WEST ORANGE, NJ — If you attend a West Orange Township Council meeting, you are pretty much guaranteed never to see Council President Jerry Guarino swinging a sword around to drive home support for a resolution. And while Rodolfo Rodriguez may be one of the township’s deputy mayors, he certainly does not spend his days sitting atop a throne, swathed in a majestic royal cloak with a gleaming gold crown on his head.
But for those who attended the Dec. 12 production of “The Coming of the Cross and the Sword,” an operetta organized by Deputy Mayor Zal Velez and his wife, Josie, those seemingly absurd scenarios became a reality on the Liberty Middle School Auditorium stage when Guarino, Rodriguez and numerous other local officials joined experienced singers in acting out the adaptation of Zal Velez’s book “Las Islas Filipinas: Man of Destiny,” telling the story of Ferdinand Magellan’s arrival and eventual downfall in the Philippines.
Each official had a relatively small part in the show, which was held as a way to raise money for the West Orange Scholarship Fund. And according to the Velezes, they all jumped at the chance to give back to the community while having fun at the same time.
“For them it’s like going back to playing dramas in school,” Josie Velez, who narrated parts of the show, told the West Orange Chronicle before going on stage. “It brings back memories. Everyone’s enjoyed participating in it. There’s a camaraderie that’s developed.”
Rodriguez said that taking part in the operetta has indeed been an “interesting” experience. The deputy mayor, who played King Carlos I of Spain, added that it was fun to come together with familiar faces from town in an entirely unique way.
Assemblyman and former Mayor John McKeon agreed that the whole experience was nice, even if it was a bit out of his comfort zone.
“Everyone always keeps telling me to break a leg,” McKeon, who also narrated a portion of the production, told the Chronicle in a Dec. 10 phone interview. “I don’t know if that’s because they want me to do well or because they don’t want me to participate.”
All jokes aside, McKeon said it was a true pleasure helping out the Velezes, whom he has known for 30 years. Calling them “lovely people,” the assemblyman lauded them for their decades of service to the West Orange community, including Josie’s current work as chairwoman of the West Orange Public Relations Commission.
Guarino, too, had kind words to say about the Velezes, especially regarding their decision to donate the proceeds from the show to the West Orange Scholarship Fund. The council president, who portrayed Capt. Luis de Mendoza, pointed out that the rising costs of a college education make the money the fund gives out more and more vital to West Orange students every year. He said the resource needs as much help as it can get from residents.
The fact that the Velezes were willing to go to such great lengths to benefit the fund demonstrates just what kind of people they are, Guarino said.
“I think very highly of them,” Guarino told the Chronicle in a Dec. 10 phone interview. “They’re very active and give of themselves to the community. We need more people like them.”
For the Velezes, supporting the town they have called home for the past 42 years is second nature. But they said it was particularly important to them to benefit the local school district since their own children are West Orange High School graduates. Having raised $2,000 for the underprivileged children of the Filipino Smokey Mountain and $1,500 for the Typhoon Haiyan victims in years past by putting on “The Coming of the Cross and the Sword,” they thought that hosting the operetta once more would be a perfect opportunity to help the fund.
And while the total amount collected from the show had not been tallied by press time Dec. 15, Zal Velez told the Chronicle just knowing that the couple has made a difference for their community once again has made their effort worthwhile.
“Giving back to West Orange is a rewarding experience,” Zal Velez, who directed and produced the operetta, said in a Dec. 12 email. “I like to help promote West Orange as an ideal place to live and share my talent since this is the place where I raised my family and spent most of my lifetime.”
The West Orange Scholarship Fund certainly appreciates the help. Since awarding its first scholarship in 1925, the fund has gone on to give more than $1.1 million to graduating high school seniors. According to Rich Rolizzo, the fund’s president, last year alone saw a record $61,500 in scholarship money distributed to 49 students — all due to the generosity of fund supporters. As Rolizzo explained, the fund would be much worse off if people did not contribute to its 61 independently-funded scholarships or to the fund itself, which makes up the difference for any scholarship without the money to meet its designated amount.
Events like the operetta are a way to attract donors, which is why Rolizzo told the Chronicle the fund is so grateful to the Velezes. The president said that despite the scholarship fund’s success, many community members and students do not realize it exists, so any way to raise awareness for it can go a long way. And once the word about the fund is out, Rolizzo said he hopes more people will contribute as a way of paying it forward.
“Everything that all of us have been able to accomplish is on the shoulders of others who have come before us who have set the groundwork for whatever success we could have,” Rolizzo said in a Dec. 10 phone interview. “The next generation is going to depend on our shoulders. So we need to do something that can create as broad a platform as we possibly can.”
Providing scholarship money is not the only way that the Velezes hope to help future generations. By chronicling the history of the Philippines in his operetta and in several history books — which he wrote under the name Cristo Rey Alunan — Zal Velez said he wants to preserve the art, culture and tradition of his native land while shedding light on aspects of the past that have been commonly overlooked.
For instance, “The Coming of the Cross and the Sword” recognizes the significance of Magellan’s slave interpreter, Enrique, even positing that Enrique was actually the first person to circumnavigate the globe.
In preserving this history, Josie Velez said they hope it will be carried on for years to come.
“We want to leave a legacy for young Filipinos who might not have a clue about history,” Josie Velez said. “The books in school don’t usually touch on our history.”