20 Years of Pistahan

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EDITOR’S NOTE:  The 20th Annual Pistahan Parade and Festival is set for Aug. 10-11, 2013 at the Yerba Buena Gardens located at Mission and 4th Streets. The event is the largest celebration of Filipino Americans in the U.S. and features the return of the popular Adobo Cook-off, Balut-Eating Contest, delectable Filipino cuisine and desserts, cultural exhibits, and world-class live performances on two stages. The two-day event organized by the Filipino American Arts Exposition is expected to draw over 70,000 people. It is FREE admission and fun for the entire family! But how did the festival start? Here’s a look at the festival’s 20 year history:



In 1992, on the heels of a successful Filipino American Humanities Council Conference, event organizers Oscar Penaranda, Filipino community activist, and Carlos Villa, instructor at the SF Arts Institute, were inspired to create an even bigger, more elaborate celebration of Filipino American culture. They dreamt of a month-long, larger than life festival with a parade, arts & crafts faire, film festival, and performances of the finest quality.

Different from the already successful Fiesta Filipina or the Philippine Consulate’s Independence Day celebrations in June, Oscar and Carlos envisioned an event that celebrated not just our Filipino heritage but Filipino American culture, showcased local talent – visual artists, film makers, playwrights and thespians – and included academic symposiums. August seemed appropriate as it commemorated several significant events in Filipino American history, including the anniversary of the fall of the International Hotel fifteen years prior. Serving as home to a predominantly Filipino population from the 1910s to the 1970s, the I-Hotel (as it was better known), was located in what once was Manilatown, a 10-block hub around Kearny Street that stretched from Columbus to California.

The duo knew they couldn’t do this alone. They recruited Luisa Penaranda, who had in the past organized parades for the Philippine Consulate, and Lenny Limjoco, a visual artist and graphic designer who was tasked with creating the festival’s identity. They then hired Luz de Leon as Executive Director to oversee the project, and enlisted the help of Jeff Jones to secure grants to fund their efforts. Thus, the Filipino American Arts Exposition (FAAE) was born, armed with the mission to promote Filipino art, music, film and dance. Next step was to identify just the right venue.

About the same time, a dilapidated 19-block area south of Market Street was undergoing a radical revitalization, spearheaded by the San Francisco Redevelopment Authority. Starting with the construction of Moscone Center in 1981, the Yerba Buena Project – a mixture of gardens, hotels, museums, shops and restaurants, would reach completion in October 1993.

One of the casualties of this redevelopment effort, however, was the displacement of many Filipino families living in the SoMa district. This included many of the former residents of the I-Hotel, manongs and manangs now in their 60s and 70s, who were now facing yet another relocation.

When the directors of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Baraka Sele and Renny Pritikin, were lining up their performing and visual arts programs for the opening of the newly-completed esplanade, they looked to the community for ideas. The efforts of FAAE were a perfect match. Carlos and Oscar’s dream were about to become a reality.

During Yerba Buena Center’s inaugural 1994 season, FAAE staged Pistahan. Held in the same neighborhood that still bears vestiges of the Filipino community’s long-standing presence, including streets named after Philippine national heroes like Mabini, Bonifacio, Lapu-Lapu, Rizal and Tandang Sora, Yerba Buena was the perfect backdrop for the occasion.

“San Francisco was the ideal place, because the city has been – and still is – the number one landing place for most Filipinos who come to the U.S.,” recalls Oscar. “The community welcomed [Pistahan] like rain after a drought. We had a full length play, a film/video festival, a symposium, and cultural heritage sub-events.”

The following year, Luz de Leon brought Mauro Tumbocon, Florence Mendoza and Bulletx Marasigan into the fold. In the beginning, FAAE’s scope was ambitious but diffused, with several programs running simultaneously year-round, culminating in Pistahan in August. Organized by a handful of over-worked volunteers, Pistahan, was a relatively modest event compared to the already-established Fiesta Filipina, but its smattering of colorful arts pavilions and the support of local talents like Danongan Kalanduyan, Likha Pilipino Folk Ensemble, and Barangay Dance Company presaged things to come.



In 1996, after growing through its awkward “adolescent” years, Pistahan garnered greater recognition and the attention of the mainstream press, securing prime coverage in both the SF Chronicle’s Datebook and the Examiner. No less than Mayor Willie Brown served as Grand Marshal of the parade, escorted by San Francisco’s Mounted Police, with Daly City Mayor Michael Guingona, a second-generation Filipino, as Hermano Mayor. I had the fortunate role of organizing the parade that year, and with the help of designer Anthony Cruz Legarda, we created floats that highlighted the Philippines’ multi-cultural heritage, from the Igorots of the north to the Muslims of the south.

By its 10th year, with Epee Rafanan as Parade & Festival Director, Pistahan had finally found its niche in the Bay Area’s tapestry of festivals, receiving the support of not just the arts community, but also heavy hitters from the corporate world like ABS-CBN, Wells Fargo Bank, Sony Metreon, and PG&E. As Dennis Normandy, Hermano Mayor from 2003, aptly put it, “Pistahan organizers and supporters have succeeded admirably in using entertainment to educate.”

A Health & Wellness Pavilion was added in 2007, featuring non-profit health care providers like Asian American Recovery Services (AARS), API Wellness, SOMA Health Center, OnLok Senior Health, Pilipino Senior Resource Center, Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA) and Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA) providing education and advice to festival attendees. That year, military hero General Antonio Taguba presided as Parade Grand Marshall, with my parents, Greg and Gigi Macabenta, serving as Hermano and Hermana Mayor.

In 2010, FAAE expanded its outreach efforts through social media, adding a blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed and YouTube channel, encouraging online engagement and contributions from the community before, during and after the event. For the first year, a marching band led the parade, and a Philippine Consul General served as Hermano Mayor.


Today, with SF Entertainment Commissioner Al Perez at the helm, Pistahan has become a staple of the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival Series, which takes place from May through October, taking its rightful place alongside other San Francisco cultural traditions like the Chinese New Year Parade, Carnaval, and Cinco de Mayo.

The list of Hermana & Hermano Mayors read like the Who’s Who of the Filipino American community: Rodel Rodis, Lynda & Dennis Normandy, Jacquie Lingad-Ricci, Rudy & Esther Asercion, Yolanda & Tom Stern, Sunny & Dan Dykwel, Marily Mondejar, Philippine Consul General Marciano Payner and his wife, Tessie Paynor, Sol Manaay, and Hydra Mendoza, the only Filipina elected official in San Francisco.

From a minor community celebration organized by a small tight-knit group, it has evolved into a massive two-day event featuring a 100+ contingent parade stretching one and a half miles, seven pavilions set over 5.5 acres, and two entertainment stages featuring world-class artists and performers like Cheryl Burke & Apl de Ap. Planning and implementation is now divided amongst 20 separate committees, and brought to life by over 350 volunteers.

Twenty years later, FAAE continues to create a festival that observes our Filipino traditions and celebrates our Filipino American culture. The two-day event boasts an audience of 60,000, with attendees, performers and sponsors flying in from all over the world. Events like the Adobo Cook-off, Balut-Eating Contest, Kulinarya and the Filipino American Jazz Festival, all created by volunteers, have all taken a life of their own.

This year, when you come out to Yerba Buena Gardens to enjoy the festivities, be sure to check out the magnificent Martin Luther King, Jr. Waterfalls and take a peek behind the water curtain. There, within the memorial dedicated to Dr. King, you’ll find one of his famous quotes translated in Tagalog, an acknowledgement of our community’s presence in San Francisco.



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