Ethnic enclaves are generally defined by a cluster of stores and eateries that feature culinary delights from a specific country from abroad. Within that cluster of businesses, you’ll usually hear that foreign language being spoken. In addition, there will often be a religious organization (usually a church) in the vicinity where the members of that ethnicity go to worship, but also come together as a community to support one another.
So how do you like my definition?
It’s imperfect for sure, but I am fascinated by residents who identify with more than just one country and one “ethnic” label. I’ve written about the Russians in the Valle de Guadalupe and the Chinese in Mexicali, for example. Today, I would like to talk about the Filipino Americans in the South Bay of San Diego.
They are the second largest ethnic group in this region and you might be surprised to find that Filipinos have been part of U.S. history for more than 400 years.
Four Hundred Years of Filipinos In the U.S.
From 1565 to 1815, Filipinos were instrumental to the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. Along the trade route of the sailing expeditions, many Filipinos jumped ship to escape the brutality of their Spanish masters. They would then make their way North and settle in places such as today’s Louisiana. These sailing expeditions also included explorations of the California coast, including the port of San Diego.
Specifically, Filipinos arrived in what today we call California in 1587 when they were shipbuilders, militiamen, navigators, sailors, and slave laborers on board the Spanish galleon trade ships. On October 18, 1587, Spanish explorer Pedro Unamuno recorded that Filipinos (referred to as Indios) were part of an expedition to map the area now known as Morro Bay, in the central coast of California.
Their experience was unique because, as Maria P.P. Root writes in Filipino Americans: Transformation and Identity, “People of Filipino heritage have experiences very different from those of other Asian American groups who are a part of this country. Not dominated by Confucian philosophy, oral in tradition, coming from societies that have matriarchal structures and bilateral kinship systems, intersected and invaded by seafarers, traders, military, missionaries, and colonizers, Filipinos of the Americas are seldom accurately situated in history or culture and are therefore often misinterpreted.”
The Three Waves Of Filipino Immigration in the 20th Century
Filipinos came to America in three different waves. The first was between 1906-1934 when they were referred to as nationals—neither American citizens nor aliens—because the Philippines was considered a territory of the United States. These Filipino immigrants often called themselves Pinoys. They were not allowed to vote, own property, start businesses or marry whites. They also generally worked in agriculture and fish canneries. Often, these laborers allied with the Mexican workers and fought for better wages.
The next wave of Filipino immigrants were those who enlisted and fought in World War II. When the Philippines joined forces with the United States to fight against the Japanese, 80,000 Filipinos signed up to serve. Following the war, Congress passed the War Brides Act, which allowed Filipinos who enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces to bring their brides from the Philippines. Many more women and children came as a part of this wave. In San Diego, Mexican, Panamanian and other Latinas were often the brides of choice. The Filipino American population on the West Coast more than doubled during this wave of immigration and the word “Mexipino” came into use.
The third wave of Filipino immigration coincided with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated national origin quotas. A large number of Filipina nurses to obtained work visas for local hospitals and many more were Philippines-trained professionals such as doctors and engineers.
The South Bay Filipino-American Tour
Today, you can find Filipino-American culinary delights, religious worship and service organizations throughout the South Bay. There’s even a website devoted to Filipino-American organizations, from schools to its very own Chamber of Commerce. Proud Filipino-Americans have certainly come into their own. They own successful businesses, have created non-profits to advocate for their community and they have become civically engaged.
All you have to do is drive around the serene area of Chula Vista known as the APACE Corridor (Asian Pacific American Cultural Economic Corridor) to see how Filipino-Americans have beautified our environment. Here, you’ll find at least three large parks and recreation areas: Harvest Park, Discovery Park and Veteran’s Park. The latter is perhaps a tribute to the second Filipino wave of immigrants who serve the U.S. armed forces.
Recently, the city of Chula Vista split its political representation into 4 districts. The Filipino-American community spoke out very strongly for their community of interest, citing the APACE corridor, which contains a large number of Filipino-American residences and businesses. Thanks to their advocacy, District 3 now has a high concentration of Filipino-Americans, which includes Southwestern College and will include another University in the future. With strong community activism, it is likely that a Filipino-American will be able to win a seat on the Chula Vista City Council in the next election.
Two churches also stand prominently in the South Bay: Inglesia Ni Christo on Rios Avenue and the San Diego Filipino-American Seventh Adventist Church in Bonita.
You can also get onto the 54 West Highway, which is named the Filipino-American Highway. It runs, very appropriately, from Chula Vista to National City–both cities with high concentrations of Filipino-Americans. Stretching 7 miles, the Council of Filipino American Organizations (COPAO) allocated $4,000 to Caltrans to prepare the highway signs for the name change.
National City, however, is the cream of the Filipino-American experience. Three large business villages are a ‘must see’ for culinary fanatics who love the exquisite and complicated Filipino cuisine.
A Few Notable Filipinos of National City
But wait! Let me do some name dropping first.
Eleanor Academia graduated from Sweetwater High School and began a professional music career, which included creating record label under which Rod Stewart and a singer from Earth, Wind and Fire recorded their music.
Marita Redondo, a former resident of National City, competed in all of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments in 1977 and was ranked as high as fifty in the U.S. women’s singles.
And then, there was Jimmy Villegas Toledo who, thanks to the new laws established during the 1950’s, was able to buy a farm in National City located around the area of Plaza Boulevard and Palm Avenue. He sold fresh produce and other foods and also had National City’s first sari-sari store (convenience store). His daughter, Rosalie Toledo Zarate, later became the first woman elected to the National City Council.
Contributions to National City didn’t end there. Many high school and college students who today remain unnamed, became activists during the Marcos dictatorship and participated in the 1970s protest marches that took place at Kimball Park.
The Filipino Tour Of National City
The Old Schoolhouse Square is the headquarters of the Filipino Press and the Asian Journal. You’ll find Villa Manila and Pinoy Fiesta. You can also get a haircut, see Radyo Filipino or enjoy services geared towards Filipino Americans.
Then, there’s the shopping area around Seafood City, which I have called “Filipino Heaven.” They sell the best fresh fish and shellfish in the County and, very movingly, the bust of the Filipino national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, resides in this area.
The bust reads:
Imbued with a superior intellect and a intense love for his country, Dr. Jose P. Rizal sought to gain freedom for the Filipino people through peaceful means.
His writings, foremost of which were the novels, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” ared to expose the cancer of colonial rule and agitated for reforms.
For this, he was arrested, tried and executed by a firing squad on December 30, 1896. With his martyrdom, the man of peace fanned the flames of the Revolution of 1896, the first successful uprigin in Asian against a Western Colonial power.
Installed on the 12th day of June, 1998 in commemoration of the First Centennial of the Declaration of Philippine Independence in Kawit, Cavite on June 12, 1898.
Finally, several blocks away from Seafood City, you can also visit Grove Plaza. Here, you’ll get more great eateries as well as a fantastic Filipino bakery and Manila Seafood where you can watch the fishmongers hard at work chopping off fish heads and cleaning them with sharp butcher knives.
Recommended Filipino American Reading
Their history has been told in several fine books, including Becoming Mexipino. For my research, I also used Adelaida Castillo’s Filipino Migrants in San Diego 1900-1946 and especially Filipinos In San Diego by Arcadia Publishing.
In particular, Filipinos In San Diego ends with a very important picture of four generations of Filipino families who intermarried with African-American, Taiwanese, Mexican American and white ethnic groups. It shows both the diversity and complexity of the Filipino-American experience and also how immigrant children have become a part of the American landscape with a distant heritage that they may look back upon now and again, or perhaps simply consider themselves children of the soil upon which they were born.