Often you could see his grandmother talking to someone on the phone, and as he was told later, she was taking bets on the horse races for a Filipino bookie they called Peanuts. He was short, medium build, bald, and about 45 years old, and very well dressed. He could have been one of the characters from the movie Guys & Dolls. Oh yes, he would frequently be accompanied by a good-looking tall American girlfriend.
– Paul Lee, excerpt from “My Extended Family,” Filipinotown: Voices from Los Angeles
When Linda Nietes, owner of Philippine Expressions Bookshop (Croatian Cultural Center, 510 W 7th St., San Pedro, CA) invited me to join Marissa Aroy, friend and director of the documentary, The Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers Movement, for a late afternoon celebration for Filipino American History Month, I said yes! Even though I knew it meant flying to Southern California and making arrangements for the weekend of October 24-25. San Pedro is near Long Beach, which is where my dear friend Mark Bruce-Casares and his long-time partner David Bruce-Casares live. While we went to different high schools, Mark and I were part of the Saturday singing group at St. Anne’s Catholic Church. The last time I saw Mark and David was when Jacob was a toddler, so around 13 years ago. A reunion with Mark and David was another big reason to go.
Few people know that I was born in Los Angeles. We moved to Terra Bella when I was three years old. I remember going to Disneyland often as a child. Even after we moved, we visited our relatives regularly and were taken to the amusement park, using up the A-E tickets for the various rides. I have fond memories of this time in my childhood, even of the long car rides – staring out the window as we chugged our way through the Grapevine, with the enormous backseat of our uncles’ boat-sized cars as our playground. We used to live on the 4200 block of Rogers Street. That house, amazingly, still stands, as my sister Heidi had recently sent my sister Joyce and I a Google Maps photo of it – with iron grills over the windows. I thought it had been torn down for the freeways, but Heidi informed me that the houses across the street were demolished for the San Bernardino freeway.
As I made plans with Mark and David, I tried to find other events to potentially participate in. Linda was kind enough to connect me with local poet Silvia Morgan, who was hosting an Author’s Day at the San Pedro Branch Library (931 S. Gaffey Street, San Pedro, CA). The event would be ending just as the Philippine Expressions Bookshop event was beginning, and the two locations were nearby, so that was a perfect literary addition.
Through the Stockton chapter of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS), of which I have been a member for more than a decade, I discovered that Carson City was hosting its annual Larry Itliong Day at the Carson Community Center. This year, many cities and organizations were hosting Larry Itliong Day, given that in June Governor Brown signed California State Assemblyperson Rob Bonta’s bill, AB 199, to honor the Filipino labor leader’s birthday, October 25th. Carson City holds the distinction of having the only city-run celebration. In fact, Carson City has been holding this event for the last six years. So the city officials are truly frontrunners in honoring Larry Itliong. I got in touch with the organizers and they arranged for me to have a table and to be able to hand out flyers about my novel and my book reading at Philippine Expressions.
The Stockton FANHS chapter also sent out a flyer for the Larry Itliong Day Celebration, hosted in large part by Los Angeles Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell, whose 13th district includes Filipinotown, a historic section of Los Angeles. The event was going to be held at the community center for SIPA (Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, 3200 W. Temple St., Los Angeles, CA 90026, 213.382.1819). I contacted Angelo Yenko, legislative deputy for Councilmember O’Farrell, who put me in touch with the event organizers, Tina Salonga-Bulchand, director of programs and services for SIPA, and Gerald G. Gubatan, who along with Carlene Sobrino Bonnivier and Gregory Villanueva co-edited Filipinotown: Voices from Los Angeles, an anthology of writings from local authors over the last 100 years. Gerald and Tina kindly allowed me space at a table at the event. Marissa Aroy was also going to be showing her documentary.
Leading up to the event, I was in contact with Carlene, Greg, and Gerald via email. A sudden nostalgia surrounding Los Angeles and my childhood engulfed me. At that point, I was asking my sisters what our old home address was. Upon hearing about their anthology, I told Carlene, Greg, and Gerald about our Uncle Peanut, whose real name my sisters and I couldn’t recall. He, whom we later discovered through another relative was named Ignacio Lores, was quite the colorful character. He often wore a straw hat and sunglasses, and frequently nursed a glass of whiskey. At our annual San Esteban Dances, he always stole the floor with his flamboyant moves. I remember when we wanted to name our new dog Peanuts, after the Charles Schultz cartoon, which was popular in the day. My dad angrily vetoed our wishes because naming our dog after our “uncle” would be an insult to him.
Upon telling Carlene about Uncle Peanut, she let me know that he was remembered in one of the stories in the anthology. Thus began the walk down memory lane of recalling relatives who lived in Los Angeles in the late 1940s through the late 1950s. In the course of planning my trip, I learned that I wouldn’t be able to stay with my friends David and Mark. Carlene graciously opened up her home for me to stay over the weekend, which was something I was eagerly looking forward to because I knew we’d be talking a lot about writing and the Filipino American community in Los Angeles.
So I was all set for my Los Angeles trip – four different events in a weekend. Let it be known, as many of you who know me, that I am not one to contact people I don’t know and make my way into various events, even though through the years I have become comfortable talking in front of audiences and leading meetings with executives, thanks to my profession. But I have become an advocate for my book, and I’m discovering that assertiveness is a good trait to have when marketing and promoting, and it has served me well.
Carson City’s Larry Itliong Day
Because of the time of my morning flight to Long Beach, I wasn’t able to catch the Carson City parade or the beginning of the festivities. By the time Mark and I arrived at the event, we had a choice of either setting up our table exposed to the heat or taking the tent behind the main stage. We took the tent, and when they made an announcement of our location, Mark and I waved to the few people in the audience who could see us. We were only going to be there for two hours, so the goal was to hand out flyers and talk to people. As we listened to the various speeches from local dignitaries in the Filipino American community and watched the community leadership awards that were being given out, I learned that the Philippines sent their only athlete to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a figure skater named Michael Christian Martinez, who placed 19th overall. That was fun to see, given that I love figure skating. The length of the speeches prevented the crowd from milling about and we had to leave, so Mark and I distributed the flyers as we wended our way back to the car.
San Pedro Branch Library Author Day
Mark dropped me off at the San Pedro Branch Library for the local author reading. The crowd was small but appreciative. Eight authors – of both prose and poetry – read. A couple of people talked to me after the readings. Getting the word out, no matter how small the venue, is important, I told myself, especially outside of the Bay Area.
Philippine Expressions Bookshop: Filipino American History Month Celebration
Mark and David accompanied me to the Philippine Expressions Bookshop event, where I was reunited with Marissa – we’ve been seeing one another at various FilAm History Month celebrations the last two months. Marissa had read my novel in advance and gave me a really wonderful blurb for my book cover. I met her mother, who was accompanying Marissa on her Southern California tour; she told me she was taking her time reading my novel so she could enjoy and appreciate it more. The crowd was small but we had a lively Q&A after both Marissa’s screening of her documentary and my reading. I was grateful that Mark and David enjoyed learning about the Filipino American involvement of the grape strike.
Afterwards, Mark and David and I had a leisurely dinner catching up. You know you are in the hands of dear friends when it doesn’t seem as if 13 years has flown by since last getting together. After dinner, we took a scenic drive to return to Long Beach, which boasts some gorgeous Arts and Crafts homes along the shoreline. I love this time period in architecture, and when I think of Los Angeles and the surrounding communities – we had many relatives living in Long Beach, too – I picture 1940s bungalows and 1920s Arts & Crafts homes. Just as we pulled up to Carlene’s home, Carlene and Greg had arrived. It was time to say good-bye to Mark and David, with a promise not to let so much time pass before our next visit.
It was wonderful to get to know Carlene and Greg, as we stayed up late talking about the Filipino American history and community in Los Angeles. The conversation continued the in the morning over a leisurely Sunday brunch. I’ve since read through some of the pieces in their anthology. What a wonderful labor of love and gift to the community to preserve the stories and highlight the vibrant lives of Filipino Americans in Los Angeles, which notably includes Carlos Bulosan, who spent time in the City of Angels.
Before and after the event at SIPA, Greg and Carlene took me on a tour of historic Filipinotown, which sits so close to downtown Los Angeles that it still astonishes me to recall the skyline bearing down on this part of town. Downtown continues to encroach with the inevitable gentrification. I was left to imagine what that bustling community of Echo Park was like in the 1940s and 1950s. I got to see Eliseo Art Silva’s wondrous mural, which is located at Unidad Park in Filipinotown. The mural, which he painted in 1994, was recently restored. It was an honor for me to see it in person after coming across it many times in photos on the Internet. Carlene and Greg also gave me a tour of Los Angeles and the surrounding cities.
Los Angeles Larry Itliong Day
The Story and Legacy of the Delano Manongs: A Community Celebration in honor of Larry Itliong Day in Los Angeles and in commemoration of the 50-year Anniversary of the Great Delano Grape Strike was a well-attended, boisterous, and fabulous event. Gerald, Tina, and Councilmember O’Farrell formally welcomed everyone. Dr. Ronald Buenaventura, who represented the Los Angeles chapter of FANHS, also spoke. Marissa’s documentary was screened, and then she participated in an informative and educational panel, The Legacy: A Community Conversation, which included Johnny Itliong, Larry’s son and founder of the Larry Itliong Foundation for Education; Linda Susana Terrazas, secretary to Larry Itliong in the summer of 1969; and moderator and retired Judge Casimiro Urbano Tolentino.
In one poignant story, Johnny shared how one person in the audience at another event disdainfully told him that his rendering of Cesar Chavez was not the Chavez that he knew. At first, Johnny lightheartedly told of how Helen and Cesar Chavez changed his diapers and babysat him and his siblings. And then he said, in an emotional moment, that it wasn’t his fault that Chavez behaved as he did – publicly misconstruing his father’s legacy – and that it wasn’t something that he saw coming, given his memories of Chavez as a child. That was a powerful moment. Good on Johnny to create the foundation to honor his father. He has spent years trying to bring recognition to his father’s legacy. We in the community see the fruits of his hard work today, especially in this historic year, but he faced a lonely, uphill battle in those early years.
The third part of the event, The Celebration: Community Expressions, featured music, poetry, and readings by Carlene, Greg, and Gerald. Gerald was kind to insert my reading of an excerpt from my novel into the event program. It was only fitting that I read the scene where my protagonist, Fausto Empleo, who is reluctant to join the union, meets Larry Itliong. The audience included Sandra Itliong-Bowman, Larry’s daughter, and Larry’s former secretary, both of whom I was conscious of their presence during my reading. They both came up to talk me after the reading, which was an honor for me.
After more sightseeing – which I would have been happy to have continued if not for my flight home – Carlene and Greg dropped me off at the airport. I came away with more than just participating in historical events and seeing old friends. I made new friends in what turned out for me to be a bit of a homecoming. I’m not sure when I’ll return to Los Angeles, but I feel like I reconnected. I’ve happily discovered the unexpected gifts of publishing my novel – finding my roots, reconnecting, and coming home.