Putting LA’s Historic Filipinotown in the Spotlight

By Angela Bao
June 30, 2022
The Historic Filipinotown Eastern Gateway hopes to highlight the Filipino American community in LA. (Photo credit): Gary Leonard

The Historic Filipinotown Eastern Gateway, designed by Eliseo Art Silva, puts the spotlight on the Filipino American community in LA.

The Filipino community is the third-largest Asian American community in the United States, with over 4.2 million Filipinos living here as of 2019. In the U.S., Greater Los Angeles is home to the largest Filipino American population in the country, with over 600,000 people. Filipinos have lived in LA since the early 1900s, yet, despite their significant presence and cultural impact, the Filipino community has not had the same level of visibility as other Asian American communities.

When growing up in Historic Filipinotown, local business owner and restaurateur Justin Foronda always wondered why his neighborhood didn’t have the same cultural markers as other ones like Little Tokyo and Chinatown.

“Being really young and visiting all these different ethnic enclaves, I thought, man, this is really cool,” Foronda shares. “But then when I would get home, I'd be like, how come I don't know where and when Filipinotown starts and ends?”

The Historic Filipinotown Eastern Gateway hopes to change that. Designed by Filipino artist Eliseo Art Silva and spearheaded by Jessica Caloza, the first Filipina American on Los Angeles’ Board of Public Works, the Gateway hopes to highlight the Filipino community and its contributions to the social, economic, and cultural makeup of the city.

“The Historic Filipinotown Gateway project has been nearly two decades in the making,” says Caloza, who now serves as Deputy Chief of Staff for California Attorney General Rob Bonta. “It’s a monument not just for the Filipino and Asian community, but for all immigrant communities who come to Los Angeles to build a life and a home. The gateway represents that hope and dream of what’s possible.”

How Historic Filipinotown came to be

Early immigration was driven largely by the need for Filipino laborers in Hawaii and California. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1924 prohibited and limited the movement of Asian immigrants. But since the Philippines was an American colony, those exclusions did not extend to Filipinos.

Little Manila, one of the first Filipino settlements in LA, was in the Bunker Hill area of Downtown Los Angeles and served as the main hub for the community from the 1920s to 1940s. In the wake of rising anti-Filipino sentiment triggered by the influx of laborers, Little Manila became a little slice of home for Filipino Americans. Filipino entrepreneurs set up their own businesses in the neighborhood catering to the needs of the community, whether that be serving up Filipino food, finding jobs, or simply providing a space for entertainment and recreation.

A motorbike drives under the Historic Filipinotown Eastern Gateway. (Photo credit): Gary Leonard

Unfortunately, Little Manila was completely destroyed by the 1950s due to redevelopment programs. Those who had been displaced then moved to what is now known as Historic Filipinotown (designated as such in 2022 by then-City Councilmember Eric Garcetti), which was one of the few other areas they were able to establish housing and community.

Sharing Filipino culture

Local Filipino community leader Joselyn Geaga-Rosenthal notes that because the Philippines was a U.S. colony, Filipinos were able to assimilate much more easily into American culture. They didn’t feel the same need to gather together as other Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants. Although the Filipino communities in and around Greater Los Angeles were tightknit, they didn’t have the same visibility as other Asian American and Pacific Islander groups. With the addition of the Eastern Gateway, Historic Filipinotown—and the Filipino community—is ready to take the spotlight.

When Silva visited Historic Filipinotown after he first moved to Southern California, he was stunned that the neighborhood’s most distinctive marker was the glowing golden arches of a McDonald’s.

“It was the largest sign I have ever seen, and this is Filipinotown!” Silva says. “I mean, coming from the Philippines, I imagined something like Chinatown, but there was nothing.”

Almost as a direct response, the Eastern Gateway, dubbed “Talang Gabay: Our Guiding Star,” is marked by an arch distinctly inspired by Filipino culture and heritage. The peak of the arch is reminiscent of precolonial Filipino architecture and incorporates Filipino lore into the design. Silva adds that the peak also replicates the masts of boats used in the Philippines, which typically have birds perched on top. Additionally, the two ends of the boat are representative of naga, a mythological sea creature that provides safe passage to sailors.

Silva wanted to use imagery that represented homecoming to showcase how Historic Filipinotown provided community and refuge to so many Filipinos in Los Angeles. “It’s like a signal that home is near,” he explains. “It’s the guiding star. That’s what the Gateway is symbolizing.”

Caloza hopes that the Gateway will also highlight the contributions of Filipinos and other immigrant communities to the city, especially in the middle of rising anti-Asian sentiment.

“The past two years of the pandemic have demonstrated how critical immigrant communities are,” she says. “Immigrants helped save lives and were the backbone of our communities, especially Filipino and Asian health care workers like our nurses and doctors.”

Caloza points out the hibiscus flower, or gumamela, design on the arch, which symbolizes healing in Filipino culture. “It is our way of saying thank you and dedicating this gateway to our frontline health care workers,” she explains. “At the same time, we also know that Asian and immigrant communities are under attack. With the rise in anti-Asian hate, it is important to stand with our most vulnerable communities and let them know they belong. That's why transforming our public spaces and investing in a marker that highlights the Filipino community's culture, history, and contributions is so important.”

Jessica Caloza (front) at the construction of the Historic Filipinotown Eastern Gateway.

Another notable element of the Gateway is the storyboard, which highlights the major milestones of Historic Filipinotown. This feature allows visitors to interact with the via QR code that highlights other local monuments and public art projects, many of which were investments by the City of Los Angeles.

Last but not least, Caloza emphasizes that the QR code also includes “a list of Filipino and immigrant-owned businesses because we want to highlight small businesses.”

The future of Historic Filipinotown

Both Geaga-Rosenthal and Foronda witnessed many changes to Historic Filipinotown over the past few decades, from the rise in crime rates and gang presence in the ‘80s, to its current gentrification. Although gentrification certainly has its cons, Geaga-Rosenthal mentions that not that long ago the neighborhood was severely neglected, and the increase in development has not only led to physical improvements, but increased awareness of the community.

“Little restaurants, established churches, institutions—we have three nonprofit organizations in the area that have been here for years. One is from 1945, another from the ‘70s, and one is from the ‘90s,” she lists off. “There are aesthetic changes on the surface, but then on a deeper layer, the community layer, they're still the same.”

Foronda notes that people are starting to take notice and take pride in their heritage, particularly with the younger generation of Filipino Americans.

“I kind of feel like we're still just creating opportunities to be involved for the masses,” says Foronda. “Right now, it’s like the visionary phase, so now we're getting together and figuring out, how can we make this place that we've always dreamed of?”

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