‘Molly of Denali’ explores Filipino Athabascan identity

Two cartoon character girls giving each other a high five
A still from Molly of Denali’s “The Fili-Bascan Chefs” episode. (Screenshot from PBS Kids)

A new episode of the kids’ show “Molly of Denali” centers around a character named Vera Malakas, who is Filibascan, a combination of Filipino and Athabascan. Those who worked on the show say that representation of Filipino Alaskans will allow more kids to see themselves and their lives on TV.

In the episode, Vera wants to surprise her mom by making lumpia — a Filipino spring roll — for a festival, so she and Molly have to steal the recipe without her mom noticing.

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Vera has been a side character in previous episodes of the show, but show writer Vera Starbard wanted to see more of her. 

For Starbard, who is Lingít and Dena’ina, Filipino culture was a large part of her community growing up in Alaska.

“I really thought lumpia was this Indigenous Alaska Native food,” Starbard said. “And I won’t even say how old I was when I realized it was really not.” 

Starbard said that food is a great opportunity for children to learn about other cultures.

“Food is one of those underestimated pieces of culture, as far as its impact. And that became an important part of the episode as far as ‘here’s how we can share culture. Here’s how we can mix culture and that is understandable to kids,’” she said. “They get it. They get that this food is different and this food is familiar to them and mixing them could be cool and this is what you can learn about a culture from literally tasting it.”

Starbard invited E.J. David to contribute to this episode. David is a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and researches the psychological consequences of colonialism. He is also a father to four Filipino Athabascan children. And he’s the one who coined the term “Filibascan.”

“Seeing yourself on mainstream TV, and knowing that a lot of people put a lot of work into it, and a lot of people put a lot of resource into it, it legitimizes who you are, it tells you that your identity and your culture and your heritage — that those things are valuable,” David said.

David wanted it to be clear that the show didn’t make it seem like all Filipino culture was the same. Vera Malakas is Kapampangan like David, and celebrating a Kapampangan festival made it so her identity was specific and real. He was excited to give Vera’s character the last name “Malakas,” which means “strong” in the Tagalog language.

Both David and Starbard grew up without representation of themselves on kids’ shows, so this show means preventing that experience for future generations.  

“And so then the opposite message is conveyed when you don’t see yourself on the shows, right? It makes the message that it conveys to you is that who you are, and your identity and your heritage and your culture are not valuable enough,” David said. “They’re not worthy enough to be invested in, right, to put resources in. And so, that’s what I felt growing up.”

Before “Molly of Denali” first aired, Starbard went to the PBS station in Boston, where “Molly of Denali” and other kids’ programs originate. She said that she saw all the other PBS Kids shows like “Curious George,” “Arthur” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” In that moment she had the realization.

“Oh, gosh. Molly is going to be a part of this, and there’s no Alaska Native child that’s ever going to not have that experience of seeing themselves on the screen,” she said.

For Alaska’s Filipino population, that also became true this week. “The Fili-Bascan Chefs” episode premieres Thursday on PBS stations and online.

This story is part of KTOO’s participation in the America Amplified initiative to use community engagement to inform and strengthen our journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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