Wacky FVR, elegant Lotis Key, majestic Balagtasan by MTV
SAN FRANCISCO—The bookworms were there. So were the artist types and literature buffs.
But the very first Filipino American International Book Festival, or Filbookfest, was hardly the boring congregation of geeks and eggheads that the event’s name would suggest.
It was a fiesta—a fun fiesta, with many moments, hilarious and engaging.
Like when ex-President Fidel Ramos took to the stage to kick off the event.
He was there to plug his new biography. But he clearly also wanted to have a great time — in the wacky Pinoy style. The most surprising perhaps was when FVR demonstrated the “beso beso” then urged everyone to kiss a fellow bookfest attendee.
The fiesta’s focus, of course, were the books. Books of different types and on a range of subjects — novels, history, Dolphy and FVR’s biographies, how-to-volumes.
But there were other attractions inside the San Francisco Main Library. There were many more outside on Fulton Street where the festival booths were set up with the majestic San Francisco City Hall in the background.
There were cooking demonstrations. Even a Hustle dance step lesson. (The crowd loved that one.)
A short walk from the library, at the Exposure Gallery run by documentary photographer Rick Rocamora and Pulitzer Prize winner Kim Komeinich, was an exhibit featuring Rocamora’s photos of Bay Area Muslims after 9/11 and detention centers in Manila.
The two-day event was like one big symphony. There were many things going on, many things to see — a forum on Pilipino English featuring my friend the poet and screenwriter Pete Lacaba, a Bencab nude painting session, book signings, comedy skits.
Making sure the Filbookfest was proceeding smoothly were its maestros.
Writer, editor and activist Gemma Nemenzo is familiar to Filipino literati in the Philippines and the U.S.
And with her was Irwin Ver, the former military officer from the martial law era who, after the fall of Marcos, reinvented himself as a hard-working Bay Area Filipino expatriate who makes time to be involved in his community as a supporter of Filipino American arts and literature.
Behind the scenes at the Filbookfest, the Gemma-Irwin duo made sure that pretty much all the needs of the fiesta were being met.
The actress Lotis Key was another big surprise.
Best remembered as a movie star in the 70s, she has stayed away from the spotlight since moving to the U.S. She said she doesn’t really like going to Filipino events.
One reason, she said, is because Pinoys typically ask her: “So where’s Dolphy? (She was romantically involved with the country’s comedy king.)
But when Lotis was invited to the bookfest she readily agreed. It’s not the typical Filipino fiesta in America, after all.
And she was simply “thrilled,” she said, that a group of Filipinos had organized an event “to extol” people other than movie stars and politicians.
As emcee of the tribute to some of the Filipino people’s literary greats, Lotis Key was eloquent and elegant.
One thing I liked about the tribute was that it brought together literary figures known to many Filipinos in the Philippines and the U.S. — Carlos Bulosan, Nick Joaquin, Bienvenido Santos, Jose Garcia Villa, NVM Gonzalez, F. Sionil Jose — and those who may not be well known to readers in the Philippines, but are certainly worth recognizing as among the writers who have helped enrich the Filipino story.
There’s Al Robles, the poet activist known for his activism and moving poetry on the manong experience. There’s Vangie Buell, who has written eloquently of her life as the daughter of Filipino immigrants in West Oakland, and as the granddaughter of an African American soldier sent to fight in the Philippine-American War.
The Filbookfest was a celebration of the past and the present, the old and the new.
There’s no better example than one of the festival’s biggest hits: MTV. Nope, not Music Television.
MTV is short for Mike Coroza, Teo Antonio and Vim Nadera who entertained a fiesta audience with the Balagtasan, the verbal showdown in verse made popular in the 1920s and 30s.
With Vim as moderator, Teo and Mike slugged it out in majestic Tagalog on the pros and cons of whether Filipinos should look for opportunities in other countries.
A relevant debate topic in a Balagtasan duel held in a city that has played such an important role in the quest of many Filipinos for a better life. A city that, during the Filbookfest, was undoubtedly transformed into a Pinoy city.
In fact, there’s even a huge, valuable and colorful piece of our archipelago in San Francisco — literally.
A day after the Filbookfest ended, poet Oscar Penaranda, himself a respected writer who inspired generations of young FilAm writers, and I took a group of visitors — the MTV Trio, Karina Bolasco and Gwenn Galvez of Anvil, Maricor Baytion of Ateneo Press, writer and critic Neni Santa Romana Cruz and journalist-novelist Cris Yabes — to the California Academy of Science in the heart of San Francisco’s beautiful Golden Gate Park.
A key attraction of the museum is the Philippine Coral Reef exhibit, an impressive display considered, as the museum describes it, “one of the deepest exhibits of live corals in the world.”
The display honors the homeland’s natural beauty. Seeing it that day was a fine way of capping a festival that honored the homeland’s rich literary tradition.
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