Our Theme “A Pinoy State of Mind: Building with Our Roots” was chosen because we wanted to recognize that as Filipino Americans become more visible and successful across all sectors (e.g., academia, arts and entertainment, law and government, etc.) that we always remember where we came from, as well as the struggles of those who came before us.
– Kevin L. Nadal, PhD, FANHS National Trustee, FANHS 2016 Conference Coordinator, Associate Professor, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY
This is Part II of my reflections on attending the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) 2016 16th Biennel Conference held in New York, June 22-25. To access Part I, you can click here.
Thursday was packed with what I felt like was a day-long star-studded program. Keynote speaker, the Honorable Lorna Schofield, holds the distinction of being the first Filipino American federal judge in U.S. history. Originally from Indiana, she is a U.S. District Judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She received her JD from New York University School of Law and served as an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, prosecuting domestic terrorism, smuggling, and tax fraud. Prior to her appointment in 2012, she was a partner in a law firm where she specialized in complex civil litigation and white-collar criminal defense. One interesting story Schofield shared with us was of her mother wanting her to assimilate: while her Filipina mother ate rice, she made variations on the potato for her daughter. Schofield certainly was driven and I appreciated her articulateness and her direct, no-nonsense sensibility. We are lucky to have her represent us in the federal judicial system. One hopes that there are others in the pipeline.
Fashion show highlights Filipino American designers
Thursday evening’s fashion show kicked off with members of FANHS chapters, including San Francisco chapter’s own Jason Agpaoa, interpreting their version of Filipino and Filipino American fashion style. Veejay Floresca, “islandwear” fashion designer Twinkle Ferraren, and Rafé Totengco, award-winning fashion designer and owner of his namesake handbag collection Rafé New York and creative director for handbags with the Nine West Group Inc., served as guest judges. The main contest featured designs by Iris Gil Vilacrusis, John Soriano, Katrina Delantar, Maria Velez, and Stephanie Gancayco. I didn’t keep track of who designed what, but my favorites were the two accessories designers – one who designed purses and the other who designed necklaces and matching purses. Although all had pieces that I found beautiful and would certainly have proudly worn, the accessories designer whose intricate necklaces and matching purses – made with organic fibers – won. It was a treat to see these designers incorporate natural materials and interpret Filipino traditional style in their designs.
I attended the session “Language, Labor, and Longing: Three Fulbright Experiences in the Philippines,” in which, as the title reveals, three academics shared their experiences in the Philippines as Fulbright scholars. Jason Reblando, photographer and artist based in Chicago and teaches photography at Illinois State University, exhibited his photographs. He captured the images of Filipinas who work overseas and congregate in the financial district in Hong Kong on Sundays, as well as a town filled with homes mirroring Italian architecture, which reflected the world of the Filipino overseas workers who work in Italy and return home to take care of their families. Grace Talusan, essayist and fiction writer who teaches writing at Grub Street and Tufts University, spent her time connecting with her heritage. Joseph Legaspi, co-founder of Kundiman, a nonprofit organization serving Asian American literature and poetry, talked about the process of applying for a Fulbright, which appears to be a lengthy, complex, and arduous process. Still, the presenters certainly gained so much personally and professionally from their stay in the Philippines.
‘Filipino Americans making waves in mainstream’
One of the wonderful gifts of the conference’s location in New York is the ability to invite local high-profile Filipino-American leaders who represent so many different industries to be on panels. “Filipino Americans making waves in mainstream” featured those who have established themselves in their respective fields. Karla Garcia, New York City-based performer, choreographer, and teacher is currently in “Hamilton: A New American Musical,” which chronicles the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manual Miranda. The musical was nominated for a record-setting 16 Tony Awards – of which it won 11 – and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album. Garcia explained how as a “swing” she has had to learn thus far four of the five parts she was given, including the 50 songs written for the musical. The hardest part, she revealed, was remembering where to pick up and where to leave props on stage.
The millennial Matt Ortile started out in the Editorial Fellowship Program, Buzzfeed’s boot camp, after moving to New York. Ortile, who was raised in Manila, worked his way up to Editor of Buzzfeed Philippines, whose properties boast some 300,000 followers and is quite influential not just among Filipinos in the homeland but Filipinos around the world.
Jhett Tolentino, one-half of JoanJhett Productions and three-time Tony Award winning Broadway producer, is only the third Filipino to have won a Tony and the first Filipino Tony Awards voter. He won for co-producing “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the 2013 Tony winner for Best Play. In 2014, he won for co-producing “A Raisin in the Sun,” which starred Denzel Washington, as well as “Gentleman’s Guide.” Tolentino, who was born and raised in the Philippines, shared with us that he was an accountant who loved going to the theater and talking about it with his friends after the show. Upon his friends’ advice, he ran with his passion and became a critic, seeing more than 1,700 plays. His acumen as accountant served him well when he transitioned to producer. He was one of the producers of “Here Lies Love,” a rock musical about Imelda Marcos’s life and adapted from a concept album collaboration between David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. It was inspiring to hear him talk about not just following his true passion, but leveraging all his skills to become a successful producer, who, as he explained, wears many hats. After the session, I was able to meet and chat with all three, which was a treat for starstruck me.
Shining a light on little-known historical events in the Philippines
On Saturday, I attended the session “Forgotten Philippine and Filipino American History.” Sharon Delmendo, PhD, professor of English at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, NY, gave a presentation based on her research, “In Time of Need, an Open Door: Holocaust Rescue in the Philippines,” which looks at how Manuel Quezon welcomed some 1,300-plus Jewish refugees to the Philippines before World War II. “When the Time of Need Came: Manuel Quezon and Holocaust Rescue in the Philippines,” is a scholarly analysis of Commonwealth President Manuel Quezon’s efforts on behalf of Jewish refugees that is geared for the general public. Delmendo pointed out that local newspapers in the Philippines were reporting on Kristallnacht, the wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms that swept through Nazi Germany in November 1938, and other atrocities, so Filipinos were well aware of the persecution of Jewish people. Quezon inserted a mandate on the promotion of social justice in the Philippines’ constitution, and that constituted the first of many instances of the Philippines stepping up and welcoming refugees who were being driven out of their homeland, according to Delmendo. I never knew about the Holocaust Rescue in the Philippines, so all this was fascinating to me, although one elder academic attendee pronounced that Filipinos are inherently and historically racist, which made for an interesting discussion on racist Philippines versus immigrant-friendly Philippines. Someone brought up the fact that the combined Spanish and American colonial rule lasting hundreds of years certainly played a big role in instilling racism on the islands.
Jeffrey Acosta, founding member of the FANHS Hampton Roads chapter and adjunct instructor of U.S. History at Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va., told the story of the Buffalo Soldiers who fought in the Philippine-American War, 1898-1902. In July 1899, the U.S. 25th Infantry Regiment was one of the first “colored” units to arrive in the Philippines to combat the First Philippine Republic, according to Acosta. He talked about the internal and external conflict that these soldiers endured, facing discrimination at home and relating to the Filipinos who were being similarly mistreated by racist American soldiers and political leaders. Trying to bring the story of the Buffalo Soldiers to a wider audience has been taken up by others, including FANHS East Bay emeritus president Evangeline Buell and Bay Area filmmakers. Actor Danny Glover, who also starred in the television movie, The Buffalo Soldiers, is lending support for a documentary that is in pre-production about the soldiers and their service in the Philippines.
Raymund Liongson, associate professor and coordinator of the Philippine/Asian Studies program at the University of Hawaii-Leeward, talked about the abuses he experienced for his opposition views against the Marcos regime, and Elissa Ortiz added her own anecdotes. I appreciated the speakers sharing information and their research about these different periods in the Philippines’ history.
New York, New York
The final event of this fabulous conference was the FANHS Gala on the Hornblower ship, which featured dancing to the music of Joe Bataan and his band, dancing with actor and singer Paolo Montalbán, and hearing the inspiring words of hostess Geena Rocero, supermodel/TV host, activist and founder of Gender Proud. Previously, I didn’t know anything about Rocero, but I learned that her Ted Talk “Why I Must Come Out” was viewed more than 2 million times in just a few months. It was great talking with FANHS members whom my sister and I met at the conference. The biggest star, however, was the New York skyline and the Statue of Liberty – all beautifully lit up – as the boat gave us a breathtaking tour of the Hudson River. It was the perfect ending to a really wonderful conference.
If there was one complaint that I had about the conference, it is two-fold but under the same theme. This was the first conference to hold a Filipino American film festival, which was put together by a team that included Emmy Award-winning filmmaker and friend, Marissa Aroy, whose documentary, Delano Manongs: The Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers Movement, shines a light on Filipino American contributions to California’s farm labor movement. However, it ran concurrently all-day Thursday, which meant if you took in the sessions and keynote speaker sessions, you missed out on the films, which is what happened to me. There were some 60 education sessions in all spread across three days. I had to prioritize, and a few times I missed an interesting session in favor of another one. But I guess that’s a good problem to have.
My first FANHS biennial conference was magical, educational, and inspirational. I was in awe of the talent across so many areas in my Filipino American community. And I fell in love with New York all over again. As Alicia Keys aptly wrote and belted out: “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothing you can’t do/Now you’re in New York/These streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you/Hear it for New York, New York, New York.” Then again, FANHS announced that FANHS2018 will be held in another one of my favorite cities – Chicago. While I’ll be surely going, the work now and ongoing will be all about telling our stories, advocating for so many causes impacting Filipino Americans, and remembering and honoring our pinoy/pinay roots.