Many Filipino Immigrants Are Dropping Anchor in Oxnard


Window-shop at one commercial strip in south Oxnard and you will find things from a world away: purple yam cakes . . . Tagalog karaoke CDs . . . newspapers from Manila.

The economic heart of the local Philippine American community, the strip mall at Yucca Street and Saviers Road, reflects a growth spurt in the 1990s, when more Filipinos moved to Ventura County than any other Asian group.

“If there’s any place where a lot of Filipinos go, it’s there,” said Tony V. Grey, 63, a retired Navy man who is chairman of the Filipino American Council.


Myda Garcia and her husband, along with two other couples, started the Pilipinas Bakery two decades ago. They have fed generations of Philippine Americans such favorites as shrimp with jackfruit in coconut milk. They play crooning, romantic “kundiman” songs as a backdrop to the exchange of gossip and news.

Back when the bakery opened, all three families lived in the College Estates development. So many Philippine American families lived in the stucco bungalows of nearby San Juan Avenue that the area earned the nickname “Little Manila.”

At the time, all three husbands were in the Navy. Philippine Americans in uniform are still a common sight at the business center at Saviers Road and Yucca Street--which includes the Oriental Mini Mart, the Little Manila Restaurant, the Oriental Spa, the Sing Along Plus karaoke studio, and an outlet for sending money to the Philippines.

The Philippine American community sprawls about a mile south, east and west of the commercial strip, including pockets such as College Estates and San Juan Avenue. This census tract is 27% Asian--and most of that is Philippine American, say community leaders.

Almost 9,000 Philippine Americans live in Oxnard. In recent years, many have left the southern part of the city to buy expensive homes in north Oxnard and Camarillo, only to be replaced in their old neighborhoods by new immigrants.

Only 193 Philippine Americans lived in Oxnard 30 years ago, and they gathered for parties and other events with the help of a club called the Filipino Community of Ventura County. Now more than 15,500 Philippine Americans live in the county, and support 22 clubs organized around themes from entertainment to mixed marriages.

Ventura County’s Philippine American community is tiny compared with neighboring Los Angeles County, with 101,000 residents. California overall has 918,000 Philippine Americans, according to the 2000 census.

Most Philippine Americans in Ventura County can trace their presence in south Oxnard to a family member who was employed, often as a clerk or cook, at the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, said John Obispo, the president of the Filipino American Military Retired group.

Filipinos were allowed to join the Navy under an arrangement developed after the U.S. took control of the islands during the Spanish-American War. For years, however, they could hold only menial jobs.

Hundreds of thousands took the opportunity to immigrate and, years later, act as sponsors for other family members. Many immigrants were professionals, and a large number were nurses. Most of Oxnard’s Philippine Americans hail from towns in the Philippines that are near U.S. naval bases.

The couples who founded the bakery come from the city of Cavite, site of a U.S. naval yard. They met in Oxnard and worked together to build the business.

“We would say, ‘We need $1,000 now, we have to buy a stove,’ and someone would come up with the money,” Garcia said.

Some immigrants--whose native country includes 7,100 volcanic islands and 80 dialects--learned to speak Tagalog only after arriving in Oxnard, so they could better communicate with compatriots.

On summer weekends, extended families hold picnics in College Estates Park. Religious holidays are celebrated at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church, which includes about 1,000 Philippine American families in its parish.

At Channel Islands High School, most Philippine Americans--who make up 15% of the student body--go to college, officials said.

Principal Peter Martinez said that Philippine Americans are well represented in honors classes and campus activities.

Leaders of clubs for nurses and retired Navy personnel said they are having trouble replenishing their numbers--and that is a sign of their children’s upward mobility.

Young Philippine Americans briefly attracted negative attention for gang violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Grey said. Police and community leaders held forums to educate parents on the threats of the American street. Youths were sent to live with relatives, sometimes as far away as the Philippines. Others were jailed. The gangs never came back as a significant force.

These days, a U.S.-born generation incorporates old-country traditions into south Oxnard lives.

Henry Garcia, 30, teaches the deadly Filipino martial art of kali to police officers and other students. Garcia said when he began teaching nearly 10 years ago, only natives of the Philippines had heard of kali, a martial art involving rattan sticks. The art was traditionally taught only in backyards, only to Filipinos, often only to relatives, he said.

But Garcia adapted kali to include Korean taekwondo. His students now come from varied ethnic backgrounds.

“I love to share my art with anybody,” he said.

Lew Soratorio Jr., whose father was a professional singer in the Philippines, tries to bring the passionate quality of Tagalog music to his R&B-funk; band, InnerVoices. Soratorio, 21, rarely sings in Tagalog, but said the ballads he grew up with color his songs.

Other traditions are passed on more formally. A debutante ball has introduced young women from Navy families to the community for 20 years. The debutantes and their escorts prepare for months, meeting with elders who train them in the subtleties of such rituals as a fan dance in which the angle of a girl’s fan signals interest.

Organizers said some pairings at the ball have lasted for life.