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Notes on the opening of Sentro Rizal in New York

By ARSENIO J. LIZASO, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 31, 2022 5:00 am

Last year, I was invited by Consul General Elmer Cato of the Philippine Consulate in New York to grace the official opening of Sentro Rizal (Rizal Center) in the heart of America’s preeminent city. I was to give the keynote speech as the chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), which oversees the said center.

Sentro Rizal was recognized by virtue of Section 42 of Republic Act 10066, known as the National Cultural Heritage Act of 2009, which specifies a center “whose main purpose is the promotion of Philippine arts, culture, and language throughout the world.”

Consul General Elmer Cato and NCCA chairman Arsenio Lizaso unveil the Sentro Rizal marker at the Philippine Center.

Sentro Rizal is our equivalent of the Goethe Institute of Germany, the Thomas Jefferson Cultural Center of the United States, and the British Council of the United Kingdom.

The very first Sentro Rizal was formally established by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts at its main building in Intramuros, Manila, on June 28, 2011 to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal.

Since then, Sentro Rizal offices have been opened in embassies and consulates around the world. The latest one in New York counts as the 36th Sentro Rizal and is located at the Philippine Center, 556 Fifth Avenue, New York City. And it’s about time, considering that New York is one of the world’s great cultural capitals.

The question is: why is Rizal the face of the NCCA for overseas Filipinos?

Like the countries I mentioned, their respective cultural centers were named after their native sons who were considered polymaths or multi-talented.

Well, Jose Rizal is our version of a polymath, the quintessential Renaissance man: writer, poet, painter, sculptor, medical doctor, botanist, and fencing artist, not to mention romantic lover.

He was also a bearer, promoter, and a researcher of our native culture. He loved his country like no other, to the point of offering his life for the sake of its liberation.

More significantly, Rizal was not a close-minded, unsophisticated provinciano, for he was highly educated and possessed an eclectic, expansive mind, with a keen interest in other cultures. He was well-traveled and had a cosmopolitan outlook. He came to be fluent in several languages and developed a circle of foreign friends who were of kindred passions and interests.

Indeed, Rizal was a man who could be comfortable in any part of the world and yet he was a Filipino native through and through.

Do you know that Rizal traveled to New York in 1888? He boarded a ship in Japan, traveled across the Pacific, which landed at the port of San Francisco.

To get to know Rizal is to know the best that a Filipino can be. As a center for cultural information dissemination, Sentro Rizal will underscore the relevance and enrich the understanding of the works of Rizal not only to foreigners but also to young Filipinos abroad in search of their roots. By the way, Sentro Rizal New York has a collection of rare books, materials, and video learning tools about the life and works of the national hero.

Rizal may have traveled abroad, but he always came back to his homeland. His heart never left the country of his birth.

While we acknowledge the Filipino diaspora that has been happening and continues to happen, may we never forget who we are and where we came from. To leave the country should not mean cutting off the umbilical cord that ties us to that common wellspring that is the source of our culture, and makes us distinct.

This is why Sentro Rizal is here in New York and in other parts of the world.

It is in this light that I ask US-based Filipinos to bring their children and grandchildren to Sentro Rizal in the respective cities where they reside. Let them consume and absorb all the materials that are in this center to provide nourishment for the Filipino soul that is in all of us.

Excite them and get them interested in going back to the source of our common wellspring so they can come back refreshed and energized, imbued with a sense of pride in our Filipino identity.

NCCA chairman Arsenio Lizaso addresses the Filipino community at the launch of the Sentro Rizal New York.

Consul General Elmer Cato calls on members of the Filipino community to be active partners of the Philippine Consulate General in its cultural diplomacy efforts.

During my stay in New York, I met our debonair Philippine Consul General, Ambassador Cueto, who told me that New York’s Filipino community is very supportive of this cultural initiative to open a portal for overseas Filipinos and their children to connect to their roots—instilling a strong sense of nationhood and pride among them in being Filipinos.

The Rizal Day festivities started sometime in the second week of December with a film showing and talk on Jose Rizal’s legacy, teachings, and values to be passed on to the youth of today. My good friend, actress Lorli Villanueva, anchored the program.

Lorli Villanueva with Nick Lizaso during the forum

Dec. 30, 2021 marked the official opening of Sentro Rizal New York. Two of Rizal’s living descendants joined the inauguration. There was Lisa Tinio Bayot, great-granddaughter of Saturnina Rizal Hidalgo, Jose’s eldest sister. Bayot addressed the audience as a family member who keeps Rizal’s legacy alive and relevant in these modern times.

Another descendant, Alexandra Jacinto—whose grandfather was Francisco Lopez, the grandson of Paciano Rizal, Jose’s brother—joined the inauguration. Also present were officers of Knights of Rizal New York and Metropolitan Chapters, and two of Rizal’s descendants attended the center’s opening.

Rizal’s living descendants Alexandra Jacinto and Lisa Tinio Bayot join the inauguration along with NCCA chairman Nick Lizaso, NY Consul General Elmer Cato and Deputy Consul General Arman Talbo.

In my speech during the event, I told the audience that this should just mark the beginning of a continuing wave of cultural initiatives. Consul General Cato announced a future collaboration with the NCCA to bring Philippine talents to New York City to reach Filipino-Americans and their American-born children.

Now with Sentro Rizal New York, the Consulate and the NCCA have pledged to work closely to further strengthen their collaborative engagements on cultural promotion and commemoration of important events in Philippine and Filipino-American history. Various offerings such as conferences, performances, exhibits, and film showings are expected to be implemented by PCG New York’s Cultural and Public Diplomacy team.

I am happy to learn that supporting and assisting us is The Hiraya Foundation for Filipino-American Heritage Preservation, Inc. The Hiraya Foundation is composed of esteemed Filipinos and Americans from across various fields, and aims to connect Filipinos across the United States to the rich heritage that is inherent in our race “to highlight the innate pride that burns within the blood of the Filipino.”

In fact, I am now working with them to undertake a series of historical webinars and lectures through Sentro Rizal New York.

Equally supportive is one of New York’s Fil-Am community leaders, Loida Nicolas Lewis, who hosted us to a dinner in her lavish quarters. She was very excited to hear about what CCP and NCCA have been doing to bring the arts closer to the grassroots.

All these heartfelt expressions of support and commitment somehow kept us warm in the depths of the New York winter, which hovered around 3 degrees centigrade.

It is with a sense of fulfillment that I returned to Manila last Jan. 9, knowing that under my watch as head of the country’s prime cultural agencies, a Filipino heritage center opened its doors right there in the heart of the world’s most prominent stage: New York City.