Dismantling the Asian Advantage

In the 1980s, TIME Magazine painted a racial stereotype known as the 'model minority.' | Source: TIME In school, there was a semi-serious joke that anything less than an "A" was unacceptable. I know my brothers and I helped fuel this mentality. It didn't help that I would cry over homework assignments that seemed too overwhelming - in elementary school. As military kids, my brothers and I would trade in our report cards for discounted items and prizes at the military base exchange. There was pressure from everyone - relatives, friends, teachers and ourselves - to do well. It's no wonder that my health has been impacted by such high levels of stress over the years.

I didn't realize how much my skin color influenced my path until much later in my education. There's an expectation that just because you're of Asian descent, you excel.

You're Asian? You probably play the piano or some sort of instrument. You must be good at math and science.

Here's my truth: I was no good at any of the few instruments I tried, and due to pressure I put on myself, I quit each of them. In elementary school, I told myself that if I was not any good at something, I had no business doing it. During high school, I failed the official AP Chemistry exam and didn't receive credit for college, and was questioned by a teacher when I returned the next school year. During senior year, I did poorly in calculus. I was shamed in class for my failing math grades after a teacher had the entire class reveal their report cards. In college, I worked hard to earn Cs (As and Bs were miracles) each semester while juggling part-time jobs, internships, service, and extracurricular commitments - because I thought that's what I was supposed to do. It took some time, but I realized that holding myself to such a high standard was no longer an option. It was unhealthy. I eventually went to counseling, and had the opportunity to do both individual counseling and group therapy. I was told to pick a couple of hobbies; writing became one of the ones I revisited and invested my time and energy in.

Though I graduated from college over three years ago, I've since been completing fellowships and living on small living stipends. I don't have a 401K. I don't make the big bucks. I've moved back home to live with my parents (thankfully) a couple of times. Maybe this is a Millennial thing. I know, we're not all supposed to have it figured out by our 20s. And sure, everyone defines success differently. Yes, I recognize the extent of privilege that I experience. But that privilege does not help all Asian ethnic groups in the US to break the bamboo ceiling - or the barriers that exclude those of Asian descent from leadership and growth in professional settings.

So, do I really fit the assumption that all Asian Americans succeed? Is such an assumption even true?

Let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and stated that "Asian-Americans are disproportionately stars in American schools, and even in American society as a whole." Reading Kristof's article left a bitter taste in my mouth.  There's a belief that Asian Americans as a whole benefit from an "Asian Advantage." And this is wrong.

Breaking through the bamboo ceiling. | Source: The Atlantic

For decades, Asian Americans have been branded as the "model minority."  Society believes we grow up with Tiger Moms and are guided by strong family values. We are expected to graduate from college. Statistics tell us we make high household incomes. We are grouped together and seen as a race that does not have to worry about racism. However, many forget that Asian Americans are not monolithic. Sure, strict parenting and certain values are present in some households. Some Asian Americans graduate from college, but some don't, as many ethnic groups experience high rates of poverty. And while Asian Americans have higher average household incomes in comparison to other races, those very households often include two or more generations. Thus, what seems like a comparatively high income actually supports several family members.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This particular piece of legislation opened up the doorway to many immigrants of diverse backgrounds. However, perhaps we have begun to overlook events prior to 1965. Keeping in mind that the only thing Asian Americans really have in common is the same hemisphere of origin, it's important to note that Asian ethnic groups have had to face hate, racism and xenophobia of varying degrees throughout the course of US history. Some Chinese families have been in American for over a century; many were subjected to exclusion, discrimination and violence following the onset of the California Gold Rush. In the early 1900s, Asian immigrants were detained and interrogated at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco. Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps, one of the many atrocities resulting from WWII. Filipinos fought alongside the US in WWII, only to be denied rights and benefits that those from other countries who served in the US Armed Forces were granted. Immigration quotas have been changed and limited on several occasions, tearing apart families and loved ones. More recently, in 2012, six individuals were killed during shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The painting of Asian Americans is an intricate one, and it's influenced by language access, lack of resources, varying education levels, economic factors, health issues (physical and mental), and more.

Last month, Erika Lee gave a talk at the National Archives in Washington, DC about her new book, 'The Making of Asian America.' It gives further detail of the history of Asian ethnic groups and their moves to the US. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Karan Mahajan talks about Erika Lee's book and the two Asian Americas that exist today:

"There are now, in a sense, two Asian Americas: one formed by five centuries of systemic racism, and another, more genteel version, constituted in the aftermath of the 1965 law. These two Asian Americas float over and under each other like tectonic plates, often clanging discordantly. So, while Chinese-Americans and Indian-Americans are among the most prosperous groups in the country, Korean-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, and Filipino-Americans have lower median personal earnings than the general population. Over-all Chinese-American prosperity obscures the higher-than-average poverty rate for Chinese-Americans."

It may appear as though Asian Americans don't experience racism, or if they do, they keep it to themselves. As Mahajan notes:

"... if some [Asian Americans] seem to work unusually hard in the face of this difficult history, it is not because they want to be part of a 'model minority' but because they have often had no other choice."

Moving forward, I hope everyone can continue to paint a more accurate picture of Asian Americans, not as a single race, but as diverse ethnic groups, each with a distinct history and culture that deserves to be recognized.

The original version of this post appeared on Mama Tanap, a blog that focuses on personal health and wellness.

Any Port in A Storm - Philippine Safe Haven


The plight of an oppressed Muslim minority from Myanmar, the Rohingya people, has made headlines worldwide recently. After months of floating across South East Asia, they have found temporary safe haven in the Philippines. The decision to take in the Rohingya was met with international approval, as other Asian nations refused to allow them entry. The case of the Rohingya is not the first time South East Asia faced a refugee crisis.

April 30 2015 marked forty years since the fall of Saigon. After communist victory in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and other Indochinese people left their homes. Hoping to escape repressive regimes, they took to sea in small boats and braved a harrowing journey across the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Storms, thirst, hunger, and pirates were just a few of the dangers they had to face.  “Thuyền nhân”, or boat people in Vietnamese, would become a concern for a generation of South East Asian diplomats and policy makers. The flow of refugees began with just a trickle in 1975, with few choosing to leave Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia so soon after the end of the war. The number fleeing the region increased dramatically each year afterward as economic depression deepened and political persecution intensified. The peak was in 1979, with nearly a quarter of a million refugees fleeing Vietnam during that year alone. Many were ethnic Chinese who became targets for revenge due to China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Refugees continued to flee Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia for neighboring countries throughout the 1980’s, with the flow only stopping completely in 1994. By then, economic growth and political reforms in Vietnam had made it far less likely for people to leave the country.

While the Philippines was not the destination for the majority of the refugees, around 200,000 Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodians were processed by the two main centers in Morong, Bataan, and Puerto Princesa in Palawan. Boat people rescued by the Philippine Navy or Coast Guard would be taken to either of the two where they would stay until they were resettled permanently in other countries, with the United States the destination of choice. Many of the refugees suffered in diplomatic and political limbo, having no documentation or citizenship in the countries they wanted to resettle. As their immigration status and resettlement arrangements were handled, they lived and worked in the refugee centers. The term refugee camp brings to mind nightmarish images of tent cities teeming with disease and despair. Thankfully, the facilities in the Philippines were nothing of the sort. The main center in Morong and Vietville in Palawan were like pieces of Vietnam transplanted to the Philippines. Social services from a range of organizations, religious, governmental, and international, helped the boat people rebuild their lives and provide a semblance of normalcy. The Philippine government provided the land on which the centers were constructed and also guaranteed their security. International groups, primarily the UN High Commission on Refugees and the Red Cross, provided the funding.

any port in a storm 1

Sadly, the treatment the boat people received in the Philippines was not the norm across the region. In Malaysia, Hong Kong, and Indonesia, they were often crammed into crowded and unsanitary camps. Singapore took the hardest line against refugees. The Singaporean Navy was ordered to intercept any boats and tow them out of Singapore’s territorial waters, regardless of the condition of the passengers or the seaworthiness of their vessels. The late Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew was unapologetic about this policy, stating in November 1978 – “You’ve got to grow calluses on your heart or you just bleed to death… Can I afford to have people festering away in refugee camps, being hawked around to countries which are supposed to have compassion for long suffering humanity?” Undoubtedly, these actions led to the death of many boat people whose vessels sank before they could reach safe haven elsewhere. To some degree, Singapore’s policy was understandable. Hong Kong and Singapore in particular had little space or resources to devote to potentially hundreds of thousands of refugees. The Philippines, an entire archipelago and several large islands, could afford to be more generous with space.

Yet the situation in the Philippines was far from ideal when it hosted the boat people. The late 70’s and early 80’s saw economic stagnation and increasing domestic turmoil. The EDSA revolution and the end of the Marcos regime in 1986 only brought a new set of challenges. The economy was in free fall and military coups against the new, democratic government of Corazon Aquino made an already unstable situation worse. The insult “the sick man of Asia” was never more truly applied to the Philippines than during the late 70’s and 80’s. Despite these challenges, the Philippine government addressed the refugee problem with surprising wisdom and humanity. By 1996, the centers in Morong and Palawan were closed, with the overwhelming majority of refugees resettled in the United States and other developed countries.

Philippine policy makers faced a difficult dilemma concerning the boat people. They had to balance national interests against the undeniable suffering of a people in need. To this day, the Philippines is not a rich country and much of its still growing population suffers from grinding poverty and inequality. These problems were even more acute in the 1980’s. Filipinos had to endure power shortages, military coups, and an economy that seemed to only get worse. The fact that the Philippine government managed to find a pragmatic and humane solution to the refugee crisis is all the more remarkable considering these difficulties. Vietnamese refugees in the United States expressed their gratitude in November 2013, collecting  nearly 2 million dollars in disaster relief after Typhoon Yolanda devastated the Visayas. It is a high compliment to a nation’s warmth and hospitality when even its refugee camps are remembered fondly. Today, the Philippines and Vietnam work together in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea against Chinese expansion. The saga of the boat people proved that despite great hardship of its own, the Philippines could be a safe haven for those most in need.

About the author

10352321_10153026739129050_5599371636193964618_nCristobal Zarco was born in the Philippines and grew up in New York, specifically Long Island. He graduated with a degree in political science from Adelphi University. He enjoys tracking down books about Philippine history and exploring lesser known parts of New York City.

Filipino Spanish – A Shared Heritage

In 2014, few days go without comment on the increasing prominence of Hispanics or Latinos in American life. Spanish can be heard in almost every major American city and the Hispanic proportion of the population continues to increase. Census projections point to a future where Latinos will be a plurality or even a majority of Americans. These changes will have huge ramifications on the language, culture, and politics of the United States, many of which are already evident.

As Filipino-Americans also become more prominent in the United States, it’s worth wondering how they will fit into a more Latino, Spanish-speaking America. The Philippines has always occupied a unique position culturally. A mixture of Malay, Chinese, Spanish, and most recently, American cultural influences makes it not entirely at home in either Asia or Latin America. It has been referred to, sometimes negatively, as the “Mexico of Asia.” However, despite similar last names, attitudes, and many times, even physical appearance, there is a distance between Filipinos and Latinos. The biggest stumbling block is language. Though many Spanish loanwords exist in Tagalog and other Philippine languages, very few Filipinos can speak Spanish fluently. Unsurprisingly, Filipinos are literally left out of the conversation as Spanish becomes more important.

This was not always the case. For three centuries, Spanish was the language of law, education, and religion in the Philippines. After the Philippine Revolution and occupation by the United States, Spanish acquired a very negative connotation as the language of a former colonizing power that was backward and primitive. The American colonial government did much to expand English education throughout the archipelago and often compared its mission to the previous Spanish colonizers. Through much of the 20th century, the dominant narrative of Philippine history was that the United States had freed the Philippines from poverty and superstition imposed by Spain. For many Filipinos coming of age in the newly independent republic after 1946, English was modern and versatile, Spanish was archaic and useless.

In hindsight, the American-imposed narrative of a backward, Spanish speaking Philippines being replaced by a modern, English speaking one is not entirely correct. If it was the language of its colonizers, Spanish was also the language of the Philippines’ greatest patriots. The works of Jose Rizal, El Filibusterismo and Noli Me Tangere, were written in Spanish. Rizal’s most famous poem, and arguably the most famous poem written by a Filipino, Mi Ultimo Adios, is best read in the original language.

¡Adiós, Patria adorada, región del sol querida, Perla del mar de oriente, nuestro perdido Edén! A darte voy alegre la triste mustia vida, Y fuera más brillante, más fresca, más florida, También por ti la diera, la diera por tu bien.


Indeed, Spanish did not disappear after 1898. It remained the language of education and political activism well into the 1930’s. A speech given by President Manuel L. Quezon can be found on YouTube with two sections, one in English, and the other in Spanish. Unfortunately, war and cultural change made the language all but extinct in the Philippines. The heart of old, Spanish speaking Manila was totally destroyed during the battle for the city in 1945. The liberation of Manila involved enormous loss of life – estimates run into hundreds of thousands killed and many more displaced. Those residents of old Manila had kept their linguistic and cultural traditions alive through four decades of American rule. After the war, there would be few to replace them. At the same time, American pop culture, as communicated by an increasingly powerful mass media, began to influence every aspect of Philippine life. American movies, TV shows, music, sports, and fashion dominated the Philippines after WW II and have continued to since then, with Filipinos watching, listening, and often times discussing them in English. The official status of Spanish ended in 1973 during the government of Ferdinand Marcos. By that time few Filipinos outside of the elderly spoke the language fluently. The change merely reflected reality – Spanish had all but disappeared.


Filipino-Americans today might ask what if any relevance these events, some more than a century old, have on them in the United States. It’s quite ironic that as the first few generations of Filipinos grew up without any connection to Spanish, the language has gained a new importance. With the Philippines as the call center capital of the world, Spanish speakers are once again in demand, no doubt due to the huge number of Latinos in the American market. In the United States itself, Spanish is becoming indispensable. The present wave of immigrants from Mexico and Central America is the largest in American history and will no doubt permanently alter the United States as a nation.


In retrospect, the decision to end the official status of Spanish as a Philippine language seems myopic and misguided. Of course, Philippine lawmakers in the 1970’s could not have imagined the changes that would take place just decades afterward, namely, the economic emergence of Latin America and the spectacular growth of the Hispanic population in the US. For Filipino-Americans, usually English speaking since birth, this is a unique opportunity to reconnect with identity and gain a very useful skill. A common theme of the Fil-Am experience is the search for identity, of what it truly means to be Filipino despite often not having been born there or not speaking the language. It may seem unusual, but learning Spanish is one step to defining that identity. It is already the most commonly studied foreign language in the US. Learning it and becoming fluent would be of immeasurable help in better understanding and communicating with the already 50 million American Latinos who could be their classmates, neighbors, or coworkers. Most importantly, it would be a bridge to the foundations of Philippine nationhood, the words and works of Rizal, Aguinaldo, Bonifacio, and Quezon. Learning Spanish would improve Filipino-Americans’ understanding of another people’s culture and heritage – as well as their own.

About the author

10352321_10153026739129050_5599371636193964618_nCristobal Zarco was born in the Philippines and grew up in New York, specifically Long Island. He graduated with a degree in political science from Adelphi University. He enjoys tracking down books about Philippine history and exploring lesser known parts of New York City.



Manila Revisited: Enduring Gems


I've always wondered why Manila is not as culturally cohesive and in-tact as Bangkok, or as colorful as Kuala Lumpur. As I look back, I grew up without any clear landmark that I can easily associate with the city, in the way that the Eiffel Tower is synonymous to Paris and the Forbidden City, to Beijing. In some ways this can be seen as a problem of identity.

Admittedly, my travels abroad widened my perspective and eventually made me compare Manila to other key cities that I have visited – each offering a different worldview from the rest. Initial impressions on Manila’s may NOT always be pleasant. But, really, what can be expected from the second most devastated city in the world that barely regained its glorious past after the Second World War? It is in this matter that Manila has to be understood in a particular context.

Manila will never run out of popular places to visit, whether you are Filipino simply wishing to unwind or a traveler wanting to explore the city’s local colors and great past. However, it is often hard to make something out of the few and scattered enduring reminders of Manila’s splendor. We used to enjoy the names, “Hispania of the Pacific”, “the Pearl of the Orient”, and Manila being specifically conferred with the title “the Distinguished and Ever Loyal City” by Spain. Early this year, I realized that 24 years in Manila without a full understanding on what it really has to offer is largely my shortcoming. Practically clueless and ignorant, I have been claiming to be a Filipino, but have always been devoid of what is called the Filipino heritage consciousness.rsz_cover_photo_-_manila_city_hall

For four consecutive Saturdays, I devoted the entire day to revisit Manila’s famous -- and not-so-famous -- attractions. My explorations resulted in finding more reasons to be proud in being a Filipino. I would like to share some of my realizations about the wonders of Manila, and how -- ever since I revisited Manila -- I have always been talking about it along the narratives it deserve.

Firstly, being deprived from easy access to countries in the mainland, Manila and the rest of the Philippines is often considered as the odd-one-out. But, as what I always say, what differentiates an interesting travel from a dull one is the traveler attitude. It has to be understood that, culturally and historically, Manila is unique in its own way. Manila has witnessed a lot of transformations – from being a tributary to a Hindu-Malay maritime empire, to being a trading kingdom in its own right, to being under Spanish rule for more than three centuries, to the short British and Japanese occupations, to the 50-year American-era, and up to its independence and nationhood. The city definitely offers a totally different story to that of the rest of Southeast Asia.

My “Manila Revisited” starts with San Sebastian Minor Basilica in Quiapo, and the ‘vast’ Luneta Park.

San Sebastian Minor Basilica is one of Manila’s hiding gems, and it is funny how I only went inside this cultural site this year. The only all-steel basilica also happens to be the second structure in the world  made completely of steel – just after Eiffel Tower.  Understanding that no structure would stand permanently in an area that is frequented by earthquakes, a church that would withstand not only earthquakes but also fire was commissioned by the Recollects. Highly priced by the World Monument Fund, San Sebastian is also the only church that follows the neo-Gothic tradition in the Philippines; it was modeled after the Burgos Cathedral in Spain. Moreover, it is also known to being the only pre-fabricated church in the world with its components shipped from Belgium. The outstanding universal value of San Sebastian is very evident, and a trip to Manila without seeing this engineering marvel is never really complete.

San Sebastian

Describing Luneta Park as ‘vast’ is not an opinion; it is a fact. Luneta Park is the largest open-space public park in Asia (Yes, not Tianamen Square), and is a favorite hangout place for many Filipinos and tourists alike. Aside from the historical importance of Luneta, I personally like the way that it functions as a real and traditional plaza where people come together and are at their liberty to do things. The highlight of the place is the Rizal Monument that is watched over by two state guards in uniform. It’s worth the wait to witness the changing of the guards’ rites as it is very regal and a truly exceptional sight in the city. From Luneta, I walked along Roxas Boulevard to witness the golden hour – the sunset at the Manila Bay – and proceeded to the Cultural Centre of the Philippines where regular shows and exhibitions on local arts and traditions are usually staged and are placed on a pedestal.


My first revisit of Manila made me thirst for more. I suddenly became interested about the city’s past. I knew there was more to discover still. On the following Saturday, I decided to spend the day in the very familiar – yet still mysterious – district of Intramuros.  I initially considered joining one of the tours being offered, but I ended up taking the tour around the walled city on my own, at my own pacing – it’s actually a good choice.



As mentioned earlier, the grandeur of Manila has always been reshaped through the wars it witnessed. Some of its greatness still stands today, while most have been forever lost. Intramuros, the fortified central district of Manila, is perhaps still the Philippines’ best testimony that this country was once considered as the “Little Europe of Asia”. Largely bombed and destroyed during the World War 2 and the Philippine-American battle, Intramuros and adjoining Fort Santiago have been subjected to a lot of restoration and preservation efforts by the government and international groups alike. In fact, Fort Santiago was once declared as one of the 100 Most Endangered Monuments by the World Monument Watch.


While it also once held the reputation of being “the walled city of many churches” as there were originally seven churches inside, only one remained after World War II, the San Agustin church. Under the inscription Baroque Churches of the Philippines, San Agustin church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It takes pride in itself being the oldest church in the Philippines, and in having one of the best church interiors in Asia. The impressive reconstructed Manila cathedral, the principal church of the country, is also located a few steps from San Agustin. Other points of interest within Intramuros are the Palacio del Gobernador, Palacio de Arzobizpado, Plaza de Roma, Ayuntamiento, preserved colonial houses, and several historical monuments and structures. While others say that the best way to experience Intramuros is through riding a calesa (a horse-drawn carriage), I personally prefer walking around the small walled district. At least give Intramuros a whole day to really get a picture on how it may have looked like in the past. It still got charm to boast. Not quite known to most: the Spanish name of the old walled district of Manila is actually  Ciudad Murada de Manila; Intramuros is a later Latin coinage.



On the third week of my “Manila Revisited”, I did something a normal traveller would never do: visiting an old university, and an old cemetery.

Manila is home to the oldest university in Asia at 400 years old, the University of Sto. Tomas. Aside from its age, the university happens to have three National Cultural Treasures within its gates: the old administration building, the university grounds, and the Arch of Centuries. Though it may be hard for tourists – local and foreigners alike – to go as far as getting close to the old administration building and the grounds, The Arch of Centuries is probably the first monument one will ever see upon entering the main gate of the University of Sto. Tomas. The present arch, however, is just a replica of the old arch-gate of the earlier university campus that used to be inside Intramuros. As with most buildings in Intramuros back then, the war never spared the old University of Sto. Tomas. Largely of the baroque architecture tradition, with prominent Doric columns, and beautiful sculptures, this is probably the oldest “symbol of learning” in the country.ust

Paco Park, on the other hand, has a much obscure history to tell. It used to be the exclussive cemetery of the elite residents of Intramuros – it is interesting how the cemetery is also walled in a circular fashion much like the walled city itself. Notable personalities interred in Paco Park were the martyr priests Gomez-Burgos-Zamora, several governor generals of the Philippines, and, for quite a time, also served as the resting place of Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ National Hero, before his remains were transferred to Luneta Park. But, what’s more telling about this park is the fact that it became the mass burial site for the victims of the Asiatic cholera epidemic in the 1820s. During the World War II, this also became a Japanese quarters when they seized Manila. Paco Park is a declared National Park, and serves as a humble place of serenity and beauty amidst the busy districts of Manila. Probably, this is one of the most romantic places I’ve seen so far in the metro.

On the fourth and last week, I decided to go to back to Quiapo, a good starting point for travelers in exploring Manila. I visited the Basilica Minore de Quiapo, the Old Post Office Building, and La Loma Cemetery.

Post Office Building

Quiapo Church has actually been elevated to a status of a Basilica Minore. Quiapo Church – of Latin American neo-classical architecture – houses one of the most venerated images of the Christ – the image of the Black Nazarene. Though many would consider Quiapo as a present-day eye sore, I have always felt connected to this old place due to its own charm. Though it is a religious site, its periphery is flooded by “this and that” things. On one end, one can see some vendors selling all sorts of stuff – souvenirs for tourists, religious materials, herbs and medicines, potions and black magic concoctions, charms and amulets, among others. On the other end, you will see a line of fortune tellers who would gesture invitations to passers-by. Passing through Quezon Bridge, I headed to the Post Office Building. It is one of the few old buildings in Manila that reminds us how grand Manila might have been before, and has been a witness to the many transformations in the capital. My visit to the Post Office was a functional visit. I went there to send someone a postcard. Though I could have sent the postcard in a local post office, I felt that “that someone” should have a remembrance of the old Post Office Building – at least on stamps – before they reconfigure it as a hotel soon. I also went to the oldest cemetery in the country – the La Loma Catholic Cemetery. It being one of the oldest is enough justification as to why I felt this place deserves to be visited. The baroque mortuary chapel is, admittedly, the centerpiece of the place. At the moment the chapel is abandoned and in a state of massive deterioration.


There are still a lot of places in Manila that travelers can explore. Manila Zoo, for example, is the first and biggest zoo in Asia. Manila also houses some of the biggest malls in the world. The China Town in the old districts of Manila is the oldest recorded China town in the world as well. Manila is unique. One has to figure it out by himself as I’m sure that he will find another interpretation of things.

 Post by Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero

74762_10151172406852613_687399416_nBernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero is a self-confessed cultural junky. Based in the Philippines, he has delivered several talks on tourism, destination promotion and management, and the importance of cultural conservation. As a heritage advocate and consultant, he has assisted and appeared in some features by the Euronews, NGC-Asia, Solar TV, ABS-CBN Regional News Network, as well as being cited by the Philippine Star and the PIA. He enjoys ticking off as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible. So far, Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, the Preah Vihear Temple in Cambodia, and the Philippines' Apo Reef and Ifugao Rice Terraces are the best places he has seen in SE Asia.

Discover other similar posts on Bernard's blog.

Kwentuhan Continues: Livin' La Vida Imelda

What is it about Imelda Marcos that has captured the minds of artists lately? Last year, we couldn’t avoid the posters for Here Lies Love, plastered all over New York City; Imelda’s face was thrown back, microphone in hand, the neon sleeves of her Maria Clara gown punctuating the ad for the show at the Public Theater. Word-of-mouth described it as more of a nightclub than a show. It was immersive, a trendy theatrical buzzword, and had music by Fatboy Slim and David Byrne. There were rave reviews, packed houses, and a demand to bring the show back after its initial limited run concluded. For a while, this slice of Filipino history was the hottest ticket in town. But with Imelda Marcos as the twinkling stage diva-du-jour, did Here Lies Love deliver a more glamorized version of her rise to political power than Filipinos recall? This month, we see a new take on the controversial first lady. Livin’ La Vida Imelda, directed by Ralph B. Peña, premiered as part of Ma-Yi Theatre’s current season with creator and star Carlos Celdran at its helm. Mr. Celdran shows a less glorified version of Imelda Marcos than the lovesick heroine of Here Lies Love. Rather than dramatizing her life for the stage, Celdran aims, instead, for complexity.

Carlos Celdran's Livin' La Vida Imelda

In fact, the show is based far more in activism, heritage and history, than it is in traditional theatrics. Livin’ La Vida Imelda didn’t start the way most plays start, with workshops or table readings and maybe a small production beneath a proscenium. Instead, it began on the streets of Manila.

Celdran had been leading walking tours of Manila with Walk This Way, a company he founded. A number of routes were offered, which all introduced tourists to major sites around the city. But Celdran’s skills as a performer became the real attraction. Eventually his unique blend of tour guiding, meets musical theater, meets clowning, turned each tour into its own show. His tours became more solidified and scripted. He developed a rhythm and audiences grew.

Livin’ La Vida Imelda began as one of these tours. Celdran led groups past major Marcosian sites in a presentation he referred to as, “ironically irreverent yet informative.” Instead of the disco-dancing woman known outside the Philippines mostly for her shoe collection, Carlos Celdran winded from site to site, stood on the ground Imelda had walked upon and broke down the Marcos mythos. In 2012, The New York Times called the piece, “a delicious mix of history, gossip and social commentary.”

Soon, Ma-Yi Theater’s Executive Director Jorge Ortell took notice of Celdran and had the vision to bring the tour to New York stages.

“I watched the Manila version over two years ago and right away thought this would be very appropriate for NYC,” said Jorge Ortoll, Executive Director of Ma-Yi Theater Company. “I spoke with Carlos, who was willing to make cuts and revise the script to make it more resonant to non-Filipino ears, as our audience is not only Filipino-American, but also non-Filipino Asians and non-Asians.”

How exactly did a walking tour turn into a stage show? Ma-Yi’s expertise paired with Celdran’s vision and storytelling certainly bode well for the future of Livin’ La Vida Imelda and we have high hopes for the production.

As Ortoll explained, “Artistic Director Ralph Peña directs the Ma-Yi version and he and Carlos culled it from a 2.5 hour script to 90 minutes. It's tighter, more cohesive and moves at a very rapid pace. We've also added an actual set, projections and multiple lighting and sound cues, to make it a true theatrical piece.”

Livin' La Vida Imelda

That said, the team also has the burden of sharing a darker time in Filipino history with New Yorkers-- folks who likely only know Imelda Marcos from bubblegum subway ads or a thumping Fatboy Slim beat. That responsibility isn’t lost on Celdran or the team at Ma-Yi.

“One has to be at least 40-years-old to remember what the Marcos regime was like,” says Ortoll. “It set the tone for unbridled plunder and disrespect of human rights and freedom of speech. The regimes following Marcos all took his example as license to do the same and even more. How and why this happened is an important history lesson to anyone of any age and any nationality.”

If there is one way to tactfully open eyes, it’s with art. It’s no wonder that Celdran, like so many artists before him, have latched onto performance as his form of activism. By mixing humor, music, drama and storytelling, an audience can be taken on a journey through the Marcos’ highs and lows. And, when done well, everyone lands in the same place when the curtain falls, thinking the same thing, experiencing the same feelings and perhaps ready to take the same steps toward positive change.

So, what does Ma-Yi want audiences to take away?

“A sense of discovery,” Ortoll says. “The script brings forth the noble intents of Imelda, but her narcissism and psychoses did not allow for her good intentions to be realized well. She is a complex woman. Only people who lived through the Marcos era remember how harrowing those years were - and history lessons should not be distorted with lies and truth evasion.”

Living la vida imelda 2

Though the journey of the show was unique, perhaps it’s fitting that Livin’ La Vida Imelda’s origins were in a literal pilgrimage around Manila. Tourists and residents of the city could march together, and come to conclusions about the controversial Imelda Marcos together. Now, fresh audiences in a new country will take their own steps with the story, Celdran still ready and revving as he encourages you to “walk this way!”

Livin' La Vida Imelda closes this weekend. For tickets, head to Telecharge.com.


This post is Part 2 in our Kwentuhan blog series. Kwentuhan is a UniPro initiative that promotes storytelling in the Filipino American community. Read Part 1 here.