Saturday, March 29, 2008

PCN: Celebrating Pilipino Culture the FilAm Way

Published March 26, 2008

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

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Supporting Cast in the Jun Lozada Saga

Posted March 7, 2008

I was on a train headed for San Francisco the morning I was introduced to the Jun Lozada saga. The text message on my cell phone had been sent hours before on the afternoon of February 5, Manila time: ‘jun lozada, a good man, w no plitical ambitions nor affiliations who just happend 2 know misdeeds of powerful people was abducted upon arrival at naia,’ it read.

The message came from my friend Nanding Josef who sent it to me and many others throughout the world as he and a group of Jun’s supporters were facing a crisis at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. They were there to welcome him from Hong Kong. But Jun was nowhere to be found. They feared he had been arrested or kidnapped -- or that he was dead.

You know the rest of the story so I won’t get into that. But allow me to shine the light this time on the supporting cast in this saga. For as the latest political scandal to rock the Arroyo regime unfolds, a group of people (aside from Jun Lozada’s wife Violet and his family) has been quietly helping him deal with his astounding journey -- from humble government worker struggling with a dangerous secret to whistle blower-turned-political superstar.

They’re an odd bunch.

There’s Sister Mary John Mananzan, whom I still remember as a prominent activist nun and feminist during the exciting days of the anti-Marcos protests in the 1980s. Actually, I remember her as the nun with a loud voice who made lots of noise –
“maingay na madre.”
I really mean that in a positive way: Sister Mary John is a fighter with much to say about injustice in our society, and isn’t afraid to speak out.

Rushing to the aid of vulnerable people, even if it’s in the middle night or she’s exposing herself to danger, is nothing new to her. She’s done that before. More than 30 years ago, during the historic La TondeƱa Strike, she and other priests and nuns throughout Manila responded to the call of activists led by Edgar Jopson to join factory workers on the picket line who faced a violent dispersal by Marcos’ military.

Father Albert Alejo is a fellow Atenista whom I have always admired as a writer and activist, and who has devoted his life to social causes, particularly the seemingly endless fight against corruption. Trained in Manila, he opted for the tough assignment at a less prestigious posting – in Mindanao.

And with him in the group is a La Sallista, Brother Armin Luistro. The president of De La Salle University, he has been an active and respected member of the opposition movement. It was at La Salle Greenhills where Jun Lozada found refuge during the critical hours of his arrival from self-exile. I have heard many good things about Nicky Perlas who is known as a leading advocate of the Philippines’ vibrant NGO movement.

Then there’s my good friend Nanding. He is probably best known as Pater Malko in GMA’s “Majika” and he also played the role of Ryan Agoncillo’s father confessor in ABS-CBN’s “Ysabel.” He has a fancy title -- Vice President and Artistic Director of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, which doesn’t really capture the essence of his career as a committed cultural activist.

While the CCP is best known for ballets and operas, Nanding gets more fired up about the festivals he has helped organize, in which tribal groups from Mindanao or factory workers from Navotas perform dances and plays based on their life experiences and the social problems they face. While he is undoubtedly one of the best theater artists in the country, he also takes seriously the idea of acting in the real world to help directly those who need it. When a typhoon left poor farmers homeless and injured in Real, Quezon a few years ago, he didn’t need a script to know what to do – Nanding immediately joined the volunteer effort.

Over the past few weeks, this circle of friends has been meeting with Jun Lozada, giving him comfort and guidance, and helping him navigate what is undoubtedly an exhilarating but scary journey. They know he has flaws and is not a saint. But like the rest of the nation, they praise and celebrate his courage. “He showed all of us a sense of honesty and humility, a sense of truth,” Nanding said.

They also know that he is under a lot of pressure now. From people whose interests were hurt by his coming forward. From those who may want to take advantage of his celebrity. So this odd bunch – a priest, a nun, a brother, an NGO advocate, a cultural activist – they’re standing with him to face the storm.

I’ve never met Jun Lozada. I’ve seen and heard him only on TV. If I ever get the chance to meet him, I’ll tell him, “You’ve struck gold, Jun.” Not because he survived what appeared to be an attempt to silence him or because he found the courage to take a stand and in the process won a nation’s admiration and gratitude. But because, whatever else happens this crisis, one thing is clear: Jun Lozada has won the trust and friendship of good, noble people.

Sister Mary John, Father Albert, Brother Armin, Nicky and Nanding have already shown their readiness to defend him as the battle heats up. When the spotlight has been turned off, when the media has lost interest, when there are no more requests for interviews or autographs or speeches before huge audiences, I bet they would still be there.

They would keep in close touch with him. They would agree to be his children or grandchildren’s ninong or ninang, and would accept his invitation to a birthday or some other celebration. They would invite him over for merienda or dinner. And when they get together, they would reminisce with him about the time he and they had a life-changing encounter with fear, courage and history.