3 Things I Love about Filipino Culture Today

Focusing on the light –

At a dinner gathering with Filipino American teachers last night, someone pointed out our community’s lack of representation in the national news – until something shocking happens. (I am paraphrasing the convo.) So, as a counter-balance, I’d like to share 3 things I love about my Filipino culture that make me happy. They may not make the national news, but they make a difference:

🌺 Filipino nurses. Everywhere in hospitals, every day carrying on the tradition of healers. Making America (and many other countries) healthier and helping heal wounds and illnesses.

🌺 Kapwa spirit. The spirit that people are in it together, that we help each other out, that life is not just about yourself but about all of us together. I see this especially in extended families, in the way people help with whatever little money they may have, help in childcare and child-raising, help relatives move, build up homes. I see this in community projects to help the poorest in the community afford wheelchairs, help for victims of typhoons, help empower girls with scholarships, belief, and confidence, help the hungry by providing food.

🌺 OFW’s. Overseas Filipino Workers: the Filipinos on working visas who contribute to the world’s computer industries, software development, medical field, domestic services, and hospitality industries. They sacrifice to send money back to their families, often at great personal risk, with tremendous work-ethic.

🌺 All right, a 4th: I don’t know the name for it but my friend Denise Nacu calls it “welcoming”. There’s a Filipino way of welcoming people at the door, at its best a kind of warmth. You know you’ll be fed, brought into the fold, accepted. Yes, we ask you to take your shoes off at the door – and then we feed you as we all make kuwento, share stories and bask in laughter and the joy of togetherness (pakikisama).

– Mary Grace


Happy Earth Day 2016!

Bamboo forest aliveI love history. One of the best things about writing a novel is the historical research I get to do. You learn that human beings weren’t so different in the past – love, hate, passion, war, the search for meaning, worth, safety and peace. You also learn that, as a species, humanity is amazingly versatile and open in our thinking.

Today, in 2016, we Westerners can talk about this exquisite planet we live on in terms of biodiversity, economics, politics, climate patterns, technology. But I am reaching back to the precolonial Philippines, to my ancestors – to a time when each mountain, river, stream, and ancient tree was understood to be the dwelling place of a diwata, a nature spirit. A god or goddess. Nature was not only biomass, it was sacred.

Okay, take a breath, my darlings. Take my hand, for just this moment and don’t let go. I’ve gotcha. Put the hat of Western skepticism and rationalism on a safe shelf for now. Take this journey to long-ago Southeast Asia with me.

It was not a paradise. It was not a fantasy. It was simply a place where nature was alive.

The implications were this: A tree was not just a tree, it was the dwelling place of the gods. So you don’t just cut a tree down. You ask it for permission. You pray for its safety and blessing. It provides you, at the right time of year so that you don’t deplete its life, with timber for a house, a canoe, an outrigger. You transform the body of the tree. But the spirit of the tree continues…in the things you use everyday. Everything has a spirit. Everything, like you, has a spiritual consciousness and is alive.

Today, in places where people hold the understanding that land, water, air, and plant-life are sacred…the Earth is tended, protected, and loved. And the land loves back, providing nourishment and incredible beauty.

How would we live if we experienced the trees, lakes, rivers, mountains, cliffs, prairies, glaciers, and oceans as holy and alive? What would we do differently?

Honoring Our Ancestors

We were in Japan for 3 weeks this summer which was a wondrous journey of extremes: from the neon, buzz and bullhorns, and manga-mania of Electric Town in Tokyo to the mist-covered hills, sacred herd of deer, 1,000-year-old cedar tree, and the shrines and temples of Nara.

It’s taking a while to get back into the F L O W of home…though it is lovely to be someplace where I have mastery over the language!

But I came home to the August 2010 issue of Our Own Voice, a literary ezine of the Filipino diaspora. This special issue was edited by the dynamic Leny Strobel, director of the Center for Babaylan Studies and by OOV editor Aileen Ibardaloza-Cassinetto, poet of the exquisite. It is dedicated to exploring and celebrating babaylans, indigenous Filipino healers and shamans. The zine’s frontis piece took my breath away.

One of my own pieces, “Honoring Our Ancestors,” is included in this issue. (Note: It is not for the squeamish; I am unabashed about the mysticism. Read at your own risk.) I share my experience of attending the First International Babaylan Conference which happened last April. But, more importantly, the piece is about the tradition of staying connected to those who have gone before us. Mine is only one voice in this chorus, this chant. I am privileged to be in such company, especially Frances Santiago’s “Pintada,” M. Evelina Galang’s Lola Amonita Balajadia and the Counselors of Light,” and Leny’s From the Editors Laptop column. Check out the issue! (And if you do, try reading while listening to Grace Nono’s song “Panangpit.”)

Now that I’m back, there’ll be more coming in the blog…particularly around art that celebrates nature and encourages us all to connect…

Mabuhay, live,

Mary Grace

Growing Up Filipino II

Growing Up Filipino II

Growing Up Filipino II

I was 10 when someone gave me my first diary. It was small, hard-backed, had a teddy bear on it and, most importantly, a lock. What more could a kid want than a space where she could say anything she wanted? Crushes, rants, dreams, magic, love songs. It was all in there. What my first diary meant to me can be summed up in one delicious word: FREEDOM! I was hooked on recording the details of my life, the soaring search for the right word, playing with poems and stories from that moment onward.

I was one of those kids who loved her English teachers and was wide-eyed with wonder (and a little intimidated!) at these wise-owl women we called librarians. In L.A., in the 1980’s, there really weren’t too many stories with Filipino or Filipino American kids on the bookshelves. In third or fourth grade, I had an assignment to write a report on my heritage. When I went to the public library, the librarian wasn’t able to find any books that mentioned Filipino culture. She shook her head sympathetically. The invisibility of my culture in books  sank into my consciousness quietly, stealthily. Because I never saw an author of my heritage, I’d assumed that people like me didn’t have any worthwhile stories. Hey, if my beloved English teachers and the wise librarians didn’t have stories of families like mine on the shelves, the stories couldn’t possibly exist, right? Kid logic.

So I wrote, secretly. I was a writer before I even had a word for it. No one in my family and no one we knew wrote stories. The grown-ups in my family were all nurses and navy men, vendors at  sari-sari stores, and med techs who worked long hours and relaxed by watching TV and movies and feasting at potlucks. No books for pleasure, only text books for saving patients’ lives. I thought I was weird for writing my stories and kept my weirdness private. But, man, the joy of locking my bedroom door, curling up on my window-seat with flowery cushions, turning on the radio, and letting my black felt-tip pen glide in loops and swoops across the page!

The first time I ever met a Filipino writer, I was already 19, studying at UCLA, and firmly convinced we had no stories. It was one of the most awesome moments of my life to learn, at last, that someone from my background was an author. His existence showed me that dreams are possible (and that, perhaps, I wasn’t so weird after all). The writer happened to be N.V.M. Gonzalez, who is considered a national treasure and one of the founders of literature in the Philippines. He was also a keen teacher who respected his young students greatly. N.V.M. didn’t make a big deal about himself. Humble, like the characters in his short stories.

So it’s with the greatest pleasure that I share with you all the U.S. launch of the anthology Growing Up Filipino II, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Cecilia is tireless in publishing stories from the Filipino diaspora — a fancy word that simply means my sea-faring, adventurous, and  hard-working community has traveled and settled around the world. It’s filled with 27 stories from writers of Filipino descent who grew up in the Philippines, the United States, and Canada. There are wonderful writers like Marianne Villanueva, Paulino Lim, Jr., and Cecilia Brainard. One of my own YA short stories, “Shiny Black Boots,” is included in Growing Up Filipino II. And I count myself lucky to be in such fantastic literary company.

I think the me who was the L.A. Valley Girl in the 1980’s would have loved to see Growing Up Filipino II on the bookshelves. I wouldn’t have had to wait so long to learn that we, too, had stories worth reading. And to my friends who, also, never knew that Filipino stories existed, this is a great time to introduce them to your teens. As a kid I loved Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Stories of survival and resourcefulness, creating bonds of friendship, and taking care of your family are universal.   James Baldwin said it best in his 1984 Paris Review interview: “Your self and your people are indistinguishable from each other, really, in spite of the quarrels you may have, and your people are all people.”