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MISSION: Filipino

Gila Leifer and Andrew Siy

The Task:

     Two strangers en route to NYC's Stuyvesant Town; an area that stretches from Ave. A to the River… The mission set before them is to assess what will become of the Filipino community found there… Andrew is a Chinese-American, born in Queens. His parents emigrated from the Philippines… Gila is a Jewish-American, born in Israel. Her parents are second-generation American… And so the quest began...

The Quest:

     The sky was gray as the rain was falling, but Andrew and Gila-umbrellas in hand-anxiously began their walk towards the Lower East Side. Although optimistic, they were unsure as to how they would find the information needed, and both expressed their subjective concerns. Gila feared that she would not easily understand the heavy Filipino accents of those they were intending to confront, while Andrew felt uneasy about approaching and interrogating strangers in general. Luckily, the duo immediately learned that each perfectly balanced the other's insecurities. Andrew, accustomed to hearing the accent in his home, would fill in whatever points went over Gila's head, while Gila, being the extrovert, was more than willing to initiate the necessary dialogue. They knew that they would have no problem finding Filipinos to talk with because there were reportedly 1,144 living throughout the neighborhood (Newest New Yorker: 1990-6). With the division of labor delineated, the adventure looked somewhat more promising.

     The first site they stumbled upon was Manila Gardens, a restaurant located on 325 E. 14th St. Alongside the entrance was a menu mounted within a glass display case, presenting a list of authentic Philippine cuisine. They apprehensively entered the store, still a bit uncertain as to how the coming events would unfold. Once inside, the two took in their surroundings. Although on that dreary Sunday afternoon the tables were empty, the restaurant was livened by the fitting music played over the stereo system, and was decorated with culturally appropriate art and tapestries.

     As planned, Gila introduced herself and Andrew to the headwaiter, and almost immediately the interview turned into a friendly conversation that, expectedly, was predominantly led by Andrew. Ricky Lorovico, an immigrant born in Manila, Philippines, was extremely cooperative and informative. After asking Mr. Lorovico about his mother tongue he took the time to explain that while the native language of the Filipino community is Tagalog, there are deep roots for the Filipino's widespread bilingualism.

     From 1898 through 1946 the Philippines was under American control, therefore at that time its socio-economic development was closely linked to the United States. As a result, the urban areas of the Philippines have become rather Americanized; English is used in television programming, American basketball is watched and followed, restaurants carry American fast foods, pop music is popular, etc. In fact, English speakers can effortlessly get around Manila and other urban areas with no knowledge of Tagalog. Furthermore, being that the general attitude towards America has been one of increasing admiration, the schools teach in English as a way of stressing the usefulness and importance of the language. Eventually this pressure led to the growing desire to immigrate to America; the place constantly held in high esteem.

     Today, Filipinos are the 4th largest Asian-American group in NYC (with a population of 60, 000), and are the 2nd largest Asian-American group in the nation. When trying to find out information on the number of Filipino students enrolled in the local schools, the only information deduced, from the lack of information attained, was that since most of the Filipino students are first or second generation American, they have no need for ESL or bilingual education. The Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished the discriminatory national origins quota system based on race, spurred the upsurge of immigration into America by the Filipino community. Prior to that, the relatively few Filipino emigrants from the Philippines went to Hawaii and the West coast.

     Previous knowledge of English made for facilitated assimilation into American culture and lifestyle, and in turn the transition was increasingly bearable. For the most part, government services are not needed in Tagalog, and thus are not provided, with the exception of NYC's census information hotline that offers a separate number for Tagalog speakers. Despite the fact that the Philippines is a Catholic nation, which dates back to Spanish control in the 19th century, within New York City there are no exclusively Filipino Churches or even private services held in Tagalog. Medical services, usually a grave concern for most immigrants, are not provided in Tagalog, again, because there is no need for it, although many nurses are Filipino.

     Interestingly, the concentration of Filipinos in Stuyvesant Town specifically is largely a reflection of the many surrounding hospitals: NYU Medical Center, Beth Israel Hospital, and Bellevue Hospital. Amazingly, 80% of the nursing staff in Bellvue Hospital alone is Filipino. In the 1970's, 80's, and early 90's, when the U.S. had a shortage of nurses, Filipino nurses were sought out on the basis of their fluency in English, and because of their training in schools modeled after those in the U.S. All these factors combined not only opened more job opportunities for Filipinos, but also ensured their success once employed. As a result, the average salary of Filipinos is $43, 000 a year, making them one of the highest earning ethnic groups in NYC.

     Conversely, the existing bilingualism has also had negative affects on the community. According to Mr. Lorovico it serves as a threat to the continuity of Tagalog, as well as to the Filipino culture in general. He explained that his daughter, along with most of the second-generation, do not speak Tagalog but can understand the language spoken by their parents. In spite of his inability to fully understand and partake in the surrounding American culture, due to factors such as accent and general way of thinking, he admits that he has raised a completely American daughter. The fear exists that by the third-generation the Tagalog language will be fully lost to English, and that soon after the culture will dissipate as well.

     In light of Mr. Lorovico's experience the above mentioned pessimistic predictions seem almost inevitable. However, when discussing the fate of the community with the owner of the New Manila Grocery, an immigrant himself, the prospect of it enduring looked rather promising. After questioning him about the survival rate of Tagalog, he responded defensively. His personal observation was that most families chose to ensure its stability by speaking only Tagalog within their homes. As far as the Filipino culture on a larger scale, this second interviewee provided an almost polar outlook to that of the first. He spoke optimistically of the cultural celebrations and religious gatherings within the community, and directed our attention to the Filipino Reporter, a Filipino newspaper (written in English) that among other things has a monthly calendar of such events.

     This newspaper was an enlightening resource that revealed links within the various Filipino communities spread throughout New York, as well as those maintained between them and the Philippines. Johnny Air Cargo, one such link, is a shipping company exclusively used for deliveries sent to the Philippines. This demonstrates that families living in America do not sever ties with those still in the Philippines, rather they are constantly shipping U.S. products abroad, sustaining their cross-country relationships. Furthermore, those settled on American soil show a maintained connection to their roots by choosing to not be buried in America. Utilizing the service provided by a funeral home that ships caskets to Manila this is made possible. Still, other services include the Philippine National Bank (5th Ave. and 45th St.), the Filipino American Human Services, Inc. (29th St. and Madison Ave.)- a general interest group involved in promoting the welfare of Filipino Americans, and a number of restaurants, the most esteemed being Cendrillon in Soho. There are also many active social and cultural functions, but these are located in Queens where there is even an even larger Filipino community. Overall, these links within the community give sufficient room for people like the owner of New Manila Grocery to be hopeful for Filipino-Americans continued existence.

     Ironically, this new founded optimism was disconcerting to both Andrew and Gila. After properly executing the means to the fulfillment of their task they were back where they started- without a clear answer. In an attempt to find conclusive information about the future of the Filipino community, they had only succeeded in gathering diverging opinions. But upon further investigation it was discovered that although they seemed to have been in opposition, in reality they were representative of a one conclusion.

The Conclusion:

     Mr. Lorovico was a relatively young immigrant whose high school daughter and her Filipino friends did not speak Tagalog. His longing for the Philippines was apparent, yet he said he would never take back the life he provided for his family, even at the expense of the Filipino culture. Is he a self-sacrificing martyr who was willing to let go of his past for the sake of what he thinks is a greater good for generations to come? Or is he being weak in giving up the traditions set forth by generations that preceded him?

     The owner of the grocery store, a significantly older immigrant by comparison, insisted that the immigrants he has had contact with pass on both the Filipino language and customs. Is he a strong-willed community member whose ties to the Philippines keep him active in ensuring its preservation? Or is there some hidden guilt that disillusions him to believe that living in America is not hindering the continuity of his culture?

     Many conclusions could be made all across the spectrum based on the questions just posed. The easiest one being, that none can be made and that only time will tell. Although tempting, Andrew and Gila steered clear of that approach and were bold enough to state their speculative evaluation: that the two accounts were pointing towards the same gradual process of decline.

     The older of the two men interviewed, displaying the strongest attachment to the Philippines, has himself convinced that there is nothing at risk by living in America. The younger immigrant, despite a strong connection to his homeland, realizes that a trade-off does exist, but believes that the advantages of living in America outweigh the losses. Further removed is Mr. Lorovico's daughter who because of her American-born status and ease in which Filipinos assimilate, has little understanding of what there is to hold onto. As a result, even with her ability to understand Tagalog she has only a small, if any at all, incentive to learn how to speak the language. One could only imagine that her children will neither speak nor understand it.

     In closing, Andrew and Gila emphasized that although based on the information and data collected this is what they concluded, they sincerely wish for a sudden change to halt the downward cycle. Hopefully, that would then give rise to the strengthening and eventual permanence of both Tagalog and the Filipino culture.

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