Two years ago, I was invited by a Filipino family to attend their 12-year old daughter’s graduation ceremony in one of the schools in Barcelona. There I was, standing in front of a sea of white, surrounded by excited and proud parents laden with cameras and tablets snapping at every turn and movement of their children who were seated in the middle of the school’s small quadrangle waiting for their names to be called. All the candidates were Asian- looking except for one Ecuadorian girl. Hours later, as the last candidate moved forward and was handed his diploma and his tassel turned to the left side of his cap, the new graduates stood up for the graduation song. Right after the last note faded in the background, as if on cue, all caps flew in the air amidst shouts and applause.
Though far from the solemn and formal celebrations we are used to attending back home, the ceremony went off well considering it was the first time such an event of its kind was ever mounted inside the school. Sitting in one corner, the members of the faculty who were all Spanish, looked amused by the pandemonium happening in front of them. After all, they were not used to doing this. In Spain, such a celebration marking your graduation from elementary, high school or college is usually unheard of.
So how come a Catalan elementary school like Sant Francesc D’Assis allowed such a rite of passage to be held in its premises? To answer this question, one has to trace the transformation of this school from being an all-Catalan school to an almost all-Filipino school.
Founded in 1874 by Franciscan sisters, the Collegi Sant Francesc d’ Assis originally catered to middle-class Catalan families living in the Eixample neighbourhood. After the 1992 Olympic Games, the number of Filipino immigrants in Barcelona drastically increased and the Barrio of Raval became the preferred place to settle. A stone’s throw away is where Sant Francesc d’Assis stands which would later become an attractive place for the newly settled Filipino families to send their children.
HOW IT STARTED
Today marks my second visit to the school after that graduation ceremony two years ago. My appointment with the school principal is at 10 o’clock and two minutes later, the friendly receptionist points me towards the principal’s office. The lobby is eerily quiet. Classes have already started.
“The school experienced a decrease in local student population. Those who were born here started to move to other neighbourhoods and those who were already older didn’t have children. That was the peak of immigration and the locals who were still with us saw the rising presence of immigrants and eventually decided to move to other schools,” explains Neus Valls, the school principal who has been with the school for 21 years now.
Seeing the drop in the number of Catalan students and the rise of other nationalities, the school found itself facing a dilemma. Valls admits there was a little bit of self-examination. But there was nothing they could do. Some parents preferred to take their children to other schools where there were not a lot of immigrants. There was a demographic crisis. Obviously, they couldn’t force them to stay. There were so many schools and a lot of space for everyone. On the other hand, Filipinos came and they came in droves. “So we welcomed them,” says Valls.
THE WELCOME ROOM
There was a big adjustment period especially for the teachers. There were students who didn’t know the language. Not only was there a language barrier, but there were also concerns on how to deal with the parents.
“It was hard. I think there was an evolution of wanting to do things well. We saw that the Filipino community felt comfortable here. It’s a Catholic school and the teachers had a good attitude in receiving the new culture. There was no rejection,” says Valls.
With the school’s new demographic landscape, there was a need for some re- education. A new methodology had to be adapted. The Aula d’Acollida or “Welcome Room” was born. Newly-arrived students from the Philippines, Pakistan or China don’t speak Spanish or Catalan and live in their support network where they only speak their own languages.
“We teach them Spanish and Catalan languages and cultures not only because we are obliged by law but also because for us, this is one of the best ways to integrate. This served as a bridge to make them feel welcomed.”
Alvin Collado arrived in Barcelona in 2010 and entered Francesc d’Assis that same year. He was only six. After the first week, he wanted to drop out of school. A week later though, he started going to the Welcome Room and made friends. He no longer pestered his mom to quit school. It was different for Millet Chipiongian, one of the first two Filipino girls to enter the school in 1985. The Aula d’Acollida hadn’t been born yet. It took her three months to adapt to her new environment.
Although the process of adaptation among Filipino children has generally been positive, it has been tough for some especially for those who were left behind by their parents or those who were born in Spain but were sent home under the care of their grandparents. When they came back to Spain, they felt uprooted. Valls says:
“I have mothers crying to me. They lost authority. Their kids don’t respect them. These kids are angry, resentful. They feel abandoned.”
THE ‘YES’ CULTURE
Obedient. Polite. Respectful. Very appreciative. Good in English and Music. This is how Carles Martinez, the school’s vice-principal describes his Filipino students.
“Filipinos have a culture of listening. And they have a big desire to learn new things. The relationship between the students and their teachers is warm and close. As a proof, every time school breaks come, students hug their teachers and cry because they are going to miss them. They are very cariñosos.”
However, Martinez observes that Filipino kids are generally shy. They always want to give the right answer. If they don’t know or not sure of the answer, they don’t open their mouth. They are scared of making mistakes, they don’t want to disappoint.
“That’s why we tell them, it’s okay to make mistakes, we are here to learn. I think it will take years for them to really express themselves freely. To lose fear,” says Valls.
This shyness puzzles Valls. Having been brought up in a society where children can speak their mind, she can’t understand why Filipino kids, even those who were born in Spain still want to say the things that are expected of them to say.
“I can’t say if this is good or bad but it’s just the way it is. Ideally, we would like them to be more secure of themselves. To be critical thinkers. To reason out in a good way. The most important thing is to think on their own. I think we are able to teach them this.”
TO HOLD OR NOT TO HOLD THE CEREMONY
I am given a quick tour of the school premises. Our first stop is the small quadrangle, the exact place where I witnessed the first ever graduation ceremony in the history of the school. But prior to this “historic” event, Filipino parents would hold graduation ceremonies in a hotel on their own without the school’s participation.
“The thing about graduation is really funny. For us, one of the things that we didn’t really approve of was the concept of mounting a “show” with girls wearing make-up and high heels. We are willing to do the graduation ceremony in school but with some conditions,” explains Valls.
One of the conditions was not to allow girls to wear make-up and high heels. The nuns would not approve of it. The other condition was not to give out academic awards. For the school, everybody is equal. “We give everybody his diploma, we won’t look at the grades.”
Jinky Maloles, who was at that timethe president of the Associació de Mares i Pares (Parent Teacher Association) was happy that the school was willing to negotiate. All the conditions sounded reasonable. “We want our children to also experience what we experienced when we finished our elementary years in the Philippines. So we agreed,” she says.
Valls recalls how it pained them that parents had to go outside the school to hold the ceremony. Having worked in
an American school in Santa Barbara for seven years, she knows how this graduation thing works. This gives her the advantage of understanding Filipino parents’ desire for a graduation ceremony. But for the school board, it was a bit of a culture shock.
The school and the parents met halfway. The event was a success. It has become a yearly ceremony in the school premises since then.
MEETING THE PARENTS
The school’s relationship with the parents is best reflected in its relationship with its PTA officers. The officers know that every Friday afternoon the door of the school is open. Valls, Martinez and Cristina Fontfreda, head of studies, are always around to receive them to discuss whatever concerns they have.
Baicel Papasin Agdan, the current PTA president, has only good words for the school. “The school treats everybody equally. Our children are happy with their teachers. We never experience any form of discrimination.”
EDUCATION IS WEALTH
For Filipinos, education is very important. Parents will do anything to send their kids to school until they finish their degrees. This is the only “wealth” they can give their children. Their legacy.
And the children of Sant Frances D’Assis perfectly know how to value their parents’ sacrifices and do their share in return. The incredible results of their Pruebas Basicas de Competencia (Basic Competence Tests) given by the state is already a proof that they take their education seriously.
Catholic, convenient, affordable with high quality education are the qualities that Filipino parents look for in a school. And Sant Francesc d’Assis seems to have all four. As of today, it is home to 217 students; 90 percent are Filipinos. Col. legi Sant Francesc d’Assis may be a small school, but it is one big happy family. ←
Thanks to Marilou Caiga for arranging the interview.