LET me confess something right up front: I didn’t begin noticing Filipinos until I married one.
Now, 14 years later, I see them everywhere; certainly here in the Philippines, but, more significantly, in Southern California, where I was born and spent much of my life.
In fact, they are as ubiquitous there as the Joshua trees surrounding our second home in a town called Joshua Tree. I first realized this after bringing my new bride home; within months, she was surrounded and embraced by an enormous community of Filipinas who had made the journey before her. Many of them — as well as their American husbands — are now our closest friends.
According to the 2020 census, nearly 1.5 million Filipino Americans live in California. They are the state’s largest Asian American population, comprising about 43 percent of the Filipino populace nationwide. And yet, their presence as a community has been almost invisible compared to other ethnic minorities.
All that may be about to change.
I first got wind of it three months ago in a Los Angeles Times story detailing the unveiling of a massive archway marking the entrance to that city’s Historic Filipinotown.
“This community is so deserving of such an iconic, impressive landmark,” City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell said in a statement regarding the 30×82-foot (9X25-meter) arch. “The Historic Filipinotown Eastern Gateway pays fitting tribute to the incredible contribution of the Filipino community in Los Angeles and beyond.”
In truth, the neighborhood first settled by Filipino immigrants following World War II hasn’t, in recent years, looked very Filipino. Most of its current inhabitants are Latino, though the area still retains some Filipino restaurants and shops. But it’s a far cry from the region’s other distinctly ethnic communities, including Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, and nearby Orange County’s Little Saigon.
That’s due to at least two factors. First, Filipinos have largely succeeded in America by blending in. Second, many of their communities have succumbed to expanding gentrification, the process by which urban developers knock old neighborhoods down to replace them with sparkling new ones. Which was the fate of LA’s previous Filipino community, known as Little Manila.
Ah, but then came that gargantuan archway that seems like a giant stop sign.
The pushback reared its head again more recently after a Netflix docuseries called “Street Food” featured a popular restaurant in the area called Dollar Hits. Its specialty: traditional Filipino meats barbecued on sidewalk charcoal grills.
“I am overwhelmed and I am blessed,” owner Elvira Chan told a reporter covering the onslaught of new customers in the wake of the national exposure. Informed of a developer’s plan to demolish another Filipino restaurant nearby that once hosted kamayan feasts and karaoke nights, Chan vowed to never let that happen to Dollar Hits.
In the adjacent state of Nevada, meanwhile, the trend toward increased Filipino recognition could soon take a political turn. Nevada is a so-called “swing state,” one of several US regions in which voters in the upcoming national midterm election could dramatically affect the outcome. This year’s election, slated for November, is especially important because the liberal Democratic Party’s thin majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives could easily be overturned by more conservative Republicans. And guess which Nevada voters may hold the key to victory; right again, Filipino Americans.
“Quick math shows that Filipinos are between 5 percent and 10 percent of the adult population,” columnist Henry Olsen wrote in the Washington Post, “more than enough to tip a close election.”
The problem is that nobody knows how they’ll vote. Highly educated and affluent, they fit into a demographic usually supportive of Democrats. On the other hand, Olsen writes, Filipino Americans are overwhelmingly Catholic—i.e. socially conservative and anti-abortion—and here’s the clincher; they tend to be patriotic.
“Simply put,” Olsen asserts, “many Filipinos love America.”
This could be a problem for progressive Democrats, sometimes fond of characterizing the nation’s history as racist and oppressive.
Whatever happens, one thing seems certain: Filipino Americans are unlikely to remain as invisible as on the day I got married.
Which, for me anyway, constitutes splendid news.
(David Haldane’s award-winning memoir, “Nazis & Nudists.” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is a journalist, author, and sometimes radio broadcaster currently dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City.)
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