Mel Orpilla teaches Balintawak Arnis, an ancient Filipino fighting art, in Vallejo at the Island Warriors Dojo. As well as a martial artist, he is a Filipino historian, tattoo enthusiast and world traveller. We caught up with Mel to find out more about his work, how he embarked on the journey to discover his Ifugao ancestry and what Balintawak Arnis really means to him.
Tell us a little bit about yourself - where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where are your parents from?
I was born in 1961 in Vallejo, CA, which is about 35 miles north of San Francisco. My father, Nazario, was a Manong, who arrived in America in 1926, from Bauang, La Union, Philippines. He along with two of his brothers landed jobs at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo in the early 1930's. That's how our family set roots in Vallejo. He worked as an unskilled labourer, joined the Navy when WWII happened, then went back to work at Mare Island in 1946 because he was too old to re-enlist in the Navy. In 1959, he married my mother, Ofelia, thirty years his junior. He was 53 and she was 22 when they married after a whirlwind romance through letters! I also have on sister, Luella, a year older than me and a brother, Phillip, five years younger than me.
"We lived in a "coloured neighbourhood" because
when my father bought his house, Filipinos and
other people of colour were relegated to specific
neighborhouds in Vallejo."
Were you exposed to your culture and heritage from an early age? How was it growing up in the U.S being Filipino, were you treated any differently? How has this changed over the years?
I was exposed to the Filipino culture -Family parties, my parents Filipino club functions (La Union Club, Filipino Community of Solano County, and Filipino American Catholic Club) food, Ilokano language, and a life-changing trip to the Philippines when I was seven years old. We lived in a "coloured neighborhood" because when my father bought his house, Filipinos and other people of color were relegated to specific neighborhoods in Vallejo. Growing up, I was unaware. Even if I were, I don't think it would've made a difference. I loved my African American playmates like brothers and sisters, even to this day. We were just kids having fun and not caring about the colour of our skin. Most of our fathers worked together at Mare Island as well. At school, I was usually one of only two or three Filipinos in my class. But I was not teased. Vallejo was a very racially diverse city because of Mare Island and the Navy. Today, Vallejo is regarded as one of the most racially diverse cities in America, according the 2010 US Census. It is still very tolerant. I have been involved in many mainstream organizations, boards and committees in addition to Filipino community projects. I think in Vallejo people see me as wearing many different hats depending on the context - Aide to Congressman Mike Thompson, master Mel of Island Warriors, author and writer, photographer, athlete, Filipino community activist and organizer, or Uncle Mel as many young people call me.
You teach Balintawak Arnis - for how long have you been practising? Where in The Philippines is this martial art from? Where are its ancestral origins (if any)?
I began training in martial arts - Kajukenbo, when I was eleven years old. I was inspired by Bruce Lee. Since 2003, I have trained exclusively in Balintawak Arnis, under Grand Master Ver Villasin. We started the Villasin School of Balintawak in Vallejo. Balintawak is from Cebu. It was founded my Venancio "Anciong" Bacon. It is a close range, single-stick, fast and powerful fighting system. GM Ver's father, Great Grand Master Jose Villiasin modernized the art by making it easier and safer to learn. At its core, it is a self-defense system, proven in battle. I enjoy teaching it to my students, specially the youth and women, because it does not take brute strength to apply, but technique and body weight shifting. Five years ago I established my own school, Island Warriors Martial Arts, with the blessing of GM Ver, who no longer teaches regularly due to his changing work schedule. Me and my students perform in demonstrations and seminars throughout the year sharing and spreading our love of Balintawak Arnis. The constant training helps to keep me fit, my reflexes sharp, and ready to protect my family and loved ones if needed. Also, it is my tangible connection to my Filipino roots and my Warrior ancestors. I try to live the life of a Warrior and teach the same to my students.
Once I received my tattoos, I felt more connected
to my ancestry in a spiritual way
My tattoos are sacred
You mention you have tattoos from your region of The Philippines - can you share what this is? What does it symbolise? After you had the tattoo done did you feel any different towards your heritage? Why did you feel you had to have the tattoos done?
I belong to the a group that is reviving the ancient Filipino tattoos - Tatak ng Apat na Alon (Mark of Four Waves). Before this group was formed, our traditional tattoos were heading into obscurity. Before getting my tattoos I did extensive research. I read books written by William Henry Scott, who lived amongst the Cordillera peoples. I found that the Spanish wanted to steal the gold from the Ifugao gold mines. The trail to go up into the Cordillera mountains started at Bauang, La Union. So the Ifugao sent their bravest Warriors to guard the trailhead. These Warriors eventually settled in Bauang. These are the roots of my Ifugao Warrior ancestry. Once I received my tattoos, I felt more connected to my ancestry in a spiritual way. I also felt "whole" for the first time. My training in Balintawak was just one aspect of my Warrior identity, now the tattoos completed me spiritually and superficially for all to see. Tattoos on males were only given to those who "took heads." I rationalize that to be saying I have "taken heads" but not as war booty but to impart knowledge. My tattoos are sacred. The meanings range from symbols that are protective (Anting Anting) such as the Centipede to others that symbolize my Warrior fighting skills such as the Scorpion (Ipit Ipit). Other symbols honor my ancestors, where I come from, what I do in life, and my spirit animals. They were applied on my body in both the traditional tapping style as well as the modern tattoo gun.
"Balintawak Arnis is my tangible connection
to my Filipino roots and my Warrior ancestors.
I try to live the life of a Warrior
and teach the same to my students"
You are keen to educate others about Filipino American history - why do you feel this is important? Has the reception changed through the years? Are more Filipino Americans curious about their roots?
I stumbled upon Filipino American History by accident when I signed up for an Asian American history Class in Callejo at CSU, Sacramento. It was a revelation to me. A life-changing class that changed my career path. More importantly, it gave me the sources of Filipino American identity I had been looking for. In actuality, it was right under my nose. I lived the life much of what I learned in class through my father. However, growing up, I never realized how historical my father's life was as a Filipino in America in the 1920's till today. The racism, marginalization, oppression and such was something my father never spoke about. Since then I have made it my mission to educate as many people about Filipino American history as possible - not just Filipinos but non-Filipinos as well. The Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), founded by Fred & Dorothy Cordova, gave me that vehicle. I founded the Vallejo Chapter in 1991 and continue to be it's president. I also served four years as the National President of FANHS. In 2016 I spoke at the White House's first ever Filipino American History Month Celebration. I also created a visual presentation called "No History, No Self ... Know history, Know Self" that I've presented to thousands of people across the US at conferences, universities, corporate trainings, and community events. I see myself as Johnny Appleseed, for planting the knowledge of Filipino American history in the minds of people. The reception has been and continues to be great. Mainly because it make people aware that Filipinos have been in America since October 18, 1587, and that we've contributed to America society, politics, history, entertainment, sports, and almost every aspect of American life for over 410 years.
Did you research a lot about where your roots are from? What did you do to get the information?
A lot of the information I got came from interviewing my father, and others of my dads generation. Sadly, they are all gone. My father passed away ten years ago at the age of 101 years old. I've also been collecting old photographs of Filipinos in America. Many of them are in my book "Filipinos in Vallejo", published by Acadia Publishing Company.
As a Filipino American, what do you think defines this group of people? What makes Filipino's stand out from the rest?
Filipinos are one of the most adaptable people in the world. No matter where they live - Saudi Arabia, Europe, Japan or the US, Filipinos hold on to their strong traditions and cultural pride to survive and prosper. My father was a prime example. The OCW's are another. We also love to socialize. And who doesn't love Filipino food - Lumpia, Pancit and Adobo (the holy trinity of Filipino cuisine).
Growing up on the U.S did you ever question your sense of identity? How did you overcome this? How did you come to realise that living in the U.S doesn't take away the fact that you have roots in The Philippines and you should honour them.
I never really questioned my Filipino identity, because I didn't know what to question. What changed me was when I was in grad school, at SF State in the Ethnic Studies Program. My African American professor tasked us students to write a paper on our "Mytho-Epistomological Foundations," basically answering the question "What is an authentic Filipino?" In writing the paper, I researched our creation myths and our indigenous peoples. Again, a revelation for me. This started my journey researching my Ifugao roots which led to my tattoos and training in Filipino Martial Arts. Not only has all of this made me a stronger Filipino, but also a stronger person and American.
What change would you like to see in the mindset of people about Filipino culture and heritage?
I would ask people to learn about their family's history and origins. Appreciate, collect and learn our ancient and traditional art forms. Travel to the Philippines and don't just go to the mega malls and Boracay, but visit the rural areas, cultural sites, museums and natural wonders. Most of all see the beauty and strength in our people - past, present and future. "No History, No Self ... Know History, Know Self."