Staff Writer Tara Lago attended the 23rd Annual Mr. Philippines pageant hosted by Columbia University’s Liga Filipina and NYU’s International Filipino Association. 

On November 19, Columbia’s Liga Filipina and NYU’s International Filipino Association (IFA) hosted the 23rd annual Mr. Philippines, or Mr. PHL, pageant. This year’s theme was “TAGA ILOG,” a Filipino term translating to “river folk.” Like water, our Filipino identities are fluid, ever-flowing, and sustaining. Thus, this year’s pageant was a call for representatives, or “rep” for short, to reflect on their Filipino identity, how it shapes who they are, and their own contributions to Filipino culture. 

18 representatives from colleges across NYC, northern New Jersey, and Long Island competed for the title and the crown of Mr. Philippines 2023. Their pageant names, like Mr. Liga Filipina and Mr. IFA, corresponded to the Filipino-identity collegiate club they were representing. While I did not see the audience from my backstage perspective, I heard the hundreds of Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike cheering for their club representatives during each part of the pageant: the barong walk, cultural performance, talent portion, top five Q&A, and of course, the awards. 

Mr. Philippines’ lively hosts Kristen Santarin, Cailin Lansang, Kristina Organista, and Euan Ramos introduced each rep on the stage. From lip syncing Bruno Mars’s “That’s What I Like” to stunts reminiscent of those in “Dirty Dancing,” the reps showed their dedication, personality, and drive to win the pageant. 

Amid the glimmer of entertainment, there were gems of personal growth and cultural appreciation. One representative recited spoken word poetry about his identity within the Filipino diaspora. Another representative sang a heartfelt OPM (original Pinoy music) song in Tagalog. Others choreographed fight scenes with the traditional weapon arnis and dances with bamboo poles for tinikling. Some wrote a short play or sketched a live drawing to narrate their personal relationship with being Filipino. 

When the 18 reps were called on stage, the audience went wild once more as the top five were selected: Mr. Flash (Armando Manansala), Mr. FASA (Gabriel Pineda), Mr. FSA (John Claude Yambao), Mr. Liga Filipina (Gabe de la Cruz), and Mr. Sarap (Matthew Mongalo). The esteemed judges for this year’s pageant were Lara Saguisag, Kevin Masbang, Chrissi Fabro, and Devin Ilaw, all of who have diverse roles in the Filipino community but share a common goal: uplifting the Filipino experience. They asked thought-provoking questions to the top five reps, one of which was: “What’s your personal ilaw, or light, that you’ll use to uplift the next generation of Filipinos?” 

After a few minutes of deliberation, the final decisions were made for the main and honorary awards. In addition to Mr. Philippines 2023, there were also Mr. Maarte, for the most theatrical rep; Mr. Congeniality, for the friendliest rep; Mr. Cultural, for the rep with the most on-theme performances; and Mr. Buzzworthy, for the rep with the most social media presence. 

Columbia’s very own Mr. Liga Filipina was crowned Mr. Philippines 2023. His barong walk and cultural and talent portion were a cohesive collection about Filipino flowing like water. As he graced the stage, de la Cruz wove a heartfelt story with the physicality of his ballet and pole-dancing, complemented by the montage of his stunning makeup looks on screen. When asked about his ilaw, de la Cruz answered that it was his art—the act of painting his face almost everyday and creative expression in all its forms are the reasons he exists. By simply being who he is without needing justification for his identity, he hopes it can inspire younger Filipinos to exist the way that they want to without having to justify who they are.

His answer embodied what TAGA ILOG stood for: a chance for the young generation of Filipinos to be who they are unconditionally. Regardless of who won or not, our collective pride in being Filipino ultimately outshined the competitive spirit. The camaraderie was apparent on stage, out in the audience, and behind the scenes with the months-long commitment, love, and effort of the planning team, dance team, and media team as well as the enthusiasm of all the Filipino-identity clubs involved. Mr. Philippines Pageant 2023 truly championed our origins and culture—its ever-changing nature and relevance to our lives, during this pageant and beyond.

Mr. Philippines 2023 Logo via Mr. PHL Planning Team and Media Team