March 1, 2020, was a fun and exciting day at Iskwelahang Pilipino, the Filipino cultural school based in Town Center. “We had our annual cookoff, with chefs, and it was a big day,” said Executive Director Myra Liwanag. “Then we put everything away nicely.”
That was a good decision, since a week later the school, like millions of institutions worldwide, froze in place, as the dangers of Covid-19 engendered a shutdown.
The school has been operating virtually since then and is likely to finish the school year online. But the leadership is hopeful about returning for its 24th year at Town Center.
Immigration from the Philippines spiked in the 1960s, in response to a shortage of nurses in the U.S., Liwanag explained. “The training nurses get is similar to American training. They became a huge part of the American nursing population and other health-care roles. Our parents came here as engineers and health-care professionals.”
Iskwelahang Pilipino opened in Newton back in 1976. Christina Castro of Bedford was one of the founding directors; Liwanag, now Castro’s daughter-in-law, was a student there. “In conversation, we call it the Filipino school or IP,” the director said. The word Iskwelahang is derived from the Spanish word for school, escuela. The Spanish were colonial rulers in the Philippines for 350 years.
Filipino immigrants in the United States were putting down roots and raising children in the late 1960s, Liwanag said, and “they found there was a generation gap. The school was founded to provide a structured and fun way of sharing their culture with their children. When families work together and participate in activities together, that makes a family stronger.”
“We started to grow in ways we weren’t expecting,” Liwanag recounted. So in 1998, Iskwelahang Pilipino moved to the Town Center in Bedford. Castro helped make the connection; she was familiar with Town Center’s layout.
Castro, who is 90, said she still attends events and follows the school’s calendar. “We miss it—we all do,” she said, adding that she feels pride about the school’s success in Bedford.
“The Town Center has been wonderful, and being in Bedford has been great,” said Liwanag, who lives in Sharon. Director Fay Russo “has always been so thoughtful watching out for us. We recently had some trouble with the freezer and she called me and said rescue what you can. She is always thinking of us; she always listens to everything.”
The building, she related, “suits so well to what we do. Families of past graduates come back for the annual talent show.”
“I love that it’s in such a historically significant area, embracing our culture and American culture all at the same time,” she said. The school offers a class in the Filipino-American experience, “the history of our people in America, including notable Filipino-Americans and current events.”
The cultural message, she said, is: “You don’t have to choose one or the other. There is a path to embrace all of it.”
Iskelwahang Pilipino is the country’s oldest continually-running Filipino school, Liwanag said. “There have been a bunch of new ones over the past decade, but we have been around the longest. I graduated in 1987and my daughter is there now. We have third-generation kids from four-generation Filipino-American families. It’s a pretty diverse population.”
There are some 200 students from 60 families, some traveling from as far as New Hampshire and Rhode Island, she said. And despite the pandemic, “There was no way I and the rest of the leadership team were going to shut our doors after being open so long This is our 45th year and we never closed our doors.”
The conversion to virtual wasn’t daunting. “We are blessed with some parents who are pretty tech-savvy.”
The entire program is operated by volunteers, including a team of more than 20 teachers. “It’s a labor of love, Liwanag explained.
A typical pre-pandemic Sunday session covered four hours. “We have a general assembly, sing a school song, then go to classes broken into learning groups, preschool through grade 5, grades 6-8, and 9-12.” The classes cover traditional Filipino, music, dance, and arts and crafts, cooking, details about life and culture in the Philippines.
The Philippines is a diverse country, Liwanag noted. She said there are more than 10,000 islands with several different languages and peoples. “It’s regionally distinct, and we learn about different regions,” she said. The country is “unique in Asia for its influence from other cultures.”
“We want it to be interactive. We want the kids to use all of their senses. They are going to learn about traditional dress One year we looked at the role the Philippines played in the Galleon trade.”
Do Filipinos in the diaspora visit their homeland? “In my generation, it was a pretty heavy lift for a family to generate enough income to be able to go back and visit,” she commented. “It has changed a lot. Families are much more in touch,” accommodating a 12-hour time difference. “We see more of our families going back, some on a regular basis. We are much more global as people.”
The group did suffer a significant pandemic-related setback. The school’s principal annual fundraising event is the sale of food at the Lowell Folk Festival. Indeed, for many years Iskwelahang Filipino’s chicken dinners have been the biggest draw among all of the festival’s ethnic food offerings.
Alas, the Folk Festival was canceled not only in 2021 but also for this coming July. All the gear that the volunteers use to grill on French Street opposite Lowell’s Boardinghouse Park is in storage at the middle school.
The loss is more than financial. “It’s a huge source of pride for our community,” Liwanag acknowledged. “Everyone gets involved, even the little kids,” packing cutlery and napkins for customers. “There’s a generosity of spirit and a coming together of the community.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763