Sunday, March 15, 2009

Reading between the lines

Last Sunday after hearing Mass at our local church in Toronto, my wife and I decided to buy some groceries we needed for the week, mostly vegetables, condiments, and a few pieces of chicken. We passed by a Filipino store where we used to pick up copies of Filipino community newspapers. The store is aptly named in Tagalog for the shock and awe one gets from either dining on the store’s home-cooked food floating in oil, or after hearing the prices of items on the shelves announced unasked by the significant other of the store owner.

For a metropolitan city like Toronto with only four major Canadian daily newspapers (two local papers and two national dailies), it is astonishing to find that no less than ten local newspapers serve the Filipino community. The Filipino population in Toronto is over 150,000, or just about a tiny four per cent of the whole city population.

Imagine reading the same stories more than ten times. Or even seeing the same faces in the news spread for an equal number of times. Or looking at ads from the same stores offering identical products from the Philippines (which nonetheless never fail to make us homesick), ads of doctors and dentists with photos of their ever-smiling and happy families, real estate agents selling houses we couldn’t afford to buy even before this recession, and beauty product ads that offer to give you a new face, literally. You would think that these would be more than enough to make you suffer from reading fatigue or media constipation. Yet, we keep on picking and reading them like there was no tomorrow. We’re just as excited and as animated each time to find out what’s going on in our community, or even to learn the latest depressing news from back home.

Does anyone wonder why we’re being overfed with the same stories every fortnight? How do these newspapers survive when they have to compete for the same handful of advertisers? Did I mention the newspapers are free? One Canadian national newspaper has reported huge losses due to the recession and is planning to lay off staff and cut back circulation. But no, not our resilient Filipino community newspapers, which seem recession-proof, possessed of some magical gift that Canadian newspapers don’t have and could perhaps learn a lesson or two from—this from their more enterprising little media cousins.

After a late and light lunch on Sunday afternoon late this winter, we scanned the pages of our community newspapers almost at the speed of light, but making sure we didn’t miss the latest scandal about our movie stars back home.

Interestingly enough, we found some stories that caught our picky, if not suspecting, minds.

There was this story about a new relief organization set up by very eager and enthusiastic members of our community whose purpose is to help those in the Philippines who have been devastated by poverty, hunger, disease, and natural calamities. Perhaps unaware that their acronym has already been taken by a Canadian association of retired persons, the leaders of the new organization decided to call the group after a delectable and luscious fish that typically adorns Filipino tables during fiestas. What could be more appropriate than a very juicy carp to spread some of its tender and fleshy succulence to people in need?

Judging by its mission statement, this new relief organization is a very ambitious and impressive effort. Except that well-established and reputable organizations like the International Red Cross and other international relief agencies and Philippine-based organizations espousing the same mission are already on the ground, and are far better equipped and funded. In addition, past experience in relief efforts speaks volumes about the trustworthiness and reliability of these established organizations and of their leaders. Word is out that the new group is holding a ball this month to raise money for their initial medical mission to the Philippines. We can only wish upon a star that they fully understand what they’re going into.

Then there is this story about a search launched by a community centre for a muse who embodies the accomplishment and confidence of a mature woman, yet someone who still maintains her good looks, someone who has “that certain oomph,” according to the organization’s spokesperson. Named after a beautiful and alluring Filipino actress in the fifties, the winner of the contest will receive a round-trip plane ticket to the Philippines, plus a TV appearance on the WowWowWee show in Manila.

This contest, plus the Filipino Singing Idol and the Debutantes’ Ball, both sponsored by the same organization, are just a few of the activities our young people in the community feel sorry for. In a dialogue called the State of the Filipino Union (SOFU), organized and led by young Filipino students in Toronto last February 26, 2009, our young people have made known their unhappy disconnect with the so-called cultural undertakings of their elders. Or perhaps, our young people are simply being overwhelmed by the robust energy of their elders for novelty and tackiness.

In another story, a community organization in the west end of Greater Toronto joyfully announced the approval of a financial grant from the federal government for their new project “to keep seniors happy in the community.” Some of the activities being planned are a musical play where seniors can showcase their artistic and singing talents (imagine a senior production of Hair or Grease), a weekend get-away for seniors (walking or camping in the woods, or better yet, mountain-climbing or skiing), sessions where seniors learn about coping skills, and working and mentoring together (“how to pursue an active post-retirement career in the age of recession,” perhaps). After going through these frenetic activities, let’s just pray that our seniors can still manage to walk on their infirm legs, if they have not been already impaired by arthritis.

A Gwillimbury barn in Newmarket, a city north of Toronto, was the scene of a reported cockfighting event participated in by a number of Filipinos. The cockpit was raided and closed by the police after receiving an anonymous call reporting animal cruelty in the barn. The owners, both Filipinos, were identified as the organizers of the event and were charged with keeping a betting house, keeping a cockpit, injuring or endangering other animals, plus two counts of causing unnecessary suffering.

Cockfighting is illegal in Canada, but there are rampant rumours that Filipinos are behind it. We call it “sabong” in the Philippines, and it is one of the country’s national sports. While there are illegal and legal cockfights in the Philippines, cockfighting has turned into a very lucrative form of gambling. Filipino boxing pound-for-pound great, Manny Pacquiao, has a cock called “Pac-Man,” rightfully named after his master pugilist's nickname in the boxing world.

“Juan Tejada law to be considered in Parliament” was headlined in one of the local newspapers. A sad typo error to end Filipino caregiver Juana Tejada’s personal struggle to fight an unbeatable disease, a pithy footnote to Juana’s undying effort to challenge Canada’s immigration law.

Juana Tejada recently passed away after battling with colon cancer, a medical condition used by Canada Immigration to justify denying her application for permanent residence after completing her two-year contract as a live-in caregiver. Confronted by swelling support from the community that called on the Canadian government to allow Juana to stay so she could realize her dying wish, the federal government eventually yielded and stayed the removal order.

Supporters of Juana Tejada continued to lobby the government to amend its immigration law by removing the requirement for live-in caregivers to pass another medical examination when they apply for permanent residence status, thus avoiding similar life-and-death situations such as Juana Tejada’s in the future.

From front and back, reading our local newspapers would seem a piece of cake with lots of gossip to chew. They provide some news, mostly Philippine-based; lots of entertainment, again, mainly Philippine-based; and a smattering of Toronto-based self-promotion that people appear to dig in not so much with alacrity as with Job’s tons of patience he could be Filipino. News and stories that could fit two or three community newspapers yet told by a dozen or so Watchmen—that is so Filipino. And yet, we look forward to reading the next issue each time.

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