Little Manila rises in New York City

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 4 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,” said the 62-year-old woman who asked her identity be withheld to protect her immigration status. Now she works as an elderly caregiver in Long Island on weekdays and as a babysitter-housekeeper on weekends.

Although she is rarely in her Woodside apartment, she said made a conscious choice to live in the area along with her four fellow Filipino roommates. With her brightest smile, she spoke enthusiastically about her favorite activities on days off work, “Ihawan definitely serves the best inihaw (barbeque) around here,” she said enthusiastically, 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.”

Filipino stores along Roosevelt Avenue

Further up the avenue from her apartment are some of the most popular Filipino restaurants in the area. Right off the main road at 69th Street is the Filipino community center where Filipino community events are held. Establishments such as Johnny Air Cargo Shippers, the Philippine National Bank, and the Phil-Am Food Mart are scattered throughout the blocks. It’s as if she never left the Philippines.

“Did you know that three thousand Filipinos leave the Philippines every day? And the number one destination is the United States,” said Cling Corotan, a representative from the Bayanihan Community Center.

Corotan showed a book entitled Ating Kalagayan: The Social and Economic Profile of U.S. Filipinos. According to data gathered by its author, Professor Peter Chua of San Jose State University, Filipinos are the second largest immigrant group in the United States next to Mexicans.

The book also reveals that there are over four million Filipinos in the country, and there are over a million more that are unaccounted for due to immigration restrictions. The most concentrated areas for Filipino-American communities include Southern California, Las Vegas, Honolulu, and Jersey City.

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

Welcome to Little Manila

Previously an Irish neighborhood, Woodside, has grown to be one of the most diverse areas in the city. Amid Mexican, Indian, and Korean-owned stores lies a hefty sampling of the Philippines. The area now serves as home to the rising population of Filipinos in the city.

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

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

Eric Soriano, Manager of Jollibee Woodside, puts into numbers the popularity of Filipino food establishments in the area: “On a daily basis, we get about 400 to 450 customers. On a weekend, we get about 500 to 600 customers.” Most of their customers are Filipinos, but it also includes those from different backgrounds. “It’s very, very diverse in Woodside. So, we also have a lot of Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian people who come here to taste the food.”

Other stores in the area that cater specifically to Filipinos include groceries, DVD shops, banks, freight services, travel agencies, and driving schools. This is what makes Little Manila a hearth for Filipinos.

Events for the general Filipino community in New York City are also often held in Little Manila. Culture, language, sports, and arts workshops are held periodically in the Bayanihan Community Center at 69th Street. The center also hosts semi-annual cultural festivals. There are free health screenings, vendors, musical and theatrical performance. Every Christmas, the St. Sebastian’s Parish co-hosts Simbang Gabi or Night Mass, a novena of nine masses at dawn which is an important tradition to devout Filipino Catholics.

Seeking refuge in Little Manila

Many Filipinos migrate to seek refuge from a broken economy and government in their homeland. With so many struggles that come with moving to a demanding environment such as New York City, many can find comfort in Little Manila.

“The events we hold here are meant to encourage unity among Filipinos in New York City,” said Cling Corotan. Activities and programs hosted by the Bayanihan Community Center are often stationed in the Little Manila area. Employment, legal, and immigration workshops, as well as community action campaigns are made available to the public.

During cultural festivals, informational booths are made available for those who wish to join progressive human rights groups such as GABRIELA-USA and BAYAN-USA. There are also many volunteer opportunities based in the area with nonprofits such as Philippine Forum.

Not just for Filipinos

Little Manila does not isolate itself from the larger New York community. Since the neighborhood is very diverse, all establishments are accessible not only to Filipinos but also to other minority groups. Food stores, especially bakeries are often admired by non-Filipinos. The same goes for community events.

“We also recognize the struggles of other non-Filipino immigrants in the city,” shares Corotan. In fact, nearly half of Vambudo martial arts classes by the Philippine Forum’s YEHEY program are not Filipino. Non-Filipinos are also always welcome at all workshops, especially the Tagalog language classes and immigration campaigns. By creating a safe haven while striving to realize the American Dream, together, minorities can overcome any hardship.