I’ve visited the Philippines a good number of times in the past twenty-something years, and have inevitably gotten from point A to point B using the most widespread form of public transportation in the country: a jeepney.
So when I found out that 1 of 8 jeepneys in the United States was right in Los Angeles’ very own Historic Filipinotown and that this is where the only jeepney tour in the country is offered, I got pretty excited and made it an item on my bucket list to go. I mean, how could I pass up the opportunity to ride a jeepney in the United States? That just sounded way too cool.
The Southern California jeepney is smaller than ones used in the Philippines, but it’s street legal in the US since it’s compact.
The exclusive tour is offered by the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California, a non-profit organization, in collaboration with Public Matters. I was able to take the tour for free because I’m acquainted with the organization’s executive director. However, it costs $15 per person to take the tour (by appointment only). The one I went on was a newly developed version of the tour, which runs for about an hour with three stops:
- Unidad Park
- Temple Seafood Market
- Tribal Café
Regular tours include more stops, such as Lake Park where there is a memorial for Filipino veterans. The jeepney also normally passes by the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, a community-based non-profit organization that has existed for more than 40 years, and the guide typically talks more about HiFi and issues the neighborhood faces.
While stops were limited on the new tour (which is supposed to include a hands-on session with a Filipino barkeeper/mixologist – but that comes at an additional cost), a wealth of information is presented in that hour about Filipino-American history, such as the importance of Fil-Ams in the eventual formation of the United Farm Workers. (For instance, although Caesar Chavez has become a household name when it comes to the UFW, a man who isn’t as known if Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong, who led Filipino farm workers in the 1960s to kick off the first strike that instigated the Delano Grape Strike.)
RIDING THE JEEPNEY
Touring a historical part of Los Angeles in an authentic Sarao jeepney is quite an experience. There are no windows, no seatbelts, and the engine rumbles loudly. It attracts a lot of attention, making it fun to wave at drivers and passengers in other vehicles. The jeepney is a stick shift, and it was amazing to watch PWC’s executive director drive and park it with ease. Eight people were able to fit inside comfortably during the tour.
Before the tour commences, passengers will be asked to draw a nickname from a small, woven bag. (I drew the name Pinky.) In Filipino culture, it’s custom to give nicknames to people, like Boy, Jun, and Baby. (Everybody Filipino’s got a Tito Boy, Tito Jun and Tita Baby. If you don’t believe me, just ask any Filipino.)
The first stop of the tour is at Unidad Park, which features a vibrant, colorful mural that celebrates Filipino heritage and features pivotal Filipinos who have helped shape history, like Larry Itliong. The mural, called Gintong Kasaysayan, Gintong Pamana, is about 140ft x 20ft and is the largest mural in the United States that depicts Filipino history.
Temple Seafood Market
There aren’t a lot of Filipinos living in Historic Filipinotown now. It is now predominantly home to a Hispanic population, which is (I think) why Temple Seafood Market was a stop on the tour. It was a little funny to stop by a store, but this is the only grocery stop in HiFi where Filipino food and ingredients are available. You’re not required to purchase anything in the store, but it is a nice stop to have in case you get hungry and want a snack for the remainder of the tour.
Tribal Café, formerly Travelers Café, was a favorite hangout spot among the “manongs,” a term used to refer to old timer Filipinos in the United States who formerly worked on farms, hostels, restaurants, etc. The manongs also ran the café, which was frequented by Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan during the time he lived in Los Angeles.
Back in those days, there were rooms located above the Traveler’s Café that used to serve as housing for Filipino Americans. There are also rumors that the building was formerly used as a brothel.
Today, Tribal Café is a Filipino-owned multicultural café and is one of the few places in HiFi to grab some healthy food and drinks.
This Historic Filipinotown jeepney tour is a great hands-on, one-hour crash course in Filipino American history. Apparently PWC doesn’t give that many tours, and maybe it’s because not a lot of people are aware it exists.
Although there were only three stops in this version of the tour, overall, it’s a great way to learn about a lesser known facet of American history.
If you’re interested in scheduling a tour or for more information, contact the Pilipino Workers Center. They’re really friendly and very helpful!