As she walks in a garden showing off the details of her dress, nine-year-old Agatha Kriszel Gonzales projects the beauty of a winged goddess in a video produced for her school’s online pageant.
Inspired by different birds, the costume is designed and handcrafted by her dad, Anthony “AG” Gonzales, from used balikbayan boxes. It bested all the contenders in the Best in Recycled Costume category at the Veritas Catholic School’s annual beauty pageant.
Asked how they came up with the idea, AG shares that he and his sister, Anna Lynn, were brainstorming for Agatha’s recycled costume in the family garage when their eyes went towards the direction of the balikbayan boxes the family had brought home from Singapore. “We thought, why not make use of them?” AG shares.
AG is a Fine Arts graduate at the University of Santo Tomas and has worked for luxury and in-flight magazines in the Philippines and abroad such as Philippine Tatler, Timeout, and Jetstar. He admits to helping out his daughter make props for her school plays and projects every now and then, but this was the first time he made her a costume for a pageant.
The idea to create a costume inspired by different birds came to mind when he remembered a feature of a Philippine eagle he saw on a magazine he used to design. “We thought of something unique, at the same time still in line with the theme of protecting the environment,” he recalls.
Agatha’s bird costume has the body of the Philippine eagle, the arm of a maya, and the tail of a peacock. In lieu of a headdress, AG created a fascinator inspired by the sarimanok, an iconic symbol of Maranao art.
AG, with the help of his sister, his wife Kristine, and Agatha, finished the costume in three nights. “We would start working around 7pm and end when we’re tired,” he recalls. The family effort paid off fivefold. Not only did Agatha win Best in Recycled Costume, she also took home other major awards—Miss Advocacy, Miss Popularity, Miss Talent, and the pageant title, Miss Valiant.
The wins were nice and comforting, especially considering the harsh realities of the past months brought on by the pandemic.
The Gonzaleses had actually just arrived last September from Singapore. AG and Agatha’s application for permanent residency in the Lion City has been denied one too many times they decided it’s best to just come home to the Philippines. AG was also retrenched from his post at one of the in-flight magazines and the pandemic made it difficult for him to look for another job in Singapore.
“It was hard for us because we stayed there for 15 years and we needed to ship all our stuff back to the Philippines—that’s 13 boxes,” AG recalls. “We haven’t even finished unpacking yet.”
Life in the Lion City was good for Agatha. Her eyes sparkle when she talks about meeting American, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Indian friends in the international school she attended. Singapore provided a safe and clean environment for her and her two-year old sister who, like her, was also born in Singapore.
But losing work can be very challenging in the city state, says AG, because the cost of living is high. Unable to send Agatha to a local school, he and his wife decided to enroll Agatha in an international school, which was expensive, just so she wouldn’t need to stop studying. “We didn’t want her to stop schooling, so my wife and I worked together to send her to IS,” he says.
“It was challenging but really worth it because Agatha is a very good daughter and she was really doing well in school. In fact, she was a silver medalist in Grade 3 at the HFSE International School,” says the proud dad.
But then the pandemic happened, and the family had to make tough decisions along the way. Heartbreaking as it was, they had to uproot themselves and reestablish a life in the Philippines.
AG’s wife, who was able to secure a permanent resident status many years back, is now in the Philippines with her mag-aama, working for a Singaporean company online. AG, meanwhile, is doing freelance work as an artist. And Agatha? She seems to be adjusting well in her new school. “Everyone’s friendly. The teachers are nice,” she says, showing her pretty smile.
The change wasn’t easy for the kid. “She’s so sad at first but we managed to explain to her the situation,” her dad explains. “Though sometimes she will tell us that she misses her friends and she missed SG because here in the Philippines her age is not allowed to go out.
It wasn’t easy for AG either. “To be honest I was really sad at first. There’s a lot of positive things that every parent or individual will love living in SG, like every thing there is very organized, going to one place to another is very convenient, not so traffic, it’s safe to use public transport. It was very clean and safe for my family.”
But no matter last year’s hard-to-swallow realities, AG chooses to look at the bright side. “We’re happy na din, kasi ngayon, we’re with our family. Unlike before, malayo kami sa dad ko, who is now 70 years old,” he says. Is the family staying in the Philippines for good? “For now, yes,” he replies. “We don’t know what the future holds for us. What’s important now is we’re all together as family.”
In the meantime, the Gonzaleses still have a few more balikbayan boxes to unpack.
Photos courtesy of Anthony Gonzales