AS the new year approaches, the Asian Journal editorial team looks back at the LifeEastyle Magazine stories from 2019. Each week, the LifeEastyle Magazine features long-form stories of Filipino Americans who continue to break barriers in their respective career fields, as well as highlighting the Fil-Am experience living in America and the social issues the community faces.

The 52 features published have covered books by Fil-Am authors, single moms who run their own businesses, married couples who work together, a Netflix docuseries about Cebu’s infamous jail that has dancing prisoners, and Fil-Am chefs nominated for James Beard Awards and opening new restaurants.

While it’s difficult to narrow down the best features — as each one is compelling — we remember several stories that have been widely shared and talked about.

Catriona Gray’s Miss Universe reign
| AJPress photo by Troi Santos

Catriona Gray’s Miss Universe reign

When Catriona Elisa Magnayon Gray left Manila for Bangkok to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, she had meticulously planned and laid everything out so that the moment the competition started, she let go and told herself to enjoy and have fun representing the Philippines.

“Every single time I stepped onstage I just enjoyed myself and I think people saw that. I was just happy to be there,” Gray told the Asian Journal in a freewheeling interview at the Miss Universe Organization’s new office in midtown Manhattan.

This was Day 3 of her hectic Media Week schedule doing interviews with Good Morning America, Live with Kelly & Ryan, AOL Build Series, Good Day NY and also with ABS-CBN and GMA Network from the Philippines.

Gray arrived in New York on January 2nd, after spending the holidays in seclusion. She celebrated her 25th birthday on January 6th which she spent going to church, eating out and watching Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway.

Anne del Castillo, Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment on her appointment: “I am honored to accept the Mayor’s appointment, and grateful for the opportunity to continue to work with MOME’s dedicated team to support the development of New York City’s creative sectors and nightlife industry.” | AJPress Photo by Momar G. Visaya

Getting to know Anne del Castillo

Anne Del Castillo is the new Commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment after getting appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio on April 17, 2019.

She is the fourth Filipina American to be appointed by Mayor de Blasio in key city posts. From Maria Torres Springer (former commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), the nation’s largest municipal housing agency) to Carmelyn Malalis of the Commission on Human Rights and Minerva Tantoco as the city’s Chief Technology Officer.

“I never ever thought that I’d be in this position. It’s a privilege and a very significant responsibility that I feel every day. It’s not just because I am Filipina that I feel like diversity is important in the industry,” she said. “New York City is an incredibly diverse city and I had the benefit…if I had grown up Filipina anywhere else, it would be a very different experience.”

The husband and wife team of Cheryl Baun and Paolo Mendoza
| AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Karenderya’s journey and how Esquire played a major part in it

Karenderya, a Filipino-inspired restaurant, opened its doors in the suburban village of Nyack in July 2017. More than a year later, the fast-casual restaurant was named in Esquire Magazine’s Best New Restaurants in America 2018 list.

According to Esquire, “In the future, we pray, thousands of small towns in America will have Filipino restaurants as excellent as this one, with adobo pork belly braised to crispy meltiness atop garlic rice, and shrimp aswim in a coconut broth that tastes like French cream, and a cassava-jackfruit cake that comes across like a cobbler in which the topping and the filling have magically merged, and a smart beer list that highlights the best of Hudson Valley breweries.”

“That was completely crazy, totally unexpected,” Cheryl said, remembering the moment. “It was a validation, not that we needed one because we’ve known that this food is good all along. Not our food in particular but Filipino food in general. It feels like a win for our culture and for Filipino food.”

Alex Eala, the teen tennis sensation from the Philippines, made her US Open debut last September and reached the second round of both singles and doubles competitions. | AJPress photo by Troi Santos

Fresh Face at the US Open: Alex Eala makes her US Open junior debut

Alexandra Eala, the 14-year-old teen tennis star from the Philippines, made an impressive US Open Juniors Championship debut last September, dismissing her Australian opponent in straight sets with a commanding 6-1, 6-0 score.

Eala made it to the main draw of Juniors Girls Singles  as one of the eight qualifiers who had to win two times at the Cary Leeds Tennis Center in the Bronx, before moving to the main site at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens to be among 64 teens running after the title.

“This win is definitely a stepping stone to where I want to be in the future, which is to play pro, obviously, so I’m going to be working hard and practice more to achieve that goal,”  Eala told the Asian Journal after the match. “I knew it was going to be hard today, all the matches are going to be hard, so hopefully I’d perform well in the next few matches.”

Kay Trinidad of Hadestown

Kay Trinidad of Hadestown: Master of her own fate

Hadestown is undoubtedly the hottest show on Broadway this season. It led the pack and received an astounding 14 Tony Award nominations, winning in eight categories including Best Musical.

It is special for Filipino Americans too, because one of the principal cast members is Eva Noblezada, who received her second Tony nomination for lead actress.

Eagle-eyed audience members will notice though that it’s not just Eva who is Filipino in the main cast but one of the three scene-stealing trio called The Fates is a certified Pinay as well.

Her name is Kay Trinidad and in an interview with the Asian Journal, she expressed how thankful she is for being part of an amazing cast and an even more amazing show.

“It feels like a dream! I am so incredibly humbled and grateful to be a part of this very special show, this beautiful, inspiring and epic masterpiece.” Trinidad said.

Alan Ariano and Nacho Tambunting star in Felix Starro, a Filipino American musical about a Filipino faith healer. | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Felix Starro, a new Filipino American musical, premieres off Broadway

Finally, for the first-time ever, a musical created and directed by Filipino Americans was presented off-Broadway.

Ma-Yi Theater Company opened its 30th anniversary season with the world premiere of Felix Starro, a new musical by Jessica Hagedorn and Fabian Obispo.

Felix Starro, based on a powerful short story by acclaimed Filipino American writer Lysley Tenorio, stars The King and I and Miss Saigon alum Alan Ariano playing the title role.

Directed by Ralph B. Peña, this Filipino musical also features Caitlin Cisco, Francisca Muñoz, Ryan James Ortega, Diane Phelan, Nacho Tambunting, and Obie and Lortel award-winner Ching Valdes-Aran.

“This is a blessing for me, to be able to do this.” Ariano said. “We don’t see a lot of representation, we don’t see Filipinos on stage all the time so to actually find out that there’s a new, original musical written for Filipinos, about Filipinos, by Filipinos, that’s great news.”

“Float” made history as the first Pixar animation featuring Filipino characters when it aired on Disney+ on November 12. | Photo courtesy of Pixar

‘Float,’ Pixar’s first animated short with Filipino characters, lands on Disney+

Social media was abuzz when Pixar revealed that it would release its first-ever animated short featuring CGI Filipino characters. “Float” — written and directed by Fil-Am storyboard artist Bobby Alcid Rubio — finally became available on streaming service Disney+ this past November. In the roughly seven-minute short, a father tries to keep his infant son’s special ability to float a secret. But once it gets out, the father must decide whether to run and hide or to accept his son as he is.

Based on his own relationship with his son Alex, Rubio developed the story and made the characters Filipino after being encouraged by colleagues, and eventually submitted it to Pixar’s SparkShorts program. “I wasn’t even thinking of them being Filipino…This is just my unconscious bias. I’m not used to seeing Filipinos as lead characters and it felt very empowering to have my coworkers push this diverse person of color to be a lead,” Rubio said.

As “Float” has globally been recognized as a win for Filipino representation, Rubio wanted the story to be universal and relatable regardless of culture and background. “At the end of the day, it is about the bond between father and son. It’s about unconditional love…” he said. 

H.E.R. grew up in the Bay Area of California with a “good balance” of the Filipino and Black American cultures.
| Photo courtesy of Facebook/OfficialHERMusic

Getting to know H.E.R., the Fil-Am R&B singer nominated for 5 Grammys

2019 was quite the year for R&B sensation H.E.R., who was nominated for five Grammys and won two: Best R&B Album for her EP “H.E.R” and Best R&B Performance for “Best Part” with Daniel Caesar. On top of that, she was featured on Spotify billboards for Best New Artist, performed at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, created her own music festival (the Lights On Festival) in September, and released a compilation mixtape called “I Used to Know Her.”

Born in 1997, H.E.R. — whose real name is Gabriella “Gabi” Wilson — said she was raised with a “good balance” of the Filipino and Black American cultures in her home. Those influences taught her how to be a hard worker as well as a love for music and expression. 

For most performances, she wears dark sunglasses. In her album cover art, her eyes are blacked out and you rarely get a look at her face. And unlike so many stars, she’s never one to overshare and maintains a low-key profile. “I wanted the music to be No. 1, I wanted it to get the attention, the forefront, the No. 1 focus, and I wanted people to just listen and love the music because sometimes we get caught up in the gimmicks, the looks, and the glitz: these things that don’t really matter to me,” H.E.R. shared. 

Fil-Am model and transgender advocate Geena Roceros poses at the “Behind the Lens” event at the Playboy Playhouse on Thursday, June 20 in New York City. | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Fil-Am model Geena Rocero rewrites Playboy’s history as its first transgender API Playmate

Over the summer, Fil-Am model and transgender advocate Geena Rocero became the first transgender Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Playboy Playmate, appearing as the centerfold of the magazine’s Gender & Sexuality issue.

In the issue, Rocero wrote about her “strict Catholic upbringing in the Philippines” and being inspired by seeing transgender beauty pageants on national television. “We spoke English in the Philippines, but when I moved to the United States at 17 and started hanging out with other teenagers, it was a totally different culture,” she said. 

She plans to use this new platform to be more visible and continue fighting for trans rights. Since her viral TED talk in 2014, she co-founded Gender Proud, a media production company that tells stories about the global transgender community. “I have to speak about Caroline Tula Cossey because that was so critical for me. What a full circle moment, I was this young trans girl living in Manila and dreaming of one day becoming a model like Caroline and to now, be the one hopefully giving that inspiration to young trans girls, not just in the Philippines but all over the world,” she said. “Their identities matter, they should pursue who they are. There’s nothing wrong with them, just keep being themselves.”

Tony Award-nominated actress Eva Noblezada stars as Rose in “Yellow Rose.”

Fil-Am musical drama ‘Yellow Rose’ picked up by Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions, has successful festival run 

“Yellow Rose,” directed by Filipina American Diane Paragas, is a timely story about a Filipina teen named Rose from a small Texas town who fights to pursue her dreams as a country music performer while facing the threat of deportation. The film stars two-time Tony Award nominee Eva Noblezada, Tony Award winner Lea Salonga, Princess Punzalan and Dale Watson. In October, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions that it has acquired all worldwide rights, excluding the Philippines, to the film. 

“’Yellow Rose’ has been a labor of passion for over 15 years and I’m thrilled that we can now share this very relevant story with the world,” said Paragas. “We have the added honor of representing the real experiences of Filipino Americans, Asian Americans, and all immigrants seeking a better life in America.”

Since premiering at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF), “Yellow Rose” has won the Special Jury Prize at the 2019 Asian American International Film Festival, the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the 2019 Bentonville Film Festival, 2019 CAAMFest and the LAAPFF, with Eva Noblezada taking Best Breakout Actor. 

“I Was Their American Dream” by Malaka Gharib

Books by Filipino and Fil-Am authors 

This year alone, The Asian Journal team has read (and featured!) a plethora of books by Filipino and Filipino American authors across genres, including: “Loves You” (poetry) by Sarah Gambito; “The Body Papers” (memoir) by Grace Talusan; “I Was Their American Dream” (graphic memoir) by Malaka Gharib; “Patron Saints of Nothing” (young adult fiction) by Randy Ribay; “Why Karen Carpenter Matters” (biography/memoir) by Karen Tongson; “Somewhere in the Middle” (memoir) by Deborah Francisco Douglas; “No Forks Given” (cookbook/stories) by Yana Gilbuena; “Baking at République” (cookbook) by Margarita “Marge” Manzke; and “Rice. Noodles. Yum.: Everyone’s Favorite Southeast Asian Dishes” (cookbook) by Abigail Sotto Raines. More recent releases have included “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion” by Jia Tolentino, “Lalani of the Distant Sea” by Erin Entrada Kelly and “From Rufio to Zuko” by Dante Basco. 

“There are not many representations of Filipino Americans in literature and in our culture and I was very aware of that. It took me a long time to come to peace with what I was going through because I knew it would be read as representative in some ways for Filipino Americans, which it should not be because this is just one unique, specific story,” said Talusan. “It is not representative, but I knew that it could be taken that way. Sometimes there’s pressure because there’s so few of us in publishing that we should tell only certain kinds of stories or those that are happy and make us proud of who we are. I would argue that this story does make me proud of who I am because we all go through difficult things and hardships.” 

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