Facing crisis in homeland, Filipinos in Central Valley take action

DELANO, Calif. — By 4:30 a.m. the line was out the door at the tiny Fil Bake Shop. Farmworkers were picking up pandesal — Filipino sweet bread — for another day in the fields.

Lourdes Talactac chirped "good morning" and asked customers "How many breads?" in English, Spanish or Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines. It was like other mornings, but somehow different, she said this week.

Desperation in the Philippines, devastated by one of the strongest storms ever to hit land, is growing. The cries for help resonate deeply in California, home to 1.5 million Filipino Americans, and in this Central Valley town north of Bakersfield in particular.

Delano, population 52,000, is where Filipino workers staged the first grape strike in 1965, later teaming with Cesar Chavez. A third of the town is Filipino, and most residents have family and property in the islands.

"We're here this morning, but all of us are really over there in our minds," said Talactac, whose family home in Bohol was damaged by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on Oct. 15. She was already sending money to island neighbors put out of work by that disaster.

"What do we do?" she said. "We have to do something."

The bakery is the center of Delano's Filipino community. It was much quieter than usual, Eusebio Del Rosario said as he squeezed rows of cream cheese on pastry for Filipino ladyfingers. The chatter and laughter were missing.

"Mostly we just keep it to ourselves and pray for them," he said.

Tessie Patricio started the bakery 32 years ago. She hasn't changed her prices — six sweetbreads for a dollar — since the day she opened.

"We are working for the sake of these people — they can't afford to pay more," said Patricio, 67. "And to give the Filipino people a place to come for their breads in the morning."

Jan Allianic, a retired prison official, said that after the typhoon, she spent two days crying, glued to the Filipino cable channel. Then she went to the bakery.

"I thought, 'This is too big. We're going to need a center point and it will be Tess,'" she recalled.

Patricio was considering setting out a tub for donations. But she was hesitant.

She was sure the farmworkers, both Filipino and Mexican, would give money, "but some of them can't afford to lose that $1 or even 25 cents."

She was also sure the Filipino landscapers, nurses and agricultural managers who come a couple of hours later in the morning would donate. "But these people are already sending money home every month and they send a little to their children at college," she said.

The usual routine — because natural disasters are not uncommon in the islands — would be for everyone to simply send money directly to someone they knew who was affected.

But this time there are bodies in the streets and unprecedented misery.

"We're going to have to come together. We're going to have to do something bigger," Patricio said.

Patricio had been reading up on nongovernmental organizations, private charities and the Philippines' reputation for public corruption, trying to decide whom to trust with donations.

"This is an agricultural community. We are used to hard work, living from day to day. We can manage to give more," she said. "But it cannot go to waste."

Patricio came from the Philippines as a young woman with a degree in education. But in those days, Filipinos were treated as second-class citizens. The male laborers by contract were not allowed to marry or own property.

Patricio picked grapes. When the labor clashes started, she was locked out of work and scrambled to survive by stringing together part-time jobs. Then she had the idea to open a bakery.

A circle of friends pitched in money and various expertise — bookkeeper, baker, carpenter — to start Fil Bake Shop in the same building where it still stands, just off Highway 99.

By dawn, most of the farmworkers were in the fields that surround the town. It was the last of the table grape harvest and the leaves on the vines were already turning the color of rust and beginning to curl.

The day's second wave of customers were picking up pastries for their offices or trucks in the field. They were on their way to work, so conversations were to the point: "Have you heard from family?"

"Everybody's alive. They're surviving," Andy Alfeche told a friend.

Alfeche has family in Bohol and Cebu. He had already wired $500 and booked a flight for the Philippines in two weeks.

"I have to see for myself," he said.

Tony Cena, a field worker for 45 years, said his wife, Daisy, had been in the Philippines for a nursing conference and left Manila the day of the typhoon.

"She said the plane was shaking for 15 minutes when they flew past the storm. I didn't know if they canceled the flight. When I saw her in the airport at LAX, I was very happy. Very," he said ducking his head, hiding his eyes.

David De Guzman, 49, said when he came home last week, his landlord asked, "Did you see what happened?"

"His eyes were all bugged out. I thought, 'He just doesn't know how much death and destruction you see growing up over there,'" he said. "Our philosophy is just to enjoy your life. If you can, do a little good. But don't count on tomorrow."

But Guzman, a self-employed carpenter, was shocked when he watched the footage. What shook him the most were the broken coconut trees strewn everywhere.

"Coconut trees don't break. Sometimes they come up by the roots, but they never break," he said.

Normally, he shies away from fundraisers because he has never seen housing built for the poor after other disasters in the Philippines, he said.

"But 50 cents goes a mile in the Philippines," he said. "If the bakery accepts donations I'll give everything I can and hope I see houses."

Board members of the Filipino Community of Delano directed donations to the Red Cross after the California State Assembly listed it as a suggested organization. Patricio and her workers gave $500. VBZ Grapes, a

local grower, pledged $100,000.

Thursday morning, Patricio put a Red Cross donation box on the counter in front of trays of vanilla bread, lumpias and ladyfingers.

"The Filipino way is to keep worries inside," she said. "But it is right this time to tell all the people we are needing a little support."

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