Filipino Voices at York University
Filipino Voices at York University
By Philip Kelly
I have been teaching at York University for sixteen years but I have never seen anything quite like the scene that unfolded in a lecture theatre on the afternoon of May 16th. The York Centre for Asian Research, which I direct, organized an event to mark Asian Heritage Month with the theme ‘Filipino Voices in the Arts and Academia’. With help from the Toronto Catholic District School Board, more than 250 Filipino-Canadian students from seven high schools across the city were able to attend. The noise, excitement and exuberance in the lecture hall, as Filipino students encountered lively presentations from Filipino-Canadian artists, performers and researchers, were a far cry from the subdued atmosphere that usually prevails in such a setting!
The event also had a serious purpose. My own research in collaboration with the Community Alliance for Social Justice has shown that Filipino youth often don’t follow a university pathway after high school. The event was therefore intended to welcome students to York and to show them the kinds of big questions that can be explored through a university education. The line-up of presenters and performers also represented a roll-call of youthful Filipino-Canadian role models who have forged successful careers in the arts, media and academic worlds.
The goal of the event was to explore the ways in which Filipino identity in Canada has been expressed in both artistic production and academic research. There was a particular emphasis on the ways in which youthful Filipino-Canadians articulate and express their hyphenated identity.
A full range of cultural forms was represented. Jennilee Austria and Shirley Camia gave a joint keynote lecture titled ‘Celebrating Pinoy Pride.’ Jennilee is a former settlement worker, journalist, and the author of a forthcoming teen novel titled The Filipino Heroes of Bathurst Street. Shirley is a broadcaster and producer whose acclaimed poetry has been published in two collections, Calliope and The Significance of Moths.
Jennilee and Shirley caused great excitement with a ‘game show’ segment about famous Filipino faces and Tagalog words that have been adopted in English. Candy prizes, brought directly from the Philippines, rewarded the winners in the audience. Jennilee and Shirley also shared their personal stories as second generation Filipino-Canadians who have forged distinctive, unorthodox and successful careers.
The exuberance continued with Professor Patrick Alcedo’s presentation about the cultural significance of Filipino folk dances. Patrick explained his documentary filmmaking and research about the Ati-Atihan festival in his hometown of Kalibo, Aklan. He also demonstrated dances from several regions of the Philippines and it wasn’t long before several hundred teenagers were joining in with the maglalatik, or coconut dance!
The expression of identity through the arts was also a theme for Marissa Largo, a teacher, artist and doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto. Marissa explained some of her own visual art pieces, which explore the experiences of Filipina caregivers and provoke reflection on the ways in which life in Canada remains connected to what is left behind in the Philippines. She also profiled the work of several other Filipino-Canadian artists whose pieces question, in various ways, the marginalized status sometimes ascribed to Filipinos in Canada.
Coneley de Leon, a doctoral candidate at York University, shifted the discussion from the fine arts to everyday objects. Her research examines the ways in which Filipino families care for each other, often across great distances. She showed that items as mundane as shampoo containers or cans of Spam, as well as various forms of electronic communication, are key ways of expressing love and care.
From Spam to slam. The afternoon ended on a high note with the incomparable slam poetry of Patrick de Belen. Patrick’s work is in a gritty and contemporary style, but he speaks to sophisticated themes and ideas. His performance of his poem ‘Thin Hyphenated Line’ struck a chord with the youthful audience with its questioning of roots, identities and stereotypes.
A video of the event will soon be available through the website of the York Centre for Asian Research: http://ycar.apps01.yorku.ca/