poetry & tsismis: emily's blog

May 17, 2011

THIS WEEKEND: Mosaic’s Play on Northern High School 1966 Student Strike in Detroit

 Last weekend, we took our kindergartner to see the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit’s production of Northern Lights 1966: The Powerful True Story of Detroit Students Who Stood Up For Their Rights and Won and she loved it; we all loved it. It is the moving inspiration that we need, in a time when all levels of education in Detroit and throughout Michigan are in a crisis. Anyone who believes in people power and values education should see this play! This weekend is the last chance to see it. There is a special student matinee on May 19, half priced tickets on May 20, and closing performances on May 21-22, 2011, all at the Detroit Film Theatre inside the DIA (Detroit Institute of Arts).

 With an original play written by former Detroiter and current NYU Prof. Michael Dinwiddie, the Mosaic youth performers are excellent actors who perfectly punctuate the script by singing songs of the time between scenes and set changes. All of the 72-member cast of Northern Lights 1966 are believable actors because they are high school students playing their own age, lead by actors Charles Hurt, Nathan Alford-Tate,and Joselyn Hill. Kudos to our friend Courtney Burkett, who brilliantly directed the play. In the playbill she writes,

“This story is one of triumph, of rising above adversity, and standing up for what is right. . . When the inequities of their education reached a point that was no longer tolerable, these students created a new reality.  . . Unfortunately, the problems that plagued the students on Northern High School in 1966 are many of the same problems that plague the system today, forty five years later.”

Northern High School was an historic school in Detroit, with many famous alumni, including Aretha Franklin, Betty Shabazz, and Smokey Robinson. It is where the Motown singing group later called “The Miracles” was founded.

The day we went to see the Northern Lights 1966 play, Rick Sperling, Founder and CEO of Mosaic, introduced some Northern High School alumni who were in attendance. One who stood up was Karl Gregory, a Wayne State University Professor who, we find out later in the play, helped the students. In April 1966, more than 1000 students at Northern went on strike to protest inequities and unfair treatment at the school.  During their walk-out, they decided to start their own Freedom School and asked Dr. Gregory to become the Principal; he managed to get other university professors to be teachers during the 2.5 week strike. It was cool to see the audience reaction to the dozens of actors who were portraying people that they knew. I won’t spoil the ending for you, because you really need to see this play.

Lastly, we were extra proud to see a shout-out in the program insert to our colleague and friend, Stephen Ward, Assistant Professor in the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and the Residential College at the University of Michigan, who directed the historical research done by UM students in the Semester-in-Detroit program and funded by the UM Arts of Citizenship. As an oral historian, one part I appreciated the most was the use of archival images on screens in the backdrop during different scenes and even intermission. You can read more about Stephen’s Semester-in-Detroit project that lead to the play and see archival images HERE: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/UMICH/lsa_alumni/Home/_TOPNAV_LSA%20Magazine/2009%20Fall/09fall-p42-43.pdf

Stephen is also on the Board of the Boggs Center and just published the book Pages From a Black Radical’s Notebook: A James Boggs Reader.  Reading that book, alongside The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs with Scott Kurashige, and seeing the play Northern Lights 1966 should give you plenty of inspiration to accomplish anything: even, and especially in Detroit.

Go see the play THIS WEEKEND and  tell me what you think! 🙂

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See related Detroit News article:  “Play reprises student protest at Northern High”

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Emily P. Lawsin is a spoken word performance poet and the co-author of Filipino Women in Detroit: 1945-1955. She teaches Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies in the Program in American Culture and Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.



October 7, 2008

Remembering Uncle Sam + Poem

Remembering Uncle Sam + Poem

I lost a lot of important people in my life this last year, including my mother, who I will definitely write more about, here or elsewhere, at another time. And today, as always, I’m remembering my “Northridge/FANHS-L.A. Dad”, Uncle Sam.

It’s been exactly one year since I received the phone call from Uncle Fred Cordova about his brother, Sam Balucas, who passed away October 7, 2007, in Southern California, at the age of 75. “Uncle Sam”, as many of us called him, was a fellow Trustee and National Treasurer of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and President of the FANHS-L.A. Chapter.

I would have never survived the nine years that I lived in Los Angeles without Sam. By way of background: I had the good fortune of being raised in “SHE-attle”, Washington, a major port of entry for thousands of Filipino immigrants since the early 1900s. I grew up on the Filipino Youth Activities (FYA) Khórdobah Drill Team, the only one of its kind in the nation. The FYA Cabataán Folk Dancers started in 1957, and the FYA Drill Team followed in 1959. In the form of what I call a pioneering cultural/freedom school, the FYA was founded by Fred and Dorothy Laigo Cordova with other Seattle families. They wanted to teach their children pride in our cultural heritage at a time when racism and discrimination made it not so popular to do so. The FYA later became a United Way social service agency. As many Seattle Pinoys are, I am actually related to Auntie Dorothy by marriage (through my Floresca sisters and Ordonia cousins). Ever since I was 12 years old, Uncle Fred and Auntie Dorothy have been my mentors, then my college professors at the University of Washington, and then the officiant and godparents at my wedding. With the FYA drill team, we traveled everywhere, including Washington DC and California, where as Maharani/Team Leader, I must have briefly met Fred’s brothers, Phil Ventura and Sam Balucas.

So when I moved to UCLA for graduate school, Uncle Fred, the archivist and information specialist that he is, sent me with a care package and a list of phone numbers. He said, “These are my brothers in L.A, call them, and they will take care of you.” And take care of me, they did.

A couple of years later, when we chartered the FANHS-Los Angeles chapter in 1993, Uncle Sam served as our first chapter Treasurer. He went on to serve two terms as FANHS-LA Chapter President before he became a National Trustee/Treasurer and then was re-elected L.A. Chapter President the year before he died.

If you ever went to a FANHS Conference (held every two years), Sam, a widower, was usually the one counting the money or buying all the ladies drinks (probably so FANHS could make its quota on the bar tab). When my partner and I decided to move to the Valley to be closer to my work (CSUN) and a rental opened up one block away from Sam’s house, we jumped on the chance to live so close to him.

Whenever any students would meet Sam, or his brothers, sisters, or cousins,

Back L-R: Sam Balucas, Emily, Darline & Phil Ventura. Front: Fred & Dorothy Cordova, at FANHS Conference in Honolulu, July 1, 2006

they would be amazed at meeting a Filipino American elder that “didn’t have an accent”, because Sam was SECOND GENERATION. He and his siblings are from what we call the “Bridge Generation”, those Pinoys — Filipino Americans — born in the U.S. to the pioneers of immigrants before 1945. You can read more of Sam’s obituary HERE. Leave it to Sam to pass away during October, which FANHS established as Filipino American History Month, a nationwide observance.

Below is a poem that I wrote amidst a flood of tears on the day that Sam died. It is titled “Tale-Gating” because Uncle Sam was famous for “tail gating” and hosting huge Superbowl parties, as well as telling the funniest tales. I tried to remember all the moments I was blessed to share with him… His daughter, Sami, was kind enough to ask me to read this at the funeral last year. I will always be grateful to her and her family for sharing their dad with us.

Here’s to you, Uncle Sam. I know you’re cookin’ up a storm with my mom, Thelma, and many others in heaven. “Love you darlings.”


“Tale-Gating with Sam”

In Memory of Edward Samuel Balucas

August, 1932 – October 7, 2007

© by Emily P. Lawsin

“Social change begins in the kitchen.”

~ Joan May T. Cordova, 1989.

This is a poem for Uncle Sam,

who drove me up and down long and short paths,

crossing highways and building roads

to his Bridge Generation and so many more in the Southland,

the only way a Pinoy ever could: through food.

Half the time we talked about Filipino Americans,

the other half the time, he cracked jokes, or nuts, or ice,

while all the time, we talked about food,

all kinds of food: his nilaga and sinigang, his brother Phil’s mongo, and garlic rice.

Dinuguan became “did not go on”, pusit became “opposite”.

It was like growing up in Seattle again listening to his brother Fred’s jokes.

We shared recipes while driving to meetings,

cooking techniques while flying to conferences,

called each other when we found a yummy new restaurant in the Valley,

jumped in his truck to get a few fresh Tilapia fried at Seafood City market.

He showed me how to poke the eyeballs to test if the fish was still fresh,

then he screamed when its gills moved; he laughed about his fishing trips with Jerry,

asked me if my dad ate the eyeballs too. Who’s doesn’t?

One minute he explained tax forms and financial statements

and the next minute we compared grocery prices and the quality of Albertson’s meats.

We set up booths at festivals and community centers,

just so we could people-watch and tsismis.

A Santa Claus twinkle in his eye lit up his hacking laugh over a cooler at our feet,

with enough sandwiches, water, and sodas for the whole barrio.

While sharing 100 Ways to Tell You’re Filipino

and 100 ways to cook asparagus,

he talked story about growing up brown in the delta,

and the politics of water-cooler trash talk at Hughes Aircraft, many years after he retired.

He spoke proudly of his grandkids and his “girls”,

his daughters, who, whether they know it or not,

through his stories and their actions,

taught me to be a better daughter myself.

Sam was more than our President/Treasurer/Manong/Brother/Uncle/Friend/Cook/Taxman/Fisherman.

He was our Dad too,

who gave birth to a whole new generation

of Los Angeles Pinoys and definitely Pinays

who are proud to share his-story,

who bless the day we first met

in his kitchen.

I love you and will miss you, Uncle Sam,

but I know you’re saving us all a seat at the table.

October 7, 2007 – Detroit




Click HERE to Read My Previous Blog Post: Podcast of Spoken Word Performance at East Meets West Show



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