Telling the Fil-Am Story in the (818)
Community historian Joe Bernardo is valley born and raised. His parents immigrated from the Philippines in 1970s, setting up roots in Northridge. At that time, they were the first people of color in the neighborhood. They moved to Calabsas in the early 90s where he attended Calabasas High School. The family eventually found their way back to Northridge.
Joe comments during our interview at Barclay’s: “I’ve pretty much lived in the valley all my life, except for the times when I had to go to school.” In college, he took classes in ethnic studies—with the goal of being a professor–and joined the Filipino/Filipino-American club on campus. He was influenced by his cousin who was part of the Filipino American Student Association at Cal State Northridge where he would hang while still in high school.
An alumnus of the University of California, Santa Barbara, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Global and International Studies, Asian American Studies. He pursued his passion for history in ethnic studies by graduating with a master’s degree in Asian American Studies from San Francisco State University, as well as a Ph.D. in History from the University of Washington.
Throughout his career, Joe involved heavily with community projects from managing city and community infrastructure—the Filipino WII Veterans Memorial, Historic Filipino Town banner project to working as a policy analyst for Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. He also acted as a liaison between Mayor’s office and organizations such as the Search To Involve Pilipino Americans (SIPA), a non-profit organization in Historic Filipino town.
He currently works at Loyola Marymount University as the Director of DEI Capacity Building and as an adjunct professor teaching APAM 4453: Filipino American Experience in the Asian and Asian Pacific American Studies Department.
His training, education, and experience with community involvement led him to his current project: documenting Filipinos/Filipino Americans in the San Fernando Valley.
“There’s this publishing company called Arcadia Publishing. They basically do this series called Images of America. Different authors have many books through that publishing company, specifically looking at a particular community. So they’ve done Filipino Americans on Carson, Japanese Americans in Little Tokyo. They’ve done a lot of Filipino books—Filipinos in Los Angeles, Historic Filipino town, Filipinos in Hawaii, etc. I just felt like there’s a need for a separate book for Filipinos in the San Fernando Valley. There’s one with Filipinos in Los Angeles and it covers most of LA county, but it doesn’t really talk about the valley that much. And so me being a trained historian and just through the people that I know and connections of connections of connections of connections,” shares Joe.
He wrote the proposal for this project during the summer but has plans to start his research in January of 2023. The project will look at the Filipino/Filipino American migration to the San Fernando Valley, documenting the kind of culture that developed as well as capturing places.
“There’s a lot of folklore and oral history of these things and I want to kind of get it on the written word. I want to get it down on paper so it’s kind of archived. That’s really what it is to archive our history and to let folks know that we are here in the valley and to see what culture developed and how we shaped the valley and how the valley shaped our culture. There’s a perception about the valley. First of all, lily white—it was an old prevalent depiction of the valley and it was in the 50s up until the 70s the 80s. It was pretty much restricted to like —you know. There were pockets like Pacoima, San Fernando was always like people of color. But the valley was always perceived as lily white, as a place where people kind of assimilate into suburbia and “nothingness”. Suburbia has its own connotations as being boring and bland and all that stuff. But I think, especially in the 70s and 80s, suburbia, as a whole, has been very much diversified. That diversity has changed what suburbia means. There’s just a rejection about the valley historically and I’ve always felt that growing up.”
In undertaking this project, Joe hopes to change perceptions about the valley as well as understand how Filipinos make and create their own world within suburbia. He also hopes that events don’t fade into obscurity like the murder of Joseph Ileto in Chatsworth over 20 years ago. And mostly because it is personal.
“It’s my community, it’s who I am. It’s where I grew up, and not a lot of people know about the valley. There’s just so much rich history that has never been documented. I remember growing up there would be stories—where the shell station on Roscoe next to the 170, that’s where all the racers would gather before going to wherever illegal drag racing. Those are stories that no one knows about, and no one is going to make a movie about it unless we become billionaires and we can afford to produce a movie like that. This shaped my life and therefore should be part of the San Fernando Valley tapestry.”
He hopes that his project inspires Filipino Americans to organize in the San Fernando Valley. When he looks to the future, he hopes to create some change in the community: “I want to make the valley a better place instead of just escaping and finding something easier. Given my passions and what I want to do, I want more Filipino Americans to be organized here in the valley. I want there to be more of a voice of Filipino Americans in the valley; not just culture wise but also politically. One day, there will be a FilAm Council Member on the City Council. Just having an organized voice to address the needs to Filipinos in the valley.”