Ten years ago, the Kultura Filipino Arts Festival was held in the Kensington Market basement of Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts and Culture, with a single food vendor standing outside in the rain.
Executive Director Caroline Mangosing soon turned the annual festival into a groundbreaking celebration of Filipino-Canadian artists. But when Mangosing handed the organization over to 26-year-old Nicole Cajucom, some community members wondered what would happen.
They needn’t have worried. Cajucom and her team of seventy young interns and volunteers delivered a stunning five-day celebration that was the biggest in the event's history.
Internationally renowned Manila tourguide Carlos Celdran performed “Livin’ La Vida Imelda” — a gossipy play packed with political secrets that delighted audiences during all four of his performances at OCAD.
“I would not have this show without Toronto,” said Celdran. “Here, the child of a jeepney driver can hang out with the child of a doctor. That would never happen in Manila. Here, you don't have the baggage of regionalism, of martial law; you have the space to celebrate the arts. This is how it should be.”
As a nonprofit organization, Kapisanan’s mission is to bring arts-based programming to Filipino youth. On the second day of the festival, Navigation, a program for young men, and Clutch, its sister program, held a multidisciplinary art show.
“This program is special because it's gender-specific, ethnicity-specific, and age-specific,” said Navigation coordinator Tim Manalo. “Whether it’s in music, fashion, graphic design, photography— it’s about helping them do more with it than they thought they could do.”
Participant Jay Aragoza debuted his clothing designs at the show. When his audience spotted a halter top with the words “High Tech Low Lives" printed across it, it quickly became the most sought-after piece of the collection.
The next night, Kapisanan celebrated graduates of the Poetry is our Second Language program with a spoken word showcase. Youth introduced the audience to the balagtasan, a debate through poetry which had historically been a fixture in Philippine society.
While it was Loisel Wilson’s second time in the program, it was her first time performing. With her mother and grandmother in the audience, she delivered a heart-wrenching poem about experiencing seventeen years of separation from her mother due to the Live-in Caregiver Program.
“I never realized that this separation / Was a systemic pattern— generation after generation / Filipino children raised by family extensions / Mothers leaving them with heroic intentions,” Wilson recited to an emotional audience.
The next afternoon, the Kultura festival honoured Filipino indigenous culture with a weaving workshop at Artscape Youngplace.
Cynthia Alberto of New York’s Weaving Hand studio taught backstrap looms and indigo dyeing, and Jennifer Maramba of the Kapwa Collective used woven textiles of the T’boli indigenous group to speak about weaving as a living tradition.
“In North America, we are one of the first to be looking at textiles in this way,” said Maramba. “You are now holding responsibility as a culture-bearer.”
On day five, the Kultura festival finale took place at Yonge-Dundas Square. Some of Toronto's greatest Filipino chefs battled in Kain Kalye, the Filipino Street Eats competition.
With lines for her taho cutting across the square, Chef Diona Joyce won the competition and a free flight to the Philippines from Philippine Airlines.
The day was filled with talented performers, but the glittering highlight was HATAW, Jodinand Aguillon’s folk-fusion troupe which boldly presented Philippine dance in a brand new way.
A trio of black-lipsticked ballerinas danced tinikling. Beauty queens with sashes titled “Miss Interpreted” “I Miss Manila,” and “Miss Represented” gave a performance inspired by the Caregiver Program and second-class citizenship through Bill C-24.
The 30-minute set culminated in “5INGKILL,” where Aguillon replaced the traditional singkil princess with five queens. The principal dancers of Folklorico and Fiesta Filipina danced to Pinay rapper Han Han’s “World Gong Crazy,” the queens expertly stepping through the clapping bamboos while wearing shiny black stilettos.
Throughout the festival, many singers, musicians and dancers repeatedly returned to the stage to support each other's performances. Kapisanan had created a place for artistic collaboration, and Kultura was the ultimate stage.
Many of them said that for the first time in their lives, they felt like they were part of a tribe.
And while the Yonge-Dundas sound crew shut the music off at exactly 8:21pm, for the Filipino arts community, the positive effects of this five-day event will be seen and heard for years to come.
Long live the tribe.
This article was originally published in The Philippine Reporter on August 14, 2015.