This city never ceases to blow me away.
Just when I think I must've done it all, seen it all, and lived it all, I come across something that's completely new to me—and shows me LA in a totally new light.
I need these times to remind me that there's still so much to learn and do here. There are still layers to peel back. There are still corners and basements and tunnels and crawlspaces.
And sometimes, there are discoveries to be made right there, out in the open.
Last year, my friend Robert put together an excursion to take a ride on something called a "jeepney" through Historic Filipinotown. At the time, it seemed quite mysterious—a vintage, military-grade jeep that had been painted and otherwise decked out and was now being used as some kind of shuttle. Despite my intrigue, I showed up just a few moments late and literally missed the bus.
So, over a year later, I put together my own excursion on a jeepney through Historic Filipinotown, a city-recognized district that I'd driven through and been next door to several times, but didn't know much about. The non-profit Pilipino Workers Center supports the Filipino community in LA—the city's largest and perhaps least visible Asian population—and conducts the jeepney tours to educate about Filipino history in LA as well as its current cultural impact.
With Aqui, the PWC Executive Director, behind the wheel and Emi, the PWC Communications Director, riding shotgun, we set off on our hour-long tour—using the wind as our air conditioning, each other as seat belts...
...and our arms as turn signals.
The PWC just has one jeepney—a 1944 Sarao jeep from the Philippines that had been in storage in Seattle. It's one of seven jeepneys in the United States, though they're not all as authentic as this one. (It doesn't count if it was built as a jeepney.) They're in such limited supply because it's actually illegal to import vehicles into the United States unless they were made before 1950.
What makes the funny shuttle a "jeepney" isn't just the fact that it's a jeep that's been turned into a jitney. It's the way that it's been hand-painted and ornamented—which is unlike any other public transport system (at least in LA).
It makes the vehicles utterly unmistakable—though they're pretty hard to miss anyway, given their slow speed (usually around 30 mph, though it could probably do 50), roaring engine, and blaring horns.
Pedestrians and fellow motorists felt compelled to wave as we passed. One women called out to us as we pulled up to her at a red light, "I thought I was in the Philippines for a second!"
Historic Filipinotown (or "HiFi," as the hipsters have started calling it) has become home to a burgeoning community of muralists and street art—particularly those in the alleys of The Gabba Arts District—but there's one particular mural in Unidad Park that depicts over 5000 years of Filipino and Filipino American history, the largest of its kind in the nation.
Originally unveiled in 1995, it tells the story of the Philippines' colonial history starting in the 1500s with the Spanish explorers, leading up to its independence in 1946, and through emigration to the United States, the fight for farm workers' rights with Cesar Chavez, and all the way up to the present-day jeepney tours.
The fight for workers' rights is far from over—which makes the PWC so essential. Following the Civil Rights Era, when Filipinos could no longer be barred from commercial establishments, any discriminatory behavior had to slither its way underground. If you wanted to limit the civil rights of, say, black people and Filipinos, you'd put restrictions on the occupations they were most likely found in—in this case, home care providers and farm workers.
Even today, home care providers in the state of California don't receive mandatory lunch breaks or rest periods. Even when they provide live-in residential care, and are on-call pretty much 24/7, they only get paid for eight hours of work—no overtime.
The money the PWC makes off the jeepney tours, then, helps fund their efforts in education, advocacy, and campaigning for policy reform—specifically, the acceptance of the California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights and, as they say, "to eliminate discriminatory provisions in the labor code and grant domestic workers basic rights that other California workers gain through collective bargaining."
It's hard to believe that in 2016, this is still an issue. But I guess we're a long way from making widespread social justice a reality. So, sound the horn, I say! It's important to remember, though, that while every step forward is progress, it's not a promise—minds can change, and legislation can be repealed.
I thought I was just going to take a wacky ride through a tiny, largely ignored area of LA on a sunny Saturday afternoon—and it was fun, for sure. But I'm glad that there was a greater purpose to it. History can often be ugly to face, but it's important that we do, so that we don't repeat it.
PWC Hi Fi Jeepney from Public Matters on Vimeo.
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