Filipino Immigrant stories transform into poetry performance

Top News May 11, 2018 at 4:23 pm
Back row, from left: Carl Arib, Christian Laxa, Merry Kate Laxa. Front row, from left: Carlos Saldana, Renei Cabotage, Crystal Villena.

Back row, from left: Carl Arib, Christian Laxa, Merry Kate Laxa. Front row, from left: Carlos Saldana, Renei Cabotage, Crystal Villena.

In My Mother Tongue:

By Rachel Evangeline Chiong
The Philippine Reporter

In the past weeks newly immigrated Filipino youth have found a home in The Koffler Centre’s “In My Mother Tongue” program. The unique showcase this past Sunday of the youth’s creative work was a result of the program’s careful cultivation to create a place in the city where native speakers of Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, and Tagalog could explore poetry through their mother tongue.

Almost a decade ago a similar program in the UK, called “Mother Tongues” had inspired the workshops at The Koffler Centre. Jessica Dargo Caplan, the Director of Public Programs & Engagement, explained that for Toronto’s version they opted to shape the workshops organically around the participants’ needs. In a partnership with Culture Link, the organization reached out to recent immigrants who would be keen in engaging with the program’s extraordinary mission. Soon after, poets and writers were invited to mentor for a short period of time, such as Lui Queaño and Rachel Evangeline Chiong, who coached the Tagalog speaking participants.

Thanks to the creative and capable hands of director Kevin Matthew Wong and artist Andrea Vela Alarcón, we were excited to return weeks later on Sunday and witness the result. Much like the journey of immigrating to Canada, which evolves and changes rapidly, the audience was led through a sensory, quickly shifting tour around Artscape Youngplace where each of the poets had set up at different stations, and the audience had quite literally become part of the seamless performance piece.

Carl Arib

Carl Arib (Photos: Dahlia Katz)

Draped by the white studio blinds, Carl Arib proudly proclaimed the beauty of the Philippines against the Sunday afternoon sun. The poets warned us to remain seated, before Crystal Villena’s voice echoed from the back of the room as she recited a story about a girl, who faced societal pressures with self-love, because “alam niya na ang Diyos/ang gumagabay sa kanya” (trans: “she knows that God above / is watching and guiding over her”).

Arms extended, the poets in the studio led us to the foyer, where Christian Laxa and Carlos Saldana emerged from either side, their lines interlacing in theme and rhythm. Carlos spoke about friendship which was “the fusion of our blood, without being related / The mixture of our blood, that makes us related”. Without missing a beat, Christian continued explaining that when you’re among friends “ang problema ng isa ay problema ng barkada” (trans: “your problem is our problem”). A swell of pride washed over the mentors, as we eagerly continued upstairs.

Renei Cabotage

Renei Cabotage

In the foreground of a dark painting, Renei Cabotage held out her hand, telling us with affection and warmth about her longing to return somewhere “tanawin ay Marikit / sa lupa ng ninuno” (trans: “The view is pretty / In the land of the ancestors”). Her graceful piece ended abruptly as the doors to the stairwell burst open, and Merry Kate Laxa and Yiwen Zhang, a Mandarin speaking poet, appeared. Merry Kate held her fist up, matching the volume of her presence with a booming voice which announced that Filipinos were fighters and had the strength to persevere.

Ironically, words cannot explain how mesmerizing it was to hear Tagalog fall onto the ears of a diverse audience without needing context or translation. The youth were proud of their identity, proud of their country, but also strong enough to shed vulnerability in missing their home. The language of art is universal, and through the screenings that the youth had shot during the program, the audience felt a twinge of inspiration and sadness.

Caplan reminisced how in the duration of the program, she witnessed friendships blossom among the poets as they came out of their shells. While there are high hopes for next year’s installment, it became apparent in its inception that the program wasn’t just a simple resource. It had evolved into a place where youth seeking a home could find comfort in expressing the stories they had kept inside with the talent they already had all along. We have all felt frustrated and lost at some point when great change comes our way. But to borrow Merry Kate’s words, in the Filipino immigrant’s story there is always the hope that we can be “brave and fighters / no matter what problems we have” because despite all the nostalgia and pain that comes with finding a new home “the blood of the Filipino is a fighter…and we know someday we will rise.”

Christian Laxa and Carlos Saldana

Christian Laxa and Carlos Saldana

 

Crystal Villena

Crystal Villena

 

Merry Kate Laxa and Yiwen Zhang

Merry Kate Laxa and Yiwen Zhang