My niece, Pauli, was only ten years old when Gene Cajayon’s feature length film, The Debut, was shown in mainstream theatres all over the US in March of 2002. Many years later, when Pauli was in her teens, she saw the movie on DVD about the Filipino American traditional celebration of an 18-year old girl’s debut and it inspired her to celebrate her own debut just the way that her aunts recounted how they celebrated theirs in the Philippines.
It’s not a distinctly Filipino tradition of course. “Debut” comes from the word “debuter” which is French for “to lead off” and can be traced back to feudal England where it was the custom of the landed gentry to present their daughters to society when they reached “marriageable age”.
When the middle classes began to accumulate large sums of money after the Industrial Revolution, the English aristocrats saw the need to cement their alliances with the new emerging entrepreneurial class by sponsoring their daughters for presentation to the Court of St. James and having their aristocratic sons marry entrepreneurial daughters.
The institution of the Debut eventually made its way to America in 1748 when 59 colonial Philadelphia families held what they called “Dancing Assemblies”, the forerunner of the Debutantes’ Ball that is still popular in the South.
In the 1960s, it was the practice of many San Francisco Bay Area Filipino American community organizations like the Pearl of the Orient Club to sponsor annual Cotillion Balls where as many as two dozen Fil-Am debutantes were presented to the public during formal black tie balls.
This past three-day weekend, my family and I flew from San Francisco to Boston to trek to the cold, snowing city of Natick, Massachusetts to celebrate Pauli’s debut.
At the request of my sister, Loida, I served as the emcee and in my introductory remarks, I asked how many of the folks gathered there had ever been to a debut or had even heard of one. None of the non-Filipinos, who comprised the majority of the guests, raised their hands.
Each of my sisters, in one way or another, celebrated their debuts in the Philippines when they turned 18 but I was unable to attend any of them because they occurred during the period of martial law in the Philippines. I was “exiled” in the US at the time and because of my anti-martial law activism found my way to the “Blacklist” of Ferdinand Marcos, subject to arrest upon setting foot in Manila. So Pauli’s debut would be my first ever.
Because so many of Pauli’s guests had never heard of the Filipino Debut tradition, I presented them with a brief history, tracing not only its European origins but also its African essence. The heart of the Debut tradition is embodied in the ancient African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child." The basic meaning of this proverb from the Igbo and Yoruba regions of Nigeria is that raising a child is a communal effort, the responsibility for which lies not only with the parents but also with the extended family and the entire community.
The debut offers the community an opportunity to formally come together to celebrate the achievements of the 18-year old girl and to wish the best of good fortune to the 18-year old woman as she embarks on the journey of her life.
A highlight of any Debut is the cotillion waltz where nine couples dance a traditional waltz. What made Pauli’s debut somewhat unique was that the debutante personally choreographed her own Cotillion dance, enlisting 18 of her friends and cousins to commit to several weeks of arduous practice.
After the Cotillion dance comes the traditional presentation of the 18 candles, (or 18 roses in some circles). In Pauli’s debut, friends, relatives and past teachers provided glimpses of her past similar to the popular 1950s TV show “This is your life” as they each lit a candle.
Among the candle lighters were Pauli’s soccer and rugby coaches who each expressed their awe of Pauli’s physical prowess on the field while a wrestling coach spoke of her awesome executive abilities as the manager of his 18-man high school wrestling team.
Other uncles and aunts shared vignettes of Pauli’s youth and of her guts to fly off to San Francisco by herself to spend several summers with her cousins and of her easy ability to forge friendships anywhere and everywhere.
As her oldest uncle. I expressed my delight at having Pauli spend several summers with my family and allowing my three sons to experience the joy of having a sister around. I also shared some practical lessons I’ve learned in life that I thought Pauli could learn from: 1) Change the oil in your car regularly; it will save you a lot of money later on. 2) Lefty loosey, righty tighty. Turn to the left to loosen it and to the right to tighten it. 3) Never, but never, put any photo on Facebook or any message on Twitter that you don’t want the world to see, because, trust me, they will be seen eventually.
After all 18 candles had been lit, Pauli called on her youngest cousins, Andrea and Ricky, to help her blow out all the candles. After that came the traditional cutting of the cake followed by the very untraditional dancing with her two fathers (Rambu until she was one and Jon for the next 17 years) while 18 years of photos of Pauli were projected on the screen.
“Thank you all for making my Debut a truly special night,” Pauli said as the brief program concluded. Then the real bogeying party began.
Many parents who can afford it offer their daughters the choice of either a car or a debut secretly hoping their daughters would pick the less expensive choice, a car. But in the course of one’s life, a girl will have many cars but only one opportunity to have a debut.
Welcome to the rest of your life, Pauli.