L-R: Lola Lita, Byron Abalos, and Teresa Halili on Lola Lita’s front porch, one of the last stops on the tour.
“Today, we’re going to go from Manila, Philippines to Toronto, Canada,” began Byron Abalos as he stood before a rapt group of about twenty SummerWorks tourists, ready to embark on the inaugural run of the Lola Lita SummerWalk (“Lola” means grandmother in Tagalog). “It’s going to be a very personal tour, looking at Queen West through the eyes of my Lola Lita.”
SummerWalks is a very charming new addition to the SummerWorks Festival. Three different tours, including this one, will take you through the Queen West neighbourhood, where most of the festival’s plays are being held. Each one has its own unique approach to exploring the area, and while we haven’t seen the others yet, we can confidently say that Abalos’s tour—focusing on his family and his maternal grandmother in particular—exceeds expectations at every turn.
Byron Abalos showing a treasured photo of Lola Lita.
We started at the Factory Theatre at Bathurst and Adelaide (where Abalos’s play Remember Lolo, about his paternal grandfather, enjoyed enormous success at SummerWorks 2005) and travelled relatively short distances—no further west than a bit past Niagara and no further north than Richmond. All the while, Abalos recounted the story of his family that dates back to the Philippines before his Lola was born, to the ’70s when she and her husband emigrated to Canada to find a better life for their children, to today. It’s a fascinating tale peppered with amazing details of bombing in Manila during World War II, the People Power Revolution that protested the regime of Ferdinand Marcos, the Trudeau-era politics that opened up immigration, as well as some very personal life experiences.
Throughout the tour, Abalos’s love of his family, his grandmother, and this small square of Toronto shone through, making the narrative extremely compelling. Coupled with his natural, easy delivery and honesty, it was incredibly moving. On more than one occasion, he fought back tears when reading quotes from Lola Lita. And if that wasn’t sweet enough, many of Abalos’s family members actually took the tour with us, including his parents who flew in from Chicago, his sisters, his new fiancée, and his adorable cousin Teresa who helped by holding the photo album containing vintage family photos, including fantastic square, round-cornered, ’70s-era ones.
Toward the end, we actually stopped at Lola Lita’s house to meet her. After hearing about her past for close to an hour, we had almost forgotten she is still alive and well and living in the neighbourhood. She graciously fielded questions from the group’s members, all of whom felt like they knew her already.
On its very first showing, Abalos’s tour deftly accomplished exactly what SummerWorks hoped the SummerWalks would—let people see a familiar landscape from a new perspective. We were introduced to a wonderful Torontonian, and knowing her makes the city seem that much smaller and friendlier. Just before he left us, Abalos said, “Maybe the next time you pass this area, you’ll think of my grandmother. If you ever pass us on the street, please say hello.”
The next Lola Lita tours run today at 1:30 and 3:30 p.m.
SummerWorks runs until August 16 at various locations around the city. Check back for Torontoist’s daily coverage throughout the festival.
All photos by Ayngelina Brogan/Torontoist.