From Martial law to a land of freedom

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A story of Mila Abenoja-Cichello’s migration to Australia, her community leadership, and how she started Pasko sa Nayon in 2007 is featured in the Federation Story Permanent Exhibit in Melbourne.

As told to Rebecca Fary

The expanded Abenoja clan in 2013
The expanded Abenoja clan in 2013

My name is Mila, the third eldest of ten children of Johnny and Lourdes (Masanes) Abenoja from Baguio City, Philippines. My family struggled financially, but there was always food and love aplenty to share with relatives, neighbours and strangers. WWII halted my parents’ formal education, so Papang (Dad) and Mamang (Mum) instilled in us the confidence to pursue education in our own lives.

I was in highschool when President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law in 1972. It was a period of a brutal military rule against political dissent, civil rights and ordinary citizens that lasted until 1986. In the tranquil mountain city of Baguio, a 6pm curfew was strictly enforced: anyone out on the street after the 6pm siren was arrested by dreaded military patrols. Parents feared for their children because of “salvaging”; news travelled fast of young people disappearing on their way home from school.

When the Australian government relaxed its White Australia Policy in the 1970s to recruit nurses from overseas, my parents urged me to apply as a student nurse either to Australia or to Canada, the USA and England where we had relatives. I chose Australia because on the map, it didn’t look so far from Baguio.

I had never spent a night away from home until I left Baguio for Melbourne in 1976, holding a one-way plane ticket, a small suitcase and life savings of $20 in my pocket. I was 19 years old, alone in a new country but excited about the future because I knew Australia was a free country. Melbourne was deserted after shops closed at 5pm and the pubs shut at 10pm. There weren’t many Asians then, but migrants were welcomed. Aussies were kind, jobs were available, the air was fresh, people were treated equally, life felt good and Melbourne was evolving into a lively, multicultural city.

I called Melbourne home from the beginning. I worked hard in Pediatric Nursing and Midwifery to pay for my siblings’ school fees in the Philippines. Three years on, I met Peter Cichello, an Italo-Australian audiologist, at a Focolare Christian Fellowship in Ballarat. We married in 1980, then flew to the Philippines for Peter to see the country and meet my family. It was a culture shock for him to encounter the tropical heat, the sheer crowds everywhere and the sight of heavily-armed military at the airport, streets and shops. Luckily for me, Peter clicked straight away with my family.

Abenoja Family post-migration Pic Jan1988
The Abenoja family post-migration photo in January 1988

The Abenoja dream was to get an education and reunite the family, so as soon as my siblings finished their university degrees, I sponsored them one by one to jobs in Australia. I started Psychology studies at La Trobe University in 1984. There was no childcare available so I took my first baby to classes. Peter bought me an audio recorder to tape the lectures. Whenever I had to breastfeed at uni he would help me transcribe the notes at night. We juggled raising children, his work, my hospital shifts, bills and a mountain of uni assignments. I graduated my Psychology (Honours) Degree in 1987, the same year that our parents and youngest siblings finally migrated to Australia – a dream come true! Marriages and the subsequent migration of in-laws to Melbourne since the 1990s extended our Clan, which now numbers more than 70 people, ranging from elderly great-grandparents to third generation babies.

When Mamang was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2002, there was no Filipino-specific information, research or services to help my family. I started my PhD research on the health of ageing Filipinos in Australia. My parents babysat their apos (grandchildren) when I travelled long rural distances to do interviews and collect data from Filipino families living interstate. My years of efforts and body of research work that I presented to multicultural communities, government departments and at academic conferences resulted in the first Commonwealth-funded Filipino aged care packages in 2005, an achievement for which I received the VMC Award of Excellence for Services to Multicultural Community at the Victorian Government House in 2008.

Abenoja Northern Wall Tributes 1 ImmigMuseum 1999In 2005, I led a group of young second generation Filipino-Australian professionals and community organisations in founding the non-profit volunteer organisation Bayanihan Australia Community Network Inc (BACNI) in Melbourne. Bayanihan refers to community volunteers. When BACNI discovered that the early Filipinos in the 1930s used to meet at Melbourne Town Hall for Pasko (Christmas) celebrations, we decided to revive the Pasko event as a community gift to Melbourne. The first Pasko sa Nayon (Christmas in the Village) concert was staged at Melbourne Town Hall in 2007 by bayanihan volunteers and community performers. It showcased Filipino and English Christmas carols, colourful folk dances and traditional food. The Pasko Concert became a yearly community event that always featured Filipino themes: cultural performances, artworks from community groups, a bamboo musical group, rondalya stringed instrument orchestra, a Filipina opera singer, church choirs, youth bands, Filipino singers, seniors cultural dance troupes, glittering parol lanterns, bamboo helicopter art exhibit, parol making workshops, Christmas candles theme and Misa De Gallo (Filipino dawn mass).

When you journey to a different place you need to build different traditions. I’m flexible with my traditions, but it’s not so easy for older people. I am proud of my Filipino cultural background so I want to provide an introduction for our children, but I am prouder to be an Australian.

An elder once told me: “Do not let the past determine your future. A community that takes responsibility for itself shapes its future”. I believe that every migrant who moves into a new land ought to bring only what is good from their old traditions and then add it to the building block of generational history. We forge old traditions with the new for our children in Australian society, creating something unique for them that comes from the first generation passing on something very old to the next generation. That is when my history becomes part of their story.

See more at: http://www.federationstory.com/from-martial-law-to-a-land-of-freedom/#sthash.wW98lEeM.dpuf

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