Thursday, October 4, 2012

Thank-you Speech | Delivered in acceptance of FANHS Outstanding Artist Award

Delivered on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at the Philippine Consulate General in Manhattan

Maraming salamat po. Maraming salamat sa Metro New York chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society for this lovely piece of recognition. This award comes at a very challenging period of my life. A moment of change. A time of reckoning. Hopefully a shedding of old skin. Definitely a confrontation with old demons. A brand-new test of wills. I have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

What I have not been doing is that I have not been waiting. I have been renewing my artistic relationships and revisiting my theatrical friendships. Where does art seed and grow, after all, but in the fruitful soil of real friendship? I have been spending time observing and listening to others so that I can learn and figure out how my talents can best be of service to the various communities in which I move.  If it seems like I am always too busy and doing too many things, this is not out of raw ambition or out of empty striving. To be honest, I would be more than happy to find myself confined in a room with a little income and just write [as Virginia Woolf has posited: "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction"].  I have been longing for that simple day when I can function in the world only as a writer. But I have found, based on my experiences in the nonprofit arts world, in the publishing realm, in the tumultuous age of digital media, among the international circles, and in the beleaguered field of criticism, that I cannot remain a passive and reactionary agent. We have to become the change we wish to see in the world, as an Indian guru had once proposed.

I was struggling in New York to write a play when I first heard that a group existed called the Filipino American National History Society (FANHS).  I was curious about it, so I checked the FANHS website. Eventually I was corresponding with Dorothy Cordova who had co-founded FANHS with her husband Fred Cordova in the basement of a church in the suburbs of Seattle. We started talking over the phone. We collaborated on publications and art projects. When I learned that Theatre Communications Group, the service organization that publishes American Theatre magazine, was going to hold its annual national conference in Seattle, I realized that this was the chance I had been waiting for. That I could put two purposes together. One of our most important roles as artists is to trust that the dots, however disparate, will somehow connect. ["Only connect," E.M. Forster states.] I realized that if I could come to Seattle several days before the conference, I could use my vacation time to research that play, and I could have TCG reimburse me for my plane fare, since I would also be working and assisting in that national conference.  So I am thankful to TCG for opening up the way for me to explore the FANHS archives and to examine the Asian American labor-union archives which reside in the University of Washington.

At the time I was conducting historical research on Filipino Americans before the 1950s.  I was struggling because the books and newspaper accounts were woefully inadequate in terms of offering me what I really needed as a writer.  What was daily life like for the manongs?  How did they conduct their migrant lives beyond the sociopolitical constructs that historians and academic scholars had imposed on their lives?  What everyday dramas arose during their Sunday days off when they dressed to the nines while hanging out in the parks?  Certainly the Mexican immigrant experience has been greatly explored. We have the realist novels of John Steinbeck as testaments to the Okies lifestyle and journey to California. What about the lives and loves of Filipinos during that same Dust Bowl era?

At FANHS, I saw the rows of untranscribed tapes and the piles of black-and-white photographs of the manongs. Emotionally I was so deeply moved by what I saw with my own eyes during that special pilgrimage to the Seattle church where the Cordovas are headquartered. Soon after I found myself working to create two theatrical installations based on the oral-history research I had found and the photographs that the Cordovas were willing to lend to me.  One of them was installed at the Long Wharf Theatre lobby in New Haven, Conn.  The other one was placed on display at the Culture Project as part of Ma-Yi Theatre Company's production of The Romance of Magno Rubio. Moreover, I felt compelled to write many essays and articles in American Theatre magazine and elsewhere about the Filipino American experience in the United States, all of which were continually fed by the research I did in Seattle.

Today I have returned to writing the play that was the original reason I visited FANHS in Seattle.  Thanks to producers Leslie Espinosa, Kilusan Bautista and Precious Sipin as well as director Grant Thomas, I will be able to share a monologue from that play, still-in-progress. I will perform this piece in TAGALOGUE, an evening of theatrical performances about Filipino identity that a group of us actors and writers will present on Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Please come see our wonderful work.

One of the costs of being a Filipino-American artist in the U.S. is that you have to find new and creative ways to make art happen.  You have to create the opportunities for yourself and for others so that as artists we will be allowed to play: to earn our place on the American table. (If the journey has not made you too disillusioned or too desperate or too bitter, you then have to switch gears so that you can play from a state of joy.) Interestingly, this situation, I have found, is the same with young writers and emerging artists in the Philippines. Many Philippine artists are struggling, too, to make their art seen and their voices heard. Because, for sure, artists in the Philippines cannot depend on their leaders, especially the government.

Do you know what is driving the Philippines' strong economic growth right now? As emerging markets slump and the euro zone continues to struggle, the Philippine economy has made a surprising surge in the first part of this year. The growth surge is driven by the money sent home to the Philippines by the country's overseas workers, known as remittances, and the rise of outsourced call centers. These factors, according to economists and analysts, have served as the long-term stabilizers relatively unhindered by a sagging global economy. As a U.S.-based artist, I have to frequently ask: How much of that new economic surge, driven by remittances, will be used to invest in the development of Philippine arts and culture? Will the businessmen, entrepreneurs, society leaders, heads of institutions and of course politicians truly integrate and parallel the process of nurturing, encouraging and promoting Philippine arts as part of their social, education and philanthropic programs, as opposed to the typical approach of treating art as an add-on and an afterthought?

I am very thankful to the Metro New York chapter of FANHS for this Outstanding Artist Award.  I thank you for your generosity, because my contributions and advocacy have been modest and intimately tied to my desire to give theatrical life to a larger history that the manongs have left as our creative capital. As I actively search to find new ways to make my own life sustainable for the future, I see this award as a totem. That I should never waver from the real task of the artist today. That task is to work to build our capacities for self-reflection, for critical thinking, for problem solving, for inventive self-expression, for tolerance of difference, for seeking commonalities, for making fresh intuitive connections, for creating bounty in the life of the arts. Struggle and pain are our woe. Peace and survival are our quest. Art is our medium. -- rg
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