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This episode is also available in Tagalog / Mapapakinggan din itong episode sa Tagalog:
Today’s episode debuts our partnership with the Queens Memory Podcast, a project archiving stories from the most diverse community in the U.S., Queens, New York. “Little Manila” is a Filipino neighborhood dating back to the 1970s, but it still struggles to find its political footing.
The community’s presence is strengthened through grassroots coalitions and community art, like the mural of the greeting “Mabuhay,” a word that encompasses feelings of welcome and good wishes and at its most literal “LIVE!” We also hear from Filipino care workers about their experiences battling COVID 19, and the stereotype Filipina women face of being “natural nurturers” which doesn’t translate into care for them in return.
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Featuring Queens Memory Podcast Team Making Contact Team
Queens Memory Podcast Team
Making Contact Team
Queens Memory Podcast Homepage: Queens Memory collects personal histories, photographs and other records of contemporary life in Queens, New York. Listen to this episode in Tagalog / Mapapakinggan din itong episode sa Tagalog:
Queens Memory Podcast Homepage: Queens Memory collects personal histories, photographs and other records of contemporary life in Queens, New York.
Listen to this episode in Tagalog / Mapapakinggan din itong episode sa Tagalog:
Amy Gastelum: Hi there. Today on Making Contact we are so excited to share an episode from our brand new partner, the Queen’s Memory Podcast. This show highlights voices from the most diverse county in America, Queens, New York. In this episode, we are going to hear stories from a neighborhood known as “Little Manila.” This Filipino community dates back to the 1970s.
Potri Ranka Manis: You go to the restaurants there.
Jaclyn Reyes: It’s where you can send money back home to the Philippines.
Gemma Balagtas: It reminded me of Manila. So my son said, it’s like, we’re not even in America. Mommy.
Amy Gastelum: And while Little Manila offers a home away from home for Filipino immigrants, some say it doesn’t receive the same resources as other communities in Queens.
Steven Raga: We have other communities that are fairly recent immigrants to Queens, to New York City, to America, and they have community centers. They have all these big events that politicians go to. I mean, can you imagine? It’s 2021 and now we’re getting a sign that says something about our heritage. I mean, it’s very, very low ball.
Amy Gastelum: In the second half of the show, we’re gonna hear from Filipinos engaged in care work like nursing or childcare. There’s a stereotype that women from the Philippines are naturally nurturing. We’re gonna talk about how harmful that stereotype can be.
Potri Ranka Manis: You all nice community. You’re Filipino. You’re so nice. Yeah. So give us the nice thing. Put it in paper.
Amy Gastelum: All this, on today’s Making Contact. Stay with us.
Amy Gastelum: I’m Amy Gastelum, This episode was produced in English. If you want to listen in Tagalog, go to our website, radioproject.org to find the link.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Gawa sa Ingles itong episode. Kung gusto ‘niyong makinig sa Tagalog, mahahanap ‘nyo ang link sa aming website, radioproject.org
Amy Gastelum: Most Filipinos living in the US call California home, but of the over 200,000 Filipinos living in New York City, more than half live in Queens. Today we’re going to hear stories from Little Manila in Woodside, Queens, a neighborhood dotting Roosevelt Avenue that stretches between 63rd and 70th streets. First up, we have an ode to the area, its shops, its politics, its art. This episode was produced and hosted by Rosalind Tordesillas, of Queen’s Memory Podcast. Let’s listen.
Jaclyn Reyes: And so as soon as I moved to New York City, I looked for the community that was familiar to me, then, you know, I found Woodside. It’s my community for sure. <Laugh> I claim it <laugh>.
Potri Ranka Manis: You cannot refuse Woodside. Gusto mong kumain ng bangus, you go to the restaurants there.
Jaclyn Reyes: It’s where you can send money back home to the Philippines.
Steven Raga: I would see people who got married in other states and they’re still in their gown and go there just to get food…
Gemma Balagtas: Naalala ko yung Avenida sa Manila …Kaya sabi nga ng anak ko …para namang wala tayo sa Amerika Mommy. It reminded me of Avenida in Manila. So my son said, it’s like we’re not even in America, Mommy.
Joey Golja: I think that’s when it started 10 years ago.
Steven Raga: Now, I think when I heard …Little Manila, …I’m not even sure if that came from the Filipino community that might have come from <laugh> outside the community.
Joey Golja: and I think people would just kind of say it under their breath …Little Manila as a joke, …and then it became serious.
Steven Raga: A lot of Filipino organizations…we began adopting that.
Joey Golja: And they were just like, yeah, Little Manila. …It is. And then here we are!
Rosalind Tordesillas: The neighborhood rose up around a roughly 7-block stretch under the 7 train in Woodside. You’ll know you’re there when the doors open on the elevated train platform and you smell the Filipino barbecue. Down on the street you may hear bits of Tagalog, Bisaya, Ilokano, and other Philippine languages. How did this area become Little Manila?
Joe Castillo: The community here in Woodside was not like this always. …When I was growing up, gosh, probably until I was about 12 or so, … the street where the store was on was Irish and Italian. Maybe one other Filipino family on that block, or two. Now it’s like, <laugh>, uh, Filipinos are everywhere.
Rosalind Tordesillas: That was Joe Castillo. His family owns PhilAm Food Mart, the oldest surviving Filipino grocery in Woodside. His parents opened it in 1976. There were one or two other Filipino businesses back then, but not much of a community. Here’s his mom, Zenaida Castillo, at the store. She goes by Ida:
Zenaida Castillo: My cousins told us Queens is a haven for Filipinos. And most of the, I would say dignitaries from the consulate lives in Elmhurst Queens. But we cannot afford the rental there. We first started five doors away from here. We rented a place for five years, and then we got this.
Rosalind Tordesillas: “This” is the corner building on Roosevelt Avenue and 70th street. The location has served them well for another important reason.
Joe Castillo: …you find the hospital, you’ll always find Filipino nurses and doctors. They knew that there was a small community of healthcare workers because of Elmhurst hospital down the street.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Other businesses followed and they fed off each others’ successes. Across 70th street from PhilAm is another longtime draw, Ihawan restaurant. Folks would come for a meal then stock up.
Zenaida Castillo: …from Connecticut …Massachusetts, Jersey, Philadelphia. The most popular things I would say are, you know, like the noodles, the pancit, the Canton, the fish sauce, …the vinegar and the toyo.
Rosalind Tordesillas: And not just food. In non-travel-restricted times, Ida says she’d go back to the Philippines every 3 months for stock. For the holidays, she’d bring back parols: traditional star-shaped Christmas lanterns made of delicate materials like Japanese paper or capiz shell.
Zenaida Castillo: I brought hundreds and hundreds. I put it out September. It did not even reach December.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Staying connected to the Philippines was the whole purpose of the store. That permeated Joe’s childhood, too.
Joe Castillo: Behind the cash register, like underneath there’s shelves, where we keep paper bags and stuff, I would take naps in there, …as a preschooler. I joke around that it’s …a second sibling, because …I know my parents consider it like another child of their own. The difference that I grew up in versus some of the other PhilAm kids that were my age, by virtue of the store, I was surrounded by the language and the food and the culture.
Rosalind Tordesillas: PhilAm is an anchor for the Woodside community. Now Woodside is an anchor for Filipinos to stay close to their heritage throughout New York City.
Joe Castillo: Because of people from the outer boroughs or even Long Island, they see that there are Filipinos here. They’re like, I could open up a restaurant in my neighborhood. So I think that it’s great because like what started in this neighborhood has been able to like be brought to other places.
Rosalind Tordesillas: While Joe Castillo finds the way Woodside has evolved inspiring, Steven Raga thinks it’s not changing fast enough.
Steven Raga: It is great that we have long lasting establishments, but …a lot of other communities get more resources than the Filipino community. Way disproportionate.
Rosalind Tordesillas: He’s Executive Director of Woodside on the Move, a social service nonprofit. Now he’s running to represent this district in the State Assembly.
Steven Raga: Filipinos are what, the top three in the country, in terms of Asian American population, one of the biggest in the city and the state in terms of AAPI population. We have other communities that are fairly recent immigrants to Queens, to New York City, to America, and they have community centers, they have all these big events that politicians go to. I mean, can you imagine it’s 2021, and now we’re getting a sign that says something about our heritage. I mean, it’s very, very low ball.
Rosalind Tordesillas: The sign he’s talking about is a street sign. Last year, the NYC Council co-named the southwest corner of Roosevelt and 70th St. “Little Manila Avenue”. It’s a small nod given how long activists like Steven have been working for recognition. In the last elections, Steven ran for City Council but did not win. He’s clearly frustrated at the community’s lack of a political voice.
Steven Raga: And that goes back to the bottom line of us not taking a proactive unified effort to, not even ask for things, but let us be heard. …We are not on anyone’s radar at all. And if we’re not on anyone’s radar, …If we ask for help, who’s gonna defend us?
Amy Gastelum: Hey, it’s Amy. I wanna jump in and say that since this story was originally aired, Stephen Ragga actually won a race for the New York State Assembly, and so now he represents District 30, which encompasses little Manila and beyond. Okay, now back to Rosalind.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Steven knows the community can make itself heard. In 2016 they battled a move to change zoning in the neighborhood to allow a megachurch to expand. That would have displaced residents and small businesses. They formed the Coalition to Defend Little Manila to make their case.
Steven Raga: The amazing part was for some of them in the room, it’s the first time they heard a Filipino speak. That was the first time we went for it and we defended our community and we were successful and the project never came back.
Rosalind Tordesillas: To make sure their community is heard and seen, an activist arts group painted a mural where most folks enter Woodside. It features the word “Mabuhay”.
Zenaida Castillo: That’s the best word that you could ever say …to anybody, …it’s one of the best, uh, I would say wish that you could ever say.
Rosalind Tordesillas: The word greets you when you exit the Flushing-bound 7 train at 69th street. It blares in bright yellow on a sky-blue field on the wall of Amazing Grace Restaurant. Evoking the taste and fragrance of home, calamansi fruits and sampaguita blossoms adorn the word.
Joey Golja: Oh, Mabuhay, it just to me means welcome.
John Bahia: You go inside there it’s welcome, welcome to Little Manila.
Mary Jane de Leon: Mabuhay! Welcome to Philippines!
Rosalind Tordesillas: Many will say it means welcome because anyone arriving in the Philippines will see it plastered all over the airport. But it’s so much more than that. It’s an all-purpose greeting, cheer, or wish for the future. At its most literal, it simply means “LIVE!”
Rosalind Tordesillas: 0n June 12, 2020, they unveiled the mural with great fanfare – by pandemic standards.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Jaclyn Reyes designed the mural and co-founded Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts. The group builds community through public art.
Jaclyn Reyes: When I meet Filipinos outside of New York, whether they’re from like Chicago or from California or from Manila, they all know about the mural and …it means a lot that that resonated with people. …some like Filipino Americans didn’t even realize there was a Little Manila. …They were just like, wow, look, look at these Filipinos. So, um, the fact that the mural was able to draw attention to the community, that was kind of the point.
- Faye Yuan: In their work to create signs, Steven and Jaclyn are doing more than just increasing visibility for the Filipino community in Woodside. They’re also calling attention to the community’s own needs. For her next project, Jaclyn is working on a monument to honor the care work many Filipinos are engaged in, and also to bring awareness to the care they deserve in return.
Jaclyn Reyes: We wanted to, to find somebody who could represent Filipinos in this current moment of like hyper globalization, migration and all of that.
Rosalind Tordesillas: That’s artist Jaclyn Reyes again, talking about their next project – a monument to Melchora Aquino, known as Tandang Sora.
Jaclyn Reyes: She’s actually a very important figure for a lot of Filipina activists.
Rosalind Tordesillas: During the 19th century Philippine Revolution against Spain, Tandang Sora took care of the revolutionaries. She fed and sheltered them and nursed their injuries. She was so important to the movement, she was deported to Guam by the Spanish authorities.
Jaclyn Reyes: So reading about her being exiled, reminded me a lot of conversations I had with domestic workers or lower wage care workers from the Philippines who are here by themselves …and in a way it is kind of like exile.
Rosalind Tordesillas: More significantly to Filipino immigrants, Tandang Sora’s revolutionary work was care labor. So many Filipinos work in child and elder care as well as in health care.
Jaclyn Reyes: That is a form of labor that we should be recognizing more of.
Rosalind Tordesillas: If you’ve spent time in a US hospital, maybe you’ve noticed a lot of Filipino nurses. When the US colonized the Philippines at the turn of the last century, it instituted nursing training. Since then, it’s been recruiting Filipinos to fill health care labor shortages. Many health professionals immigrated to the northeast in the 70s, partly spurred by President Marcos’s repressive regime and its labor export policies. Later generations followed in those careers. Today 1 in 4 adults of Filipino descent in the NY-NJ area works in health care.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Potri Ranka Manis Queano Nur is an artist, an activist, AND a nurse. When she applied for work in the US, she asked for the mission statements of prospective hospitals.
Potri Ranka Manis: I fell in love with the mission of Mother Cabrini na serving the immigrants.
Rosalind Tordesillas: She ended up at Cabrini Medical Center, named for the sainted Italian-American nun. She came to the US in the 80s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. There was a lot of fear and stigma around that disease. So caring for patients with AIDS fell to Filipino nurses.
Potri Ranka Manis: We don’t know that that’s already racial discrimination in matters of labor assignment, ba?
Rosalind Tordesillas: Some patients would even say to her:
Potri Ranka Manis: “I want a white nurse”.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Potri thinks overt discrimination is less common these days thanks to nurses’ unions. But nurses from the Philippines are still assigned more often to bedside care. Potri felt called to it and added her own special touch. When maximum doses of sedatives weren’t enough for suffering patients, she’d sing them to sleep.
Potri Ranka Manis: “everything is fine…and I want you to sleep well tonight, close your eyes” Hala, bago ako makatapos ng kanta e natulog na siya.
Rosalind Tordesillas: She says before she finished the song, they were asleep.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Many Filipino nurses take pride in their reputation for extreme dedication. That commitment was tested when COVID hit. Gemma Balagtas is a nurse at Elmhurst Hospital Center.
Gemma Balagtas: 12 hours kang nakabalot na hindi ka makahinga, balot na balot ka tapos paglabas mo pupunta ka ng banyo para lang huminga ka tatanggalin mo, tapos maya’t maya may magco-code. So pupunta ka tutulong ka hindi pa kayo tapos mag code yung kabilang kwarto magco-code na naman. 12 hours you’re wrapped up tight in gear. You go to the bathroom for a minute just to take it off and take a breath, then someone codes. You go to help and before you’re done another room codes.
Rosalind Tordesillas: “Coding” is hospital-speak for when a patient’s heart and breathing stops. A whole team rushes to revive them. In February 2020 Gemma was the first in her unit to catch COVID. She was out for 18 days, then returned to work in time for the worst days of New York’s first surge. Elmhurst Hospital had become the “epicenter of the epicenter.” Remembering that hellish time still overwhelms her 2 years later.
Gemma Balagtas: Talaga pong umiiyak kami dahil dun sa experience namin ibang iba po talaga lalo na pag nakita mo yung pasyente na ano malakas siya nakakausap mo. Tapos pagbalik mo hinanap mo yung pasyente mo sasabihin nila Ano nadala sa icu Tapos malalaman mong nawala na eh pag-alis mo healthy siya maayos siya nakakausap mo pa siya. We’d really cry from that experience– it’s like nothing else. Especially when you see the patient — they were so strong, you were talking. You look for them later and someone says “oh they’re in the ICU”, then they’re gone. They were healthy, you were just talking!
Rosalind Tordesillas: Her first night back from quarantine, Gemma says patients were coding left and right. It was gutting work. As she struggled to keep up, she got chest pains herself — she’d just had COVID. By the end of her overnight shift, she felt done. Leaving the hospital that morning, she decided she wouldn’t come back. The streets were empty. Then a bus pulled up. She and the driver made eye contact.
Gemma Balagtas: Kumaway sakin. …nag-thu-thumbs-up sya tapos sabi niya eh thank you thank you gumaganon siya. De natouch ako Kasi sabi ko ni hindi niya ako kilala nagpasalamat siya sa akin tapos bumubusina siya …Tapos sabi ko babalik na lang ako mamaya magtatrabaho ako ulit [laughs]. He waved at me and gave me a thumbs-up. He was saying thank you, thank you. So I was touched. He didn’t even know me. He was thanking me and blowing his horn. Then I told myself, OK, I’ll go back to work later. [laughs].
Rosalind Tordesillas: It took such a little gesture to pull her back from the brink. Some recent data shows that compared with their white counterparts, Filipinos are less likely to leave nursing jobs. They’re also more likely to remain in direct care.
Rosalind Tordesillas: That may help explain why disproportionate numbers of them fell to COVID. Only 4% of registered nurses are of Filipino descent. Yet, they accounted for about a third of all COVID-related RN deaths in the first year of the pandemic.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Maybe they are trained to be more dedicated. Or maybe they just have fewer options. Because many Filipinos are in care work, people may stereotype them as naturally nurturing, or especially suited to service. So it’s just accepted that they regularly go above and beyond. Does Jaclyn –the artist – think that glorifying heroic caregiver Tandang Sora with a monument reinforces this stereotype?
Jaclyn Reyes: We are products of these larger policies that kind of perpetuate that sort of thinking. …that’s why it’s, it’s good to kind of make art about it and try to get more of that nuanced conversation happening, because hopefully then we can show that these women are very complex, show that this servile expectation is kind of imposed actually. I personally think that if Filipino women are busy doing the care work, that we should just reciprocate some of that care back.
Rosalind Tordesillas: What Potri received back was not care, but pain.
Potri Ranka Manis: That was the time na ang President mismo is racist. Na tumaas ang hate crime. …Because that was the time that Trump called COVID Chinese virus.
Rosalind Tordesillas: In August 2021 Potri was handing out free masks on the subway. She offered them to a couple. The man grabbed the masks.
Potri Ranka Manis: “Mind your own business, chink. Go home to your dirty country.”
Rosalind Tordesillas: The woman hit her over and over. Potri counted more than 20 blows. She wanted to fight back.
Potri Ranka Manis: If I’ll kick her knee, she’ll fall down she’s gonna have a fracture.
Rosalind Tordesillas: But the couple had a child in a stroller.
Potri Ranka Manis: Who will take care of this kid if I’ll fracture her mom. So ganoong attitude ng mga Pilipino.
Rosalind Tordesillas: She says “That’s Filipinos’ attitude. You’re getting beat up and you’re still focused on care.”
Potri Ranka Manis: Binubugbog ka na nga care pa rin ang nakikita mo.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Potri may buy into the belief that Filipinos can be especially caring, but she doesn’t think they should be downtrodden.
Potri Ranka Manis:”You’re a nice community. You’re Filipino you’re so nice” Yeah, so give us the nice thing. Put it in paper.
Rosalind Tordesillas: If the community wants support written into law, Jaclyn and other activists are working to ensure it’s heard. Recently, they campaigned to redraw the voting district lines in the Filipino neighborhoods. The Queens community was divided among three Assembly districts and two Senate districts.
Jaclyn Reyes: So when we were looking at the maps of Little Manila where all the businesses are, where the concentration of Filipinos lived, we saw that for example, Phil Am Food Mart was in a different district than Amazing Grace, just one block away. If these businesses had an issue, for example, they couldn’t go to the same leader and then easily one leader can just say, oh, it’s not my responsibility. It’s the other person’s. …And …their voice politically is diluted. We try to make it as simple as possible. That number one, we are a real legitimate community of interest. …we are important. …Second, we should be together in the same district. …We just wanna go to one person who will actually take care of us and advocate for us.
Rosalind Tordesillas: Putting the community in one district could bring the concrete change Potri wants.
Potri Ranka Manis: I’m so happy with the “Mabuhay”, the co-naming of the street, but will that deter anyone who wants to abuse us?
Rosalind Tordesillas: She wants laws that send direct messages of protection and support, like those big signs on buses that warn riders about penalties for assaulting transit workers.
Potri Ranka Manis: There’s a clear sign, “Don’t assault an Asian”? That’s what I wanted. …We need policy.
Rosalind Tordesillas: A unified district could also help Steven Raga win the Assembly seat and become the first Filipino voted into office in New York. That would help deliver policies for the community. But murals, monuments, and street signs matter to him, too.
Steven Raga: I don’t think of it as …aesthetics.
Rosalind Tordesillas: He says though they love them, those markers aren’t just for Filipinos.
Steven Raga: We don’t need a sign that says Filipinos are here. …, we know where to go if we need food. …When we need to send money anywhere…the non Filipinos are the ones who should know. And that’s really who the sign is for …to let them know that we’re here.
Rosalind Tordesillas: For the Queens Memory Podcast, I’m Rosalind Tordesillas.
- Faye Yuan: I’m J. Faye Yuan. Listen with us next time on Queen’s Memory.
Amy Gastelum: Thanks for listening to Making Contact and the Queen’s Memory Podcast. I’m Amy Gastelum. Stick around for a minute because we’re going to hear from Natalie Milbrodt. She is the director of the Queen’s Memory Project, and she told me that the point of the podcast is to capture stories from Queens. Right now it is the most diverse county in the us.
Natalie Milbrodt: So it’s a really special place, but it’s a very recent thing that we are this special place and so, um, we’re changing. Neighborhoods change all the time, so we really wanna actively be out there and just taking a snapshot of our neighborhoods to try to capture the rapid changes that are happening and, um, capture people’s really interesting stories. I mean, we have a lot of interviews with people who are really from all over the world, so it’s a cool oral history collection. And the podcast is really a way that we, um, can introduce people who aren’t familiar with our collections to some of the voices that are in the oral history collections. And we know that a lot of people will never really do, you know, deep research, listening to full oral histories, which can often be, you know, an hour or two long and really be about a person’s whole life history. But we know that, um, by packaging these voices into a compelling, um, story that is a podcast episode, that it’s just much more appealing and exciting to listen to. And so it’s really been our privilege to work over the past couple of years with professional media producers who have helped us to leverage existing interviews that are in our collections, but then also collect new interviews with us that then, you know, the full interview becomes part of our oral history collections, but then also we’re producing this podcast.
Amy Gastelum: So the podcast covers several very different Asian communities, and they knew they needed to hire producers from the communities the project covers. So they wrote a grant.
Natalie Milbrodt: I’m astonished that it was funded because it was so ambitious. So we asked, uh, for, um, eight different bilingual producers who were gonna be able to produce episodes in eight different languages that are kind of the most spoken Asian languages in Queens. And we really wanted to be able to leverage people’s, not only language expertise, but also their insights into culture and community and their relationships with people who lived in Queens who were from these different Asian American communities. And I think the result is just really special. And I can tell you that the team that was assembled to do this season was just outstanding. I mean, they were people who were all in it for the right reasons. They were really excited about, um, creating a meaningful record that was by Asian American communities for all of us, but especially for communities themselves. And when we would do listening parties that came after the podcast, we found that community members were really moved and excited that the library had, um, chosen to, focus on their community and also to make an episode that was in their language.
Amy Gastelum: That’s right. Each of the episodes is recorded in English and in a language that’s used by the community being highlighted.
Natalie Milbrodt: And Rosalind’s episode is a great example of this work of, you know, community engagement.
Amy Gastelum: Season four of the show is gonna be all about the environment. And since I lived in Queens, I can tell you that means water.
Natalie Milbrodt: In Queens, there are many low-lying areas. There are also lots of places in Queens that have been infilled wetlands and then housing built on top of them. And so we really want to get into some stories with people who live in some of these impacted neighborhoods to hear about what their families have been experiencing.
Amy Gastelum: Awesome. Is there anything else that you think we should know?
Natalie Milbrodt: Well, I’d like to just give credit to Melody Cao, who was our executive producer of season three, and also to Faye Yuan, who is the host, but she’s also the curator of the Queen’s Memory Project. And then also I’d just like to say how much it means to all of us that we’re going to be part of Making Contact. Thank you so much for selecting Rosalind’s episode and including us in your wonderful series.
Amy Gastelum: We’re really excited to have you and looking forward to future collaborations.
That’s it for Making Contact today. Thanks for listening. I’ve been your host, Amy Gastelum. We’ll be right here for you next week. Until then.