Those Country FilipinosBy Philip Dominguez Mercurio
When one thinks of the Filipino diaspora in America, a few designated regions usually come to mind. Cities from Daly to Jersey City are always mentioned. Then there are the beltways around DC and Houston. One could find them listening to the Tagalog choir at late masses at the Church of the Epiphany in the Excelsior district or congregating after mass at St. Augustine’s in Philadelphia. Whether in ships along the coast of Alaska to the inner valleys of California, it’s always been the same… either they’re found in major cities along either coast or in regions spanning where the manongs first began their lives many years ago.
Logically then, the last place one would mention would be the countryside of Tennessee.
Like, why would anyone go there? Hasn’t their history and shows like Jerry Springer told us anything about places we should avoid?
Well - let me tell you - just like the Filipinos found around the world, not only could they be found here - but believe it or not, they’re thriving here as well.
Located in the Tennessee Valley, this region, known as the Cumberland Plateau, is home to a sizable Filipino community with perhaps 150 to 200 Filipinos (including my own parents) living mainly in the small city, which anchors this entire region known as Cookeville - population about 25,000. Many have come here either in association with someone from the military or because of their profession. In fact, a host of physical therapists and a growing number of doctors have started living here with some of them creating successful private practices.
And thanks to the affordability of this area (not in food, since Tennessee is considered to have the “highest average tax on food” according to last month’s New York Times, but in everything else), not only have Filipinos started living here, many have begun living the good life. Gasoline prices here are relatively low (thanks to its closeness to the Atlanta oil pipeline) and state income taxes are nonexistent. Average home prices range in the 125K range allowing Filipinos to add extensions, buy second homes, or for those doing really well, purchase homes with thousands of square feet tacked on (believe it or not, a three story house with roughly 5000 sq. ft. of living space on a half an acre would only cost you about 500K. Yes, California - affordable housing does exist - even now.)
Now, surely things are different here than what most Filipinos in the U.S. are used to. The major supermarket/department store is Wal-Mart. One out of every three buildings along the major roads is a church. Fresh seafood is rare and store parking lots look like mosaics of the American flag (I noticed people here like buying their F-150s and Chevys either in the colors red, white or blue. Very nationalistic).
Despite those differences, these Filipinos remain unfazed. They enjoy the country life where everything is ‘down to earth’ so to speak. Traffic here is pretty much nonexistent and people at the cash register extend their ‘Southern Hospitality,’ to all their customers, sometimes to the point of annoying the city folk.
But perhaps their greatest reason for living here is their community’s closeness. Here, Filipinos know each other by name. Everyone gathers at parties at various Filipino homes during the season, letting the community foster even stronger ties, either to old friends or to new arrivals straight off the plane. Filipinos like Teresa would go out of their way to plant ampalaya perennially mainly for other to gather (that’s the fruit as well and the leaves). It’s a kababayan spirit in its purest form talaga.
Places like Daly City used to be like Cookeville. Folks at Tito Rey’s have told me stories about how Filipinos in Daly City used to be just like that. Filipinos drivers would wave at each other on the road or greet each other in stores. The community was very tight knit then. But today, you could barely get a wink out of another Filipino driver on the road unless they know you. Filipinos are so numerous here - being one doesn’t matter that much since it’s basically the norm.
Indeed, Filipino communities have grown in leaps and bounds throughout the States. Cookeville is just one of numerous unrepresented Filipino communities across the country. The rural population of American remains at about 70% so it’s likely there are many more Cookevilles out there -- their communities just as tight knit. But as these communities grow bigger there is a great tendency to lose our cohesiveness. The more of us around, the less likely we see the need to know who the next Filipino around the corner is.
I guess this is what makes communities like the one in Cookeville stand out from the major Pinoydoms.
It’s their cohesiveness - not their annoying Southern twang.
See this article,"Those Country Filipinos" in Philippine News. Click here.