Four white men recently opened a wine bar along U Street in Washington, D.C. named “Barkada Wine Bar,” a nod to the Filipino word for a closely-knit group of friends.
The name was the only Filipino part of it; they did not announce plans to serve Filipino food or drinks nor is it an establishment owned by anyone of Filipino heritage.
“This is problematic on so many levels. Completely ignorant and of course, a PRIVILEGED thought-process. What makes you think it’s okay to take a word from another culture when you pay no respect or homage to the culture itself?” Jessica Millete wrote in a Facebook post. “No Filipino items on your menu, no Filipino flavors incorporated, no Filipino winemakers included, not even in your decor? No support going towards a non-profit benefiting Filipino Americans or back in [the] Philippines?”
Millete also urged the owners to change the bar’s name.
“Absolutely WILD that in our current social climate, you still think this is okay. Just because you think the Asian stereotype is that we stay silent and go along our way, doesn’t mean that’s the case now,” she said.
On their website, the owners wrote: “Barkada – noun, Tagalog – a group of friends: A totally cool word that describes us: a group of friends serving crazy delicious wine, hanging out just off U Street in DC.”
In addition to the term, Krisha — a D.C. native who asked to withhold her last name for privacy reasons — pointed out another layer of how the restaurant is contributing to the gentrification of the U Street neighborhood.
“And this is all on top of contributing to the ongoing problem of gentrification in Washington, D.C. The owners have to expand outside of simply executing their business and be more mindful of the impact they create on the city they’re opening in,” she told the Asian Journal.
While some expressed their dismay, there were others who didn’t find a problem with using “barkada.”
A Change.org petition with a goal of 5,000 signatures called on the owners not to change the name and that fellow Filipinos should “give them a chance” instead of “bashing or bully[ing] them.”
One Facebook user, Maricar Tangonan, said that language is “dynamic and organic.”
“It’s often borrowed and has crossed cultural boundaries — no one owns the word ‘barkada,’” she wrote. “Not because there are no Filipino ‘pulutan’ or drinks means there is no Filipino element.”
Another Fil-Am, Mark Libatique, lamented that the debate within the community has become a “dumb, petty thing” and that it is “a non-issue [this is] on a grander scale of Fil-Am welfare.”
“Instead of being an opportunity to advance Filipino voices, this has become Filipino-vs-Fil-Am, community organizer vs non-advocate,” he said.
Bing Cardenas-Branigin, a community leader in D.C., told the Asian Journal that this conversation could have been a teaching moment about Filipino culture and cuisine.
“As a community, we could have used this as an opportunity to tell them about our food, sisig for example and our drinks made with calamansi. Their usage of Barkada could have been our leverage in order to promote our cuisine and culture more,” Cardenas-Branigin said.
Changing the name
In response to this backlash, Barkada issued an apology on its website and social media accounts.
The partners, Sebastian Zutant, Nick Guglietta, Nate Fisher, and Anthony Aligo, responded to the hundreds of comments on the bar’s social media pages asking to change their name.
Part of the statement read: “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.”
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They are also “actively looking to change our identity and our brand and engage in further dialogue” and promised to donate “proceeds from our opening to support the Filipino community as well.”
“Barkada is a beautiful world with a deep meaning of friendship. We want to honor that, and you, as we move forward,” the statement read.
“Part of the reason we did this is not because it’s our identity but we resonated with the meaning and thought behind the word,” Guglietta told Eater. “But it was a mistake.”
He added that they spent five months coming up with the name. Also according to Eater, in the course of considering Barkada, they received positive feedback from a few friends with Filipino heritage, but the owners recognize they should have done more to evaluate the decision.
The National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA) Capital Region released a statement “concerned by the lack of sensitivity and awareness” of using the Barkada name.
“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 group wrote.
The statement — representing Fil-Am organizations, business owners and community members in the DC Metropolitan Area — also provided recommendations to the establishment’s owners and to news outlets on how they can inclusively cover the city’s food scene.
“We urge the business owners to commit to a habit of unlearning, undoing, and unmaking in an industry that is not isolated from racism. As established restaurateurs in the area, they have influence and connections in the industry that many BIPOC do not; they have a voice that is not afforded to marginalized communities. We ask that they commit to supporting minority-owned businesses as well as be transparent in how they choose to serve the community moving forward,” it added.
For food media, the organization urged the hiring of more writers and editors of color and to give equal news coverage to BIPOC business owners who are historically underrepresented.
“It is particularly disheartening to see Barkada’s opening receive the amount of coverage that it did when Filipino business owners have been wary of giving their establishments Filipino names lest they alienate customers,” NaFFAA Capital Region said.
The Filipino Food Movement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of Filipino culinary arts, said they’ve begun a dialogue with Barkada’s owners about what a constructive way forward could look like for the community and bar. (The owners also shared with the movement’s representatives that they reportedly had a Filipino roommate a few years ago who taught them the word barkada.)
“In many ways, this is a cautionary tale when it comes to opening food businesses, especially in the U.S. where the audience is so woke, there is no room for making mistakes. You can’t make missteps like this, especially in this day and age,” Keesa Ocampo, vice president of the Filipino Food Movement, told the Asian Journal. “You have to do your research and for your brand, marketing and development, you have to put in a lot of thought into not only how do I want this brand to look? But also, how can I be inclusive?”
The group also said it’s an opportunity to be “bridge builders” and to uplift Fil-Am chefs for possible pop-up events and Filipino wine and spirit brands that can be showcased at the bar.
“This is no longer the time to be divisive. When people try to find resonance and relevance in our food and culture, we think it’s a great thing,” Ocampo added. “Now, yes, there may be missteps, but I don’t think that we should be dissuading them from trying again and trying harder…If their heart is in the right place and if they commit to really doing this the right way, then we want them to do well because they’re now carrying a piece of our culture and a word that belongs to us.”