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Remembering Flori Montante

An Entrusted Legacy

Ferdinand De Leon


When Flori Montante died in January 2013, the future of Pagdiriwang, the annual showcase of Filipino culture that she had led since 1987, seemed suddenly in doubt. She was, after all, the driving force that kept the festival planning on track despite constant struggles with funding and the challenge of coordinating the competing needs of all participating groups. Yet under her guidance, the festival somehow always came together.


Pagdiriwang - and its team of volunteers - have survived their difficult transition intact and invigorated. That the festival continues on is the ultimate testament, many say, to the strong foundation that Montante built.


“Flori had a vision for Pagdiriwang,” said Dorothy Cordova, executive director of the Filipino American National Historical Society, one of the organizations that have supported Pagdiriwang since the start. Cordova is also Montante’s cousin. “A lot of us became involved in this festival because we loved her. They were loyal to her and even though there were tough times, they came back.”


From the very beginning, Pagdiriwang was a group effort.

Before Pagdiriwang, there had been annual Philippine Independence Day celebrations at Seattle Center, initially limited to consulate receptions, and then smaller festivals. In 1987, Montante formed the Filipino Cultural Heritage Society of Washington with the idea of bringing together Filipino cultural and arts organizations to work on an expanded festival.


The Society’s original members included the leading local cultural and arts groups, including the Baranggay Folk Arts, which included the Baranggay Chorale and the Baranggay Folk Dance Troupe, the Fiesta Filipina Dance Ensemble, the Kaisahan Dance Company, the Filipiniana Dance Company, Folklorico Filipino, the International Drop In Center (IDIC) Sounds and Rhythm, and  the Filipino Youth Activities, which included the Kabataan Folk Dancers, the Khordoba Drill Team and the Silayan Singers. Today, many of the same organizations continue to play a part in Pagdiriwang. 


Montante was also instrumental in reaching out to supporters outside the arts. Lucho Singh, a Filipino-American businessman long active in the Filipino community, was one of the early backers of Pagdiriwang. Over the years, he was among the loyal group of supporters that Montante turned to for financial support for the festival.

“There was no division in those days,” Singh said. “She called everybody in and they started coming in. We were all together and there was no intrigue.”


Dolly Castillo, the Activities Coordinator for the International Drop-In Center (IDIC), has also participated in Pagdiriwang since its early years, as part of the Baranggay Folk Arts, and also as a member of Young Once, the IDIC’s singing group, recalled how the first Pagdiriwang  came together. 


“Flori wrote to the different Filipino organizations and those who were interested in participating came,” Castillo said. “She tried to get everyone to join in.”


It was Conrado “Sluggo” Rigor, the executive director of the International Drop-In Center, who suggested the festival’s name to Montante. With his background in public relations and advertising, Rigor understood the need to give the fledgling festival a distinctive brand – something more unique than the bland “Philippine Independence Day Celebration” title that had been used for previous festivals. 


“I wanted to make it short and memorable,” said Rigor. He suggested “pagdiriwang” the Filipino word for celebration. Montante, who is from northern Philippines and spoke the Ilocano dialect, wasn’t familiar with the word, but quickly warmed to the idea.


In the succeeding years, Pagdiriwang quickly grew and expanded its programming.


In 1988, Pagdiriwang added the Little Royalty pageant, which provided an important fundraising vehicle for the festival. The following year, the festival held its first art exhibit, featuring the works of Philippine painter Fredinel Banaag, and the Filipino American Educators of Washington joined the festivities with its first literary musical program. 


“Practically every year there was something new and then the year after that it became a regular part of the festival,” said Castillo. 


The festival was quickly embraced by the community.


“It’s important to bring Filipino tradition and culture to the U.S.” said Singh. “Pagdiriwang is all about what makes Filipino culture unique. It’s who we are.”


Gene Navarro, a second generation Filipino-American, remembered that the when the Philippine Independence Day celebrations were held on July 4th, members of the Filipino community in Seattle used to congregate on Seward Park’s Pinoy Hill, but when the independence day celebrations were moved to early June, that tradition started to fade. When Pagdiriwang started, Navarro brought his children to give them exposure to Filipino culture.

“At Pagdiriwang you get to see a little bit of everything, it’s nice to have,” he said. “We go every year, and now I bring my grandkids.”


Castillo, who was a Seattle Public Schools teacher for decades before retiring, also appreciates the educational value the festival presents.


“As a senior citizen, I like being involved and sharing my culture,” said Castillo, who is 89. “That’s the only way to stay sharp. It’s better than staying at home and staring at the ceiling. It’s so nice getting into our costumes and explaining the history of the Philippines to people who don’t know much about our culture. We can use it as an entrée into our culture. It’s not just about performance; we’re able to teach history. It’s a great way to connect with people.”


The festival continues to evolve. In 1993, Fil-Am Jam was added to the mix to showcase local Filipino-American jazz and fusion musicians and bands, an expansion beyond the traditional Filipino music that had dominated the festival. More recently, hip hop and rap have also found a home at Pagdiriwang, usually as part of the Summer H.Y.P.E. programming.


Montante, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s, preferred to keep the focus on traditional Filipino arts and wasn’t always comfortable with some of the changes, Cordova said.

“When H.Y.P.E. happened, we had to talk her into it,” Cordova said. “Flori said: ‘I don’t like that hip-hop,’ But eventually she went along with it. Flori brought in people who had ideas, and were willing to fight for them. The good thing was that she allowed it to happen.”


In recent years, Pagdiriwang also took on some of its most ambitious projects. In 2009, as part of the year-long citywide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, Pagdiriwang featured a recreation of the Igorotte Village showcased in the original exposition, including the construction of traditional huts atop Fisher Pavilion on the Seattle Center grounds.


Last year, in time for the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair, Pagdiriwang hosted the Bayanihan Dance Troupe, which had performed at the Seattle Center during the World’s Fair.


These triumphs came during a difficult period for Montante. Four years before her death, Montante was seriously hurt in a car accident and was incapacitated for several months. Montante continued to run Pagdiriwang, but was never again at full strength, Cordova said.


Some of the heavy organizational load of planning Pagdiriwang was carried by a succession of community leaders, including the late Roy Flores, former vice-president for Student Development Services at North Seattle Community College and Ellen Abellera, the former executive director of the state’s Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. In 2013, J.P. Paredes has stepped into the leadership void left by Montante’s death.

As new leaders and participants work to reshape Pagdiriwang, one of the issues they will likely continue to grapple with is whether the festival should remain focused on traditional Filipino arts or cater to a new generation of Filipino Americans who are more rooted in American culture.


Rigor, who is optimistic about the future of Pagdiriwang, said he hopes to see the festival continue to strive to bring the best of the old country to Seattle, citing 2012’s performance by the Bayanihan Dance Troupe as an example of the level of excellence that Pagdiriwang should strive to showcase.


“It’s a matter of cultural pride,” Rigor said. “We’re known as the people who dance with bamboo sticks. There has got to be much more than that. It’s got to represent us. We need to ask: what can we share with the mainstream world that would make us proud? When you’re in America, you see other cultures and what they bring. I think we also have something to share.”


Cordova, meanwhile, believes that Pagdiriwang will need to continue to reach out to younger Filipino Americans to remain relevant, and as the leadership of Pagdiriwang starts to become more American-born, she believes the festival will evolve to reflect their interests.


But even as Pagdiriwang’s core team soldiers on, Auntie Flori’s absence continues to be felt.


As she sits in her office, recalling all the years working together with Montante, Cordova pauses, suddenly overcome with emotion. “I really miss her,” she said quietly, fighting back tears. “She was an amazing woman, and she will always be remembered.” 

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