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Keepin' It Festive: Cultural Events Have Great Purpose

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festivals
The annual Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture in San Pedro is one of the many festivals where Asian American traditions develop and thrive. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

Cultural festivals are an integral part of the Southern California ethnic dynamic: A place and time where the cultural celebrants and the uninitiated alike have an opportunity to taste the same foods, hear the same music, watch the same dances, and share an appreciation of the featured culture.

In our Asian/Pacific Islander communities, these festivals perform several functions -- to create a common gathering space, display ethnic pride, sustain traditions, and provide a learning opportunity for those outside the culture. They're also an informal gauge of unity and accessibility. Most of these festivals celebrate tradition, religious observances, or national holidays. As a kid, I remember my parents taking me to Philippine Independence Day celebrations in L.A.'s MacArthur Park, a tradition that I probably took for granted back then, but now unfortunately no longer continues today. I've also spent many a pleasant California winter's day in Chinatown amidst the cacophony of firecrackers for Chinese New Year celebrations. And in recent years, I've joined nearly a hundred thousand others on Hollywood Boulevard each April for the Songkran Thai New Year festivities.

But as immigrant communities grow and develop over time, they create their own histories and traditions. The Japanese American community paved the way with their Nisei Week fêtes each August. And in the early 1970s, the City of Los Angeles initiated its mostly-annual Lotus Festival along the shore of Echo Park's lake (on hiatus this year due to park renovation), celebrating all things pan-Asian.

One such festival that celebrates the hyphenated-American experience is the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture ("FPAC" for short), which goes on this weekend at San Pedro's Pt. Fermin Park. Its early-mid September date follows no traditional Philippine holiday and has been celebrated for the past 21 years for the sole sake of showcasing and nurturing artistic talent in Southern California's Filipino American community. I've been an attendee and performer at the festival for most of its existence, and although it can sometimes become routine year after year, the impact of FPAC is bigger than anyone can notice from merely attending: As a high school student in the late '80s, gang activity was at an all-time high in the Filipino community, so much that the Filipino club at my school was cancelled due to gang tensions. So much that I avoided hanging out with other Filipinos due to "the gang thing." But the entertainment and artistic outlet that FPAC has provided over the years contributed to giving many Filipino youth a desire to focus on their expressive talents - whether through singing, playing, dancing, DJing, poetry, film, writing, or visual art -- and made the gang life less of an option for them.

Similar in intent yet different in emphasis is the L.A. Korean Festival, which will celebrate its 39th iteration in early October at Seoul International Park in Koreatown. Though there's a large entertainment stage for traditional music and dance acts and more contemporary rock and K-Pop performances, the emphasis is on food and commerce, with a linear food court area spanning much of the length of Irolo Street and a large vendor bazaar selling everything from homeopathic medicine to electronic goods that spans the majority of the park area. The Korean American business community in Los Angeles is a far more powerful presence than its residential representation, and reaches beyond Koreatown proper.

Surely in a place as culturally dynamic and diverse as Southern California would we see more of these festivals take place and new traditions begin and grow. Around here, our festivals are more than just mere events; whether intentional or not, they serve a much, much larger purpose.

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