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Philippine native remembers her culture through dance
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More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
During a rally for National Lights ON for Learning at Glenview Middle School in East Moline on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, dancers Desiree Alfon and Gilda Lumen from the Philippine Dance Troupe of the Quad Cities perform for Lights ON students. Also performing were the hip-hop dancers RusHour.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
During a rally for National Lights ON for Learning at Glenview Middle School in East Moline on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, dancers Desiree Alfon and Gilda Lumen from the Philippine Dance Troupe of the Quad Cities perform for Lights ON students. Also performing were the hip-hop dancers RusHour.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
During a rally for National Lights ON for Learning at Glenview Middle School in East Moline on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, dancers Desiree Alfon and Gilda Lumen from the Philippine Dance Troupe of the Quad Cities perform for Lights ON students. Also performing were the hip-hop dancers RusHour.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: John Greenwood
During a rally for National Lights ON for Learning at Glenview Middle School in East Moline on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012, dancers Gilda Lumen and Desiree Alfon from the Philippine Dance Troupe of the Quad Cities perform for Lights ON students. Also performing were the hip-hop dancers RusHour.
EAST MOLINE -- Waves of pink chiffon fluttered around her ankles as Desiree Alfon brought her white high-heeled shoe down onto the gymnasium floor with a decisive stomp.

Her arms outstretched in a graceful arc, the Philippine native beamed at the crowd of wide-eyed students who sat crammed into bleachers at Glenview Middle School on the brisk October day.

She twirled faster and faster, the music pulsing in the background as her face and the crimson flower placed in her hair became one long streak of color.

For Ms. Alfon, who left the Philippines in the 1980s, dancing serves as a way to remember — the pain of the past, the memories of family and the home she left behind.

"Because we live in a country, in a foreign land, it is nice to be able to continue our culture by promoting it through dance and music," said the Moline resident.

She was born the fourth of seven children in the coastal city of Cebu. While her three eldest siblings lived and attended boarding school in the city, Ms. Alfon and the younger children spent much of their childhood traveling because of their father's job as a Pepsi-Cola plant manager.

Moving became a way of life for the younger children, for whom each location meant a new home and yet another school.

"Sometimes we would go to one school for six months and then after that move again," Ms. Alfon recalled.

When she was in fifth grade, Ms. Alfon's parents separated, and the younger children remained in the care of their father and household nannies.

Raised in a culture that emphasized obedience and academic excellence, Ms. Alfon and her siblings were not allowed to date, attend parties or participate in beauty pageants. Instead, the teenagers were expected to maintain rigorous study habits and high marks in school.

"Second best is not good so you have to be the best," she recalled of the mantra that followed her through years of Catholic high school.

By her first year of college at Ateneo de Zamboanga, Ms. Alfon discovered a campus cheerleading squad. Concerned her family would disapprove, she hid her involvement, practicing routines during gym class and pinching from her weekly food allowance to purchase a uniform.

"It's very strict so that's why sometimes, like cheerleading, I tried to hide," she said, adding with a smile, "I think (my father) still doesn't know."

Ms. Alfon graduated in 1983 with a business management degree at a time of great political instability in the country — especially for her sister, Arlene Navarro, a rising political figure. During the early 1980s, politicians and leaders often were the target of ambushes, kidnappings and even assassinations.

"It's dirty politics in our country," said Ms. Alfon, recalling the family was transported in motorcades when visiting her sister, and Ms. Navarro would go into temporary hiding during times of potential danger.

"It's not safe to live in the Philippines — especially when you are known," Ms. Alfon said, shaking her head at the memory.

The harrowing political climate prompted her and several siblings to leave the Philippines during the 1980s and immigrate to California where their mother lived. Many in her home country heralded America as "a land of opportunity," but the culture shock was overwhelming, so much so, several of her sisters returned home.

Snow and interstate driving were among the adjustments Ms. Alfon had to make. Used only to having to pay a fee to obtain a driver's license in the Philippines, Ms. Alfon had little knowledge of U.S. driving regulations. So when told she'd have to take a written examination, she did the only thing she could think to do — she guessed.

"And you know what? I got a 100 percent," she remembered with an amazed laugh. "I just guessed all of it," she said. Even so, she later chose to attend a driving class.

Ms. Alfon worked several years in California at the health care company First Choice, helping to open a branch in New York. She transferred there temporarily in 1989, before moving to West Virginia and then Kewanee, eventually settling in the Quad-Cities in 1996.

Fascinated by other languages, Ms. Alfon enrolled in Black Hawk College, where she took French classes. In addition to learning English in grade school, she also knows German, several Spanish dialects and hopes to one day add Japanese and Chinese to her repertoire.

She assumed her current role as officer manager at Quad City Clinic, Moline, in 2004, overseeing finances and interacting with patients, whom she said were like "family."

In 2006, disaster struck her own family, when her sister, Ms. Navarro, was among more than a dozen killed when the ferry boat MV Leonida II capsized near Surigao City.

Devastated, Ms. Alfon returned to her home country to reunite with relatives and pay tribute to her sister, who had been the mayor of Del Carmen at the time of her death.

"So very, very, very generous and loved by the people," Ms. Alfonsaid of Ms. Navarro. "So when she died, it's like the whole city — or even the Philippines — mourned."

Pictures of her sister are placed throughout her home as a way to remember. At times, she said, it can be hard to live so far away from family, whom time and travel often make it impossible to see. Still, Ms. Alfon does what she can to keep her homeland alive.

She founded The Philippine Dance Troupe of the Quad Cities in 2011 and regularly performs traditional dances throughout the bi-state area.

At her dance performance in October, seventh-grader Anika Cole and her friends huddled together on the bleachers, joining in with the explosion of applause preceding Ms. Alfon and her fellow dancer's show.

"I've never seen Philippine dances before," Anika said excitedly, as her two friends behind her rose onto their tip-toes and attempted to imitate the dancers' poses. "It's good to learn something new."

Philippines
-- Location:Southeastern Asia, archipelago between the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea, east of Vietnam.

-- Population:103,775,002 (July 2012 estimate). No. 12 in the world.

-- Languages:Filipino (official, based on Tagalog) and English (official). Eight major dialects -- Tagalog, Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, Bicol, Waray, Pampango and Pangasinan.

Source: CIA World Factbook.


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(More History)