Filipino American History--Our Legacy is Not for Sale!
I am proud to be Filipino, Filipino-American. I am proud of our legacy in America. I love the laughter and resilience of my people. I love the sound of their laughter, their thick voices of different tongues. I love my people 365 days a year. I love the Filipino youth who stand up for their community. I love our generosity. I love how gracious we are while at the same time possess the fiercest fire when defending our community. The sun rises and sets in SOMA. Hipsters, techies and speculators move in and look at us as if to ask: What are you doing here? They look at us like the furniture that came with the place while they covet our closets, our living rooms, our kitchens—built with decades of fragrance and spices and flavors and lives. Our homes contract and expand, resisting constriction, giving birth to our children who walk the streets of SOMA, their voices accented with our histories, our stories, our struggles, that are still being fought in the city.
What are we doing here? Well, we didn’t just get here with the arrival of the tech industry and requisite mini-cupcake shops. Our people have been in this country since the 1500’s when Filipinos landed in Morro Bay as part of the Manila Galleon Trade. We arrived in October 18th, 1587. The trade started in 1565 and ended in 1815. That’s 250 years—with hundreds of Filipinos coming each time. The Mayflower, in contrast, came once—with 101 people. To put this in a somewhat scholarly perspective, Filipinos likely arrived in this country before the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great—not so great—grandparents of your garden-variety techie or hipster did. If there’s any conjecture, said techie or hipster (or otherwise) can check that digital ethnic studies sanctum called ancestry.com
Our people have been a part of labor struggles, the fight for civil rights, the fight for ethnic studies and the fight for housing—as evidenced by the fight for the International Hotel in what was then Manilatown in the 1960’s and 70’s—a fight and forcible eviction of Filipino and Chinese elders whose repercussions persist to this day. Our legacy lives and carries on despite attempts to erase our community by real estate speculators whose sense of community are things they have branded “Community benefits” packages that seem more PR then anything else. Developments such 5m by Forest City threatens the Filipino community. The developer offered a laundry list of “community benefits but their ultimate goal is to make as much money as they possibly can, more money than they can possibly spend.
Market rate housing developers have zero concern for our community. Our people’s kindness is taken for granted, taken for weakness. Our working class people are humble. Much of what is missing in our city can be found in the Filipino community—a sense of sharing, a sense of respect, a sense of honoring what came before. Recently, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling or the establishment of a Filipino cultural district in SOMA called Soma Pilipinas. The Filipino community has come together—seniors, youth, cultural workers, artists—community members who honor our community and who are creating Filipino American history daily, working tirelessly to insure our youth, families and elders spaces where we can thrive and live in dignity. The community has convened meetings create the vision of SOMA Pilipinas--what will it look like? What will it offer the community? Community organizations such as SOMCAN (South of Market Community Action Network), Veterans Equity Center, Kearny Street Workshop, Manilatown Heritage Foundation, among others have been involved in the process that seeks to engage and truly reflect the voice of the community that they serve. The seeds of this community—in the words of Manilatown poet Al Robles—were planted long ago.
The Filipino community truly practices a sharing community. The city can learn, needs to learn from its example. Perhaps this learning, this recognizing of example is the only thing that can save it from its fatal errors. It can learn from the struggle of Steve Arevalo, elder Filipino-American who has served SOMA for decades working with youth and families. He is fighting to keep the historic Gran Oriente Filipino Hotel in South Park in SOMA from being sold. Steve Arevalo, whose grandfather lived at the Gran Oriente, the first building owned by a Filipino organization in North America. Steve Arevalo, who remembers the struggles of the early Filipino immigrants, who laid the foundation of our community, living with the yoke of white supremacy. Gran Oriente Filipino, a place where our community looked out for one another and provided support through the Gran Oriente lodge. That history is being forgotten by the descendants of the old timers who started Gran Oriente Filipno, who want to sell the legacy of our community, our skin, our identity to finally achieve acceptance in the shroud of the white supremacy notion of profit over everything. That’s what the fight for the International Hotel was about—not forgetting our elders, our history, our people. I love my people. I love our strength. I love that we won’t forget our history, even though a few of us, from time to time, need to be reminded. I am proud of my community for fighting to keep its legacy alive. In the words of Steve Arevalo, “Our legacy is not for sale”.
© 2016 Tony Robles