Carrying Our Neighborhood Back to Back

From: Los Angeles Review of Books

By Remé-Antonia Grefalda


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.)  Read Rest of Article Here


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