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Fun, Food and Politics

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

An estimated 6,000 people celebrated 100 years of Philippine independence Sunday at what many observers called Ventura County’s largest-ever gathering of Filipinos.

The occasion, which began in 1989 as an event attended by fewer than 100 people at a local church, marked the first time the annual Independence Day celebrations for the Southeast Asian island nation had been held at a high-profile location.

Attendance at Oxnard’s downtown Plaza Park exceeded expectations, with nearly double the number of people anticipated showing up and causing at least one food booth to quickly sell of out of its traditional delicacies.

“This is a very important event, historic in a sense, that they’ve come together in such large numbers as this,” said Josue L. Villa, consul general of the Philippine Consulate in Los Angeles. “They’re happy about it, even proud about it, that they’re coming together as a people with an identity. They’re becoming more involved with public affairs.”

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Indeed, politics provided the subtext for the festival, which was more than a celebration of native culture by some of the estimated 16,000 county residents who claim Filipino descent, nearly 60% of whom live in Oxnard.

Sure, attendees consumed native food such as the bright-orange cantaloupe juice and a dish made of fried noodles. Some Filipino women wore old-fashioned ground-length dresses (legend says if you see a woman’s feet you have to marry her, one explained). And one booth enabled people to partake in a quick chess match--a popular game in the island nation.

“Most Filipinos play chess games in the streets, in the parks, on festive days,” said Edwin Villa, former president of the Filipino American Chess Club of Ventura County.

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But like the game of chess, the festival was more than just fun. It was also an expression of an emerging sense of hope, pride and nationalism for a people representing 45 ethnic groups scattered among 7,000 islands.

“There is a sense of fractured identity,” said Fred Pierce, president of the Oxnard-based National Multi-Ethnic Families Assn., who is married to a Filipina. “It lets out a little of the energy--lets them be proud of their ethnic heritage and tradition.”

Such sentiments haven’t been common in a nation that has endured the pervasive effects of Spanish and American colonialism, as well as years of corrupt rule by dictator Ferdinand Marcos, since the nation’s flag was first hoisted on June 12, 1898.

It remains a matter of debate within the Filipino community as to whether the date marks the nation’s beginning at all.

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The archipelago’s many tribes managed to unite and all but defeat the Spaniards who ruled the country for nearly 400 years, only to find that their territory had been sold for $20 million to the United States at the turn of the century. Full independence was not regained officially until the telling date of July 4, 1946, after the end of World War II.

“We changed from one colonial master to another,” said festival organizer Rudy Liporada of Oxnard, who nonetheless wore a T-shirt bearing the centennial motto “Freedom is the wealth of the nation.”

“I would rather celebrate the spirit of unity, the revolutionary spirit. What I am celebrating personally is that an era has ended,” Liporada said.

Sunday’s festival illustrated that the county’s more than 20 Filipino organizations are never very likely to forget that era of oppression and are still grappling with its legacy.

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Members of the Filipino American Senior Citizens of Ventura County reenacted their nation’s struggle for independence in a tableau complete with black-garbed Spaniards that left no doubt who the villains were.

Former Oxnard City Council candidate Tony Grey emceed welcoming ceremonies wearing a Salakot, a crude piece of protective headgear fashioned from a squash, similar to that worn by 19th century Filipino revolutionaries.

And Oxnard doctor Tersito Serate collected signatures for a petition aimed at persuading President Clinton to return the Philippines’ equivalent of the Liberty Bell--three church bells known as the Bells of Balangiga--used to signal an ambush on American troops in 1901. More than 50 American infantryman died in the ensuing attack--and thousands of Filipinos were massacred in retaliation.

Two of the bells now lie on a Wyoming Army base, and the third is lugged around by a U.S. infantry unit in South Korea as a “chow bell,” Serate said.

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“This is not about Filipinos, this is about freedom,” he said, adding that some non-Filipinos seemed more willing to sign the petition Sunday than Filipinos. “Filipinos are scared that they’re going to lose their privileges--that they’re going to be deported.”

Sunday’s event marked the second and final day of Philippine Independence Day celebrations locally. A black-tie or barong ball--named for a Philippine dress shirt--was held Friday night.

With thousands of people walking around usually desolate downtown Oxnard on Sunday, Mayor Manuel Lopez urged Filipinos to make the cultural festival an annual event at the park.

White business owner Vince Behrens, whose family has lived in the city for generations, echoed that view as he wandered from booth to booth, saying that local Filipinos need to become a more visible part of Oxnard’s cultural mosaic.

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“It’s about time the Filipinos came out,” he said. “These people are just as much a part of America as everybody else is. I hope we don’t have to wait another 100 years for this.”


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