Valerie J. Bower
We Are Essential
Food is the center of Filipino life and culture. The dining table is a social gathering place and, at a young age, we learn how to help in the kitchen. Since the 1900s, Filipinos have been immigrating to the U.S. West Coast as laborers, especially in the food and agriculture industry. In March 2020, at the beginning of the global pandemic and statewide stay-at-home order, California released a list of workers deemed as essential to critical infrastructure sectors. Keeping in mind the emphasis of food in Filipino culture and the history of Filipino laborers in the U.S., I wanted to highlight these oftentimes forgotten essential workers in the community.
To pay homage to the farmworkers and the Manongs of Central California in the 1920s-1970s, I also drove up to Delano to photograph the grape farms and historic Filipino Community Hall, where much of the 1965 Delano Grape Strike organizing took place. The hall also served as a kitchen, where Filipino and Mexican farmworkers cooked and ate together, bonding over food. I photographed importer & distributor Philippine FoodTrade, Tambuli Market and some of the last remaining Filipino farmworkers of Orosi, who came down to Historic Filipinotown to sell vegetables. Filipinos are community-oriented, so I found and documented essential volunteer work being done by the Filipino Migrant Center and Bebot restaurant. They came together to cook meals and deliver groceries to elderly members of the Filipino community, free of charge during this pandemic.
Through this work, I hope to honor the Filipino workers of the past and present, who are essential in providing us with the familiar foods we need to thrive and remain connected to Filipino culture.
Mahalaga tayo! Kailangan natin ang pagkain para tayo ay mabuhay! We are essential! It’s important to eat, so we can live!
Valerie J. Bower (b. 1986) is a Los Angeles based photographer. Her dream-like, monochrome street photography shows a softer, feminine point of view on typically masculine themes and subjects. Focusing on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color), she documents various street cultures and everyday life, primarily in Los Angeles. She has also explored the influences of West Coast and lowrider culture in other parts of the U.S., Japan and Mexico. Her work includes a collection of self-published books, zines and other printed items such as letter writing and postcard sets. In 2017, Valerie's photography book Homegirls was archived into the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Jennelyn Tumalad: How have you been doing during these really uncertain and difficult times? What has been helping you stay creative and motivated?
Valerie J. Bower: It’s definitely been a rollercoaster of events and emotions! I’ve been doing ok, just trying my best to stay positive and busy in all of this. I have notebooks where I brainstorm ideas, write about things I’m learning about or want to know more about, and I use them to journal when I feel like I need to. At the beginning of the pandemic, I didn’t shoot anything because it’s not my first instinct when I’m trying to figure out how we’re going to live and pay bills. I was furloughed from my office job and my boyfriend was laid off in May. We would go on our daily walks around the neighborhood and I started bringing my cameras with me. That itself became a routine for me during this time. In isolation, I also had to think of new ways to create so I’ve been turning the cameras on ourselves too and we became the subjects. I have portraits of my boyfriend in our home and I took a few self-portraits, which I normally don’t do at all. So now it's turned into this series documenting our experience these past six months. I have over 300 photos I need to narrow down. Once I get an idea, I’ll stay stuck on it until I feel like it's complete. Right now, I’m enjoying working on new things and take the time to develop them into new projects.
JT: To create your piece, you fit in a drive up to Delano, Calif. where the heart of the United Farm Workers Movement was. Tell me about what it was like to go there and photograph these places with such deep history for Filpino American immigrants?
VJB: Before this project, I had very little knowledge about Filipino activist Larry Itliong, the Manongs, and their role in the Delano Grape Strike of 1965. I started to do some research, read articles and I watched a short documentary on PBS called The Delano Manongs. I barely got to minute one or two of the doc and I was already crying! I had to stop watching and call my mom. I was just overwhelmed with emotion seeing the faces of the farmers and listening to all the hardships and racism they faced just trying to make a living here, away from their homeland. I knew I had to pay homage to them with this project, so I rented a car and drove 210 miles up from Long Beach to Delano to shoot. With the tight deadline of the project, I wasn’t able to connect with any of the living Manongs or their descendants, but I really wanted to shoot the environment, the grape fields and the hall without anyone there. It was powerful to be there in person, in front of the hall reading the words “FILIPINO COMMUNITY” in big green painted letters. The building is historic. I had flash images of the farmworkers, Filipino and Mexican, going in and out of the hall, striking together. As I was taking photos, a few cars with elder Filipino men and women passed by and smiled at me. I felt like they were happy to see someone photographing the hall and acknowledging its importance. It’s an icon to the Filipino American community. Going to Delano became a pilgrimage for me to further understand our history as workers in California that dates back all the way to the 1900s.
JT: In addition to your drive to Delano, Calif., you also fit in five shoots across L.A. County to photograph the lives of Filipino American essential workers-- from Tambuli Market in Long Beach, Calif., to a newly created Filipino CSA Farmers Market in Historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles. Tell me about your experience during these shoots?
VJB: For the past six months, besides shooting at home or around my neighborhood, I haven’t been doing too much photography outside of that, so I’m grateful for this project with you because it forced me to dive into it fast. I’ve had to overcome my shyness, fear and lack of confidence that I’ve developed being at home so much. And it helped that everyone I met and photographed was very supportive and into the project. Like when I shot with Filipino food importer & distributor Philippine Foodtrade Corp. They invited me on the day of an employee’s birthday, which I didn’t know until I got there. So when all the catering showed up, the boss told me “See, this is why we wanted you to come today. Come eat!” It was so nice and I really felt that pinoy hospitality. That was a good kick-off to the rest of the shoots.
JT: Tell me about your process selecting the photos you wanted to include in your zine, as well as creating your layouts. What were you thinking about in your process, and what do you want your audience to feel from your work?
VJB: At first, I was organizing the zine per shoot I did, so all the market shots were together in one section and all the warehouse shots were together, etc., and every shot was going to be captioned. But I didn’t like the separation and I’m not used to doing captions, so I took those out, started over and scrambled all the pages so that everything is mixed and feels like one piece. The text toward the beginning is necessary to let you know what the project is about, but the images themselves should tell you what you need to know. I think there is more discussion and wonder when you’re not told exactly what an image is, and I didn’t want it to feel like a history book or a textbook. As far as selecting images, I have to look at each shoot and think about what I’m trying to say, then narrow it down to the images that illustrate my points best. In my zines, I like to include a lot of “b-roll” that help further tell the story, like the images of the social distancing signs, fruits, vegetables, stacks of corned beef cans, the religious icons I kept seeing everywhere and the signage from Filipino restaurants and markets. For people like me, who grew up going to markets like Seafood City and Tambuli with my mom, there is a sense of nostalgia and familiarity there. In the portraits, people are smiling and those pictures make me smile. I want those photos to remind the viewer of someone they might know, whether it’s a relative or a friend. I want Filipino-Americans to feel represented, and I also want non-Filipinos to get to know our people and culture a little more though this project.
JT: Mahalaga means essential in Tagalog and was the idea I approached you with at the beginning of this project. What would you say are essential characteristics of what it means to be Filipinx American?
VJB: It’s in our culture to pass down certain traditional values. We’re taught at a young age to be respectful, hospitable, caring, family & community-oriented and hardworking. I love all of those traits about Filipinos. That’s why we always have that family vibe when a big group of pinoys get together, even if we’re not related. One thing I am trying to break though is being too passive. In Filipino-American culture, it’s always emphasized that we need to “go with the flow” or not say anything in order to assimilate. There can be some positive sides to that because I pick my battles to minimize stress, but I have to find a balance so that I can be heard and stand up when something’s not right, instead of saying “it’s okay” and I’m really suffering inside. Photography and zines help me say what I want to say.
JT: What does For the Love of L.A. mean to you?
VJB: To me, it means love for all of L.A., all the neighborhoods and cities. I live in Long Beach, but I grew up in Wilmington, so I’m always about the Harbor Area. That’s why I wanted to include a lot of businesses down here with this project.
JT: Do you have any future projects that you'd like to share with us?
VJB: Besides releasing a hard copy version of this project, I’m not too sure, but I’m always making zines!