Thursday, June 9, 2016

Philippine Carnival Queen: The Muse Within by Jean Vengua

My Guest Blogger today is Jean Vengua, a writer, artist, and co-chair of the Asian Cultural Experience (ACE) of Salinas Chinatown. Thank you, Jean for sharing this wonderful account about your mother! ~ Cecilia

Trinidad Vengua Muse 1940/JVengua Collection

The Muse Within
Jean Vengua

I grew up amid piles of glistening satin, sequins, brocade fabric, and sewing notions. My mother, Trinidad (Trining), was, among other things, a seamstress. She was also what one might describe as a “social, fun-loving” person, who did not like to dwell on life’s dark moments. When they came, her denial, and her sewing skills, made everything beautiful again.

Perhaps her interest in sewing and fashion provided a way to escape her humble origins in a small rural town, Iba, Zambales. I’ve read that, during the Philippine-American war, the crops in Zambales were demolished, leaving much of the population on the brink of starvation. As a child, Trining developed beriberi—caused by a nutritional deficit. There were other family difficulties, too: a philandering father who later became “absent,” leaving my grandmother to fend for herself and four kids by running a farm and selling vegetables; as the oldest child, Trining helped her mother harvest crops, and was responsible for watching over her younger siblings, which she sometimes found taxing. You’d think such a life would produce a cynical, or at least practical-minded daughter. But a couple of events occurred that I think set my mother’s compass, more or less permanently, and sometimes a bit naively, towards “optimistic.”

First, her aunt won the Irish Sweepstakes; and since she was generous, that meant lots of clothes and shopping trips for nephews and nieces. It also meant that the kids got help with college tuition. Trining was able to get a degree in dressmaking from Centro Escolar University; later, she was able to set up her own beauty salon in Manila.

The second big event that shaped Trining’s outlook was when she was elected the first Muse of the Philippine Beauty and Fashion Carnival in 1940.  I heard about this joyous event so often during my life that I knew it had to have been pivotal, even life-changing. Its power seemed to reach out and touch my aunt, Leonarda (Dading), because a few years later, she was crowned queen, too. When I last visited Aunt Dading, she had a huge portrait of herself in her queen regalia, placed in a prominent spot above the family’s living room couch.

Trinidad Vengua 1930s/JVengua Collection

Business at the beauty salon had been good. But World War II and the Japanese occupation put a damper on things, to say the least. The salon had to be closed. The family lost its land and natural resources to the conquerors. Some of the family suffered terribly. One brother came close to being executed by the Japanese as a guerrilla; ironically, he was saved by a Japanese friend. Somehow, the family survived the war intact. Trining met my father, Nick, when he was visiting the rubble that was left of Manila. They fell in love, got married, and he took her back to the U.S. Despite the odds, mom’s optimism seemed to have won the day.

She brought her considerable dressmaking skills with her to California, where she sewed many dresses for myself and her friends, including gowns for queen candidates. And the queenly influence didn’t stop there; when I came of age in the U.S., she talked me into running for lodge queen (Caballeros de Dimas-Alang). I won, and was crowned in a big ceremony at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Although I had difficulty understanding what all the fuss was about (it was the 1960s; I would soon turn into a poncho-wearing hippie), my mother was overjoyed.

In the U.S., Trining no longer had the support of her extended Philippine family; she missed that. She was far across the sea from them, and Nick—who was in the merchant marines—was home only several months out of each year. Her optimism continued on, but sometimes—when she worked the grueling night shift in the cannery, or later in the hospital laundry—it seemed more like grim determination. Still, when I look back on her life, I’m glad she was accompanied by those happy memories. She had discovered the queen within, and held onto that with all her might.

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Tags: Philippines, beauty queen, carnival queen, Filipina, women, Filipino American, Jean Vengua, Trinidad Vengua

This is all for now,


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