While people are talking about Vice Presidential daughter Jillian Robredo graduating from New York University this week, there’s actually another Filipina doing the same and is equally deserving of the spotlight: famed documentary photographer Xyza Cruz Bacani.
Bacani is known for her powerful, nuanced, intimate images of Filipino migrant workers in different parts of the world. Her photographs have landed on the pages of esteemed international titles such as New York Times and CNN. Bacani herself was an OFW, working as a domestic helper and nanny in Hong Kong along with her mother when Filipino photographer Rick Rocamora “discovered” her black and white photographs online. The notice got her featured in a New York Times profile and things were just not the same after.
“I did not dream of being a full-time photographer,” she told ANCX in 2019. “It wasn’t on my to-do list. My to-do list was survive, help my family, work, and then do it all over again.”
Bacani is graduating with an M.A. in Arts Politics program at the Tisch school Wednesday. “Two years ago NYU was so impressed with her that even without a college degree they accepted her (with scholarship) into the rigorous [program],” wrote Michael Puruganan, professor of Biology and former Dean of Science at NYU, in a recent Facebook post.
Bacani tells ANCX the Master’s program was intensive—which needed to be deferred for a year due to the pandemic.
“The most formidable challenge is the adjustment period,” adds the photojournalist. “Not having a college degree entering the academic program means I have to work harder to keep up with the curriculum and my cohorts. It is fun being part of TISCH. It is a humbling experience. The best moments are getting straight As on my grades and spending time with my cohorts and faculties. They are all accomplished people, and I have learned from their offerings.”
Joining Bacani at Yankee Stadium for the grad rites are her husband Nicholas Papananias, a photo editor, and the rep of the person who gave her the Tisch scholarship. Her parents will not be able to join her, however.
“I wish my parents were here to celebrate with me,” Bacani posted on Facebook recently. “Next week, I will officially have a diploma. I fulfilled a dream, not just mine but of my parents. A farmer and an OFW got a daughter with Masters in Arts and Politics from NYU. I still wish that they could see me wear a violet gown that doesn’t compliment my skin tone but wearing it proud and loud. This is for my descendants. I broke the chain mama!”
Bacani’s parents are in Nueva Vizcaya. She says she will just have the ceremonies filmed and send the video to them. “Tulog na sila that time,” she tells us. “Medyo wistful kase wala ang parents. Dream din nila to eh. Papatarpolin na lang daw (si Papa). Hahaha.”
What are her immediate plans after graduation?
“I will rest for a bit because rest is also an act of resistance. I will be returning to Asia for some projects,” Bacani says. These projects include a non-fiction novel set in Hong Kong. “It’s about the seeds of family, post colonial memories, and love.” This follows her debut “We Are Like Air” which was launched in 2019, a book of photographs on migrant workers, and inspired by her mother Georgia Bacani’s story.
Xyza was eight when her mother left for Singapore to become a domestic helper. Her wages as a laundrywoman in their hometown were just not enough to support her three children. She was unhappy in Singapore—she got there thru a human trafficker, she also had an abusive employer—but that didn’t stop the Nueva Vizcayanon from taking another chance at working abroad.
Georgia found employment in Hong Kong serving a rich widow who would become her friend. It was this widow, Kathryn Louey, a philanthropist, who would encourage Xyza to pursue photography, offering the young lady an advance so she could get the SLR she wanted. Xyza’s camera would become her mother’s eyes in the outside world. “My goal then was to show my mother what Hong Kong looked like. She never went out. She worked seven days a week (in her employer’s home) because she chose to get paid instead of going out and taking a rest.”
On Wednesday morning, Xyza posted a moving message on her Instagram accompanied by pictures of her in a graduation gown taken by her husband. “I am a scholar and grateful to people who paved the way for me to dream, who saw my potential and extended their generosity,” it says. “I am in awe of your beauty and grace. I am grateful to my mama and papa who taught me kindness and grit.”