The Enclave of our Roots

by Joseph Pimentel/AJPress
FilAm Jonathan Lorenzo, an administrator for the Filipino-American Library (FAL), gets tremendous satisfaction from the faces of those he educates about Historic Filipinotown. Three times a year, Lorenzo shuttles and acts as a tour guide to eager people wanting to know more about the 2.1-square-mile area designated as Historic Filipinotown.
“There’s the most popular site which is the 100-foot mural on Beverly and Union that depicts about 4,000 years of Filipino and FilAm history including pictures of Jose Rizal, the EDSA Revolution and labor leaders like Philip Vera Cruz; Remy’s on Temple [art gallery], and the [World War II] Filipino Veterans’ Memorial.”

“All the Filipinos who go on the tour usually say ‘I never knew all these Filipino places were in Historic Filipinotown,’” he added. “And the non Filipinos say to me that they never knew [that] there is such a rich Filipino history in Los Angeles. It makes me feel good. It makes me want to do more of these tours.”

For the past two years, Lorenzo and the FAL have been trying there best to gather more Filipinos and FilAms to learn about their very own geographic and cultural district.

Despite the Filipino murals and landmarks, the number one question Lorenzo always hears  is what’s so Filipino about Historic Filipinotown?

Since its designation in 2002, Historic Filipinotown which comprises the 101 Hollywood Freeway to the North, Hoover St. to the West, Glendale Blvd. to the East, and Beverly Blvd. to the South; has received a lot of criticisms for not having a large Filipino population base. With a dominant Hispanic population in the area, Filipinos seem to be non-existent in an area named after them, only making up about 10 percent of the areas population.

But in reality, there are a lot of things Filipino about Historic Filipinotown, according to Lorenzo.

It’s the reason why FAL offers the free bus tours.

“We want to educate everybody about our rich history here,” said Lorenzo.

Early Beginnings

The Historic Filipinotown area has had a rich history dating from the early 1940’s when the first ever Filipino-American service organization was created and later built. The Filipino American Community of Los Angeles also known as FACLA, has been serving the community since the early migrants decided to make Los Angeles their home away from home.

It was created by a dedicated group of settled Filipinos wanting to help their kababayans.

“That was their hub,” said Susan Dilkes, the executive director of Filipino American Service Group Inc. (FASGI). “The Filipinos who were here already had a spirit to help the new Filipino immigrants. These Filipino immigrants were mostly young, fresh, hardworking and very ambitious. They would come to this area and FACLA would help them get adjusted.”

FACLA was a safe haven for these immigrants. During a time with severe prejudice and lack of cultural assimilation, these Filipino immigrants would rely on each other for help.

“The discrimination was very clear,” said Dilkes. “They had to work together.”

In fact, the original Filipinotown “Little Manila” where Filipinos first settled (many of them farmers) was in the Downtown Los Angeles areas of Bunker Hill and Little Tokyo before they were forced out and moved west due to city bureaucracy to what is now the Historic Filipinotown area.

Most of the early Filipino immigrants that lived in Historic Filipinotown worked in low wage jobs as bus boys or servers in restaurants.

In the 1960’s to the 1980’s more Filipinos continued to migrate to the US due to the 1965 US Immigration Act and the need for workers, said Lorenzo.

As the area continued to flourish with more Filipinos, Filipino businesses, schools and service groups were created. Search to Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA) was founded in 1972 to serve the FilAm youth. The late Valente G. Ramos and his wife Cecile founded Burlington Nursery School and Kindergarten in 1974. The Filipino Christian Church moved to its location in Historic Filipinotown from Downtown. FASGI was founded in 1981.

Many of those organizations today are still prominent and set up headquarters in Historic Filipinotown.

There was a point that the area was 60 or 70 percent Filipino, says Jocelyn Geaga-Rosenthal.

“There are books written about the area,” said Geaga-Rosenthal, owner of Remy’s on Temple Gallery. “Our very own Filipino Author Carlos Bulosan used to frequent places here in Historic Filipinotown.”

“But that changed overtime,” she added. “The influx of new immigrants and the upward mobility of Filipinos, many moved out into other areas of Los Angeles.”

The core organizations remained. And according to Geaga-Rosenthal, that’s when the idea of a Historic Filipinotown designation for the area began.

Historic Filipinotown

Her memory is a little bit hazy but Dilkes of FASGI remembers when Los Angeles Councilman Eric Garcetti proposed the idea of designating an area of Los Angeles Historic Filipinotown.

“I remember we had a FilVote forum for the city council,” she remembers. “He said he was going to support Historic Filipinotown [if] he wins [his council seat].”

Garcetti kept his word. When he won in early 2000, his deputy organized the leaders of the Filipino community at FASGI. Garcetti created a study and found the need for a Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles.

On August 22, 2002, Garcetti flanked by leaders of the Filipino community lifted the first ever Historic Filipinotown sign.

“There’s Little Tokyo, Thai Town, Chinatown, the Asian map was not complete in the area,” said Dilkes who was part of that ceremony in 2002. “The missing piece was Historic Filipinotown. We got our designation but it was way overdue.”

Geaga-Rosenthal was also part of that ceremony. She remembers it quite well. She was one of the first speakers to thank the members of the Los Angeles City Council for their unanimous motion of support.

“It was exciting and rewarding,” she said. “It was also nostalgic for me. My mom was very active in this area until her death in 1997. She would have been very joyful had she been around. This is a realization of her dreams and many others. It was truly a remarkable moment and moving experience for me.”

Geaga-Rosenthall added that it’s important to give the large Filipino population in Los Angeles an area they can call their own.

“The proclamation of this area is an acknowledgement of our history,” she said. “There are still more work to be done but the area is a living cultural monument [of] our contributions of this great land.”

(www.asianjournal.com)

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