Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rigodon de horror

Last April 28, the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT) held its Presidents’ Gala at the posh Fairmont Royal York Hotel to pay tribute to heads of Filipino associations in Toronto and honour them for their support of FCT’s various programs. A Filipino community newspaper devoted its entire centrefold pages to the coverage of the said event with photos of all the FCT board members: the women in their dazzling ternos and the men in their embroidered barong Tagalog. As the FCT spokesperson put it, all the guests also came in “their attractive formals and Filipino ternos (also called mestiza dresses).”

The FCT Presidents’ Gala could be likened to the popular rigodon de honor of the olden days in the Philippines when the oligarchic elite celebrated the inauguration of the newly-elected President of the Republic in Malacañang Palace, a practice that has become part of Malacañang protocol from the time of President Manuel Quezon. During the Spanish colonial rule, this celebration was limited to members of the upper class and became the measure of who was who among the elite. When the Americans came, they continued the practice even when the occupant of Malacañang was an American Governor-General.
Rigodon de Honor. Follow link
to view FCT Presidents' Gala - Rigodon de Honor
Rigodon de honor is an elegant dance that traces its roots from the French quadrille and was brought to the Philippines by the Spaniards and adopted by wealthy Filipinos from their travels in Europe during the Spanish period. Among the wealthy Filipinos, the rigodon has become part of Filipino culture and has been de rigeur not only in formal balls but also during town fiestas.

FCT’s rigodon de honor has assembled the so-called Filipino elite in Toronto, to the exclusion of the ordinary Filipino folks who probably could not afford the stiff cost of buying a ticket to this biyearly glamorous event. Yet this was an affair by a community centre that is supposed to serve not only its catchment area, one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Toronto, but also Filipinos in the metropolitan area who need assistance in settlement and search for employment and other services.

The president of the FCT in her thank-you note wrote that “the funds raised from this Gala went beyond expectations not only of the FCT Board of Directors, but FCT’s critics as well.” Speaking of critics, no community newspaper has published a word that was critical of the FCT Presidents’ Gala. The Gala raised more than $80,000 in revenues but spent more than half this amount to hold the event, more than $37,000 just to pay for the venue at the Fairmount Royal Hotel.

Naturally, the highlight of the evening’s gala was the women’s attire, one of which was reported as a blue terno with “scintillating see-through skirt from mid-thigh down.” Another was described as a “figure-hugging pink terno with a thigh-high side slit to expose a well-toned leg.” While another gown was touted as a “sleek black terno that had a contrasting white panel embellished with black trimmings that cascaded down from the waist behind.”

That women of a certain age would use the ruse of a ball to vie and compete for a shot at the limelight—dancing and swinging to every musical rendition of the rigodon de honor from the march to the waltz—escapes us. One might be tempted to say this was the equivalent of A Night with the Oscars except that the matrons were the ones parading in their showy haute couture instead of young and upcoming beautiful actresses.

Their photos on the newspaper’s centrefold evoked startling images of Doña Victorina, that pathetic fictional character in Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, the quintessential ambitious Filipina who thought of herself as more Spanish than a Spaniard by altering her looks through lightening her skin with the aid of cosmetics and hiding her Asian frame inside thick and heavy European dresses. The FCT spokesperson described the attire of the women who attended the gala as “mestiza” dresses, exactly the type of clothes Doña Victorina wore to reinvent herself.

In the January 22, 2012 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a third-year high school student of Assumption Antipolo wrote that Rizal’s Doña Victorina could still be present today because like her, the consummate “social climber,” there are people who would be willing to do anything to get attention and respect. In her first-prize winning essay in the PreMYo Rizal Nationwide Essay Writing Contest for high school students, the young scribe wrote that Doctora Doña Victorina de los Reyes de Espadaña was the embodiment of pomp and frills, apparently very much like each and every woman who attended the FCT Presidents’ Gala.

Doña Victorina’s appearance, she wrote, “was an indication not just of her shallow nature but also her obsession with prestige and admiration. It was perhaps this obsession that fueled her lifelong effort to pretend to be something she was not—a Spanish woman.” She “contributed nothing to her society, just as the social climbers of today do nothing to help our society, as they step on each other to reach the highest pedestal.”

The young high school student finally wrote that “as we read about Victorina’s shallow desires, that there was a difference between appearing to be great and being truly great as a person, and that respect earned through petty, shallow means was not worth it. Esteem must be gained through sincerity, honesty and hard work.”

Rizal’s caricature of Filipino women (and this also applies to men) in Doña Victorina’s persona strikes a chord among Filipinos in the modern diaspora. Financial success abroad has changed many Filipino immigrants to think that they are now part of the oligarchy and the culture that it promotes. They now deem themselves members of “high society,” or people who have gained greater social status and prestige, a notch above their lowly compatriots. Having achieved newfound wealth or affluence, the new elite believes this sinecure entitles them to some degree of status within the community and society in general. Thus, having arrived, they can now form the retinue of dancers in a rigodon de honor. They have earned the right to become members of a privileged in-group.

But this elitist tendency fuels what historian and expert on Filipino culture Felipe de Leon calls the “Doña Victorina Syndrome” in us. Because of low self-esteem, many Filipinos at home and abroad tend to live in a cocoon of pretense and deception. Our new oligarchic Filipino elite in Toronto, who are not even true members of the upper economic class, clings to the shallow exhibition of their social status through dancing the rigodon de honor or holding “pa-bongga” celebrations to give importance to themselves and make others pay attention. Just like Doña Victorina of old, they hide under a thick paste of white powder and glittering ternos to flaunt their newfound status to the community.

Take for example the FCT programs which its organizers claim advance our image as an ethnic group in Toronto. It is not enough that FCT select its recipients of Young Entrepreneur and Professional Awards (YEPA) or its Outstanding Student Award. In addition to giving awards, FCT needs to invest its time and services in promoting and helping Filipino businesses to gain a foothold and prosper, such as providing them with effective social networks or conducting seminars and workshops on how to develop markets or sources of financing. As well, it must develop programs that help our youth gain true self-esteem and leadership skills.

On community outreach, what has FCT actually accomplished except owning and leasing its premises in Cabbagetown? Has its catchment area (St. Jamestown, Regent and Moss Park neighbourhood) actually benefited from FCT’s so-called community programs? Has FCT made its presence known in issues that affect the Filipino community at large such as immigration, employment, civic engagement, and political representation?

The truth is, FCT and other Filipino community organizations are silent on real issues that matter to ordinary Filipinos in the Greater Toronto Area, yet the FCT Presidents’ Gala and other similar balls make it appear as if they have accomplished a lot. If the Gala’s rigodon de honor and all the glitzy-clad women and men scurrying for attention or “pansin” are to be the indicator of our worth as a community, then our future is in horrible hands.

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