That was my first time being aware of the fact that I was not the typical Canadian kid that we would read about.” Gelaine remembers spending a lot of her childhood trying to fit in by denying certain parts of her heritage. Her attempts to fit into Canadian culture required some denial of the importance of Filipino culture.
During her trip back to the Philippines, something changed. “That was the first time it really struck me—that identity—that my culture is such a core part of my identity.” Returning to the Philippines for the first time in years, Gelaine vowed, “I needed to learn more, because I didn’t know so much about myself. That’s what was so striking about going back.”
While in the Philippines, Gelaine and Jérôme had a chance to explore their shared passion for social enterprise. The two had met and fallen in love while volunteering for a non-profit in Toronto, so they used their trip to learn about the non-profit sector in the Philippines. “We discovered so many amazing brands that were using fashion as a way to create sustainable livelihood.”
This is where the idea for Cambio & Co. was born.
Cambio & Co. is more than your typical online fashion store. Cambio’s products are produced by artisans in the Philippines. Gelaine and Jérôme create partnerships with these artisans and Cambio & Co. is used as the e-commerce platform that enables the artisans to connect to a global market. By enabling Filipino artisans to reach a wider market, those in the diaspora are also able to find fashion items that not only represent their heritage, but that also support Filipinos.
“It’s funny because the journey of developing and growing Cambio really parallels my own journey of discovering my roots and wanting to reconnect with the Filipino side of my identity.” Through her journey of reconnection, Gelaine has also managed to create a business that helps others to connect with and preserve their own Filipino heritage, in an ethical way that contributes to sustainable livelihoods of artists in the Philippines.
With Cambio & Co., every piece available for purchase has a unique story. Gelaine describes a set of earrings from their partner, En Route Handcrafted. These earrings, the Kantarines Earrings, are big, colourful, statement pieces, made by artisans in Davao City and created in an eco-friendly way using scrap pieces of traditional Filipino weave. “So you end up with these earrings that are so beautiful and super unique in terms of how they look and their design, and it’s just so Filipino in that sense, but also in that the story behind them is one of Filipino ingenuity.”
That same Filipino ingenuity permeates not only Gelaine’s commercial endeavours, but also her personal journey. Where some might have forgone the close connection to their culture, choosing to leave their heritage behind in order to fit in, Gelaine empowered herself and her community to fit in by building a bridge from the diaspora to the homeland.
In June, 2019, Gelaine was honoured in the RBC Top 25 Immigrant Awards, where she was recognized for her contributions to the community. The award is a big honour, not only for her, but also for the community that supports her. She says she’s learned a lot just by listening to the stories of the other winners. “It’s really outstanding, not what people have overcome, but what they have achieved,” she says. “Seek out those stories and just see who you can learn from in your community.”
It’s clear that Gelaine has figured something out about the balancing act of fitting in and leaving behind. Her achievements are a reflection of this. To other newcomers who might find themselves balancing on a similar double-edge, Gelaine has some advice: “Rather than trying to hide your experiences, rather than trying to pretend that you’re not an immigrant, and trying to pretend that you’re something you’re no,t I think there is so much beauty that comes when you embrace that side of yourself and those experiences.”
For more information about Gelaine Santiago’s work, visit the website of her company, Cambio & Co.