UNIVERSAL FILIPINO: An Interview with Playwright, activist and Indigenous Scholar Kilusan Bautista
(Editor's Note: I met Kilusan Bautista several years ago in San Francisco. He had an enthusiasm for poetry and community that was infectious. I had an opportunity to see him perform spoken word poetry, including a benefit performance for victims of Hurricane Katrina. He is truly an artist who puts community above all else. The brother is for real, putting himself on the line for what he believes in--cross cultural unity, personal healing and resistance to the displacement and removal of poor communities and communities of color. His solo theater prodcution "UNIVERSAL FILIPINO" is Kilusan's artistic vision of Filipinos across the diaspora--weaving elements of hip hop, martial art, spoken word and dance to convey a message of strength and resistance to colonization. The production has been performed in many parts of the country and will be featured at New York's legendary Nuyorican Poets cafe in September. The name Kilusan truly represents his spirit, a spirit of movement, a spirit of the movement. Through his work and commitment, he embodies the spirit of my uncle, the poet Al Robles, for whom the Al Robles Living Library Project is named. It is fitting that we highlight Kilusan's work, for he is a son of the city, the Mission and South of Market--places that were close to Uncle Al's heart in his passion for community and tireless fight for social change--Tony Robles, Co-Editor Poor Magazine)
Who gave you the name Kilusan and what meaning does it hold for you?
In 1999, I was part of a Philippine study abroad program for Filipino Americans known as Tagalog On Site. I was given the name Kilusan, which means active movement, by community activists and artists who encouraged me to continue the movement for social justice and human rights in the United States of North America. The name Kilusan is more of a reminder that as a Filipino American I am connected to a global struggle and I have a responsibility to live consciously and to live for social change!
What is your relationship to poverty and how has it informed your work?
I grew up within a working class family in San Francisco. Most of my youth dealt with the domestic struggles of having a father addicted to drugs. I also have family in the Philippines who either live in urban slums or rural provinces. As an artist and humanitarian, I create my work from these places because they molded how I see the world. I work from the ideal that transformation comes from immense pain and struggle. Therefore I look at poverty as a foundation that informs my work because it was a part of my identity as a young Filipino American and it was a huge push factor that influenced my family to immigrate to the United States of North America.
One of your favorite quotes is Rizal’s “Those who do not know from where they came shall never arrive at their destination”. How important is it for youth to learn their history and incorporate it in their art/writing and every day lives?
Knowledge of one’s history connects us to a rich legacy of wisdom and it helps us see the world with a broader perspective. It is so important for American youth to study their unique history because K-12 public schools can only tap into the surface but it is our own responsibility to do that work/research to understand our historical roots. I can only speak for myself in addressing the importance of history because I personally have always loved listening to the stories of elders, family members and others who simply wanted to share their stories with me. As a result, I am blessed with a wealth of knowledge that helps me make better decisions in my life and it offers me an abundance of rich material to create art from.
How did UNIVERSAL FILIPINO come into being?
I began writing Universal Filipino in 2005. But it was not until the summer of 2009 in which I began to create a movement that would allow me the personal drive to complete me script and be brave enough to bring my script to life in a full production. Universal Filipino is my artistic offering to the world as well as an opportunity to reveal my personal experiences as a Filipino American growing up in a multicultural reality. I wanted to push my performance abilities in order to bring out the best in me. As a solo performer within a full theater production, Universal Filipino has proven to be my most difficult artistic works to date. What started in my living room, evolved into a community performance in a small arts warehouse and now it has toured on a national level at universities and other cultural arts venues. I have my eyes set on a near future production run on the stages of a Broadway Theater as well as a world tour.
Al Robles often described mixture as being “Halo-Halo”…different but the same. How is UNIVERSAL FILIPINO “Halo Halo”?
I have shared Universal Filipino in front of practically all audiences: Filipino/Filipino American, African American, Chicano/Latino, Caribbean, White, Graduate Law students, Life-Serving inmates at an adult prison, High School and college students, etc…. I titled this production very strategically because it is a political statement acknowledging my roots as a Filipino but possessing the characteristics of a “Universal Identity” as a result of being a child of Diaspora. Universal Filipino is my personal story but my goal is to make it relate-able to just about anyone because we are “different but the same.”
How were you able to connect with your indigenous roots?
I was able to connect with my indigenous roots through my Lola (grandmother), my uncle and Hip Hop. My Lola brought me to the Philippines at first through her stories and unconditional love. But she also brought me back to the Philippines for the first time ever when I was 14 years old. That experience whooped my Americanized teenage mind with an eye opening introduction to the immense realities of Philippines.
At the age of 12 my uncle introduced me to Kali or the Philippine martial arts of the Visayas. We studied in a garage with all of my other younger cousins in San Francisco. I remember my uncle always encouraging us to be strong like the ancient Filipino warriors who also knew Kali. I loved it because it gave me not only discipline but also confidence as a brown skinned youth in North America.
Lastly, Hip Hop helped me connect with my indigenous roots. I fell in love with Hip Hop as a dancer which meant that I was always encouraged to represent my dance skills in circle or cipher. I did not know it at the time but the improvisation that Hip Hop dance brought out of me also allowed me to bring in my martial arts movements and instinctual movement patterns that connect with Philippine folkloric movements.
Universal Filipino combines these stories of what influenced me to be proud of my Philippine culture and how I express myself as a Filipino American Diasporic artist.
One of the things I saw in the UNIVERSAL FILIPINO video clip was that it incorporated the Filipino martial art of Kali. My father is an instructor in the art and recently went to Cebu. What should people know about the art of Kali?
Kali is both beautiful and deadly. I have seen it used to break bones and I have also seen it choreographed into a breath-taking performance. I incorporate Kali into Universal Filipino because it is a part of my personal history and I want the world to be exposed to a traditional martial arts whose origins are traced back to the Philippines. For many Filipino Americans who do not speak Tagalog or other languages of the Philippines, Kali is also an opportunity to connect back with the Philippines through martial arts and movement.
Are you seeing any similarities between New York and the Bay area in terms of gentrification and criminalization of poverty?
I’ve been living and working in New York City for 3 years now. For 2 years I worked as a teacher for young adults striving to obtain their GED. And as an independent artist, I have worked with independent artists, collective and organizations that pro-actively address issues of justice for the most disenfranchised citizens of NYC. The issues of gentrification and criminalization of poor and immigrant communities are very much similar between New York City and the Bay Area. For example, there are places in Harlem that once had a strong ethnic diversity are now filled with white collar professionals or college students who do not know that they are part of urban redevelopment policies known as gentrification. These areas of Harlem in Manhattan are very reminiscent of what’s happening in my old neighborhood of the Mission District in San Francisco. My family was asked to leave our apartment in 1998 when the landlord took advantage of raising the rent to higher paying renters, leaving my family to bounce from apartment to apartment for many years.
As a teacher in Brooklyn I found it extremely disheartening to see the poor conditions for disenfranchised youth and young adults. Many of my students were influenced by gangs, drugs, prostitution, harassment/ racial profiling by the local police and violence in general. I felt as if I never left the streets of West Oakland where I worked as a violence prevention educator and community organizer for 3 years before I moved to NYC. Despite these realities, what stands out the most are how the youth, young adults and the larger community are resilient in not letting these high risk circumstances stop them from achieving their goals. I still receive emails, phone calls or lunches with my former students informing me that they are moving forward in life.
How has UNIVERSAL FILIPINO been received in the various places it has been seen?
I am grateful to have received some amazing responses to Universal Filipino. I performed as the closing performance for a youth empowerment conference in Watsonville, CA. The majority of participants were of immigrant Latino background. I wasn’t sure how they would receive my story considering that I am Filipino American. During the performance I noticed that they were loving it, laughing at relate-able parts or quiet during intense dramatic moments. Many students approached me afterwards to talk more about the play’s themes or simply to show off their dance styles such as the Dougie.
Another interesting moment was when I performed in San Quentin State Prison. There were about 15 male inmates taking an Asian American Theater course, all of different ethnicities. Despite the intimidating feel of the prison, I reminded myself that true art transcends all borders and inmates need pure art just as much as college students because rehabilitation and education go hand in hand. I saw hard faces change into regular people having a good time at a theater performance. I ended my performance with a brief discussion where practically all of the inmates had something to say about how they could relate to Universal Filipino.
Another unique performance worth mentioning was at CUNY Law School. I shared Universal Filipino with graduate law students. I received a standing ovation and a few students came up to me in tears because they were able to connect with my story on a personal level.
What stands out the most was performing in front my family, especially my mother and father. The play is about them just as it is about me. They are both extremely proud of me and I realize that if I can touch my family, I can touch the world. My younger sister elbowed me and said, “Damn, now I got to read more about Filipino history. Thanks Kuya.”
How can people get more information about UNIVERSAL FILIPINO and your other work?
http://urbancrazes.com -online magazine
Last question, if you had to face boxer Nonito Donaire (Current WBC and WBO Bantamweight Champion of the world) in a spoken word battle, who would win?
Only the crowd could judge that one. I know Nonito to be extremely talented as a wordssmith. He puts just as much heart and concentration in boxing as he does as a role model in the community. The best spoken word artists are those who use their art for the good of humanity. It was an amazing experience to open up for Nonito Donaire in 2008, at Mandalay Bay. My spoken word skills along with Nonito Donaire’s punch makes a powerful combination