Two days after returning to New York City from Chicago, a high school friend from the Philippines, who is now living in the West Coast, tracked me down on the social networking site Facebook. On my page’s wall, she posted a lovely note stating that she was impressed to hear I had been bestowed a Chicago Filipino-American Hall of Fame award—and that a number of our batch mates from Paco Catholic have been planning a homecoming back in Manila.
“I heard you’ve been making waves over there,” she wrote, adding that she would love to see photos from the Hall of Fame ceremony. Gladly, I sent her a link that directed her to the images she wanted to see.
A few moments later, Facebook alerted me that my friend had posted another note—except that she made no comments on the Hall of Fame pictures. Instead she remarked on a different photo album, the one that contained images from In the Garden of One World, the conceptual installation I recently created at La MaMa La Galleria in the Lower East Side of New York City. My friend wrote: “Awesome pics, Randy! Although I’m wondering how come you don’t have photos from our homeland?”
It was a great question. It was an issue that weighed heavily on my mind while I was creating the installation in which the photographs I took of flowers and flower-strewn landscapes put forward a dream of a world garden. In fact, it was a predicament that leapt to my mind when one of the Hall of Fame awardees had inquired about the nature of my work as a visual artist.
In collaboration with the Romanian scenic designer Nic Ularu, In the Garden of One World sought to reveal, enhance and re-stage the poetic and formal potential of these photographs through the metaphor of an abstract garden. In the heat of late spring last year, I remember installing the park, the lake, the grass-filled trays and the ruins of a church. Everywhere on display in the Lower East Side gallery, owned by Ellen Stewart of La MaMa E.T.C., were more than 40 photographs of flowers and intriguing places taken in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Panama, the Caribbean, Romania, South Korea, Sweden and the United States. It was hothouse that forged unexpected links between disparate international experiences, a conceptual space that attempted to visualize and embody La MaMa’s dream of “many cultures, one world.”
And yet, I knew, there was something missing. Nowhere to be seen in the garden installation was, say, a sampaguita or a gumamela or a kalachuchi. That nagging feeling of absence—the powerful sense that this show is beautiful and resonant but also somehow nigglingly incomplete—came rushing back to my mind and heart on that wet and snowy and gray-skied Christmas weekend when I stood in line among the other deserving winners of the annual Chicago Filipino-American Hall of Fame awards.
I posted a reply to my high school friend: “You are very perceptive. In the installation, I had one wooden garden label and wrote the word ‘Manila’ on it using a felt-tip pen. I stuck it inside the soil of one of the flower trays. But there was no picture of a flower from the Philippines on this plant marker. It was empty. I left it there, because it is a reflection of my life so far as a Filipino-American in the United States. You see, I have never been back to our homeland since I left as a teenager. It’s a terribly complicated explanation why not. One quick answer is that all my international travels have always been related to my work or were made possible by grant money, which requires me to go to certain places. Also, I work for a nonprofit company and live modestly as a writer and artist in the most expensive city in the world. I do okay. I do not complain. I honestly don’t have the independent financial means to travel to Manila. Someday an opportunity will arise for a visit.”
“I do hope one day you’ll get to go back,” she wrote back. “I get to go every year and actually had the pleasure of being assigned there for a project last year. It saddens me how problematic it still is, but it’s home and [there are] plenty of things to love still. Maybe the Philippine consulate can pull together and give you a grant to write about our homeland. I can offer you free lodging, ‘cause we kept our house in Manila. Not the best place location-wise, but it’s a nice house and it’s got running water. No A/C though. I really am proud of what you’ve achieved.”
“Thanks for the offer of free lodging,” I stated in another post. “We had never owned our own house in Manila. We had no property to leave behind. All my immediate family is now in the West Coast, and I don’t see them enough. As I have set down roots here in New York, two possibilities had crept up for me to possibly go back. One was a theatre conference that happened in Manila some four or five years, but someone else from my company got to go. Last year, I applied for a theatre research grant, which would have allowed me to go back to the Philippines to study the sarsuwela musical-theatre form from Bienvenido Lumbera. I also happened to meet the poet Virgilio Almario in New York. He said that he would be glad to discuss his work if I ever had the chance to go back. But unfortunately I was chosen as an alternate. I could go in case someone else was not able to go. I thank you for the kind words about my achievements. The irony is that despite these awards that have come my way, my life as a writer and artist in New York has pretty much remained the same.”
In thinking about the meaning and significance of winning a Chicago Filipino-American Hall of Fame Award, I must say that it is very flattering to be inducted into something called a “Hall of Fame.” Ay naku! Masaya talaga ang manalo ng isang premiyo. Lalo na kung ito ay nanggaling sa inyong mga kababayan. Talagang napa-iba naman, sapagkat magaling tayong maki-salo. I am so fortunate. I am so grateful. (Most especially, I thank the actor Bernardo Bernardo, a past Hall of Famer who nominated me.) I am also so taken aback by the enormity of the idea behind those words—“hall of fame.”
But if I pause for a moment to re-consider: Fame is not as important as the belief in and the firm commitment to something real and important that is outside of your self.
Allow me to explain: During the awards ceremony in Chicago, it was frequently remarked that I was the youngest among this year’s honorees, and it was indeed my sense that this Hall of Fame ceremony—besides being a social gathering in which we, gregarious and party-loving Filipino Americans (whether Philippine-born or American-born), share with each other the joys and bountiful fruits of being alive—has primarily functioned as an auspicious occasion to extol and celebrate the careers and life-achievements of those individuals in our communities who have often spent their entire adult lives working in behalf of us and yet have remained frequently unsung or unrecognized in the larger, mainstream U.S.
Through the ads in the souvenir book, there is a fundraising element built into the awards ceremony, of course, because, as we all know, we all have to pay every step of the way. Those who are older and more mature, those who are established in our communities, as well as those who have built their fortunes on American entrepreneurship, are perhaps the best able to offer the strongest support for such worthy and pride-filled events as this Hall of Fame ceremony.
I am happy that a writer was included in the event, because I think that, in a spiritual and cultural sense, we do pay dearly if we cease paying attention to the new arts and the new culture that we have been creating here in the U.S. There is an unseen but very tangible cost to our community if Filipino-American journalists fail, for example, to put faith in the public service mission that quality journalism demands, or if we fail, as theatre artists, to believe and insist that the work we do has value and integrity. Even in the face of budget cuts and the economic recession—despite the constant rejection and marginalized attitudes of others (some might be member of our families who would prefer that we not pursue writing and the arts)—I feel that we must urgently endeavor to cultivate, nurture, develop and celebrate the artistic talent and achievements of Filipino-American writers and artists. At the same time, we, as artists and writers, must never tire from promoting a larger public understanding of and appreciation for art and culture in our own Filipino-American communities.
In recognizing me as a Hall of Famer, I have been given a boost of new courage—of renewed possibilities.