Published October 31, 2016

By David Bearinger

The Philippines is a nation of more than 7,000 islands strategically located in the South China Sea.  Its closest neighbors are Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Vietnam.  It is also the third-largest English-speaking country in the world, with a culture that—over centuries—has absorbed influences from the Orient, Europe, North America, the South Pacific, and the Islamic world.  It was colonized first by Spain in 1521 and then by the United States, beginning in 1898.

After serving as a decisive theatre of battle during World War II, the Philippines became one of America’s most reliable military allies following its independence in 1946.  Along with English, Tagalog is spoken by a majority of the country’s 100 million people.

Approximately one million Filipinos have immigrated to the United States since the 1950s.  In 2010, more than 90,000 Filipinos were living in Virginia, some 40,000 of them in Hampton Roads, with other strong communities in the Richmond area and Northern Virginia.  Today, Filipinos are the second-largest Asian population in the Commonwealth; and the largest Filipino community east of the Mississippi is in Hampton Roads.

Many Filipinos, especially in the Virginia Beach area, have gained access to American citizenship through service in the United States Navy.  Religious faith, patriotism, and the ideal of Utang ng Loob, or ‘indebtedness,’ are strong forces in Filipino life, and it’s common to hear Filipinos, in the Hampton Roads community especially, describe their U.S. citizenship as a “blessing” from God.

Aprilfaye Manalang, a VFH fellow, grant project director, and Assistant Professor of History and Interdisciplinary Studies at Norfolk State University discussed this relationship between religion, service, and citizenship among Filipinos on VFH’s With Good Reason earlier this year.

Like many immigrant communities, Filipinos face the challenge of maintaining strong connections to their homeland and its traditions while also living fully as Americans.  The Philippine Cultural Center (PCC) was established in 2000 by the Council of United Filipino Organizations of Tidewater to promote Filipino and Philippine-American history and culture, particularly in the Hampton Roads region.

The Center is also home to the School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCAPA), and over the past 16 years more than 2,000 young Filipino-Americans have taken part in SCAPA-sponsored programs designed to instill the values of faith, education, service, and respect for family and elders as a complement to more formal instruction in Filipino language and traditional arts, particularly dance.

At the 2016, Richmond Folk Festival, VFH’s Virginia Folklife Program showcased Filipino cooking and dance traditions, working with leaders of the PCC, SCAPA, and other members of the Virginia Beach  community.

Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program
Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program
Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program
Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program
Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program
Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program
Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program
Photo by Pat Jarrett/VA Folklife Program

The term “Filipino food” is often used generically, like “Mexican” or “Chinese” food; and is just as misleading.  The Philippines is a geographically and culturally diverse nation that, over centuries, has absorbed a wide range of culinary influences. Regional food variations can be striking, including ingredients and flavors common in Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, china, Spain, and even Arabia.

Rice is a staple throughout.  Dishes made with coconut milk (ginataang) are common, as are whole roasted pig (lechon); pancit, rice noodles combined with sausage, cabbage, chicken, beef or seafood; and lumpia, a thin pastry skin filled with savory ingredients, usually fried, like a Chinese spring roll.

Adobo (from the Spanish ‘adobar,’ to marinate) is made from meat, seafood or vegetables marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, and garlic, browned in oil, and simmered in the marinade.  Florian Manalang demonstrated the technique of making chicken adobo as part of the Festival, facilitated by her daughter April.

Turon is a popular street food made from sliced bananas, sometimes with a slice of jackfruit, dusted with brown sugar, then rolled in a spring roll and fried.  Several popular desserts—biko, karioka, sapin-sapin—are made from high-gluten rice flour and coconut milk.  Coffee and coffee variants are also widely consumed, especially Kape Barako, which takes its name from the Tagalog word for “wild boar.”

The same variety appears in Philippine dance traditions, which are as diverse as the geography of the country and the cultures that have shaped its history.  Cordillera dances express the community life of indigenous tribes in the mountains of Northern Luzon.  Maria Clara dances from Southern Luzon and Visayas show the influence of centuries of Spanish colonization.  In some, the dancers use a fan or handkerchief to suggest flirtation or courtship.  Others are distinctive in their use of elongated bamboo castanets.

Rural dances from the lowlands of Luzon display the kind of joyous, celebratory spirit often associated with weddings and festivals.  In Binasuan, the women balance glasses filled with rice wine.  Percussive and infectious, the Tinikling (bamboo dance) is the national dance of the Philippines, developed—so the legend goes—in mimicry of a native bird called the Tickling, as the dancers perform complex steps between moving bamboo poles.

Traders brought Islam to Mindanao and the SULU Archipelago in the 12th Century, and this area largely resisted Spanish influence.  Muslim dances show the impact of Arabian and Indo-Malaysian culture through intricate hand movements and in the shapes and vivid colors of the costumes.  The native peoples of Midanao also developed their own tribal dance traditions to honor and give thanks to pagan gods.

SCAPA students performed several of these dances at the Richmond Festival, to the delight of large enthusiastic crowds.  Presenting cultural traditions that originated in other parts of the world and are now thriving in Global Virginia is one way the VFH pursues its mission of service to the Commonwealth.

Forging close working partnerships with the communities of Global Virginia and the organizations that represent and support them builds strength for our work in many other areas.  We do this work to educate, inform, and delight the audiences we serve and to honor and celebrate the diverse streams of history and cultural tradition that flow together in Virginia’s common wealth.

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Vanessa Adkins, right, is apprenticing under her cousin Jessica Canaday Stewart learning the finer points of traditional Chickahominy dancing. Photos taken at the Fall Festival and Pow Wow in Charles City on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012.

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