(With Giselle Goloy, Cherie del Rio-Tan, Anne Frances Sangil, Edwin Madera, Beejay Bautista and Abbey Santos)
In the early 2000s, I was part of an outreach event for Pinoy Harry Potter. We were at SM Manila, in an activity center crowded with sets, people in costumes, and children. I was dressed for my role and rank: headmistress, one of the pair of founders, and ready to read the Harry Potter books to anyone.
So I sat with a group of wide-eyed grade-school kids, opened the first book, and spoke the familiar words to those who have read J.K. Rowling’s work: “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
The opening lines were an invitation for all readers to look deeper into their reality, to see the magic beneath. I read through the middle of the chapter until the signal sounded that the reading was done for the day.
The children were all smiles. They rose, thanked me, and left with their parents.
But one little girl approached me and said she wished that I’d read the book in Tagalog so they could understand it: “Ate, sana binasa mo sa Tagalog para maintindihan namin.”
I remember her words to this day because they are a reminder that we are all readers: We seek stories, revel in them, love them, and are inspired by them. But we must first understand them in a language that is our own.
Pinoy Harry Potter (PHP) began in 2001 when the Harry Potter trivia board game came out and eventually sparked a competition in what was then a wide network of National Bookstores across the Philippines. I reached the finals, where I first met Cherie del Rio (now Tan). She was an undergraduate at De La Salle University in Dasmarinas, I was a masters student at the University of the Philippines in Diliman. We were both big fans of the books, but we also saw something beyond the squealing over characters and scrutiny of plots.
It was Cherie’s idea to organize PHP, a group in which Filipino Harry Potter fans could unite. The first book, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” was first published in 1997, and the early 2000s was truly the golden age to be a Potterhead. Subsequent books were being released and the fandom was growing. The world was obsessed with the boy with a lightning scar called out of oblivion and into a secret school for wizards.
Related: Pinoy Harry Potter
Beyond the adventures were two things:
First, a sense of belonging. We could all relate to Harry Potter because at one point in our lives we had been laughed at or slighted, derided for our beliefs, or misunderstood. But we clung to the hope that, like Harry, we would eventually find our place in the world where we would be valued, and our existence would matter. It was this real-world magic that further fueled our appreciation of the books.
Second, a sense of friendship. It’s almost a given that being a Harry Potter reader meant that one came with certain character traits—phenotypes, if you want to ask geneticists—like camaraderie and a willingness to look beyond our differences and focus on what we can each bring to the table. The realization that there is wonder and joy in discovering that even our quirks and eccentricities can serve to complement others’ positive traits and strengths is the true measure of lasting friendships.
At first, PHP was only meant to connect fans with one another and provide an avenue to discuss the books. As the group grew, it quickly turned into something much bigger than what we had imagined. And not long after, “Hogwarts Philippines” was born.
Cherie, with the help of some house elves (IT experts to the Muggles), created an online forum, which we fondly called “The Castle,” where members could get sorted into houses; acquire virtual wands and pets; and even attend informal classes.
We had “professors” teaching each other Philippine folklore (“Defense Against the Dark Arts” by Anne Frances Sangil), math tutorials (“Arithmancy” by Edwin Madera), art (“Dark Arts” by visual artist Gary Mayoralgo), English grammar (“Charms” by Abbey Santos), music appreciation (“Herbology” by Giselle Goloy), and Philippine culture and society (“Muggle Studies” by geodetic engineer Meann Ortiz).
This replication of Hogwarts online grew even more, spilling offline. By 2003, we had begun having in-person meet-ups regularly at Starbucks in Greenbelt. We even held end-of-term feasts—similar to those in the books—where we recognized exemplary members and awarded the House Cup (trophy) to the house with the most points from various classes and activities throughout the school year.
Normally, big PHP events happen mid-year, around the time of Harry Potter’s birth month. (In an interview, JKR gave Harry the same birthday as her own: July 31.)
We cosplayed our beloved fandom and took part in larger gatherings where we met other fandoms. There were also book launches, movie premieres, Halloween parties, and book fairs. We even celebrated PHP’s 10th anniversary with our very own Yule Ball. These events were all in the spirit of fun—no spellcasting or summoning allowed—and expanded naturally, to outreach and charity events, like book readings and Christmas drives.
And these gave way to another very special part of the PHP story: our costumes. Fortunately, Edwin’s mom is a seamstress. She started with a handful of Hogwarts robes in time for PHP’s participation in a mall event, “The Adventure Continues… Harry Potter at the Shangri-La PLaza” in June 2004. The robes were of such excellent craftsmanship that soon, members asked Edwin to be a go-between for them and Mrs. Madera to make other costumes from the Harry Potter movies.
Thus, Monsieur Malkin’s (an homage to Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions) was born.
All these new and exciting events happened within just a few years. Remember, this was the early 2000s and thankfully, there was Yahoo! Groups to help us chat and text messages to make sure that we arrived at events on time, as well as forums to keep members updated. We were everywhere—malls, classrooms, radio shows, even early-morning TV shows—to talk about our love for the books. We were the biggest Filipino Harry Potter fan group—and still are!
Not content with sharing our love for Harry Potter with fellow Filipinos, “Headmistress” Cherie and “Gryffindor Head of House” Frances presented scholarly papers abroad, too!
Cherie presented at “The Witching Hour,” a fan-run Harry Potter symposium held on Oct. 6-10, 2005, in Salem, Massachusetts. Her topic was on the comparison of wizarding and muggle legal systems. She also presented at “Phoenix Rising,” a conference devoted to all things Harry Potter held on May 17-21, 2007, in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Frances presented at the first Harry Potter Conference in Florida, “Nimbus 2003.” Later, she would present at “Sectus 2007” held in London in time for the launch of the seventh book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” But I can bet that Frances’ most memorable conference was “A Brand of Fictional Magic: Reading Harry Potter as Literature,” which was held at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in 2012. And no, it wasn’t because of her topic or the other speakers. What made this conference special was that she was accompanied by PHP’s “Charms Prof.” Abbey and “Gringotts CEO” Giselle.
It was not hard to keep PHP going despite its constant transformations because at the heart of the books—and therefore at the core of the group—was a love for bringing people together, often from quite diverse backgrounds. Regardless of identity or socioeconomic standing, we were all equals because we shared a common interest and a love for books that allowed us to see the world in an equitable and kinder light, a world where we found the opportunity to tell our own stories and, more importantly, learned to listen to the stories told by others.
Hogwarts Philippines became an adulting microcosm for those of us who were growing into adulthood in the real world, as it were, while juggling our online (and offline) lives. We assigned leaders to help us manage our members and activities. “Head Boy” Beejay Bautista was a fresh college graduate when he took on the responsibilities and duties of a PHP student leader. Beejay, along with other Hogwarts student leaders and faculty, had to learn how to run smooth registration processes and secure payments, and handle sponsorships and partnerships with multinational companies.
And since we had underaged members, our youngest at the time being only 13 years old, we needed to learn how to ensure that these children had their parents’ permission to attend our in-person events. It was something that we insisted on. Even back then, it was important for us to train our younger members to recognize exploiters and online scammers.
Our journey into maturity included doing things for the love of PHP, not because we expected rewards or freebies, but because we wanted to. We participated in and led fund-raising events because there were people to help beyond the fandom, and because volunteering meant that we would be able to share what we have without expecting our own egos to be fed.
Twenty-two years of PHP was not all smooth sailing, and we’ve had our share of rough patches. Factions formed because of misunderstandings, and quarrels created rifts that seemed unmendable. We had to learn how to settle arguments without calling on parents, guardians, or “professors” to save us. Some relationships were strengthened while others remain broken. The details are hazy now, but one thing is certain: It was at PHP that I met people who I consider my life-long friends.
We were quiet in recent years, and you can blame adult life for that. But this silence was neither a rejection of the books nor of JKR herself. This is a point worth emphasizing, given the recent backlash and canceling. We need only remember why we formed Hogwarts Philippines in the first place: to create a conduit where people who love the books could meet like-minded individuals, make friends, and find common ground (or celebrate our differences).
We envisioned Hogwarts Philippines as a safe space for people to tell their stories while others listened without making assumptions or, worse, unfair judgements, and where we could engage in meaningful discussions—whether related to Harry Potter or not—without vilifying or canceling those with opposing views.
Just like mature adults.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the Filipino edition of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was published by Lampara Books. It has been 10 years since then and I hope the little girl and many like her have had the opportunity to step into the magical world in a language that is our own.
That mall event at SM Manila was one of my many fond memories of being at the forefront of PHP’s early years because it reminded me that the books are so much more than just stories that helped us all grow together.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” The opening lines are an invitation to all of us to question what we think is normal, to examine what we think is real, and to forever be curious about the people around us. The books themselves—and Hogwarts Philippines—became spaces for us to exercise our creativity, to find friends, to build another kind of family.
Years later, we are chatting again, rebuilding the castle, catching up on each other’s lives. That is the real magic that books—and true friendships—can bring.
Inez Ponce de Leon is an associate professor at the Department of Communication of Ateneo de Manila University and a weekly opinion columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The following contributed to this report:
Cherie del Rio-Tan, who holds a doctorate in jurisprudence and juggles her time working as a consultant at a Manila law firm and as a digital marketing consultant for various SMEs.
Edwin Madera, an engineer who has been living for nine years in Winnipeg, Canada, where he works as a CAD designer for a metal fabrication company and is a certified professional inspector on the side.
Anne Frances Sangil, who chairs the Department of Literature of De La Salle University (Taft Avenue), where she teaches literature, art appreciation, popular culture, and an elective on Harry Potter of Hogwarts
Giselle Goloy, a geology graduate and environmental scientist who has been living in Sydney, Australia, for 18 years, where she works as an environmental regulator in the public sector. Harry Potter of Hogwarts fan
Beejay Bautista, a Manila-based data engineer who has started rebuilding the Hogwarts Philippines web-castle in his free time.
Abbey Santos, a graphic designer who lives with her family in British Columbia, Canada, where they enjoy hikes, trails, and lakes right in the city.