A Washington, D.C., wine bar is in the process of changing its name after members of the Filipino community called out the establishment’s owners for not only cultural appropriation but also what they say is the watering down of a culturally significant term, stripping it of its history of resilience.
Barkada Wine Bar, which is owned by four white men ― Sebastian Zutant, Nick Guglietta, Nate Fisher and Anthony Aligo ― caught the attention of the Filipino community when several news outlets published stories about its opening in the Shaw/Cardozo neighborhood this week.
Barkada does not serve any Filipino food or drinks, according to its menu. Its name is a Tagalog word meaning a group of close friends.
“This is something we feel really close to and you feel a lot of ownership over. So to have it taken in this way with no connection ― [it’s] like they were looking for a word,” said Gem Daus, an adjunct professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.
In an Eater DC article that was widely circulated among the Filipino community on Thursday, Barkada’s owners said “that they identified with the term, and they said it also helped that ‘bar’ is in the word.”
Zutant told Washington City Paper on July 2 that he pushed for the Barkada name and said “that it didn’t matter if our name was in a different language or not. I didn’t want to call it posse or homies or clique.”
However, for the Filipino community, barkada means more than just close friends.
The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) Capital Region issued a statement Friday:
“Barkada has a rich and meaningful history in the Filipino community. Today, it refers to your circle of friends, but its roots can be traced back to Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Barkada is derived from the Spanish word barcada, meaning ‘boatload.’ Yes, the original barkadas were boatloads of Filipino prisoners shipped away from their homes by boat, but from these trying circumstances, our ancestors formed bonds that would help them survive colonization, imprisonment, and enslavement. To water barkada down to “A totally cool word” — as Barkada Wine Bar’s website originally described it — strips it of its resonance as a symbol of FIlipino resilience.”
The NaFFAA also called out local food media for their “uncritical promotion of the bar’s opening” and “failure to notice the blatant absence of the owners’ connection to Filipino culture and community.”
On Thursday, Barkada responded to the backlash and posted a statement on its website and Instagram account:
We’re changing the name. We reached out to many people in the community to find a name that embodied a sense of friendship and bond between people. When we ventured outside of our own language to capture that sentiment, we missed the mark. We apologize to all we offended, and to our community we hope to serve. It was never our intention to appropriate or capitalize on the Filipino culture and we recognize we fell short in engaging more of the Filipino community. Our goal is to be a gathering place for friends in the neighborhood, and to become friends with those neighbors. We still hope to carry through the ideals of friendship, starting with our ability to listen. We are actively looking to change our identity and brand and engage in further dialogue with each of you. We look forward to hearing more of your thoughts, and how we can better capture the ideals with which we started this project. We will be donating proceeds from our opening to support the Filipino community as well. Barkada is a beautiful word with a deep meaning of friendship. We want to honor that, and you, as we move forward. We hope to hear from you at BarkadaWineBar@gmail.com
Anthony, Nick, Nate, & Sebastian
Filipino community members and restaurateurs say that, although the bar’s decision to change the name and to open a dialogue are steps in the right direction, this moment reveals a systematic lack of knowledge about Filipino food and culture.
“Filipino food or culture is really special and holds a special place in our hearts. Hearing the word growing up in the Philippines, it’s more than what the word means,” said Paolo Dungca, a D.C. area chef who was part of the team that opened Filipino restaurants Bad Saint and Kaliwa. “This just has a deeper meaning than just like a cool word. So, I mean, seeing the restaurant, I have no problem seeing that. But the only thing is like there’s no Filipino connection whatsoever.”
What’s In A Name?
There’s a depth to naming a restaurant.
Katrina Villavicencio, co-creator of Filipino supper club dining experiences in the Washington area, said Filipino chefs are very intentional about the words that they choose to name their restaurant because it’s not just about the food.
“It’s the entire history of Filipino American resilience in this country. It’s the history of our personal struggles and our identity and trying to figure out how to be Filipino,” she said. “And a lot of these modern chefs want to present, you know, in an upscale way. And they’re very intentional about how they may name the restaurant to embody all of that identity.”
It’s the reason Villavicencio reacted strongly about the Barkada name.
“To see the word barkada, which is obviously a very special word for brotherhood for us, and to see that it didn’t have any of the relevance (to Filipino culture) … was very upsetting,” she said.
The friction also raises questions about who can represent what.
“I think it would have been a different story, I feel, if there was more of a stronger Pinoy [Filipino] influence there,” said Jappy Afzelius, executive chef for Tsismis NYC in New York. “I think that as Filipinos and as Pinoys, we are all entrepreneurs and we’re all proud of our culture. We should have just more welcomed it… but it would have been better if there was a Philippine twist in the operation somewhere. It could have been in the drinks, could have been in the cuisine.”
Keesa Ocampo, vice president of Filipino Food Movement, a nonprofit organization that works to bring awareness to the Filipino culinary arts, said the bar naming is a cautionary tale for many businesses.
“You may have the best of intentions. But equally important is the research and marketing of all of the different elements of your business. And we also find that it’s important to listen to your customers,” Ocampo said.
Sonia Delen, Filipino Food Movement president, said this is a teachable moment that could lead to courageous conversations and more mindful decisions.
“If you’re going to use our name, connect with us, make it a more meaningful connection… that will celebrate the both of our cultures,” Delen said.
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