Galing Pinoy: A Matter of Perception

by Joseph Pimentel/

LOS ANGELES — Poet William Blake once said: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is – infinite.” For 26-year-old Filipino concert pianist Chris Cerna, this quote is has been his motto.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve been blind since an early age and this is all I know,” said Chris Cerna. “But my family never treated me any different because of my disability. I grew up with the idea that I could do anything I want as long as I put my mind to it.”

Born in Cebu, Philippines, Chris and his twin brother Chuck Cerna were born with cancer in the eyes. Doctors diagnosed both with retinal blastoma. Only 18 months old, doctors removed both of Chris’ eyes to keep the cancer from spreading. His brother, however, was not as fortunate. Chuck’s cancer spread while doctors attempted the same procedure. He passed away a few years later.

Before Chuck’s passing, he showed musical talent on the piano. Chris had never shown the same amount of interest in playing the piano as his twin.

“I took one lesson, and the teacher said it wasn’t for me,” he recalls. “My twin brother was the who could play really well at an early age.”

Nine months after his brother passed away, before their fifth birthday, Chris got the urge to play his brother’s piano and played his brother’s favorite song, ‘Immaculate Mary.’

“It’s hard to say [why],” he said. “We had a bond. I look at it as a gift from God. It’s definitely a miracle that I began playing.”

Since then, with his mother, Carmenita’s, encouragement he began to play in church choir’s and town events. More than 700 people attended Chris’ first concert at the age of seven. He also received the Perlas Award as the Valuable Filipino for Special Talent from The Philippines Foundation, Inc. for harnessing his gift of music and sharing his talent and skills with the community, particularly those who need inspiration to live productively despite a physical handicap.

Medical Mission

In 1989, the Honolulu-based Aloha Medical Mission treating patients in Cebu discovered Chris. Rebel soldiers had just captured the island trapping the medical mission group. Cebu locals brought Chris to entertain the group.

The medical mission paid back the generous hospitality, promising to have reconstructive surgery done on his eye sockets. In 1991, mother and child left for Hawaii and Chris’ sockets were given artificial implants made from sea coral.

Musical prodigy

Living in Hawaii, Chris received the opportunity to pursue his dreams of music. In high school, he received a State scholarship to attend the Ellen Masaki School of Music in Honolulu.

Chris admitted that he enjoys composing his own music. Besides the piano, Chris excelled in other instruments – mandolin, tuba, vibraphone, harmonica, accordion, samisen, Indian drum, flute, guitar, laud, banjo, recorder, lap steel guitar, violin and other string instruments.

He has won competitions sponsored by the Hawaii Music Teachers Association and the Morning Music Club of Honolulu. He’s been featured by the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra and performed in front of Government officials. Only his immigration status has prevented him from winning more awards since some competitions require US citizenships.

But Chris is not all about music. “I love to go hiking and camping,” he said.

When the Asian Journal interviewed Chris, he was on his way to go target shooting.

“They place a metronome behind the target for me,” he said.

Chris was a member of the Boy Scouts for five years. In 2000, he received Eagle Scout honors, the highest honor a Boy Scout can get. Only three percent of all Boy Scouts receive the honor. He was also the first Boy Scout in the nation to use the Braille edition of the Ad Altare Dei manual to earn his Catholic Scouting award, according to other reports about Chris.

Of course, Chris admits all of his achievements haven’t been easy.

To some he is an inspiration. To others he’s just a handicap.

“I just laugh it off,” he said about the negative comments. “It doesn’t bother me.”

She is My Eyes

For the past 16 years, Chris and his mother Carmenita had a true mother-son bond. As the only two members of the Cerna family in the US, Carmenita would attend all of Chris’ performances. Earlier this year, Carmenita passed away at the age of 53 in Hawaii.

“She sacrificed a lot for me. She always made sure that I practiced,” Chris said. “She was the backbone that supported everything I did,” he added.

Since her death, Chris has been more motivated and inspired to become a great pianist. Before she passed away, she made him promise her.

“She asked me to bring my family here.”

Currently, he is studying for his Bachelors in Music at the University of Hawaii and performs regularly in Hawaii and across the US.

To Chris, everything that has happened in his life is truly a blessing.

“It’s definitely an honor and a privilege to share my music,” he said. “Whatever gifts God gave to us, we have to always share. Just because I lost my eyesight, it’s doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world that I’m not supposed to do anything. I still have my legs.”

“A lot of people, unfortunately, lose something and they think that it, it’s over and that’s all there is to it,” he added. “You have to adapt.”


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