Through dance, Chula Vista choreographer shares the culture of the Philippines

Maria Juletta “Joji” Ramirez-Castro, dance director and choreographer, stands inside her studio in National City
Maria Juletta “Joji” Ramirez-Castro is dance director and choreographer for PASACAT Philippine Performing Arts Company.
(Sandy Huffaker/For The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Maria Juletta ‘Joji’ Ramirez-Castro is the dance director and choreographer for PASACAT Philippine Performing Arts Company


It was as a 6-year-old when Maria Juletta “Joji” Ramirez-Castro was first mesmerized by the Philippine folk dancing she was seeing on stage. Captivated by the grace and beauty of the older girls who were performing, she had no hesitation asking to become a part of learning these cultural dances, leading to an extensive and respected career as a dancer and creator.

Born and raised in the Philippines, Ramirez-Castro joined the renowned Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company in 1972 and trained with them for 13 years, performing in world tours in the 1980s that included travel throughout Asia and Europe. She became a lead dancer and later trained prospective Bayanihan dancers before moving in 1985 to San Diego, where she initially joined PASACAT Philippine Performing Arts Company as a dancer.

“Getting the opportunity to experience (other cultures) was an unforgettable time in my life. Although we were treated like celebrities in most countries, it was truly humbling to be blessed with an opportunity to see the world through dance,” she says of her time touring with Bayanihan. “Being on tour for eight to 12 months with the dancers and artists taught me perseverance, teamwork and humility. Our Bayanihan choreographer always envisioned new choreography to keep us challenged, and to never settle for anything just good, but always to be better. It is this trait I am now passing on to new generations of dancers of Philippine folk dance.”

After a two-year hiatus of PASACAT’s annual Extravaganza event, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event returns today with performances of “Hiraya: Fruit of Our Dreams” at 2:30 and 7 p.m. at the Educational Complex Theatre, 4343 Ocean View Blvd., San Diego. The performance is a return to the Indigenous culture of the Philippines, with a show that tells the story of the relationship between the wealthy and the working class in 19th- and 20th-century Manila.

Ramirez-Castro, 67, is the choreographer and dance director for PASACAT, and lives in Chula Vista’s Otay Ranch neighborhood with her husband, Rommel (they have an adult daughter and three grandchildren). She took some time to talk about her creative work with PASACAT, today’s “Hiraya” performance, and researching Indigenous cultures in the Philippines.

Q: In addition to your work with Bayanihan and PASACAT, you were also an artist-in-residence with the National School District in National City, teaching Philippine dance to children in the after-school program. What is it about dancing that first drew you in to what would become a lifetime of artistic expression?

A: The simplicity of Philippine folk dance, yet powerful with grace and in its flowing movements. I can freely express my inner passions.

Q: At Bayanihan, you trained under Lucrecia Urtula and assisted her with field research on the rituals of northern Luzon tribes? Can you talk about why you were doing that kind of research and who the northern Luzon people are?

A: I considered myself fortunate to have been chosen to assist “Mommy Urts” to do the field research in Samar and Cebu, which lie in the southeast part of the Visayan region. Visaya is the third-largest island, located in the central Philippines.

We conducted this field research to witness how the people celebrate the festival “Sinulog.” It was derived from the word “sulog,” which means “like water/current/movement” that symbolizes their unending devotion to the baby Jesus. It is believed that the child Jesus protects the whole province from natural calamities and other disasters. This festival is traditionally held on the third Sunday of January and it is the biggest and grandest festival in the Philippines. It is to worship, praise and give gratitude to Santo Niño (child Jesus). It is much more than a cultural event — it celebrates the history that started with the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines.

What I love about Chula Vista’s Otay Ranch neighborhood ...

I have lived in Otay Ranch for almost 18 years. It is a quiet and safe neighborhood. We make sure we inform one another if there is any suspicious stranger or something going on in the neighborhood.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the theme of the PASACAT Extravaganza, “Hiraya: Fruit of Our Dreams,” this year?

A: The word “Hiraya” is an ancient Tagalog word meaning “fruit of one’s dreams, wishes and aspirations.” It is often used in one’s wish to someone, “Hiraya Manarawi,” meaning, “May your wishes come true, may your wishes be fulfilled!” We felt that it was an appropriate concept because PASACAT has missed two opportunities [for Extravaganza events] due to the pandemic. The pandemic, as well as the social movements in the nation, have taught us so much about how PASACAT has positively impacted our community. The word “hiraya” also implies cooperation, perseverance, anticipation and wisdom, all of which we’ve been able to work during the pandemic and into our 52nd season. Much of the artistic vision for this production is based on the experiences of my dance masters, Gemma Cabato and Matthew Padrigan, who spent one year in the Philippines connecting with and learning from seven distinct ethnolinguistic groups.

Q: What can audiences expect to see when they attend this performance?

A: You should expect to see the diversity of the Philippines through music, songs and attire. The first half of the show honors five Indigenous tribes in Mindanao, while the second half paints a picture of what life was like for early Filipinos during the Manila galleon trade [Manila was a main trading port for Spanish trading ships going from the Philippines to Mexico in the late 16th to early 19th centuries]. One specific dance, “Sampaguita Los Chinos,” is a new dance for PASACAT. It’s a blending of cultures, a story of a romance between a male Chinese merchant and a mestiza woman. Many people, even Filipinos, don’t realize how mixed we are as a people. We are mixed with Indigenous, Chinese, Spanish, Malay, Hindu and Arab. This specific dance is relevant today because it goes beyond dance. Many of our dances try to teach our audiences and students that we are more common than we think, and as Filipinos, that’s in our DNA.

Q: The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted the typical schedule for this show, so you had two years to work on this one. What were you all focused on in the creative process for this performance? What was important to you to showcase and express this year?

A: Right before the pandemic, we had a number of new dancers join, but we also had a batch of dancers who had been with the company for over eight years who missed the opportunity to perform during that time. We felt that we needed to give our seasoned dancers an opportunity to experience an Extravaganza performance, and for our new members to see what PASACAT is really about. This 2022 Extravaganza performance of “Hiraya: Fruit of our Dreams” is our way of highlighting a new generation of dancers and hoping that they will be ignited to discover more about themselves through movement, history, and awareness, and that the audience can also experience the beauty of Philippine folk dance on stage.

Q: Why is it important to you to share and preserve these cultural dances?

A: It is very important for me to share and preserve these cultural dances so that the younger generations will be able to see the roots of their ancestors and to embrace the rich culture of the Philippines through folk music and dance.

Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: I remember my dad always reminding me that since I’m an only child, I need to learn to be strong, independent, and not to give up easily, so that I can stand on my own because it might be that no one will be there for me when [my parents] are gone.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: People will be surprised to find out that I used to be a schoolteacher. I’ve taught in middle and high school in the Philippine Women’s University JASMS (Jose Abad Santos Memorial School).

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal San Diego weekend is spending time with family — taking my three, beautiful grandkids to the park, recreation center, and the mall, and also spending time with my loving husband, Rommel.