The Surprising Story of the Filipinos’ Arrival in Virginia


Above a plate full of Filipino spring rolls, Amado Laxa explains how he became the reigning king lumpie– food champion. “I’m the tallest Filipino around, and I didn’t have breakfast that day, that’s all,” says Amado Laxa, 69 and a half meters, who gobbled down 18 of the fried food in cigarillo shape in less than four minutes to win the lumpia king title in the last Wire Fest USA.

Today, he takes the time to savor every bite. Was at FeLynn, a cafeteria-style restaurant in Virginia Beach, Virginia. “They roll the lumpia by hand in the back and it’s always fresh and hot,” he says. More than a restaurant, FeLynn is a community gathering place; there is karaoke or line dancing four nights a week. Laxa hosts a group of men in their 70s and 80s. “They’re all retired Marines,” he says, “of all [Philippine] provinces”. Like them, Laxa is retired from the Navy.

Roy and Naomi Estaris, founders of Fil Fest USA, pull up chairs. They offer me other Filipino restaurants to try: Ihaw Ihaw“right there across the parking lot”; Kainan“in front of your hotel;” by Ray-Ray, “near the waterfront”; the famous fast food chain Jollibee; And so on. That there are about 30 choices within a 30-minute drive speaks to the unique culture of this heavily populated area near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, best known for its crab soup and Lynnhaven oysters. .

In the 1960s and 1970s, businesses and organizations sprung up in suburban malls in southeastern Virginia to serve Filipino Americans, many of whom had ties to the United States Navy; today they attract a wider audience of residents and visitors. Travel agencies and dental offices, grocery stores and martial arts studios, bakeries and hair salons are hallmarks of this tight-knit community of at least 50,000 people, concentrated in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

Last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam designated five historic road markers recognizing the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. A marker honors Filipinos in the United States Navy and is to be placed later this month before the Philippine Cultural Center (CCP) in Virginia Beach. Here’s how the Hampton Roads area became one of the largest Filipino communities on the East Coast.

A maritime story

Hailing from an archipelago of 7,641 islands in the South China Sea, Filipinos are historically a seafaring people and their ties to North America date back to before there was even a United States. In 1587, a Spanish galleon landed at Morro Bay, California, with a party that included “Luzon Indios.

In the mid-1760s, Filipino castaways from Spanish galleons—called Manila men—established a village in the Louisiana swamps; Saint Malo was probably the first Asian American colony in the United States. Even today, Filipino men and women are employed as sailors and staff on cargo ships and cruise liners around the world, more than any other nationality.

Filipino participation in the United States Navy dates back to the Civil War: at least 38 served on ships such as the New USS Ironsides. They have served in every war since.

In the dining room of USS Wisconsin, a decommissioned battleship now museum on the Norfolk waterfront, I meet Jeffrey Acosta. “Like many other Filipinos, my father-in-law started out in the navy as a cook, on a ship like this,” he says. A retired sailor who now teaches history at Tidewater Community College, Acosta married into the Filipino American community and serves as a historian for the local chapter of the Philippine American National Historical Society. He explains that the US Navy had its largest base at Subic Bay in the Philippines and recruited Filipinos directly to work on its ships and bases.

“At first, only positions such as mess attendants and stewards were open to Filipinos, and they paid less than their American counterparts,” says Acosta, “but the salary was lucrative by Filipino standards and it offered a pathway to U.S. citizenship.” Between 1952 and 1991, 35,000 Filipino nationals joined the Navy.

Filipino Americans have distinguished themselves inside and outside the Navy despite the barriers. Telesforo Trinidad was the first and only Asian American in the United States Navy to receive a Medal of Honor for saving two men after a boiler explosion in 1915; there is currently a campaign for to give its name to a warship.

Connie Mariano was not only the first Filipino American to become a rear admiral, she was also the first female director of the White House Medical Unit. Virginia Representative Bobby Scott is the first Filipino-American in Congress. And native of Virginia Beach Chad Hugowhose father is retired from the Navy, is one half of the music producing duo The Neptunes, with Pharrell Williams.

Filipino culture at a beach resort

Starting from the Norfolk base, many families settled in the Kempsville neighborhood of Virginia Beach, now the heart of the Filipino American community. At the PCC, which is scheduled to reopen this summer, anyone can take lessons in Tagalog and other dialects, traditional dance and kuntaw (a Filipino martial art).

“We are now seeing the second and third generations of families who first arrived in the 1960s or earlier,” says Cynthia Romero, president of the organization that oversees the CCP. “Some of them no longer speak the language. We are here to introduce them and others to culture and community.

The most populous city (with 460,000 residents) in the Commonwealth, Virginia Beach is a resort destination with a 35-mile-long beach. “We always take out-of-town guests there — Filipinos love the beach,” Romero says. The center of the action is Oceanfront, with its wide, three-mile-long boardwalk lined with hotels, pocket parks, mini stages and landmarks. A Peace Pole, located near 27th Street, honors Virginia Beach’s Five Sister Cities; a beacon points in the direction of Olongapo, in the Philippines, site of the former naval base at Subic Bay, 8,720 miles away.

At Kempes Landing Park, a ship’s anchor commemorates Virginia Beach’s connection to sister city Olongapo. “It’s a great partnership program,” says Naomi Estaris, who has strong ties to the community as a business owner and civic activist. “The mayors of each city have each other’s cellphones, firefighters have trained together, there are student exchanges with host families.”

A Filipino American cultural tour isn’t complete without visiting the final resting place of Douglas MacArthur, the so-called “Liberator of the Philippines.” The general is buried under the rotunda of Norfolk’s Old Town Hall, and his memorabilia, including his sunglasses, cap and airman’s pipe, are on display in the museum. MacArthur spent years in Manila before becoming Supreme Allied Commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater during World War II. Forced to retreat, he uttered the famous words:I will return.”

“Not only did he keep his promise, but he truly loved the Philippines and respected its people. His wife, Jean, once told me that if he hadn’t been recalled to active duty, they would never have left the Philippines,” says Jeffrey Acosta, the site’s former museum curator. “In a way, he was ahead of his time. When his only son was born, he chose Filipinos as his godfather and godmother, in 1938!”

Succession takes over

“Filipino American history is American history,” says Allan Bergano, who along with his wife, Edwina, opened the first Filipino-owned dental practice in the region in 1983. The couple worked on a project to oral history about local naval families in their spare time. . “It is our duty to capture this little-known history for future generations.”

Everywhere there are signs of the next generation taking the helm. To Angie’s Bakery, Ken Garcia Olaes took over the bakery from his uncle — during a pandemic, no less — and gave the 32-year-old business a buzz of energy and a designer aesthetic. As a chef baker, Olaes creates everything from spiral buns (ensaymada) with traditional bread rolls (pandesel). Its handcrafted ube lattes (flavored with purple yam) are a cult favorite. “I’m an artist even when I’m not drawing,” he says. “And it’s not just what comes out of the oven. It’s about the whole sensory experience, from the aroma when you walk in to the way our products are presented.

At another Virginia Beach mall, just south of Naval Air Station Oceana, Emma Dizon prepares for the Sunday brunch rush at her restaurant, Only at Renee’s. As I wait for my takeout order, she hands me a speckled blue plate lined with a square-cut banana leaf on which rest five perfectly rolled lumpia.

“I want street food to look as good as it tastes,” says the Fashion Institute of Technology grad and New York transplant. She uses fresh ingredients and her grandmother’s recipes. “Here, we make everything by hand, except the longganisa [sausage], which my father makes in New York and brings to me,” says Dizon. “Making food with love is what I saw in my grandmother’s restaurant in Pampanga and in my mother’s restaurant in Queens.”

And now here he is in Virginia Beach. A culture captured in a lumpia roll: well adapted to diverse environments, its essence unchanged.

Filipino American writer Norie Quintos is a National Geographic editor based in Alexandria, Virginia. Follow her on instagram.


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