On campuses throughout the United States, thousands of Filipino American students are now gearing up for what has become an annual FilAm ritual: The PCN.
That's short for Pilipino Cultural Night.
No, that's not a typo. To young FilAms, that's how ‘Pilipino’ should be spelled because there is no "F" in the Pilipino alphabet. That puzzled me somewhat when I moved to the United States nearly 20 years ago, but I now see that as an admirable declaration of identity. Young college-age FilAms make even stronger declarations during PCN season around spring time.
PCN is essentially a variety show featuring dance routines, songs and skits about the Filipino and Filipino American experience. The productions typically include an unusual mix of ethnic and modern acts. Young FilAms perform dances like the tinikling and the singkil, while others present hiphop or break-dance routines.
The PCN began sometime in the 1970s in California where Filipinos steadily emerged as one of the largest Asian American communities. The tradition was initiated by children of Filipinos immigrants who came to the United States in the 1960s, after less restrictive immigration laws led to a wave of newcomers from the Philippines.
Seeking ways to reconnect with the homeland of their parents, they began mounting performances on college campuses. By the end of the 20th century, PCN had become a tradition in hundreds of campuses not only in California but in other states as well.
Theodore Gonzalves, a professor at the University of Hawaii, who did his dissertation on the PCN phenomenon, said California was “ground zero” for this tradition. “But by the 1980s, the repertoire had been condensed to a particular genre,” he said.
“It's getting to be pretty common,” he added, “even though the term, ‘PCN’ may not be used by other campus organizations. But yes, cultural night presentations are not just a California phenomenon.”
What’s amazing, of course, is that the tradition has endured. For example, students at San Francisco State University, which has a huge Filipino American population, have been mounting PCNs for more than 35 years.
“For most Filipino American college students, it's a rite of passage. It's a community celebration kind of thing," I was told a few years ago by Dan Begonia, professor of Asian American history at San Francisco State University.
In fact, many FilAm students go beyond the tinikling and other ethnic performances. More politically conscious young people use the PCN to explore deeper issues, such as the troubled relationship between the United States and the Philippines or the plight of overseas Filipino workers.
Most shows also feature a skit with a story line that typically goes like this: A young FilAm, confused about his identity, visits his parents’ homeland where he becomes enlightened about who he is.
It is, of course, a romanticized vision of the Philippines, where many young people are probably more Americanized than the typical FilAm. I can just imagine the shock of the idealistic FilAm who finds that his or her Manila-based cousin turns out to be obsessed with US designer clothes and shoes, not Filipino soul.
But this intense curiosity about Philippine culture – which Gonzalves described to me as a “genuinely Filipino American obsession” – underscores the importance of the PCN as a social event. For one thing, the young college students spend hours of their free time writing scripts, organizing and rehearsing the production and spreading the word about their show. And get this: We’re not just talking about a handful of FilAms in one corner of California. This is happening throughout the United States.
As Begonia told me, “You see how they work together and are taking care of business and having fun and doing something good for the community out of the goodness of their hearts. You see the glow in their faces and see their sense of accomplishment."
Copyright 2008 by Benjamin Pimentel