Carrying Our Neighborhood Back to Back

July 11, 2016   •   By Remé-Antonia Grefalda

Filipinotown: Voices from Los Angeles

Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier, Gerald G. Gubatan, and Gregory Villanueva

MOST IMMIGRANT ORAL HISTORY projects are recorded interviews stored on cassette tapes or CDs, and seldom transcribed onto paper, much less published for a general readership. When transcribed, these interviews are compiled, indexed, and filed away to be retrieved only by specialized researchers.

Filipino American oral histories suffer the same fate, with one difference: they are transcribed for organized listening by way of storytelling sessions and, occasionally, included in textbook anthologies. Readings of such personal growing-up-in-the-United-States stories usually find their audiences at ethnic studies conferences, specifically Asian Pacific American academic gatherings.

It was during such a conference in 2009 — the annual Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) Conference in Seattle — that author and playwright Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier sat entranced by the storytelling sessions where participants from all walks of life told of their adolescence during the 1930s and 1940s. She was stunned to hear of the injustices they witnessed and suffered as members of an immigrant community. Vicariously reliving her own childhood and teen years, now retold in myriad ways, she came away from that conference realizing that while Los Angeles had designated the area along Figueroa Street and Temple Street as “Historic Filipinotown,” nowhere visible were the familiar markers of the neighborhood she grew up in — the barbershops, pool halls, restaurants, dive bars, or grocery stores. People moved up and out. College students graduated and didn’t return. Filipinotown, as she knew it, disappeared, seemingly without a trace. For her friends and herself, their childhood simply vanished.

Writing to the FANHS Conference Committee in May 2010, Bonnivier made the following proposal:

I have been thinking about putting together a map of where living and breathing people were in the [Historic Filipinotown] of my childhood, as there do seem to be a million stories about the characters (whether saints or sinners or both) who populated that area, especially in the 40’s, as that included people like Philip Vera Cruz and Carlos Bulosan [Filipino activists who had been monitored by the FBI], as well as the Japanese family who were rarely seen in the neighborhood but who lived right across the alley from me […] People from all over the world, Jews from Europe, African Americans who spoke (and cooked) French [cuisine] from Louisiana, etc., in addition to the Filipinos all up and down Temple Street and 7th Street and Figueroa […]

She received a reply from the FANHS executive director, Dorothy Cordova, who was so enthused over Bonnivier’s proposal that she hoped her presentation could take place during the July 2010 Conference. And from this small seed, the idea for a book was born.

On first encounter, one gets the impression from her tanned complexion and gray-green eyes that Carlene Bonnivier is Caucasian. Disarming you with a look that is on the verge of a wrinkled smile, she oozes hospitality (the first trait of a Filipina). In Filipinotown, she explains her mixed-blood heritage, working alongside co-editors Gerald Gubatan, an urban planner, and architect Gregory Villanueva — as well as book designer Amy Inouye and muralist Eliseo Silva Jr., who provided the book’s riveting cover depicting personages and landmarks in Philippine history and portraits of Filipino-American iconic figures. (This mural, standing 30 feet high and 150 feet long, is permanently located in Unidad Park, the first memorial of its kind in the nation.)

The editors compiled oral histories from more than 100 contributors, who participated in ongoing writing workshops held at the Echo Park Library and other locations during weekends for two full years. Emails from the editors announced an invitation to share stories. Enthusiasm for the project spilled over, and by a six-degrees-of-separation method, the team reached out to cover not only Filipino old-timers, their adult children and grandchildren, but also entire neighborhoods bordering the old Filipinotown, allowing them to include the memories of non-Filipinos who were former residents and neighbors. Even people who had moved away from the area decades ago offered their testimonies.

Organized readings of submissions gave courage to those who couldn’t get past the titles on their blank sheets of paper. Professional writers, journalists, memoirists, and others who could only impart their memories by way of interviews put their lives on paper and treasured the memories they read of themselves. The readings were performed in Unidad Park, with the backdrop of Silva’s mural portraying Filipino heroes who seemed to be shouting “I got your back!” as each contributor read his or her piece. The sessions were fittingly called “Up Against the Wall Readers Theater.” Close to 40 submissions were selected for the book manuscript, with additional reprints from various sources.

The significance of the volume lies in its record of the memories of immigrants, now mostly gone, and their upwardly mobile progeny. The narratives, whether 500 words or several pages long, are primary source material, from the viewpoint of those who lived in a place day in and day out, absorbing the shocks and the highs of the times. Former residents recall familiar haunts, taxi dance halls or pool halls where men would recount the latest scandals — including the one involving young starlet Gloria DeHaven, whose relationship with a Filipino houseboy led to a criminal complaint under a California 1930s miscegenation law that forbade Malays (i.e., Filipinos) from fraternizing with whites. Readers may also be shocked when confronted with narratives of Filipino World War II veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, who were — and are still — denied their wartime benefits because of the Rescission Act of 1946.

The memories are often vivid with sensory detail:

[T]he future “Filipino Town” Impact Area ran from Main Street taxi dance halls, pool halls and barbershops […] through murky and creaking Bunker Hill apartments […] celebrating quietly but GRANDLY with clinking coins in Macintosh suits at the corner Carioca Café on Figueroa […] past secluded upstairs rooms in houses of “ill repute” and fragrant live poultry and fruit markets, five-and-dime stores […] the dark, sticky and sweet-smelling Granada Theater with two films and countless Mighty Mouse cartoons for 25 cents […] There at Colton and Beaudry was Holy Rosary Catholic Church and open-air Martins Market […]

Two narratives stand out in their emotionally detailed recollection of the evolving changes in Filipinotown. Both were written by Gregory Englis, who is described as a “longtime resident of Historic Filipinotown.” Englis’s eulogy for his father, Gabriel, is deeply affecting, but even more powerful is his deceptively simply titled piece “What Once Was,” a confession of loving attachment to the unspoken rituals and mores of a place that formed his childhood. Englis moves from his present surroundings and literally reenters the neighborhood he left; with each stride and glance, the landscape returns him “to a period when the area was in obvious decline.” Standing at the intersection of Temple Street and Beaudry Avenue, he observes:

In truth, the area around this intersection was in its final cycle as a neighborhood, yet it never seemed to dampen those souls I came to know ever so briefly, and in turn made a lasting impression for a child who roamed this small section of Temple Street. It continues to live on in my mind.

The figure of Carlos Bulosan dominates the book. Bulosan was, first and foremost, a poet. His father was a farmer in the Philippines. He used his brother’s passport to join the recruited labor in canneries that lined the Pacific Northwest, on salmon fishing boats in Alaska, at fruit and vegetable harvests in California, Washington, and Nevada. Bulosan’s elder brother, Aurelio, worked in California, and Carlos’s goal was to join him, following the hordes bound for the farmlands. But all this moving around took a toll on his health. Unable to return to being an itinerant laborer, Carlos found solace in the reading rooms of the Los Angeles Public Library. He was a voracious reader and soon became politically conscious and active in the labor movement.

Passages from an FBI dossier on Bulosan, now declassified but heavily redacted, are included in the book, along with maps of the places he frequented. Was the sudden appearance of his writings in popular magazines (The Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s Magazine), including a powerful 1943 essay on “The Freedom from Want,” noticed by the bartenders who served him or by his acquaintances? The book focuses on Bulosan as a progressive activist and writer, but it unfortunately ignores the treasure trove of his intimate thoughts, revealed in rambling letters to a friend while he was recovering from tuberculosis (see Selected Works & Letters by Carlos Bulosan, edited by E. San Juan Jr. and Ninotchka Rosca). Today, Bulosan’s poetry and his seminal novels, The Laughter of My Father (1944) and America Is in the Heart (1946), continue to fascinate readers. He died in 1956 and was buried in Seattle.

The volume suffers from the lack of a bibliography that would help guide readers to the abundant sources of historical information it cites. But this is a minor quibble given the volume’s overall achievement. The spirit of bayanihan — a Filipino word that refers to villagers carrying a neighbor’s house on bamboo stilts to a new location — undergirds this team-guided project, with neighbors joining neighbors to harness their collective memories of a place now lost in time.


Remé-Antonia Grefalda is the founder and editor of Our Own Voice Literary Ezine: Filipinos in the Diaspora.