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Filipinos sing, share festive foods, teach old ways to young

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

In front of an altar filled with statues of Mary and Jesus and images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, elderly Filipino women sang the people’s version of the story of Christ’s suffering.

The singing began at 11 a.m. on Maundy Thursday and continued nonstop until the morning of Good Friday with Filipinos from all over this city arriving to take turns singing the verses.

It was a human, conversational narrative, written by lay people, that gave an easy informality to the biblical story. The cadence, rhythms and melodies varied, marking the different regions and cultures of the Philippines represented by the participants.

This display of Filipino popular religion, which historically bridged indigenous spirituality and Spanish colonial Catholicism in the Philippines, is indicative of the kind of popular religion that is now creating new bonds in multicultural Los Angeles.

Filipino faith is also carving a space here for the 250,000-member community, the largest concentration of Filipinos outside of Manila, to nourish its culture and share them with the broader church.

Sunday Filipino services often may be “more Roman than the Romans,” in the words of Irma Isip, archdiocesan consultant for religious education from the Asian-Pacific perspective. But in home worship and gatherings, in the religious fiestas such as the Christmas Simbang Gabi or the Easter Salubong dawn celebration, the expressions of the pageantry and faith rituals of the indigenous cultures of Filipino history are being revived.

In their culture

“The biggest pastoral need of the Filipinos” is to “express themselves in their own culture,” said Fr. Dan Bugayong, a priest at St. Philomena Parish in Carson, Calif., a congregation that is 75 percent Filipino. “Then they can share this gift ... with other cultures.”

The richness of Filipino culture and faith -- and the values of family and community -- were evident at the home worship gathering in central Los Angeles when members of the community gathered to sing, in Tagalog, the story of the life and Passion of Christ.

The elders were soon joined by a dozen or so members of a charismatic youth group. “Sometimes,” Isip said, “the youth rhythms resemble rap!” That night, however, the youth concentrated on learning the patterns sung by their elders, smiling when their teachers chided them for singing too fast. “It’s their first time,” one woman said.

For many of these young people, born in the United States, the singing of the Passion provided a lesson in reading Tagalog as well in the Catholic faith.

Absent from this celebration were the silence and fasting of a more Western expression of Catholic Holy Week. “Easter is a celebration of death and life. This is supposed to be a nice quiet time, but we cannot stay quiet. We continue to sing and dance, and it is not fair to sing and not to eat,” Isip explained, approaching a huge table in the kitchen laden with food.

As the singers took turns away from the narration to savor big pots of milkfish with onions, ginger and garlic, spicy catfish in broth, and spaghetti and garlic bread, a woman burst into the kitchen. “Quick! I need another tone,” she said.

The feast stopped until her companions helped her find a new pitch and rhythm to transmit the ambiguity felt by Pilate and the taunting of his soldiers.

Another woman stomped rhythmically into the kitchen bearing a huge tray stacked with saping saping, a thick, gooey rice dessert of three tiers of color.

“We don’t want [these customs] to die. This is why we are trying to teach the youth,” said Lola Conching, 74, who is something of a legend in town.

Naty Jimenez, the host of the gathering, said it is important that Filipino youth be raised in the Christian life. “The children will be given a good foundation for when they mingle with different people in different ways. And even if they mix with many kinds of people, they are strong,” she said.

Twenty-two-year-old Cory Abad, a student at Santa Monica College, said, “We want to praise and thank the Lord. This group is really different and special. We are religious, but we go out together. It’s like a family. These are my brothers and sisters. My other friends just want to have fun, but here we know what’s right and wrong.”

Bugayong said such strength of faith and culture has brought many Filipino Catholics in Los Angeles not only to the point of “being aware of their presence as a community,” but to a place of “sharing these gifts so they can help bring in a multicultural parish.”

“Spirituality is our individual way of experiencing our relationship with God,” he said. “We are born in different places at different times. I don’t think God expects us to express our faith in just one mode. I have my own way, and it depends on my background, what I’ve been through as a [member of a] race, a people, a nation,” he said. “You feel much more comfortable in your relationship with God expressing yourself in that way. It’s something natural. It’s part of being born and reared in that culture.”

Unity, however, is also needed, especially in Los Angeles, Bugayong said. And Filipinos are in a special position, because of language and culture, to be bridge-builders.

Bugayong said Filipinos have a special affinity, for example, with Mexican Catholics because of history: In 1521, the Spaniards came via Mexico to the 7,107 islands that make up the Philippines.

The culture of the Spaniards had been transformed in Mexico and was transformed again in the Philippines. As in the Americas, a wide variety of tribal indigenous cultures was thriving in the Southeast Asian archipelago at the time of the Spanish invasion. Filipinos today speak 87 languages and dialects that survived from ancestral origins of 111 Malay, Indonesian and mainland Asian cultural and linguistic groups.

A Spanish influence

Filipinos represent the largest Catholic population in Asia; 400 years of Spanish presence in the country rooted Christianity deeply in the lives of the people. An estimated 85 percent of Los Angeles’ quarter of a million Filipinos are Catholic.

Because Spanish and indigenous traditions mixed, Filipino celebrations share characteristics with Mexican religious traditions -- for example, the Christmas novena prayers, a strong veneration of Mary and worship filled with pageantry.

Like the gods of the original inhabitants of the Americas, indigenous Filipino deities, led by a supreme god, “Bathala,” were linked to the basic needs of tribal Filipinos -- rain and nature, agriculture and harvests, drink and dance and sacrifice. As in the Americas, the church could not suppress indigenous rituals. Instead, the tribal religions transformed Christianity.

Bugayong said the shared cultural roots have created “a closeness between Mexicans and Filipinos” that becomes evident in a new environment such as Los Angeles. “Many Filipino names are Spanish, and they learn Spanish in the schools. It’s not a big difficulty to get across the bridge, and I find myself having other affinities with the Mexicans -- the values,” Bugayong said.

Fr. Loreto “Mac” Gonzales, director of Filipino pastoral ministry and the first archdiocesan Filipino priest, said that in some parishes, Filipinos and Hispanics already share celebrations and fiestas. For example, the Filipino Christmas Simbang Gabi novena celebrations, held in English and Tagalog in approximately 100 of Los Angeles’ 289 parishes, draw many Hispanic Catholics.

Most Filipinos speak English and celebrate their faith in English, which became the official language of the islands as a result of years of a second colonization by U.S. military and business interests. Bugayong said English language proficiency enhances Filipinos’ ability to serve a multicultural church. “They can be a channel, a bridge to others, to the blacks because they speak English, to the Spanish-speaking,” he said. “That’s a gift the Filipino community can give to the archdiocese, to the church.

“Our Filipino community needs to realize it is needed in this country. They are shy, not like the Hispanics. They want to be asked and invited.

“That’s the first challenge -- to get them to take a leadership role in their own parishes,” Gonzales said.

He said the transition from life in a homogeneous culture in the Philippines, where “the transmission of faith is easier,” to the multicultural United States is often difficult.

“Here, this country is not homogeneous. It is multifaceted, and the second generation has an opportunity to see other actions. They are tempted to take on things other than what they hear from their parents or the first generation. There is not a straight up and down transmission of values,” he said.

Bugayong said Filipinos who experienced unified family life before coming to the United States experience “culture shock” when they arrive here. “Both of the parents go to work. It’s difficult. They don’t get much support. Over there, at least one of the parents takes care of the children,” he said. “The whole structure of society, you know, the closeness, is there. There is that concept of extended family. In the neighborhood, you take care of one another.”

He said the materialistic values of U.S. society challenge Filipino culture. Parents “want to work and provide for their families, but there is the price of not attending enough to the growing children,” he said.

Divorce, he said, is also a new challenge. “It’s now in their minds. It’s an issue because of the atmosphere here to separate. You see everybody doing it, and it becomes ordinary,” Bugayong said. “In the Philippines, if you separate, you carry a big stigma.”

Given the stark cultural differences, the church becomes a significant element, he said, providing Filipinos with “that sense of still being a part of that family, that big spiritual family where they can draw strength and spiritual energies to keep going.”

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998