Stories of Uptown: Rizal Center

Uptown United just released a piece on the Rizal Center:

Chicago’s Filipino American community has experienced a profound evolution over recent decades, with the Rizal Center at its core. Starting as a modest “clubhouse,” developing into a thriving community center, facing a 5-year hiatus, and eventually reopening in 2022, it stands as a testament to the resilience and cultural pride of the Filipino American Council of Greater Chicago (FACGC). Esteemed board members Mae Dawn Gaoat-Lant, Willi R. Buhay, Jerry Clarito, and Corazon Sopena, offer their insights and perspectives on the inception of the FACGC and the Rizal Center, illuminating the progress made and their aspirations for the future.

Initially established as the Filipino National Council of Chicago (FNCC) in 1953, the original founders aimed to forge a sense of community and belonging for Chicago’s Filipino American population through the creation of a “Filipino Clubhouse” — a sanctuary of support for the diaspora. While the organization evolved and changed its name to FACGC in 1997, the fundamental struggle for belonging and the necessity of a safe space to nurture their cultural heritage persisted. In 1974, the FNCC’s vision of a physical home became a reality when they acquired a facility from the Swedish-American Orphei Singing group. The FNCC’s “clubhouse” transformed into the Rizal Center.

The center transcends being merely a physical structure. It embodies a revitalized perspective on Filipino American identity and approaches to engaging with the community, neighborhood, and the larger city. Jerry Clarito, the current Board Chair of FACGC, underscores this evolving purpose and its realization through the Rizal Center. Clarito expounds, “The mission of FACGC in its new iteration is to enhance the well-being of Filipinos and the community through transformative programs rooted in cultural, economic, and social initiatives, encapsulated by the first four letters of our alphabet, ABKD…A for action, B for bayanihan (people working together), K for kapitbahayan (neighborly concern), and D for damayan (compassionate mutual aid).”

The Rizal Center serves as the space where the organization’s mission springs to life. It stands as a welcoming, dynamic haven for individuals of diverse backgrounds to come together, fostering connections, appreciation, and understanding of Filipino and Filipino American experiences in Chicago, as well as their place in American society and intersections with diverse cultures.

However, in January 2017, a five-year legal dispute unfolded, centering on a hostile takeover within a 21-member board. Four board members, including the president and an unauthorized executive director, displaced some members, citing extended service. Invoking the Illinois Good Samaritan law, which safeguards volunteers, was instrumental in supporting the return of the Rizal Center to the ousted board members. This struggle exceeded organizational boundaries, becoming a community-wide concern, spotlighting the concept of ‘people power.’ The goal was not power, but to reinstate the ability to serve the community, emphasizing that the community, not solely the organization, was affected by the takeover.

Willi R. Buhay reflects on the significance of this challenge through his longstanding commitment to the Rizal Center. Having served as a FACGC Board Member and Artist in Residence for 29 years, he has observed the evolution of leadership and community dynamics. Though he acknowledges the ebb and flow of generational organizational challenges, Buhay emphasizes the importance of progressive and inclusive leadership and advocates for sharing aspirations and leaving a legacy that continues to thrive and inspire. For Buhay, life’s essence lies not in material gains, but in the enduring impact one imparts.

Mae Dawn Gaoat-Lant, a nurse with 48 years of experience, has been engaged with the Rizal Center for 33 years. She notes the center’s evolution from modest gatherings to a more meaningful community-oriented organization, but there was a time where there was a shift in values, with an emphasis on power and money, leading to a decline in community spirit. The current mission, Mae shares, emphasizes holistic community development and bridging generational divides. Gaoat-Lant advocates for integrating and enriching Filipino culture and recognizes the need for collaboration with other organizations for community progress. This signifies a notable shift from the past, aiming to aid and address various issues faced by the Filipino American community.

In recent times, FACGC has made substantial strides in opening its doors to various communities and organizations, as evidenced by hosting the Vietnamese Association of Illinois retreat. They have organized events commemorating Asian American Pacific Heritage Month, receiving positive feedback from attendees. Additionally, they orchestrated the inaugural drag celebration and provided a platform for human rights advocacy, spotlighting their connection to issues in the Philippines. Jerry Clarito asserts that collaborative events are more than just that; they serve as intimate spaces for storytelling and forging meaningful social connections. Through these collaborations, the FACGC addresses the profound need for social connection, recognizing the psychological and emotional impacts of disconnection.

FACGC also employs the arts as a powerful tool for transformation. Clarito and Buhay emphasize that art has the unique ability to transcend language, uniting people through shared experiences. FACGC’s engagement strategies, including the utilization of online platforms for fundraising and a dynamic website that empowers individuals to contribute, further strive for collaboration and connection. They acknowledge that engagement is vital for constructing a stronger community, one individual at a time. By valuing individual contributions, they work toward their mission of uplifting the community’s well-being.

The significance of preserving spaces like the Rizal Center for the community’s cultural heritage holds immense weight for those involved. Corazon Sopena, a dedicated member since 1996, underscores its vital role for seniors, providing a sense of belonging and purpose. She fondly recalls her time serving meals to seniors, a cherished activity she holds close to her heart. Willi R. Buhay, who regards the center as an extension of his own home, emphasizes its role in fulfilling his yearning for a sense of belonging, especially in his senior years. He speaks of the importance of preserving the vision of the pioneers who sought it as more than just a clubhouse, but a hub for an entire community. Mae Dawn Gaoat-Lant, for whom the center symbolizes Filipino identity, highlights its resilience and the strength it represents. She sees it as a testament to the Filipino community’s ability to overcome challenges and a source of pride. Jerry Clarito underscores the center’s importance as a safe space, a “home away from home,” where individuals can be their authentic selves. Jerry stresses the need to preserve history, even if the physical building undergoes changes, so that the legacy endures.

The FACGC’s journey, spanning seven decades, is marked by both triumphs and tribulations. With the re-opening of the doors of the Rizal Center, FACGC is pioneering a new era of inclusivity, where diverse voices and stories come together to shape a stronger, more connected community. Their legacy is one of resilience, unity in diversity, and a profound commitment to preserving the Filipino heritage while forging a shared sense of home and belonging for all members of the community.

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