Smiling in the City of Smiles

Mabuhay from Bacolod, Philippines

Photos by Matt Keller

When you think of things that make you smile, what do you think about? Take a minute. Ok, is it a monkey in a tuxedo smoking a cigar? No? Ok, maybe it’s a cold beverage in your hand as you watch the sunset by the ocean. Still no smile? Jeeze, lighten up. All right, maybe it’s a monkey in a tuxedo delivering you a cold beverage as you watch the sunset by the ocean. That sounds nice.

Whether the thing that makes you smile involves a monkey in a tuxedo or not, there is, in fact, a city in the Philippines called the City of Smiles. There you’ll receive the warmest welcomes, the most delicious food, and leave with a smile on your face. This past summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks visiting family and friends in the City of Smiles.

Growing up, I’ve only heard stories told by my mother and grandparents about life in the Philippines. Being part Filipino, I experienced my heritage mainly through its food and stories from my grandfather or “Lolo” who moved to America in 1962 as a doctor. There he met my grandma, started a family, and chased the good ole American Dream only moving back home to the Philippines in 2018. 

Grandma and Lolo (1964)

My Lolo would talk about growing up working on his family’s sugar cane farm, living through the Japanese invasion during WWII, the poverty in Bacolod, and the challenges he faced in America. But despite the hardships, he would always say Bobby McFerrin’s famous lyrics “Don’t worry, be happy.”

The phrase “Don’t worry, be happy” could be the unofficial anthem of Bacolod. Despite their situation, the people of Bacolod are always optimistic and looking forward. The spirit of their positivity is celebrated every October during the famous MassKara Festival. Born out of a tragic time in Bacolod, this celebration fills the streets with dancers, bright colors, and smiling masks everywhere. The festival celebrates overcoming tough times through positivity, hopefulness and the kindness of others.

When times are down, do as the people of Bacolod do.

Lolo’s Truck on the farm

So if there’s one thing I could take away from this trip, it is that when times are down, do as the people of Bacolod do. Find a little positivity and celebrate it. You don’t have to start a festival (that would be cool though) but find something that makes you smile and share it. Whether it be that monkey in a tuxedo smoking a cigar or just a song that makes you want to dance, find it and don’t worry, be happy.