Philippine Nationality Room opens doors to public


Thomas Yang | Visual Editor

The Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh’s reynas prepare to enter the Cathedral of Learning Commons Room on Sunday.

By Martha Layne, For The Pitt News

Upbeat instrumental music filtered through the Cathedral of Learning Sunday as ceremonial dancers twirled and spun in traditional outfits, celebrating the opening of the new Philippine Nationality Room.

After 20 years of planning and fundraising, Pittsburgh’s Filipino community and Pitt administrators held a grand opening for the Nationality Room Sunday. Located in room 313, it is the 31st in Pitt’s collection and sixth Asian-inspired room overall. It is the most recent Nationality Room to open since the Korean room in 2015.

Pittsburgh’s Filipino community is not very large and is largely concentrated in the City’s suburbs. The Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh first approached Pitt in 1998 with the idea to create a Nationality Room focused on Filipino culture. Since then, the group has faced numerous setbacks, including a significant change in the group’s bylaws in 2010. The changed bylaws stated that only FAAP board members could be on the FAAP’s Nationality Room committee, meaning that some committee members could no longer be part of the project.

As a result of the changed bylaws and disagreements that followed, the Philippine Nationality Room task force was formed, with representatives from three groups: FAAP, the Philippine American Performing Arts of Greater Pittsburgh, a performing arts group that specializes in promoting Filipino culture through the arts, and the Philippine American Medical Society of Western Pennsylvania, an organization that focuses on annually traveling to the Philippines to provide medical care to the impoverished people there. The task force is chaired by Father Manny Gelido of the Roman Catholic Parish of St. James the Greater in Charles Town, West Virginia.

Jaime Abola, a FAAP and task force member as well as a 1974 Pitt graduate, said the room’s architecture and style was based directly off visits to the Philippines.

“The committee then traveled to the Philippines, went around, we had a consultant who was a professor of history at one of the universities to help decide,” Abola said. “We finally ended up deciding on this kind of architecture. In our language, it’s ‘Bahay na Bato,’ which means ‘house of stone.’”

Bahay na Bato-styled homes feature a stone foundation, inspired by the Spanish, with a light, wooden upper part to withstand the tropical nature of the country. Filipino culture is heavily influenced by the Spanish, who invaded the islands in the 16th century. The Philippines, which is a string of around 7,100 islands in the Pacific Ocean and has an ethnically diverse population of about 107 million, was also a sovereign territory of the United States before gaining its independence after World War II.

The Nationality Room representing the country features a large ornate mirror on one wall, following the Filipino custom to hang a mirror in every home. The back panel of the room’s chairs are made of delicate woven material. Abola said the entire chair is traditionally made of the material, but changes were made so students could feel comfortable sitting in them for a long time. The large chalkboard at the front of the room contains the logos of four major Filipino universities, and two portraits on the walls depict what Filipino college students would look like a several hundred years ago, dressed in long dresses, suits and ornate hats. The windows are in the ‘capiz’ style, utilizing flat shells that let in light, but still create privacy.

Michael Stefanick, senior biology and history double major and the liaison between outside groups and Pitt’s Filipino Student Association, said the construction of the Filipino Nationality Room is an example of how America can incorporate other cultures into one large society.

“America’s a melting pot,” Stafanick said, “It’s not really one culture dominant here in the United States, and it compounds and it supports the idea that it’s not one people occupying this land, it’s a bunch of people coming from different backgrounds and that’s what makes America America.”

The dedication ceremony and reception took place last Sunday in Heinz Chapel and the Cathedral of Learning, respectively, featuring traditional music by Kinding Sindaw, a performing arts group that focuses on educating others of the music, dance style and culture of the indigenuous people from Mindanao, an island in the southern Philippines. Attendees heard from ceremonial host Rudy Furigay, a medical doctor from the Philippine-American Medical Society of Western Pennsylvania, task force chair Gelido, vice provost for Global Affairs Ariel Armony, Provost Ann Cudd and Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. The ceremony also included a presentation of the Nationality Room’s key from the task force to Gallagher.

The ceremony concluded with a Santacruzan Parade, traditionally part of the Flores de Mayo, a May religious celebration and beauty pageant held in Filipino communities, from the chapel to the Cathedral. The parade opened with Nationality Room tour guides, dressed in varying different cultural outfits to represent some of the other Nationality Rooms in the Cathedral. The parade also featured 11 girls, or ‘reynas’ in Filipino, dressed in formal outfits accompanied by ‘constantinos,’ or men carrying symbolic arches overhead of the virtue that she represents, such as faith, hope, love or angels.

Alex McDonough, a senior biology and studio art double major and current FSA member, said the Nationality Room’s dedication was a monumental event for the Filipino community.

“We’ve been building up to it, and it’s, like, really important for Filipino participation,” McDonough said. “Having a room and being able to say ‘This is where it is’ and being able to recognize my culture is just like such an important message just for like oneself and an entire community.”

After the ceremony, a reception with traditional snacks, dancing and tours of all the Nationality Rooms was held in the Cathedral Common Room. Two member groups of the room task force, FAAP and PAPAGP, performed several traditional and ceremonial dances.

The night concluded with a traditional Catholic mass, or ‘misa,’ at Heinz Chapel, as Catholicism is the dominant religion in the Philippines. After the service, there was a formal dedication dinner, or ‘Handaan,’ in the Connelly Ballroom in Alumni Hall.

Maria Lagnese, events coordinator for the University Center for International Studies, said in an email the room plays an important role in drawing attention to the relationship between the Philippines and the United States.

“Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike celebrated together to honor a country represented by the Philippine Nationality Room, not just for the culture, but the shared history which the Philippines have with the United States,” Lagnese said. “We fought together in World War II and have been strong allies since then. We have a common interest in a stable, peaceful and prosperous Asia rooted in democracy.”

Julianne Castillo, a rising global management and marketing sophomore and FSA secretary, said the room provides a new opportunity for Pittsburghers to expand their knowledge of Asian culture.

“I think that it’s not fair when we kind of assume things about Asian culture as a whole, and I think it’s important to place emphasis on each culture has unique value in its own and can hold on its own,” Castillo said. “I think, especially in the media, and even at Pitt itself, [people] kind of just go ‘Oh, they’re Asian’, but we’re all kind of different kinds of Asian and different cultures and heritages, and I think we can all, whether you are Asian or not Asian, you can still learn something new about each other.”