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20 Years Ago in June

jmelegritoWhen PAFC President Ador Carreon announced the board’s “difficult decision” to cancel this year’s Philippine Festival and Parade, many in our community were understandably shocked and saddened. “My kids are all looking forward to it,” says Maryland Delegate Kris Valderrama of Ft. Washington, mother of two young girls and daughter of David Valderrama, who served as Grand Marshall of the first Filipino American parade on Pennsylvania Avenue 20 years ago. “And it’s the only event that the American public can go to every year and get a taste of the Philippines.”

Saturday, June 3, 1989. That was the first time Filipino Americans in the nation’s capital celebrated their history and culture on Pennsylvania Avenue a stretch of asphalt between the White House and The Capitol. For two years before that, the revelry was confined to the old Philippine Embassy parking lot on Massachusetts Avenue, between 16th and 17th streets NW (now the present location of the embassy).

The change in venue from a small parking lot owned by the Philippine government to a large public plaza on America’s main street was also symbolic of a growing change in attitude an emerging consciousness among Filipinos in the U.S. that they are Americans too.

As reported by Bette Nepomuceno-Mejia in the July 1989 issue of Philippine Express, “From all indications, the Filipino community in Washington DC is blooming like a summer rose. The cultural cornucopia that emerged in late spring was wonderful to behold. New events are still coming out of what seems to be a magic mill.” She wrote further about savoring “the flavor of the fruits of harmonious collaboration, a recent phenomenon in this country.”

A month before the Philippine Festival, the Smithsonian opened an exhibit entitled “Two Hundred Twenty Six years of Filipinos in the U.S.” It featured Women in America (1860-1985), Images from the Past, and the Philippine Artifacts Project. It provided “a rare opportunity for us and our progeny to feel a sense of belonging in our new habitat,” Nepomuceno-Mejia added. That same month, Kilos Sining a local cultural arts group – staged Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as A Filipino” at the GWU Marvin Center a theatrical triumph that affirmed Filipino excellence in the arts.

Hala Bira! And then came June. The parade was a big hit, showcasing the Ati-Atihan group from New York and New Jersey. Their authentic costumes were flown in from the Philippines especially for the occasion (and just in the nick of time) by the parents of Lulu Rosales, then the embassy’s Cultural Affairs officer. Philippine Ambassador Emmanuel Pelaez made it all happen, of course.

The parade, which followed part of the route taken by the presidential inaugural parade five months earlier, was “the biggest Philippine celebration Washington has ever seen,” reported David Briscoe of the Associated Press. “The loud drums, the metal xylophone and the loudspeakers blaring out ‘Bayan Ko’ filled the boulevard between the Capitol and the National Theatre to kick off 10 days of celebrating. While the whole world was recoiling at the horror of Chinese soldiers suppressing a movement for democracy in that country, Filipinos were reminding Americans of the much happier outcome of the original ‘people power’ revolution.” Briscoe went on to write about Filipinos being “a largely ignored minority in Washington. But since President Corazon Aquino’s triumphant trip in September 1986, Filipinos have a different image in America one of self reliance and pride.”

Watching from the parade stand, the ambassador and other official dignitaries from the D.C. government, cheered on the participants, notably the children of World Bank and IMF employees who depicted the phenomenon of People Power. Elvi Bangit and Edie Olympia orchestrated this moving tableau, recalling the pride that Filipinos all over the world felt when democracy was restored in a peaceful “revolution.” The Philippine Arts, Letters and Media Council (PALM), led by Noree Briscoe and Jimmy Yambao, and the Association of Philippine American Women (APAW), represented the different regions and ethnic groups of the Philippines with colorful costumes and striking sounds.

“At the Filipiniana Fair, which came alive after the parade wound up at the Freedom Plaza,” Nepomuceno-Mejia wrote, “it was good to see the spirit of art, entrepreneurship, and camaraderie alive and well under the colorful beach umbrellas which sheltered the food and craft booths. As a portent of things to come, there was a Moroccan vendor in a bright blue caftan by the name of Mohammed who seemed right at home. He is the first of the international participants who will surely join the festival in the coming years. In light of what seems to be an evolving community renaissance, it is easy to understand Ambassador Pelaez’s delight in attending every single event. It’s no secret that he is the indefatigable gardener who has planted the seeds of harmony in the community. I overheard him chuckling, elf-like at the Fair: ‘Imagine Jon Melegrito and Boots Anson Roa on the same stage today. Who would ever have thought.’?”

That last line refers to a “divided” community before the 1986 People Power Revolution, when anti-Marcos activists (like me) and die hard supporters of Marcos held separate June 12 celebrations. Boots and I “kissed and made up” (on behalf of our feuding kababayans) and co-emceed many public events together after that.

[ad#philhistory120x240] Cooperation & Collaboration. But it was the behind the scenes organizing of many hard-working volunteers, meeting regularly at the old Philippine embassy, that made the first festival and parade on Pennsylvania Avenue possible. Led by Philippine Independence Day Committee (PIDC) Chair Andrea Guiang and Filipiniana Fair chairman Epi Coloma, the historic 1989 event was truly a collaboration, not only among Filipino American organizations, but with U.S. private corporations and DC government agencies, like the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation (with Yoly Arzadon as the inside contact), the DC Committee to Promote Washington (with Noree Briscoe as liaison), and AT&T (with Lovette Rosales forging the partnership) donating money and setting up tables for free telephone calls to the Philippines.

The Festival’s theme, “Filipino Americans: Partners in Progress,” demonstrated what David Briscoe described as “the enduring ties that link Filipinos in ways that few Americans will ever experience on their often indefinable culture. It also demonstrated the wealth of talent in the U.S. Filipino community.”

Briscoe also noted that the celebration “is doing something to turn the hearts and minds of complacent Filipino Americans towards their native soil. Proceeds from the festival go to charities in the Philippines. Keeping Filipinos closer to their roots can only make them better people. Those who are living abroad but who have never forgotten what it means to be a Filipino could yet prove to be one of the nation’s untapped resources. If they can continue to hear the beat of the ati-atihan in the streets of Washington, maybe they can also hear the cries of the homeland.”

We hope that the cancellation of this year’s festival and parade would be the first and the last. An all-day rain storm didn’t stop us two years ago. Neither should an economic recession. We like to think that the “Yes, We Can” Pinoy spirit is more real than imagined, considering how far we’ve come along in this country.
E-mail your comments to jonmele@aol.com
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