The Learning curve

Helping Fil-Ams discover themselves

Hawaii-born Lily Prijoles remembers that when she was growing up, she learned Filipino from her maternal grandmother Felisha Medina Marquez, who could speak English but deliberately spoke in her native tongue to make sure Lily learned the language. Felisha told Lily stories, taught her how to cook rice the traditional way—in a rice pot, not a rice cooker—and imparted a spirit of feminism. She also wanted Lily to be proud of her Filipino-American identity.

Lily could not but be familiar with Filipino food because her parents owned and managed Cristy’s, a successful Filipino restaurant in San Diego that was in business for 25 years. Her father first arrived in the United States as a Navy recruit from General Trias, Cavite; her mother, an education graduate of the University of Santo Tomas, joined him there after they got married.


It does not come as a surprise that this yearning to learn more about her identity brought Lily regularly to the Arkipelago Books: The Filipino Bookstore on 1010 Mission Street in San Francisco, as a film student at the Academy of Arts in the neighborhood. She came so often that she became friends with its longtime proprietor, Marie Romero. And when Romero decided to retire and sell the 20-plus-year-old Arkipelago for health reasons, Lily and two other Fil-Am friends, Ley Ebrada and Golda Sargento, were very interested.

Regular clients of the bookstore were relieved that it would continue to be a presence in the community. The new owners took over only last March.


Lily, who is operations manager, maintains a clear delineation of responsibilities with her co-owners. Ley is finance director and Golda, publishing director. There has been no need for clerical assistance during these early months as they have enjoyed help from interns who need credit hours for school.

What path will Arkipelago take under this new management? Lily, 38, is pleased that they are establishing connections with the San Francisco Public Library, which has a Filipino American Center, as well as with the public school system and public libraries that are all building a collection of multicultural books for the large Fil-Am community they serve. She cites the welcome requirement of the Ethnic Studies Program that students read a book from their country of origin or another country.

Echoing her own years of identity search, Lily says: “The children want to know who they are, to understand what they are all about. They relate better to characters who look like them. Reading about their culture allows them to dream….”

Dictionaries, children’s books, cookbooks, and Ambeth Ocampo’s pocket-sized history books have been the bestsellers. Foreigners and Fil-Ams have also requested the books of culinary historian Doreen G. Fernandez, remarking on her elegant writing style.

This dream of having Filipino titles represented in public and school libraries has been an elusive one. Even as early as the first Filipino American International Book Festival in SF in 2011, National Book Development Board governor Isagani Cruz and I were in discussion with public librarians that were interested in acquiring Philippine publications—but we were unable to offer an efficient and painless way to acquire them. The scenario today has improved somewhat, though not yet ideal.

Arkipelago itself dreams of establishing branches in the East Coast where there is no dedicated Filipino bookstore for its large Fil-Am communities. “We want to go where Filipinos live,” says Lily, who is happy that there is the Philippine Expressions Bookshop in Los Angeles, which Linda
Nietes began in 1984 and which regularly offers author talks and forums. (In Manila, we remember Linda and her popular Casalinda Bookshop of years back.)

Lily is optimistic about asserting the Filipino identity. Arkipelago manages to be in the heart of San Francisco because of the “friendship” rental fee it enjoys in the Bayanihan House and Community Center, a building built and donated by philanthropist Mario A. Borja, MD. It is on Mission Street, a section of the city that is planned to become a Philippine town, the way there is a Chinatown and a Japantown elsewhere in SF.


Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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