FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – After his first day of kindergarten in Fayetteville, Ian Jose arrived home in tears, having been teased because he looked different.
His classmates told him to go back to China, not understanding that he is a native North Carolinian, born to a mother from the Philippines.
His mother comforted him and vowed she would never let “another child of mine suffer that humiliation,” says Vilma Jose.
She quickly contacted the school and offered to serve as a speaker representing the Philippines, eventually making the rounds through local elementary, middle and high schools.
“I wanted to educate people that, though we are different, we are all brothers and sisters,” she says. “They can learn that at home, but when they see a real person from a different country, they understand more.”
To this day, with her son now grown, she still speaks at local schools whenever invited, advocating for openness and acceptance.
“I want the younger generation to know that there are other countries,” she says. “I want them to learn a little more. Then they are not in their own cocoon.”
That desire to bridge cultural gaps led Jose to become involved in Fayetteville’s Phil-Am Club, which welcomes and supports community members from the Philippines and helps preserve the heritage, and to assume a leadership role in the town’s annual International Folk Festival.
A registered nurse, Jose moved from Manila to Miami in 1978 to work in a hospital, and relocated to Fayetteville two years later.
Having lived in large cities, the move to eastern North Carolina was difficult, Jose says, but she learned to love her new home by getting involved.
She now works as a nurse consultant at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg and volunteers as a cultural ambassador of sorts throughout the community.
For almost 15 years, Jose has coordinated the Parade of Nations for the Fayetteville International Folk Festival, wearing proudly her Philippine heritage, yet embracing the diversity of her new home, a melting pot of dozens of ethnicities.
Started 31 years ago, the event has turned into a weekend-long celebration featuring art, food, dance and crafts highlighting the town’s diversity.
The Parade of Nations, which Jose has coordinated for almost 15 years, gives each group a chance to show off its national heritage.
Despite rain, Jose says, more than 20,000 spectators came to watch the 2009 parade, which featured more than 30 countries, including Belize, Japan, Puerto Rico, Greece, Great Britain and Trinidad and Tobago.
With the Philippines as the featured country in 2006, Jose took extra steps to highlight her homeland, convincing the Philippine ambassador to the U.S. and a world-renowned Philippine dance troupe to attend.
Jose works with the parade participants, providing fundraising advice and tips on how best to showcase their country, work she admits can press the limits of cultural understanding.
“Different countries have different ways,” she says. “Despite all of that, when you see them all walking with a smile, and all so proud of their country, that makes me feel so good inside.”
Despite the rare frustrations, it’s possible Jose will be parade coordinator for at least another 15 years.
“I won’t retire,” she says. “They’ll have to push me in a wheelchair.”
Vilma Jose also can be seen in “North Carolina Giving: Philanthropy Across Cultures & Communities,” a new documentary project from NCGives.