*Editor’s note: Felicia Hyde is a journalism student in SF State’s Journalism 575 Community Media this spring. Taught by professor Jon Funabiki, the class is a collaboration with El Tecolote.

Verma Soria Zapanta created Hilot with Verma using her own culture, life experiences and remembering her ancestors to share alternative and holistic health services.

“Hilot with Verma was born from that painful and joyful process of remembering who we are as colonized children,” said Zapanta, 35. “My work is not limited to one-on-one healing sessions, but also the ways in which our community, our kapwa, can begin to heal our ancestral lineages as a collective.”

The practice of Hilot is an indigenous form of healing that derived from the Philippine archipelago. Depending on the region, the ancient Filipino art of healing may incorporate forms of body manipulation techniques such as massage or bone setting, energy healing, prenatal and postpartum care, the use of plant medicine, divination techniques, rituals and other holistic practices.

Through a memory of her childhood, she was able to reconnect with the practice of Hilot. She recounted the time when she was extremely ill and received a massage from an elder. While explaining the recollection to her mother, the term “hilot” appeared in her head. At the time, she felt disconnected from, and yet familiar with, the term. 

Early on she learned about a close friend of her family being a manghihilot (a hilot practitioner). She would observe as her Tita Carol (Aunt Carol) massaged her mother, and she would listen to the stories that accompanied them. Originally she would become frustrated over not being able to contextualize certain things being shown to her only to then realize “it was my own disconnect to our indigenous ways of transferring knowledge and I had to re-learn the dance of how to converse with our elders, while asking the right questions at the right moment.”

Self Portrait of Verma Zapanta healing. Photo: David Pasol

Zapanta is the daughter of Teresa Soria Abillano and Veronico Cabiling Zapanta; the grandaughter of Luisa Conui Cacal and Celso Soria; the great-granddaughter of Josefa Silaw and Jesus Soria and Transfiguracion Capuyan Enriquez and Isaac Cacal. She connects back to her Visayan descent, by way of Leyte and Bohol, to remember her ancestors and the hardships they went through and are currently dealing with. 

Zapanta was born and raised in San Francisco’s Fillmore, but did not struggle to fit in. “I didn’t grow up with many Filipinxs,” said Zapanta. “However I found belonging and camaraderie in folks from different backgrounds and communities, which was one of my beautiful experiences growing up as a Frisco Kid.”

Life became more difficult to navigate when she made it to college. As a first generation pursuant of higher education, she wanted to make her parents proud. She had a love for culture and Zapanta attended San Francisco State University because the public school was the only in the country to have a College of Ethnic Studies and had her heart set on becoming a college professor. 

It wasn’t until teaching at Balboa High School in the Excelsior through a program out of the Asian American Studies Department called the Pin@y Educational Partnerships (PEP, founded by Dr. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales) where Zapanta was able to “find her purpose in teaching high school students.” Later, she attended UCLA to pursue her social studies teaching credential and Master’s degree in Education. 

After her decision to pursue teaching, her reputation for being passionate about helping her community, quickly spread within the PEP program. In August 2018, Dr. Dawn Mabalon, a leader within the Filipino community and co-founder of The Little Manila Foundation, died while vacationing in Hawaii. In the days after hearing the news, Zapanta didn’t hesitate to help others. 

She held a community circle called PEP Kapwa Care Circle and allowed people to use the space to share how they felt about the recent loss in the community and memories they had of Mabalon. 

“I deeply appreciated and still appreciate that Verma was with us that weekend. When we felt that everything was falling apart, Verma was the thread that helped keep us together,” said Lauren Daus, a mentee of Zapanta’s. “That’s how I would define Verma: the thread that weaves and holds community together.”

Aside from her practice with Hilot with Verma, Zapanta graduated from the Academy of Chinese Culture and Health Sciences in downtown Oakland, and is currently pursuing her masters in Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture licensure. She works as the assistant program coordinator for the Filipino Mental Health Initiative-San Francisco; an organization that does de-stigmatization work on mental health in the Filipinx and Filipinx American community based out of SOMA Pilipinas, San Francisco’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District.

Along the way, one of her friends connected her with a community of queer healers of color and eventually was able to get involved with holistic medicine. She began to receive the medicine of Chinese herbs and acupuncture from practitioner Andrea Penagos and Usui Reiki healing and spiritual counseling from Stephanie “Syd” Yang. 

“These two amazing healers encouraged me to connect with the medicine of my ancestors and I began the intentional work of re-membering and decolonization,” said Zapanta. “I transitioned out of education completely to focus on healing my body/spirit, my community and my ancestors.”  

In addition to all the organizations and movements she plays a part in, Zapanta hosts the yearly Filipinx healers market/gathering, Ginhawa Marketplace in the SOMA. Zapanta also co-facilites the Bay Area chapter of Survival Arts’ “Sacred Survival Circle” alongside her sister Olivia Sawi, where as a BIPOC healing and training space for queer, trans womxn of color are able to practice Pekiti Tirsia Kali, a revolutionary system of Filipinx Martial Arts. 

The space was created by Jamie Yancovitz (Tongva territory) and Jana Lynne Umipig (Lenape territory) and “the training is based on teachings of decolonizing the mind, body and spirit through the lens of Filipinx in the diaspora, counter violence and fostering our collective liberation through reclaiming our bodies,” Zapanta said. 

Umipig and Zapanta met one another through Umipig’s work at the Center for Babaylan Studies located in Sunnyvale and their friendship grew when they both traveled to the Philippines for an immersion program. 

“Verma is so passionate about the service she offers to our community and is one of the most reliable people I know. She always moves with strong integrity and is someone respected by the community because of it. She is a person who will work with a team to bring together all the pieces needed to manifest the work visions, she is a leader and also the biggest supporter,” said Umipig. “I have watched how Verma heals her community and how they also heal her, and I have been so privileged to work beside her and also call my sister.”

Umipig continued to work with Verma as partners in healing, in which both helped create spaces for the community to explore their identity and empowerment in social justice.  

Through her work of healing and re-connecting with her ancestors, Zapanta has been able to use “Kwentohans” or storytelling to share about her life and practice. 

“I have the privilege of hearing stories from our elders,” Zapanta said. “People share personal stories with me about their own decolonization work, and I have the honor of passing down stories as well.”