Mabuhay Mural unveiled | Photo courtesy of Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts

FILIPINO organizations, businesses, artists, local elected officials, and community leaders unveiled a new mural on the southeast corner of 69th Street and Roosevelt Avenue known as “Little Manila” on Friday, June 12. The ceremony extended its appreciation to Filipino businesses and healthcare workers risking their lives on the front lines of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The ceremony began with community health worker and leader, Sockie Laya Smith honoring people we have lost due to COVID-19 complications.

“Mabuhay to their spirits that inspired us to be the best of ourselves and to contribute our gifts to serve the community and humanity. For the transnational people of Philippines ancestry who make up [a] huge sector of the global health system. Our gathering will keep reminding the world of the skills, dedication, and the self-sacrifice demanded of healthcare workers so humanity may be healed—specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Laya Smith said. “This is to remember them as human beings—not simply as a labor percentage, a deceased statistic, or an immigration number. We thank you, say thy name. Mabuhay!”

She then proceeded to start naming Filipino healthcare workers around the world who died from COVID-19, from a list compiled by the Kanlungan Memorial Project.

“Little Manila” is considered one of the largest concentrations of Filipino businesses located in NYC and historically has been a common crossroads for immigrants to the area.  About two dozen people witnessed the unveiling in person, as well as viewing virtually online. While being aware of social distancing, people gathered at the mural wall shared by the restaurant Amazing Grace which faces the Q47 Bus Stop and underneath the 7 train’s 69th Street Subway station.

The mural resides at the busy intersection, functioning as both a welcome sign and art to beautify the neighborhood. It has the color combination of sunshine yellow with glistening traces of gold, hues of green growth and the sampaguita (or jasmine) flower flourishing from the background of blue, with the prominently-displayed “Mabuhay,” a Philippine expression that has many meanings: cheers, welcome, may you live.

For more than 10 years, there had been attempts to have a Philippine mural in the Little Manila neighborhood. This was an effort to finally achieve that goal, and to also enact creative placekeeping to represent the values of the Filipino community.

Painted by Princes ‘Diane’ De Leon, Ezra Undag, Hannah Cera, Jaclyn Reyes, and Xenia Diente, the visual vocabulary is rooted in the history and landscape of the Philippines. The typography is based on lettering found on the iconic jeepneys; the illustration style of the plants is based on Malay batik design from Mindanao, Indonesia, and Malaysia; the gold in the linework is an homage to goldsmith artistry of precolonial Philippines.

In front of the mic stand, stood a handmade street sign in green with white lettering, “Little Manila.”

Owners of Amazing Grace restaurant. | Photo courtesy of Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts

Two youth leaders, Princes ‘Diane’ De Leon and Hannah Cera, emceed the unveiling ceremony together as they gave their personal testimonies. De Leon is the daughter of Mary Jane and Efren De Leon, the owners of Amazing Grace Restaurant and Bakery; Cera is the daughter of Brenda and Raul Cera, who also work at the restaurant. Amazing Grace was one of three Filipino restaurants open at the height of the crisis in Little Manila when most businesses were closed. As a business that opened only in November 2019, the De Leon and Cera families worked to keep the restaurant running, while also working as health care workers in Manhattan and in Queens, including Elmhurst Hospital—at one point, the epicenter of the NYC pandemic—and Flushing Hospital. Diane, a graduating high school senior, and Hannah, a high school junior, worked alongside their parents and the reduced staff to stay open for the community.
Several community members shared their personal involvement in the neighborhood and the significance of the location.

For Joe Castillo, growing up nearby, he has seen first hand the area go through many changes. His parents opened up Phil-Am Food Mart in 1976, and during that time there were only two Filipino stores.

“It’s very rare that you see this many Filipinos all in one place… I’ve been to other Filipino communities all over the country — California, Jersey City—but the Woodside community is very special. We all come together. We all support each other. All these businesses would not be thriving if it weren’t for one another, so there’s no competition. Everybody shops at all these different places… And it’s true: all ships rise with the tide of everyone’s support. To see something beautiful like this [the mural] in the neighborhood, it’s been special for me personally and I’m actually very much honored to be a part of this today,”  he said.

Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts, a year-long project supported by The Laundromat Project’s Create Change Program, seeks to create public art installations and interventions through December 2020 in Woodside, Queens.

Artists-in-Residence Xenia Diente and Jaclyn Reyes set out to partner with local businesses and explore the immigrant experience, putting Little Manila in dialogue with nearby immigrant communities from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and South America. During the COVID-19 crisis, they pivoted their efforts to address the needs of the moment and the community.

June 12 is Philippine Independence Day, and the timing of the mural unveiling also signifies the completion of the Meal To Heal Initiative, a project led by Little Manila Queens Bayanihan Arts in partnership with the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns Northeast (NAFCON-NE), and collectively fundraised with the help of Filipino American National Historical Society Metro NY (FANHSMNY) that sought to mutually aid Filipinos at predominantly Queens-based, immigrant-owned businesses and healthcare facilities throughout NYC. Every delivery was organized to deepen ties and enact social cohesion between Philippine businesses, healthcare workers, residents, activists, and volunteers.

Through their efforts, 300+ meals were delivered from April through June.
The ceremony opened up remarks about what the community had endured. Michael Vaz, Executive Director of Woodside on the Move, who affirmed “the work [the Filipino community has] done during the pandemic,” acknowledged the collective loss and the importance of unity. New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), not present at the event, extended their support in this historic moment in time, saying, “This mural gives us hope—it’s a reminder that we are seen, we are united, we are essential, and we are alive to care for each other one more day.”

Council Member of District 26 Jimmy Van Bramer offered gratitude to the efforts behind the mural stating, “Woodside is more beautiful today than it was yesterday.” Standing in front of the handmade “Little Manila” street sign, he asked the crowd “shouldn’t we have a street name ‘Little Manila?’”—pointing to years of on-the-ground discussion and efforts by community leaders and activists to officially mark the Philippine enclave. He ended by stating, “I’m telling you today as your Council Member, we will rename the street ‘Little Manila’ and make this happen once and for all.”

The sunny celebratory afternoon ended with a group photo and certificates of appreciation signed by community leaders given out to the participating neighborhood restaurants namely: Amazing Grace Restaurant and Bakery, Ihawan, Baby’s Grill & Restaurant, Tito Rad’s Grill, Phil-Am Food Mart, Kabayan Grill, Kabayan Turo-Turo, Ihawan, Woldy Kusina, Rosario’s Ihawan, Renee’s Kitchenette, and Papa’s Kitchen.

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