Move Over Coachella - This is the Festival You Should Be At
Festival season is upon us again!
But no, I’m not talking about Coachella (although Beyonce’s set was worth waiting up past midnight for, and so was watching the v pregnant but v vibrant Cardi B), or Afropunk or Lollapalooza. I’m talking about a very Bay Area festival - not Outside Lands, not BottleRock either - but the United States of Asian America Festival.
Let’s back up a little bit. Back in 1996, representatives from five different nonprofit arts groups (Asian American Dance Performances, First Voice, Asian Improv aRts, the Asian American Theater Company, and Kearny Street Workshop) founded the API Cultural Center (APICC) to promote the artistic and organizational growth of San Francisco’s Asian and Pacific Islander community. The center has been a home that nurtures the growth and visibility of API artists in various disciplines: visual arts, literature, film, music and dance to name a few.
Two years later, the center organized and presented the first ever United States of Asian America Festival, a six-week celebration of API art and cultural diversity with approximately 20 different programs. Past festivals have featured Filipino-American mobile DJ crews (“Legions of Boom”), the Queer Women of Color Film Festival, Black and Asian solidarity through music and poetry (Jon Jang Quintet & Amanda Kemp) and many others.
Always reflective of its social and political context, the festival has centered each year’s theme on the most pressing issues faced by API communities. Far from being a monolithic group, API folks have suffered collectively from colonialism, displacement, militarism, racism and discrimination in their home countries, even on U.S. soil. And with the current administration hellbent on maintaining an oppressive reality to Black people, Latinx people, Asians, Pacific Islanders - the violence and suffering inflicted on our bodies and spirits is only worsening.
But resistance has always been in our lineage, and this year’s festival theme couldn’t be more relevant:
“Regenerative Community explores what the API community does in order to care for ourselves, our community, and our culture. The festival highlights our collective regenerative practices - how they have evolved and how they are vital to our sustainability, including historical traumas Asians and Pacific Islanders have faced and how they have shaped our history, our culture, and present. The theme also mines how we as a community address these traumas and work towards a future of healing and restorative justice. Most poignantly, our festival programs investigate how the API community renews and sustains its drive and passion to be artists, organizers, cultural workers, and community leaders in the face of oppression.”
I thought about this long and hard. What do regenerative communities look like, specially for a queer Filipino woman like myself? Phrases like “caring for ourselves” and words like “sustainability” have often felt alien to me, terms that weigh heavily with guilt. Having grown up in a culture where Western ideals of progress, morality, and beauty reign supreme, learning how to care for myself and my community authentically has been a struggle. And more often than not, this caring and practice of healing has been at direct odds with ideals I spent my childhood and adolescent years internalizing.
That’s why I’m beyond thrilled and grateful to see the names of three Pinays in this year’s festival, women whose work recognize the intricacies of our identities and whose offerings in music, dance and visual arts affirm our commitment to healing and regeneration.
As this year’s featured artist, Sammay Dizon presents H.O.L.Y. (Hate Often Loves You) City with URBAN x INDIGENOUS (UxI), an “investigation of what it means to cultivate sanctuary in the ‘sanctuary city’ of San Francisco” by invoking ritual, performance and community gatherings. As a choreographer/producer, educator and interdisciplinary artist, Sammay is part of a movement of artists that seeks to honor and uplift (Filipino) indigenous culture and roots amidst our contemporary urban landscapes. Her work as the Founding Artistic Director of UxI is a manifestation of this interrogation, a process that weaves history and current realities through different mediums.
I think about this - the conjoining of seemingly opposite elements, as a method for healing and wonder: is it possible to seek sanctuary/safety as a Filipino knowing that even without speaking, your brown skin brings forth an already racialized identity wrought with colonialism? That being brown is to be perceived as a physical, political and social threat?
These thoughts also bring to mind another artist whose work will be shown at the festival, Alleluia Panis. As the first awardee of the San Francisco Legacy Artist Award, Alleluia is who you call an OG. Forty years is no small feat, specially when you’re cultivating connection and engagement in the Filipino-American community through Philippine folkloric dance, art, and performance. As the Artistic & Executive of Kularts (Kulintang Arts, Inc.), the organization presenting contemporary and tribal Filipino art she co-founded in 1985, Alleluia’s work spans decades and is a testament to the need for Filipino cultural presence not just in the city, but throughout the country.
For USAAF, Alleluia will be presenting Incarcerated 6x9, a 60-minute dance and media performance “inspired by the real-life accounts of Pinoys and Asian-Americans incarcerated between 1966-2008.” With original music composed by Rachel Lastimosa, Alleluia’s show delves into diasporic futurism and also tackles a uniquely American cancer: incarceration. I think about how we, as a people, have been working hard for decades towards our liberation, only to be pulled back by forces determined to keep our bodies, minds, and spirits imprisoned.
And especially as Filipino women, our roles within a traditionally patriarchal society continues to be confined. Even within American society, we are still witnesses to the daily transgressions against women on individual and institutional levels. It gets worse for queer and trans women. Nevertheless, I am finding hope with another artist whose work continues to inspire me since I first heard of her in 2010. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock in the past couple of years, you should already know about the musical genius of Ruby Ibarra. With lines like Yo fuck a story arc if it don’t involve no matriarchs / Our mothers work from the ground up, they craftin' air like ATR, her latest album Circa91 is all brass tacks and authenticity.
Along with other Asian-American emcees, she will be performing on the show APICENTER: Making Waves “where they face questions of appropriation and staying true to their identities, while also fighting model minority stereotypes and underrepresentation in entertainment.”
Sometimes resisting and healing can mean two separate things, but sometimes resisting can be healing. There are many types of engaging in struggle, as we navigate a world against our survival: there are political actions, protests, advocacy and legislation, & other forms of militancy. And then there’s art. There’s music. There’s dance. There’s ritual, a quieter form of resisting by honoring what once was and bringing it back to the present. With the USAAF comes something to look forward to, as we engage in regeneration through the arts. And right here in San Francisco, the resisting and healing work of Pilipinx/Pinays like Sammay, Alleluia and Ruby are enough to let you sleep at night and dream of a lighter load on your back, tomorrow and the days beyond.
USAAF 2018: Regenerative Community runs from May 3 - June 17 in San Francisco, CA. For more information, visit http://www.apiculturalcenter.org/usaaf2018.
Pia Cortez is a Bay Area-based community organizer and the creator of Libromance, a blog dedicated to book reviews and literary features with a queer Pinay immigrant perspective. She believes in the power and beauty of the written word: how stories stretch time and transcend boundaries, how books simultaneously challenge and console, how reading becomes an act of resistance. Pia hopes to transform reading from a solitary pursuit and turn it into a tool for community-building, a catalyst for ruckus-raising. When she’s not currently reading the world, she’s experimenting with #booklooks, a play on books and fashion.