Rydel Cerezo shares his experiences as a queer Filipino man living in Canada and navigating the idea of family and relationships in the east and the west
Although the history of the humankind on the islands of the Philippines goes back more than 700,000 years, four centuries of Spanish and American colonisation have radically reshaped the mindset of modern life. For photographer Rydel Cerezo, now 22, the schisms that exist between the east and the west were further amplified when he emigrated from Baguio City to Canada at the age of 10 along with his parents and two siblings.
“Like most immigrant families, my parents wanted to move in hopes of beginning better lives,” Cerezo says. “My family was living comfortably but they recognised the Philippines was beginning to face rising unemployment rates. Sacrifices were and are continuingly be made, and like most immigrant families you don’t arrive securely middle class.”
As a queer child growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, Cerezo came to realise that, “the very thing that can bring you so much pain can yield so much joy at the same time – and that can come from both religion and family”. For the artist, photography has become a path to explore notions of love and intimacy, race and beauty, culture and history, sexuality and religion to investigate the complex interplay between identity and institutions as a means to begin healing intergenerational trauma.
Here, in never-before-published works from the series To Be From The Same Tree, which document his relationship with his partner and partner’s family, paired with photographs from Under The White Light made in the Philippines, Cerezo shares his experiences as a queer Filipino man navigating the idea family in the east and the west – and the surprising connections he has uncovered along the way.
“Filipino culture ‘loves’ and is surely entertained by gay people as long as they only exist for entertainment” – Rydel Cerezo
Can you speak about the idea of family as an institution and what it means to introduce a ‘foreign’ body to it?
Rydel Cerezo: I am drawing a parallel between the family as an institution and the government as an institution and how foreign bodies navigate both realms. In Sara Ahmed's text, A phenomenology of whiteness, she brings forth the notion of bodies being seen or felt not ‘at home’ in a western white world. She speaks to the arrival to histories we inherit and how familial metaphors are made up on the basis of ‘likeness’ that perpetuates a ‘particular version of race and a particular version of a family’.
My series, To Be From The Same Tree, seeks to probe this phenomenon through photography by investigating the construction of the family album. What does it mean for me to construct and continue a family history that does not appear like mine? What power does it hold constructing that history and how do I situate myself in it?
Under The White Light was made in the Philippines and is a navigation of reconnecting to a family based on memory and landscape. Both series use the ideas of the family to deal with moments of cultural disorientation, whether I am being introduced to a new family or a remembered one.
Can you speak about what it was like to move to Canada as a queer Filipino male, and what you observed about the difference in the west to the intersections of your ethnic and sexual identities?
Rydel Cerezo: It’s important to note the difference of queer identities found in different countries; perhaps this is predicated on the differences of languages that can describe identities in nuanced ways. For instance, the western world champions the white hyper-masculine male gay figure to a degree that is surely toxic, while in the Philippines, there is much less rigidity in gender expression which I believe is supported by the language and even perhaps our pre-colonial histories.
Can you share with us background on the status of LGBTQIA+ people in the Philippines?
Rydel Cerezo: There is a misconception of acceptance for LGBTQIA+ people in the Philippines, which comes from their representation in cinema and television – the leading entertainers and celebrities are as visibly queer as those found on the street. Unfortunately, visibility does not equate to equal rights, as the Roman Catholic Church and Filipino state remain indivisible. Gay marriage is still illegal and there are far too many stories of gay couples living together as ‘roommates’. Filipino culture ‘loves’ and is surely entertained by gay people as long as they only exist for entertainment.
As you were raised in a Roman Catholic family, can you give us a sense of your upbringing and how this informed, challenged, or otherwise shaped your sense of self as a queer man?
Rydel Cerezo: Being raised in a traditional Roman Catholic family and environment as a queer person has deep adverse consequences. This is true for most restrictive doctrines. I went through all the Sacraments of Initiation, attended mass on Sundays, and internalised what it meant to be a ‘good’ Christian. From then, it’s been a constant process of unlearning away from the institution and focusing on the more personal aspect of spirituality.
However, I cannot completely depart from the faith I was raised in. Am I a product of 333 years of Spanish Colonialism and Catholic imperialism? Does my body carry generational trauma? Probably. So I am left to negotiate these seemingly disparate parts of my life, which I am learning can and does exist in the same space congruously.
Did you feel you had to hide this side of yourself from your family or were they open and understanding?
Rydel Cerezo: I was a very flamboyant and gay child so everyone in my family was aware of my queerness before I even had a proper concept of what it is. With that in mind, it was a matter of denial as a form of protection for my family. I used to do Tae Kwon Do competitively, and there were countless times when my parents would move where we sat at the bleachers to protect me from hearing other parents and children ridicule me. They protected me so well that I would be completely oblivious to it. This being said, my parents weren’t particularly ‘open’ to this side of me in the beginning. They were fearful for my future and well being if I were to live an open life as a queer person. With that fear, religion became a tool for my ‘safety’.
Much has changed since then and I speculate that living in Canada has something to do with it. Gay marriage in Canada has been legal since 2005 and political affairs do leave a resonance into familial homes. I came out as a teenager in Canada and this experience initially creates a strain. However, over time it has deepened my bonds with my family in ways I could have never imagined when I was younger – so much so that my family genuinely loves my partner as their own.
Can you tell us about your partner and how your connection with him has shaped and informed your ideas about the larger connections that exist across humanity?
Rydel Cerezo: His name is Gilles. We met during my second year of undergrad and we’ve been together for nearly three years. He is very French despite his very Flemish upbringing, which surely contrasts mine culturally, socially, politically, racially, and financially. I’m not exaggerating when I say we’re opposites. He’s a 6”5’ white straight passing Belgian and I stand at 5”2’ as an effeminate brown Filipino. It was astonishing to learn on our first dates that our last names shared the same meaning but in different languages, his in Dutch and mine in Spanish – cherry / cherry blossom.
Being in a relationship with him resurfaced my family’s deep history with Belgian people. I was made aware that it was a Belgian priest that officiated all of my family’s baptisms, communions, and even weddings. This was true for most of my community back home in Baguio. Surprisingly, connections did not stop there. After spending the holidays with Gilles’ family this summer, we both learned that he had a distant relative on his mother’s side that was Belgian missionary who worked in the very same city where my family was situated. Digging deeper into my family, I found that my grandparents knew of his relative who ran the only print shop in the community and was one of a number of prominent individuals that help build the city of Baguio.
It is easy to see and perpetuate the differences in cultures that do exist. Yet from my experiences being with him, the intersections of our histories are far from coincidental and speak to the natural interconnectedness of every person. In this moment of racial polarisation happening globally, there are moments that testify love as a process of understanding.