Kathy Azada is a Bright Side Enthusiast

Kathy is a 49 year-old art director living in San Francisco, California. The list of things she adores includes (but is not limited to): a good karaoke jam with friends, warm but not-too-hot sunny days, cozy cat naps, fresh halo-halo, making faces at small babies, a steady diet of good art, and a solid afternoon lounging at the pool.

Prologue: I believe the stories we tell one another have the power to change the world. Especially the stories we tell one another about ourselves.

As a society, we focus so much of our attention on the bold-faced “success stories” of CEOs and best-selling authors, the famous and infamous. We get accustomed to glossy, polished anecdotes that are fun to read but hard to relate to. Too often — especially during these times of isolation and separation — we miss the remarkable stories that live all around us.

The neighbor across the street.
The woman behind the cash register.
The co-worker we see every day.

Captivating, inspiring, powerful stories live inside each of us. This series celebrates those stories with 15 interviews of women whose voices you likely haven’t heard before. (Since March is Women’s History Month, it seems like the perfect time for it.) I asked each of these women to share some of their personal story, and talk about how they have found — or are still finding — their own voice.

Today, we hear from Kathy.

In her own words…

I spent most of my childhood and young adulthood in central Florida. Florida gets a lot of knocks in my circles (very well-earned), but to me it was such a gift to grow up surrounded by water and have such a diverse natural world outside our doorstep. It’s fitting that my parents would emigrate to similar environs as their home country of the Philippines, and I’m so grateful that they did. It’s in our blood.

Me, my sister Jocelyn, and Dad

I’m second generation Filipina-American, born in the U.S., the youngest of two daughters. My mom and dad are both immigrants from the Philippines — she was a teacher and he was a doctor starting his residency.

They were part of the second wave of immigration during the mid-60’s “Brain Drain,” when Filipino professionals were lured out of country to pursue the American dream. U.S. military intervention in the region and the establishment of a Westernized educational system produced a professional white collar class in the Philippines — loyal to the West, fluent in English, and seeking better opportunities elsewhere. (It’s quite an operation, colonization.)

My dad, a doctor, was the perfect combination of silly and serious; and my mom, who managed his private practice, was very social, bright, and artistic. I feel like I inherited all those traits from them. They were both high achievers and expected their children to be the same in school and in their community. My mom was a very, shall we say, effective tiger mom. They were strict disciplinarians; but, true to Filipino culture, they worked hard and played hard. I grew up with a lot of joy and celebration with lots of “play cousins,” wherever we lived. If you’ve ever been to a Filipino party, you know what I’m talking about.

Filipinos partying

How did the culture you were raised in inform your ideas about what a woman was supposed to be — how she should look, act, and speak?
I can speak for what I know living in the U.S. upper middle class as a second-gen Filipino. There are very stereotypical gender roles at play in the Filipino culture, but it is generally known that a de jure matriarchal structure exists alongside the patriarchy. I witnessed an equal power dynamic between my parents, and observed similar dynamics in my extended family and in the Filipino community in the U.S.

The lolas (grandmothers), moms, and aunties basically build and maintain the infrastructure of the family and community — though the men quite possibly think they do as the traditional breadwinners. Every older Filipina I grew up with was equal parts lobbyist, fixer, consigliere, and puppet mistress. Those were my role models growing up. I am convinced that I don’t know half of what my parents had to endure as immigrants to this country; but for their part, the women in my family were tough, resilient, and difficult to keep down, no matter what they were facing.

As I got older, it was made clear to me that girls and women were supposed to get married and have children as a matter of course. This is not only expected but, in fact, very exalted. I grew up with a lot of self-doubt in the process of coming out as a lesbian, perhaps to the point of self-loathing, because I could not and did not want to fit this mold. My value as a wife and mother was woven into the model minority myth; this felt ever-present and guided my upbringing. To follow my own path as a gay women was to face possible estrangement from my family and my culture.

Lola and my mom on her wedding day

I first realized I was a feminist when…
My sister Jocelyn was an undergrad in college when I was just starting high school. She’d visit home and sometimes (perhaps deliberately) leave behind books that can squarely be categorized as of the feminist canon. One of the first books I picked up and started reading was This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, a feminist anthology.

Jocelyn also introduced me to bell hooks, took me to Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago, taught me about liberation theology — those kinds of things. You could say I went to feminist bootcamp in my early teens — which was very unique for a brown kid in the small-town South, in Catholic school, in the late 80s. I took it all in intellectually, but didn’t truly internalize it until very later in adulthood when it all became material to how I wanted to live my life.

What are 3 things about yourself that you did not choose?
1. Not speaking my family’s native tongue from a young age. Tagalog and Ilocano, spoken between my parents and extended family, was never taught to me, I’m assuming in the interest of assimilation. This was all very meta, given my mom was an English teacher in the Philippines. Again: colonization.

2. I very much have my father’s body type, which is short, stout, and prone to death by heart disease. In Filipino cultures, food is our love language. Instead of saying “I love you,” Filipinos say “Kain tayo” (“Let’s eat”). Being a queer woman in very accepting spaces has fortunately helped me embrace body positivity; and quite frankly, as I’m getting older, I could care less about body image. I prioritize health.

3. I’m gay. Yay!

What are 3 things about yourself that you DID choose?
1. Living the queerest life I can in my chosen community
2. Being an artist/designer and intentionally making art my livelihood
3. Choosing to survive, learn from, and thrive in spite of past trauma

What aspect of your personal history — your heritage, your family, etc. — most shaped who you are?
One defining moment of my life was when I lost my dad to a heart attack when I was 14 and had to assume a care taking role in my family. At 14.

I had no one guiding me through such a painful and complicated transitional time, and I was very reactive and lost. That sort of emotional disconnect formed a basis for a lot of later issues with learned helplessness and anxiety. It has been a long journey to be able to stay resilient in the face of crisis; but pro-tip, ya’ll — therapy is the best money you’ll ever spend.

What aspect of your identity is most precious to you?
Embracing a hybrid cultural identity. I’ve only recently taken a deep look into my cross-cultural identity and accepted that I’ve been shaped by generational trauma, colonial trauma, and internalized racism. Filipinos are a very collectivist culture; self-sacrifice is in service to the family unit. It’s diametrically opposed to the Western ideals of individual freedom and self-fulfillment.

Actualizing my queer identity and identity as an artist — a very individual pursuit — consumed all of my young adult life; and in the process I put a wall between my life and being actively involved in my extended family and the Filipino community for fear of estrangement. I had no sense of cultural ties during that time.

It’s only been in the past several years that I’ve been actively trying to reconnect with and be at peace with my hybrid cultural identity — understanding that there’s no single way to be the consummate “good Asian” or “good daughter.” What does that even mean? Luckily I’m not the only one of my peers going through this.

What gets you out of bed in the morning on the worst of days?
This is a loaded question in the middle of a pandemic, isn’t it? On any given day, I’m good if I make sure I’m:
— focusing on a design or art-related thing
— indulging in something fun and pointless
— connecting with someone
— eating something yummy

Pre-pandemic, I could safely assume all four things could happen in a day, and that usually got me out of bed in the morning. During the pandemic, I think we are all sending out little messages in bottles, trying to find or keep connection with our pre-pandemic lives, albeit in an impossible situation.

What is something you do/make/create that brings you deep joy?
Design for social impact nonprofits is my professional passion. Being a designer in service of social good is an area I’ve quite consciously carved out for myself as a consultant for the last 12 years. Not surprisingly, the last four years in the U.S. has made it very evident that designing in the public sphere with equity and justice as your guideposts is key to creating a world that challenges systems of oppression.

Outside of that, I have a handful of very close friends with whom I’ve done collaborative design work, and it’s always so satisfying. Some artists thrive on solitary art-making; I usually do my best stuff feeding off another person in a creative setting.

My other passion is to do ridiculous things with friends and call them “projects.” They usually go nowhere and that’s really the point. I formed a faux company with a friend, and we named it “Armchair Productions” because everything we did was a just a front to hang out and entertain ourselves.

I like to design all kinds of things.

How did the pandemic affect your passions? Did it change the way you do things?
2020 was a very difficult year for me — a past struggle with anxiety roared to life again, with a vengeance, at the beginning of the pandemic, and I had to go back on meds and intense therapy to get through to the other side. It was a hard period of time during which I was not able to be creative or present in my life.

In the summer of 2020, I started really difficult therapy AND a new contract design gig, all in the same week. I was still struggling, and objectively it was probably unwise to take on both at the same time. But I just decided at that point to trust the universe and allow it all to happen the way it was going to happen, and that felt like falling off a cliff.

Now I am trying to consistently trust my instincts; let go of expectations and perfectionism. Trust my gut. This can be very difficult for a Capricorn with Virgo rising. But it’s not impossible.

When was a time you were terrified to speak up for yourself, but you did it anyway?
I came out to my mom in my late 30s. It was unplanned — I was visiting her in Florida and I remember we were at one of her favorite restaurants for lunch. Something told me to seize the moment. I had already had serious relationships with women and she knew my current partner, but essentially my mom and I had a “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. Prior to that day, I had been resigned to the fact that we would never have this conversation.

My greatest fear was not that I would be disowned per se, but that I would from that point on be devalued and invisible to her. But that day I just went for it, without a net, and it ended up going as well as I could have hoped. The next day she just started talking about real estate loopholes I could exploit if my partner and I got married. Ha!

What are the rooms/situations that are hardest for you to speak up in? (Where do you feel most unwelcome?)
If I can read the room and there’s a vibe that isn’t generous or empathetic, I will definitely limit my participation. Navigating a room of huge egos in a work setting is also challenging for me. Oh yeah, and there’s that ever-present Imposter Syndrome that women creatives in the industry have to deal with — but most of the time I can convince myself that it is a construct I can dismantle.

Who is a woman whose voice you can’t get enough of lately?
Ella Fitzgerald. I have her on during the workday, to wind down at night, and anytime I need to chill.

For the first months of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to listen to any genre of music. It was a strange feeling. But then I heard “April in Paris,” and it broke through. Her voice will always be a balm in the chaos of this time.

How do you want to use your voice in the future?
I continue to make space for design work for nonprofits and social justice projects. Creatively, I want to be able to express the hybrid cultural identity I have embraced and continue to explore.

I have in mind a project I’ve been working on about Balikbayan boxes, which are these elaborate care packages that Filipinos overseas send their families in the Philippines. My mom has retired to the Philippines, and my sister and I send her several of these boxes throughout the year. It’s a way of keeping connection and support between separated families — a sort of transnational lifeline. It also holds dual meaning for the sender: “Balikbayan” in Tagalog means “to return home.”

Headline History

The titles for the VOICES Series come from Exercise #2 in the Permission to Speak Workbook. The exercise, “You have more power than you know,” encourages participants to choose a title from a list that is offered, or — if none of those titles feels right — to make up one of their own.

“Each of us is our own harshest critic, most of the time,” the workbook says. “We don’t always see ourselves as we are. We instinctively try to hide many things about ourselves — our failures, our mistakes, our weaknesses, our obsessions. …But the things that make you you also give you power.”

Each woman interviewed for the VOICES Series either chose a title for herself from this list, or gave herself a title of her own making.

Reader. Writer. Hangnail biter. @wordsbyladonna