On August 4, 1990, Pista sa Nayon, an annual Filipino American celebration featuring traditional food, arts, crafts, and entertainment, is held for the first time in Seattle at the Rainier Playfield, at the corner of Rainier Avenue S and S Alaska Street. The name of the event, roughly translated from Tagalog, the native language of the Philippines, means "town festival." Relocated to the amphitheater at Seward Park in 1995, it draws thousands of people each year for what Cindy Cawaling, chair of the 2010 Pista, has called “the essential family reunion on a wonderfully grand scale” (www.pista.com).
The history of Pista sa Nayon dates back centuries, preceding the arrival of the Spanish explorers who gave the Philippine archipelago the name of King Philip II in the 1540s. Pista was originally a harvest festival. Later, it was held in conjunction with the annual or biannual arrivals of the Spanish galleons that linked Manila and Acapulco, Mexico. In either case, it was "a time for people to focus on their neighbors, family and friends, solidifying the sense of community and hard work" (www.pista.com).
Filipino immigrants brought the tradition with them when they began to migrate to the United States in large numbers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most American cities with large Filipino populations -- including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Honolulu -- have Pista celebrations. However, the Seattle fiesta, which has attracted up to 15,000 people, remains unsurpassed in size.
"Not Another Festival"
Seattle’s Pista was first proposed in 1989 by Ron Sims (b. 1948), then a member of the King County Council, later King County Executive. With his wife, Cayan Topacio, and his staff assistant, Bengie Santos (both Filipino Americans), Sims asked the Filipino American community for help in presenting a summer festival associated with Seafair. Many other ethnic groups already had celebrations as part of Seafair; Sims thought a Pista would give Seattle’s Filipinos a sense of connection and partnership with the broader community. "He had been to all these ethnic parades and he said that everyone had one except for the Filipino Americans," Santos recalled. "So he said, ‘Ya know you guys gotta do one' " (The Seattle Times, 1992).
By 1990, the Filipino American community had become the largest group of Asian Americans in Washington state. About 30,000 Filipinos were living in the Puget Sound area, concentrated in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. Sims, Topacio, Santos, and other Filipino American leaders mobilized this community to support the establishment of the first Pista.
Former City Councilwoman Dolores Sibonga (b. 1931) served as co-chair. Sibonga said the Filipino community was enthusiastic; the city, less so. "It was because we were new and it was like ‘oh no not another Seafair event, not another festival,' " she told The Seattle Times in 1992.
The first Pista drew about 2,000 people to Rainier Playfield. The 10th, held at Seward Park in 2000, was attended by more than 10,000. The festival had become one of the ethnic highlights of Seattle’s summer.
Synthesis of East and West
Now in its 21st year, the format of Pista has remained unchanged. Food vendors tempt passersby with such traditional fare as adobo (marinated chicken or pork), lumpia (fresh or fried spring rolls), pansit (noodles), and halo-halo (a sweet, creamy dessert made with preserved beans, candied fruit, coconut, ice cream, shaved ice, and miscellaneous other ingredients). There’s music, ranging from jazz to hip hop; demonstrations of traditional dances, such as the tinikling, in which dancers step over and in between bamboo poles that are rapidly tapped, beat, and slid on the ground; various games; exhibits; arts and crafts -- all honoring and celebrating the cultural heritage of Filipino Americans.
"There's a relaxed vibe to things," wrote Tony Kay, Seattle film and music writer, after attending the 2010 Pista, held on August 1. "Filipinos and Filipino Americans from every strata of the local topography waltz through the park's grounds, eating, laughing, hanging out, and drinking deeply of their culture" (www.thesunbreakcom).
Kay, a "non-Pinoy" (a nickname derived from the last four letters of "Filipino," with the suffix "y") and Pista novice, was struck by its synthesis of East and West. "The Philippines have always been considered the scrappy blue-collar sibling amongst eastern countries, a nation of remote Asian islands living under the dual shadows of Spanish and American influences," he wrote. "But like a lot of non-Pinoy, I've never seen how Filipino culture synthesized those western influences with its own hothouse exoticism, and short of booking a flight to Manila, this is the closest this outsider will come to viewing it."