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Ignatius Jones

The Filipino “Mestizaje”

Ignatius Jones
Ignatius Jones

ACCEPTANCE SPEECH by Artistic Director Mr Ignatius Jones for being voted FILCCA Filipino Australian of Year, October 26 2014  during the FILCCA Awards Night at Novotel Hotel, Parramatta, NSW,

Thank you so much for this honour. It is a particularly special one for me, because – as it is quite obvious to see – I am mestizo filipino, born in the Philippines of mixed blood. And there was once a time, now mercifully long past, when some of us felt less than welcome in the land of our birth. 

This is particularly ironic, because the Philippines practically invented the mestizo, and perfected the concept of mestizaje. 500 years before Australia and Canada would argue the title of ‘most multicultural country in the world’, the Philippines was a fully functioning multicultural society where people of many faiths and ethnicities lived together and often combined to create a new and uniquely Filipino polity.  

When the Spanish arrived they discovered Muslim Arab sultans in Mindanao, side by side with the animist Lumad tribesmen. In the Visayas, there were Hindu-Muslim Malay datus, who had arrived in their balangay boats from the fabled kingdoms of Brunei, Java and Srivijaya – and had been welcomed and given land by the animist Negrito peoples. In Luzon, the Hindu-Muslim Rajah Sulayman of Maynila co-habited with the Lakandula of Tondo and the Sinicised kingdoms of Bulacan. And of course, swarming all over the islands were Japanese and especially Chinese merchants and traders. 

The majority of the latter were from the province of Fujian, and one of these fell in love with the Philippines, and one of its daughters, and made it his home. He was my great-great-great-grandfather. When the Spanish arrived they added virreyes, gobernadores and gobernadorcillos  to the sultans, datus and rajahs – and one of the gobernadorcillos was my great-great-grandfather. He had the misfortune to be gobernadordcillo of Malolos during the Philippine Revolution – talk about wrong place at the wrong time – but he too put down roots, in the form of the children borne to him by my Chinese mestiza great-great-grandmother. 

Then the Americans came, and many of them also fell in love with the country and stayed. One of them was my great-grandfather. All of my grandparents were born in the Philippines, three of them in Manila and one in Bulacan, and all of them played a part in the artistic life of the country. My grandfather Benito Trápaga was a pianist, conductor and composer who wrote pieces like Idilio Filipino and Manila’s Jazzy Tango, works that are now being re-discovered and have marked him as a pioneer of jazz in Asia. My grandmother Mary Esteban was a famous society couturier who made ternos and first-communion dresses for some of the beautiful ladies in this room tonight – and for a certain Mrs Marcos. 

My parents came to this country in 1963, some of the first Spanish-Filipinos ever to make it to Australia. And it was a very different place then. As you know, Filipinos are Filipino most patently in three places: their hearts, their souls and their stomachs – and in the 60s Australia was a culinary wildnerness. We pined for cantimpalo and chorizo, tapa and tocino, bagoong and balut. Every Christmas my grandmother, (who remained in the Philippines until she retired in the mid-80s), would send us ‘care packages’ of the delicacies we so craved. Rightly thinking that a can of something called ‘Fermented Baby Shrimp’ would spook Australian customs, she would get a friend who had a cannery to label the bagoong ‘Canned Mangoes’. Eventually, the inevitable happened. The care package got stuck in the customs warehouse over the Christmas break, and what with the heat of an Australian Christmas and the state of Filipino canning practice the bagoong began to ferment again – and the cans exploded all over the customs warehouse. My mother received a polite note from Customs saying, “Madam, we don’t know what was in those can, but it certainly wasn’t mangoes. Please never try importing whatever it was again…” 

When I entered Australian show-business – 40 years ago this year – no one in Australia could say “Juan Ignacio Trapaga” let alone spell it. So I became “Ignatius Jones”. But the country was changing. When my sister got into show business 12 years later, no only batted an eyelid at “Mónica Trápaga”. And the country continues to change.  

The last time a professional production The King and I played in Australia was 25 years ago. This is a show in which 95% of the characters are supposed to be Asian, but there was only one Asian in the 1989 cast (a Filipino-Australian, of course.) All the rest of the Asian characters were played by Anglo-Saxon Aussies in ‘yellow-face’ (I suppose you’d call it…) In this year’s multi-award-winning production – which closed after a long run at the Opera House last Saturday – all the Asian characters were played by performers of Asian descent, and I’m proud to say 90% of them were young Filipino-Australians. (Including my wonderful partner, Novy Bereber, soon to  become an Ilongo-Australian) 

And this leads me to my final point. The Filipino community in this country is now pioneering the next stage in the wonderful tradition of Filipino mestizaje. What the mezcla of the great Australian traditions of sympathy for the underdog and ‘a fair go’ – the acceptance of anyone willing to put in an honest day’s work and give it a try, no matter their faith or ethnicity; and the Filipino values of consensus, warmth, and hospitality, family and friendship, the abilility to improvise and entertain, and smile through adversity and win through to the end – what this will bring is anyone’s guess, but I can guarantee that the Filipino-Australian of the future will be a wonderful creation. 

When we all embarked on our chapter of the Filipino Diaspora, we could have chosen Spain, Canada or the US, but we didn’t – we elected to come to the world’s oldest land, but one of its newest nations, where our customs and our traditions will help shape its future for the better.  

Like all Filipino-Australians, I know we made the right decision. Maraming salamat.