WAILUKU - Trouble stemming from a lawsuit involving members of a Maui Filipino community center board has spilled over to this weekend's Barrio Fiesta, causing at least a handful of women and their supporters to protest outside Maui's largest Filipino cultural event as it kicked off Friday.
At least nine people held signs along Kanaloa Avenue next to the War Memorial soccer field at the start of the fiesta, claiming that senior women were discriminated against when they were asked by a program organizer not to dance as they have done for years at the event.
The sign-holders said event organizers allied with some of the defendants in the lawsuit told the head of dance groups that the protesting women could not dance at Friday's opening festivities, but they could present flowers to dignitaries and special guests. The fiesta continues today.
Alice Ragasa (from left), Jer-zee Ragasa, Norma Barroga and Carmelita Tagorda stand outside the Barrio Fiesta on Friday afternoon at the War Memorial soccer field to protest the exclusion of Alice Ragasa and Barroga as well as others to dance at the fiesta’s opening. The women were told they could not dance for fear of them getting hurt, organizers said.
The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photo
Attorney Mary Cochran stood with the women and explained that those who were asked not to dance also are those who want to join the plaintiffs in the lawsuit in 2nd Circuit Court that was allowed to proceed in January.
She added that the women, who are senior citizens, were singled out because of their age.
"These ladies are not college grads, but they know discrimination and retaliation when they see it," Cochran said before the event.
In the lawsuit that Cochran filed, former Binhi at Ani board President Norma Barroga alleges that sitting President Cecille Piros and three other directors associated with the Maui Filipino Community Council were not validly seated on the Binhi at Ani board according to its bylaws.
Prior to the start of the festival, Piros said that she and other organizers decided that the women should not dance because they are older and could get injured.
She said it was too late to get the dancers to sign disclaimer forms to protect Binhi at Ani from liability.
"We are scared they might get hurt and that (we) will be part of a lawsuit again. That is to protect ourselves and it protects (the dancers) from humiliation. What if they get hurt or fall down?" Piros asked. "We never discriminate. That is for their own welfare."
Piros explained that the stage has various stairs and could be hazardous to the senior dancers. She added that no one was excluding the women from the program but asked that they be part of the program in a different way.
Instead of wearing her dance costume Friday afternoon, 71-year-old Alice Ragasa held a sign and stood outside the field fence line protesting for her right to dance.
"I feel so sad. My group practices two times a week," she said, noting that she was one of the founders of the fiesta and has danced at every festival.
Ragasa also is seeking to join the lawsuit against Piros and the other directors.
She added that she told organizers that she didn't need to dance and that her entire group should not be punished.
Barroga, 58, also held a sign outside the festival. She, too, was scheduled to be part of the dance.
She said dancers spent around $75 for their costumes for the fiesta. Although the dancers can always use the costumes somewhere else, they had prepared hard for the event.
Cochran added that on Monday she filed a claim for injunctive relief to stop several board members of Binhi at Ani from being removed, including Barroga and Ragasa.
She said that the current Binhi at Ani board indicated that several board members were not in good standing because they have repeatedly not shown up to meetings, which is a violation of Binhi's bylaws.
But Cochran contends it was the Binhi board that did not follow its own bylaws because it did not give timely notice of the meetings, did not hold all of them at the group's facility and failed to notify those members in advance that they were not going to be in good standing if they didn't show up, also a condition of the bylaws.
Piros said that the board gave those members who didn't show up the benefit of the doubt and didn't push to remove them until after extended absences.
She added that the board did not notify those who constantly didn't show up (although she knows they should have been notified) because the board judged that "everything would go smoothly after so many months" and things would be ironed out and the members would show up again.
Piros said she is displeased with the the legal action that has divided the Filipino community, and she hoped people would still attend the festival that features 14 booths, entertainment and other cultural activities.
"We want to settle this amicably," she added.
Piros had said previously that she would step down from the organization if Barroga would do the same.
"I don't know what they can get from dividing the Filipino community. We want unity," Piros said.
But on Friday, Barroga said: "It's not about stepping down. It's about doing the right thing and following the bylaws" and state law.
The fiesta runs through 10 p.m. today. A schedule of activities was published on Page A8 on Wednesday.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at email@example.com.