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Families Connect to Their Filipino Culture Through School

By Jaslee Carayol

Still in its inaugural year, the Filipino School of New York/New Jersey is a weekend program aimed at educating elementary school children in Filipino language, history and culture.  The curriculum fuses Tagalog vocabulary with Filipino history and varied activities to appeal to the young children.  And, many parents say, the youth program benefits them as well, as they find that the classes help them connect to their heritage.

A recent class at the school, held in an Asian American organization’s neighborhood center at 380 Monmouth St., Jersey City, New Jersey, centered on a Philippine island called Capiz.  After the five young students and their parents settled around a large table, the school director, Venessa Manzano explained the day’s curriculum.  The children would be writing to pen pals from Capiz, learning new vocabulary words, and doing an arts and crafts project, all of which related to the region.

Hipon,” Manzano said.

Hipon,” the parents and children repeated.

“Shrimp!”  One of the children excitedly yelled out the definition, already aware of the word’s meaning.

Manzano went through the vocabulary list, pausing to put words into context.  Hipon was on the list because the island is known for its seafood.  Capiz also indicates a shell that is found on the island and commonly used in Filipino decorating, examples of which Manzano passed around the table.  And simbahan (church) was on the list because the island is home to the oldest church in the country.  And after a brief history lesson, the children began to color pictures of hipon, capiz and other words off the list to create mobiles.

Manzano established the school after seeing a need in the Filipino community.

“I realized a lot of my friends were getting married and having kids,” Manzano said.  “And a lot of the parents were looking for Tagalog classes.”

Manzano, 33, is married and has a 2-year-old son.  She officially incorporated the school in 2008.  After extensive research and consultations, the first of several eight to 10 week sessions began in January 2011.  Manzano modeled her program after Iskwelahang Pilipino, the weekend school she attended as a child in Boston.

Manzano, who is American-born, remembered the Filipino school in Boston as allowing her to form relationships with other Filipino families and learn about aspects of Filipino culture such as the language, dances, arts and crafts, and food.  The multifaceted program was memorable to Manzano and she has tried to create a similarly engaging program for her own students.

The program Manzano shaped seeks to involve parents as well.  Families drive to Jersey City for the classes from different parts of the state to bring their children to the lesson.  The parents are mostly American-born and speak little to no Tagalog themselves.  Some said that  their own sense of  detachment from Filipino culture showed them the importance of such a program in their children’s lives.  They recognized that the program would allow them to reconnect with their culture.

Jerome and Grace You drive 45 minutes to bring their 4-year-old, Isabel, to the Filipino School each weekend.  Jerome, who is Korean-American, and Grace, whose parents are from the Philippines, grew up in the U.S. and felt it was important for their daughter to have the kind of cultural background they missed.

“It’s important to maintain identity and background,” Jerome said.  “It’s not the way it used to be when immigrants used to congregate together.”

Grace understands Tagalog, but does not speak it because her parents’ desire to assimilate outweighed their emphasis on culture.  But she does not share her parents’ views.

“She’s half Filipino, so it’s more important to get some kind of culture there,” Grace said of her daughter.  And the Yous said next on their list was finding a Korean language program for Isabel to learn the other half of her heritage.

Karen Barisonek, who brought her 4-year-old son, Thomas, was the only parent present that was born in the Philippines and immigrated at a very young age.  She characterized her upbringing as being in both a Filipino household and American society.  Though her parents spoke Tagalog to her and her siblings, they wanted their children to assimilate and speak unaccented English.

Though Barisonek understands Tagalog completely, she is still learning alongside her son at the Filipino School.  She did not begin to speak the language until after Thomas was born and says it is harder to do so than to understand.

“My husband is not Filipino, so I feel the responsibility to teach him our culture,” Barisonek said of speaking Filipino with her son.

And speaking the language and attending the Filipino School is the most significant way she can bring the culture to Thomas’ everyday life.

“Our ethnicity is getting diluted,” Barisonek said, since her siblings also married non-Filipinos and her parents don’t live nearby.

The idea that the Filipino School will help disseminate culture to their children and then on to future generations was echoed by Anthony Yabut.  He brought Patrick, 7, and Jackie, 4, to the program, which he felt was a good opportunity for them to learn.

“There’s not a lot of venues where you can do that formally, you know, outside of the family,” Yabut said.

The lack of Filipino educational venues was the need that Venessa Manzano was hoping to address.  Her immediate goals for the future include hiring staff and expanding into Queens and then Bergenfield, which has the second largest Filipino population in New Jersey.  At the moment, Manzano is happy to get the parents involved and to keep the school’s mission simple: it’s about the kids.

“By teaching our culture, it’s a legacy to give them,” Manzano said.

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