One only dies once, and if one does not die well, a good opportunity is lost and will not present itself again.
– Jose Rizal, national hero of the Philippines
The 3rd Filipino American International Book Festival was held in San Francisco, but it was my first time attending. Friday evening, invited Filipino/Filipino American and members of the Philippine American Writers and Artists (PAWA), Filipino American Center, San Francisco Public Library, and Philippine Consulate General of San Francisco enjoyed an opening reception, which included wine and lumpia, in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library. PAWA President Edwin Lozada gave the welcome, followed by a welcome to San Francisco by Henry S. Bensurto, Jr., Philippine Consul General, and presentations by Filipino American poets, film trailer, and musicians.
The two days of sessions were packed. I enjoyed listening to Dawn Mabalon (she introduced me at my book launch at Eastwind Books of Berkeley), Robyn Magalit Rodriguez (who blurbed my book), Lily Ann Villaraza (PhD candidate and City College of San Francisco instructor), Oscar Penaranda (long-time middle and high school teacher in the Bay Area and mentor to many current Filipino American academics in Asian American Studies) discuss Filipino American history. Oscar and Lilly Ann started an interesting conversation about the definition of Filipino American and Filipino, trying to get at identity and who defines us and how we are defined. This is important stuff to figure out for my second novel, actually, before starting my second novel.
Another session on Filipino American Literature was sobering because it brought up an admittedly depressing reality – are Filipino Americans reading us? A couple of Asian American Studies professors pointed out that none or one at best of their freshmen students have read any Filipino-American writer before enrolling in their classes. In fact, for one professor, he has more Hmong students than Filipino-American studies in his Filipino-American courses. Twice he has had to cancel because of low enrollment. He also noted that many tenured professors at his university will be retiring within the next five to 10 years, and if enrollment continues to decline, expect those positions to go away and be replaced with adjunct professors with no clear path to tenure. It was too much to tackle, this complex problem of determining why enrollment is declining at some schools and not at others, but suffice to say the dialogue is out there.
I’ll admit that before I took an Asian American Studies class at UC Davis, I hadn’t read any Filipino-American writers. I read Bulosan while there and Bienvenido Santos afterwards. Other panelists bemoaned the fact that Filipino-Americans aren’t reading Filipino-American writers. So what has to be done? It requires the incorporation of Filipino-American history and culture into the K-12 curriculum, which means somebody has to take the initiative to develop a strategy of implementing Assembly Bill 123. The bill, sponsored by Assemblyperson Rob Bonta of Alameda, requires that Filipino-American contributions to the farm labor movement be incorporated into the social sciences curriculum. The Filipino American Educators Association of California (FAEAC) is meeting at the end of the month to address that issue.
Hope, however, also abounds in cities like San Diego, in which the school district is establishing an advisory committee to “develop recommendations on how ethnic studies can be implemented and accessible to all students throughout their K-12 educational experience.” Los Angeles and San Francisco passed their ethnic studies requirements in 2014. For Los Angeles, ethnic studies will be a required course for graduation, while in San Francisco, its 19 high schools must offer ethnic studies courses. So this is a good place to start.
But it also means, as the poet Eileen Tabios pointed out as a panelist on Filipino American Literature, that we have to get creative about getting Filipino Americans to read Filipino-American authors. She suggested that various student organizations in the areas of, for example, engineering or medicine be given a book of fiction or poetry in their conference packet or dinner. Maybe the engineering student wouldn’t read it, but perhaps he or she could pass it on to someone who would. Tabios also entreated that we reach out to children, grandchildren to get them interested in Filipino American poetry and fiction.
Isabella was with me both days. And, as Jacob and Isabella did in Delano, she absorbed a lot of information and appreciated the readings. In the session on the Philippine diaspora and politics, Isabella was too shy to participate in the ice breaker of introducing ourselves and telling everyone who we are, what we do, and why we were in this particular session. I was informed by the earlier discussions that teaching and instilling appreciation for one’s culture begins in the home. Even if we have already been assimilated and don’t know the language of our parents, we need to do more than just, as I do on occasion, remind Jacob and Isabella that they are half-Filipino. So I emphasized that I hoped to be part of the solution by bringing my daughter to the festival.
I truly appreciated being among the many Filipino American writers. But even more so, it was fun meeting and listening to writers from the Philippines, Canada, and Great Britain. A reunion of revolutionary writers from 1971, including Juanita Tamayo Lott, Lozada, Penaranda, Lou Syquia, Tony Robles reading his father Al’s works, Emilya Cachapero, and Bill Sorro’s widow. It was a nice connection for me, with one of my characters, Teddy Enebrad, fitting in nicely with this group.
While I never found the time to go to the bookstore area to sign books, I networked like a madwoman, and the connections I made were invaluable to me as a writer but also as a Filipino American who is still trying to find out where she fits within her community.
On Sunday, Isabella and I got to the Asian Art Museum in the late morning to listen to the presentation of Filipino-American history and hear Vangie Buell play the guitar and sing a wonderful Filipino song with Tess Bautista. We caught the Pina: an Enduring Philippine Fabric exhibit, which is ending soon. Our friends Jack and Justin came for my reading, a decidedly abbreviated reading as part of nine writers participating in the Sunday edition of Hot Off the Press, writers whose books have come out recently or are coming out soon. Erin Estrada Kelly read from her YA novel Blackbird Fly, about a girl named Apple who has to navigate the already treacherous world of middle school, which is further exacerbated by being Filipino in a white world in southern Louisiana. When the book’s premise was announced on a Saturday panel, Isabella immediately tugged my arm and asked if she could get it. We think alike. I thought it would be a great book for her to read. And she had it signed, too!
Now I have to recover for my reading at Green Apple Books Monday evening. All the readings have been wonderful, and I look forward to many more. I also look forward to connecting with more writers and scholars and figuring out how we can reach and touch our Filipino-American community. As this festival’s theme, Bukas Na Bukas: An Open Tomorrow, suggests, the opportunity and challenge are certainly there. And one of the calls to action for the next book festival in 2017 is to get more people to attend the festival.