“Ethnotourism docent” is one of numerous roles listed by MC Canlas on his resume, but most who know him in the Bay Area Filipino community would say that the modest Canlas is more of a curator. That role bridges Canlas’s early work in the Philippines as a university professor, academic historian, and political activist in the democracy movement with his achievements in California as a community leader, youth worker, newspaper columnist, and service provider. He has received numerous honors for his work, including the San Francisco Foundation’s Daniel Koshland Civic Unity Award, in 1999.
Canlas came to the United States reluctantly in 1984 to join his extended family. “I didn’t want to work in America or live in America. I saw myself as working for the Filipino people,” says Canlas. “I grew up in a rural province and listened from an early age to stories about our people. In college, I was supposed to be studying physics and chemistry, but I always found myself reading old newspapers in the history section of the newspaper. History is not something I read. It’s a way of life.” To reconcile the distance between himself and his homeland, Canlas continues to work within the Filipino community, serving as a bridge to mainstream America, as well as to the Filipino past. “You can’t repeat the past, but you can retell it. You can provide new narratives,” he says.
To help Filipinos reclaim their history, he points out little-known facts about San Francisco landmarks, such as, for example, the Dewey Memorial Monument in Union Square was erected to commemorate the annexation of the Philippines by the United States in 1898. But even
when working as a community advocate, Canlas’s knowledge of Filipino culture and history imbues his work: When he was called upon in the 1990s to work as a gang specialist, he devoted himself to studying why youth were joining gangs. Canlas is applying Wildflowers’ community-building strategies in his work, such as enhancing cultural formations and honing leadership development in the core and interface. His main focus is developing programs for a new Bayanihan Community Center, which will open in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood in early 2004.
Canlas has been associated with Wildflowers since 1999, as one of five community leaders tapped to help develop Studies 2000, a curriculum and study tour to acquaint foundation leaders with Asian American communities in Northern California. His book, SoMa Pilipinas Studies 2000 in Two Languages, documents his discoveries from that project. He has been a Wildflowers fellow since 2001.
(Words by MC)