By: Daina Beth Solomon
Issue date: 3/25/09
The façade of Eagle Rock Plaza is unremarkable. Some might call it ugly. Street-level stores suggest a predictable American mall, featuring Chuck E. Cheese, Macy’s and Target. But underneath, nothing is ordinary. An oasis of cultural delight and wonder hides on the lower level. Tangy, tantalizing aromas and flavors of the South Pacific Philippine islands beckon from below. At the foot of an escalator, the bright figure of the Jollibee mascot commands attention and adoration. Who could resist that larger-than-human-sized white Plexiglas bumblebee in a red suit, posed gaily outside the Filipino fast-food spot bearing his name? Next door, another Filipino export beckons – Goldilocks Restaurant and Bakeshop. Many of the bakery selections are made from ube, a lovely purple yam. One specialty vanilla cake features an assortment of red, white and garbanzo beans. Meanwhile, Seafood City, easily the brightest, sweetest smelling fish market on the planet, offers a mass of Filipino food and ingredients, including the ever popular purple yam. The entire lower level of Eagle Rock Plaza is devoted to goods and services from the Philippines. Shops abound offering Filipino clothes, music and knickknacks ranging from folk art to karaoke machines.
The mall serves as an anchor for Los Angeles Filipino culture. Locals call it “Manila Mall,” referring to the capital city of the island country. Strike up a conversation with any shopper and you’ll hear, “It’s like being home in the Philippines.” Filipinos agree that the shopping mall, like Manila, reflects the country’s charm and vitality as well as its multifaceted heritage and the freewheeling spirit of its people. The Eagle Rock Plaza is just one conglomeration of the many Filipino restaurants and businesses that pervade the Northeast L.A. area.
The Republic of the Philippines occupies an intricate necklace of over 7000 islands in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii, though less than a third of the islands are inhabited. The Spanish first explored and seized the islands in 1521, naming them in honor of King Philip. The Filipino people were a heterogeneous assortment of indigenous groups with a variety of ethnicities, languages, religions, histories and roots. They had incurred petty kinship rivalries and were an easy target for Spanish colonization. To some extent, Spanish rule united the previously independent kingdoms and ethnic groups. The Spanish governed for the next 350 years. Spaniards brought western civilization to the islands. They established cities and towns, introduced new agriculture and promoted trading of items such as silk, spices, ivory and porcelain. The Spanish, devoted Roman Catholics, founded missions to convert the population to Christianity. The Church founded many hospitals and schools to further enforce their religious beliefs. On occasion, the natives rose up against the Spaniards, but posed no threat to Spanish rule until late in the 19th century.
In 1898, Spain’s Pacific and Caribbean colonies began a fight for independence. The United States joined the battle against Spain and achieved victory a year later. At the war’s conclusion, the Treaty of Paris granted ownership of the Philippines, along with Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam, to the United States.
But the Philippines did not consent to American rule and continued their fight for independence between 1899 and 1913 in the Philippine-American War. The United States won the war and the Philippines remained a colony, victimized by America’s fierce imperialism, until 1935 when they obtained commonwealth status.
The United States intended a continued movement toward independence, but during World War II the Japanese invasion of the Philippines halted these plans. However, Filipino and American troops fought together to defeat the Japanese, and Independence to the Philippines was granted on July 4, 1946. It was a positive step for the small country, but corruption, political instability and economic problems would plague the islands from its very first presidency, a Martial Law regime that lasted 20 years. Filipino Independence did not stop the flow of immigration that had begun in the 1900s.
California was a choice destination for Filipino immigrants. By 1935, about 75,000 Filipinos had arrived in California. Between 1935 and 1946, when the Philippines became an independent republic, Filipino immigration was gradually prohibited by immigration laws.
Initially, Filipinos who were able to immigrate to the U.S. worked alongside Japanese and Chinese in large commercial farms and domestic labor. Discrimination and lack of capital prevented them from establishing a business foothold, and racist attitudes sealed off access to skilled jobs. Adjusting to American life was complicated because few bonds united the heterogeneous Filipino population.
Even so, Filipino enclaves had developed in L.A. by the 1920s. One of the oldest formed as a result of restrictive covenants and discrimination forcing Filipinos into a small enclave close to downtown. In 2002 this area was designated as “Historic Filipinotown,” although the area is now largely Latino.
By the 1940s, new laws aided Filipino immigration and assimilation. In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act lifted immigration quotas, providing new opportunities for Filipino immigrants, particularly family members and professionals. Immigration dramatically increased.
By the 1990s, the L.A. Filipino population was financially stable and highly-educated. Many Filipino families were concerned with the economic and public safety decline of the area surrounding Historic Filipinotown. As they became established in prosperous, mainstream society, they were drawn to “more attractive” Los Angeles neighborhoods where they could buy homes and send their children to good schools. Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Glassel Park and Glendale have become flourishing Filipino communities. Studies note that more than 6000 of Eagle Rock’s residents are Filipino. And there are thousands more in the surrounding Northeast L.A. areas.
In 2002, Eagle Rock’s Filipino leaders proposed the official designation of a stretch of Eagle Rock Boulevard as “Philippine Village.” Some Filipino immigrants objected that a designated Philippine Village was not consistent with their goals of assimilation. Other community members believed that no particular ethnic group should separate itself. Finally, a compromise was met. A “Philippine Village Community Center” municipal sign was placed at 4515 Eagle Rock Blvd at the location of a newspaper, several churches, a radio station, stores and businesses catering to Filipinos.
Victor Chico was one immigrant who helped to establish this “Philippine Village” long before any signs or designations were considered. Chico grew up in Northeast L.A. in the 1970s after emigrating from Manila as a boy. Chico serves Oxy as both the Postal Operations Center supervisor and karate teacher. He encourages students to take advantage of Oxy’s location to learn about Filipino culture and also to learn more about their own heritage. “People need to understand each other in order to work together and live together,” Chico said. Chico has returned only once to the Philippines and was discouraged by the country’s pollution and poverty. Still, he wants his two sons, ages 7 and 12, to make a visit. “It’s important for them to understand their heritage and also to understand how privileged and lucky they are to live in the United States,” he said. Meanwhile, Chico hopes they’ll enjoy learning about their Filipino culture right here in Eagle Rock.
Don’t get confused if you hear Chico call himself “Pilipino.” In Tagalog, a commonly used regional language of the Philippines, there is no “f” sound. In America, both terms are commonly used, though there is a slight distinction. Andreu Neri (junior), who grew up in Eagle Rock in a Filipino family, explained that “Using ‘Pilipino’ is reclamation of our country’s culture, because the letter ‘f’ isn’t in the Tagalog language. The word ‘Filipino’ represents the westernization of the people and the country.”
Another common term is “Pinoy,” a slang word used to refer to people of Filipino descent, especially Filipino Americans. The term is brandished lovingly in the Los Angeles Asian Journal, a Filipino-American community newspaper. One headline reads “The Pinoy as Citizen of the World.” The article expresses Filipino pride in the 11 million Pinoy families overseas. The distinction between terms and languages has been a source of confusion and debate for Filipino officials and citizens for years.
According to a 1995 Census, there are over 100 languages used in the Philippines, and as many as 500 dialects. Though the languages come from the same Melayu-Polynesian family, they are different enough to make it impossible for people of different regions to communicate.
Tagalog, pronounced with an accent on the second “a,” is the most widely spoken and understood language in all regions of the Philippines. It was declared the official and national language in 1937 just after the country became a Commonwealth of the United States. In 1959, officials decided to rename the official language as Pilipino, in order to give the language a national rather than ethnic connotation. Even so, non-Tagalogs opposed a national language that was Tagalog-centric. Then in 1973 and again in 1987, Filipino, not Pilipino, was designated as the national language. The new term represented the country’s goal of creating a language that, though currently based on Tagalog, would “be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages,” according to the 1987 constitution. Though there is no “f” sound in Tagalog, the sound does exist within other languages of the Philippines and within Spanish and English. The use of “f” in “Filipino” signified that Tagalog would no longer be the sole basis of the national language.
In practice, Filipino is a language that has been called “Tagalog-plus,” a variation on the language on which it is based.
The former Chair of the Commission on the Filipino Language, Ricardo Maria Nolasco has explained that “Tagalog, Pilipino and Filipino are mutually intelligible varieties, and therefore belong to one language. Filipino is that speech variety spoken in Metro Manila and other urban centers where different ethnic groups meet. It is the most prestigious variety of Tagalog and the language used by the national mass media.”
Some members of the Pilipino United Student Organization (PUSO) speak Tagalog, but most are more familiar with “Taglish,” a blend of Tagalog and English. Throughout the Philippines, mass media and people of all societal levels as well as Filipino Americans embrace this linguistic style, mixing English words into Filipino phrases and constantly switching back and forth between the languages. Even President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo have used this “code-switching.” Local L.A. newspapers embrace Taglish as well. A recent edition of the Asian-American People’s Journal included Taglish phrases such as, “To be honest, hindi ko alam” and “Medyo mahirap, pero I understand.”
The club decided on the term “Pilipino” because the acronym PUSO spells “heart” in Tagalog. Club members have noted that students probably don’t know enough to ask about the distinction between terms and languages, but think that it would be valuable for students to understand.
Most Oxy students are familiar with PUSO flyers and the club’s logo – a red and blue heart surrounding a golden sunburst, made to resemble the Filipino flag. They’ve probably tried the club’s exotic foods like pancit, turron and lumpia on Club Day. The club hosts various events on campus, sometimes collaborating with the Asian Pacific Islander Association, an “umbrella” club that “celebrates, shares, and educates others about all Asian and Pacific Islander cultures,” according to club president Kristie Watanabe (junior). A key goal for PUSO, as stated in their mission statement, is to promote “awareness, appreciation and pride in the Filipino and Filipino-American culture and community.”
Ask them why this goal is important at Oxy and PUSO members are quick to answer. Brandon Oliva (senior) said “The Filipino community relates to all of us at Oxy. We should open our eyes to the cultures around us.” Rhoelyn Cortez (sophomore) said “There are so many Filipinos in Eagle Rock that we need to be aware of and respond to this community.”
They cited many ways for students to get to know the Filipino community. Many ideas involve eating. As Oliva pointed out, “Getting out to the restaurants increases your exposure to the Filipino community.” The club frequents Barrio Fiesta, located just around the corner from Oxy at 4420 Eagle Rock Blvd. Chico favors Max’s Restaurant of Manila located right across from the Glendale Galleria. Though he’s a native-born Filipino, Chico prefers adobo and lumpia to more exotic foods like the delicacy balut, a specially prepared duck egg that he says is sold regularly at the Eagle Rock Farmer’s Market. Oliva especially enjoys the relaxed, colorful atmosphere of Eagle Rock Plaza’s Seafood City.
Then there’s Jollibee, also of Eagle Rock Plaza, the eatery that promises “sheer happiness involved in ordering Chickenjoy, Jolly Spaghetti and Yumburgers” according to Pulitzer Prize winning food writer Jonathan Gold. According to its website, Jollibee is a “stronghold of heritage, a monument of Filipino victory” where “Filipinos form long queues to the store without fail.”
Yet why must Jollibee reserve its wonders for Filipinos? Why not envision a Jollibee where a diversity of community members line up, all keen to take a picture with the lovable, jumbo bumblebee and all eager to gobble up their Chickenjoys and Yumburgers? It can’t be long before Northeast L.A. wakes up to discover the cultural wealth of the Philippines, just steps away from home. Eagle Rock’s full cultural potential has yet to be realized.
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