Sunday, March 8, 2009

PAA 40th Anniversary

The wife and I went to the 40th anniversary of the UC Berkeley campus organization Pilipino-American Alliance at the International House last evening, March 7. The event for me was just like my college experience in all of its shortcomings and eventual payoffs. It was a mixed bag of triumphs and to a certain extent all of the items that I found so difficult to accept and understand while I was an undergraduate at Cal.

Triumph and Sundering
Perhaps the greatest triumph of PAA is the fact that over the years, it allowed Filipino students to meet each other and form other groups and associations. Last I heard, there were nine such groups that were formed through Filipinos meeting other Filipinos: PCN, {m}aganda, PASS, PAHC, PASAE and others. The opportunity to lead a student group allows a student to develop leadership skills, communication skills and social networking skills which are so important in one’s life as an adult. It is one of the greatest gifts that an organization like PAA can give to students.

Of course, having said that, I am chagrined to remember that in my years as a satellite rotating the body of PAA in 1986-1990, one of the split that occurred was between Filipinos born in the Philippines and Filipinos born in the United States. The Filipinos from the Philippines created a group of their own whose name escapes me at the moment. An assembly was called to discuss the necessity of such an act. The concern, as I understood it from the PAA officers was that the university would not know which Filipino group to deal with. PAA wanted one umbrella organization. The newly migrated Filipinos wanted their own.

On the other hand, retrospectively, I am sure that those Filipino immigrants were not comfortable with PAA as much as I was uncomfortable about PAA. From a Filipino immigrant’s perspective and my personal perspective, PAA did not make sense. First of all, I knew what defined me as a Filipino. I was born in the Philippines. Secondly, it seemed like PAA was purely a social organization. There did not seem to be any meat or substance at all. Third, I was unaware of why the organization focused so much on the Agbayani village. The issue of the Filipino immigrant workers from the 1920’s was unknown to me and frankly, I really did not care. One can say that such an attitude belied the historical context of colonization within a person. And one would be right. I am a colonized Filipino.

The wife Michelle Bautista also pointed out that the splits between PAA and other subsequent organizations were more of a defining point for the existence of PAA than anything else. During the early 1990’s, the literary magazine {m}aganda became its own shining beacon to disaffected Filipinos at Cal who could not find a space for themselves within PAA. The maneuverings of the PAA officers were to state that {m}aganda did not file its own documentation and paperwork to become a campus organization. Therefore, {m}aganda was a sub-group of PAA.

It is fascinating to examine such events in PAA history to understand the politics of power. Those who have power such as PAA want to hold and to integrate power. Those who do not have power want to obtain and wield power. For the most part, many Filipinos who wanted their own organizations were able to create them.

Thinking about it now, the debates that were so important about PAA are the minutiae when compared to daily life. As a forty year old, who cares about issues such as organizational splits, funding from the ASUC, and the food that be served for PCN? But as a young adult, with hormones raging through everyone’s body, it is a miracle that anything was done at all. Of course, there was drama all over the place. PAA members were always pissed off about this group or that group leaving. Young women were crying all the time because someone was so mean. Young men were always plotting how to get X to date them. Twenty years later, it is easy to see it as the call of evolution to reproduce placed within the context of organization and group theory. But at the time, it was life, and it was a young adult’s life.

As the wife pointed out, one reason that the 40th anniversary was not as well attended was because many former members of PAA do not have such a high opinion of the group. Some Filipinos never felt comfortable within the spaces created within PAA and were never able to fit in. Some would much rather attend their own organizations reunion to celebrate their own triumphs and travails.

Pilipino Cultural Night
If there was drama to be had, drama was to be always found in PCN. One of the speakers last night mentioned that she was giving her all to PAA the organization. She was giving her time, her energy, her physical health and her grades to the organization. Such overwhelming dedication and sacrifice is one characteristic of the students who become “hard-core” PAA. Such display is understandable in the context that it is proably the first time that an adult has finally found something worthy of their sacrifice.

However, taken to an extreme, sacrifice and dedication can lead to a drop in grades. Maintaining the balance between extra-curricular activities and maintaining the ever-important grade point average (GPA) is key. Some students were unable to balance themselves. Some had to resign their position in PAA Core because their sacrifice and dedication were so extreme.

Nowhere is the sacrifice greater than in PCN. A whole semester is spent in preparation for one night of glory. As a student, I never understood how my fellow cohorts could sacrifice so much. Many of them were in the pre-medical track when they entered into Berkeley. The amount of time they spent practicing for PCN was a detriment to their educational goals. By the time a student had participated in two PCNs, they usually had to leave the pre-medical track.

Previously, I had mentioned that I was a colonized mind. It is interesting that my process of decolonization began with my questions about PCN. My good friend Paulette Villanueva became the 1989 PCN chair. I had met Paulette in my biology class and I had seen her sing at Pauley Pavilion in the 1988 PCN. I remember speaking to her at McDonald’s still amazed at the fact that she wanted to become PCN chair. It was a staggering undertaking. Not only was Paulette going to take on PCN, she revealed to me that she wanted to hold it at Zellerbach Hall.

I was astounded. For a decade or so, PCN had always been in Pauley Ballroom at the Martin Luther King building. Paulette wanted to hold PCN on the same floor where world-class performances were sung, danced and acted. My jaw dropped to the floor. How can a student-run organization like PAA compete with the likes of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Marcel Marceau, and Alvian Ailey dance company?

Such audacity, such nerve, such wonderful vision. Even now, twenty years later, tears well up in my eye when I truly understand what it took to move PCN from Pauley Ballroom to Zellerbach Hall. I am sitting here kicking myself for not participating. There are few regrets in my life. This is one of them.

I was in the audience when the very first PCN was performed at Zellerbach. I do not remember the script. I do not remember the dances. What I do remember was saying to myself “Paulette, you did it. We are on stage. Filipinos are on stage where the elite of American society perform. We are just as good as them.”

Here, I have to explain something. I don’t know if my cohorts understood the implication of performing at Zellerbach or not. Paulette revealed to me that she was doing it for the logistics of the performance. They needed space when setting up the ever grander theatrical productions. For me personally, it was one of the first times when I saw brown-skinned people on stage. Before that moment, the only people I saw on television, advertising, magazines were white people. To sit in Zellerbach Hall and watch PCN was one defining moment of my life because it allowed me to see what was possible through the vision of one person. If Filipinos could be on the same stage as the Alvin Ailey Dance company, then it is possible for Filipinos to be in other stages too.

In one extent, PAA’s greatest triumphs are the individual moments in a student’s life when they decide to take on something greater, much greater than they know they can handle. Each PCN chair who seeks the office knows this. There were the PCNs of the past… How can I make the current year’s PCN as good if not better than the last?

I still talk to my friend Paulette. Instead of asking for a bahay kubo for the night of the performance, she now tries to brainwash her elementary students to go to Berkeley. I know that each and every single day of her teaching career, she is using what she learned in running the PCN show.

It is remarkable that PAA was formed in 1969 as an outshoot of the Third World Liberation Front from SF State. The keynote speakers last night were “some of the founders of PAA”. I say “some” because in the end, an organization such as PAA is made up not of its leadership but of its constituents. I say “some of the founders” because in order to lead, one must know how to follow.

One of my key pet peeves about PAA and about its organizations is the lack of formality and the lack of understanding of what a great opportunity public speaking is. Don’t get me wrong. Public speaking is one of the greatest fears of everyone, next to death and dying. But, every time a Filipino speaks on stage or as a keynote, or anywhere, the speaker has to be aware that they are representing every single Filipino out there. I do not tolerate sloppy public speaking. I don’t tolerate confessional public speaking. I despise unprepared speaking.

In the old days, I would recount and rebut all the mistakes and issues that I found about the speeches. The wife has trained me to be nice, and I have understood that some things need to be glossed over in order for the greater whole to remain a whole. So I won’t say much about the speeches last night.

The one thing that annoyed me to no end last night was this finger-snapping that certain alumni and students were doing. Initially, I thought it was insects buzzing about the room. Then, I realized that it was their way of showing approval. This topic occupied the next few hours in my mind as each time the fingersnapping happened, I wanted to take a hammer and smash a few digits. But I did NOT do it. Such self-control.

I was told that what the students were doing was to use the finger-snapping of the 1950’s instead of clapping. I googled it and found the following from the NY Times.


THE BITTER END: Hanging Out at America's Nightclub
By Paul Colby with Martin Fitzpatrick
Cooper Square Press
($26.95, hardcover)

Bleecker Street was packed with people. There were the locals, and a lot of them were in gangs, and they hated all the straggly artist types. There were the straggly artists who were pouring in from all over the country, and there were throngs of tourists. Crowds overflowed from the shops and the cafes onto the streets because the pavements couldn't accommodate them. They all wanted to come to the Village and see the beatniks and hear their dirty poems. What they got instead was folk music.

This only increased the tension between the coffeehouse owners and the locals. This led to some funny accommodations. In some of the clubs, like the Gaslight, the heating system was so antiquated that all the open ducts ran from the cellar, where the club was, up the building and into the apartments above. And music just tended to be louder than a lone poet reciting his angst.

The sound of applause was louder still. It traveled right up into the apartments and drove the tenants crazy. It got so bad that after a certain hour the audience wasn't allowed to clap. They had to snap their fingers to show approval. The whole idea of finger-snapping beatniks became a joke and wound up in TV shows and movies. It was supposed to be the ultimate in laid-back, hip response. It was really because John Mitchell, who owned the Gaslight, was too lazy to plug up the holes in the basement.


The wife pointed out that fingersnapping is subversive because you don’t know where it is coming from. I agree. I despise the fingersnapping because culturally, for those who grew up in the Philippines, fingersnapping is something that you do when you order someone around. It is not used to get someone’s attention, it is not used to show approval. Finger snapping when done to another person is a form of animal mounting to show dominance. I understand that times change and it’s the in thing now to fingersnap. But for the love of God, please have some cool rhythm to the fingersnapping. There is nothing worse than unsyncopated, non-rhythmic fingersnapping.

Discussing PAA with the wife is interesting because so often she leads me to areas of exploration that I had never seen before. Analyzing the PAA reunion last night, I felt the very same fears of my college years. The fear of not fitting in, the fear of communicating, and the fear of forgetting people’s names. I always wondered about the people who became PAA Core. Were they that much different than me? How do they do lead? How do they accomplish their tasks?

Our conversation lead me to the observation that is quite ironic. PAA was formed as a form of revolution. Within the confines of PAA as a social organization, it has also become the status quo from which to revolt against. The main function of PAA is in one sense to show what is the status quo with respect to the Filipino community. The student seeking their own light is then supposed to assess whether or not they are comfortable with the status quo. If they are not, then they should create a new organization from which they can revolutionize the world.

1 comment:

Okir said...

Great post, Rhett! Never having personally participated in a PCN, I was taken aback when I learned the extent to which my own students were throwing themselves into the production. Terrific performance at Zellerbach, though!

I am really sorry to hear about the fingersnapping though. It seemed really snooty "We're so hip" back in the 1950s, and sounds like it still comes off that way. Yechh.