Correction to This Article
A caption accompanying a June 11 Style article about Filipino Americans misspelled the name of Bing Branigin.

Where Everyone Gets to Tagalog

The Nova Rondalla band's Kenneth Paredes, 16, right, and other musicians playing for arriving guests.
The Nova Rondalla band's Kenneth Paredes, 16, right, and other musicians playing for arriving guests. (Photos By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 11, 2006

The women donned colorful Maria Claras, a Spanish-inspired dress. The men wore carefully embroidered barong tagalogs, with fabric made from pineapple or banana cloth. The conversations were mostly in "Taglish," a fusion of Tagalog and English, both official languages of the Philippines.

"It's all very Filipino, isn't it?" said Kris Valderrama, a third-generation Filipino American who was standing alongside Ollie Cantos, associate director for domestic policy and highest-ranking Filipino American in the White House. Here's a hint courtesy of Valderrama: If someone has a Spanish name ("like me," she said) and they look Asian ("like me," she added), they're probably Filipino.

Last night's Philippine Festival gala at the J.W. Marriott celebrating the centennial of Filipino migration to the United States was "very Filipino" indeed. Which meant it was a little bit Spanish, a lot American, and definitely Asian, which makes Filipinos so distinct -- and nearly invisible. Numbering 2.4 million, Filipino Americans make up the second-largest group of Asian Americans -- behind only Chinese Americans, at 2.7 million. But as a group they're the invisible minority, relatively unknown compared to Indian Americans, Korean Americans and Japanese Americans. There are more than 34,000 people of Filipino heritage in the Washington area, scattered around Northern Virginia and Maryland, especially in Prince George's County and Fort Washington. At St. Columba Catholic Church in Oxon Hill, Mass is offered in Tagalog and English.

This is a busy month for the area's Pinoys, as Filipinos call themselves. Last week, hundreds crowded Pennsylvania Avenue for the annual Philippine Fair and Parade. Saturday in Georgetown, there's another gala with the fashion designer J. "Pitoy" Moreno, the Oscar de la Renta of the Philippines, showing off his collection. And the traveling exhibition "Singgalot (Ties That Bind): Filipinos in America" is on display on the Mall, in the concourse of the S. Dillon Ripley Center, chronicling the Pinoy story after the annexation of the Philippines as a U.S. colony in 1898.

"As a people, Filipinos have assimilated so well in this country that we almost work in the shadows," said Jon Melegrito, a longtime activist who hosted last night's event. "It's almost like we carry an inferiority complex. Not because there's something wrong with our culture -- we're industrious people. It's because we have this colonialist mentality of being a guest in this county, when we've been here for many, many, many years."

Every people has a story. And the story of Pinoys cannot be divorced from those of Spain and the United States, which for hundreds of years ruled over the Phillippines. The country of 7,000-plus islands was under Spanish colonial rule for more than 300 years before being annexed by the United States at the turn of the 20th century.

"It was 300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood," as Dean Alegado, who chairs the ethnic studies department at the University of Hawaii, explained. That's why the Philippines, a predominantly Christian country, is perhaps the most Americanized of all Asian countries, where "Pinoy Idol" is a closely watched as "American Idol."

In 1906, the first significant group of manongs -- "older brothers" -- arrived in Hawaii to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations, with many more coming as migrant workers in California farms and Alaska canneries. The end of World War II, with many Filipino soldiers fighting under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, brought more immigrants to the United States. Following that, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act paved the way for Filipino professionals -- people who saw America as a possibility, a promise, a home away from home.

One of them, Vienna cardiologist Jun Quion, who came to America in 1989 to study medicine, was at last night's gala. Wearing a barong tagalog, of course.

It was an all-Filipino night for sure -- a Pinoy band belted out classics like "Paano?" ("How?") -- though dinner was decidedly American: beef filet and sea bass. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the outgoing archbishop of Washington, gave the opening remarks, and was followed by Rep. Michael M. Honda (D-Calif.), who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Alberto del Rosario, the Philippine ambassador to Washington. At the opening reception, a group of high-schoolers, all members of the Northern Virginia Rondalla, played traditional Philippine instruments.

Working the room at the reception, passing out fliers in a simple black dress, was Kris Valderrama. "I really need to buy a Maria Clara," the 35-year-old said. Her father, David Valderrama, became the first Filipino American elected to a state legislature on the mainland United States. The young Valderrama is hoping to follow in her father's footsteps.

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