Interview with Angeline Calleja

It was Friday morning for me in Boston on April 9 when I sat down on Zoom with Angeline Calleja, who was all the way in Rotterdam, Netherlands, enjoying the late afternoon. Calleja, 28, is the founder of Yugto, an online bookstore and book club that exclusively sells and uplifts Philippine stories by Filipino authors—the first to do so in Europe. 

Calleja emigrated from the Philippines to the Netherlands five years ago when she was 23, and now she does any work she can to help her family back in the Philippines. All while she is trying to get adjusted to her new life in Europe, Calleja is trying to learn Dutch, the official language of the Netherlands.

“Even though I had a university degree, it’s still hard to find a job that is really connected to what I studied,” Calleja says. “So you could imagine how hard it is for a Filipino to get a chance here [on top of that].”

In September 2020, while Calleja was spending a lot of time at home like everyone else due to the pandemic, she realized that she had been spending so much time working on her Dutch that she hadn’t been reading in her primary language Tagalog. She also realized how isolated she was from her culture since leaving her home country.

“It felt like everything was not going well, and I [didn’t] know what to do with my life,” Calleja says. “and I don’t have a family here [in Rotterdam]. I only have my husband…I would like to hug my own…And there’s a lot of Filipinos here in the Netherlands, like [24,000], and when I first came here, everything was new to me. I needed to learn everything from scratch. From how to ride a tram to learning the language and the culture. I was having a hard time to find connection with the existing Filipino community. [But through Yugto], there’s a deeper connection with books.”

The word “yugto” means “chapter” in Tagalog, and Calleja emphasizes that Yugto is about embracing identity through reading and community, finding fellow Filipinos in Europe who have the same goals and interests—people who have become important parts in the chapters of her life.

“I’ve even met second-generation, first-generation Filipinas who made me realize how privileged I am that I’m [fluent] Tagalog, that I know how to speak the language fluently. All my life, it feels like we always need to be good in English, and if you’re good in English, you’re smart. But I did not realize that I am privileged being Filipino and knowing my own language.” 

Yugto currently has around 50 registered book club members, with volunteers helping Calleja organize meetings, pick discussion topics, and find experts knowledgeable in the subjects they cover. From stories on shamans or baybayin to feminism to LGBTQIA+ history, Yugto covers a wide variety of topics and connects Filipinos in a virtual space. Calleja has even recently started a program to help first and second-generation Filipinos learn Tagalog due to growing up away from their home country. And while the bookstore is currently online only, with a new website in the works, Calleja hopes to expand it to a physical store or a spot where anyone with Filipino background can visit to one day. 

“It’s not [just] a book club anymore,” Calleja says. “I forgot that I am capable of doing something…that I am educated…I made Yugto, and it showed that I am a woman whose ancestors are a warrior and a healer, and that I can be a leader and start something beautiful on my own. and that makes me happy. I feel empowered.”

Calleja adds that she hopes to remind fellow Filipinos of how beautiful and special it is to be Filipino, and that it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about what really happened during the pre-colonial period too. “People try to control [what you believe]…people will underestimate you. But I control what [my] core values are and what I believe in, and what being a Filipina means to me…Sometimes even though you’re from the same country, you don’t have the same beliefs. You don’t have the same definition.” 

Through Yugto, Calleja has found the people who do share her values, and she truly cherishes the community she has made a space for. She changed the course of her life and started a new chapter that allows her to embrace the stories of her culture with others who appreciate them as much as she does.

“You stick to your core values, to what you believe in, but please learn to listen too and be open to new things and possibilities. Then you attract people that you can grow with and that you can learn with. And lastly, never be afraid to reach out.”

“When I first started Yugto last September 2020, it was only a bookclub for myself. To push myself to read again in Tagalog, to teach myself once more the tales I had ignored, about the stories I had denied, and about the history, I was forgetting… Yet I did not know I was also looking for a community, I did not know I was yearning for my individuality or to find a “creative revenge” from what I was experiencing living abroad or to find what I am here for.

What I then knew was, I am longing for warm weather, for an endless chat with my friends and family in Tagalog and for a deep connection and conversations.

7 months passed by, this community not only led me to people with whom I can read a book or to people where I can relate an ‘accent’ with. But a samahan or community that challenges me as to why Yugto even exists and how I would like Yugto to become.

I am very delighted and grateful. FINALLY I FOUND MY TRIBE, and to share this journey with them is my greatest achievement.

This is for all of us who are open to relearn, to heal and to love again the story written by our ‘kababayan.’ This is for the next generation Filipinx who would love to get to know more about our own roots and history. And this is for the Filipinx diaspora (like me) who misses our ‘tahanan araw-araw.’”

kababayan = compatriot

tahanan = home

araw-araw= everyday

You can find Yugto on Instagram (@yugtoeuropa). Their website is coming out later this year, so follow them for more updates! 


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Angeline Calleja is a mental health, education, women, and LGBTQIA+ empowerment and slow fashion advocate. Born and raised in Tanay, Rizal Philippines. Lived there until 2016 when she had an opportunity to move to Europe. She is currently residing in Rotterdam, Netherlands, a city she never even heard of before. But now, she’s beginning to call it her second home as she keeps on striving to open her own door of opportunities. 

 

After having the chance to learn European languages and as well as their culture, especially the Dutch language and culture—she recognized the significance of her native language and the 180+ more languages (not dialect) in her home country and that no language is superior to the other. Because of learning another language and living in another country, she began forgetting Tagalog words. She noticed that she was no longer reading a book from her own mother tongue or a story written by her compatriots. She also recognized the lack of representation of the Philippine literature in Europe. That led her to create Yugto — the first Philippine-focused independent bookstore in the EU. It is also a community hub that strives to reach fellow Filipinxs in the diaspora and the 1st/2nd/3rd generations Filipinxs who want to feel connected to their roots through reading and relearning their own culture, story and history one “aklat” at a time.

 

*aklat = book

 

Her next plan for Yugto is to turn the Bookstore into a Community Library through Patreon. A library consists of all the classic Philippine literature but especially a library for women, lgbtqia+ and peasant writers from her home country. Raising awareness about the writers from Visayas and Mindanao, or authors from the Filipino diaspora circle, whose writings and stories have been long neglected. Yugto aims to illuminate the multitude of languages from her home one “salita” a day. To encourage all readers to support writers from Asia and from marginalized groups.

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