For Filipinos, the sight of a jeepney darting past Temple and Alvarado may conjure certain sense memories of riding in the back of one: the sun’s heat emanating from the metal roof, the glint of stainless steel amid gaudy painted colors, the smell of diesel fumes billowing from the back, jerry-rigged speakers blasting OPM (Original Pilipino Music) hits, the taste of garlic peanuts sold to you through the window from a street vendor.
The iconic vehicle is a symbol of Filipino culture, easily recognizable by its distinctive Willys-Overland front-end, elongated body, and decorative flourishes. First introduced after World War II from surplus U.S. military jeeps extended to hold more passengers, jeepneys (a portmanteau of “jeep” and “jitney”) functioned as an inexpensive form of public transportation. Eventually they became ubiquitous and evolved to be ever more extravagant - embodying the personality of the driver, proselytizing certain religious convictions, or celebrating popular culture - in order to differentiate from other independently owned and operated carriers. The jeepney, therefore, represents equal parts utility and creativity, and anyone who has ever ridden one knows that it is a singular experience.
Nostalgia, however, isn’t the primary goal of the Pilipino Workers’ Center’s Jeepney Tour through Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown (aka HiFi). According to PWC’s executive director, Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, “We need more visibility. Historic Filipinotown a lot of times looks like kind of anywhere in Los Angeles. You don’t know you’re in Historic Filipinotown like you know you’re in Chinatown or Little Tokyo. Like the Filipino people, too, we’re the largest Asian population in California now, but we’re not as visible. So we created the tour to create more visibility of our culture and our issues.”
One issue facing HiFi is the dwindling population of Filipinos. As reported in KCET’s Neighborhood Notes blog, Filipinos comprise only 25% of the neighborhood’s 25,000 residents. The growing Latino population (now at 60%), the lure of Filipino-heavy suburban communities, and ongoing gentrification have made HiFi more of a symbol of the Southland’s Filipino populace rather than an actual ethnic enclave.
In this sense, the jeepney is an apt metaphor for the district. In the Philippines, higher fuel prices, tighter regulations, and expanding public transportation options – including electric versions of the jeepney - have slowly eroded the vehicle's preeminence (though it is still the most popular mode of transportation in the Philippines). As a result, many jeepney manufacturers have gone out of business over the past decades. It would seem the iconic vehicles, like HiFi itself, are struggling to remain more than just symbols in a shifting world.
However, Sarao Motors, an early pioneer in the domestic jeepney manufacturing industry, has managed to stay alive. The nearly 70-year-old company customized the jeepney used in the PWC tour from an original 1944 Willys-Overland model. It was shipped from the Philippines to a couple in Washington State in the 1970’s and recently sold on eBay to Soriano-Versoza’s husband. It couldn’t be more fitting that it ended up in Historic Filipinotown, lending flair to the PWC’s important advocacy work and highlighting a community and a place often overlooked, but still thriving.
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Text by Oliver Saria / Video by Form follows Function
marcus fischer / mapmap.ch
Manila / LA Field Recordings by Joel Quizon
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