Biggest Weekend of the Year for Local Cultural Heritage School

July 27, 2023

It’s easy to find the food concession of Iskwelahang Pilipino at the annual Lowell Folk Festival. Look for the tent with the longest waiting line.

That’s good news for the regional Filipino cultural heritage school, based for more than 30 years in Bedford’s Town Center. The Lowell Folk Festival, which begins Friday evening and continues on Saturday and Sunday, is the school’s biggest fundraising event each year.

Myra Liwanag, executive director of Iskwelahang Pilipino, is the point person as scores of volunteers converge for the happenings. 

“This is the moment in our community when everyone is pulling together and really feeling the impact of working as a community,” she said. “For all of us, it’s such a source of pride.” 

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Imelda Lane-Smith is “the glue that holds us together,” according to Iskwelahang Pilipino Executive Director Myra Liwanag. Staff photo by Wayne Braverman

Ethnic foods have been a staple of the festival weekend since Lowell hosted the National Folk Festival in 1987, and Iskwelahang Pilipino has been part of that scene every year, except in 2020 and 2021 when the pandemic prevailed.

“We are really excited this year – it feels like we are back to normal,” said Liwanag. “During the pandemic, this was the thing that the children missed the most.”

The group’s selections are “well worth the wait,” said Fay Russo, who as director of Town Center began the relationship with Cristina and Mabini Castro of Bedford – Liwanag’s in-laws — on behalf of Iskwelahang Pilipino.

When the group began its Folk Festival venture, “I was still in high school,” Liwanag said, and she is one of several alumni who now have children in the Bedford classrooms. The Folk Festival, which brings together scores of volunteers, “is like a reunion for a lot of us.”

Liwanag said there are three prongs to the group’s festival agenda: sharing Filipino culture, raising funds for the school, and solidifying the sense of community.

“At the beginning, it was intentionally about sharing our culture and cuisine with New Englanders,” Liwanag explained. “Some of our moms were actually involved in the original recipe, and they figured out how to take those home recipes to the masses.

“We really wanted to give people the experience of enjoying a Filipino barbecue,” she continued, choosing to keep secretive the spices that flavor the chicken except “authentic Filipino flavors.” Banana ketchup enhances the experience, she added.

Since the first festival, Iskwelahang Pilipino has offered barbecued chicken, egg rolls, and pancit (rice noodles). The menu expanded over the years. Barbecued pork is a popular choice, and now there is garlic rice, as well as expanded vegetarian and gluten-free options. 

“The cornerstone of the menu is the combo plate – it gives you all the different flavors we have,” Liwanag said. 

“A big challenge is to make sure we can get all the ingredients,” Liwanag said. “We are doing a pop-up restaurant that we have been doing for years. It’s not our profession; it’s not as easy as for someone who owns a food truck. There are three gigantic binders of information that help us keep track of how to do this.”

The organizers work hard to ensure the inventory holds up – it’s a cultural custom, she said. “A Filipino always prepares too much food for guests, so there’s some left to take home.” 

The baseline for the weekend is around 1,300 pounds of meat, she noted.

“What’s key about our menu is it’s home-cooked food that’s made there, on the spot,” Liwanag said. 

On Wednesday, many volunteers spent several hours at John Glenn Middle School for prep work, marinating meat and slicing vegetables.

“We use the kitchen with the guidance of the Board of Health, and the school gives us access to the kitchen, which is wonderful,” Liwanag said.

The Folk Festival, Liwanag pointed out, is a great opportunity to acquaint hordes of visitors with the Filipino community. 

“We’re a little different in that we don’t have an ethnic enclave. We’re very scattered in the region,” she explained. “So, for three days, we are a visible part of the Lowell Folk Festival.

“Of course, we want to raise funds to pay for the operation of the school, to maintain our office and classrooms, and make our tuition affordable,” Liwanag continued. “This particular fundraiser is so integral to our being able to stay in Bedford. 

“We don’t want any family to say they can’t become part of IP because of the cost. This helps us achieve a certain level of stability.”

Beyond that, Liwanag said, the food concession project is driven by the Filipino principle of bayanihan – “that whole idea that all of us together are greater than the sum of our parts.

“For our students, this is the most tangible example that we have of how all of us can come together and achieve something great together,” she explained. “We have students of all ages involved; for each of the grades there are different things they can do.

Suzette Oglesby, left, and Mer Azuria are having fun preparing food for the Lowell Folk Festival. Staff photo by Wayne Braverman

“Over the years, we figured out how the work that goes into preparing can be done by our community. So, you will see the littlest ones rolling up the cutlery and napkins. A lot of middle and high school kids will take turns on the serving line. Grandparents sit under the tent rolling the banana rolls, dads work at the grills, teenage boys are the runners, carrying things. Folks of all different ages and abilities contribute to the cause.”

She added, “It’s really great work but it’s also hard work. We want our volunteers to feel they contribute in a significant and important way. But we don’t want them to be run down.” 

The weekend usually is hot and humid.

The school has about 100 students and close to 70 active families from throughout the region. Their festival commitment is augmented by alumni and grandparents who reconnect, so there are close to 200 volunteers for the weekend, Liwanag said, noting that there are 50 connected to a fully-staffed tent.

For the Iskwelahang Pilipino community, “it means a lot to us to be in Bedford,” the director said. “Bedford has always been so welcoming and it really feels like home. Over the last couple of years, we have seen anti-Asian violence, even here in Massachusetts. It means a lot to us to be in a place that considers us part of the community.”

The Iskwelahang Pilipino menu on French Street opposite Boarding House Park at the Lowell Folk Festival includes:

  • A la carte: inihaw na baboy (pork barbecue); inihaw na manok (chicken barbecue); lumpia (two vegetable egg rolls); sinangag (garlic rice) pancit guisado (vegetarian sautéed noodles); turon (banana roll); spring water 
  • Combination plates: egg roll, garlic rice and noodles, pork or chicken barbecue
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July 28, 2023 10:01 am

If you wouldn’t call Italian, French, or English food “ethnic”, you shouldn’t call Filipino food that either, as this article does.

I have nothing against the author and don’t believe he meant it this way, but it’s an outdated term that suggests “white” and “first world” cuisines are inherently more American than “ethnic” ones. I don’t agree, especially since the only actual American cuisines are those of the indigenous peoples, not those of predominantly white, Western European countries whose cuisines I’ve never heard called “ethnic.”

Please reconsider using this term both here and in future articles. Thank you.

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