Combining equal parts of flour and butter, forming a blend of buttery brown colors and smooth, gooey, sticky textures, like the roux used in a gumbo, these textures defined my introduction to Carina Monica Montoya. As Carina shares her journey in finding meaning as a second generation Filipina American, a hybrid of Western and Eastern influences, her search for her identity became her books, written of her community’s history, memorializing the stories of her ancestors, as if packaging these time periods in a bottle, her own brand of roux. No longer hidden in the treasure chests of some dark places in a house’s basement, her writings about living in Historic Filipinotown comes alive, as vibrant and tasty as the cooking of gumbo with roux. Growing up there made her search for more depth by going into basements and attics of homes where buried photo collections were kept, disturbing the spider webs keeping them company. No longer. For now, they have gained a solid ally in Carina.

“ Only the New Orleans brand, and it has a specific red label, for without the roux, there is no gumbo. Are you going to pick it up? Do you have time? If not, I have to order it by mail from New Orleans! “, Carina declares in successive emails to me.

“ Roux is often made with fat or clarified butter. The fat is heated in a pot or pan, melting it if necessary, then the flour is added. The mixture is stirred until the flour is incorporated and then cooked until at least the point where a raw flour taste is no longer apparent and until desired color has been reached. The final results can range from the nearly white to the nearly black, depending on the length of time it is over the heat, and its intended use. The end result is a thickening and flavoring agent”. (Wikipedia. 2009 ).

I thought I was specific enough when it comes to cooking, as I keep precise tabs on what makes a good gumbo: crab claws, jumbo shrimps, fresh fish cubes, andouille sausage and okra. Carina beats me, for she knows the precise companion to her gumbo, a garlic spread made specifically for this meal by her lifelong partner since childhood, Steve: crushed garlic with parmesan cheese made into a paste and then spread on ficelle, roasted for a few minutes, but only the best ones found at La Maison du Pain in Pico and Ridgeley.

The rest is history, “ it was the best gumbo ever! “ and we clamored for an encore. And the last time we had it, not one, but probably three servings of gumbo was Nov. 2008, the Saturday right after the successful election of President Obama. Even the broth queued for take – home, aspiring to duplicate what Carina created. Well, that remains to be an aspiration! Certain things you just have to defer to the experts.

Deferring gumbo cooking to the expert became my precise introduction to Carina Monica Montoya, the author of “Filipinos in Hollywood”, and this month, Arcadia Publishing Co. introduces us to her second history book, “Filipinos in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown, with comprehensive stories of communities as they were formed. To rigorous academicians, they might regard Arcadia books as pictorial albums with extensive captions. They have since evolved to include essays. And more books about Filipinos are being published: Filipinos in Vallejo, Chicago, East Bay, Stockton, Los Angeles, Hollywood and Los Angeles’ Historic Filpinotown.

History is written from two perspectives: those who participated, and those who made them happen. The first book Carina wrote was from the perspective of Filipinos who participated in history, who lived, and who worked in Hollywood. Her second book was written from the perspective of those who organized and coordinated community events: a wedding, a book launching, a bike marathon, 100 year historical exhibit of Filipino American experiences in the United States courtesy of the Smithsonian, including volunteering activities at many non-profits in Historic Filipinotown: Filipino American Library, Filipino American Service Group Inc. and Search to Involve Filipino Americans.

The contemporary events’ relevance, and their familiarity are the second book’s strength. It allows one to gain an appreciation of the breadth and depth of community building activities by Filipino immigrants and Filipino Americans within Los Angeles mainstream communities.

Just like what a roux does for gumbo, giving a certain finish, giving its sheen, giving its sateeny feel to the tongue, a richness to one’s palate. This is what her second book feels to me, a richness from the photos she compiled from many sources, including those who worked and engaged in these communities. Growing up in Historic Filipino-town, Carina presents the communities as they emerged, patiently finding those photos that tell a story of their beginnings, their bitter end in some cases, but also an audacious rebirth.

With the first book, Filipinos in Hollywood, we were introduced to a trove of vintage photos, never before seen by the readers, except by the families who kept them as treasures. Carina’s second book, Filipinos in Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown, was embraced by many Fil-Am community members who shared their photos to flesh out a story of a community formed through hard work, formed from seeking a respite from hostile acts of overt discrimination, and socializing to gain a sense of belonging in a distant country, some 2000 miles away from the Philippines, where the pioneering Filipinos were born.

Later, these communities were challenged by gentrification, moves of families displaced community centers, unraveling lives, yet managed to retain their safety nets, through various associations who generously shared resources with families as they relocated west and south, from Bunker Hill to Temple and Beaudry to now Temple/Beverly Corridor. Now these communities are perhaps boldy memorialized by Carina’s second book and by a sign “ Historic Filipinotown, “ and perhaps, the “historical” part of the designation would be dropped as irrelevant, as a more vibrant, multiethnic, integrated community blooms.

I am writing not just about gumbo, but of Carina’s search for her roux, and in the process, proudly co-authors with world renowned artist/muralist Eliseo Art Silva, a series of children’s cook books targeting ages between 8-12 to be published later this year. The intent is to keep Filipino culture alive by passing on our native food recipes to current and future Filipino American generations, in the spirit of preserving Filipino heritage and culture.

There is nothing like smelling a home-cooked gumbo made by our master chef and sitting down after the combined smell of garlic, seafood, fish, crabs and roux make for a coming-home moment for all seated at the dining table. The feelings of affection and family bonding through cooking meals and family dinners are identifying traits amongst Filipinos. Further, Filipino palates are discriminating filters of what they consider world-class food tastes. Just check out the bloggers and their blogs on Los Angeles’ favorite food spots, and majority are Filipino Americans, though some are French as well. Even the biggest fan club of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations featured in Travel Channel are predominantly Filipinos and Filipino Americans.

And in Carina’s search for her roux, she too joins her other kababayans in describing her passion for food but also her own and her community’s story.

She and her brother were raised by grandparents they adopted - - an elderly retired couple from New Orleans that lived next door - - while her mother worked, and they taught her the Creole way of cooking. Carina learned not just gumbo, but also jambalaya and how to make corn bread from scratch.

While other kids learned sports, soccer or baseball, Carina learned to be a chef of Creole foods. And her dabbling in food led her to dabble in writing. She wrote articles for The Lighthouse, a weekly newspaper of Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme. She also learned the craft of screenwriting at Learning Tree University, as well as reading and editing film and television scripts of professional screenwriters, and eventually developing her own screenplays – - one having been once seriously considered by HBO - - under the teaching and guidance of a friend to Jack Nicholson, John Herman Shaner, whose last creative work-product was The Last Married Couple in America.

Carina’s childhood was not easy. Her father became ill when she was just an infant, leaving her mom to fend for her and her brother. Carina recalls one bus ride to her piano lessons. She was just 9 years old. And not knowing where she was, she managed a phone call to her mother, and her only landmark was the Western Exterminator’s pest control sign. Of course, she was found, thanks to the help from folks in the neighborhood who allowed her to make a phone call, and thanks to a mother who struggled to balance work and family. But important to her family’s survival was the generous help from Filipino American Associations of which they belonged that helped its members in time of need, such as, when her father’s illness resulted in his death and the Filipino associations assisted in funeral expenses. Just as our ancestors broke out of the society’s imposed box of isolation, Carina and her family too found their safety net in the Filipino churches and organizations that were part of the community.

Just as these Filipino organizations represented blood lines, camaraderie, security, Carina’s book on Los Angeles’ Historic Filipinotown animates the vibrancy of these areas while she grew up there, raised by her mom and the community of Filipinos and other ethnic groups who made it a safe home for all!


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