What I Learned From Three Years Of Running Pinya Letters Calligraphy

In December 2019, Pinya Letters officially turned three years old.

It’s a huge milestone, and one that came unexpectedly.

It doesn’t feel that long ago that I first arrived to Canada from the Philippines with my mom. My identity shifted in a huge way.

Suddenly I was a Filipina immigrant thrown into a new world - new customs, new culture, new faces, and a new home that didn’t feel quite like home yet.

A photo of my very first wedding commission. I and Pinya Letters have come a long way since then!

Then in December 2016, my identity shifted again. 

I decided to create Pinya Letters and embark on a new journey - one that would be lonely, difficult, but also joyful and meaningful in so many ways.

Who would have thought back then that I would be a professional calligrapher in Toronto? That I would be asked to do event calligraphy for local celebrities at TIFF, or that my work would be featured in publications like Hitched Magazine?

These past three years have brought with them many ups and downs. But more important than anything else - they’ve brought me opportunities to grow and learn.

Here are the three major lessons I learned after three years of building and growing Pinya Letters.

Lesson #1: Community Is Everything.

No matter who you are, where you live, or what industry you work in - community is truly everything. 

In my personal experience, I would be nowhere without the support of the people I’ve met along the way - my fellow calligraphers, vendors, small business owners, and community members who have put their trust in me, hired me, and recommended my work to others. 

Pinya Letters’ community has grown organically these past few years. After I posted a photo on Instagram of these hand lettered table signs I made for a wedding, they were ordered three more times by three different couples! 

It’s because of this widespread support that Pinya Letters has grown so much these past few years, and most of it has been organic.

I’ll never get tired of people posting photos of their hand lettered pieces for their weddings or events, and sharing how much it means to them. 

You can’t do anything meaningful on your own. I’ve learned to find my circle and surround myself with people who fill me creatively, challenge me, and help me grow.

Lesson #2: Know Your Worth.

Being in the wedding industry as an event calligrapher is extremely competitive

In the early days, I’d often compare my work to others who had been in the industry for years, and I would feel down on myself. 

I was so honoured to be the in house event and wedding calligrapher for the Jam Factory in Toronto.

As a result, I started off pricing my services far below what I deserved. Unfortunately, this led me to some toxic work encounters which brought me further into a downward spiral. I questioned my worth, and it opened others to do the same.

Eventually, I learned to shut those doubtful voices out. I realized that if I want other people to value my work, I had to value myself first, and that meant charging what I believed I deserved. 

Once I learned to value my work fairly and to stick with it, I felt so much more comfortable in my own skin and empowered to own my story. 

And the additional benefit?

By saying no to the wrong opportunities and claiming my worth, this created space for more positive work experiences, better opportunities, and meaningful connections with people I respect in the industry.

I’ve had the opportunity to develop my skills as a wedding and event calligrapher and as an entrepreneur. This is a shot of the first styled shoot I’ve ever co-designed.

Lesson #3: Support Others. 

Some of my favourite experiences running Pinya Letters are those times I get to meet my fellow calligraphers and entrepreneurs, to learn from their experiences, and to help support their growth in return.

This may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve truly learned that there’s much more joy in community over competition.

I learned not to shy away from reaching out and offering my support to the community. Here I am at the Cambio & Co. FILIPINOESQUE pop-up in Toronto as their live event calligrapher.

First I began reaching out to others and offering my support because I wanted to pay it forward. I had benefited from the generosity and kindness of others, and I wanted to do the same for someone else.

But now, I realize that collaborating with others in my industry and supporting my fellow creatives has an additional benefit… it also enhances my creativity and fills me up with new ideas for projects, designs, or collaborations.

Of course, I acknowledge that I can’t always offer my time and labour to fellow vendors, so I intentionally support in other ways.

I make it a point to recommend others’ services, share, like and comment on their posts on social media. Other times, I offer my support financially as a consumer, choosing to spend my dollars consciously with small businesses than the big chains. It may be small, but from personal experience, I know how big an impact these little gestures can have.

The more I reach out to others and offer my support, the more I grow, learn, and benefit in return. Everyone wins.

So What’s Next For Pinya Letters?

The past three years have been a roller coaster ride where at the end, you emerge as a different person. I’ve had many opportunities to grow - as a calligrapher, an entrepreneur, and a Filipina.

I strive to always create more depth and meaning in my work as a calligrapher. How can Pinya Letters elevate more voices? Support people in the community? Be more mindful of our decisions and impact?

I strive to always deepen my work and impact as a calligrapher. This year, Pinya Letters began offering Tagalog calligraphy workshops in Toronto that centre identity and community healing through Filipino words. 

I began purposefully collaborating and promoting work by people of colour - fellow vendors, artists, and businesses.

This year, Pinya Letters began offering Tagalog calligraphy workshops that centre identity and community healing.

Eventually, this led us to establish Pinay Collection, a fashion and apparel brand that celebrates and reclaims Filipina/x identity. 

We launched our sister company Pinay Collection, a fashion and apparel brand featuring minimalist, hand lettered and drawn designs to reclaim Filipina/x identity.

Our goal is to share, empower, and be unapologetic about our unique Filipina/x narratives through our Pinay-infused themes. Our minimalist, hand lettered and drawn designs hope to elevate the Tagalog language and artistry in a modern way.

So far, we’ve had customers from across Canada and the USA purchase our Pinay Collection line. I always feel a thrill when I see people post photos of them wearing our 3M tee or Maarte sweater - similar to that thrill I get when I see all your posts about Pinya Letters and how much my work has meant to you.

Pinya Letters is nowhere close to creating huge impact to our community, but we hope to continue the small steps we've started and create bigger waves in the future.

Thank you for being on this journey with me.

Connect with me and the Pinya Letters community on Instagram


This blog post is co-curated by Gelaine Santiago. Gelaine is a social entrepreneur, an online storyteller, and a passionate advocate for diversity and ethics in business. She’s the co-founder of Cambio & Co., an e-commerce fashion company working with Filipino artisans to celebrate Filipino craftsmanship, culture, and heritage. Gelaine is also one of the founders of Sinta & Co., the world’s first conscious Filipino wedding boutique. She was named one of RBC’s Top 25 Canadian Immigrants of 2019. Find her on Instagram @gelainesantiago and www.gelainesantiago.com

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