Interview: Marissa Aroy on Making ‘Little Manila’

Marissa Aroy’s “Little Manila: Filipinos in California’s Heartland.”

As part of Cinema Asian America’s June focus on Filipino American filmmakers, Xfinity On Demand is pleased to partner with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) to present Marissa Aroy’s short celebrated film “Little Manila: Filipinos in California’s Heartland” to viewers for free. A lively and powerful look at a vital chapter in California’s Asian American history, “Little Manila” explores the stories of Filipino immigrants who were integral in shaping the state’s cultural, political and labor histories.

Known as “The City of Gold,” Stockton became a major hub for Filipino immigrants coming to the U.S at the turn of the 20th century. By the 1930s, this lively area had the largest population of Filipinos outside of the Philippines. Many worked as farm laborers traveling up and down the west coast harvesting fruit and vegetables in California, Oregon, and Washington and then working in the canneries in Alaska during the winter. But Stockton was where Filipinos could always return home.

With their newly found income — during the nation’s birth of the consumer culture — Filipino men sought out the American dream priding themselves on flashy tailored suits and new cars, and an active social calendar at local dance clubs. This was the heyday of Little Manila.

Yet the exuberance Filipinos felt in their new homeland did not help them become accepted into the mainstream American culture. Racial tensions and fierce competition for jobs during the depression culminated in clashes between whites and Filipinos all over the west coast. In addition, the U.S. government imposed the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the Repatriation Act, severely limiting the immigration and residency of Filipinos. Amidst the anti-Filipino sentiments, Filipinos were still able to organize farm labor unions and became a force to reckon with during labor strikes. Later, in one of the great labor movements in American history, these leaders played a pivotal role by collaborating with Cesar Chavez to create the United Farm Workers.

The Second World War was a turning point as men volunteered in mass to fight Japan. They formed the 1st and 2nd Filipino infantry regiments and were part of a mass naturalization ceremony taking the oath as American citizens. This was an important change for now they had the right to buy land and vote. After the war, the Filipino community once again flourished as new families discovered a sense of belonging that didn’t before exist.

As time passed, the community began to move away. City officials have cleared away ethnic neighborhoods to make way for redevelopment. The final segment of this documentary examines the last few remnants of the community and efforts to save Little Manila’s last standing buildings now deemed as historical landmarks. – CAAM

New York-based director Marissa Aroy discussed how the project developed, and her personal connection to the story.

What drew you to the story of Stockton’s Filipino community? In many ways you are reframing many histories – California, immigration and labor – through the lens of Filipino America.

MA: I got the opportunity to film Stockton’s Filipino community through the local PBS station, KVIE, and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). KVIE is honestly a great television station, they try to represent all the different communities in the area and give them voice whether it’s Filipino, Chinese, Hmong or Sikh. Little Manila is a literal reframing of history, taking old photographs from the Filipino communities and making them front and center, and taking photographs from the mainstream sources and finding the tiny corner where there was a Filipino in shot and blowing that up to make him the focus.

“Little Manila” features an incredible range of archival film footage and photographs that give us a glimpse into early 20th century Filipino American communities – how did you conduct your research, and where were you able to find these images?

MA: I was fortunate to have the Filipino American National Historical Society help me with all of these incredibly beautiful, and telling photographs of the Filipino community. FANHS was the main source of these amazing photographs-portraits of Filipino men all dressed up in their suits, pomade in their hair; group shots of Filipino farmworkers, dressed in suspenders with their sleeves rolled up, smiling into the camera. My favorite photograph is of this couple, a Filipino man and his white wife standing in front of an old car. They had to get married in Arizona because California had these laws against mixed marriages. The look on their faces is somewhat defiant and possessive as if they are daring you to just try and deny them their love. That one is actually a photo of one woman’s parents, so they were these incredibly valuable pieces of Filipino history, but also very personal too.

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One of the canonical films about Filipino Americans is Curtis Choy’s “Fall of the I-Hotel”, which chronicled the eviction of many elderly Filipino tenants from the International Hotel in San Francisco’s Manilatown in the late 1970s. While the film tells the story of another city, there are historical resonances with the story of Stockton in terms of questions around race, citizenship and community. What films about Filipino America that have made an impact on you, and how might we make links between the many diverse stories that define the community?

MA: Growing up I didn’t see any films about Filipino America, or about Filipinos. It wasn’t really until my college years and after that I became conscious of the value of my Filipino American identity. Certainly, Gene Cajayon’s film “The Debut,” gave me hope that our uniquely Filipino American story was worth telling, but it’s all connected. The story of the International Hotel being torn down and the elderly Filipino tenants being evicted, those same men had also worked in the farm fields of California, they were all of the “Manong” generation, the “older brother/uncle” generation. The feelings of embracing your identity, and speaking up for yourself was not only felt by the Manong generation but by the fictional characters in “The Debut.” We’re still at the point where Filipino Americans are giving the outline of who we are to a general American audience, but I hope we can move away from that and start telling our more complex stories.

What are you working on now?

MA: We’re finishing up a short fictional film called, “Talunang Manok [The Losing Cock]” that we shot in the Philippines, and we’re in post-production on our documentary “Delano Manongs: Forgotten Heroes of the United Farm Workers”. It’s about the Filipinos who started the United Farm Workers with the Mexicans. Cesar Chavez is known of the founder of the union, but nobody knows that Larry Itliong, a Filipino farmworker leader actually started the grape strike with his group of Filipinos. They were bad asses in the best way possible. We need to know about the times when Filipino raised their voices and demanded their rights.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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