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“My father was always very vocal, a simple man ready to stand for what was right”

18 Jun

(To celebrate Father’s Day, we are posting an interview with the ‘father’ of the Filipino community in Barcelona, Spain, Fr. Avelino Sapida. This interview was done and written by Ms. Carlyne ‘Bing’ Odicta-Kohner for her column From Your Life Coach, Bing  in the Filipino-American Community Newspaper Asian Journal)

What is inspiration to you? Perhaps the common answer is love. If you are in love, it feels like there is an engine in your body that keeps you going. It’s wonderful to be alive. All of your surroundings are colorful. We often see these emotions in lovers at the park holding hands and kissing each other. Some of us are inspired because of our passion for what we do.

This time our guest is also in love and passionate because of his faith in God. Please welcome Fr. Avel aka Fr. Avelino R. Sapido who was awarded for his dedication to the Filipino community by the city of Barcelona.

Fr. Avelino Sapida (leftmost) received and recognized by the House of Representatives and then by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III after receiving an award from the Barcelona City Government last year.

Congratulations on your award last December 18, 2010 by the city of Barcelona. What can you say about this “Premi Consell d’Immigracio” that was bestowed upon you?

It was a surprise because I’d been away from Barcelona for the last 10 years, I arrived in 2009 to assume the Parish and conclude my services. Friends here told me that they chose me to be the candidate for the Immigration section. I had to write about my life in the Philippines, what I was doing in Manila, when I came to Europe and to what did I dedicate my life? The deadline was November 30, 2010. Then they translated it into Spanish and it was signed and submitted by the Sisters from Centro Filipino.

What was the impact of this award on you? What are the benefits of this recognition to your work?

I say thank you because my work was recognized from 1986 until now. I remember I fought for the rights of the migrants to stay and to work especially from 1986 to 1991. The law was hard back then and there were plenty of deportations because a lot of our Filipinos did not have work and residence permits.

It was a very welcome award and it was an award to the migrants. It indicates that it’s worth standing up and fighting for our rights. I know that our Kababayan are not here to commit crimes. They are here with a pure intention to work. On matters of law and order here, Filipinos are not involved in those crimes. Filipinos are industrious and they are motivated, they even work beyond their assigned hours because they value the good relationship with their employers. They are loved by the Señoras because of that.

It’s high time for this award from the Spanish government and Spanish Church. I think WE deserve this award. I took it not as a personal award but a communal award for all the Filipinos living and working here.

“There is a call for integration of speaking Spanish and Catalan but the reality at the professional level is that the Spanish citizens are the ones who get the jobs…Filipinos are confined to service jobs. The law should facilitate a diversity of jobs…In the future, I hope our children can be fully integrated in the society. Filipinos that are here should dream big!”

What do you mean by Communal Award?

It was given to me due to my work with the community. My objective was to lift up the Filipinos in the eyes of Spanish society. Even though most of their work is domestic it is still dignified work. They are human beings and they deserve respect. It was also the recognition of our religiosity. In fact this is the 2nd award.

The first award was given in 1998 when we got the Personal Parish in the whole of Europe. The Filipino Christians have shown to the Spanish Society how religious we are and how we practice our religion. It becomes an attraction for them on how practical the Filipinos are. You’ll notice that we give life to the liturgy of the Spanish and our community is very Filipino. A Personal Parish according to the Canon law is composed of a different language, culture, and life in your faith. That means a Parish given to the persons who are Filipinos. It was recognition of our culture and language. We are given the freedom to express our faith and our own way of doing it as if we are in the Philippines. It was an award that made Filipinos proud and the whole of Europe. They praise us all here.

Also, I stood for the migrants and stood for our Philippine government to give us a full pledged consulate. For example, to renew your passport before, you had to go to Madrid. It’s about 2 to 3 hours by train. It affected our people economically. We thought there was a need, so recently we got the Philippine Consulate in Barcelona.

What made the Ajuntament choose the Filipinos instead of the other migrant nationalities in Barcelona?

In 1988, we unified our Filipinos. We have the Church and it gave them all the opportunities to practice their faith. It helps them to go there regularly and talk about their problems. If they need assistance in their documents, we have the Center that will implement their medical, social and juridical needs. We have built our community spirit; the Filipinos live in the center of the city, in Ramblas. Our Church itself is in the very center of Barcelona. We all have our family spirit and we are free to interpret our life in the liturgy. It is a meaningful expression of our problems and successes in life as a community of God.

You have mentioned the Centro Filipino, who founded it and what are the programs you offer to the community?

When I came in 1986, I came from Rome as I was the Chaplain in Rome. Bishop Perez assigned me to Barcelona. I was sent here not knowing anybody. I started going to Ramblas looking for the Filipino faces. I talked to them and approached them to invite me in their house just to get ideas about their life. I was already looking for some possibilities to get a church so we could have a mass. Luckily, the Barcelona Archdiocese gave us the Santa Monica church. It was inaugurated in June 1986. Some 300 people came and we filled up the church.

I realized that I would need help. I contacted my contacts in Rome especially the Benedict Superiors of Sisters (The Scholasticans) to come to Barcelona. They told me that they have a church in Madrid but it will be closed. So I invited them to open it in Barcelona. Together we established the center. By October 1986, the center was open to accompany the migrants. We thought we should offer programs as the need arises.

The Church offers masses and the center gives news from the Philippines and news about the laws in Barcelona. We have learned that they need papers so we have contacted people who could help them. Some courses were offered on how to help the people effectively. So I participated in the Assesorial course offered free by the Trade Unions. We took all the advantages and learned the language so we can represent them. We are also learning with them as we help them.

We have an Orientation program for the newly arrived. We have a program of Idioma (Spanish Language Classes). When the children, wives and husbands came, we found out that they will be loosing connection to their roots, so we establish Iskwelang Pinoy to teach them Filipiniana, history and English. Later, when many were jobless, we found out that the Red Cross gave donation twice a year.

Basic Spanish classes taught by Filipino and Spanish professors

Kids from Iskwelang Pinoy participate in one local event.

Did you and the Sisters organize any associations?

We saw that without organizations, we couldn’t do anything and we can’t bargain. We needed to pressure the government so that’s how the associations were born. We have organizations for women, migrants, etc. encouraging them to make it legal so they can represent their sector and share solidarity with other immigrants.

We were the pioneers of so many federations, organizations and councils of migrants in Barcelona. We had to put each of our struggles together so they could become forceful. We encourage them to have a cause underneath the organization. Now, we have the Federation for Filipinos, a civic association like KALIPI. It started when we were organizing the 100 years of Philippine Independence day celebration. KALIPI – Kapulungan ng mga Lider Pinoy sa Barcelona. KALIPI has 14 different associations such as AMISTAD – Ang Migranteng Iisa Sa Tinig Adhikain at Diwa, AFICAT – Asosacion Filipino Catalan, BAFSCOM – Barcelona All Filipino Sports Commision, Centro Filipino, Emprededores, MFYA – Migrants Filipino Youth Association, The Great Commision Ministry, Jesus is Lord Church, Episcopal Charismatic Church,

The Salvation Army, Word International Ministry, Parroquia Personal Comunidad Filipina, The Guardians, United Rinconadians Association in Barcelona.

Who influenced you to become a priest and who most inspired you when you were young?

Rizal and Bonifacio inspired me. In the Philippines, I always worked with the forgotten sectors like the farmers. I used my priesthood as a moral authority. To me that’s what makes the church relevant.

How did you become a priest?

My youngest brother had a Priest-Godfather. He came one day to our house and asked my mother. “Who will you give me to become a priest?” My mother replied, “Of course, your Godson.” But Father insisted: ”He is so small; do you have someone who is bigger?” And my mother pointed me.

We had a Band and my parents were Cantoras. After my first year, they sent me to the Seminary. In there, I realized the objective of a priest. I began to like one of the missions of the church, helping the poor. At that time, Cavite was poor and it’s the place where you throw dead people. I had a dream as a priest that I will do something about the situation.

What was it like being a priest in Cavite?

I was a very effective priest in Cavite. I was helping the people to let them know our rights as Filipinos. The Capitalists were taking our lands and so on. I was on that side to protect the people. In 1960’s the church was ready to listen to the world’s voice. During those times, the leaders forgot our people. That also added my sympathy for our Filipinos so I joined the rallies. I realize now that it was the birth of my priesthood!

You have mentioned justice and fairness. Are those a few of your values in life?

Yes, my father was a just man. Cavite at that time had many gangs, carabao thieves and so on. My father was always very vocal. He was a carpenter, a simple man who was ready to stand for what was right. I think I got that from my father. Some people liked him and some people did not. Plus I know now the role of religion and the transformation in changing societies. I learned these principles, from my family and from the situation that I was in. I will fight for justice and fairness no matter what as long as I live my values.

“I used my priesthood as a moral authority. To me that’s what makes the church relevant.” Fr. Avel giving a mass at the Filipino Personal Parish in Barcelona, Spain

What is Leadership to you?

I am trying to be a good leader but I have not perfected it yet. I believe in the Shepherd kind of leadership as Jesus Christ practiced. For me it is serving. In this stewardship, people are entrusted to your hand for your care and for your Christian authority. I am a Shepherd who is always leading my sheep so they can eat and drink water. At the same time a Pastor should be on guard. The priority of the leader is to live and lead better. God came not just to live but also to have a fuller and more vibrant life.

“I will fight for justice and fairness no matter what as long as I live my values…Even if I do the best work that I can do, I know I have limitations. And if I come to my limits, I know God will supply.”

What can you say about our Parishioners here in Barcelona? What are your thoughts about our people in the Philippines, our people in Europe, and our people in the US?

Filipinos are the same wherever they are. They always look for the Church. They believe that it’s by the grace of the Lord that they are outside the Philippines whether they are in New York, Los Angeles or Barcelona. Prior to leaving the Philippines, they understand that it costs a lot so it’s very natural for them to look for a place to pray. They come especially to the Catholic Church but also to other churches where they can express their inner reflections and spirits. Filipinos are very spiritual.

In the Philippines, the Church is relevant as long as it reaches our experience in life. If the Church doesn’t touch our experience, it becomes a ritual. We are obligated to do it but we don’t need to follow it. People will pray out of obligation but not out of devotion. At home, you are supported by the ambiance and the culture.

Abroad, there is much danger in maintaining our faith because of living in the surroundings that are not that religious. The atmosphere can be materialistic or individualistic depending upon whatever tendencies the specific society may have. Filipinos want to go back home during Pasko o Mahal na Araw because of the intensity of our religious events. If we are able to create the Filipino life abroad we can save our values, language, culture and love for Filipino traditions. In this kind of atmosphere our faith can be rooted again.

Catholic membership is declining, especially in European Churches. What are the possible factors that are causing a rejection of our religion?

Religion will lose its relevance if it’s only identified with those who are powerful. We need the Church as an example of Jesus. Most of the churches here in Europe are not in tune with the poorer sector. In history, the Church was for the upper level of the society. My reflection here in Spain is that people are not interested in religion because during Franco’s time the Church had all of the privileges. When the dictatorship was terminated, people said, “We are free; we don’t need to go to Church.” The people lost trust in the Church.

You would notice the difference between one priest who has experienced living and working in a Third World country and one who has no experience in the Developing World. The ones who have are understanding, more compassionate and more pro-people in their approach. These priests who are experiencing life in other developing countries are bringing back the spirit. The migrants also have so much to share in changing the character of the Church.

Yesterday we priests had a meeting on what to do with the Sagrada Familia Church. Only the tourists visit and see this place. The Church did not know what to do in order for people to regularly visit the place. One priest joked, “We will just give it to Filipinos because in a minute that church would be full of people.” It’s a joke but there is truth in it.

I think the Church has to suffer so it can go back to the original Church that was a home for the powerless, and persecuted. We need to realize that we are not here to only serve the powerful.

We all know about the sex scandals that are on going in our Catholic community especially in Europe and in the USA. What is your stand on this controversial issue?

I find it very theological in the sense that the Church has probably forgotten a lot of things. Thus, the Church needs to humble itself to the level of ordinariness so it will be the Church of the people. These humiliating events can help to humble the Church to reflect on its role. I am not discouraged and I am not angry for I look at the situation with much hope. It might be long years of trials but in the future we will come out as a stronger Church in our mission. We have to be a wounded savior not a triumphant savior.

What about the priests that molested the children?

It may be the dark side of the history of the Church. We are expected to be the savior of the innocent but the leadership of the Church is questioned. We have to accept that we are also human beings. These witnesses that quest for truth are purifying the Church. The Church needs to experience this humiliation for everyone has sinned. In the history of Israel, when God purified his town, it was an embarrassment for they were occupied and were made the followers. All the things that they kept were lost. However the messages of scriptures were saying that God was preparing them for something great in the days to come. History has now repeated itself. That is the way of God. It’s a reminder for people. This is the communal history of our Church so something good can come out of this. Crisis means you can go down without hope or you can hope for something better.

The church is in crisis but it can turn into good. I am optimistic!

Barcelona Vice Mayor Ignasi Cardelús i Fontdevilla, Fr. Avelino Sapida and Pastor Diosdado Sabado during the recent celebration of Philippine Independence Day in Barcelona.

Spain is also one of the countries that were hit hard by the economic downturn. What effect has this had on our people?  If so, how do you convert their hopelessness into positive action?

In general, they seem to blame the migrants for the crisis. We have to remind them that the poor people did not start it. It was the rich people from America, the bankers, and the speculators. Along the way there are a lot of people who are affected. For example, the employers who have plenty of workers fired some workers. Their salaries were deducted. The workers’ starting salary is very low and they added a labor law so that the employer could easily fire them. Before this new law was enacted, companies had to pay 45 days severance pay when they let you go and now they are obligated to pay for only 20 days. They have risen the retirement age of 2 years to increase payments to Social Security. It used to be 65 years old and now it’s 67 years old. Also, there are many people who are unemployed.

For workers, we have to make our organization stronger. We are constantly looking for Trade Unions to defend our rights. We have to know what is given by the law to defend ourselves in this time. Sometimes companies take advantage of the crisis to fire or lower people’s wages. These things are abusive already. We are encouraging our workers in the restaurants to come and join the Trade Unions so they can defend their rights. In our organizations, we invited Spanish leaders who can explain the law to us. We are also watchful for other Filipinos who are taking advantage of immigrants. They say that they will take care of the husband or family if they come to Spain but they scammed them instead. So we are vigilant against the abusers on both sides. We make people aware of all of these things.

In church, we tell them of the value of dignity of work, nobility of man, the rights and the teaching of the Church. We believe in justice, equality of opportunities, and business that is not only guided by profits but also by Christian principles.

“Yesterday we priests had a meeting on what to do with the Sagrada Familia Church. Only the tourists visit and see this place. One priest joked, “We will just give it to Filipinos because in a minute that church would be full of people.”

As a Life Coach, I am actually interested in your work/life balance. How do your values help you balance what is important to you?

I know my work is not my work. Yes, I am a Priest and I am taking care of this community. However, this community is not mine. I am the Steward and a Caretaker. I will try to serve the community according to the way the community likes me to serve them but not according to how I like to serve them. I am nothing without the community. Even if I do the best work that I can do, I know I have limitations. And if I come to my limits, I know God will supply. I have faith. No matter how good your intentions are there are always mistakes or problems that you will encounter. It could be mistakes from me, from others, accidents, etc. but I let it be as long as I know I am doing the best I can. I may be wounded but I take the wounds as part of the process. I dedicate my life and balance it with my health and capacity. Sometimes my brain is stronger than my tuhod.

What makes you happy? How do you relax?

I walk a lot and I sometimes go out to Montjuic, I drive to different places. We go with my Co-Workers Group. We go out and evaluate things that are happening and plan for the days and months to come.

Tell me your thoughts on the uses of technology?

We are better related in communication through the Internet such as in finding agencies and other groups. There is a growing realization in Europe that we need to come together and talk. Milan and Rome, Barcelona and Madrid, Amsterdam, Athens, and London. We’ve had several meetings and we communicated through computer technology. This year we have plans to host an important meeting for leaders from Greece, Amsterdam and London to talk about future plans.

You have mentioned politics, what’s your take on our very own new president Noynoy Aquino?

Noynoy gave hope after Gloria Macapagal. More investments are coming in now. It’s a reminder that it’s rooting out corruption. I hope he can avoid the influence of wrong people because some political leaders might get ambitious and will take advantage of his administration. He should be conscious that Filipinos are hopeful and he should take advantage of that. It’s his time to slim our politics. Politics has become a business. Politics is everywhere: at church, in communities, and the work place. Hopefully he can provide a good kind of politics!

“We can dream and plan so that the immigrants are not the gatasan (milking cows) by the ones who are in the Philippines but through our contribution that create systematic sustainable development.”

What questions did I not ask you that you wished I had asked?

1. What’s next?

Filipinos are confined to service jobs. We are not given other jobs. The law should facilitate a diversity of jobs. I am interested in the future so that we can integrate the Filipinos into different places in Barcelona. How I wish some Filipinos could get into the political world so they could inject some human touch to the law and its administration. We are starting that in the Church. I am now going to Poble Sec to develop this integration. I combined the Catalan Mass and Spanish Mass to facilitate our integration. Some of our Filipinos teach Spanish Catechism as well. Later, I will ask the Government to teach our children in Tagalog because almost of them are Filipinos.

I wish that our Filipinos here could dream dreams for our people. Aside from their jobs abroad, how about helping the Filipinos stay in the country by helping the immigrants? They have already skills such as cooking, etc. I know some entrepreneurs that went home with their skill set. Or the money that we have here, we could invest in business in the Philippines so it would create jobs there. Whatever development you can do, farmers for example, can establish a cooperative there.

Filipinos that are here should focus on how they can be stable here. And Filipinos at home should help and do something in the Philippines. We can dream and plan so that the immigrants are not the gatasan by the ones who are in the Philippines but through our contribution that create systematic sustainable development.

In our center we have a plan, we can create certain funds through the Filipinos who return home. I have a lot in Cavite that I want to donate to implement this livelihood project. This is an ongoing project.

2. What’s my dream?

Our Filipinos should really be citizens of Spain and no longer seen as immigrants. In the US, there is equality of job privileges that are given to both the immigrants and natives. Yes, Rizal and others had already migrated here. Somehow there is still inequality. There is a call for integration of speaking Spanish and Catalan but the reality at the professional level is that the Spanish citizens are the ones who get the jobs. The rests are treated as 2nd class citizens. In the future, I hope our children can be fully integrated in the society. Filipinos that are here should dream big!

Finally, how do you define happiness?

When your aspiration becomes reality, your dreams are fulfilled. That is my happiness!

So did Fr. Avel inspire you? What action will you take today to do something for our Filipino community?

The writer with Fr. Avelino Sapida

Carlyne ‘Bing’ Kohner is a Life Coach. She was trained at the prestigious Coaches Training Institute in the USA. She is a member of International Coach Federation (ICF.) Bing is a certified trainer for True Colors and a regular columnist for the Asian Journal in Los Angeles, California. She is a also a member of the Sitges International Holistic Networking group, Co-Meetings, and Barcelona Women’s Network (BWN) in Spain. She and her husband, Eric co-owns Limitbusters Coaching & Training, Inc. (LCT). LCT has other affiliates in Asia, Europe, and the USA.


A Rich Voice, A Soul of a Millionaire

28 Apr

(Ed. Note: We are republishing Mr. Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna’s interview with New York-based Filipino Tenor Bernie Milan who is coming to Barcelona, Spain this May to serenade us with Filipino folk songs and OPM classics.)

New York-based Filipino tenor, Bernie Milan

What is it in opera that New York-based Ilonggo, Bernie Milan, doesn’t mind spending  his free time  memorizing long lines and hard-to-pronounce songs or enduring late night rehearsals, and yet doesn’t earn much from it?

The 34-year old  Filipino opera singer had this simple answer; “Opera is the only performing art where the question is not “Does he look the part?” but rather, “Can he sing the part?”

I knew Bernie way back in high school. The last  time I saw him was more than fifteen years ago. We finally met again when he came to visit Barcelona for a well-deserved vacation last month. Catching up over a glass of  cava and  people-watching by the Las  Ramblas, I later learned that aside from having a stable day job, he also  performs as an opera singer in The Big Apple. I sipped my cava and listened admiringly  to  his story.  During the course of our conversation, he was more animated and  bubblier.  Albeit still sober,  it was deemed necessary for a second  bottle  of  yet another sparkling cava. As they say in ‘Pinas, “Mahaba-habang inuman ‘to.”

A native of Bacolod,  the ever affable and  effervescent Bernard or Bernie to his friends was already singing when he was just a kid.  He was an active musical performer in school which earned  him numerous accolades and awards from several singing competitions.  So it did not come as a surprise that even if he is now working as an Online Manager for People en  Español Magazine in New York, he still finds time donning medieval costumes and belting arias, be it in German or Italian or in whatever language it may be.

“Opera, to me, is the highest form of any of the performing arts. It requires singers with truly exceptional talent and years of formal training. It takes the human voice to the absolute limits of what it is capable of doing. Imagine a venue that the only thing that mattered was talent.”

Bernie Milan playing Tamino in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s  Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) May 16, 2010. New York City

Hell Week

Bernie joined the community opera company Amore Opera in the 1999-2000 season and since then, he has been a main fixture in every show the company has mounted. With the kind of work that he does during the day, stressful and all, one may wonder how can he still find time to perform onstage.

“During the day I head up online sales for People En Español Magazine and I try to find time to study after work.  I am in the middle of “Hell Week” – the week before a production opens (We are opening Mozart’s The Magic Flute this weekend) and things in the office are getting really busy as well.    I guess the secret is developing a way to silo your different “lives””.

“I must say that when I am in the office, my focus is solely on my work.  The moment I leave the office, I put on a different hat and entertain my artistic side.  Music is a very powerful force.  As soon as I turn on my iPod on the subway to rehearsals, I become the character and my mindset is on that opera.”

“It also helps to find friends that are in a similar situation as you are.  I have a tight knit of friends who work during the day and sing opera at night.  The challenges are immense but when you get a standing ovation, or when someone approaches you after a show and tells you that they were moved by your performance – all that sacrifice, blood sweat and (many, many) tears are worth it.”

 This time, Bernie plays Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly while the Caucasian singers play the Asian roles

“Being a Pinoy is an advantage”

He considers himself lucky that he is  an operatic lyrico-spinto tenor, a rather rare high male voice-type. Gifted with such voice, he gets cast a lot. He sings the repertoire of singers like Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

“Actually, problems regarding my  being  Asian  has never come up.  Again, it’s about the talent.  The ability to perform certain roles and sing them well.  You can be short, fat, green, crooked, tall etc. – as long as you can sing the role. Of course all things being equal, the director will cast believable singers in the role. I once played Pinkerton, the main American character in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  Looking at the cast, I was the only non-white (Asian at that)  playing a Caucasian American.  All the Japanese characters, including Butterfly, were Americans (Caucasians, African-Americans, etc.)  It was quite weird at first but the music won the audience over and the show was well received!”

Right now, he is the only Pinoy in the group. Though, according to him, people no longer get surprised to see a Pinoy in any production. Thanks to Lea Salonga, Black Eyed Peas, Charice, to name a few.

“And this is a wonderful thing!”  He gamely exclaimed.  “Being a Pinoy is an advantage. I actually believe in the Pinoy touch.  Pinoys have music and performing arts in their blood. We have the flair for drama.  All throughout my days in La Salle, it was encouraged for everyone to take part in school plays, musicals and variety shows.  I mean even at karaoke here in NYC, people expect you be good if you are Pinoy!

On discipline and Maria Callas

Before a performance, Bernie strictly follows a self-imposed regimen, sleep and eat well. He gets to the theatre really early, get into costume and find a quiet corner to focus and visualize my performance.  He tries not to get caught up in the backstage frenzy with all the other performers. Having played a numerous array of Operatic characters, his most favourite character to date  is “Mario Cavaradossi” from Puccini’s Tosca.

Among the opera singers, he looks up to the two greatest opera singers in the world.

“One is Maria Callas.  This soprano defied the norms of opera and emerged as a superstar in her day.  Her vocal discipline and the drama that she brought to all her roles (not just beautiful singing) made her stand out from the rest.  She is a master of telling a story through her singing. The other one is the tenor Placido Domingo.  His range and characterization always win me over.  True, there are prettier voices out there, but Domingo brings such a depth to his performances that you actually believe in every note and every nuance. I guess I am drawn to opera singers who understand that voice is just the beginning, the vehicle to tell the story.”

Bernie playing Tamino

Does he think that Pinoys are ready to appreciate  opera?

“I believe that Pinoys need more exposure to opera.  We do not have a vibrant opera company in the Philippines so there are no local artists to idolize and look up to. Also, there are no conservatories and very limited educational tools for our students to appreciate and learn how to sing opera. That said, I am confident that with the advent of YouTube, Facebook and the Internet in general, our Pinoy youth can have access to musical performances outside the Top 40 Pop hits.”

“Opera has the reputation of being appreciated by a limited  number of followers. Such  reputation I’m afraid.  Because of the sheer scale and grandeur of the medium, productions get really expensive to mount and that cost translates into higher ticket prices. Another barrier for it to be accessible is the language.  German, Italian and French are the three main languages of more than 70% of the works that are out there.  Chances are foreign-language work (for Americans, at least) are deemed as for the elite and rich.”

“Because of this stigma, the Metropolitan Opera has started a “Live in HD” program where certain performances are broadcast live in HD at movie theatres across Northern America, Europe and Japan.  The goal is to make opera accessible to everyone from all walks of life and I honestly think it is helping break the stigma.  I hear they are increasing the number of broadcast performances and theatres in the upcoming season.”

“How wonderful would it be to wake up and just sing for a living”

Being with the opera group, Bernie had  the chance  not only  to do what he loves most but also to  meet amazing people on and off stage. Every performance is always a bottomless pit of fun and good memories. And that includes anecdotes and bloopers as well. One of the most unforgettable happened a couple of years ago.

“I was singing the title role of Gounod’s Faust.  We were multicast and all of the other Faust’s were…let’s say rotund. So when it was my turn to play the role, the costume was pinned to fit me. Let’s just say I had to finish the love aria “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” with my lederhosen halfway down my knees.  I didn’t flinch – the show MUST go on!”

With all  the exposures that he gets from every performance, Bernie has actually considered taking opera on a professional level, making it as his bread and butter, so to speak. 

“Of course.  How wonderful would it be to wake up and just sing for a living. I’m getting there I think.  I have many people approaching me about auditions and artist representation and that feels good.  My day job allows me to live a certain lifestyle and it would be a hard adjustment to go the “starving artist” route at my (young) age – I am still hopeful though.  One must never give up on their dreams.”

Bernie in Puccini’s Tosca. Act II (as Mario Cavaradossi)

Does he have some advice to his fellow kababayans who are  interested in operas and want to be opera singers too?

“I would simply say give opera a chance. Listen to an aria or two.  Read about it.  Go on YouTube and watch clips from famous operas.  All the best love stories and musicals today are based on opera:  Rent was based from La Boheme; Moulin Rouge from La Traviata, Miss Saigon from Madama Butterfly. As for budding opera singers, listen to as much opera as you can. Study not only the technique and music but also embrace the story, the drama behind every note. And continue to sing – there are no boundaries or limitations!”

It was time to leave and to catch the Opera Flamenco concert Bernie was excited to watch as part of his Catalan experience. I sipped the last drop of cava from my glass before I decided to launch my last question that I was dying to ask him since the first time I heard  that he was into opera.  If we invited him to sing for the Filipino community in Barcelona or Madrid in the near future, would he sing for us?

“But of course, just say when!”

With this, I got my answer. As we walked down to the Teatro Poliorama  squeezing ourselves  through the crowded Las Ramblas, Bernie, as if  giving  Barcelona a glimpse of what to expect,  released  his own aria  from his  favourite  “Che Gelida Manina” of La Boheme:

“Per sogni e per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
l’anima ho milionaria.”

“When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.”

Echoing the message of the aria, Bernie said it best as we finally reached  the theatre.

“I am just  trying to live my life – full of dreams and not afraid of possibilities.” Photos contributed by Mr. Bernie Milan; Text: Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna

Truly a man of his word,  Bernie is definitely coming to Barcelona to give a concert on May 14, Saturday, 9 p.m. at Iglesia de San Agustin, Calle Hospital, Barcelona, Spain.

Tickets for only 5 euros each. Proceeds from this concert will be used to finance the publication of the free magazine for Filipino migrants in Spain, Ang Bagong Filipino, this blog and other activities of Asociación Filipina de Escritores e Investigadores en España.



She Who Shot An Arrow Into The Stars

23 Apr

(Ed. Note: Entrevista con Nata. In this section, our correspondent Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna shares with us his creamy and delectable stories, 100 % inspiring yet zero in fat.)

Bumping into a good book can be dismissed as coincidental. But finding a book that is not only engaging, but also inspiring and at the same time refreshing,  I call it serendipity. A few months ago, while visiting a friend, I chanced upon a wonderful book, I Shot an Arrow into the Star. It is a collection of poems written by Filipina poet, Eva Tabaosares Kohr.

Reading it from cover to cover gave me this strong desire to know more about the author. Contacting her turned out easy as the award-winning poet happened to be my friend’s classmate in high school.

Why poems? 

“Why not?  Poetry is the crowning glory of literature. It is a refreshing alternative to mundane prose. Poetry is the language of the soul.  It is a magical world wherein a poet interacts with the gods who not only inspire but delight. My muses give voice to my thoughts in iambic refrains that float like a distant melody.”

A self-confessed “accidental poet”, Eva Kohr was born in Tubungan, Iloilo, Philippines. She majored in Accountancy and graduated cum laude at the University of San Agustin, Iloilo.

Did you dream to be a poet?

“I’ve never dreamed of becoming a poet. When I wrote my first poem as a contest entry and won an award, it paved the way to nurture my talent into a life of poetic achievement.”

Her foray into poetry did not come until 2003 when she attended poetry conventions and symposiums and poetry readings at the invitation of the International Society of Poets. There, she learned from the Masters the tricks of the trade, different techniques, forms and styles of poetry writing. Her first poem “Just Ride the Waves” received the Editor’s Choice award from the International Library of Poetry that same year.

Can you still remember the feeling the first time you wrote a poem?

“What a great feeling it was when I found just the right words and the right rhythm for my first poem. I would describe it as my “eureka” moment.”

Who was the first person that you showed your first poem to?

“I showed my first poem to my husband who was also my staunch critic.”

A year later, she released her first book, Echoes From The Heart  which was  a critical success. Her other poem, New Orleans Was A Wet Canvass was the second prize winner in the International Open poetry competition sponsored by and was awarded a silver medal and the Editor’s Choice award in June 2007.

Who influenced you to write poems?

“I am a great admirer of poet Elma D. Photikarm (also a Filipina). Her writing style and strong sense of language can be an inspiration to all aspiring poets. Worthy of mention, I’d like to add my English teachers in high school, my alma mater, Iloilo City High School, Philippines. They helped shape my destiny by cultivating in me the love for the art of poetry.”

Has your childhood got something to do with your poems?

“As an apt pupil in the school of hard knocks and a keen observer of my surroundings, those childhood memories, bitter and sweet, formed the colors in the artist’s palette, a poet’s tool to paint with words.”

From then on, poetry has become a passion to this prolific poet. Her works have been published in several anthologies both in the U.S. and in Europe. She is a member of the Academy of American Poets in New York and of the International Society of Poets. She is also an established member of the Poems of the World, a quarterly publication for worldwide poetry sharing.

As a poet, how do you describe yourself?

“I am but a dull mystery

The why and the who

A tiny spark in the vast universe

A conduit of energy

Perchance to entertain

To share and to instruct

While I’m passing through”

How do you describe your poetry?

“I would love to think that my poems “breathed” and draw the reader to the scene with my vivid imagery. My verses reveal and conceal emotions to tease the senses. Like an autumn breeze nipping at leaves of trees in late summer. “

What is your most favorite poem?

“Crossing The Bar  by Alfred Tennyson”

Do you like rhyme?

“Poetry can be written in any form or style as long as the three elements are present: rhythm, metaphor and imagery.  I prefer  rhyming poems because they have music.”

How often do you write?

“It all depends on the poet´s mood.  If my muses are awake, the words just flow.”

Does it take a while  to finish a poem? Where do you get your inspiration when you write them?

“Poetry is an art form in which a poet paints a masterpiece using colorful words with a brushstroke of imagination. So one cannot rush art. The inspiration for my poetry comes from different events in my life. It could be a celebration of life, death of a friend, watching a bird drinking from a fountain  or simply listening to the music of the falling rain.”

Have you written poems in Ilonggo or in Tagalog?

“No, I haven’t. Maybe I should try to write one in Ilonggo. But to write a poem in Tagalog poses a great challenge for me because of my limited vocabulary.”

What inspired you to write the poems in your book, I Shot An Arrow Into The Star?

“When I decided to write my second book of poetry, I already selected for my title, I Shot An Arrow Into The Star. I thought it is an eyecatcher and has a magical sound to it. I was determined that this book was going to be my best one yet.  I studied the work of my favorite poets and developed my own style. Some of the poems in this book have already appeared in poetry publications and I also wrote new ones.

This book was divided into six parts and each section has its own personality, such a way that they flow from the prologue to the epilogue. When it received an award, it was like the stamp of approval by my peers and being inducted to the literary hall of fame. What a humbling experience.”

Do you have a particular favorite poem from your books?

“Yes, I do. It’s The Rose  from my first book, Echoes From The Heart.”

Are you currently working on anything?

“Besides writing poems, for the quarterly publication, Poems of the World, I start painting again. I’m not working on a particular project right now but still collecting ideas.  I’m like that old woman with a basket in the woods, collecting a leaf, a feather, an odd-shaped stick and a pebble at the edge of the stream. She doesn’t know what to make of it but at the back of her mind, she envisions a form, a shape.”

Who is (are) your favorite poet (s)?

“Among my favorites are the poets of old such as Percy Shelly, Wendell Holmes, William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson, Longfellow and Emerson. And for modern American poets, I love Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur.”

What are your other interests?

“I am also an artist whose favorite medium is watercolor.  I also taught myself how to play the piano. I love reading history and biography. On the domestic side, I enjoy gardening, cake decorating, baking cookies and sewing.”


An accountant by profession and an entrepreneur, she is also an award-winning artist whose paintings, often described as evocative of Beatrix Potter,  received numerous awards in juried exhibits. Besides poetry and painting, she currently works full time running her own business, Kohr Soft Ice Cream/Pine Cone wholesale and retail cream.

What is your personal philosophy?

“If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. As we journey through life, we hit bumps and curves along the way. We easily get discouraged by rejections and defeats.  Instead, turn failures into opportunities to do a better job next time and take one step higher as we climb the ladder of success.  After all, the world is a stage where men are actors in a real-like drama of trials and errors.”

What is your favorite word?

“Perseverance. It’s like an inner voice cheering me on when the going is tough.  If I stumble and fall, I just get up and go. If I hit rock bottom, I don’t settle there but learn to tread and float. Only those who preserve to the end will succeed.”

Some people can play good ball. Others can be expert on politics. While several are good at money.   Then there are the poets…

“Yes, it’s true that there’s no money in poetry.  But there’s no poetry in money either. But then, one cannot place a tangible currency on a product that is of the spirit. As a poet, I write because I  must.  To share, to instruct and to entertain. And oh, what an undescribable feeling if only a reader sets his spirit free on the wings of poetry. “

…And one of them is Eva Kohr.

Filipina poet Eva Kohr

Bawal bang mahalin ka?

7 Apr

Pinoys just like any other may engage in love types which may challenge sanctified societal conventions. The distance from the nuclear family and the ‘openness’ of the host country foment an opportune climate for experimenting a new way of expressing love. Some of them are embroiled in forbidden love, some engage in same-sex affairs and others in interracial relationships. There are those whose way of coping with love is to demur and defer it opting for single-blessedness. Some of these are well-taken while some others view them with supercilious contempt.

The Pinoy lover, just like nature, abhors vacuum. There’s got to be love one way or another. And they cope with it either by approach-approach whether acceptable or not or they may try the avoid-avoid. After all, love still makes the world go round. The Pinoys abroad are no exception. The emotion of love draws out the genius in every Pinoy. They love all they will and they love all they can.

Pabalat ng ika-7 isyu ng Ang Bagong Filipino. Upang makakuha ng kopya, i-click lamang ang link na ito: Ang Bagong Filipino numero 7

Wow Titser!

30 Mar

(Ed. Note: Entrevista con Nata. In this section, our correspondent Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna shares with us his creamy and delectable stories, 100 % inspiring yet zero in fat.)

“Ms. Delos Reyes, when are you getting married? You might turn into an endangered specie.”

Resisting not to laugh, Wowie  gave the curious owner of this question a wide smile.    After all, being a teacher of young innocent and imaginative minds, questions like this can always turn up unannounced. And she always comes prepared.

Wowie or Rowena Isabel Delos Reyes, who hails from Puerto Princesa City, Palawan,  graduated Psychology at the Silliman University and  took up Professional  Education at the University of the Philippines.  Later on, she decided to take a Master in Special Education at the University of Southern Philippines.  In 2001, she got a scholarship to study in Valladolid, Spain.

She has always wanted to be a teacher.  It was her maternal grandmother who inspired her to pursue her dream of becoming an educator. For her, her grandmother did not only teach her how to read and write but also handed her down values.  This time, it is her turn to share and teach those values to her students.

“I come from a family of educators. My grandmother taught me to read and do arithmetic in a very fun and easy way.”

She has been teaching for 18 years now,  where she has  taught in the pre-school, elementary and high school in Manila and Cebu. She also taught Spanish at Poveda Learning Centre in Manila.

Wowie with her students at Southville International School, Philippines

What kind of a teacher are you?

“I always try to be fair and firm with my students. It is my responsibility to encourage my students to continuously develop and improve their knowledge and skills about things they’re interested in and good at, to become lifelong learners.”

She can no longer count with her fingers those memorable moments she had with her students inside or outside the classroom.

“I always have a class that giggles a lot. One of my favorites is when one of my students came to class and exclaimed, “I heard a bad word said in the play I watched yesterday!” To prevent a bad word to be said in my class, I reminded my students that bad words aren’t appropriate. They’re not accepted in my class. But one of them insisted, “Come on tell.”  Before anybody could say something I declared, “No bad words should be said here. This is my domain. You do what I say.” One asked, “What is domain, Ms. Delos Reyes?” and before I could say something another one said, “I know that! That’s the barber of my grandfather. That’s Mang Domeng!”

Giggling students, Cebu International School

In  2008, she moved to Ankara and worked for the Bilkent Laboratory and International school.

“I have a Filipino friend who used to teach in an international school in Istanbul and told me lots of beautiful things about Turkey. This was  my first overseas teaching job .”

How were your first days in Turkey?

“Turkish people are hospitable and sweet. It was so easy to fit in. Although it was miserable on my first Christmas in Turkey, because we Filipinos spend Christmas with so much festivity and there were no carolers, no Christmas trees, no Christmas decorations at the department stores, no Christmas songs over the radio and  no Christmas cards!, I decided to get my family and friends birthday cards.  For me, one reason why we celebrate Christmas is because we celebrate Jesus’s birthday. Some of my friends find it hilarious receiving a birthday card for Christmas!”

There are about 6,000 Filipinos in Turkey. Most of them are employed as household staff of diplomatic communities and rich Turkish families.  Furthermore, around 600 Filipinos are skilled workers and professionals working as architects, doctors, engineers and teachers. The greatest number of Filipinos can be found in Istanbul.

How were your students?  Your colleagues?

“I always have awesome students! I had great coworkers at Bilkent Laboratory and International School. We partied and traveled a lot! We still keep in touch. One of the things I like about teaching in international schools is people have mutual respect and tolerance for each other. “

How are Filipino students different from other international students that she has handled?

“Students are all the same in the classroom in any country. They’re enthusiastic, sweet, smart and fun to be with. Some of my students keep in touch with me and I have a very friendly relationship with them.  I treat them like my own.”

Did your students ask about the Philippines?

“Students are always curious about how is life in their teacher’s country. They asked a lot of questions about the Philippines.  I have a student who made me listen to songs of Black Eyed Peas because according to her one of them is a Filipino. I have one who asked me if she could come spend her summer holiday with me because she wants to go to Amanpulo Island in Palawan.”

How did Ankara treat you?

I didn’t have a hard time adjusting when I was in Ankara even if it was my first overseas job or even if I was the only Filipino in my school because I had helpful, accommodating, and very supportive colleagues. Because of this I had a super hard time leaving Turkey. You can get the best of both worlds in Turkey: it’s quite ancient and very modern at the same time. Traveling is another thing I enjoyed in Turkey.  I had a wonderful and awesome time in Turkey! My very close Turkish friend said she thinks Filipinos are kind, sweet, resilient and smart. I guess the others see Filipinos the same way.

Wowie in Ankara, Turkey

Are there Pinoys in Ankara?

“Yes, I see them when I go to church. Most of them are nannies. A few were my students’ nannies. Some were married to Turkish and a few work in the Philippine Embassy.

Did you have any chance of integrating with the locals, getting to know their culture?

Yes. I’m always lucky to have very kind and accommodating friends in every country that I live in. I get invited by them and get to experience their celebrations and we traveled together. I get to learn more about their country, their language. I become very close to them and they become my best friends.

With her students at Bilkent Laboratory & International School, Turkey

Why didn’t you plan to extend your stay in Turkey?

“I’d like to work closer to the Philippines because of my mother. I’d like to be able to go home anytime I need to.”

Was it worth it, teaching in Turkey?

“YES! I had a great experience in Turkey.  I liked the people a lot they’re very warm and sweet.”

Any plans of going back to the Philippines to teach again in the near future?

“I have already taught in the Philippines for 15 years. I’d like to travel this time and learn about the culture of other countries.”

Do you have a dream country where you see yourself teaching for a longer time?

“Good question. I should start thinking of one already. I think I’d like to teach in an international school and stay long in New York.”

After her stint in Ankara, Wowie got another teaching job in Busan, South Korea where she is a Grade 4 teacher at Busan International Foreign School teaching English, Mathematics, and Unit of Inquiry (combination of Science and Social Studies). But be it Ankara, or Manila or Busan, Wowie doesn’t mind.

“I always get hugs and sometimes letters and certificates (awards) from my students for being a great teacher to them.”

There has been a running joke about teachers that they end up single because they spend most of their time inside the classroom or preparing lesson plans and activities for their students. Does this worry you a bit?

“I am just different and very picky that’s why my soulmate and I haven’t met yet. I am not worried at all.”

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” An American  journalist and academic, Henry Adams once said. Endangered or not, to her students, a teacher like Wowie will always be a special kind of specie.

Who could persuade Gadaffi?

7 Mar


Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi

“”The price of oil is rising as unrest continues in Libya and its dictator refuses to skedaddle in the face of international condemnation. The regime in Libya has demonstrated its readiness to kill its own citizens to cling to power, and the citizens have shown their willingness to die for freedom. What is to be done?

There is one woman who can solve this impasse, one woman who has already established her powers of persuasion over Muammar Gaddafi. . .”


Imelda Marcos!

Read more: Jessica Zafra\’s Dream Couple International Edition

Learning from Trinidad and Tobago

10 Jan

by Jeremaiah M. Opiniano, Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI)

WHAT does the Philippines have to do with a southern Caribbean country named Trinidad and Tobago?

This former Spanish and British colony of 1.338 million people not only hosts an estimated 1,200 Filipinos (including 1,000 overseas workers), but did a bold attempt at national development that a Southeast Asian archipelago can learn from.

At the onset of its own oil boom come the new millennium, and during the time of the country’s former head of government, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Planning and Development started in 2002 the groundwork to formulate a strategic plan called Vision 2020. By the year 2020, government officials hope Trinidad and Tobago “will be a united, resilient, productive, innovative and prosperous nation with a disciplined, caring, fun-loving society, comprising health, happy and well-educated people and built on the enduring attributes of self-reliance, respect, equity, and integrity”.

The work of the planning committee to formulate Vision 2020 ended in 2005, and the country’s parliament approved Vision 2020’s draft national strategic plan in 2006. This national strategic plan then formulated its first operational plan that covered the years 2007 to 2010. Even a unit within T&T’s Ministry of Planning and Development was created to monitor the operational plan.

Vision 2020, says an informative video (, is anchored on five pillars: enabling competitive business, developing innovative people, nurturing a caring society, investing in sound infrastructure and the environment, and promoting effective government.

This republic has a two-party political system and a bicameral parliamentary system. Head of state is a President, currently George Maxwell Richards; a Prime Minister, currently Kamla Persad-Bissessar, heads the government.

Of course, political dynamics affected the country. Former Prime Minister Manning (of the People’s National Movement or PNM party) dissolved parliament in April 2010 and called for national elections, which Bissessar’s party, the People’s Partnership, won most seats.

Still, the upper-income Caribbean country’s Vision 2020 goes on.

While Vision 2020 outlined specific strategies, the migration phenomenon is integrated in it, considering that there are some 300,000-plus overseas Trinidadians and there are about 40,000 foreigners working and residing in T&T.

Overseas migration is under the population segment of Vision 2020, and two of the six population-related goals of Vision 2020 are where overseas migration operates: developing a reliable population database (that is hopefully 95 percent accurate), and minimize the negative impacts of migration on Trinidadian society.

Under the goal of developing a reliable population database, Michele Reis of The University of the West Indies observes Vision 2020 hoped to precisely determine how migration impacts on education, the work force, and the country’s elderly population. Meanwhile, Vision 2020 hoped to reduce the emigration of skilled Trinidadian labor, facilitate the integration of returning migrants, and facilitate the full integration of documented and non-documented migrants in T&T.

Such bold integration of migration in T&T’s Vision 2020 is so even if the country is not a major recipient of remittances (around US$ 87 million reached T&T in 2007, with that amount coming from more than half of overseas Trinidadians who have college degrees). T&T, Reis also notes, is a destination country of trafficked and smuggled persons, asylum-seekers and refugees.

Compare Trinidad and Tobago to the fourth largest remittance economy, the Philippines: a country with an elaborate migration management system that received over-US$17 billion in 2009, and where an estimated 8.5 million overseas Filipinos, scattered in 220 countries and territories, come from.

As the government of popularly-elected President Benigno Simeon Aquino III is about to finish producing the 2010-2016 Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan (MTPDP), something seems missing: Where does the Philippines want to go, regardless of who is this country’s president?

Six years, thus Aquino’s term, are not enough for the Philippines to generate some 13-15 million quality jobs to reduce joblessness visibly, if estimates by economists Fernando Aldaba and Reuel Hermoso are to be believed. Poverty levels remained the same (26 million living in poverty), says initial results of the 2009 Family Income and Expenditures Survey. It may take a herculean effort to bring back agriculture’s old glory, or even revitalize the stagnant industry or manufacturing sector.

A government agency, the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), just revised its vision and mission in the hope that migration and development, by 2020, has been mainstreamed in the bureaucracy. In the short term, thinktanks like the Scalabrini Migration Center hope a national migration and development plan is formulated by June 2011.

But where the Filipino boat intends to sail remains a question. One remembers a vision by former President Fidel Ramos (1992-1998) during his term: “Philippines 2000” where, by the turn of the new millennium, the country would have become a Tiger economy.

While many factors did not achieve such a vision, and the Philippines continues to be a basket case in Asia, at least there was a vision to direct an entire nation’s efforts.

The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) may want to think about drafting a long-term strategic plan similar to T&T’s Vision 2020, one that goes beyond a current president’s regime. After launching the new MTPDP by early 2011, NEDA can convene the country’s best minds to, without partisanship, help draft such a development vision for the long haul —and have President Aquino endorse this process.

And overseas migration’s place in such a long-term Philippine vision? It is time to optimize a “Philippine diasporic dividend” —the net of net benefit from overseas migration— that supplements a long-term, not just a short-term, vision of Philippine development.

Since the overseas exodus has impacted many aspects of Filipino socio-economic and cultural life, it is time to develop a migration-and-development system that sees the country and her institutions address systemically the various impacts of migration on development. The Philippines has yet to have a system to address the economic and social impacts of migration —or even a set of goals to manage these impacts and optimize migration’s gains.

Integrating such a migration-and-development system into a long-term Philippine vision will be good first step to see the progress of this migrant-sending country beyond merely sending people abroad and receiving dollars.

But if the boat just sails and doesn’t know where to go, there goes the thrill of looking ahead to a brighter Filipino future.

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