LA Celebrates Its Historic Filipinotown … but the Journey Has Not Been Easy

WHO ARE THE REAL ANGELINOS? (another in an ongoing series)-It was predicted decades ago just how much the Filipino community would impact the development of Los Angeles. This article elaborates on the theme “Who Arethe Real Angelinos?”—a series that was begun a number of months ago to provide some depth into the richness of Los Angeles history and culture.  

Filipinos, even today, often lament that they represent a “forgotten” culture that few “Americans” study or know about.  Our history books seem to be continuously guilty of “historical amnesia” when it comes to our Filipino brothers and sisters. 

The Filipino group of 7,000 islands was under Spanish rule for some 300 years (since 1521). The first Filipinos arrived in this nation way back in the 1700s after they eluded Spanish “lords” and settled in Louisiana, having escaped Spanish galleons on which they had been forced to work. 

After the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last century (1898), the islands fell under American rule through the Treaty of Paris after which the United States installed a new political system patterned on the one we had created for ourselves a century earlier.  America taught the Filipino students that the United States had a superior culture and, therefore, these young people should try to emulate its features.  Many soon believed that the U.S. was the land of milk and honey—a place of opportunity and fair play. 

The early successes of these emigrés in America inspired more, particularly male, aspirants to the American way of life—hence ever larger numbers began to immigrate to our land and develop neighborhoods and larger communities within our established cities.  Sadly, but not unexpectedly, racial discrimination overruled any expectations of fair play.  These new laborers were relegated to “unskilled and menial occupations” despite how educated most of them were.  The Depression years of the 1930s made everything even worse but many chose (like the Japanese-Americans) to join the fight during World War II, in part to prove their patriotism. 

In between times, during World War II, the Japanese (from Japan) became aggressors and controlled the Filipino islands until the War came to its conclusion.  Eventually, through struggles, interminable conflicts, and negotiations, the Philippines became autonomous and has become a country in its own right (since 1946).  The U. S.  Clark and Subic Air Bases strategically located there closed after a massive volcanic explosion in 1991.  Subic was later invited back (2012) on a semi-permanent basis and continues to be a part of the Filipino landscape. 

The Filipino community has become an amalgam of cultures—“American,” Spanish, Chinese, Middle Easterners, East Indians.  They speak 23 dialects of Tagalog (depending on where they are located) and continuously work on perfecting their English language prowess. 

The Philippines today is considered “Asia’s emerging tiger.”  It is promoting franchises, health-wellness, renewable energy, after-school programs, and new business development.  Those in the labor force are thought to be among the most highly educated in the world.  They are taught to speak English so fluently that it is often difficult to detect their “foreign” origins.  (Think about those customer service agents, working in their homeland, who assist us in so many ways.  We are grateful not only for their expertise but in their ability to communicate to us so clearly).  

One of their proudest qualities is how well they revere their elders and cherish the extended family unit.  The culture makes elders feel relevant until the end of their lives.  Family members  would not think of placing them in nursing, assisted living, or retirement homes.  The old are honored, and age earns them ultimate respect—something that we Americans should learn!  The priests in their Catholic churches are not reluctant to preach the good gospel about taking care of others and even urge their congregants to use their franchise to influence electoral outcomes. 

Because of the weaker-than-hoped-for economy earlier in the twentieth century, a multitude of Filipinos began journeying to America to work in the medical fields, particularly in elder care.  Once here, numerous entrepreneurs have invested in businesses, such as the KFCs and 7-11s.  

Nevertheless, they don’t forget their origins and send money back home to assist the less advantaged—they maintain a vast family network.   Many even return to the Philippines after retirement to rejoin family and friends and enjoy the fruit of their labors there. 

During the “First Wave” of significant Filipino immigration eastward to the United States, they arrived in Hawaii.  The pineapple and sugar growers there were in need of field laborers for their plantations.  Many Filipinos came after World War II because the economy of their own land had been virtually destroyed and so put themselves in a position to be hired for these jobs. 

Unlike the Japanese-Americans who lost any legal status during World War II and were forced to live in internment camps around the country, the Filipinos “enjoyed” a special status because they had come from an American Protectorate, a virtual colony of “then-Imperial America.”  Thus their labor was welcomed and preferred, especially after potential Japanese immigrants were barred from entering our country starting in 1924.  Because of the impact of immigration laws, the farm-owners discovered quite a dearth in field laborers’ availability because of these laws and turned to the Filipino population to fill that void. 

Keep in mind, such barriers to immigration have been an ongoing issue throughout our history—fear of the alien, fear of competition, fear of differences.  

Many of the immigrants went on to California and worked our fields.  They gravitated to the Central Valley.  The Filipinos played a major role alongside Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers (see the recent Chavez film to help you visualize what conditions were like)to change the way field labor was treated and paid.  

These Filipino laborers, however, were also treated abominably!  One Japanese landowner (before his land was, ironically, taken away during the Second World War) is quoted as saying that he preferred hiring Filipino workers because “these Mexicans and Spaniards bring their families with them and I have to fix up homes; but I can put a hundred Filipinos in a barn.”  

Their shelters were dilapidated and crowded and were unsanitary.  There was no privacy.  The laborers experienced extreme heat in the fields with little opportunity for water, let alone bathroom breaks--“the toilet was an outhouse with the pit so filled up, it was impossible to use.”  I remember seeing some of those shacks when I was a little girl and have never forgotten the impression those scenes made on me. 

To deal with this harshness, they formed strong cultural, religious, and community organizations that have had an ongoing impact on their greater community and those who interact with them.  The fraternities that were formed provided a fellowship that helped alleviate the emotional pain they felt over family and friends left behind in their homeland. 

The refusal of the AFL to represent them in its union led to the eventual formation of their own union and then the partnership with the United Farm Workers in Delano which led to a strike for their mutual rights—the famous grape strike begun in 1965, an action which lasted for years. 

Beside agricultural jobs, they were invited to be dishwashers in restaurants, bell boys, bed makers, servants, janitors, maintenance men, and elevator operators in hotels (yes, there used to be people who pushed those buttons for you and opened and closed the accordion-like inner doors).  

Anti-alien regulations, despite their special status, also affected the Filipino community—they were not allowed to buy or even lease agricultural land of their own.  I know for a fact that the San Fernando Valley enforced very strict rules to keep “foreigners” of all stripes from making even home purchases. Laws went so far as to bar Filipino men from marrying white women (reminding me of the Mann Act). 

In the 1930’s, because of a strong backlash among whites against the Filipinos, the national laws were changed, declaring that Filipinos were aliens subject to all that that connoted.  Filipino immigration was also cut to a mere trickle as a result.  It still takes years on a waiting list to be eligible to come to America to seek legal residency. 

It would not be until some decades later that the Filipino community came into its own in America. That, and the Filipino impact on Los Angeles in Part II of ‘LA Takes Pride in Historical Filipinotown” … coming soon in CityWatch. Who Are the Real Angelinos is an ongoing series.


(Rosemary Jenkins is a Democratic activist and chair of the Northeast Valley Green Alliance. Jenkins has written Leticia in Her Wedding Dress and Other Poems, A Quick-and-Easy Reference to Correct Grammar and Composition and Vignettes for Understanding Literary and Related Concepts.  She also writes for CityWatch.)





Vol 12 Issue 45

Pub: June 3, 2014