The Filipino word ‘balikbayan’ is a relatively new creation.
It was coined during the 1970s as a way of encouraging Filipinos living and working abroad to visit their land of birth.
The word combines two Tagalog words: ‘balik’ (to return) and ‘bayan’ (homeland).
Among Filipino expatriates around the word, balikbayan represents an emotive word that stirs up a range of feelings, from a deep longing to see the Philippines again to a fervent pride of one’s origins
The word also informs the Balikbayan Project of Regina-born and now Edmonton-based Jon Jon Rivero.
Since 2007, Rivero, an inspirational speaker and occupational therapist, and his colleagues, have been conducting programs for the youth in the Philippines.
“By engaging in meaningful and purposeful activities of daily living with respect to self-care, productivity, and leisure, youth have developed their self-esteem and talents through expressive arts, athletic development, and physical activity pursuits to increase their quality of life,” according to the project’s website.
Also, the Balikbayan Project has “collaborated with local social workers, occupational therapists, speech language pathologists, nurses, doctors, and educators to create and/or expand on existing community programs for youth”.
On his personal website, Rivero notes that he comes from a “lineage of hard workers, and people with a sincere devotion to service”.
“My family is originally from the Philippines, and my parents and grandparents sacrificed a lot so that my brother and I could have the security and education we did growing up,” he related.
His father, Jose Rivero, developed a brain tumor when Jon Jon was two years old.
“I spent several years of my childhood helping him recuperate after surgery—that’s how I became interested in the malleability of the brain and body, which eventually led me to Occupational Therapy,” Rivero recalled.
“During those years, I also taught myself how to breakdance, perform, and sing by watching Michael Jackson videos with my dad! The movements would make his face light up, which encouraged me to hone these skills.
“Eventually I got connected with local hip-hop communities, and started expressing myself both through dance, a cappella beatbox, and spoken word poetry,” he stated.
According to Rivero, his father’s dying wish was for him to go back to the Philippines, and “never forget where our family came from”.
A story by the Regina Leader-Post recalled that a week before his father died in 2002, Rivero promised to fulfill his parent’s wish.
Four years later, in 2006, after moving from Regina to Edmonton in order to attend the University of Alberta, Rivero travelled to the Philippines.
Rivero went with the arts group Filipino-Canadian Saranay Association. The group performed in schools and theatres.
“By the end of the trip, Rivero had pledged to make this the start of a lifelong cultural exchange, and as an occupational therapist, he saw an opportunity to combine healing with pop culture,” the Regina Leader-Post reported.
The Balikbayan Project was born in 2007.
Rivero’s experiences in the Philippines, particularly witnessing the resilience of the Filipino people amid challenges and difficulties, inspired him to do a documentary.
The Regina Leader-Post reported that he got in touch with film producer Bernie Hernando with Echolands Creative, who became the co-writer and co-producer of Rivero’s documentary, Balikbayan: From Victims to Survivors.
Hernando asked University of Regina film graduate and Vancouver-based director Rob Hillstead to be co-writer and co-director.
Work for the documentary started in April 2014, when Rivero returned to the Philippines with a film crew. He regularly returned from 2016 to 2019.
Balikbayan: From Victims to Survivors was one of 150 films screened during the 34th Edmonton International Film Festival from October 1 to October 10, 2020.