Community members in Ketchikan came together last weekend to celebrate Filipino American History Month at the second annual Fil-Am Festival. The event recognizes the contributions and history of Filipino Americans in Ketchikan and around the country.
Ten-year-old Zofia Volkmann opened the festival — which took place at the local high school — with a performance of the Philippines’ national anthem on stage in the high school’s auditorium. High schooler Logenn Merrill followed it up with a performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the violin.
Then came a round of speeches — the superintendent, both of Ketchikan’s mayors, plus some other political figures — including featured guest speaker Rep. Mary Peltola.
“I stand here today and say with great confidence that fellow Filipino Americans helped build Alaska, and they continue to build Alaska from our hospitals, to our factories, our armed forces, and to our real estate markets,” Peltola said. “To put it simply, the history of the Filipino American experience in Alaska is the history of Alaska itself, and it should never be forgotten.”
Peltola joked about a friend of hers who was born and raised in the Lingít village of Yakutat.
“When they went to college at UCLA, they realized for the first time that adobo was not a Lingít dish,” she said.
Out in the commons, political figures were all over the place — lieutenant governor candidates Heidi Drygas and Jessica Cook, Lisa Murkowski aide Chere Klein, and state House candidates Dan Ortiz and Jeremy Bynum were shaking hands ahead of the Nov. 8 general election.
“I love the fact that they’re coming to our table,” said Alma Manabat Parker, who helped organize the event. “It’s truly our table — you can see and smell the food.”
She says boosting voter engagement in the Filipino community is one of her goals as head of the Ketchikan Wellness Coalition’s Sama Sama Tayo program.
“That’s how I proposed this invite,” she said. “Come to us as an opportunity to hear our voices in our own space around our own people.”
Sama Sama Tayo is a grant-funded initiative that aims to improve health care for Filipinos in Ketchikan. And there are some booths you might expect from a health-focused program — PeaceHealth Ketchikan is offering blood pressure checks, and the local public health office is running a vaccination clinic. Another nonprofit has a booth with resources for children with learning disabilities.
But Parker says health isn’t just about what shows up on a medical chart.
“Health is mind, body and soul, and our culture is part of that,” she said.
And it’s around everywhere you look. It’s in the air — the smell of Filipino dishes like lumpia and adobo and pancit and more.
Danielle Rodriguez is working one of the booths — Kusyna ni Mel, or Mel’s Kitchen. It’s been popular — not even midway through the festival, they’ve sold out of chicken adobo. Rodriguez says she’s glad folks are enjoying the food.
“We want to share our culture and our food with people, and I think food is the best way to share that,” she said.
Among the many highlights is sisig — deep fried pork belly with garlic, onions, ginger and a citrus fruit called calamansi.
“Like a Philippine lemon-lime,” Rodriguez explains.
But there’s much more than food. There’s Filipino trivia. There’s bingo. And on one side of the commons, there’s a rack hanging just a few feet off the floor. It’s decorated in the red, white, blue and yellow of the Philippines’ flag, strung up with streamers, candy and treats.
It’s called a pabitin — it’s a little like a Filipino piñata, except instead of swinging a stick at a papier-mache animal, kids jump to grab the goodies dangling from the structure. Children gather round.
On a balcony high above, a man jerked the pabitin up and down as the kids grabbed for goodies.
KRBD had a booth, too. We set up a mic with a list of questions, and we got a few takers.
Frederick, 28, told us what Fil-Am meant to him.
“Fil-Am to me is being able to enjoy and share my Filipino culture in an open environment,” he said. “I think it’s important to celebrate heritage to keep culture and tradition alive for future generations.”
Grant EchoHawk, 47 and a member of Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly, said he was glad for the chance to learn more about the Filipino community.
“It gives all of the rest of us that are not of Filipino descent an opportunity to learn about Filipino history, culture, foods and all the great things that make the Filipino community really, really shine,” he said.
Ryan McHale, 27, said he’d like to see Filipino history in Alaska more widely understood.
“I wish more people knew more about how and why our community is as diverse as it is,” he said.
At another booth, pediatrician Charlie Jose has a table with an array of photo prints he took in the Philippines over the summer. There’s a photo of a dragon fruit orchard. Another features a bunch of bananas hanging outside his family’s home.
“If you’ve ever tasted a banana in the Philippines, and you taste a banana in the U.S., it’ll never be the same experience,” Jose said.
He says he’s glad to have this space to celebrate Filipino history and culture — especially for younger people.
“It’s hard to reconnect with your roots in the Philippines if you’ve lived primarily here,” he said. “You also lose some of that culture when you emigrate. I’m an immigrant myself, and I know that I’ve lost some of my culture, so it’s nice to reconnect in different ways, and this is the perfect opportunity to do that.”
Ketchikan High School Fil-Am Club President Zarina Cabillo agrees.
“The kids here don’t really know anything about the culture because they grew up here, and having this festival is just really, really, really good for them,” she said.
She says she’d like to see more people learn the Filipino language, Tagalog, and become certified as translators.