International teachers find community in Filipino American Society of Central Illinois
There are many vibrant cultural communities in the Peoria area, but not all are as well represented as the Filipino American Society of Central Illinois, or FASCI. I went to the organization's annual summer picnic to learn more about the community and some of the group’s newer members.
Several dozen members gathered beneath the Grieves Shelter in East Peoria’s Veterans of Foreign Wars park on Sunday, Sep. 10. They open their meeting by singing the American anthem, followed by the Filipino anthem.
Peoria Public Schools special education teacher Rhonette Abatayo leads me down long tables of food, explaining different traditional dishes.
“We also have lumpia, the famous spring roll, Filipino spring roll, that we have,” she said. “We also have adobo and we also have our very staple kind of food, which is rice.”
Events like these are some of the only places Abatayo says she can find authentic Filipino cooking. Abatayo moved to Peoria from the Philippines in 2021, as part of the Peoria Public School Districts' international teachers exchange program.
Ria Matos also moved to Peoria as part of the same cohort. She says it took a little time to find the local Filipino community.
“It was a surprise. It was just a big community, a big group,” said Matos. “What you see right now is not even, like, 25% of the people in the Filipino community. So we have a bigger one.”
Matos and Abatayo are from different provinces of the Philippines, a long chain of islands. They say there was some culture shock moving here initially. In their third year, they've both found things to love about the area. Matos loves the people.
“The people is also, like, they’re very accommodating, they’re very friendly,” she said. “I like, also, that I learn from them and they also learn from me. So if my program will be over, I will really be missing Peoria.”
Abatayo quickly became interested in Peoria’s arts community.
“Like, we have the Peoria Symphony Orchestra and the fine arts from the Peoria Art Guild,” she said. “I always love these kinds of privileges being shown here. And when I will be back home, I want also to initiate those kinds of programs. Where my Filipino friends back home can share their talents in music, talents in art.”
The interest in the arts gradually evolved into being a part of the performing arts. Abatayo helps lead a dance group composed of more than twenty Filipino school teachers in the cultural exchange program.
Every year at Ignite Peoria, the group performs folk dances like the Sakuting, the Subli and the Kuracha. Abatayo hopes the performances encourage Peorians to learn more about Filipino culture, while also displaying the country's diversity from island to island.
“Every year, we are like, showcasing what we have back home. So that the Filipino and American people would also know the different dances that we have,” she said. “Sometimes they’re also curious and intrigued, like, ‘what is that dance about?’”
Matos says the group also performs in traditional clothing as well.
“There are a lot of nice dresses that we have in our country,” she said. “We’re happy to represent the Philippines.”
Matos says planning for the Ignite Peoria performance begins in June, with practices scheduled in July. The tight knit community also takes time to review the program and dances on display.
“Then, before the presentation, we meet again and say ‘let’s see how the practices are going on,’” Matos said. “Some of our groups live in one place only, so it’s very easy for them to practice.”
Abatayo says, as part of the cultural exchange aspect of the Peoria Public schools program, she's bringing back some classroom management strategies. There are also some online tools she hopes to get access to for Filipino schools.
In the same way, she hopes the group performances offer more context and knowledge about her culture to Peoria. Something different than stereotypes or broad generalizations about the Philippines and its people.
“We might be filled with mystery, but there’s more to those smiles that we have,” Abatayo said. “From music, from culture, from cuisines. So if you get to know a Filipino friend, a Filipino person, you’ll probably be excited.”
As the gathered FASCI members finish their food, there's business to attend to. The group elects new officers at the summer picnic every year. So, while the group takes the time to fill out ballots for the uncontested race, Abatayo leads a game about the Filipino language.
Reginald Gress is the now-former president of FASCI. He says September is Filipino National Language Month.
“Typically, most people speak English, that’s what they’re taught in school,” said Gress. “But then again, they go by the national language Tagalog. A lot of people don’t know, if they’re older especially, may not know the English language.”
Gress is not Filipino himself, but is a longtime member of FASCI after marrying into a Filipino family 53 years ago. He says he's a big supporter of the dance performances.
“We’re trying to embrace, have the other people in Peoria, kind of embrace the Filipino community, the Filipino-American community,” Gress said. “And try to learn a little bit more about the culture.”
As the conclusion of Peoria Public Schools' exchange program approaches, at the end of this year, Atabayo prepares to share what she's learned with teachers back home.
“So, if my other Filipino friends back home wanted to be a teacher here, I can give them some tips,” she said. “Or ideas what it is like to teach here.”