Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tales of the tape: Peanut butter queen and a working class hero

Last Sunday’s (June 12) celebration of Philippine Independence Day in Toronto was billed by the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT), a community organization of Filipinos in Metro Toronto, also as a day to celebrate our cultural heritage. On its roster of cultural offerings were Filipino folk dances (including hula dancing which is not native to the Philippines), Filipino singing idol contest, battle of champions, impersonation of international singing legends, a Santacruzan, and the lechon parade.

Not to be outdone, other organizations dedicated this important day in the history of the Philippines through their own interpretation of Philippine culture by showcasing beauty pageant winners like Miss Philippines, Miss Manila and their spin-offs like Miss Little Philippines and Mrs. Philippines. So along with the retinue of roasted pigs on the city’s main street were pageants crowning and parading our young women as emblems of beauty.

All in all, these various highlights of the Independence Day celebration by Filipinos in Toronto (nearby cities around Toronto also had their fare of beauty queens and song-and-dance competitions) only reveal our own cultural detritus. Not only do they lack any affinity to the historical significance of Independence Day but they also erode whatever good is left to preserve in our national culture as well. Sadly, this is the precarious state of the Filipino diaspora everywhere.

Although few in numbers, there are at least some who would stubbornly persevere in honouring and celebrating the best our country can offer, and by their examples, leave a more lasting legacy to others. Instead of drooling over the disappointing cultural fare our community organizations have to offer, these independent few chose not to go mainstream with our kababayans.

Here I am referring to two documentary films about the triumph of the human spirit and the continuing struggle for social justice as exemplified in the separate and different paths taken by two Filipinos, one of them a proven hero of the working class.

First off, Product of the Philippines (2010) by Filipino filmmaker Jullian Ablaza, a documentary about Jennilyn Antonio’s personal struggle to recover from losing her factory job by launching a new home-made peanut butter that would make her the country’s peanut butter queen. Unlike those beauty queens placed on their pedestal by their organizers in Toronto mainly on the strength of their physical appearance and a modicum of talent, usually singing or dancing, Jennilyn rose to become peanut butter queen on pure business instinct, patience, industry and ability to tap the market’s demand for a uniquely different taste of peanut butter.

The documentary was shown as part of Asian Heritage Month last May 27 at the Innis Theatre, University of Toronto. It was the lone entry from the Philippines but good enough to save our country from its dismal record of participation in celebrating our heritage with fellow Asian countries.

In the story, we see Jennilyn and her husband Vicente, eking out their lives like many other Filipinos—just barely making ends meet. They have their share of financial problems, worrying where to get the money to pay their children’s tuition fees or pay their debts and daily expenses. One day, while hunting for bargains and ingredients for cooking (this was after she lost her factory job), Jennilyn saw the ground peanut paste being sold to be used for making kare-kare. Without any knowledge of making peanut butter, she thought of experimenting a new formula, bearing in mind what her children liked best in peanut butter. With the right recipe and starting from an initial 500-peso worth of peanuts, Jennilyn discovered her own brand of fresh home-made peanut butter, a product which is now being sold in all SM Supermarkets nationwide and used in leading bakeshops in the country like Julie’s Bakeshop and French Baker.
Jennylin Antonio in her home which doubles as factory for EHJE's Peanut
Butter. Please click following link to view her story on video.
This was the same EHJE’s Peanut Butter that director Jullian Ablaza and his brothers first tasted when their father brought home a jar in their home in Vancouver. He found it so delicious and uniquely different from the Kraft and Skippy brands, which gave him the idea of making a documentary about Jennilyn. In 2006, Jennilyn Antonio was chosen as the National Awardee, Maunlad Category of the Microentrepreneur of the Year Awards.

At some point in the past, Jennilyn and her husband could not feed their children three times a day. But with the success of EHJE’s Peanut Butter, Jennylin is now expanding production from her home to a new factory to meet the growing demand for her peanut butter and the family’s future has never been more secure. It was clearly a documentary on the triumph of the human spirit, on how to succeed from adversity despite one’s lack of or limited resources.

The second documentary film, shown last June 12 at the Sidney Smith Hall, University of Toronto, was the Canada premiere of Ka Bel, a Documentary. Presented by the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Movement (FMWM), the film is about the life and struggles of Crispin B. Beltran, or Ka Bel, as he was affectionately called during his long career as a labour leader of the Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement) and Representative of Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) party list in the Philippine Congress.

Ka Bel’s life story can be likened to the life of another proletarian hero of the Philippine revolution, that of Andres Bonifacio, the leader of the 1896 Philippine Revolution against Spain. Their family backgrounds struck the same chord, both were born poor and started as lowly workers. Bonifacio sold canes and paper fans before becoming an agent of Fleming and Company and Fressel and Company, on his way to organizing the Katipunan, the first Filipino armed revolutionary movement that aimed to overthrow the Spanish regime and establish a sovereign and free Philippines. Ka Bel, on the other hand, worked as a taxi driver in his early 20’s toward becoming the president of the Yellow Taxi Drivers Union and the Amalgamated Taxi Drivers Federation until he was chosen as Chair of the Kilusang Mayo Uno and of BAYAN, both militant and progressive movements for genuine democratic reforms in Philippine society.

Both Bonifacio and Ka Bel stood for anti-colonialism and democratic revolutionary change, the former against Spain and the latter against imperialist trade unionism. They both died before realizing their ultimate dreams of national freedom and genuine democracy. But their legacy lives on, as they are both genuine heroes of the working class.

In the euphoria over the Philippine Independence Day celebration and other upcoming Filipino festivals this summer, the simple lives of Filipinos who struggle for their place in the sun are relegated, if not totally forgotten, to the backburner. Filipinos in Toronto, mainly because of their leaders’ misreading of Philippine history, whether in the past or in the making, will continue to miss watching and listening to the interesting and inspiring stories or narratives of the struggles of ordinary but resilient Filipinos. Instead, some of our community leaders and their movers and shakers will hold festivals under the false pretext of promoting our cultural heritage that feature both our young and old mimicking the singing and dancing skills of American pop stars, and the crowning of our women—Miss, Mrs. or as Little Miss—bestowing upon them titles that favour looks over substance. Other organizations, those we would think would encourage and even lead our folks in Toronto in more meaningful civic engagement, will busy themselves with their summer sports fests or monthly breakfast gatherings over a cup of coffee and gossip.

One of the distinctive features of heroes is the will for self-sacrifice—for some greater good for all humanity. Ka Bel is the epitome of self-sacrifice, oblivious of his own interest and instead embracing the collective cry for social change of his fellow trade union members, and that of his larger country as well. If that is not good enough reason for us to celebrate his life and struggles, what other reason is there to ignore him and be content with clowning like American Idols or parading our women like the next American Top Model? Perhaps, Nick Joaquin was truly right when he once wrote that we Filipinos as a people have not overcome this heritage of smallness.
Ka Bel in his ripe age never wavering with his conviction of fighting for the Filipino working class.
Click the following link to view a Tribute to Ka Bel,. Awit sa Bayani.

1 comment:

  1. thank you. this article is something i would like to see in our filipino newspapers in toronto