Filipinos try to leave their cultural mark on Los Angeles

In or near this cosmopolitan city, there is a thriving Little Tokyo, Chinatown, Little Saigon, and Koreatown - some of them hot spots for night life or tourism, some of them hotbeds of ground-floor, mom-and-pop, bootstrapping capitalism.

But where is Filipino Town, or Little Manila? Where is the heart of America's fastest-growing Asian ethnic community, an immigrant group both long established and surpassed in the 1970s only by Mexicans in the number of new US arrivals?

There is none - to the frustration of Filipinos who seek some recognition and community for the Filipino population in the United States.

Even though Filipinos have had a presence in one decaying neighborhood just west of downtown Los Angeles for more than half a century, this is an ethnic group where the center has never been able to hold.

''We have a problem to be recognized like the Japanese or the Koreans,'' says Oscar Jornacion, publisher of a biweekly Filipino newspaper, the California Examiner.

The Philippine Islands have provided a quiet immigration since the 1920s, when Filipinos supplied farm labor to California growers. Since World War II, Filipino immigrants have been mostly professionals and US Navy men. The influx of middle-class immigrants has stepped up in recent years as the Philippine economy decays under the Marcos regime.

By 1980, the Census Bureau counted more than 1.5 million Filipinos in the US, 40 percent of them in California, and almost half of those in the Los Angeles area.

But the far-flung Filipinos have never had a commercial and cultural center they could call their own.

Some Filipinos want to change that. Filipinas Plaza, a tiny but immaculate shopping center in a deteriorating neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles, is what a coterie of Filipino civic leaders and entrepreneurs hope will become the commercial hub of an official Filipino Town.

Filipinos have settled here between Temple Street and Beverly Boulevard since the 1920s. Even here, the Filipino presence is as obvious as the Latino, but fresh Filipino immigrants often come here first, before dispersing to the suburbs.

''We need the benefit of recognition - a monument to the Filipino contributions to American life,'' says Connie Guerrero, director of Filipino-American Services Group (FASG), the organization spearheading the effort to create a Filipino Town.

''We have sentimental ties here,'' explains Remedios Geaga, FASG chairwoman, of the Temple-Beverly district. ''This place is dear to us.''

This ambition for a place on the American cultural map runs counter to a Filipino tendency to disperse.

Centuries of foreign domination of the Philippines have made Filipinos good minglers.

Thanks to Teddy Roosevelt, the Philippines have an American-built school system where English is the first language. And some Filipinos still speak Spanish, thanks to King Philip of Spain, who conquered the islands in the 16th century.

Middle-class Filipino immigrants can usually find jobs with American companies, so they don't need to build entrepreneurial enclaves of their own - as Korean and Vietnamese immigrants are doing.

And if Filipinos find little to pull them together, they find much to pull them apart. Filipino organizations in this country are a mine field of political factionalism - chiefly divided over Philippine President Marcos. Sebastian Catarroja, editor of the California Examiner, lightheartedly describes Filipino groups multiplying like amoebas - by continually splitting in half.

''Filipinos are politically very narrow-minded,'' says Mr. Catarroja. ''They take their politics very seriously. They take it personally. . . . I was born there, and I still can't understand that mentality.''

With local government, says Mrs. Guerrero, who was acting director of Los Angeles County's Asian-Pacific Community Relations Program until she retired, ''the impression is that we are so divided they don't want to touch us with a 10 -foot pole.''

Filipinos have proposed an official Filipino town to the city of Los Angeles off and on for years, futilely. All culture and sentiment aside, the crux of official status is getting community redevelopment status, where local taxes are invested directly into development projects in the area.

In the meantime, businessmen have begun developing a commercial center for a Filipino neighborhood on their own.

Dan Alura found the piece of real estate where Filipinas Plaza now sits in 1972. A recent immigrant, he was working for Transamerica Title and looking to strike out on his own. He rented a tiny, dilapidated beauty shop, fixed it up, and turned it into a thriving Filipino grocery market.

Mr. Alura made contact with other Filipino businessmen and convinced them that the property around his little market could become a Filipino nucleus - ''something we can call our own,'' he says.

Now two neat rows of Filipino businesses make a right-angle pocket to the corner. Mrs. Guerrero, Mrs. Geaga, the architect and planner Gene Icasiano, and the shopkeepers are frequently in and out of one anothers' shops and offices making plans for the early December street festival to celebrate the launching of Filipino Town.

Filipinas Associates is now trying to finance a seven-story office building next door to the shopping center.

Mr. Alura sits at a desk in front of his market, where four different business cards introduce him, respectively, as owner of his store, a life insurance sales consultant, a travel agent, and director of a realty and construction company. ''When I started here, this was a very poor area,'' he says. ''We have transformed it.''

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