Little Manila Rises in Queens

By Liaa Francesca Marquez

Her modest apartment stands a few steps away from the bustling Roosevelt Avenue in Woodside, Queens. In a dire need to secure the financial stability of her children and grandchildren, she had given up her sheltered life in the Philippines four years ago then moved to New York City a year after.

“I was a certified public accountant back home; I graduated from the University of the Philippines and worked in a private corporation for years,” says the 62-year-old woman who asked that her name not be used because she is an undocumented worker. Now she works as a caregiver for the elderly, on Long Island on weekdays, and as a babysitter-housekeeper on weekends.

Although she is rarely in her apartment, she says she made a conscious choice to live in the area with her four fellow Filipino roommates. With her brightest smile, she speaks enthusiastically about her favorite activities on days off. “Ihawan definitely serves the best inihaw (around here,” she says, of Filipino barbecue. adding: “You should drop by our prayer group here in my apartment on Sundays. We always have a big feast, homemade Filipino food, after our meetings.”

Roosevelt Ave
Filipino stores along Roosevelt Avenue.

Along the avenue from her apartment are some of the most popular Filipino restaurants in the area. So is the Filipino community center. Other establishments include Johnny Air Cargo Shippers, the Philippine National Bank and the Phil-Am Food Mart. It’s as if she never left the Philippines.

“Did you know that 3,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines every day? And the No. 1 destination is the United States,” says Cling Corotan, a representative from the Bayanihan Community Center.

In Ating Kalagayan: The Social and Economic Profile of U.S. Filipinos, by Prof. Peter Chua of San Jose State University, says there are more than four million Filipinos in the United States, with perhaps a million more undocumented The largest populations are in Southern California, Las Vegas, Honolulu, and Jersey City.

In New York City, Woodside is home to about 13,000 Filipinos, according to a report by the New York Community Media Alliance in 2006.

Long an Irish neighborhood, Woodside has grown to be one of the most diverse areas in the city, with Mexican, Indian and Korean-owned stores, as well as the Filipinos.

Food is a very important part of Filipino culture, and Little Manila provides an ample taste of home. The oldest Filipino establishments in the area include Krystal’s Café and the Ihawan Restaurant, which have been serving authentic Filipino meals for more than 10 years, with dishes such as kare-kare, an ox-tail stew in peanut butter sauce with shrimp paste, and inihaw na baboy (grilled pork barbeque).

The stretch between 58th and 74th streets along Roosevelt Avenue continues to add Filipino businesses. The newest stores include Jollibee, a popular fast food chain with 1,800 stores worldwide, and Red Ribbon Bakeshop, famous for its colorful cakes and pastries. Popular desserts served at Red Ribbon include ensaymada, a fluffy sponge cake topped with butter cream and grated cheese.

Eric Soriano, the manager of Jollibee Woodside, says, “On a daily basis, we get about 400 to 450 customers. On a weekend, we get about 500 to 600 customers.” Most customers are Filipinos, but others come, too. “It’s very, very diverse in Woodside,” he says. “So, we also have a lot of Hispanic, Asian and Caucasian people who come here to taste the food.”

Other stores that cater to Filipinos include groceries, DVD shops, banks, freight services, travel agencies, and driving schools.

Events for the New York area Filipino community are held periodically at the Bayanihan Community Center, with workshops on culture, language, sports and arts, as well as semi-annual cultural festivals. There are free health screenings and musical and theatrical performances. Every Christmas, the St. Sebastian’s Parish co-hosts Simbang Gabi or Night Mass, a novena of nine masses at dawn that is an important tradition among devout Filipino Catholics.

“The events we hold here are meant to encourage unity among Filipinos in New York City,” said Cling Corotan, at the Bayanihan Community Center.

During cultural festivals, information booths offer material about human rights groups such as GABRIELA-USA and BAYAN-USA. “We also recognize the struggles of other non-Filipino immigrants in the city,” says Corotan. In fact, nearly half of the students in the Vambudo martial arts classes offered by the Philippine Forum. Non-Filipinos are always welcome at all workshops, especially the Tagalog language classes and immigration campaigns.