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Drawn to a hometown organization celebration – for fun, friendships and nostalgia

Do you wonder sometimes how you can honor someone so special in your life and who’s now gone? I do, and I found one of many ways – I honored my late husband by attending his hometown organization’s annual anniversary event at Stockton, CA this past weekend.

The Santiagenians of the USA is a club founded in the Bay Area in 1974 by Filipinos from Santiago, Ilocos Sur, a province in the northern part of Luzon, Philippines. Since its inception, the association has grown to include members from various states and localities in the US. Those not from Santiago can join by affiliation. Spouses and children are included. Each year, communities represented in the organization take turns in hosting the annual two-day event: the dinner-dance on Saturday, and a picnic in the park on Sunday. The vibrant 44th anniversary was celebrated in Stockton, California — with a novelty, and I’ll tell you what that is later.

A lot of interesting features and history stand out about this venue. Stockton was formed during the California gold rush as a gateway, primarily to provide transportation and trade access to the southern gold mines. Bordered by the San Joaquin river in the northern San Joaquin Valley, it currently holds a very diverse population of some 700,000. It is known to be the 13th largest city in California, and the 63rd largest in the US. Over the years, Stockton has shed its purely agricultural image. Agriculture and commerce equally contribute strongly to stabilizing the city. While Stockton holds a rich array of vineyards and farmlands. the city touts a highly developed and progressive commercial district for retail, restaurant and other businesses, called the Miracle Mile. There is an influx of new businesses, a rise in the number of restaurants, offices and hotels in the city. For the club’s 44th anniversary celebration, we were accommodated at the Waterfront Plaza, a new hotel with spacious and comfortable facilities. The Plaza fronts a long channel of waterway that showcases dancing reflections of lights from both sides in the evening.

About the Santiagenian reunion — the draw of any hometown gathering is always the people – people who have not seen each other in months or years due to distance, but greet each other with full enthusiasm, as though meeting one another was the best thing ever since Christmas. This is what fascinates me about the Santiagenians of the USA (SUSA) annual 2-day event. Long-time and new friendships enliven the gathering. The strength of affinity boosts the camaraderie. The SUSA banquet at the Plaza was attended by around 200, a mix of all ages. For the first time in the club’s history, an adult Mr. Santiagenian popularity contest was held. The winner, called King Santiagenian, is a resident of Stockton, Gabriel Elefante. The princes of the royal court were Constante Etrata and Renato Dasigan. All three are successful professionals in their field, also considered deserving Filipino-American models of service and leadership in their communities.

As already mentioned, another cause for celebration this year is the club’s genesis of a novelty: a popularity contest of male contenders, instead of the usual popularity competition among females and children that SUSA has launched in prior years to flavor anniversary celebrations. These contests ride on the primary altruistic goal of raising funds for the organization’s multiple school, church and community projects in the Philippine hometown of Santiago, Ilocos Sur. The excitement about this competition is that it honors members who represent families very active in the organization’s social, educational and humanitarian efforts.

No celebration would be complete without music and dance. The band offered a delightful blend of oldies and contemporary music. As in other anniversary balls, the dance floor was crowded with young and not so young dance enthusiasts. Line dancing always drew people off their seats. I am particularly fond of the old, slow and easy to follow line dancing in platoon formation. I had my fill of exercise that night.

The picnic in beautiful Stockton park the next day turned out to be a feast. As expected was an enticing array of dishes – including pancit (mixed noodles with strips of vegetables), dinuguan (a delicacy of pork blood cooked to a thick sauce mixed with pork and tripe cutlets), pinakbet (a sautéed blend of squash, eggplant, ampalaya or bitter melon and okra), pork menudo (cooked in mildly spiced tomato base), kare-kare (pork hocks braised to perfection and cooked with vegetables in thick peanut butter sauce). A popular dessert was the cassava cake baked with coconut milk. The center piece was lechon, roasted pig cut to pieces for everyone salivating for its richly brown, crispy skin. Birthday celebrant, Emma Elefante, donated the lechon.  This is what the Santiagenian picnic has been known for – an abundant and varied spread of Filipino cuisine.

I have yet never attended a Santiagenian picnic without music and dance. A leader coaxed women, men and children to follow his dance steps. I tried once, but just couldn’t catch up with the fast beat of “Dahil Sa Iyo” line dance. I loved and enjoyed it, though. But I loved it better just watching the graceful and agile dancers cha cha, turn and sway in perfect rhythm.

Aah, the lively conversation around – it was in the Ilocano language. I caught bits and pieces and understood the gist of the topics (since my late husband was Ilokano). I just couldn’t respond in Ilokano. My repartee was blurted in Tagalog and English, and that was OK, too. But I proudly joined, from the audience side, in belting out some Ilokano songs that rang with nostalgia and which I dearly love. It was then that I missed my husband so bad. After all, that was his hometown group and, if alive, would have been in their midst, robustly singing or cracking a corny joke or two.

That was a lovely two-day event in Stockton, led by the club president and his wife, Sam and Juvy Nuezca, and a slew of Santiagenian officers and volunteers including Narcisa Tuliao, Emma Elefante, Fe Bello, Mino Escalona, Malou Elefante, Alex and Thelma Dimalanta, and many, many others.

Traveling home from Stockton with Doming and Erna Miranda, Vim de Peralta and Raquel Young (Santiagenian past president and senior adviser), all staunch leaders of the club, I felt happy and grateful that I attended the Santiagenian event. It was a grand weekend to remember. And yes, I remembered my late husband and his parents Mamang and Papang, Santiagenians. I like to think they enjoyed the celebration as they amusingly watched from up there. Dios ti agnina.

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