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The procession held the Christmas lanterns high and slowly circled the gardens, vanquishing the December darkness.
Perhaps by order of the gods, the day’s torrential downpour had ceased. Even drunken Santa Con participants who stumbled through SoMa suddenly righted themselves at the sight: Dozens of Filipinos lifting their handmade, star-shaped parols to the sky.
“PAROL STROLL! PAROL STROLL!” someone shouted moments earlier. This was the signal: A line of bundled-up seniors, families, activists, and saucy teens departed from the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and began the procession at Yerba Buena Gardens. Their stroll would pass St. Patrick’s Church on Mission and Fourth streets, and slowly wind around the garden’s illuminated waterfall.
Among the crowd was bearded MC Canlas, dressed in a hoodie and holding a parol he had wired in front of me just minutes earlier. This — all of this — was his doing. The SoMa Pilipinas Cultural District we then occupied, a few of the Filipino cultural groups participating in the stroll, the 20th Parol Stroll itself. All Canlas’ handiwork.
Let there be light
Parols are most well-known in the Filipino city of San Fernando, the capital of the province Pampanga, and the city in which Canlas, and my mother, were raised. Perhaps you’ve seen a parol illuminating a storefront on Mission Street or accentuating the prim beauty of a church – the pointed stars and gleaming sampabells that flash in hurried rhythms.
Canlas said his city’s contribution to creating the parol had something to do with its surfeit of bus and car lights. Those urban lights eventually transformed the simplistic versions of candlelit parols into flashy affairs.
Though some disagree about the parols’ origins, the most common belief is that parols arrived when the Spanish introduced Christianity to the Philippines. The lanterns evoked an important part of Jesus’s birth, the star that guided the disoriented wise men to the manger. The lanterns are hung in windows and carried in processions before Christmas and at mass in towns and cities across the Philippines, Canlas explained.
Canlas understood the parols’ power some 20 years ago. A self-described “reluctant” immigrant, Canlas left his homeland for Los Angeles in 1985, one year before the People Power Revolution he wished to join would pressure the dictator Ferdinand Marcos to step down. Once the movement succeeded, his sister said he had no excuse; the battle was won, his organizing should be here, in the United States.
Canlas moved to San Francisco, began to learn the history of Filipinos who came here in earlier waves, and fell in love with the city, becoming an ethnohistorian and a San Francisco organizer.
Filipinos gravitated to the South of Market neighborhood following WWII and the Immigration Act of 1965, according to SOMA Pilipinas. The ubiquity of churches and cheap housing, as well as the proximity to downtown jobs, drew them to SoMa, Canlas said.
He established the SoMa Pilipinas Cultural District, which the city made official in 2016. Canlas wanted to find what would inspire and soothe his fellow immigrant Filipinos — both their “longing” for home and a need to “claim their space” here. He knew how much they missed Christmas on the islands.
Then a light-bulb moment: The perfect symbol was the parol.
“The lantern is good because it’s acceptable to everybody. It’s Filipino,” Canlas said. But most of all? “They will recognize it.”
He launched the first parol workshops and Parol Stroll in 2003, and over the years the Christmas tradition caught on. Soon the lanterns populated San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, the Public Library, Yerba Buena Gardens, and the SoMa commercial corridor.
The most important thing for the Filipinos promenading with those parols, Canlas told me, “is the concept of being proud of who they are.”
Al Perez stood at attention, ready to explain the parol submitted by his organization, Pistahan Parade and Festival. Each year the Parol Lantern Festival designates a contest, and this year’s contest theme was “Illuminating Legacy to Light Our Paths.”
Some contestants chose to pay homage to this by featuring the 1986 People Power Revolution, or local figures like Robert Marquez. Perez’ group went a more local route.
The blue, star-shaped lantern his group submitted is adorned with white cutout symbols to represent diverse communities in San Francisco, including the Castro, the Mission, and of course, the SoMa. There’s St. Patrick’s Church, the redwoods of Yerba Buena Gardens, and at “the center,” of the parol, the youth hold hands. That image represents their power, and how heritage is passed on, Perez said. It represents Filipinos here and now in San Francisco.
“During dark times, families, communities, and neighbors must band together to bring light to the world,” he read, periodically pointing toward the parol’s features through his giant grin.
Perez and other Filipinos have been crafting parols since elementary school. Back then in Manila, students built theirs in the “economical” way, Perez recalled — out of bamboo sticks and Japanese paper. Now, more expensive and durable ones encased in capiz, the abundant Filipino seashell, are more popular.
Across the room, just past the choir of kids singing on stage, Maria Tuason asked Canlas for help. After all, on top of the cultural district, and this festival, Canlas founded the organization Tuason is now staff at: the Filipino Education Center Galing Bata on Harrison Street.
Neither looked up from their parol as they wrapped the lights around sticks, but bits of dialogue passed between them like notes. What now? Where does this go? The 23-year-old asked. Like this, here, here, the 66-year-old matter-of-factly instructed.
Tuason lives near Ocean Beach, and is a child of immigrants. Parols played a large role in her life; she enrolled in Galing Bata as a kindergartener, and now teaches how to make parols in workshops.
Minutes before the Parol Stroll, the pair finish — Canlas first — revealing wooden stars that they will show off later.
“It’s something I’ve been used to, growing up. It’s just part of…what’s the word? Part of the tradition,” Tuason said. She excuses herself politely. The stroll is going to start.
‘Bringing visibility to the culture’
A day before the festival, the forecast threatened rain. However Desi Danganan, founder of Filipino cultural organization Kultivate Labs, wasn’t worried. Each year the festival has grown in popularity, evidenced by hundreds of attendees and more and more parols that line windows of storefronts. Danganan expected the same this year.
“I think seeing the parol adopted helps bring visibility to their culture,” Danganan said. When “you see joyous parts of your culture being adopted, it equalizes the playing field.”
For Canlas and others, the strengthening of cultural recognition can sometimes translate into political and civic power. Danganan compares Kultivate Labs’ success in developing senior Filipino housing on an abandoned lot to that of parol-making and the “adaptability” of his people. Before the stroll started, I spotted District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey in attendance.
But aside from an invitation for outsiders to learn about parols, the festival opened the gate for Filipinos to learn about it, too.
“To be honest, when I was growing up I wasn’t exposed to parol lanterns,” Danganan said. “There are still other Filipino-Americans who are learning about traditions that are being revived here in America.”
The next generation
My family had a parol too, once. It lay unwrapped, relegated to the foot of the fireplace, the spot where all unused items go to collect dust. I would inspect it gingerly, understanding that this odd-shaped lantern represented my mother’s culture, but not knowing exactly how.
It’s not unusual for children of immigrants to lose the language or the culture of parents who may have rushed to assimilate. I am one. As a kid, I rebuffed opportunities to learn our languages — Tagalog, or our dialect of kapampangan — and eventually my mom stopped trying to teach me.
The parol, however, was something I recognized. It became something I could hold onto, something from my culture besides food that I could claim. I point it out to colleagues, to friends. The image of my mother’s parol is burned in my brain; a bougainvillea shape, a classic, those at the festival would tell me, enshrined in capiz.
Rona Fernandez, a writer and member of the Filipino Advocates for Justice, empathized as she ate some cassava cake and pandesal bread at the festival. It was her first time, too. Fernandez’ childhood Christmas resembled mine, with a Christmas tree as the centerpiece.
“I like them, and I think they’re beautiful,” Fernandez said of the parols. “I might go get one. They’re all new to me.”
At first walking around the festival, I blushed. It felt silly to ask folks questions about something I should already know. It felt humiliating to stare blankly in response to any Tagalog dropped in the conversation.
Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that came over me on a prior December night, when I was coming home from the Museum of Modern Art. I saw the parols hanging at Yerba Buena Gardens, and stopped, entranced. As I watched the lantern shine brightly from its nucleus to its points, shattering the night’s frigid blackness, I felt the pang I always do when seeing one. Someone out here decided the Philippines is important. Someone loves my family.
After standing hypnotized for a while, I decided to finally learn about the parols — some two decades after Canlas launched the first stroll.
Finally there, at the 20th Parol Lantern Festival, I stood speechless again. The different iterations of Filipinos and non-Filipinos marched armed with glowing lanterns, illuminating SoMa. I thought about what Canlas shared earlier about the new generation of Filipinos. “This will be sustained because they are going to do it.”
Thank you, Annika, for this article and especially for sharing your experiences and thoughts as a member of this proud and fun SoMA Filipino community 🙏🏽