Saturday, January 4, 2014

November 24, 2013

An Open Letter to my Filipino Community,

I have lived in Santa Rosa for 30 years now. When I arrived in 1983, the first thing I did was to look for a Filipino Center in the phone book (there were still phone books then). I was introduced to the community leaders like Cora Powers, Betty Wychocki, Faye Torralva, Mrs. Asuelo, Mrs. Tabor, the Manongs and many more. I became a correspondent for Philippine News and was able to write lengthy articles about the history of FACSCI; wrote about the story of the Asuelo family; covered many local events for the newspaper. This involvement was what inspired me to go back to school and study Filipino American culture and history, undoing colonial mentality, and indigenization.

As I pursued graduate studies and started teaching at Sonoma State University, I was no longer able to be as engaged in the daily life of the community as I would have wanted. However, I continued to watch from the sidelines as someone who is now writing and publishing about Filipino and Filipino American culture and identity.

Even though my attention shifted to academic work, I still relished the limited activities I was able to be part of. There was a time when Mary Anne Tabor and I dreamt of a writing circle. Nora Valle, when she got hold of my first book, Coming Full Circle: The Process of Decolonization Among Post-1965 Filipino Americans, organized and hosted a local book reading and signing at FACSCI. When former president Edmund Rivera asked me to emcee a dinner dance or join a fashion show or lend my Filipino furniture and artifacts to be displayed at a storefront in Healdsburg, I happily obliged.  I will always be appreciative of Oping Villafuerte and Christie Hao for teaching Filipino songs and dances. I also remember bringing Professor Jaime Veneracion from UP to FACSCI and the first thing he said was “Wow, you should have an ethnographic museum here!” I also brought Virgilio Enriquez, the father of Filipino Indigenous Psychology, to do a talk on Sikolohiyang Pilipino at FACSCI.

I am grateful for this local history that now also includes the local chapter of FANHS (of which I am national member long before there was a local chapter). With Remembering our Manongs, I was glad to have helped in the proposal writing and in securing a California Council for the Humanities grant. With Singgalot, I was glad to have participated in the local events in support of the exhibit at the Sonoma County Museum.

In 2008, as I returned from a Fulbright-Hays in the Philippines carrying back the deep trauma and grief of losing one of the teachers I brought with me, one of the community members who helped in my healing is Noemi Issel. In my many trips to acupuncture appointments with Noemi, we became good friends and had lengthy conversations about community, identity, culture, politics, indigenous values, decolonization, etc. I was able to share with her my dream and vision for the Center for Babaylan Studies (CfBS). CfBS finally came into being in 2009 and in 2010 we organized the first International Babaylan Conference at SSU, a symposium in 2011, and the second Babaylan conference in 2013. In between these big conferences were smaller and local CFBS events: grief retreats, healing concerns, ritual-making and ceremony at Bay Area and Los Angeles festivals. I was able to introduce Noemi and other local friends to the Bay Area volunteers of CfBS. The circle expanded as Noemi introduced the Bay Area folks to the local Sonoma County volunteers.

Where does a community organization begin and end?

I am now a part of FACSCI, FANHS, CFBS.

For the past three years, what I have witnessed locally is the melding of desires of individuals who would like to enrich their community experiences thru the widening circle of activities that makes the Filipino indigenous values of Kapwa, Pakikiramdam, and Kagandahang Loob come alive. This is manifesting itself thru the fiesta, thru typhoon relief efforts, thru annual Thanksgiving and Christmas pot-lucks, social services, educational programming, or just folks meeting at a winery to play croquet and celebrate birthdays – all these create a synergy that is beautiful to watch.

The community is hungry for the experience of coming alive and feeling inspired by the beauty of the Filipino spirit. As one friend told me, “when I come home from a Filipino event, I want to feel inspired. I don’t like the feeling of coming home tired and wondering what that was all about. Sometimes community events leave me feeling unsatisfied.”

As with all organizations that aim to sustain the structure and container for the community, there will always be tension. The dream of the Manongs and Manangs to have a place of their own has been manifested and to them we owe a debt of gratitude for having the center at Fulton. To their direct descendants who continue to protect this legacy, we owe them praise and gratitude.

The community has grown with the influx of newly arrived immigrants, mixed families, and folks moving to Sonoma County from elsewhere.  Newcomers bring with them their own set of experiences and expectations, dreams, and ideas about community. They are enthusiastic to share these.

We have also experienced more recently that the Bay Area is much closer to us than we think. Many of the CfBS folks from the Bay Area love coming to Sonoma County and with them they have brought kulintang, baybayin, Bangka project, small healing circles and retreats, ritual-making, food, films, and many more. Sonoma County folks also travel everywhere to attend concerts, events, and festivals in the Bay Area. Such exposure to progressive Bay Area community organizing is inspiring and motivating folks to create the same energy locally.

With this fusion of creativity we are seeing the potential of how we might expand the meaning of “community” so that it is creative, transformative, inclusive and expansive. However, organizations must still deal with the logistics required by state and local agencies to maintain a legal status. Established protocols, Robert’s rule of order, administrative policies can be challenging in the face of change.

The value of Pakikipag-kapwa is difficult to practice in a culture where we are conditioned to think in terms of either-or, us versus them, up or down, in and out. This thinking in binaries is also hierarchical and implies “I am better than you; I know better than you.” Whereas in Kapwa, as Manny Pacquiao so graciously said last night, “in the end we are all brothers and sisters.”

Differences based on personality, class, race, language-ability, sex and gender, nationality, and religion also abound in our community. It is sometimes difficult to draw boundaries and it is hard to impose the rule of law or organizational protocols.

I remember Manang Faye Torralva telling me, “Leny, the community has always been here regardless of who is fighting whom; we will always be here.” I sensed in this statement her faith in the ability of her Kapwa to mend fences, to understand, to give way to others who have new and better ideas, to dream big and to dream well. In her spirit and in Manang Betty’s and Manang Cora’s, I feel the wisdom of elders who have seen the ebb and flow of history and politics within community organizations. They trust the next generation to become wise and discerning as well.

I am thankful that I could spend my Sunday morning writing this letter to you, my beloved community. At the back of my mind, I am thinking of Tacloban, Cebu, Guian, Panay and all the places where our families and friends are struggling (and will struggle for a long time) to rebuild lives. I am inspired by the local folks who sent home 55 balikbayan boxes yesterday but saddened that they couldn’t use the center at Fulton as staging area for the relief efforts. 

Yesterday I was interviewed by American Indian Radio about the impact of Typhoon Yolanda on indigenous communities in the Philippines. I was also asked if connection has been made with local Indian tribes in Sonoma County. I proudly said that we have many community members involved in relief efforts who are Indopino/Pilipino and Pomo but sadly, I had to say that there has been no organized effort to reach out to the local tribes. (In Los Angeles, the San Manuel tribe has already donated $10M; the Chumash has donated $10,000 and so on).

Clearly, there is much that can be done. Let us ask our Ancestors for guidance as we learn the lessons of small and big things and as we learn to connect the threads that bind us. If there is fear, suspicion, envy, jealousy, or any unkind thought towards one of our Kapwa, may we learn to look deep in our hearts and ask that the gold hidden in our Loob shine forth instead. 

If you have read this far, Maraming Salamat.

Leny Strobel

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