The Arrival of the 12th Poblador: An Exhibit Celebrating History & Culture – by Allyson Escobar
(written for my “Cultural Journalism” spring 2014 class; also published in Asian Journal newspaper)

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There are over approximately 18.2 million Asian Americans living in the U.S., and over one million are settled here in the greater Los Angeles metro area, according to the Census Bureau. May is Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, an important celebration of the diverse culture, rich history, and unique traditions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders all over the United States. The goal of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, designated in 1992, is to recognize great achievements, commemorate history and, ultimately, to share stories.

And that’s exactly what The SaySay Project of FilAm ARTS, a nonprofit Filipino cultural arts organization based here in Los Angeles, aims to do.

The mission of the Association for the Advancement of Filipino American Arts and Culture (also known as FilAm ARTS) is “to facilitate community synergy and transformation by advancing the arts and diverse cultural heritage of Filipinos through arts services, presentation, and education,” according to its website. Basically, it’s about people. It’s about breaking down color and language barriers by celebrating cultural diversity and promoting the arts within the diverse community.

“With the high influx of migration of the Filipinos to the U.S., and Los Angeles in particular, we find that L.A. is home to the largest contribution of Filipinos to the country,” comments Jilly Canizares, the executive director of FilAm ARTS. “Even with this great influx, sadly, a lot of Filipinos don’t even know their story.”

One of FilAm ARTS’ newest initiatives, The SaySay Project, aims to engage the Filipino-American community in this idea of “talking story.” The Filipino phrase “SaySay”—pronounced sigh-sigh—is a Tagalog word that means “to have intrinsic value, and to declare.” Sharing stories that highlight both Filipino and the larger Asian American culture is what The SaySay Project, established just last year, is all about. Essentially, it is a creative way to connect tales of the Asian American experience to other stories, so that these narratives can be documented and preserved for future generations.

“I think it’s important that the youth today know their narratives,” continues Canizares. “It is important in the formation of their identity. It gives you a certain self-esteem, a backbone as to who you are, if you know your narratives.”

Promoted by FilAm ARTS and The SaySay Project, and in celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in Los Angeles, a new art exhibit observing Filipino American culture and history is opening this weekend. The exhibit, entitled “The SaySay Project: The Arrival of the 12th Poblador,” is on display for two weeks from May 11–25,at the Pico House Gallery in the historical El Pueblo de Los Angeles monument.

“We were approached by the Pico House Gallery, which just recently opened its doors this year,” said Canizares. “Its location is significant, because it has history. The building was converted from the original quarters of Pío Pico, the last governor of California under Mexican rule, to the first luxury hotel in Los Angeles back in the mid-1800s. And now it’s an art gallery, and we’re one of its first lining exhibits.”

Visual and performance artists are invited to display their work in the upcoming exhibit that, according to the press release, “explores the narratives of Filipino presence in L.A.” Canizares also points out the significance of looking at the historical narrative in the SaySay Project, because it is symbolic of the arrival of Filipinos in Los Angeles—and in particular, the 12th Poblador himself, who marks the beginning of this important story.


 

The Mysterious 12th Poblador

In 1781, 50-year-old Antonio Miranda Rodriguez was en route from Mexico to the historic Pueblo de Los Angeles, a not-yet-established new settlement in Southern California, with 11 other colonizers and his young daughter. Governor Felipe de Neve had chosen the green valley of Los Angeles, after its discovery by Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portolá, to be settled as one of the firstpueblos in California. The settlers came from everywhere: Spaniards, mestizos, mulattos, even native Indians. Rodriguez was the only settler—called a “poblador”—that was of Filipino descent.

According to the Los Angeles Almanac, both Rodriguez and his daughter fell ill to smallpox while journeying to Alta California, present-day Southern California, with the rest of the pobladores. For this reason, their trip was delayed. However, many authors and historians argue that Rodriguez actually made it to L.A. after recovering from the smallpox, and helped to establish the original pueblo in the late 18th century with the other settlers.

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Our Pacific Destiny also recognizes Rodriguez’s Filipino ancestry and his significant role in the founding of Los Angeles. He writes, “Our city’s links with Asia are deep and old-as old as the city itself. Our region’s first residents were Asian immigrants, most likely from Siberia. In 1781, a Spanish subject of Filipino heritage, Antonio Miranda Rodriguez, joined 43 other pobladores to trek to the area that became El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora, la Reina de los Angeles.”

Still other narratives claim that Rodriguez never made it to what is now modern-day Los Angeles, but was reassigned to settle in the Santa Barbara presidio in 1782 and became a skilled gunsmith and armorer. Some say he remained in Santa Barbara for the rest of his life and became the ironsmith of the Santa Barbara Mission, the church where he is now buried.

Whichever story is true, it is likely that Antonio Miranda Rodriguez was one of the original founders of the great City of Angels, and was a pureblood Filipino. Whether or not he actually made it to Los Angeles, being a part of the original group of pobladores he was still significant in the discovery of a diverse, historical, and richly cultured city.

The FilAm ARTS exhibit at the historic Pico House Gallery will celebrate the story of the lost “12th Poblador,” Antonio Miranda Rodriguez, and commemorate his achievements to the hundreds of Angelenos and Filipinos who are unaware of their roots.

“The Arrival of the 12th Poblador exhibit will touch on not only the relationship between the Spanish and Filipinos, but it will also explore the contributions of Filipinos to L.A. and California in general,” explains Canizares. “For example, the Galleon Trade when Spain colonized the Philippines for nearly three centuries, and the famous labor movements and United Farm Workers of the 1960s and 70s—that was when Filipinos and Mexicans first united to rally against unfair labor practices. It was one of the most significant multiracial alliances in history.”


 

Art and The Fil-Am Experience

Following the 333-year inquisition of the Philippines by Spain, Filipino culture is still very widely influenced by Spanish tradition. Many of these customs were brought to the U.S. with immigrant families, passed on from generation to generation.

The exhibit aims to explore the similarities between Spanish and Filipino culture, art, dance, theatre, and even religion. It will celebrate the “Mexipino.” a unique blend of Filipino and Mexican Americans who are in many ways influenced by one another both culturally and historically. It will showcase traditional art, conventional, and inspirational art—movements, installations, performances, even full-length videos—that each tell a different story. “The Arrival of the 12th Poblador” exhibit seeks to highlight Filipino figures in government, artists, activists, students, and immigrant voices. It will include a variety of presenters from contemporary artists, to social realists, to cultural dance groups. Each artist’s work will reflect upon this theme of making connections of Filipinos with the narratives of L.A., and look at the large waves of Filipino Americans who contribute to the larger story of our city’s history.

“My pieces are very personal. It is a personal documentation of my own history, a visual novel of my life, a page in what I am currently thinking,” says Alfie Ebojo, one of the artists presenting at this weekend’s exhibit. “Being able to show at a historical monument such as El Pueblo is epic. It is an honor to be able to be showing art work based on the Filipino American experience at a venue that is part of Los Angeles history.”

Ebojo, who goes by Alfie Numeric, is a local contemporary artist whose work is driven by a love for her Filipino heritage and her­-story. Numeric’s piece, entitled “Princess Urduja: the Warrior,” celebrates an ancient female Filipino legend that not too many people actually know about.

“Princess Urduja is a legendary Pinay warrior from Pangasinan whose military skill allowed her to lead armies,” Numeric says. “Her existence has been disputed. Some say she is real. Some scholars believe she is fictional. In my opinion, her spirit is very real and embodied in every strong, intelligent, beautiful woman I know.”

Numeric, who has been quite active with FilAm ARTS and The SaySay Project for a number of years, is showcasing a mixed media painting for the exhibit. Her work represents a piece of each indigenous tribe around the Pangasinan province in the Ilocos region of the Philippines. Numeric did her research in depicting each tribe’s own story and culture, reading books, talking to family members, and making connections between the two. She claims to be inspired by Bell Hooks’ All About Love: New Visions and the classic Chinese military treatise The Art of War, by Sun Tzu.

“[The piece] is part of a larger body of work called ‘All the Right Weaponry’ in which I seek to redefine my personal definition of what makes a strong woman,” remarks Numeric. “I wanted to express the idea that women should embrace the power within themselves that they are capable of being a protector and a defender. But a true warrior not only knows how to fight and take a life; a warrior would also know how to heal and save a life as well.”

Womanhood, identity, and human rights are just a few abstracts to be explored at the L.A.-based exhibit opening this weekend. Other Filipino-American social artists, from painters, authors, and photographers, will look at this central theme of the power of people—a people who continue to struggle, to work, and to have hope for the future.

Canizares concludes about the exhibit, “It’s always good to have things like the SaySay Project, to excavate all of these narratives that can get lost as time goes on. We want to have a way for people to record stories for people to go back to. Not just the people who are well known, but even student voices. We want to focus on what is equally important in terms of valuing the story of the Filipino American experience.”

Part of what makes us American is our understanding of who we are as a rich, diverse culture, one that is uniquely made up of a variety of colors. By commemorating events and sharing narratives, we begin a dialogue that brings people together, remembering where we each came from and how we got here, and we suddenly become one. This is what Antonio Miranda Rodriguez, the 12th Poblador to California, surely must have dreamed of when he first arrived. For Los Angeles, a city of many different shades, the exhibit is, in essence, a story of this place we call home.

“I paint only what I know and though much of the metaphors and styles of my work can reach a full spectrum, it is undeniable that part of my Filipino heritage will be sprinkled in,” says Numeric, proudly. “It’s important that my narrative is expressed and shown. Why should my culture be silenced or overlooked?”

[A.E.]

Resources:

FilAm ARTS: http://filamarts.org/

SaySay Project website: http://www.saysayproject.org/

LACity.org: http://birthday.lacity.org/history.htm

El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument / Pico House Gallery: http://elpueblo.lacity.org/SightsSounds/HistoricStructures/PicoHouse/index.htm

LA Almanac: http://www.laalmanac.com/history/hi03c.htm

Asian Journal Newspaper: http://asianjournal.com/

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