Ketchikan’s Plaza Mall was filled with chatter and music last Saturday as the first annual Filipino American Festival was in full swing. The event fell only two days before the anniversary of the first recorded arrival of Filipinos to the West Coast over four centuries ago.
October marks Filipino American History Month. One of the organizers of the first Filipino American Festival, Alma Parker, says it’s a time to celebrate the contributions of Filipinos throughout history within the United States — a history particularly that is rich in Southeast Alaska.
“Well, the Alaskeros were what’s what they call the Filipino cannery workers that could immigrate here due to the U.S. colonization. There was more freedom to come to the United States because they were considered U.S. nationals,” Parker said. “So there was an influx of workers to work in Southeast Alaska. I do know that. Ketchikan was the home to the first Filipino community club in the whole state of Alaska.”
The Filipino Community Club has records going back as early as 1938 at its original location on Stedman Street. Parker says she has fond memories of a later Community Club, open during her childhood.
She recalls it serving as a space where Filipinos from the community could come together, practice dances, celebrate, and voice concerns with the local government. Today, the center is gone — the site is now a gravel lot next to Ketchikan’s American Legion post.
Nearly 10% of Ketchikan’s population has Filipino heritage — one of the highest concentrations in the state. Parker says she hopes the festival can help Filipinos connect with each other and build community by celebrating their heritage. The main event of the festival included a traditional stick dance, performed by the high school dance team.
Parker, with her new position at the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition, has started a project called “Sama Sama Tayo,” which she says, translates to “gather together.” It’s funded by a $300,000 health equity grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The aim is to improve the health of Ketchikan’s Filipino community. While it might not seem like a cultural heritage festival is immediately related to health care, Parker says it’s about building community — which she says helps Filipinos connect with the health care resources they need.
“As the health equity program coordinator, my goal is to improve access to health care and health care outcomes for Filipinos in the community and eventually to the underserved. So by having an event like this, it allows the opportunity to maybe, you know, connect with people and then to ask questions to say, you know, what are some of your challenges and obstacles,” Parker said.
In the Philippines, the months September through December are known as the “ber months” — when Filipinos celebrate Christmas. One of the most classic festivities is the parol, traditionally a lantern made out of bamboo. Parker has teamed up with the Ketchikan Area Arts and Humanities Council to share this custom with the community. A parol-making class will be held the second weekend of November where adults are welcome to come and learn more and participate in the Filipino tradition.