By the time Typhoon Durian hit Legazpi City in the Philippines on November 30, 2006, the region had already been saturated by two storms in September and October. Typhoon number three was especially violent, followed by a devastating volcanic mudslide. Three neighboring towns were buried. Ten feet of water raged through the area, destroying nearly 40,000 homes and killing 3,000 people.
Hearing news of the disastrous events from her home in Princeton, Legazpi City native Grace Asagra Stanley tried desperately to reach the region. But power lines were down and transformers were destroyed. It was more than two weeks before Stanley, a critical care nurse at the University Medical Center at Princeton, finally got through to Legazpi City. Though no family or close friends were lost in the storm, everyone was affected.
“I knew I had to do something,” says Stanley, who last visited her native city last summer. “The people thought they were recovering from those first two typhoons, but this was a disaster, just the worst. It just keeps coming.”
Stanley began talking to friends and colleagues about raising money to send back home. Always involved in the arts, she found herself turning to people she knew from cultural pursuits. The idea of an arts-festival-as-fundraiser began to take shape in her mind.
“Diwa Ng Ugnayan (Essence of Connections): A Day Long Celebration of the Arts” will take place Saturday, April 7, from 4-11:30 p.m., at the Suzanne Patterson Center in Princeton. An ever-growing list of dance companies, visual artists, and musicians will take part in the event, which will also allow for some participatory dancing in a wide range of styles. Stanley’s organization, called Web of Compassion, is producing the festival, with co-sponsors the Arts Council of Princeton and Nurses for International Outreach.
“People don’t just like to see performances. They like to have the opportunity to take part themselves,” says Stanley, who has studied flamenco and other dance styles. “I know people want to dance. And me being a nurse, I see people who I think would stay away from the hospital if they just kept dancing.”
Stanley, whose parents owned a restaurant in Legazpi City (her father is deceased and her mother now lives in Princeton Resource Senior Center) came to the United States 22 years ago, first to New York, and moved to Princeton in 1989. “I had worked in the Philippines as a community nurse first,” she says. “Then the economy kept getting worse, and I wanted to help my family. So I came to the U.S. When I moved to Princeton, my son was two years old (he is now 19). His dad is a native of Trenton, and he said, ‘Before New York eats you up, let me take you out.’ But he said if we move to Trenton we might as well stay in New York. So we kept driving and looked at Princeton. It was good for me. He needed to put me in a place where I could walk to town. It reminds me, sort of, of where I grew up.”
Typhoons are a regular occurrence in the Philippines. But they have gotten worse in recent years, and Stanley thinks many factors are at fault. “In that part of Asia, our region is usually called a doormat because it gets wet all the time,” she says. “But last time I went back, last summer, I could see that the landscaping is different now. It’s changing, but not according to nature. There are a lot of buildings going up. There is a lot of logging; trees are being cut down. Our cities are below sea level. And the population has more than doubled in my town. There is always a relationship with what we do with nature. It doesn’t have to be only in my region, but elsewhere, too. I do believe in Al Gore’s movie (“An Inconvenient Truth”). Global warming, that has affected us. We had typhoons before, but there are more now. It’s been raining a lot more lately.”
Among those who lost their homes in Typhoon Durian and the volcanic mudslide is Stanley’s niece, Andrea Kalsan Zapanta. Aunt and niece have been in regular contact since lines of communication were restored. Despite her own problems, Zapanta has been working as a relief operation volunteer. Her role has been to document, with photographs, the distribution of goods around the many evacuation centers where people have been living in crowded conditions.
Her photos of children are especially affecting. In an E-mail to her aunt, Zapanta describes what happened when a heavy bag of supplies burst at an evacuation center, and grains of rice scattered all over the ground. “We couldn’t just sweep it off, and it would be horrible to try and collect it, afraid that they’d think we’d put it in the bag again, so we just let it stay on the floor,” she writes. “This kid came over with an empty sardine can in her hands, and I was simply touched when she started picking up the grains and putting them in the can. Before I asked her what she was doing, I took the picture first and other kids joined in and helped her. She told me that she’d collect it, remove the stones, wash it, and ask her mom to cook it for the family. Right then I knew the panic-buying that happened along public markets for rice, and I was so ashamed that this kid had the initiative to reuse the rice that we thought was too dirty to be cooked. So I just smiled at them, hiding the tears that were starting to build up in my eyes, and took their photos.”
Photos by Zapanta and a poem by her mother (Stanley’s sister) will be printed in the program book for the upcoming event. The celebration will begin with a mural that will be painted on a canvas onsite at the event by several Filipino artists including abstract impressionist Art Zamora. The mural and other paintings on display will be for sale. Dance performances start at 5 p.m. Among those scheduled are Kinding Sindaw, a professional Filipino dance troupe from New York, as well as other professional and student dancers performing Filipino, Spanish, Israeli, Korean, West African, and other styles.
Performers include Lisa Botalico of the Alborada Dance Company, belly dancer Kim Leary, Dave Meritt and a student ensemble from the Drum and Dance Learning Center in Bordentown, Kiran Paek of Princeton Korean Dance Troupe, Ruth Markoe of Israli Folk Dancers, Henri Velandia nad partner Tamara Fay Hayes of Hot Salsa, the Philippine Chamber Rondalla of New Jersey, and keyboard and harp musician Don Slepian. From 8 to 11:30 p.m., guests can dance to a DJ mix of Latin, oldies, swing, ballroom, hip-hop, tango, and more.
Stanley says she has had a hard time saying no to the growing list of performers and artists who want to participate — all donating their time. “We’re running out of time on the program, but that’s okay,” she says. “Because my intention is for people from all backgrounds, races, and ages to come together and have fun and see how they can help. Suffering is suffering. People are people. We want everyone to take part.”
Diwa Ng Ugnayan (Essence of Connections), Saturday, April 7, 4 to 11:30 p.m. Princeton Senior Resource Center, Suzanne Patterson Center, 45 Stockton Street, behind the Princeton Borough police station. Art exhibit and sale featuring works of Filipino artists, multi-cultural and diverse dance performances. Benefit for victims of three typhoons and mudslides following the eruption of volcano in Legaspi City, Philippines. $50; $40 seniors and students; $10 ages 7 to 12; free for those under age 7. For more information visit http://webofcompassion.com or call 609-497-2484.